The ups and downs of Taipei

Today we reached great heights and plumbed great depths. From the top of Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world until 2010 we gazed across the greater city of Taipei, at least until the clouds came in. But despite the Lonely Planet claiming that Taiwan’s street food rivals that of Singapore, we ended the day with our heads in the toilet.

Our hotel is located in the old section of Taipei, with grungy streets and a plethora of small Chinese shops. We walked past shops selling colouful lights, paper decorations, cheap clothing and various other items while hunting for breakfast in the small eateries squeezed in between. Unknown ingredients sat next to steaming pots of soup and noodles. We stopped by one to ask what they were serving and they presented us with an English menu, so we chose to dine there.

We ordered shredded chicken on rice (short grain here, like the Japanese and unlike the long grains of South East Asia), a chicken thigh (drumstick), “spicy” egg, and two bowls of noodle soups. It was all good, especially the flavoursome chicken. Alex devoured the egg.

It took a while to find the MRT (subway) beneath Taipei’s main station. We purchased stored value cards for our stay. Our train took us to City Hall station, where we emerged into an underground shopping and dining area entirely reminiscent of Japan.

Our walk to Taipei 101 took us past some interesting robot statues made presumably from old railway parts, then we entered the grand shopping centre beneath the skyscraper, full primarily of expensive brands.

The world’s fastest elevator whisked us up to the 89th floor. The lift is aerodynamically streamlined and pressurised, while constellations blink on the ceiling. I think Alex was disappointed by the speed and lack of buttons for him to press.

Where the windows weren’t smudged and the cloud stayed away the views were quite amazing. It’s a pity that the open air 90th floor was closed due to the wet weather. It would have been interesting to compare it with the Eiffel Tower. I didn’t get the same impression of height as in the latter, but I suspect that is also due to the city design.

It is a fairly drab city from above, but remarkable for all the straight lines. Unfortunately, we only got fleeting views of the mountains as cloud drifted past.

Alex managed to get himself separated from us and had a little sob until he found us again. He goes off into imaginary worlds, probably to relieve himself of boredom of the adult activities. To cheer him up we bought a dreadful hot chocolate from the cafe up the top.

I know many countries, including Australia, are excited by the prospect of increasing inbound Chinese tourism. Those elderly mainlanders in Taipei 101 today reminded me of why I’m not excited. Always pushing in and interrupting without any care for what you are already doing, then coughing up (but thankfully not spitting out) phlegm. I find it difficult to accept Confucian respect for the aged when they are so bloody rude. I wonder if their diets are as restricted as the elderly M-i-L we have now left behind in Malaysia.

This morning  we were hoping to get on a “hop on hop off” bus to get around the tourist sights, but so far as we could see this remains a business opportunity for someone to provide. Instead there were countless guided bus tours on offer – another thing Chinese tourists like but we don’t.

Back to 101, we borrowed a free unit providing audio descriptions of different points around the viewing area. I was amused to see that they were made in Israel. The hair dryers in the toilets and a dress that B purchased later were made in the US. You would expect “Made in Taiwan”, or at least in China like almost everything else.

Down on floor 88 the golden damper ball is on display, the weight of 163 elephants to help prevent the building from large oscillation swaying in typhoons and earthquakes. Then we had to run the gamut of shops before the elevators down. The big thing in shopping was coral. Some was exquisitely carved, but I was disappointed by the statement amounting to “The amount of coral in the world is declining, which means that it becomes more valuable. Invest in some today.” No thought to the environmental impacts.

On the way back to the City Hall MRT station we passed by a number of Japanese style department stores. They felt so familiar.

We decided to stick to the blue MRT line today and make our next stop Longshan temple. This colourful temple dates back to 1738, though it has been rebuilt a few times since then. Ornate carvings decorate the walls and roofs, while various animals lanterns were hung around the grounds. Even if you are largely tired of temples, Longshan is well worth a visit.

The surrounding area was home to various markets. The tourist markets, covered arcades, included snake wine sellers, one who also displayed cages of rats and an albino python (yes, yet another snake). Far more interesting were the street food sellers with a variety of dishes, from grilled squid to stinky tofu.

After trying to address Alex’s elevator obsession with a trip on the fastest lift it was time to give in to another fascination, so we took him to a toilet. This involved a walk all the way up to the Ximending district and it was fortunate that I had an electronic Lonely Planet map as the TripAdvisor and Taiwan Tourism apps I downloaded this morning were of little assistance.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the Modern Toilet they were booked out and told us to return at 7.45pm. So we wandered around the busy Ximen streets, full of trendy stores, neon and young people. Taipei feels a lot like Japan (not surprising as they ran the country for a while), but with Chinese people and writing instead of (too much) Japanese. It’s cleaner, more orderly and the shop designs are more aesthetically pleasing to my Japanese trained eyes than mainland China or even Hong Kong.

One thing that differs is the prevalence of motor scooters. I’m surprised that adult Taiwanese have legs at all, except to press the pedals. An ever present hazard, they drive the scooters up pedestrian thoroughfares in order to buy food or other items directly from the shopfronts or stalls. When a traffic light changes a huge fleet of scooters will noisily start off at once.

Eventually we returned to Modern Toilet and were allowed into this groundbreaking (or windbreaking?) cafe where the seats are atop toilet bowls, the tables glass over sinks and the sink a toilet. Incidentally, their actual toilet is of the squat kind.

The food is mainly western in nature and not cheap, but that’s what you sacrifice for the experience. B ordered the house hotpot, which was served in a small toilet bowl, as was my chicken kiev, which had a Chinese soup and rice as sides. Alex’s pasta was on a toilet seat plate while he drank out of a urinal. Our tea was served in miniature toilets. Dessert was soft serve ice cream, poo style.

An okay meal, not total crap, though maybe a little more fibre would have helped, and at least Alex filled up with something familiar. Something else toilet related is that the MRT toilets have indicator boards displaying which cubicles are currently vacant. Brilliant! On the way back to the hotel, just one MRT stop away, we passed through the nearby Q Square shopping centre which again seemed so Japanese.

After one day we are liking Taipei.


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