The first thing I noticed about Taiwanese traffic is that it’s tame. People follow the rules, stay between the lines, and pay attention to the traffic signals. After almost three weeks in Southeast Asia (including a week in frenetic Ho Chi Minh City), the ride from Taoyuan International Airport to my hotel seemed eerily quiet. Too quiet…almost boring. No families on motorbikes, no one riding on the sidewalk. It reminded me of Japan, and I realized it was a good transition spot before returning to the tranquility of Toronto. I didn’t used to think Toronto was tranquil, but then again I’d never been to Ho Chi Minh City before. Apparently tranquility is a moving target.
I pulled up in front of the CityInn Hotel – Taipei Station Branch II around 10:00 pm. I had read rave reviews about this funky little hotel on TripAdvisor, and as I walked into the lobby I realized the reviews are accurate. The place is spotlessly clean, it’s hip, the staff are smiley and everyone is helpful. They checked me in quickly, gave me the rundown on the hotel, and arranged a transport for me back to the airport for the next evening.
“I’m starving,” I explained to the happy clerk behind the desk. “Are we near any of the night markets?”
“Ah, yes! Here’s a map,” she said, showing me the way to the Ningxia Night Market. It turned out it was about a ten minute walk from the hotel. The weather outside was still twenty degrees and I’d been sitting for hours, so a brisk walk sounded perfect. After dropping my bags in the small and efficient room I’d been given on the third floor, I turned around and voyaged out.
It was two days before Hallowe’en, so there were Hallowe’en decorations, shops, and displays were everywhere. I hadn’t seen any Hallowe’en paraphernalia in SE Asia, so it came as a bit of a surprise. No Caitlyn Jenner costumes, but I am pretty sure I saw a few Donald Trumps. The streets were quiet as I made my way to the market, many of the shops already closed for the night. Then I turned the corner and the night lit up around the Ningxia Night Market.
The Ningxia Night Market is small by comparison to the Raohe Street Night Market or the famous Shihlin Night Market (both also located in Taipei), but it’s impressive just the same. Ningxia Road is closed to vehicle traffic and stalls are arranged to provide all manner of culinary exploration. That is, if “culinary exploration” to you means checking out hawkers selling duck heads, squid on sticks, stinky tofu (an actual thing that appeared to be a crowd favourite), or various animal intestines.
The market was busy, full of people, sights, sounds, and smells that invaded the senses and enticed hungry shoppers from one stall to another. I asked at many of the stalls what they were selling, and on occasion they were able to answer, but most of the time it proved to be a struggle – the level of English there is not as good as I experienced in Thailand or Vietnam. A few people showed me a translation on their phone, and a couple of times I was even able to use my rudimentary Mandarin skills to piece a few things together and make sense of it all. Actually, I just undersold that – I’m AMAZED and beyond proud that some of my Mandarin was (kind of) understood. I’ve worked hard at it, and although I still suck at it, it’s a big win to be able to use it from time to time.
The more things made sense, the less hungry I became. I’m not afraid to try new things on the road, but this was the tail end of a long trip and I wasn’t feeling particularly adventurous; squid on a stick wasn’t quite my speed on this night. I don’t eat seafood much as a rule, and there was loads of seafood on offer.
I usually love food on a stick, but I couldn’t quite get down with the squid…
Traveling solo means you don’t have that Annoying Agitator friend along to goad you into things. As much as AA might be a pain, AA also has the potential to push you past your comfort zone, to try things you wouldn’t otherwise try. Everyone has a friend who fills the AA role, that person who questions your manliness (or womanliness) if you don’t eat the deep fried cockroach or drink the cocktail with the severed toe in the bottom of the shot glass. AA is a jackass, but AA also makes life infinitely more interesting.
I didn’t have an AA with me, so I avoided the pigs innards and duck heads, opting for some pretty tame pork on a stick and a cheese bun thing that turned out not to be cheese at all, but I am pretty sure was some kind of undercooked egg. At first I was surprised, but it tasted okay, and I was hungry, so I wolfed down the undercooked egg thing and went on my way.
Despite my lack of appetite for the local delicacies, people were friendly and posed for pictures for me while answering my questions. There was an energy in the night air, the atmosphere upbeat, and I spent about an hour and a half walking around, soaking it all in. I usually like the vibe at most night markets, and this one didn’t disappoint.
The next day I managed a short 3k run (fresh air and clean sidewalks made it possible to run again!) and had a quick breakfast before checking out of the hotel and heading into the city. I didn’t have a lot of time to explore Taipei, so I decided to go big with my sightseeing.
A couple hours later I stood on the observation deck on the 89th floor of Taipei 101 and cursed the fog. I’d traveled halfway around the world to take a stunning shot of the largest city in Taiwan, and instead it looked about as interesting as a wall of cotton candy. Actually, a wall of cotton candy would be more interesting – it would inevitably raise a long list of fascinating questions and possibly provide a tasty travel snack.
I had one crack to get a shot of Taipei 101…not the best angle, but the dramatic skies helped.
Taipei 101 is one of the world’s tallest buildings, standing at over 509m (by comparison, the Empire State Building in New York is 381m). When built in 2004 it was recognized as the tallest in the world, but it has since been overtaken by a few buildings in China, One World Trade Centre in New York, the Abraj Al-Bait Clock Tower in Mecca, and the tallest of them all, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Hanging your hat on “tallest building” status is a risky proposition, as there’s always someone in the world willing to build one taller and steal your title.
Regardless, Taipei 101 is impressive, dominating the Taipei skyline and providing a world class attraction for a city that doesn’t have that many. It feels a bit like visiting the CN Tower in Toronto, where you can wander around the observation decks on all sides and look out at the city.
Taipei, as seen from the 89th floor.
Inside, they offer interactive maps where you can tap different locations on the screen at it identifies it for you. So instead of looking out at the city and saying, “I wonder what that building is?” you can use the interactive map and find the answer. It’s a nice touch.
The atmosphere was fun, and people happily snapped selfies of themselves in front of the fog. I wandered around the building and checked out the views, wishing the weather would have cleared up a bit. It did a touch, enough to take a few basic pictures, but it definitely wasn’t the best day to be there. I enjoyed my time at Taipei 101, but needed to get back to my hotel where a transport would be taking me to the airport.
To get out you need to go down a floor from the main observation deck and take a long walk through a huge gem store. There are some beautiful carvings and shiny things to look at, but honestly, I just wanted to get down to the main floor. After navigating my way through the plethora of gems and gifts I joined a line that would take about seven minutes to clear out at the CN Tower in Toronto, a much more efficient operation.
Instead, it took more than thirty-five at Taipei 101. They have one elevator for departing guests, and people are made to wait for an exceptionally long time in the gem store while small groups are permitted to journey up and down. It’s unnecessary, and a bit like Hotel California (“you can check in, but you can never leave…”), but not a big deal…just keep this in mind if you’re visiting Taipei 101 on a tight schedule. Overall, the experience of visiting the tower is worth the lines and it was a minor inconvenience for me.
Eventually I made my way down to the bottom and took a spin around the outside of the building. Groups posed in front of the LOVE sign that they have in front of the building (and in many cities around the world).
With this, my time in Taipei was done. I enjoyed the people, the Ningxia Night Market, and the experience of exploring Taipei 101. I would love to return and see more of this country, a place where the people are friendly, the city is modern, and the weather is good. Who knows? Next time I might even try the squid on a stick.
Have you been to Taipei? What did you think? Leave your comments below, and don’t be afraid to mention your own latest blog post / website!