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A city of contrasts
2012-09-11
By Ruby Gao

Food lovers, the spiritually inclined and Chinese art or history buffs will likely find much to their liking in Taipei, the biggest city on Taiwan Island.

The island's distinct history blends traditional Chinese and Japanese culture and this can be seen around Taipei, a city with some amazing contrasts in architecture and the attitudes of locals.

There are many flat and box-like uninspiring buildings to go along with modern skyscrapers and old temples.

Lonely Planet described Taipei as the "world's ugliest city" while Zhu Deyong, a famous Taiwanese cartoonist, once said: "Taipei, on one side is like an appealing piece of cake while on the other, is as disgusting as a piece of excrement."

Xinyi District is the newly built CBD area known for Taipei 101, the world's second tallest building at 508 meters. It is shaped like a growing bamboo shoot, a symbol of traditional China. The 101-story skyscraper features an indoor observatory on the 89th floor and an outdoor observatory on the 91st floor. Both offer 360-degree views.

Much of the rest of city outside Xinyi is lined with dark, old, shabby box-like buildings built in the late 20th century. However, some old lanes feature small brightly painted wooden houses that have been converted into flower shops, cafes, boutique stores and bakeries.

Much of these mom-and-pop businesses have been opened by young locals with overseas experience or office workers who got bored with their nine-to-five career life.

Around Zhong Xiao Road E., Taipei's commercial center, some buildings may seem unremarkable from the outside, but take a look inside and gape in amazement at the creativity of some of the city's designers. Many of these buildings feature the workshops and exhibition rooms of artists and designers.

An example is Huashan1914, a creative park renovated from an abandoned factory that features post-modern art.

Japanese influence

Chinese settled on Taiwan hundreds of years ago but the island was colonized by Japan in 1895. It remained under Japanese rule until 1945.

This Japanese influence can be seen in the language, city construction and lifestyle: Taipei's fine dining scene is dominated by Japanese food; locals enjoy baseball, which is a popular sport in Japan. Even public signs are often written in Chinese, English and Japanese.

Ximenting, known as the "Shibuya of Taipei," is a good place to learn more about the trail left by Japanese.

The area was built in the late 19th century by Japanese, who decided to establish an entertainment center, following the example of Asakusa in Tokyo. Today it's said to be the best place to see the latest Taipei fashion trends. Plenty of high school and university students dress in styles trendy in Japan in this area.

Local experiences

Baibai and suansuan

There's a popular saying locally that goes like this: "When there's baibai (bowing to the statue), there's blessings."

Taiwan has thousands of temples and Taipei offers some of the best on the island.

Visiting temples is still a big part of life for many in Taipei. People will burn incense and bow to statues in temples to pray for good luck.

According to different wishes, they choose different temples. For those praying for love, locals visit Xiahai Chenghuang Temple near Dihua Street (61, Section 1, Dihua Street). There is a statue of Yue Lao, an old man under the moon who is considered China's Cupid.

The staff here invites you to eat a piece of xibing, biscuits and cookies donated by those who have had their love wish fulfilled after praying at the temple.

For those praying for scholarly honors, Wenchang Temple (9, Lane 45, Minsheng Road E.), the temple consecrated to "Emperor of Prospering Culture," known as "the god of literature" is recommended by locals. Teachers at local schools often bring their students here before an exam.

For locals, baibai is often followed with suansuan, or fortune-telling. Fortune-teller stalls are usually found around temples.

 

National Palace Museum

Taipei National Palace Museum is the place where you can appreciate the beauty of China's cultural heritage. Some of the most precious Chinese antiques and artifacts that once belonged to emperors and their families - especially jewelry, calligraphy, paintings and historical documents - were moved to Taipei by the Kuomingtang in 1949.

The museum (221 Zhishan Road) now has a collection of around 693,507 pieces encompassing 8,000 years of history. Here are some of the highlights.

"Jade Cabbage with Insects" looks like a piece of cabbage carved from verdant jadeite. The white cabbage body and green leaves were carved by master craftsmen during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

"Meat-shaped stone" looks like a piece of luscious pork with skin and is carved from banded jasper. Craftsmen, utilizing the natural color and veins of the stone, carved it precisely to makes it look edible.

"Carved Olive Stone Boat" is a 1.6cm-high, 3.4cm-long olive pit carved in the shape of a small boat. The boat features windows, desks and pedals. More importantly, there are eight figures sitting inside. It's a strong expression of ancient Chinese carving techniques.

 

Eslite

In the day that people are obsessed with E-gadgets which will allow you download books and magazines for free, Eslite still maintains its charm for its loyal fans and has already become a cultural phenomenon in Taipei.

According to local people, if you do not visit Eslite book store (11 Songgao Road), your trip is incomplete.

Eslite, founded in 1989, is the largest book retailing chain in Taiwan and some of its branches are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It not only sells books, but also creates an comfortable yet modern ambience for its readers, giving a feeling like a giant European-style library.

The book chain is also keen on organizing various culture, art and promotional events, as well as seminars attended by famous writers and artists, serving as an important exchange platform in culture and art.

Its newly opened Xinyi Store, near Taipei City Hall MRT Station, has six stories.

Except books, it also sells clothing and furnishings created by local designers, flowers and food. There's even a children's museum.

Culinary culture

Culinary culture is considered the most important part of Taipei people's daily life. Of course, with people from all over the Chinese mainland settling in Taiwan, China's eight major cuisines are represented in Taipei.

Everything from Sichuan hotpot and Shandong steamed dumplings to Cantonese dim sum and Shanghai pan-fried dumplings can be found.

Restaurant chefs do wonders with seafood such as oysters and cuttlefish while the variety of tropical fruits such as pineapples and bananas grown on the island make the mouth water.

Intense competition in the dining industry leads to some interesting promotions and slogans such as: "50-second kiss with a dish of pork BBQ for free" and "We promise our chicken cutlet is larger than your face."

However, locals insist the most delicious food can only be found at the markets in the morning. Fragrant pork buns, juicy rice with stewed pork and oysters with thin noodles are among the must tries. But these food stalls in the market are usually only open from 5am to 8am.

The passion for food among locals is perhaps illustrated by the lifestyle in which many start their day visiting a morning market and end the day with a stop at a night market.

Night markets in Taipei are usually open from 8pm to 2am and are known for a large variety of snacks, long queues and big swarms of people.

One hawker selling yan su ji (Taiwanese fried chicken) said: "It's a good place to see celebrities without makeup since walking around the crowded market is as hot as a sauna."

While frying some chicken, she simultaneously gossiped about which Taiwan or Hong Kong movie star once visited the market, and which stall was their favorite.

The markets also feature many attractive young women working at the food stalls. Loyal customers give them nicknames such as "stinky tofu beauty" or "milk tea sister."

There are more than eight night markets in Taipei, but Shilin, Shida and Huaxijie are the most popular ones.

Shilin Night Market (60 Jihe Road), probably the biggest, has slowly evolved from the favorite of locals to a tourist attraction.

Prices are comparatively higher and recommended items include oyster omelet in tomato sauce and pork stock made from 10 Chinese medicinal materials.

Shida Night Market (along Shida Road, close to Longquan Street) is smaller and cheaper. It is near a university and attracts many students. Try the bean curd and meat simmered in sauce and tofu pudding topped with either a red bean or peanut paste.

Huaxijie Night Market (the section on Huaxi Sreet between Guilin Road and Guangzhou street), also known as snake alley, is famous for its snake dishes.

Chefs usually kill the snake in front of customers to prove freshness. Diners can try juice from the snake's gall bladder, snake blood or snake wine made from the venom. Snake soup and stir-fried snake meat are also popular dishes.

If you go

Where to stay:

Taipei has plenty of local ryokan, an inexpensive Japanese-style inn in which the rooms have tatami mats, a washing machine and a shared kitchen and living room. Visitors can dine with the owner and ask for some local tips.

Ann's House

Address: 27, Lane 147, Section 1, Jilong Rd

Price: Starting from NT$800 (US$26.8)/night

Website: www.taipeiannhouse.com.tw

 

Some boutique hotels in the downtown area have been designed by local artists. Trendy hotel furnishings and personalized service may well impress travelers.

Just Sleep

Address: 41, Section 1, Zhonghua Rd

Price: Starting from NT$4500

Website: www.justsleep.com.tw

 

There are also plenty of five-star hotels. Grand Hyatt and Le Royal Meridien are both close to Taipei 101 with nice city views.

Grand Hyatt Taipei

Address: 2 Songshou Rd

Price: Around NT$10,217

Website: www.taipei.grand.hyatt.com

 

What to buy:

Fenglisu, a pastry with pineapple filling.

Where: Shiyun Shipin, the winner of the island's Fenglisu Challenge

Address: 103 Bo'ai Rd

 

Nougat, a sweet snack mainly made of whipped egg whites and roasted nuts. Taipei locals also make it with green tea, black sesame and chocolate.

Where: Daheisong

Address: 99 Bo'ai Rd

 

Creative stationery such as a notebook that looks like it was used in the Qing Dynasty. It features a blue cover.

Where: National Palace Museum/Eslite

Address: 221 Zhishan Rd, Section 2/11 Songgao Road

 

Facial masks made in Taiwan. Both the price and quality are competitive.

Where: COSMED

Address 1/F, 5 Anju St

 

Other tips

Taxi drivers are rather chatty. They like to talk about the island's politics or where you can get some great food that doesn't hurt the wallet.

Avoid the typhoon season, normally from June to August, as the island gets hit pretty hard by powerful storms.

Convenience stores scattered around the city have free Wi-Fi, tasty fast-food and local snacks that can't be found elsewhere.

A Taipei Pass is available for one (NT$180), two (NT$310), three (NT$440) and five (NT$700) days. It allows unlimited travel on public buses and the city's subway network. They can be purchased in all Metro stations.

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