Taipei 101 stood magnificent over the city, a proclamation of the exciting things our winter trip entailed. On that first day of our winter adventure, we left the bitter cold of Seoul behind for the vision of Southeast Asia! The sub-tropical climate of Taiwan, an island that sits at about the same latitude as Miami, FL invited us as we landed. And like I said in the introductory post, we were giddy to see more.
The Flight to Taoyuan Airport
At only about 2.5 hours, the flight itself wasn’t bad. Asiana Airlines always treats us well. We got a delicious curry meal and had time to watch a movie. We arrived in Taiwan at 11:30am and immediately found our friend who had arrived a few hours prior to us. The three of us were excited to see each other. It was our first visit from a friend, and we couldn’t wait to share the experience of Asia with her. We picked up our mobile wifi device and jumped on a bus heading from Taoyuan Airport to Taipei Main Station, just 50 minutes away to the northeast. Generally, that was our experience with each of the countries we visited; the airport was always about 45-60 minutes outside of the main city hub. The view changed from rolling green mountainsides to a sea of tall buildings as we entered Taipei.
Once at the main station, our priority was to finish setting up our travel options. After a bit of looking, we bought an “EasyCard” at a 7-11 that would allow us to use public transportation. Finally, we went to find the hostel, Bouti City Capsule Inn, conveniently located just 10 minutes away on foot. (Click here for our reasoning on why we loved this hostel!)
It was 2:30pm at this point and we were ravenous. It was time to search for some food nearby. Now, as opposed to Seoul where Danny and I can easily get by nowadays by having picked up Hangeul, Chinese characters are much harder to decipher. We wandered around the nearby buildings, at some points walking in circles around city blocks listening as scooters whistled by in droves, until we settled on a particular location that had pictures, entirely reminiscent of Danny’s and my first day in Korea. The waitress seated us, and upon realizing we spoke English, brought us an order card. Though this meal was one of the most expensive of our trip at NT$630, us famished folk were just happy to finally eat some Taiwanese food. (But seriously, buy your food from hawkers and street vendors.)
Thus, having finally replenished our strength, it was time to venture forth! We got back to the main station and boarded the subway to get to Taipei 101. If you’re reading this from the United States, I just want to iterate how useful and convenient public transportation is in most of the Asian cities I have visited. Not only can buses take you from place to place but you can also use the elaborate subway system. All of this can be done with the same card, and it’s cheap. Though I was always attached to a car back home, I am finding that living in a big city (without a car) is an easy alternative.
First Destination? Taipei 101
We went straight east on the red line until we reached the second to last station. As we exited the station, all we could do was look up, up, up — for Taipei 101 didn’t disappoint. When you live in Chicago or New York City and all the buildings are huge, a truly tall peer among them doesn’t seem as impressive; but when you have just the one massive building in the entire city, a monolith, it awes you.
We found our way inside the tower and got to the 5th floor where they take and give out tickets. Since we had bought ours online prior to arrival, we got to skip the ticket counter line and go to the elevator, which, until 2015, was the fastest elevator on Earth. We zoomed up towards the observation deck, the glassed-in 89th floor, and from there, we got to view the entire city. Sadly, the clarity wasn’t that sharp because the pollution was high that day.
Even so, the sunset came on quickly. We caught Taipei at dusk with its flashing lights and golden streets. Two flights up on the 91st floor was an open air observation deck, and a flight below rested the famous Damper Baby, a suspended counterweight that acts as a wind damper. This huge structure weighs over 660 tons (woah!) and protects Taipei 101 from typhoon-force winds and earthquakes. It’s the heaviest wind damper in the world, but somehow, the managing company has turned it super cute. Danny thought it terrifying. Basically, we had to get our pictures with it. On the way out of Taipei 101, you have to walk through a gift store, which sells exorbitantly expensive coral pieces and jewelry, all quite impressive. We bought a few postcards and exited the building.
Christmas in Taipei and Other Downtown Highlights
Before heading back to the hostel, we decided to check out a few more sites. They all happened to be in a straight line back, so we decided to walk. On our way, lights and Christmas decorations distracted us. Their glow was everywhere. We even saw a Wonderland location with music, photo zones, a Merry-Go-Round, and other little romantic hot-spots for couples. A short way away, we came across Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall; a bunch of young guys treated us to a hip-hop dance-off, a frequent occurrence. What made it even more entertaining were their “duels,” at the end of which the voted-upon loser would take a paddling from the victor.
Farther down the street, we saw a glimpse of Taipei’s shopping and downtown. The cityscape seemed a morass of apartment-style tenement buildings from the 1960s with bars protecting the windows from possible typhoon damage; huge malls and subway stations stole around them with glinting lights and neon signs, though not as flashy, busy, or cramped as in Seoul, with business-fronts more open and Western in style; every so often, small parks with open spaces, cafes, and areas where people could dance in an open forum gave the city such a friendly feeling. Imperial Taipei 101 stood a landmark behind us, lit up neon blue on the upper edge of each of its eight sections.
Checking Out Ximending, Taipei’s Youth Hot Spot
When we finally arrived back to the hostel, we were again hungry, and though it was dark, it was time to see one of the most famous attractions of Taipei: Ximending.
Ximending was close by, just a few blocks away. The streets weren’t too busy on the jaunt there; in fact, we were wondering if we had “missed” it until we turned a corner and discovered the throng of people. Ximending is the largest pedestrian zone in Taipei and attracts over 3 million visitors a month. It represents a confluence of Western, Japanese, and Chinese culture; you can buy clothing, accessories, and snacks, or you can watch street performers and play games. The world is your oyster. It, along with all of Taipei’s night markets, was loud, bright, and boisterous. We loved it. We stopped at different food stands and ate a variety of food, but my favorite stop was the famous Ay-Chung Flour-Rice Noodles, which I found out about thanks to an amazing food blog, Migrationology.
The noodles came in two sizes, small (NT$50) and large (NT$65). Once you got your slippery thick mess of noodles, you could add three different condiments to it: pureed garlic, chili peppers sauce, and vinegar. We got the small since we we had eaten several things already. I heaped a few spoonfuls of the garlic and chilies into it for an extra kick. The noodles had a meaty, fishy taste and went down smooth with their soft texture. The dish also had a certain brightness to it characteristic of the cilantro that is famous in Taiwanese meals. Did I mention how cheap it was? NT$65 translates to about US$2, so you can eat all you want.
I’ll say this now: the night markets in Taipei were among my favorite attractions. Seoul’s street scene has a different vibe. Here, vendors are clustered into a crowded and antic few blocks. Do you want to know where to eat? Find the longest line. Seriously, Ay-Chung’s line stretched down and away from the building. Even so, he was so quick, reducing the wait time. We stood there with our hot bowls, slurping our noodles. The curling smoke of hot oil spindled its way skyward making everything seem perfect. It was a pleasing end to our first day, and we had the rest of our trip still ahead.
What About You?
Have you ever sampled from Ay-Chung’s noodles, been to Taipei 101, or been to Taipei generally? What did you like from our first day? What would you have done? Tell me below!