Taiwan: Capital ‘T’

I’d heard so many good things about Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, that it seemed only right to go and see what all the fuss is about. Unfortunately, travelling during Chinese New Year presents its own problems as all the trains from Hualien to Taipei were fully booked and there are no direct buses between the two cities. Luckily, there is an alternative. Kamalan Bus Company organise a train/bus combo ticket which is regular and can be bought on the day of travel. In Taipei, this ticket is bought from the Kamalan desk at Taipei Main Station and in Hualien you can just buy it at the train station ticket desk.

It costs NT$222 and will involve a train journey from Hualien to Luodong (it’s a subway-style train so you might not get a seat) and then a Kamalan bus from just outside Luodong train station to Taipei. Even during Chinese New Year, we had no problems buying the combo tickets on the day so it’s a great alternative to the train journey. The train also follows the same coastal route as the ordinary train so you don’t miss out on any views.

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The Hualien – Taipei combo train/bus ticket

The journey took around 4 or so hours and then finally we were in Taipei! The weather was decidedly better up here and we wandered over to our hostel in the Shilin district. This is a fantastic area to stay. It’s pretty buzzing and right on our doorstep was the renowned Shilin Night Market which is a food lover’s heaven. We ate there pretty much every night – it was divine. Being the food obsessive that I am, it’s now the first thing I mention whenever someone says they’re going to Taiwan, in a slightly scary and possessed way. I LOVED that place.

Obviously it was Chinese New Year so the market was absolutely rammed. I’m not ashamed to say we queued for 1 hour to buy a sausage wrapped in a sausage (not a euphemism) as it was divine. Taipei’s answer to the pork bun was also sensational, albeit scorching hot. I got far too excited and ended up burning my lips as I chowed down on it. It was a sacrifice worth making for porky goodness. Seriously, if you go nowhere else in Taipei, in Taiwan even, go here and fatten yourself up. It may result in you taking up two seats on the plane home but you will regret nothing.

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These sausages stole an entire hour of our lives at Shilin Night Market and they were worth every second.

Shilin is also connected to the rest of Taipei via the metro so it’s really easy to get around. Whilst it’s not right in the centre of the city, it’s close enough to get to the big hitters, many of which are relatively close together anyway. The aforementioned big hitters include Taipei’s only real skyscraper, Taipei 101, and a medley of photogenic memorial halls. What I loved about the memorial halls (Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai-shek, both with corresponding metro stations) was how vibrant and full of life they were. When you visit, for example, the Ho Chi Minh memorial in Hanoi, Vietnam, you are expected to be sombre and quiet in respect to the deceased. In Taipei, these Memorial Halls have been turned into social areas. People were dancing, music was blaring, there were selfie sticks aplenty. It certainly made more sense for these commanding figures to be remembered through enjoyment and fun rather than melancholy reflection.

Taipei is also littered with museums, including the biggest one in the world (which is, incidentally, a quick bus ride away from the Shilin metro). The National Palace Museum is insanely big and is mesmerising just to look at. Incidentally, this is all I managed to achieve as, due to the holiday, it was heaving. Although I was keen to see the apparently awe-inspiring Jade cabbage (no, really), I wasn’t keen enough to stand in a queue for hours.

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Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Instead I ventured over to the National Taiwan Museum, figuring I could find out some information about Taiwan’s chequered history and its recent past. I was wrong. Perhaps the incredibly low entrance fee (NT$30) should have indicated the extent of this museum’s usefulness. As it happened, very few exhibits were in English and the ones that were gave a history of Taiwan that I can’t imagine anyone would be remotely interested in. Their big exhibition when I visited was about the history of bikes… bikes. So I can’t tell you a bloody thing about Taiwan’s fight for independence or its history with China but I can tell you they were the world’s biggest exporter of bicycles in the 80s. That’s handy to know.

For many people, Taipei might be the only insight into Taiwan they get and, to be fair, you get a lot of bang for your buck in this city. We stayed here for 5 days (with some day trips to other places) and weren’t even close to exhausting our activity options. For many here in Hong Kong, Taipei is a safe weekend trip. I’ve heard the remark, ‘oh you can do Taipei in a weekend’ far too often. My advice would be to extend that weekend as much as you possibly can. Spend two days in this gem of a city and you won’t discover the wealth of treasures it has to offer.

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