Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, is a new city with an ancient history. Although occupied by farmers as early as 1709, the area, due to its riverside location, slowly evolved into trading town. In 1875 it became the center of a new Chinese prefecture. Growth accelerated after 1895 when the Japanese temporarily took control of the island (by virtue of its winning the Sino-Japanese War) and then again in 1945, at the end of World War II, when the Nationalist Chinese recaptured the island and especially in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek lost control of mainland China to Mao Zedong and led thousands of mainland Chinese to Taiwan. They began annexing nearby communities into the city, which benefited greatly from recognition and aid provided by the U.S., as a counterbalance to Mao.
The dictatorial, but effective Kuomintang government spurred economic growth by developing labor-based export-driven industries, improving national educational standards and gradually opening up the economy to the point where it became a leader in high-growth technology components. It has grown into the 38th largest economy in the world and, more importantly, the 19th wealthiest economy, with a purchasing power parity (PPP) per capita GDP of more than $38,000. This makes Taiwan a very different country than any of the others Asian countries we explored on this trip (other than the much smaller, but even more wealthy city-states of Singapore and Brunei).
Our very short 2.5-day visit focused exclusively on the capital city of Taipei. Taipei, which we discovered isn’t much of a walking city. On one hand, it has wide and generally unencumbered sidewalks and many of these have arcades to shelter you from the elements (we had rain every day we were there). Unlike in many of the Asian countries we visited, traffic is very civilized with cars and even motorbikes obeying traffic signals.
On the other hand, blocks are long and filled with traffic. Traffic lights can seem interminable, where you can wait two to five minutes before being graced with a crossing light. Moreover, distances among sites are long and the buildings, with all due respect to the city, are not very attractive. Most are utilitarian and drab, with occasional (albeit not often very successful) attempts at quasi-modern. The city is more attractive by night, when the buildings cannot be seen for the lights. Just as importantly, there are other, more convenient ways of getting around the city. The subway (MRT) is fast, effective, runs frequently and is easy to use. Cabs are plentiful and inexpensive.
Taipei at Night
The Wanhua District, the oldest area in the city, emerged and grew in the early 1800’s as a trading city that linked the island with the mainland. It has retained much of its historic character and remains a popular destination for residents and tourists alike. Although most of its shops and attractions are technically open all day long, the area really comes to life at night. While a leisurely walk around this lively, fascinating neighborhood is a reward in and of itself, it is also home to some particularly notable sights and experiences. These include:
- Longshan Temple, which was originally built in 1738 as a Buddhist Temple, (dedicate to Guan-Yin, the Goddess of Mercy) now incorporates many Taoist practices. This very popular, lovingly and professionally restored temple is a showcase of ornate stone and wood carvings, bronze decorations and sculptures and calligraphy. The main hall, with a statue of Guan-Yin surrounded by two bodhisattvas, is particularly lovely, with its ornate cast bronze columns and intricate gilded carved wood lattices. The rear hall was built by 18th century businessmen to pray for safe sailing on their trading journeys to China. Then we were there, devotees were throwing prayer stones in search of guidance from the gods and waiting in line to consult with advisors in interpreting the signals they have received.
- Qingshui Temple, a Taoist Temple with lovely carved beams and murals.
- Huaxi Night Market, which is filled with packed Chinese restaurants and food stalls. Most iconic of its areas is the notorious Snake Alley whose brothels, gambling dens and scam artists have been largely controlled, still houses a few of its namesake snake restaurants, along with a number of other (primarily seafood) restaurants and tourist shops. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try another snake preparation after dining on stir-fried snake on a previous (15 years ago) trip to China.
- Snake Alley. Snake Alley’s Chenieei restaurant offered something of a tourist snake special consisting of snake blood, medicine, wine, oil bile, soup and meat–and a defined regimen by which it can be properly enjoyed (see the blog on Taipei restaurants). Overall, an interesting experience, at least for the idea and the regimen, if not for the taste. It should satisfy my snake craving for another 15 years.
- Interesting shops, such as those focused on selling antiques and medicinal herbs (especially on Qingcao or Herb Lane), a covered lane whose shops sell all types of fish and dried medicinal herbs and teas.
- Food Stalls, which offer wide range of snacks, meals and desserts. Although I was intrigued by a stall that offered chicken necks, feet, liver, gizzards and many other delicacies that I couldn’t identify, we sampled a couple of much more innocuous snacks: a bag of steamed Water Caltrops (which look like chestnuts with appendages and have relatively little taste) and Red Bean Wheel Pie (that tastes something like a thin waffle stuffed with red bean paste).
There are also a number of other night markets in different sections of the city. Some of the largest and most interesting are:
- Guang Hua Digital Plaza Market, where you can find virtually any type of electronics products including notebooks, tablets, peripherals, cameras, phones, games and software.
- Shilan Night Market, the largest and most lively in the city, adorned with neon lights and featuring shops selling all types of clothes and home products, arcade-style games and of course, a wide range of Taiwanese street foods. We roamed the area streets, explored the stalls and then spent the rest of the evening on the primary food street. We sampled a few different street snacks (chestnuts roasted in sand and coffee, green onion and other vegetables wrapped in pork belly, and a baked bun stuffed with ground pork and green onions) before settling in for three dishes at a stall that offered a range of seafood dishes. Strip-fried clams were the highlight of another meal, followed by deep-fried baby crabs. We were much less impressed by one of Taiwan’s street food specialties–an oyster omelet with oysters, oyster sauce and smothered in a tasteless gelatinous blob that, at least for us, ruined the dish. But given that almost every table ordered the dish, we were in the minority.