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Escape Routes: Trip to Taipei

By Hana R. Alberts | Jan 05, 2012

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  • Escape Routes: Trip to Taipei
    Huashan 1914 Creative Park
  • Escape Routes: Trip to Taipei
    Ai Weiwei installation at the Fine Arts Museum
  • Escape Routes: Trip to Taipei
    Teahouses at Maokong

Fresh from a long weekend in Taipei, I’m chock-full of recommendations. Below I’ve listed some highlights from my trip that’ll prove useful to anyone planning a getaway there. It’s only a 1.5-hour flight away, the people are friendly and the food’s amazing and cheap—I’m already planning my next visit.

To See

There’s a must-see Ai Weiwei show at the Fine Arts Museum (181 Zhongshan North Rd., Section 3, Zhongshan District) that’s on until January 29. All I’d really known about the mainland artist was that his detention sparked protests and shows of solidarity in Hong Kong and beyond. But if, like me, you’re not familiar with his actual work, this is a great introduction. The exhibition includes pieces in various media ranging from photography (a series of scuzzy New York portraits and street scenes from the 80s) to sculpture (made with de- and re-constructed pieces of Qing dynasty furniture) completed throughout Ai’s career. The highlight is a site-specific installation Ai built especially for the museum, “Forever Bicycles,” a 10-meter-tall goliath made up of 1,200 bikes that serves as a profound statement about the rapid pace of change in China right now.

A typical tourist attraction, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (21 Zhongshan South Rd., Zhongzheng District) and the enormous plaza over which it presides, became so much more when we stumbled across several dozen Taiwanese high-schoolers engaged in an intense break-dancing throwdown on a stage in the middle of the vast square. The glimpse into local culture made us certain that these kids, with their perfect splits, washboard abs and flat-brimmed baseball caps, are way cooler than Hong Kong teens.

After a few days in the city, I started itching for some greenery. Like Hong Kong, Taipei is a great base for short trips around the region. Undeterred by the drizzly weather, one morning I headed up to the teahouses in Maokong, set on a hillside near the zoo just south of the city; the next day I took the train to Jiufen, a former gold-mining town with narrow streets located along the island’s mountainous northern coast. Maokong is accessible by MRT and an easy bus transfer, but can also be reached by a gondola (that bears a strange resemblance to our own Ngong Ping cable car), but it’s closed for maintenance on Mondays—a fact I learned the hard way.

There’s an abundance of teahouses in which to sit and take in the view of the foliage-covered hills, with Taipei 101 jutting above it all. It’s unclear to me whether some are better than others, but I ended up at a place called Big Teapot, where the waiters were enthusiastic, the tea was strong and the food was hearty. For its part, Jiufen and its quieter neighbor Jinguashi shot to prominence after a 1989 movie, “City of Sadness,” which documented the life of a village family beset with atrocities at the hands of the Kuomintang after the Japanese occupation ended. It takes some quick moves to escape the throngs of tourists vying for fish balls and tacky souvenirs that clog the area’s main arteries. But once you’ve darted into the back alleys, it’s easy to enjoy some peace and quiet amid the Japanese-style houses and lanes offering unobstructed views over the water.

To Eat

The original Din Tai Fung (194 Xinyi Rd., Section 2, Da-an District) is totally worth a trip even though there are two in Hong Kong. Reason one: the xiaolongbao mascot outside. Reason two: there’s a gift shop selling key chains, magnets, vinegar and oh-so-much more. Reason three: there are dishes not on the menu here, like crunchy, juicy potstickers and basic chicken soup that’s so good it’s practically medicinal.

For such a small road, Taoyuan Street, located near Ximen and the Presidential Building, has a lot going for it. At number 15 is a famous (and New York Times-recommended) beef noodle joint that serves its signature dish with no frills but a flavorful broth, springy noodles and tender hunks of meat (see photo, below). Just down the road at numbers 5 and 7 is Chao’s Wonton. At a street-side table, watch the restaurant’s workers churn out the dumplings with mechanical precision. Put up with the lines and do a double-header, because these places are worth it.

No trip to Taipei would be complete without a jaunt (or, more appropriately, several) to the night markets. Ximen is Taipei’s equivalent of Causeway Bay—that is, a mobbed district that serves as the epicenter of youth culture. It isn’t a night market, per se, but at around 4pm around the MRT station, hawkers start dragging in their stalls and selling everything from glutinous rice and corn on sticks to doughy crepes with a freshly cracked egg in the middle to red-bean pancakes. I spent another night at the Linjiang Street Night Market (sometimes called the Tonghua Night Market), scarfing down deep-fried yam sticks, papaya salad (authentically made by a Thai lady) and freshly made dumplings.

To Drink

Taiwan’s café culture is alive and kickin’, so it’s more common to find laid-back bars that double as coffeehouses rather than the bump-and-grind, Wan Chai variety. A friend who’s lived in Taipei for a few years (hi, Paul!) took me around Gongguan, a neighborhood where lots of students hang out because of its proximity to National Taiwan University. In addition, with the food and drink stalls and restaurants that dominate the area, Wenzhou Street is also a hub for these lounge-y speakeasies. We ordered some Belgian beers at Shake House (86 Wenzhou St., Da-an District), a dim, atmospheric watering hole whose walls were lined with stacks of CDs and vintage records.

To Shop

Call me a shopaholic (guilty), but one of my favorite things to do on a trip is to scout for pieces of jewelry, items for the home or gifts to bring back. Ever the trendy, pseudo-hipster hangout, Taipei has lots of shops and markets featuring items by local artisans and up-and-coming designers. Artsy enclaves like Huashan 1914 Creative Park (1 Bade Rd., Section 1, Zhongzhen District) and at the street fair outside The Red House (10 Chengdu Rd., Wanhua District) offer some great finds. Another favorite is homeware chain Workinghouse (various locations), which is a cuter, cheaper version of Pottery Barn and a great spot to pick up placemats, pillowcases and teaware. Lastly, the gift shop at the National Palace Museum (221 Zhishan Rd., Section 2, Shilin District) is almost as impressive as its vast collections of Chinese art. It boasts affordable, exquisite gifts from ink painting prints (just HK$25 each!) to very affordable cloisonné (enamel) earrings.

Next Time…

The inevitable frustration as a short trip comes to a close is that I know I missed out on more than a few things. Next time I plan to catch a performance at the grand National Theater, take a day trip to the seaside suburb of Tamsui and eat more street food at the Raohe Night Market and beyond. Did I miss anything? Do you have favorite spots in Taipei? Write to me at the address below and let me know!

Email me at halberts@asia-city.com.hk or follow me on Twitter @HanaRAlberts

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