Eighteen Hours in Taipei

As my trip in Los Angeles wound to a close, I found myself increasingly under the weather.  By mid-afternoon Saturday I felt some aches in my shoulder and neck and popped an ibuprofen tablet to keep down a mild fever. 

Whether because of a bug I had acquired or simply running around too much and not sleeping enough along the way, I was hitting that dreaded obstacle to fun travel: being sick.

After returning from dinner in Culver City, I took a light weight sleeping pill and settled in for a good night’s rest. 

 

Zombie much?

Sunday morning, some nine hours later, I could barely pull myself out of bed and shower.  I felt like a zombie, like there was a layer of cement covering my body.  Bill had agreed to join me for brunch with Gary and William in Venice Beach and I didn’t want to miss another opportunity to visit with them, so I forced myself to get up.  But I was so tired that not only did I doze in the car as Bill drove to the west side, I could barely function over brunch, speaking very little, not eating much, and not taking any pictures – shocking!

Embarrassed by the awful impression I made (especially as I was just meeting Gary’s brother for the first time – “Hi, this is my friend Chris, he’s a zombie.”), but too tired at the moment to care much, I spent another couple of hours sleeping in the afternoon before catching my flight back to the Bay Area.  And then I slept on the flight to the Bay Area.

 

Returning to Life

By the time I arrived in Oakland I was starting to feel human again – a little bit – and had dinner with Paul and Anita.  We ate at Chow, a long time establishment at the corner of Church and Market Streets, that has been “around the corner” from most of the places I’ve lived in San Francisco, although not quite all of them.

I made the amazing discovery that eating some dinner, overcoming the lack of appetite I felt, actually improved things for me and I started to function more normally.  After a very pleasant meal and good visiting, I returned to Anita’s to finish packing and take another two-hour nap before calling a taxi at 11 pm.

My flight from San Francisco to Taipei, which left at 1:40 am, actually was quite smooth.  Originally seated in an aisle seat in the center seating section, I switched to a window seat so that a husband and wife could sit together.  Normally, I don’t like to be stuck in window seats on long flights in economy class, because I can’t easily get out to stretch my legs or use the facilities.  This time, however, it was fine because the lady on the aisle was about one-third my size.  Teeny-tiny.  Very easy to climb over even when she was asleep and everyone reclined their seat.

To top it off, I slept for about six hours of the twelve-hour flight.  God bless Tylenol PM, protector saint of the jet setter.

Once again, EVA is to be commended for very good service in their “Elite” – premium economy – class.  The food was tasty, portions generous, response to call buttons prompt, etc.  Perhaps I should sell sponsorships?  “EVA Airways is the official transpacific airline of this blog.”  What could I get for that?

 

Loooooong Transit in Taipei

The flight arrived nearly an hour early into Taipei – about 4:45 am!  This gave me about eighteen hours, a long layover I had intentionally scheduled so I would have an opportunity to explore the city.  Thankfully, my friend Jay was in town and had time to meet for lunch.

Knowing that it was much too early to try to head into the city – the busses weren’t even running plus there wasn’t anything to do at that hour – I proceeded through security to the departure level and checked into the transit hotel.  I love transit hotels.  The ability to freshen up and even take a nap makes a long trip so much more pleasant.

I booked a room for five hours and was able to get almost four hours of sleep, although a on-and-off fever had me throwing the covers off then pulling them back on throughout the morning.

At 10:00, after showering, shaving and getting a cup of coffee from Starbucks, I retraced my route back through security (“Oh, I need to go to the transit desk, please.”) and then proceeded to immigration where I threw everyone off.  It seems that there is a bank of early morning arrivals into the airport and then nothing for several hours, so immigration was literally closed.  Nobody at any desk.

An officer came over to her station and waved me through, and a few other officers came over, curious where this random foreigner arrived from.  Looking at my arrival information, the officer took several minutes to mentally process why, if I had been on a flight that arrived five hours ago, I was just passing through immigration now.

After explaining that I had been at the hotel, sleeping, she stamped my passport and then accidentally stamped my onwards boarding pass with the arrivals stamp.  Whoops!  That is meant to be stamped with the departure stamp when I leave Taiwan.  So she grabbed her “void” stamp and tried to undo the damage, which would cause confusion later that day when I headed through the outbound immigration line.

Customs was equally empty, with a lady officer having to set down her breakfast and jog over to my line, only to wave me through without a second glance.

After storing my roll-aboard bag at the bag check (left hand side of the terminal as you exit), I bought my bus ticket into the city and headed on my way.  Below, the view from the bus as I catch my first glimpse of Taipei 101, currently the world’s tallest building.

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[As a side note about how one’s English degenerates after living overseas, it took me about a minute to decide how to spell “glimpse”, above.  I couldn’t remember the “e” a the end and was sounding it out and spelling it different ways before I finally looked at a dictionary.  Sad, sad, sad…]

 

P1090286 Lunchtime

By the time I made it into central Taipei, a good 45-minute ride from the airport, it was nearly lunchtime.  Jay met me in the lobby of the Shangri-La hotel, where I had frittered away a few minutes reading the Sunday NY Times, which I had carried for the past thirty hours and not made much progress on.

Jay’s a friend from San Francisco who moved to Taipei to start Portico Media, what originally was an animation company but now does production, distribution and a wide range of other media-related tasks. 

It has been seven or eight years since we first met through the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.  If I recall, Jay worked as an intern with the festival’s former director and there was some screening at the Castro Theatre in which we were both involved.

Anyhow, it is good to know nice people all around the world.  Especially nice people with good taste in food!  Jay took me to Yongkang Street, in the western end of the city, where we ate at the well-regarded Yong-Kang Beef Noodle Shop, left.

The neighborhood is a web of small streets mostly filled with small buildings, a very walkable neighborhood that reminded me a bit of New York’s Chinatown, but cleaner.  Along the way we passed so many good-looking restaurants and I instantly regretted having but one day to give to this city.

 

Beef Noodles & c.

Yong-Kang Beef Noddle Shop is a compact, clean but not fancy two-story restaurant.  We found room on the second floor and set about perusing the menu, which is limited to about fifteen key dishes, many of which we had the opportunity to try:

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Working from the top row, across and down: Seaweed with garlic, steamed hog spareribs, cucumber with acorn jelly, the famous spicy beef noodle soup with soy sauce broth, spicy Schezhuan style pork dumplings, stacks of the hot spareribs steaming away in the downstairs kitchen.

The food was really good and I regretted that, as there were only two of us, we left some food on our plates.  The beef noodle soup is made of very tender stewed meat with lots of gelatinous fat and connective tissue.  Sometimes this is a little hard for me to get used to, as this is what I learned to leave on the plate when I was growing up, but you realize just how delicious it is, you realize you have to enjoy it!

Of course there was time for some dessert at Ice Monster (below), a local chain that serves various fruits, beans and jellies over shaved ice. 

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We shared a triple serving of fruit: mango, strawberry and kiwi topped with a scoop of mango ice cream.  Oh, that was good!

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Below, we get a photographer (you see him shooting two pictures above) to take a picture of us.

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About Taipei

Since Jay had to go back to work, he put me in a taxi headed to the National Palace Museum on the north side of town.  Along the way, I was a little surprised to see less traffic and far fewer scooters than I had expected.  My vision of Taipei has been formed by the movies of just a few directors.  Most notably, Tsai Ming-Liang and Edward Yang.  From these films, I built the image in my mind of a Taipei that was perpetually polluted, crowded, and a teeming hornet’s nest of scooters. 

While there were a lot of scooters, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected.  In fact, given that the city has much more land to work with, it was less crowded and less vertical than, say, Hong Kong.  To top it off, there was a monsoon working its way up from Hong Kong so the winds were very strong, making for beautifully clear skies and a very pleasant afternoon, despite the 34-degree temperature.

Below, one of many dogs I saw riding on scooters.  How does he not fall off?

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The front of the National Palace Museum and below that, the view looking at the entry garden.  The museum has one of the largest collection of Chinese artifacts in the world, which were moved from Beijing by the nationalists during the Chinese civil war.  While controversy surrounds many aspects of the museum’s existence, much as the China-Taiwan question is a live wire that sparks many conflicts, the museum has an excellent collection that is very well presented.  On a future visit I will have to give it more time, as I didn’t want to spend my entire afternoon indoors on this trip.

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From the museum, I caught the bus down the hill to the nearest MRT station.  The transit system in Taipei is extensive and fairly easy to navigate.  There are signs and announcements in English, including “next destination” signs inside the buses.  You have to watch, though, as the English flashes by pretty quickly!

The MRT system is likewise easy to use and I found may way back into the heart of the city with no difficulties.  Below, my train arrives.  In the main stations, there are safety gates along the edge of the track.  At smaller stations, it is open.

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There were two things I still wanted to do: visit the observation deck at Taipei 101 and then also take the Maokong Gondola from the Taipei Zoo station.  Somewhat along the lines of the Nong Ping 360 gondola that has opened in Hong Kong, the Maokong Gondola is an extensive line, built into the MRT system, that takes you up a series of hills and mountains to a temple from which you get a good view of the larger Taipei area.

The engineering of the system is fascinating as at one point the gondola line has to drop below a large number of high-tension power lines.  The view is less spectacular than, say, from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, but is still very nice.

Below: Sunset as seen from one of the gondola cars.  Note that you can see Taipei 101 in the photo, which looks roughly northwest.

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By the time I descended the gondola, the sun was tucking into the western horizon, ready for bed.  Knowing that the airport was quite a ride away, I didn’t want to risk being delayed by going to the top of Taipei 101, which was a good thirty minutes away from the Taipei Zoo station where I picked up the gondola. 

I called Jay to report my whereabouts, lest he feel responsible for having lost a visitor to the sprawling Taiwanese capital, and we agreed to meet for a quick dinner near his office.  We headed out to a night market, a familiar site in Chinese cities around the world.  Once again, we had some really tasty food to eat.

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Above: Various meats and veggies are added to hot broth to make a satisfying soup.  Below: A fresh oyster omelet is prepared for us.

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Above: Our oyster omelet and zoh geng or meat noodle stew with pork sausage.  Tasty, unfussy food for the market shopper. 

Even though it was a Tuesday night, there were plenty of shoppers looking for bargains, below.

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By this point, it was pushing 8:30 and I had an 11:05 flight.  Not wanting to risk heavy traffic, we headed back to the Shangri-La Hotel and five minutes later I was on a bus to the airport.  Many thanks to Jay for taking time out of his busy day to ensure I had a proper introduction to Taipei food.  I’m going to pack Tawn up and head back one of these days soon to get some more.

Conclusion

The trip to the airport was smooth.  I reclaimed my checked bag about thirty minutes late, but the lady didn’t charge me anything extra.  Outbound immigration was a little confused why my boarding pass was stamped with an entry stamp and then subsequently voided.  After a brief explanation, the officer added an exit stamp to the mess and I was on my way.  Just enough time to shower and change at the transit hotel so my final flight would be made in comfort.

Eighteen hours doesn’t seem to be enough time to explore a city, but I found a lot to enjoy about Taipei and look forward to a trip back.  It is much less intense than Hong Kong, a city I love, and that is a positive thing.  Not everywhere needs to be so vertical and intense.

The flight back to Khrungthep was smooth and I enjoyed a long conversation with an American-born Thai from Arizona who was flying in to visit relatives and explore business opportunities.  With the number of times this young man called me “sir”, I assumed he had served in the military at some point.  Turns out to just be good manners on his part combined with a touch of looking middle-aged on my part. 

26 thoughts on “Eighteen Hours in Taipei

  1. Damn! mango ice cream??
    You know what Chris? You would be perfect companion to travel with. It would be sheer blessing. Thank you for sharing the pictures and the travel diary. Loved reading it.

  2. Thank you for another great post, Chris. I love the little details you give. Your story and pictures really brought me back to Taiwan, one of my favorite destinations. Yes, there are (at least) two Taipeis, the city of Tsai and Yang and the real place. Your picture of the ice cream shop captures it: The white summer light, the narrow, alley-like street with parked scooters, the thriving outdoor life, the casual atmosphere. Hope you get back there soon!

  3. @Steve – I definitely will return soon.  Before going there, Taipei wasn’t high on my to-visit list.  I stopped only because I was already passing through.  But I’m glad I did and am eager to explore further.

  4. @Dezinerdreams – Africa would be fascinating.  I have friends who are missionaries in Kenya and they’ve extended an invite.  Would be an interesting place to go.  But as I replied to Zakiah, I think Paris in the Springtime would be a great next trip.

  5. Sounds absolutely freaking good Chris; are you serious? Please say yes. I have been there a couple of times, but seeing it again with you would make me feel like I have finally lived my life. Shall wait to hear from you with abated breath.

  6. @ZSA_MD – Tawn and I have started talking about London and Paris over the Songkran holiday (April 15-17) which falls just after Easter Sunday, if I remember correctly.  The thought was to do about three days in each city.  Very general plan concept right now, but would be fun to coordinate a trip.

  7. I just tried seaweed salad for the first time a few weeks ago. I had only ever had it in sushi before. It’s such a unique taste and consistency. What does acorn jelly taste like?

  8. @TheCheshireGrins – Seaweed is interesting since it comes in several different forms and consistencies.  Supposed to be super healthful for you to eat, though.
    How to describe the acorn jelly?  Kind of like a very smooth tapioca pudding without the sugar or the richness of the eggs and milk.  It takes on the flavor of the dish, much like tofu does, and is pleasant in a very unremarkable way.

  9. Next time you’re in Taiwan, you need to have Taiwanese breakfast!! Fried doughnut with soy milk for dipping and washing it down (kind of like a TW version of dunkin donuts), or fried doughnut wrapped in rice noodles (sweet or savory), and a bowl of jook/congee for dipping and eating :)I’m going through all your entries I missed while I was on a business trip in Panama… and I’m kinda glad I did. Otherwise, I would’ve spent an inordinate amount of time staring at tasty food pictures on my computer in my hotel room! 🙂

  10. @Mabel – Tawiwanese breakfast sounds like the Chinese version of a Thai breakfast.  They must be related.  Panama, huh?  Sounds like a fun trip, even for business.  I’ve always wanted to go to Central America.

  11. I definitely recommend it. This is my second time in Panama, and I plan on attending this conference every year, if I can. 🙂 But I recommend flying Continental/Copa Airlines, and not American!

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