Never in a million years did I ever think I’d visit Taiwan.
Not that I had anything against it. It just never really featured on any of my dream destination lists.
But then, a year or three ago, my friends Jana and George set off to teach English in Taipei and as they started sharing their experiences from the lush East Asian island nation, my interest was piqued.
So, when Jana invited me to make my way over for a visit – before they pack their bags to come back home in December – I was pretty much sold.
And by mid-August I found myself cosily seated on an Emirates flight bound for Taipei, with a next stop lined up in Bangkok (but more about that later).
I spent a little less than a week exploring the city and a few of the surrounding villages with Jana and George as my guides, their 6th floor Bitan apartment a cool and comforting home base to return to, sore-footed and sweaty, in the evenings.
As with most unfamiliar cities (but especially those in the East), Taipei proved to be an absolute sensory overload, a cacophony of flavours, a melting pot of sounds, a festival of scents, fragrances, whiffs and smells.
A city where concrete and foliage wage endless war – green tendrils decorating walls hardly rising out of their foundations – and the narrow streets are ever alive with banter and bargaining, an organic outflow of the burgeoning informal economy.
There was so much to take in and enjoy, it’s hard to pick just a few highlights. However, I’ve managed to limit myself to 10, which I will be sharing in two posts.
Here are my first five:
Night markets and all sorts of exotic treats
Whether you’re just craving a quick snack break while burning the midnight oil at home or want to get into a festive Friday mood, Taipei has a night market to feed your every need.
We visited a different one in a different part of the city almost every night – from the low-key stalls lining the street below Jana and George’s flat to the massive Shilin night market an hour’s train ride away – and sampled all sorts of delicious treats.
At the Gongguan market, we had Taiwanese burgers (Gua Bao) – succulent pork belly, sprinkled with grated peanuts, served on a bed of coriander and tucked into a soft and doughy bun.
At Shilin, crumbed chicken steaks the size of my head and a delicacy called coffin bread – basically a thick slice of toast, stuffed with a filling of your choice. Kind of like a mini bunny chow.
There were Japanese-inspired Takoyaki octopus balls and weirdly sweet sausages, custard-filled wheel cakes and tea eggs (okay, we got those at 7-11, but still), all variously washed down with either Taiwan beer or Bubble Tea.
But of all the things I ate on the streets of Taipei, there’s one dish that I’ll still crave for a looooong time to come: sweet potato fries with plum powder. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and that perfectly tart sprinkling of goodness on top. Hot damn!
Massages and naked hot springs
Deep fried delicacies, aside, there’s one thing I can tell you about the Taiwanese – they sure know how to take good care of their bodies. Not only by exercising in the great outdoors and drinking tea, but also by regularly sinking into the healing waters of a hot spring and getting a good old massage.
During my short sojourn, I partook in all of the above, even stepping way out of my Calvinistic comfort zone (and my clothes), and right into an all-female bathhouse where nudity isn’t only encouraged, but required.
It felt really weird at first and my initial instinct was to cover up and hide away. However, as soon as I realised everyone there was just minding their own business and the (mostly older) ladies had far better things to do than scrutinise my wobbly bits (like enjoy the soothing sensation of the heated, mineral-rich pools), I relaxed into it and enjoyed the process. Because there is a process: first unwind in the piping hot pool, then get a few gentle water massages in the medium pool, followed by a shock to the system in the camphor/menthol/eucalyptus-enriched ice bath… and then do it all over again. And again. And again… until you feel as soft and serene as a squishy baby hippo.
The Full Moon Spa and Hotel we visited is just one of many hot spring resorts in the charming little village of Wulai (about 30km out of Taipei). With the Nanshi River flowing through forming an array of pretty little beaches along its meander, Wulai is a popular spot for local city-dwellers and out of town tourists alike to break away to for weekends. We ended our morning with a stroll through the stall-lined streets and a massive bowl of shaved ice at a restaurant next to the river.
The flower market
As a fan of all things botanical, it’s hardly surprising that the Jianguo Holiday Flower Market made my heart bound and burst. We got there relatively late in the afternoon, so the some of the stalls had started packing up, but nonetheless I got to see my first ever Dinner Plate Dahlia, all sorts of exceptional orchids, bonsai trees aplenty, bunches and bunches of fresh blooms, cacti, water lilies and an array of carnivorous plants. To mention but a few.
If I lived in Taipei, I swear I’d spend all my money there all the time!
Kicking back at Coffee: Cape
On my very first jet lag-hazed day in Taipei, George took me for a quick inner-city spin on the scooter and introduced me to one of his favourite spots to grab a cortado.
Located on a busy New Taipei City street corner and run from the confines of a shipping container, Coffee: Cape may go unnoticed by the average passerby. However, if you have a nose for great coffee and an eye for clean lines and minimalist chic, this spot will charm you from the get-go.
There were so many things I loved about it – the wooden chairs dotting the sidewalk, the Nacho Libre artwork against the wall, my iced Americano and the friendly young owner who even googled an obscure Afrikaans song to play when he heard I was visiting from South Africa.
If you ever find yourself in Taipei in desperate need of a caffeine fix, this is your spot! Check out Coffee: Cape on Instagram.
Sipping tea, watching scooters race by
The next day we set off on another scooter adventure, this time leaving the bustle of the city for some scenic mountain roads.
The endless vistas – peak upon green peak, with valleys and rivers down below – just blew my mind, and so did the fact that they were so easy to find just a few kilometers beyond the urban sprawl.
We stopped for a cup of refreshing Oolong tea at a roadside cafe, where I also got to catch a glimpse into Taiwan’s truly fascinating scooter subculture. All around us lanky young men with undercuts and floppy fringes, accompanied by pretty waif-like girlfriends, sat facing the road to watch buddies scoot by at top speed and then – minutes later – pull up for an iced coffee with screeching tires and billowing parking lot dust.
On weekends these curvy roadsides are properly lined with amateur photographers, snapping shots of the riders and sharing them on dedicated social media pages once edited.
So, that’s it for my first Taipei post. Hopefully I’ll have the next installment up next week, which will be all about Totoro, Tea Ceremonies and Twinkling Lanterns.