Thursday, February 21, 2013

Taipei, Taiwan

I went to Taiwan for a week a few months ago, but a lot of things happened in between so writing was left in the back burner. As someone who doesn't speak Chinese, going to Taiwan on my own was a challenge. I had to do a lot of research beforehand - print out maps, get train and bus routes, figure out how to get to a place, etc. I even asked a friend to help translate simple requests like "please take me to so and so bus stop", just in case. But I didn't have any troubles at all during the entire trip. Most of the street signs in Taipei have English translations unlike a few years ago. Although not all people speak English, they are very friendly, and when I find myself in a small problem someone always helps me. As what usually happens, I always manage to find my way.

Why not join a tour, you say? Tours are more convenient, yes, but it is not for me. I don't really like going on tours and be shepherded around. Schedule is tight, time is constrained and you never get to do what you really want to and spend time where you really want to. I prefer figuring out my way/destination. As much as it is a chore, doing research when planning your trip makes up half the fun. You learn a lot by doing research, and you appreciate the place more. Traveling by yourself is an adventure. I wish I could describe how wonderful the feeling is of landing in a foreign airport. Of tugging your luggage, looking at those big departure and arrival schedule screens. Of trusting your instincts and (successfully) finding your way. Of hopping into a bus or train, plugging your headphones in your ears and looking at the view outside the window. Of making friends with people you meet on the streets.

Perhaps it sounds like I am romanticizing traveling too much, but that's how I really felt and I hope it doesn't get jaded over the years.

It was hazy when I landed in Taipei. After collecting my luggage, my first challenge was to find the bus that would take me to the city. I refuse to take a taxi because it's expensive and hell yeah I can take a bus. I quickly took out the printouts from my bag to check the instructions one more time. I even had a picture of what the ticket counter looks like so I'd know what to look for. Although the picture and what the ticket counter looked like were totally different, I managed to find my way and the correct bus by being observant. Since most of the text were in Chinese, I just paid extra attention to the numbers printed on the signboards.

The bus ride from the airport to the city probably took roughly an hour. I purposely took a seat in front so I can get the best view, unfortunately I fell asleep because I was tired from my swimming lessons the night before. I only woke up from my friend's text message asking if I was alright. I made a mental note to text him later because from where I was at that moment, I could see the Taipei 101 and I knew I was almost at my destination.

The bus terminated at the Taipei Main Station. The Taipei Main Station is also called the Taipei Railway Station so do not be confused if you see routes indicating TRA instead. It is located in Zhongzheng District, downtown Taipei. Aside from the TRA, it also serves The Taipei Metro (Tamsui and Nangang Line), the Taiwan High Speed Rail, and the Taipei Bus Station. On hindsight, it was wise staying near Taipei Main Station because it served as the perfect launchpad to all the places I wanted to go. I was lucky I found an affordable hotel near Taipei Main Station called Chair Man Hotel (No. 88, Sec 1, Han Kou St.) which was just walking distance to Ximending. I spent US$251.54 for six nights which is not bad at all.

 Ximending, Taipei at night.

I briefly met my bestfriend who is now based in Taipei. She just gave birth to our barkada's first baby so she couldn't accompany me all the time. It was ok because I finally saw my bestfriend whom I haven't seen in more than a year, and I finally met my lovely little niece! We had dinner at a quirky restaurant called Modern Toilet (http://www.moderntoilet.com.tw/en/about.asp). Yes, the restaurant theme was... toilet and other toilet related matters. Haha. Hotpot and curry are served in miniature toilet bowls. Baked rice are served in miniature hot tubs. Desserts are served in miniature urinals. Walls are decorated with tiles and chairs are actual toilet seats. The place was hilarious! In all fairness, their food were good and affordable! We walked around a bit, but they had to leave earlier, so I saw them to the bus stop, and went to explore alone.

Modern Toilet, 2F, No 7, Lane 50, Xi-Ning South Road, Taipei.

 Beef hot pot with rice.

Poopoo ice cream!

I went around Ximending, a shopping district in the Wanhua District. It is called the "Harajuku of Taipei" and the "Shibuya of Taipei". It is pretty accessible from the Taipei Main Station by bus or by foot. There are a lot of fashion, music, books, magazines, hobbies, and other subculture shops, and there are also small concerts and street performances on the streets. Most who shop and dine in Ximending are the younger people. It was very crowded even on a weekday night. But it was not the irksome kind of crowded. Walking around was very interesting and fun. Even though it was my first time there, and alone at that, I felt very much safe walking around. Although, it's easy to get lost in Ximending's side alleys if you do not pay attention to your environment.

 The Red House and its quirky shops inside.

I also dropped by the historic Red House (http://www.redhouse.org.tw) which is also in the Ximending area. Built in 1908 during the Japanese Occupation, it was Taiwan's first ever public market. At present, the second floor hosts regular live performances, while downstairs houses interesting shops which sell mostly artsy and vintage stuff. During weekends independent artists also set up stalls outside the theater where they sell their creations. The art scene in Taipei is really vibrant! I wanted to talk to some of the owners about their works, but some of them have trouble understanding me. Ah, so much for art transcending language hehe!

I walked back to the hotel since it was already getting late. What a better way to end the day with a big tumbler of bubble tea. I felt like I was in bubble tea paradise. We all know that Taiwan was the birthplace of the bubble tea; everywhere you turn there is a bubble tea shop! There were at least two just near my hotel.

History and art were the agenda for the following day. I went to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall and Museum, and then later to the Fine Arts Museum and Story House. The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall (http://www.cksmh.gov.tw) was built as a tribute to Chiang Kai Shek who was the former President of the Republic of China. On both sides of the Hall are the National Theater and National Concert Hall. I took the train from Taipei Main Station to Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall via the Tamsui Line (Red Line).

 The National Concert Hall.

 In front of the National Theater.

 The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall.

 The gates.

 The museum inside the memorial hall.

 Passed by Sophisca, a cute candy shop. Ogling at everything inside!

Later in the afternoon, I went to the Fine Arts Museum (http://www.tfam.museum/?sid=1). It is also along the Red Line, nearest MRT Station is Yuanshan. When I got there, initially I thought I was lost because based from the map I have, the museum is just near the MRT Station but I couldn't spot it immediately. Apparently you have to walk a bit and cross the highway to get there.

I loved the Fine Arts Museum, from the unique architecture of the building, to the interior decorations. Unfortunately taking of photos is not allowed inside but I enjoyed the exhibits a lot. I dropped by Formless Form, an exhibit featuring Taiwanese Abstract Art. I am not really a fan of abstract art (generally, and Picasso-abstract), but I liked most of the paintings displayed there. My favorite exhibit was Destroy Design. It is a collaboration between the TFAM and le Fonds RĂ©gional d'Art Contemporain Nord-Pas de Calais. I know someone who would have loved this exhibit as well!

"Destroy Design conveys the values of destruction and revolt, reconsidering the meaning of the existing system... Most of the participating artists have employed humorous methods – criticizing, wrecking, recreating or questioning well-known designs. Other works seem to erase the dividing line between art and design, or even boldly overturn our perceptions of designed objects."

 The Pavilion of Aroma.
The Fine Arts Museum.

 Picture is not very clear, but that's EVA Air with their Hello Kitty livery.

After browsing the galleries, I went to the coffee shop downstairs for a cup of hot choco and to rest a bit. I then went next door to visit the Story House (http://www.storyhouse.com.tw). The story house is a historic house dating back in 1913-1914. It was formerly known as the Yuanshan Mansion, a guest house for rich and important people. It now serves as a museum. They were having an exhibition on various aspects of carrier bags as a unique Taiwan culture. More than just packaging material, sentiments and statements, among others are also often expressed through carrier bags. I find this interesting because I like (and keep) some interesting carrier bags as well! After visiting the museum, I walked around a bit in the area before going back to the city.

 The Story House.

The following day, my bestfriend brought me to the Zoo! :) Taipei Zoo (http://english.zoo.taipei.gov.tw) is a bit far from the City. We had to do a couple of train transfers but it wasn't inconvenient. Zoos are essentially the same everywhere you go, but this time is special because it's the first time I've seen a panda! From the Taipei Zoo, we took the Maokong Gondola (http://gondola.trtc.com.tw/eng/index.htm) to Maokong. The Maokong Gondola is a 4.3km long cable car service between the Zoo and Maokong. The view of the mountains below is amazing. The Taipei 101 is also clearly visible from up there. Maokong is a popular tea growing area in Taipei located in the Wenshan District. There were a LOT of tea houses, and they even have a teapot museum!

 Tapei Zoo. I didn't take much pictures there, because I was too busy playing with my baby niece :P

 Onboard the Maokong Gondola.


Chinese Valentine's day is actually celebrated on the month of August, so that night we 'incidentally' managed to catch fireworks near the harbour. It was grand! There were a lot of people so it was almost impossible to take pictures unless you're on top of a vehicle or something. I'm not really a Valentines Day person. If there was a Grinch for Christmas, I'd probably be the equivalent of that for Valentines. I just think that it has just become a sad, too commercial excuse of an occasion. But I digress. What I wanted to say was hell yeah fireworks! Fireworks are always awesome!

 Yay fireworks!

The following day I was initially feeling unwell, so I decided to stay in the hotel and rest. After a few hours, I got bored of watching HBO reruns on TV so I decided to go out. I took out my map and thank heavens for roaming 3G I managed to find my way to the National Palace Museum (http://www.npm.gov.tw/en). I took the MRT from Taipei Main Station to Shilin Station, and from there took Bus R30 going to the Museum. It was around 20 or 30 minutes bus ride.

 The National Palace Museum.

The National Palace Museum is the national museum of Taiwan, Republic of China. It is located inside the Forbidden City and it houses 8,000 years of artifacts from their history. The museum is very massive. There were a lot of people, most of which are in tour groups. I didn't know where to start actually! But the guides are friendly and very helpful so I managed. They directed me where to start and gave me some readings. Of all the artifacts in the museum, I was very much smitten with the scroll painting Along the River During the Ch'ing-ming Festival. At 35.6 x 1152.8 cm, it is quite a long scroll (almost 12 m long), but the brushstrokes are painstakingly fine and detailed. I think I spent most of my time in the museum admiring the painting, than going through all of the rest of the galleries combined! After going through the Ceramics, Bronzes, Jades, Calligraphy and Painting Galleries, I quickly went to the museum shop to buy some art prints for me and some souvenirs for my NUS bestfriends. I went outside for a while to admire the Palace's facade, before going to the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall.

Panorama of the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall.

 Taipei 101.

From the National Palace Museum, I took the bus and train route again to go from Shilin Station to Taipei Main Station. From there, I had to transfer from the red line to the blue line. Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall (http://www.yatsen.gov.tw/en) is just five stations away from Taipei Main. It is built to commemorate Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the first president and the founding father of the Republic of China. It has vast gardens, pavilions, and a lake. Every hour there is a formal changing of the guards. Aside from being a museum, there are also performance halls, lecture halls and library inside.

I ended the day by walking around Ximending to eat and shop. I really liked going around Ximending and it's colorful billboard laden streets. It's very alive especially at night. I wished my family were shopping and eating with me at that moment. They would have loved Taipei :)

 Dusk is my most favorite time of the day to take pictures.

 Alleys and interesting shops at Ximending.

 Something serene about almost empty pedestrian crossings at night.

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