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May 17, 2014 / oneworld82

Taipei – Part I

If you believe the UN, Taiwan is not a country. Only 22 sovereign countries recognize Taiwan as the “real” China – and among them you have such heavyweights like Palau, or Swaziland. Still, the issue shouldn’t be weather Taiwan is the real China or not. The question should be be: is Taiwan its own country? The fact that 71% of the local population sees itself as Taiwanese first, and Chinese second is pretty telling. But I felt like I needed to visit by myself to see how things really are in Taiwan. True, my visit would be short and somewhat superficial. But having study Chinese history extensively in college gave me a fairly solid ground where to start my observations from.

Taiwan is a lush island. Probably, that’s the reason why the Portuguese called it Formosa – “beautiful, rich”. The first striking feature you notice when landing? Its greenness. A dark, lush green that reminds you that yes, we are close to the tropics down here. That’s reflected in the many tree-lined boulevards of the city, and in the forested mountains around town, where hot springs and tea plantations offer plenty to do to local residents. One such example is Maokang; this area, easily reached by virtue of a gondola built nearby the Taipei zoo, is an oasis of tranquility, ideal to spend a couple of hours (or more) wandering around hiking trails in the forest, sipping Tai Guan-Yin tea at one of the many teahouses, enjoying an astonishing view over Taipei, and sampling the delicious street food offered here. Because Taipei, of course, is all about food.

If you haven’t ever seen it, I highly recommend you watch Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” episode on Taipei. Usually, famous chefs agree on the top three cuisines in the World: Italian, Frech, and Chinese (order usually differs). One of the plagues afflicting Chinese food worldwide is, in my opinion, the number of bad and not authentic Chinese restaurants that immigrants open abroad, from Argentina to South Africa. Usually, that means that many people have no real idea of what Chinese cuisine is like; just like foreigners might think that Chicken Alfredo is an Italian dish, so they might believe that orange chicken is authentic Chinese food.

One of the things that Taipei does very well is putting authentic Chinese food in front of you at a very reasonable price. This happens in two places: shopping malls’ food courts; and night markets. Night markets were the main reason why I decided to come to Taipei.

There are many night markets in the city, but probably the most famous one is Shilin. Night markets can be indoor or outdoor or both. They usually consist of a a stretch of streets and alleys that come to life after dark, when stalls and shops open up selling literally everything from meat dishes to desserts, from clothing to electronics. People swarm this place from early evening until late night, eating their way around local favorites such as fried chicken, sausages on stick, shaved ice, boba tea, rotee, buns, deep fried squid… and stinky tofu – the quintessential Taiwanese food. This fermented tofu comes in various degree of stench (you can smell the stinkier ones from one or two blocks away), and I only dared to try a mild version of it which was, in all honesty, pretty good.

Stinky tofu

Stinky tofu

The other major food attraction in Taipei is a little restaurant that grew up to become a powerhouse: Ding Tai Fung. This Michelin-starred eatery (with now several locations across Taiwan and North America) is famous for its xiaolongbao – or soup dumplings. These delicious, masterfully made pockets of deliciousness are something absolutely not to miss while in Taipei!

Shilin night market

Shilin night market

Fried chicken

Fried chicken

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Boba tea

Boba tea

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Rotee!

Rotee!

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Fist meal in Taipei. Chicken and noodle soup

Fist meal in Taipei. Chicken and noodle soup

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Beef noodle soup - another Taiwanese specialty

Beef noodle soup – another Taiwanese specialty

But Taiwan is also a land of political and historical struggle; torn as it is between its Chinese and independent identity, Taipei puts on display its heritage and its dilemmas on a very grand scale. Take Chiang Kai Shek for instance. This divisive figure of Taiwanese and Chinese history was at once a hero and a foe. His mismanagement of the political situation in China led to a phenomenal defeat against the Communist Party led by Mao; a strategic retreat to Taiwan led to the creation of the Republic of China which, thanks to the aid and protection of the United States, became one of the successful Asian tigers. At the same time, Chiang Kai Shek abolished all political freedom in name of self-defense against Communist China, and it was not until after his death that Taiwan became a fully-fledged democracy. The Chiang Kai Shekh Memorial is as grand as informative. The change of guard is spectacular for the synchronized movements, and the exhibits are good to understand more about the life and deeds of this important character and of his charismatic wife.

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The there is another important character of Chinese contemporary history – Sun Yat-Sen – who instead is a less divisive figure, one upon which most Chinese people could agree on. His mausoleum is less impressive than Chiang Kai-Shek’s, but having the Taipei 101 building as a backdrop makes for some dramatic views from the memorial’s courtyards.

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Taipei 101 was, for a couple of years, the tallest building in the World. Shaped like a pile of bamboo boxes, the building looks more impressive in real life than it does in pictures. it is a striking skyscraper, as it is by far the tallest building in a city that doesn’t have too many very tall towers. Inside, the bottom five floors house a luxurious mall with one of the best food courts in the country. The modern side of Taipei is epitomized by it, and the whole business district is a clean, perfectly-laid out grid of shiny high-rises that speak a great lenght of the economic success achieved by this land in the past 60 years, against all odds.

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I wish I had more time in Taipei. Two days were certainly enough to get a feeling of the city, but I feel that another couple of days would have allowed me to explore the areas surrounding town, including the thermal town of Beitou and the scenic Jiufei area. But I am glad I came regardless of time. All this flying was rewarded by a city that looks at Japan but is very much rooted into its Chinese past; a plce were food is king, and nature is lush and ever-present.

Zaijian Taibei. I look forward to seeing you again!

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One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. BOShappyflyer / May 26 2014 10:12 pm

    Thanks for sharing! I will be traveling to TPE and came across your blog. Sounds like you had a good trip despite the short stay!

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