I’ve always heard that Taiwan is a wonderful place to visit. Friends and family who have travelled there have raved about it. The scenery is breathtaking, the food is cheap and tasty and there’s the 101 Tower.
Personally, I’ve always had a fascination with Taiwan ever since watching Miyazaki Hayao’s anime masterpiece Spirited Away in my younger years.
The movie, about a young girl trapped in a spirit world, drew inspiration and ultimately immortalized the small mining village of Jiufen, Taiwan into almost mythical proportions, but when I asked friends what else there is to do in Taiwan besides eating and looking at stuff, there’s always undoubtably a pause before they answer with a puzzled “I don’t know?”
I’m not too surprised. There are many cities I love that I feel the same way about. Cities where you can’t pinpoint exactly what makes it’s so great…they just are. I’ve experienced this on my recent trip to Seoul, Korea as well.
Taipei and Seoul are no doubt beautiful cities, but it’s hard to describe what makes them a top travel destination. You need to be in the city to fully understand it. It’s the experience of being immersed amongst the streets and the culture that makes it fully worthwhile.
Much like how the lost little girl, Chihiro entered the spiritual world in Spirited Away. You need to go in with a fresh mind and leave mesmerized by what you find…that is how you should experience Taiwan, with no expectations.
Finishing construction in 2004 with traditional Asian architecture in mind, the 101 Tower, at 509.2 metres was once the tallest building in the world until it was knocked from the prime spot in 2010 by the Burj Kahlifa in Dubai (829.8 m).
The building consists of financial offices, a shopping mall, an observation deck and a private VIP club on the 101st floor called Summit 101, that I’ll never be invited to.
The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
Established in 1980, the 249ft monument sits near the east end of a 240,000m2 space dedicated in Chiang Kai-shek’s honour.
After being ousted by the Communist Party of China, this controversial political figure served as president to Taiwan before his death in 1975.
After a brief renaming to “National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall” in 2007 to further distance Taiwan’s ties to China, the monument’s name was once again changed back in 2009.
From above the stairs of the memorial hall, you can take in the view of Liberty Square, which is flanked by the National Theatre and the National Concert Hall on either side.
The view of the Taipei skyline seen from on top of Elephant Mountain (Xiangshan, 象山).
At 183 metres high, there are two paths that you can take, depending on your endurance.
Both can be climbed with a series of winding steps. One is an easier 15-minute trek, while the other will take 25-minutes and leads up to the peak of the mountain.
You will be rewarded by six large boulders and this gorgeous view.
The population of Taipei is 2.674 million as of 2018. While the population of Taiwan adds another 20 million.
It’s the 15th most densely populated country in the world, but when we were there over the Lunar New Year, the city was practically empty.
As night falls, we head to the Ningxia Night Market. A five-minute walk from Shuanglian MRT station.
The market consists mainly of food stalls and is the perfect spot to enjoy authentic Taiwanese dishes, such as Grilled Squid, Scallion Pancakes, Fried Stinky Tofu and even bubble tea on the cheap.
You’ll definitely smell it if there’s some around. I’ve heard the smell of stinky tofu compared to everything from sweaty feet to death itself.
Although the odor will cause many detractors, when actually eating the tofu, it is rather fragrant with a semi-sour after taste.
Much like how Vietnamese Mam Tom (shrimp paste) is not for everyone, I can see why stinky tofu has its lovers and obvious haters.
Seen all around the tourist areas, peanut brittle is a popular Taiwanese snack.
Although the town dates back to the Qing Dynasty, not much was here until gold was discovered during the Japanese occupation in 1893.
Jiufen was quickly built up by the Japanese during the gold rush, hence the Japanese style architecture surrounding its streets and tiny alleyways.
The easiest way to get to Jiufen is from Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT Station in Taipei, leave from Exit 2 and take the 1062 Keelung Bus (NT$98 – $3.00USD) which will take you right to the centre of Jiufen Old Street.
The bus ride is roughly an hour and is also a great way of viewing the Taiwanese countryside.
The quant houses, restaurants, souvenir shops, bars, cafes and tea houses of Jiufen are built along the hillside and overlooks the East China sea in the far distance.
Perfect for a day trip, hotels are few in this area, especially during the New Year.
A colourful souvenir shop is a refuge in the much-cramped alleys of Jiufen Old Street.
Here you’ll find all your keychains, magnets and Spirited Away paraphernalia.
As night approaches the mist begins to engulf the town. Washing away all sights of the sea and mountains in the distance.
Could this be what inspired Miyazaki Hayao to come up with the Spirited Away story?
Night time means that lanterns and neon signs will illuminate the streets for the remainder of the evening.
I’m also getting a Wong-Kar Wai “In the Mood for Love” vibe here.
But look closely…I’ve added something special for fans of Spirited Away.
After coming back to the land of the living, we took the road south-west to the Shifen Rail Station.
On our way we stopped at the 不厭亭 Gazebo, to take in the epic sprawl of the surrounding mountains.
You can catch the train at Taipei Main Station to Ruifang Station, from there you can transfer onto another train to the Pingxi Line.
This will take you right to Shifen Station.
Formerly used as a stop for transporting coal, the train still runs through the centre of Pingxi and Shifen Village.
For those looking to get back to Taipei, this is also your train…you can’t miss it.
As for when the train isn’t running through, people take to the track as local townspeople make paper lanterns for tourists to write their wishes on and cast into the sky.
May all your wildest dreams come true…
The sky lanterns cost roughly NT$150-200 ($5.00-$6.50USD) depending on how many colours you want your lantern to be (1 to 4).
The person who sold you the lantern are also helpful in filming and taking pictures for you as you cast them off.
There were many wishes being made the day we were there.
For those looking for nature, a 30-minute walk and two suspension bridges away from the Shifen train tracks will lead you to the Shifen Waterfall.
The park is free and opens from 9am to 5:30pm.
You can still see the lanterns floating away in the distance.
At 40-metres in width and a 20-metre drop to the Keelung River below, the Shifen waterfall is the broadest waterfall in Taiwan.
Some have nicknamed the waterfall “Little Niagara” due to its horseshoe shaped resemblance to its much, much larger cousin in North America.
We took the last (and incredibly busy) train back to Taipei Main Station. A word of advice…do not wait for the train to arrive outside of the ticket booth.
The train stops short and a sea of people will undoubtably start frantically rushing to make it onto the first train car.
If possible, wait at the very end of the track as the train comes in from the east.
After a fantastic week filled with great food, drinks, long treks, amazing people, architecture, colours and culture, we take one last glimpse of the 101 before heading back home.