It’s funny how some images resonate with you, literally for years. For me, the sight of a ferocious ferret badger roaming a green mountainous wonderland on BBC2 sparked an intense desire to go to Taiwan. 12 years on I finally realise my ambition.
We arrive on a humid Saturday evening, and everything about the airport feels nondescript. Nothing is showy, nothing is a gleaming modern statement to the world. It’s just a perfectly navigable, perfectly functional airport. This sense of self assurance and functionality comes to epitomise Taiwan for me.
We jump on a fairly shabby bus into town – stuffing coming out of seats, overweight driver glugging back fizzy drinks, roaring engine. It’s fine though – stupidly cheap. We chug through low rise outskirts. It’s dark and the main roads are lined with shops and food joints, each one displaying its own glowing sign, so they’re crammed together and jostling for space. I’m up at the glass, eyes glowing back at them. I don’t really know what to expect of this city and I love that feeling.
We navigate Taipei’s excellent MRT to get to our hostel, the punnily named I’m Inn Taipei. It’s late and we do a shitty job of the first evening. I eat a disgraceful dinner of a bag of Cheetos and then pass out.
Well hello there pavement 😉
In the morning we’re feeling more adventurous. I’ve bought with me my absolute brightest shirt dress, because in Thailand we’re still in black following the sad passing of the king. It’s a bit of a disgrace to dresses but I thought I’d take the chance to be in yellow and orange while I could. We go downstairs and I instantly regret my clothing choice as the receptionist looks achingly cool in striped t-shirt and nose piercing and well fitting jeans. Damn him! I’m expecting judgement but actually he’s a very nice, quietly spoken chap who has lived in Bournemouth (loved it) and Tooting (not so much) and gives us the helpful information that if we’re going to Hualien we better get our tickets in advance at the train station.
That’s where we walk to, enjoying the sensation of being on a wide, even pavement. That’s the great thing about living in Bangkok, all you need from a holiday destination is an even pavement to provoke a disproportionate sense of joy. You hear yourself waxing lyrical about it to fellow Bangkokians – ‘You should see the pavements!’ and they gawp wide eyed. True story.
Sights and smells
The city feels a bit like someone grabbed Japan and stretched it outwards. Like I said, it’s functional but not fancy. There’s a lot of exposed concrete walls and metal window frames but all of this creates the sense of somewhere quite elemental. A place that’s a part of the earth that surrounds it, and a place so at home with itself it doesn’t need to show off too much. Try me out, Taipei says to you, and you won’t be asking where my carved doorframes are.
Like much of Asia, there are plenty of open shop fronts about, food preparation spilling onto the pavements with all the scents that brings. Sometimes it’s rice, sometimes its spice, but one thing I come to recognise everywhere we go is a scent like cinnamon. It’s a nice warming kind of smell and always makes me hungry, even when I realise most of the time it’s coming from vats of eggs boiling in thick brown viscous liquid in the Family Marts and 7/11s.
Beneath the train station is a subterranean shopping mall, a long strip of shops selling socks and pencil cases and other bizarre items covered in Sanrio characters. Devoid of daylight it feels a bit like a parallel universe.
Ogling old Taipei
Back in the light of day, we turn onto a side street with low rise tenements on our left. To our right is an overgrown wasteland full of wispy plants and patches of dry scrubby ground. A spindly boy is skipping through it, chattering excitedly to a girl with a black shining bob who is idly cycling back and forth on the pavement. The boy stops to squat in the dirt, prodding at something I can’t make out. Behind him, at the edge of the wasteland is a backdrop of medium rise buildings, brown cement crumbling into decay.
We reach Dihua Street, one of the best places to experience historic Taipei architecture. Close to what was once a major port, in the 19th century this was a bustling, multicultural hub where people from across the world came to trade tea. Thankfully the architecture has been retained, and it’s quite easy to squint and picture the hubbub of rickshaw and people, the urgency of commerce. Today it’s mainly Chinese shop houses, their fronts displaying trays of dried fruits and teas and more bizarre things like whole dried crab or octopus. The smell of incense and spices hangs in the air. There are plenty of upmarket shops and cafes dotted around. We opt for an unpretentious place called LOVE-ing café where we eat a very western brunch of grilled cheese and vegetable sandwiches washed down with bottomless coffee.
Walking the length of Dihua Street is such a pleasure. Compact little businesses selling beautifully crafted and sourced goods. We pass an off license with a troupe of fat dachshunds lolling on the pavement outside. This alone is pretty much enough to seal a city’s place in my heart.
In Ximen we find a very different kind of city. It’s a shopping frenzy in action, packed modern streets, full of teenagers holding hands and eyeing trainers in shop windows. As we pass through a major intersection a zombie walks full into Matt’s face. He emits a little man-shriek. She moves on, guided by a uniform companion thrusting out leaflets. We stop into a Family Mart for Matt to get a dram of something to calm his nerves. A gaggle of giggling Taiwanese girls in short skirts approaches and tells us they’re doing a challenge where they’re trying to get their photos taken with 20 different foreigners. I turn to Matt to see if he wants to but he’s vanished. There he is, already snuggled into the middle of them, beaming for the camera.
No ferret badgers
For the evening we head to Elephant Mountain hiking trail, famous for the views it offers of the city and the 101. We climb the steep path in the gathering dusk. The air is thick with the croaks of cicadas, bats flit above us, the trees surrounding the path are mossy and creeper-bound. Somewhere above us a man is chanting. His voice echoes around the treetops. We spin around to look at the city, breath stolen by the sight of it twinkling below us . We climb further along a small dark path and Matt gives another man-shriek when he almost steps on a snake. At the head of this path are the best views of all.
Not quite ferret badgers. But I guess you can’t have everything.