Spirited Away in Taipei
Being a English teachers abroad has its perks, the biggest one: getting vacations during holidays. Although we didn't really get Christmas or New Years off, we do get a five week winter vacation! I planned to meet my mom in Thailand around the 12th of January which gave me a few days where I had nothing planned. At first, I had decided to stay home and get everything settled in my apartment. However, after much deliberation, I decided to plan a solo trip in the days leading up to my Thailand trip. One of my New Years resolutions was to solo travel more. I believe that in these solo trips, you reconnect with yourself and your ideals, and you discover more about yourself that perhaps you never knew.
Looking at all of the possibilities, I decided to explore the city of Taipei at the recommendation of one of the families I tutor for. When I searched for flights, the prices seemed reasonable and went ahead and booked my flights through Ctrip (the Chinese version of Expedia) and booked a hostel through hostelworld. I decided to stay at Park City Inn & hostel which was located a bit outside the city center, but was still incredibly convenient because it was right above the metro. The hostel was clean and modern. I booked a bed in a four person room, however I was lucky enough to have the room to myself. To get around the city, the most convenient way is to use the very well laid out metro. It is pretty straightforward and you can purchase a rechargeable card for 100NTD which will save you time and money in the end. I charged it with 400NTD and it lasted me the entire trip.
On the day I arrived I left my bags at the front desk, and headed out to explore the city. My first stop was Chiang Kia Shek Memorial Hall because it was close to the hostel (only a few metro stops away) and one of the items on my list. As soon as you get out of the metro station you are greeted by liberty square, a large, open concrete area surrounded by the National Theater, gardens, and of course the Chiang Kia Shek Memorial Hall. The structures and the open space create this sense of serenity... you see many people taking pictures and taking in the sights and others just enjoying the pleasure of each other's company, sitting in the middle of the big square. You can enter the memorial hall and witness the changing of the guards that protect the large statue of Chiang Kia Shek. This coordinated dance is beautiful and precise demonstrating the commitment of these guards to their job. Below the monument there is a large exhibition area. I chose not to enter but rather sit outside and partake in some people watching while writing in my travel journal. This time gave me time to reflect and plan out my afternoon, as well as, the days to come. I followed by getting some coffee and wandering through the streets around the memorial. After this short walk, I started to feel tired so I headed back to the hostel to move my bags into my room and rest. I laid in bed trying to give more shape to my next few days. After making some choices about the days to come, I headed out to one of Taipei's famous night markets: Shilin Night Market. Like most night markets it has a little bit of everything: clothing stores, souvenir stands, tattoo parlors, and food stands. To get to the market you take the red/4 line (Tamsui-Xinyi Line) to station JIANTAN (not Shilin) and follow the crowd. As soon as you exit the station, you will see the neon signs and the large groups of people. The night market offers a variety of foods from snake (not a joke, also really sad to see), to squid. I opted to try the fresh fruit, which included some of my favorite such as guava, water apples, and green mangoes. I wasn't incredibly hungry, so I stuck mostly to the fruit while I continued to explore the winding maze of the market. I went to the underground food court, which offers more food, freshly prepared to order. I found a table and decided to enjoy a beer along with some vegetables and some dumplings. While enjoying my small meal, I met two Japanese guys that were also on holiday. Even through the language barrier, we were able to enjoy a beer together and share some laughs. I finished my meal and headed home so I could be well rested for my sightseeing days ahead.
On the second day, I headed to the National Palace Museum (take red/4 line and get off at Shilin stop, then take bus to National Palace). There are many buses that go in that direction, and there are many signs with information. The entrance fee for the National Palace Museum is 250 NTD giving you access to all the exhibitions. The palace holds ceramics and pottery, paintings, and calligraphy dating back several dynasties. The National Palace offers student discounts if you have a ISIC (International Student Identity Card). In addition, you can also rent an audio tour, however, I usually am more of a wanderer. One of the exhibitions that caught my eye was the section on ivory artifacts. The interesting part here were all the signs saying that these are ARTIFACTS and that they are part of the past. These signs urged people to refrain from buying ivory and instead protect elephants around the world. From the National Palace I headed to see the Taipei 101. This iconic building is a must see on anyone's visit to Taipei. This structure is the world's tallest green building, standing at 1,667ft with LEED certification. The high point of the building gives you a nice view off the city, particularly at night. There are also shops on this floor where you can indulge with some ice cream or treats, you can even buy souvenirs! You can also buy postcards and send them right there and then. From there, I headed over to another market: Raohe Night market. This one was my absolute favorite because it was smaller than the Shilin Night Market and also all the shops and food stands were outdoors. I walked around and had one of my favorite treats again: green mangoes. After an hour, I headed back to the hotel to rest.
On the third day, I woke up late and got a late breakfast. Up to this point in my trip, I had been feeling a little under the weather. I had purchased some robitussin and some cold medication to treat some of the symptoms, and had pretty much taken it easy (even though I felt pretty rough). I left the hotel around noon, and made my way to Jiufen. The trips is pretty easy to make you just take the commuter train north from Taipei Main Station and get off at Riufang. From the train station at Riufang, you take a bus up to Jiufen, and you can pay for it using your metro card. The bus routes going up to Jiufen are highlighted on the doors and walls of the Riufeng station, so you definitely cannot get lost. Once you arrive in Jiufen, head over to the the overlook point, a small two story building, that will give you an amazing view of the coast below. From here, follow the winding road to arrive at the “Old road” a small cobblestone, market like street. Here you can find treats, souvenirs, and many tea houses. Jiufen was known to be a small village of only 9 families, which led to its name of nine portions (Jiu= nine and fen= portion). It became a mining village growing in size. Nowadays, it is mostly known for being the inspiration behind the award winning movie Spirited Away, a studio Ghibli film. The biggest inspiration being drawn from one of the teahouses in town, represented in the film as the bathhouse the spirits visit at night. The cobble stone staircase next to the teahouse is also in the movie seen as the two main characters, Chihiro and Haku, run hurriedly to hide from the spirits.
The teahouse itself is beautiful and offers a great view of the coast. For only 300NTD (about 10 USD) you can enjoy a tea set and some snacks. The tea set comes with looseleaf tea, hot water, and all the necessary tools to brew your own tea. The host shows you the manner in which you are to brew the tea (almost like a ceremony), and then you are left to your own devices to enjoy the view, the treats, and of course the tea. I sat there for almost two hours, writing in my journal, reading, people watching, and drinking tea; it was an absolute wonderful experience. As night grew closer, the lamps that adorn the street came to life, and it became quite clear where the inspiration for the film came from. The town was covered in a magical feeling, and a sense of awe and wonder just oozed into me as I walked the streets back to the bus stop. I decided to walk back using the less transited streets, away from the old road. As I arrived at the bus stop, located up the road from where I was originally dropped off, I hopped on a bus towards Keelung (which will stop at Riufang station if you want to head home) and headed to their night market (Miaokou Night Market). The night market here is a bit different from the ones in Taipei as it was mostly food! I saw a lot of seafood, which I assumed was due to Keelung being a harbor. From here I took a local train back to Taipei City. Something I found extremely curious at the train station was that they had a designated area for women that were traveling alone. This section was next to the security office and was decked out with cameras. Curiously enough, the cart that stopped in front of this area was also designated for women traveling alone. To be honest, I was not sure if I felt more secure or more nervous about it, either way I thought it was very different to other train stations I have seen.
On the fourth day, I headed towards the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. I will note here that he is known to be the father of the Republic of China, and thus, has memorials pretty much everywhere (there is a memorial in Nanjing as well). The building itself is a large structure that rises from the middle of an otherwise empty square. From this square visitors can get a nice view of the Taipei 101 building. Upon entering the memorial hall, visitors are greeted by a large statue of Dr. Sun Yat Sen guarded by unmoving guards. From here visitors can roam the hall to learn more about the liberation of China at the hand of Dr. Sun Yat Sen. If you sit outside the hall, you can watch a short fountain show accompanied by music. I took sometime to sit and people watch, while also writing and sketching in my journal. From here, I headed towards Huashan 1914 Creative Park, an area that reminded me strangely of New York, with a more young and edgy vibe. This area, which used to be an old wine factory, is today a gathering area for young creative people, as well as, a location for a perfect afternoon stroll for friends and families. It is filled with small shops and boutiques, and it resembled a place dear to my heart in Shanghai called 1933. I enjoyed dinner and a beer at one of the restaurants and then I headed over to Longshan temple. It was perhaps one of the more intricate designs I have seen in temples so far. I particularly enjoyed watching people of all ages praying, while also bringing their offerings to the altars around the temple. Sitting in the stairs of the temple, I was able to quietly meditate about my trip and all the amazing sights I was able to enjoy. The smell of burning incense filled the air and my lungs, bringing me a sense of peace and joy.
From Longshan temple, I headed over to Shilin Night Market with my friend Sarah who was also traveling in Taipei. She had just arrived and I was leaving the next morning, so this was the only night we had to see each other. We walked around, took notice of all the different shops and vendors, bought extremely expensive food (beware!) and enjoyed a beer at the underground food court. It was nice to see a familiar face and share some laugh worthy moments before I headed towards my next adventure.
My first SOLO adventure was all I expected it to be an more. I stepped out of my comfort zone, I did and saw everything I had in mind and then some, I took everything at my own pace, and most importantly, I enjoyed my own company. I cannot recommend Taipei enough, I can also say I would love to return to Taiwan and see what other amazing things it has to offer.