I’ve been in Taipei for less than twenty minutes, and I’ve already had someone excitedly shout “Hi, Jesus!” at me from across the airport baggage claim.
This’ll be a nice four months.
My day started out at 4 am, walking to my car and seeing this goopy salamander crawling out of it. I didn’t even know we had salamanders in Colorado. Auspicious? Perhaps. I’m not sure what the meaning of a wet salamander crossing your path is, but it’s a pretty unique way to start a trip.
My trusty dusty IKEA bag tested my inner MacGyver by splitting its zipper. I fixed it with a knife, thread, and some gorilla glue. Nice try, IKEA bag, but we’re not done yet.
I promptly fly out at 7:00 to Vancouver on a little Air Canada Express flight, and get two hours to relax at the airport. I’ve decided I want to move to Vancouver, purely on the basis that Canadians are adorably kind and since the airport is so nice. Next, I hop on another Air Canada flight direct to Taipei. It’s a 787, which is so posh and lovely. Even though I’m in economy, I’m decently comfortable. I haven’t taken a twelve-hour flight since I went to Korea three years ago. I completely forgot how inexplicably long it feels. I ate dinner, watched two movies, took a little nap, and still had five hours left. “What do I do now?”
But I did finally make it to the sweltering heat of East Asia.
Asia has a really unique smell and it kind of hits instantly upon walking out of the plane. It’s a sort of sour air-conditioned smell that I still can’t quite put my finger on. I sit through customs, and get called Jesus by an overly excited bathroom janitor, and hop on the express train to downtown Taipei. The train tickets are little plastic coins with a chip inside that you use to scan to enter the subway, and put into a coin slot to let you out.
It’s much more fun than a little piece of paper (and more renewable, I suppose). The public transport system, in general, is really amazing in Taipei, and it only takes about thirty minutes to get downtown where I can get to my hotel.
Taipei’s buildings leave a covered storefront along the pedestrian walkway, almost creating a covered archway to walk through. This keeps you dry and shaded and is perfect construction for this heat. I arrive at my hotel at around 17:00, and am hungry. I drop off my bag and go for a wander through the late night, not really noticing how deliriously tired I am.
I stumble randomly into a shop and get a bowl of pork noodle soup. An elderly couple sits across from me at the crowded table, looking at me now and then to make sure I’m enjoying my meal. Honestly, I have no clue what I’m eating.
They’re fried pork balls, so I expected pork mincemeat. But there are little chunks of something hard and the occasional bone, so I’ve decided this is just pork trimmings soup.
But it’s delicious.
I’m still hungry, so I wander into another noodle shop, and when the waitress asks what I want I just point at my neighbor’s bowl of soup. This time I get pork dumpling soup. It’s one of the most flavorful goddamn soups I’ve ever put in my face.
Taiwanese restaurants have the kitchen up front so you can see exactly all of the goodies she’s throwing into it. I still have no clue what she’s putting in, but the assortment of spices and goops makes for an amazing bowl of soup.
I head out, full of my two bowls of soup (both purchased for about $2 each), and head around my area. I’m staying in Ximending neighborhood, which was built and expanded by the Japanese during their occupation of the island between 1895 and 1945. There’s the main shopping street designed to look exactly like Shibuya in Tokyo, and it does a pretty good job of doing so.
It captures the craze of neon glow in every direction, of hoards of people walking around and eating late night snacks from vendors or drinking bubble tea (invented here, in Taipei).
I only walk around a little bit before my jetlag catches up to me. It’s only about 20:00 but I’m tired as can be, and I’ve made the agreement with myself that I have to stay up until 21:00 before I can drift off to sleep.
I head back to my hotel with a piece of cake and a little beer from the 7-11. Usually, I’d stay in a hostel or with a couchsurfer. But in my experience traveling to Asia, the first two or three nights are spent waking up jetlagged at three in the morning. So rather than stay at a hostel or with a couchsurfer, I found the cheapest non-sexy-time motel that would give me a single room (about $16 a night). Also, I’ll be sharing a room at my dorm in Hong-Kong for the next four months, so I want to squeeze every night of privileged privacy out while I can.
The bed is as hard as a rock, and after inspection, it’s literally a small piece of foam covering the wooden base of the frame. I’m really too tired to care and drift off into a sleepy haze.
I awake, at 3:00 sharp just as I had predicted. Did I jinx myself?
But luckily I had a little T.V. in my room to watch ridiculous Chinese television with, and I spent a few more hours lazing around in bed. The hotel has a tea machine down the hall, so I enjoy a few cups with my airy piece of cake before heading out on the town.
Today, I’ve found a free walking tour on the couchsurfing website set up to start at 10:00. I wander around for a while, stopping into 7-11 for some coffee. An old man looks intensely at me while slowly sipping a carton of rice milk through a straw. I’m too tired to really care, so I drink my coffee up quick. Maybe he was just nervous to see Jesus in the flesh.
I stroll through a local market to get all of the smells. It’s a lot to take in. Chinese markets don’t have much separation between vendors. At least in Morocco, most markets have a meat section and a fruit section and a veggie section. Here, the fish seller is next to the guy selling fruits next to the butcher hanging up kidneys next to a woman selling clams. It’s an overwhelming mix of smells, from sour fish to raw meat to sweet leechee’s to plastic clothes to nail polish all in a couple of meters. But there’s nothing else like it in the world. I spend a long time walking around, soaking in all of the smells and sights.
Deliciously marinated pork giblets.
This is actually my first time traveling alone in Asia. Throw me into South America or Europe and I’m fine. I understand the languages, I understand the foods and cultures, we’re all good. But I was kind of nervous to come to Asia all on my own. But so far, it’s been extremely manageable. Most Taiwanese speak decent English, and I know how to say hello and thank you in Mandarin which can go a long way. As well, signs are in English and the metro system is fool-proof and clean.
I meet up at Longshan temple with the guide to my free tour, a college student who learned a perfect American accent just from watching Disney movies. Sooner or later people start showing up for the tour, and we get to about 20 people. More than have are Filipino, with a Spanish couple and some Canadians on the side. I see an American, and instantly strike up a conversation. For some reason, seeing other white people in Asia can be really exciting. Especially when you meet someone who’s been on the road for a very long time, and they seem starved for American accents and culture. We start talking, and I learn within her introductory sentence that she’s a vegan New Yorker. “Meat causes cancer, it’s just a fact.”
We start walking on the tour, which is set to take us through the historic district for about three hours. It’s inexplicably humid and hot, with a real-feel temperature clocking in at 104F/40C. Luckily, a woman is handing out fliers shaped like fans. Now that’s good advertising.
First stop is the Longshan Temple, beautiful and quite important to the Taiwanese. It’s been destroyed by bombs, earthquakes, and fires countless times and is always rebuilt.
It’s a beautiful display of the colorful decadence of Chinese Buddhism.
Colorful mosaic dragons, golden Buddhas, and the wafting smell of burning incense in every direction. The Dutch were the first to colonize this island, and as punishment, they now hold up the incense burners to the temple.
We walk around the temple a while, being told stories of Taiwanese deities and traditions before getting a little picture break.
We start heading out and walk around the town. The tour guides at Like it Formosa were excellent and extremely knowledgeable, and I feel no shame in dropping their website for anyone interested.
We wander to Taipei’s oldest ice cream shop, where I get an assortment of taro root (which was vegan, and made the New Yorker very happy), passion fruit, and some other exotic fruit. It’s perfect for this ridiculous heat.
We walk around more before stopping through my area of town, where the Japanese set up a lot of the architecture. Here there’s the Red House, built by the Japanese as a marketplace in their side of the city. It later became a theatre many decades later, and as soon as modern theatres entered Taiwanese culture the small Red House became a porno theatre. This soon brought a resounding amount of people from the Taiwanese LGBTQ community, as they considered it to be a safe place for some privacy. Now, the area is the LGBTQ part of town with some clubs and sexy shops around. I’ve also learned Taiwan is soon to allow Gay marriage. Good job! The Red House is now a marketplace for hipster goodies and quirky trinkets, from small designer clothes to hand made rings to little touristy pins.
Here there’s also a statue of a man in Qing dynasty garb, holding a coffee cup. This represents Taiwan’s embrace of Western culture while always remaining faithful to its own.
We walk more, seeing the presidential palace and eventually the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial. It’s absolutely gigantic, and apparently moderately controversial. Not all Taiwanese are proud of Chiang Kai-Shek, but his son paid to have this monumental memorial so I guess there’s nothing you can really do about it.
Here is the equally monumental National Theatre, on the walk up to the memorial.
The monument is gigantic, featuring a statue of Chiang Kai-Shek sitting on an emperor throne faces in the direction of Beijing, the city he always wished to conquer again after the communists pushed him out of mainland China. His body still hasn’t been buried, because he wished for his body to be buried back in China. Nowadays, that dream is growing ever smaller as China continues to spread its tentacles across the globe. Here, people are proud to be Taiwanese, but they seem to still consider themselves as Chinese. It’s another tale of Asian separation brought about by political difference, and a conflict that grows increasingly pressing with time.
The tour has ended, and I walk around to find some lunch. Some school kids come up to me and ask if I can participate in a questionnaire they’re taking. They ask my age and nationality and ask if I think Taiwan belongs to China.
I say no, but nothing more because I don’t want to create a political debate with 12-year-olds. This answer makes them happy though. Then they ask if I think Taiwan is a diplomatic country on a scale of 1 to 5, which makes no sense but I say 4. They say thank you and run away, and I run into a market for a delicious bowl of soup.
I can’t read anything and even if I could I wouldn’t know what it was. It’s kind of like a food court on top of a marketplace, so there are a lot of options but that doesn’t make much difference to me. So I wait in the longest line in the room, for about twenty minutes before getting a hearty bowl of Beef and Tomato noodle soup, freshly prepared right in front of my Jesus face. The woman used some stock, boiled it up and threw in a slew of veggies and spices before adding the meat. Then the noodles were added, which were freshly cut by the noodle man over in the corner. He continuously rolls up a giant bowl of dough, then with a course knife cuts off rusticly shaped thick noodles. It’s kind of a lazy way to do it but it’s absolutely delicious.
I think it’s actually rude here to eat all of your soup, but I don’t really care because it’s so delicious. I drain that bad boy in no time, burning my mouth but smiling the whole way down. I’m the only white guy in the whole building and everyone is looking at me, possibly critiquing my chopstick skills or etiquette or who knows what. But I never stand out more than I do in Asia. Even still, I can slurp noodles and hold chopsticks like a pro.
Full of deliciousness, I walk out and about and wander into the cute Da’an neighborhood. I don’t know anything about it, but it’s really cute.
There are tiny alleyways everywhere, filled with little restaurants and tea houses. I stop in one for an iced tea and read my book for a while, before the reality of being awake for 13 hours hits me all at once. I rush back to the hotel, set my alarm for 18:00 and pass out for a two-hour nap.
That nap kind of saved me, but when my alarm goes off I wake up in a haze and don’t really want to get up. I’m too tired to go get dinner, but the promise of delicious soup drags me out of bed. I walk around aimlessly until I find a nice udon place with a line out the door, where I get vegetarian udon (I guess the vegan stuck in my mind). It’s pretty delicious, but not mind-blowing. I should probably stick to Taiwanese food in Taiwan going forward. But I kind of wanted something more familiar, and Japanese food is always a welcome comfort.
I get back and force myself to stay up until 22:30, before promptly passing out.
Thank you for joining me through this long and amazing journey! You can read about the start here, and don’t forget to subscribe to see where I go next!