05 May - 01 Jun 2012 Taipei

East Asia
Taiwan aka Republic of China
Taipei City
2 Lane 56, Zhongshan N Road, Sec 1
Happy Family Hostel +886225810716 happyfamily_2@yahoo.com
Small but clean and comfy twin room (bunk beds), with shared bathroom, for TWD 600.- or US$ 20.25 per night. The best hostel atmosphere in downtown Taipei. Long-term rates are available. 15% discount for members of the Konni & Matt Travel Blog.
Beer600-ml bottles of ice-cold Taiwan Beer Classic +886800231422 (4.5 % alc./vol.) for TWD 49.- or US$ 1.70 per bottle from the reliable FamilyMart convenience store next to the hostel.

Click below for an interactive road map of John's Happy Family Hostel in Taipei, which we would highly recommend, and for directions:

Exploring our new, intense downtown neighbourhood and its resources for our survival during the next four weeks of big-city life, all in convenient walking distance from our digs: (i) Taipei’s sophisticated and rather up-market Main Station with (a) its glitzy and surely impregnable underground shopping malls (QSquare Mall, Station Front Metro Mall, Eslite Taipei K-Mall, Zhongshan Metro Mall and Taipei City Mall), where, deep in the womb of the earth, the Taiwanese shoppers are well protected from any distractions like typhoons, earthquakes or even missile strikes from China, and (b) its many small restaurants/shops which distribute liberally free food samples and which cater well for our “little dishes” food culture (our favourite: the excellent Breeze Minder Vegetarian food court +886282187858 on the 2nd floor with heaps of the most delicious veggie/tofu dishes), (ii) the clean slow-food chain Restaurant 50 where a generous helping of steamed rice with five different veggie/tofu dishes will set you back only TWD 50.- or US$ 1.70 per person and (iii) the tidy and well-organised Zhongshan Market for all kinds of fresh organic veggies (e.g. broccoli, carrots, cherry radish, fennel, leaf mustard, kale, okra) and fragrant fruits (e.g. wax apples, strawberries, pears, custard apples, mangos, lichees, watermelons) from Taiwan’s fertile and productive countryside.

Riding the world’s fastest ascending elevator (cruising speed: 16.83 m/s or 60.4 km/h) to the 89th/91st-floor indoor/outdoor observation decks of the 101 stories, 509-m high Taipei 101 (admission: TWD 450.- or US$ 15.40 per person, +886281017777), the third tallest building on planet Earth (after the 830-m high Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the 601-m high Abraj Al Bait in Mecca) which towers above the 2.65-million metropolis like a gigantic bamboo stalk it was designed to resemble, enjoying together with crowds of loud, churlish and uncouth tourists from China (“... the Taipei 101 observatory is a non-smoking area; betel nut and chewing gum are also prohibited ...”) a commanding view of this modern city (certainly one of the cleanest, friendliest and best-run places we have ever seen) and the Taipei basin in all directions and thereafter studying the world’s biggest wind damper with a weight of 660 metric tons that keeps the tower stable through typhoons (up to 120 knots) and earthquakes.

Cruising the very Asian, quirky city of Taipei, the model country's pulsating capital and a melting pot of Taiwanese fusion (with some flavouring ingredients from China, Japan and the United States), by means of its clean, safe and incredibly efficient MRT aka Mass Rapid Transit system (fares between TWD 20.- and TWD 65.- for one-way trips around town; all announcements in four languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka and English; TWD 7,500.- or US$ 250.- fine for eating, drinking, smoking etc. +886225363001) and realising that it is very easy to get one’s bearings in Taipei: (i) user-friendly quadrilingual maps - everywhere, (ii) well-organised visitor information booths - everywhere, (iii) English speaking, helpful and civilised Taiwanese people - everywhere.

Discovering the many super-clean branches of Sushi Take-Out, located everywhere in the city, a very popular take-away chain which sells all kinds of fresh sushi and sashimi for the (almost Thai) bargain price of only TWD 5.- to TWD 15.- (US$ 0.20 to US$ 0.50) per piece and indulging in them, again and again and again, plate after plate, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Satisfying (I) our temple needs at the vibrant and multidenominational 1738/1919 CE Longshan Temple +886223025162 of Wanhua which is, amongst many other gods, dedicated to Matsu, the goddess of sea and land voyages (air travellers better pay their respect to goddess Guanyin), watching how the worshippers interacted with fortune tellers, or vice versa, and afterwards exploring this temple’s equally interesting worldly neighbourhood with (i) its narrow herb lane for traditional Chinese medicine, (ii) its Buddha-product lane for religious items and trinkets of all sorts and (iii) its umpty-ump tiny knocking shops whose experienced women of negotiable affection serve incessantly the never-ending stream of tour groups from China.

Satisfying (II) our still unmet temple needs further on (i) at the enigmatic and beautiful Dalongdong‘s (located near the confluence of Keelung River and Tamshui River, tucked in a corner of north-western Taipei City) classical 1927 CE Confucius Temple +886225923934 (where we felt suspended in time, in heart and mind, transported to the days when Confucian values reigned supreme: The Analects and The Five Classics) and (ii) at the atmospheric 1805 CE Baoan Temple +886225951676 with its refined wood carvings (main deity: Baosheng Dadi, the great Taoist master, famous as a medical doctor, traditional healer and lifelong vegetarian who was known to have cured a dragon’s eye, to have pulled a hairpin from a tiger’s throat and to have felt empress Wen’s pulse through a red silk string and then cured her from breast ailment) and learning that Taiwanese temples, in addition to being houses of worship, fill the role of art museum, community centre, business hall, marketplace, recreation facility, old age home, pilgrim site, and allegedly even recruitment office for organised-crime gangs and front for money laundering.

Visiting Taipei’s first-class Museum of Contemporary Art aka MOCA (admission: TWD 50.- or US$ 1.70 per person) and realising that this metropolis wants to be taken seriously as a city with a taste for modern art, ranging from avant-garde dance interpretations of the Chinese Opera to Richard Strauss’ Elektra, from expressive patriotic faces to impressive buttered faces and from handgrenade-shaped chocolate bars to colourful plastic dragons made from upcycled water bottles; boy, oh boy!

Witnessing, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, a patriotic mass of hundreds of eager, disciplined and friendly state servants practising taichi of some sort in preposterous blue-and-white uniforms (the supposed meaning: “heaven with clouds”) at the rather ostentatious Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, learning about General Cash-my-Check’s famous “Three Principles of the People: Ethics, Democracy and Science” … and blue-sky thinking that these nice and innocent people around might be the very people who man, somewhere deep underground, Taiwan’s VDU work stations for the largest number of CCTV cameras which we have ever spotted in any country.

Frequenting Taipei’s famous night markets with their complex tapestry of nostalgic sights and aromas (Ningxia night market - our rowdy neighbourhood night market, Raohe night market - the cognoscenti’s night market, and Shilin night market - the popular king of Taipei’s night markets; plus the unlucky number of four interconnected street night markets with many KTVs in the vicinity of the Longshan Temple: Guangzhou Street, Wuzhou Street, Xichang Street, Huaxi Street), thus (i) travelling back to a time of home-cooked meals prepared over wood-fired brick stoves, (ii) spying out our own pescetarian food niches (e.g. stinky tofu despite its putrid smell; spicy oyster omelette; shaved ice with lentils, red beans and taro) amongst the many other adventurous Taiwanese-style dishes and (iii) having many meaningful encounters with Taipei’s always very friendly and helpful, intelligent noodle-slurping pork eaters.

Rejecting the traditional delicacies at Dihua Street aka “Grocery Street”, Taipei’s best-preserved example of Fujianese shop-houses, where the morally questionable merchants sell, amongst others, cut-off shark fins (for about TWD 15,000.- or about US$ 500.- per kg for the shredded fins, including the accumulated mercury), canned abalones (up to TWD 2,000.- or US$ 70.- for a 640g can), dried bird nests (TWD 15,000.- or about US$ 500.- per 100 g for top quality) and other obscenities and where they, if troubled at all, afterwards ease their conscience at the Hsiahai City God Temple, one of the most atmospheric temples in the city, by (i) burning incense sticks and joss paper, (ii) tossing moon blocks aka bwah bwey and (iii) praying fervently at the altar of their favourite deity.

Pushing our cholesterol level into hitherto undreamed of, heady heights and treating ourselves to undisclosed quantities of eggs which obviously are a Taiwanese addiction and which come in all kinds of (i) sizes (from tiny quail eggs via medium-sized hen eggs to large duck and extra large geese eggs), (ii) hardness (from the distinctive Taiwanese tea eggs at any convenience store for TWD 8.- per piece via the extremely salty duck eggs with red yolk from Guandu to the preserved blackish-brown “iron eggs” from Tamshui) and (iii) texture (from soft-boiled via hard-boiled to fried), and, for good measure, throwing in a few artery-clogging oyster/shrimp/squid omelettes in-between.

Exploring the northern suburbs of Taipei thus (i) watching worshippers of all walks of life holding burning incense in their hands as they do the rounds, bowing first before their main deity Matsu and then their host of subdeities (Heavenly Emperor, Three Generals, Guanyin Buddha) at the 1661 CE Guandu Temple +886228581281, (ii) thereafter soaking in the Millennium Hot Spring’s public pools at Beitou (admission: TWD 40.- per person, water temperature: up to 45°C) and (iii) drinking Japanese Asahi super dry beer (“…the beer for all seasons…”, 350-ml cans for TWD 45,- each) whilst watching the sun go down over the Taiwan Strait at the Fisherman's Wharf, where tourism and fishing meet, after we had exhausted ourselves walking all day around Tamshui’s historic streets, jam-packed with titbits of cultural and culinary interest, and along the Emerald River (spotting in the wet lands sacred ibis [Threskiornis aethiopicus], black-crowned night heron [Nycticorax nycticorax] and Chinese bulbul [Pycnonotus sinensis] and reading on a sign board: “…all visitors should leave the premise when the Central Weather Bureau issues sea and land warnings for typhoons, and before the floodway starts diverting floodwater…”).

Hiking the well maintained Hu Shan Hiking Trail up to 376-m high Jiuwu Peak for a great work-out and for excellent views of Taipei’s eastern suburbs with the world’s third tallest building, the Taipei 101, right below us and spotting a flock of beautiful Formosan blue magpies [Urocissa caerulea], Taipei’s distinctive city bird.

Giving our thanks to the nationalist Kuomintang who rescued the greatest collection of Chinese art from the communist cultural revolution in "mainland" China and who later in 1965 CE built Taipei’s National Palace Museum +886228812021 (admission: TWD 160.- or US$ 5.40 per person; from the museum reminder: “...please keep your voice low; no film or photograph...”) in the Wai-shuang-his area of Shilin, Taipei, where we gazed in amazement at some outstanding pieces of their precious “booty”: carved inkstones with smiling dragons, bamboo-veneered curio boxes with hidden compartments and ancient porcelain pillows in all shapes, plus 680,000 other pieces spanning every Chinese dynasty.

Konni: Pampering my female bodymind with the help (i) of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche’s true (!) Buddhist meditation class at Siddhartha’s Intent Taipei (…but still being able to realize that any religion is first and foremost about the control of men over women, of course, almost in the best interest of our species), (ii) of a deep, pore cleansing dip into the ladies’ pool at Yangming Park’s hot springs, together with my Kiwi/Californian friends Kim and Jenny, after our close encounter with the venerable guru, and (iii) of sporadic intakes of luke-warm sake with 15 % alcohol (600-ml bottles for TWD 150.- available from any of the many convenience stores in our neighbourhood).

Matt: Pampering my male bodymind with the help (i) of the intellectual exchange of ideas about the Flying Spaghetti Monster with the English King of Taiwan, (ii) of regular full-body massages (TWD 700.- or US$ 23.50 per hour, extras extra) from the seasoned Chinese massage ladies at the parlour “Happiness +886225553823 (...whereas the Thai massage ladies do things right, the Chinese ladies do the right things...), and (iii) of sporadic intakes of luke-warm kaoliang “Koeben 101”, a lovingly distilled, smooth sorghum spirit with 58 % alcohol (750-ml bottles for TWD 199.- available from any of the many helpful convenience stores in our neighbourhood).

Bidding farewell (... and watching Arvin Chen's "Au Revoir Taipei") to our host John and to the other (longstanding) members of his Happy Family, all of them independent and unique international characters (many thanks for your wonderful company, to Krista-Lee, the sensitive anthropologist from Wisconsin, to Fern, the gorgeous singer from Penang, to Mark, the encyclopaedic genius from New York, to Nauko, the enigmatic photographer-turned-model from Japan and to Matt, the visionary Dakota estate agent from Minnesota), taking once more the efficient Kuo Guang bus +886800010138 (25 km, ¾ hours, TWD 230.- per person, return) from Taipei’s West Bus Station straight to Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport, flying from here with Chinese China Southern Airlines, operated by Taiwanese China Airlines (“Journey with a Caring Smile” and with a superb service), in a new Boeing 747-400 to Guangzhou's Baiyun International Airport (free wifi here, but Google's Blogspot/Blogger being blocked by the communist regime), thereafter with China Southern Airlines in a Boeing 777-200 from Canton over the Pacific to Los Angeles International (changing our watches in mid-air from China Standard Time, GMT/UTC + 8:00 hours, to Pacific Daylight Time, GMT/UTC - 7:00 hours) and thereafter, eventually, with American Airlines (“We Know Why You Fly”) in a well-worn Boeing 737-800 from Los Angeles to Toronto Pearson International (changing our watches in mid-air to Eastern Daylight Time, GMT/UTC - 4:00 hours), altogether for US$ 1,277.- per person for the complete return ticket Taipei-Toronto-Taipei, all inclusive save the US$ 14.- per person for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s approval of our travel authorization via ESTA, everything booked over the internet with Airline Direct already in December 2011, and, after a safe landing in Toronto, being issued with a 6-month visit permit to Canada on arrival, free of charge.

Click below for a summary of this year's travels
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