Taipei is the most common place to land while in Taiwan. Here, you’ll get an insight of the Taiwanese culture which is not that bewildering for a lot of expats are living in Taipei, therefore, English is –more or less- widely spoken. Taiwan’s capital, located at the North of the island, is a densely populated megalopolis (about 2.7 million inhabitants) and therefore offers all the convenience one can expect from a huge Asian city.
In Europe, we mostly know about Taipei’s gigantic bamboo-like tower, Taipei 101, which was the tallest skyscraper in the world for 6 years with its 509.2 meters high.
WELCOME TO TAIPEI!
Taipei is the place I chose to acclimate myself. I didn’t have any predefined plans in mind when I landed in Taiwan’s capital, except that it’s common knowledge that a capital always provides better opportunities when it comes to volunteering, jobs, and language studies and facilitate all the administrative procedures you have to go through when you first arrive in a country with a Working Holiday Visa.
I lived in Taipei for a whole month, volunteering thanks to HelpX in a hostel, which allowed me to get free accommodation et enjoy my free afternoons discovering and taming this new country I chose to live for a whole year. It’s hard to talk about Taipei, to list everything there is to see or to experience because the city is so big that even a whole month wasn’t enough to do everything I planned to do. And as I also like to feel the vibe of a city, I also spent some afternoons hanging out in cafes and bookshops, or Geocaching around Shilin while feeding the mosquitoes with my French sweet blood.
Consequently, this post is a messy one about Taipei, where I’m telling you about a wide range of random things such as volunteering in a hostel, fortune telling, history, arts, mountains and food experiments.
Are you ready?
HAPPY TAIPEI – BACKPACKERS, DISCOVERIES & ADMINISTRATIVE HASSLES
I must be lucky to pick up the perfect backpackers hostels when I land somewhere as a Working Holiday Visa holder. After Verandahs backpackers in Auckland, here I am in Happy Taipei in the Shilin neighbourhood, a welcoming and cosy hostel with free breakfast in which I’m going to stay for three days, the time to get over with the administrative paperwork and get my ID Number which will allow me to open a bank account and work in Taiwan.
That’s where I met Tina, a young Taiwanese girl who’s working at the reception desk and who helped me to open my bank account because she vouched for me. Yes, it’s actually a bit complicated to open a bank account here on your own, especially when you don’t speak the language (all the paperwork you have to sign is in Chinese) and you don’t have any steady address (yet?), neither a job. This is my first interaction with genuine Taiwanese generosity, and d Tina will become my first local friend. She’s the one who initiated my taste buds to the culinary charms of the Formosa Island, such as the Din Tai Fung’s Xialongbao –those delicious steamed dumplings.
Happy Taipei is a happy hostel indeed, hosting travelers from all around the world, with whom we went from one discovery to another – especially when it comes to food. Political debates about the upcoming French elections with some Malaysian girls, photo shoot at Yangminshan mountain with some Singaporeans, cheese and bread snacks bought at the local Carrefour (a French supermarket here in Taiwan!) with an English girl: my Taipei adventures are getting off to a good start.
LET’S GO THERE!:
HAPPY TAIPEI, Xiaobei Street, Shilin District
DIN TAI FUNG, Anywhere in Taipei
HELPX AT MONO’TEL – A COMFY & FAMILIAR TOUCH
As I need to think about my budget and that while travelling the money pit has a name: accommodation. This is the reason why I’m used to using websites such as HelpX or Workaway which allows me to work for accommodation. As for Taiwan, it’s common to work in hostels for accommodation. This is how I ended up at Mono’tel, which is also located in Shilin, in this way I’m not losing my geographical (and culinary!) landmarks.
Mono’tel is most certainly the fanciest backpacker hostel I’ve ever been. It’s spacious, super comfy and the shower cubicles are just gigantic. I’d soon discover the down side of such huge bathrooms: it takes hours to clean up!
My boss, Megumi, doesn’t speak English at all, so I had to speak mostly with the other hostel employees such as Pao, Milton, Grace and the other helpers Osée and Kit. I settle myself into a steady routine at the Mono’tel, where I clean, write a few blog posts on the hostel’s website and I patiently wait for my two days off each week to go wander around Taipei (in Wulai, Houtong, Shifen and Jiufen).
Kit, an adorable Chinese girl, is my cooking partner in crime. We always ended up baking cakes, pancakes, or cupcakes together, while she was talking about where she comes from, Chengdu, the region of Hot Pot and Pandas. It doesn’t take that much more reasons for me to write down the place on my dream-list and mark it as a ‘Want to go’ on my Google Maps.
As for Osée, this French guy who’s about my age, he’s a You Tube star, mainly in Asia, and especially in Taiwan. This is a real treat for him, for his fans are eager to show him around. He’s adorable, with an optimistic and joyful mind that made me feel good, knowing all my inner mess. He dragged me with his fans to some bars, some clubs and the cutest crêperie ever. We went back home to Shilin, half tipsy, half euphoric in the middle of the night sharing our (shitty?) love experiences and laughing way too loud.
I still spent a lot of time with Tina and Flora from Happy Taipei, and we even ended up having our little habits in Shilin: from our favorite cafe to our never-ending quest of anything eatable containing taro –those girls are my base, my familiar pillar in Taipei.
LET’S GO THERE! :
MONO’TEL, B1, No. 102, Wenlin Road, Shilin District
THERE’S ALWAYS A BIT OF NATURE SOMEWHERE IN TAIPEI
Taipei’s location, surrounded by round hills and close to the China Sea, albeit it’s an overcrowded city, makes it a place where one can easily find a nice piece of green grass to lay, a hill to hike, an enchanted park to wander around or a river to stroll along.
These are the places where I take refuge when the hullabaloo and the ambient rush of city life are overwhelming. Not to mention that it’s hot as hell here, and every step I make on the concrete makes me sweating bullets –that’s what happens to a girl from the North when she finds herself in that area of Asia: she turns red, she sweats (so she stinks), her hair turns into birds’ nests and all the surrounding mosquitoes are feeding on her sweet European blood.
On those hills, in the middle of the city, the hustle and bustle stops almost instantaneously, or almost: sometimes I stumble upon a little remote temple where a bunch of locals are singing karaoke in the middle of the forest. Those trails are soothing me, even if I sweat like a coyote. The summits offer me some nice vistas over the city, as well as magnificent temples hidden in the heights. Elephant Moutain (Xiangshan), even though crowded with tourists, surprises me with a magnificent sunset on Taipei 101.
There’s also this Yuanshan Park, where I like to wander at night, and where I spent my first night in Taipei roaming around. Locals go there to jog and exercise when the sun sets and the temperature is more bearable. There are flowers garden, nice plants, some aboriginal structures as well as the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Amidst the joggers, the dance bands and the dog walkers, I like to lie on those concrete benches, my eyes towards the sky. From Yuanshan Park, you can see the planes taking off (and landing).
LET’S GO THERE! :
XIANGSHAN, Xiangshan station, MRT red line
JIANTAN SHAN, Jiantan station, MRT red line
TAIPEI EXPO PARK, Yuanshan station, MRT red line
ZHISHAN PARK, Section 1, Zhicheng Road, Shilin District
TAIPEI BOTANICAL GARDEN, No.53, Nanhai Rd., Zhongzheng District
DA’AN PARK, Da’an Park station, MRT red line
AND ABOVE ALL THERE’S A LOT OF FOOD AT THE NIGHT MARKETS
Taipei is the place where I discover about the concept of Night Markets. Those are food markets that are sometimes covering several streets, and they are opened from 17:00 to 23:00 or midnight.
Aligned on those Night Markets, stalls of local food, clothes, and gadgets, but let’s face it, everybody’s going there for THE FOOD! What on Earth could be best than the Night Markets to discover the Taiwanese local cuisine? That’s where you’ll find the famous Stinky Tofu (this is the stinkiest tofu ever –that smells like a dead chicken left on the side of the road in broad sunlight), Aboriginal specialties, sweet potatoes and taro balls (taro is a purple sweet potato which tastes like Heaven), some oysters omelettes, fresh fruit juices, iced teas and bubble teas (with tapiocas seeds inside), and many stalls of pineapples, dragon fruits, mangoes as well as many unlikely fried stuff and sometimes not identifiable.
Stinky Tofu is most definitely the thing you have to try once in your life, this is Taiwan’s culinary challenge. The smell is unpleasantly hitting my nose at every street corner, and as I start to wonder why there are so many dead rotten chickens on the Night Markets, I came to understand it’s actually coming from some kind of fermented tofu that Taiwanese people are fond of. It took me a few weeks before giving it a try, and I can proudly say that by now, Stinky Tofu has become a treat. The first experiment is surprising and intense, but definitely not disgusting. Actually, the taste isn’t as strong as the smell. The second experiment is still a bit weird, but by the third experiment, I came to adopt this bloody Stinky Tofu. It’s often served as fried at the Night Markets, and it seems that the steamed version has a very very strong taste – maybe I’ll pass on this one.
There are at least 17 Night Markets in Taipei, and one of the biggest and most touristic, the Shilin Night Market, is located just in front of my hostel. As it’s the most touristic one, I came to discover it’s also the most expensive one –even though it’s still way cheaper than buying any kind of street food in Europe because here you can eat dinner for less than 3€!
LET’S GO THERE!:
SHILIN NIGHT MARKET, Jiantan station, MRT red line, exit 1
RAOHE NIGHT MARKET, Songshan station, MRT green line, exit 5
NINGXIA NIGHT MARKET, Shuanglian station, MRT red line, exit 1
SHIDA NIGHT MARKET, Taipower Building Statio, MRT green line, exit 3
GETTING AN INSIGHT INTO TAIWANESE CULTURE
As to go further into discovering the Taiwanese culture, my first advice would be to leave Taipei indeed, and travel to smaller cities or towns, especially Aboriginal towns, for Taiwan has at least 16 Aboriginal tribes acknowledged by their government. The local cuisine and the language are significantly different over there, as well as some traditions and customs (if you have the chance, the dances and chants are incredible!). From this perspective, a day trip to Wulai could be an idea. If you’d like to get an insight into a more ancient and authentic Taiwan, where you’d find remains of the Japanese Occupation, you should definitely go to Jiufen or Shifen.
– FORTUNE TELLING IN LONGSHAN
As for Taipei itself, getting an insight into Taiwanese culture is more likely to happen through your taste buds (as I described it above), but also by going to the temples and museums. As for the temples, they can be found everywhere (literally everywhere), but some of them stick out by their architecture, their antiquity, or their peculiarity. Longshan is one of the most famous temples in Taipei, and it’s justified because the place is literally superb! The dragons on the roofs seem ready to fly away, and there’s even this little waterfall in the main courtyard. This temple is dedicated to the Bodhisattva of mercy, Guanyn, but like most temples, one can pray other gods, especially on the backyard. The fervour here is palpable, it’s crowded, and there’s a good amount of fruits, flowers and cakes offerings on the tables –even some Snickers.
In Longshan, like in many other temples, you can also get your fortune told. If the question you want to ask the gods is simple, you need to get a hold on two jiǎo bēi (“bwei” in Taiwanese), those little coloured wooden toys in shape of little moons. One side is flat while the other is curved. You have to throw them on the floor. If the “bwei” are falling on the same side, either flat or curved, the answer is no. On the other hand, if one “bwei” falls on the flat side and the other on the curved side, the answer to your question is yes. The Taiwanese people usually use the “bwei” when they have a tough decision to make. They even throw the “bwei” several times in a row to be sure that they’re making the right decision – and you could get a ‘yes’ 20 times in a row, and therefore be totally confident about your decision.
Another divination method, the Kau Cim (also called “bao bwei” in Taiwanese) is commonly called in English the “poetic lottery”. Like in Japan, you shake a box full of wooden sticks carved with numbers, and the one that sticks out will be the one with your prediction number. You can get your choice of stick confirmed using the “bwei” and pick another one if the “bwei” disagree with the one you picked up. This number matches a divination paper on which is written your prediction, most often ancient Chinese poems that you can read in different ways depending on your initial question. You can also get an Oracle to decipher it for you and some of them will speak English, which is convenient for tourists are the predictions in Longshan are written in Chinese. So, it turned out that my prediction isn’t as good as it was at the Sensô-Ji two years ago, but something interesting came out: I have to work hard for my wish to come true. But I also shouldn’t force things to happen, pushing things against the flow.
Right in front of Longshan, where the MRT station is, is also located a huge divination market. In a basement area, there are halls with tables, rooms, and spaces separated from each other with Plexiglas windows or curtains where oracles are reading the future in your hand’s palms, or using tarot cards, even birds (yes…) and other techniques I know nothing about. Some stalls also provide English-speaking divination for the curious tourists.
LET’S GO THERE! :
LONGSHAN TEMPLE, Longshan station, MRT blue line, exit 1
– SOME HISTORY AT THE CHIANG KAI-SHEK MEMORIAL
Chiang Kai-Shek is a personality quite controversial in Taiwan. His memorial is even more. Long story short (but still hold on to your knickers, because it’s quite complicated indeed), Chiang Kai-Shek is a Chinese military leader and politician, leader of the Kuomintang party – the party ruling the Republic of China from 1928 to 1949, until the communists took the power. However, after 1949, the Kuomintang party and Chiang Kai-Shek would be ruling over Taiwan only, and it was actually the only political party allowed on the island until 1986. At that time, the island would suffer repression under the martial law.
So. From one side, Chiang Kai-Shek is the military guy who fought against the Japanese, who more or less united China as it is today, and fought against the communists. But, it’s also the guy who, after being defeated by the communists in mainland China, retreated to Taiwan and decided to make it its own realm by establishing the martial law, also known as the “White Terror” because over 30 000 Taiwanese were killed during that time. After his death, the Kuomintang party started to democratised itself, until they finally lost the Parliamentary majority in 2016 (it was time!).
Beyond the complicated and intricate History, the Memorial and its peculiar architecture are now an integral component of Taipei, and on both sides of the place are located the National Theatre and the National Concert Hall, both superb buildings in which you can assist to high-quality shows. As for the memorial itself, it provides a good insight into Taiwanese history through the life of its controversial leader displayed in the museum. I can only recommend going there as it helps to understand the politic situation of the Formosa Island.
LET’S GO THERE! :
CHIANG KAI-SHEK MEMORIAL, CKS Memorial station, MRT red or green line
– HANGING OUT IN MUSEUMS IS GOOD FOR YOUR CURIOSITY
In order to understand Taiwan or Asia in general, there’s nothing better than a good old rainy afternoon spent into museums. Taipei is perfect for that, for there are plenty of museums there (and a lot of rainy afternoons) to quench your curiosity thirst, especially in one of the most famous museums in whole Asia, the National Palace Museum. This world class museum displays treasures accumulated over centuries by Chinese Emperors from the Forbidden City. World War II and the History’s twists and turns brought a fair amount of those treasures in Taiwan, for protection – which also explains why China wants to keep Taiwan on its side.
Basically, this museum covers pretty much 8 000 years of Chinese history, with something like 7 000 000 works of art. An actual treasure. Needless to say that between the potteries, porcelains, drawings, maps, and calligraphy, there are here a few rainy afternoons to spend. By the way, it’s better to go there on Fridays and Saturdays nights as the museum is open between 18:30 and 21:00 and most of the tourists would be gone eating some snacks at the Night Markets.
As for the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, its Taipei’s museum of modern and contemporary arts. When the martial law ended in 1987, artists can finally express themselves freely, especially with photographs. One of those photo exhibitions really puzzled and captivated me: the series of “The Chain” by Chien-Chi Chang displayed different types of portraits of men, often two by two, chained to each other by the waist – even padlocked to each other by the waist. In the end, I learn that those scenes took place in a very peculiar psychiatric asylum in the south of Taiwan, where some sort of Buddhist guru named Li Kun-Tai “adopted” schizophrenic people to help him with his chicken farm. He shaved their heads and padlocked them two by two for healing purposes. One was always sicker than the other, and the fact to be chained to someone more “lucid” would supposedly heal the first one. Creepy.
Another photo exhibition displayed portraits of those forgotten by Taiwan’s economic rise. Because, beyond the huge industry labelled “made in Taiwan” that conquered the world, there are also the workmen, often injured while working, who are still bearing the scars of this economic rise. Those portraits really moved me.
LET’S GO THERE! :
NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM, Shilin station, MRT red line, and Bus n°R30
TAIPEI FINE ARTS MUSEUM, Yuanshan station, MRT red line, cross the Expo Park and the bridge on the east side
THE REASONS WHY I EVENTUALLY LEFT TAIPEI
At the end of this month spent in Taipei, things are starting to get pretty damn familiar.
The MRT red line has not secret for me, and I’m not losing myself that much anymore in the streets of Shilin, I can use my EasyCard and my bank card as easy as I blink my eyes, I convert NT$ into € without much of a hesitation. I have my favorite coffee shop with the best ice tea, my favorite stall with taro pancakes, my favorite vegetarian restaurant, all of those less than one kilometer away from Mono’tel. I get along pretty well with my co-workers, I have good local friends and went out for some drinks with other French Working Holiday Visa holders, I even got to meet this cute Taiwanese guy thanks to Tinder who invited me to drink Japanese sake.
Once I went through the initial cultural shock, I thought I could actually make a living here, in the capital, trying to find a job, study Chinese, and starting a different life from the backpacking life. Especially when I realized that the list of things I’d like to do in Taipei and around is growing more and more every day, so I could see myself staying here a little bit longer.
For a few weeks, I applied for different jobs, online editor, librarian in an international college, bookseller in a French bookshop. Nothing seems to work out. I also try to gather some information about universities and studying Chinese, and their class schedule never really fits with my volunteering hours – and I can’t afford to pay for both the accommodation and the Chinese class. I became disillusioned.
I can’t say if it’s because I haven’t tried ENOUGH, that I haven’t fought ENOUGH to build myself a little steady life here in Taipei, but I never like to force things. When I force things, I feel like things actually are not following their course properly, as they’re supposed to be. And it’s weirdly echoing my prediction in Longshan temple. Maybe I’m too lazy. Or maybe I’d rather like surprises. Anyway, my legs are itching again.
I tell my plans and goals goodbye –I’ve never been that skilled at making plans anyways – and I grab Monster on the fly.
It’s time to see what Taiwan has to offer to my weary eyes.