Filed under: Taiwan, Travel | Tags: flea market, taipe mosque, Taipei 101 building
At some point during the second day of my trip in Taipei, I realized the city is much smaller than it appears. After taking a little rest for the morning, I headed out on foot to find the next relic of my religious architecture tour. A mosque that was built in Taipei in 1960 and today serves as a worship place for the small number of Muslims living in Taipei, as well as a Chinese/Muslim cultural exchange center. I thought it was a lovely building, and it wasn’t a far walk from the hostel I was staying in at all.
When I got to the Mosque, I had a clear shot of the Taipei 101 building, another destination for the day, so I decided to walk there, just using the building as a guide. It ended up taking only a couple of hours to walk all the way across town. I’m really glad that I did it and had a few nice detours on the way. I stopped at a Sat./Sun. flea market that is one of those places that people who only stick the subway would never find. A parking lot for the surrounding businesses during the week, it turns into a great local wares market on the weekends. An older man who spoke fantastic English invited me to sit down for a cup of tea. It turned out he used to live in Texas for a few years, and was happy to meet a travelling American. We had a great conversation about Asian relations, teaching English in Taiwan, and a little comparison of Taiwan to Korea. He couldn’t help making a little jab at Korea when I mentioned how friendly I found Taiwanese people. “Korea is a colder place, so Korean people are a little bit colder.” I’m not sure if this is justifiable, but his small showing of Taiwanese loyalty was appreciated.
The warmer nature of Taiwan definitely shows in the landscape. The parks are filled with palm trees, and it was a good 15F warmer than Korea. The vegetation was completely different, and after hearing horror stories of what a crowded, industrial place Taipei is, I actually found it to be amazingly green and lush. They’ve done a lot of work to create gorgeous public spaces, and the hills surrounding the city were already completely green compared to the barely sprouting spring at home.
Considering how crowded Taipei is, it’s actually a much, much smaller city than Seoul. By some accounts Seoul is the second largest city in the world at 20 million people. But I almost never feel crowded in Seoul (well, except for yesterday, the Saturday holiday in Myeongdong – that was kind of nightmarish). It’s a spread out city that covers a huge geographical area. Taipei was a rather small city, and at less than 3 million isn’t that populated, but at a density of 10,000 people per square km, it feels a lot bigger. Seoul’s population density is less than half that at about 4,000 people per square km.
The Taipei 101 building is a feat of engineering. Taiwan gets frequent earthquakes (they had a 6.9 the morning after I left), and this is literally the only tall building in the city. But they didn’t build it to be the only tall building, until the Burj Dubai was finished last year, it was the tallest building in the world. (Korea has a Lotte World building in Busan planned that is proposed to be taller than Taipei 101, but shorter than then Burj Dubai). So much planning had to go into the anti-earthquake technology, that an entire Discovery documentary was done just on this building.
Don’t hate me for saying this, but my honest opinion of the 101 building is that it looks like a bunch of Chinese take-out boxes stacked up on top of each other. I had a great Indian food lunch in the international cafe on the basement floor of the building. One really nice thing is that there is a free shuttle bus from the 101 mall to the closest subway station (which to someone who just walked across the entire city, was not really all that close.)
Andrew Zimmerman’s show Bizarre Foods did an episode on Taiwan. It was cool to go back and watch this after I had been there. It’s always exciting to see an exotic street you’ve walked down on TV. There was a horrible, horrible rotting stench that existed on almost every food street. I assumed it was rotting trash, but I was informed that it is actually the smell of “stinky tofu” the national “treat” of Taiwan. A highly fermented half-rotten delicacy of tofu.
A tour of the food court in Taipei 101. There was actually a ton of Korean food.
If I lived in Taipei, this is a place I would spend a lot of time. It is a hill in the north part of the city that is like a haven from the noise and urban scenery. You are transported into a natural area with wooden-plank paths, benches, and protected wildlife.
One part of the park is a temple, and the path to the temple is lined in statues that I’ve read tell the story of a Chinese classic called Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
I really thought this guy looked like he was giving himself a little nip-rub, but I think he’s just showing off the enlightened being residing on his chest. Overall, I thought this statue park and walking around the mountain (erm, hill really) were the nicest things I did in the city.
Taipei is a really low city because of the likelihood of earthquakes. The exception is the Taipei 101 building. I could see it from the top of this hill, but it didn’t really come out in the picture because of the haze. It’s on the left side near the mountain and the crane. I’ll post more about that building soon.
After going to the World Religion Museum, it seemed fitting to head over to one of the major temples in the city. Taipei has temples tucked into corners between apartment buildings and store fronts everywhere, and it was really exciting to stumble on a vibrant, colorful space in the midst of all the chaos. The Longshan Temple though is a very famous destination for tourists and locals both. Famous enough to have a subway stopped named after it, which made it exceedingly simple to find. Surrounding the area are winding alleys of street vendors, and I slurped down an amazing papaya milkshake before heading into the temple grounds.
I wandered down the alleys a bit, and came across another really beautiful little temple. There were some boys eying me suspiciously, but while I may have only been there to sightsee, I got the distinct impression they were only after the public restroom. One thing that Korea does brilliantly is having sufficient and CLEAN public restrooms almost everywhere. I rarely have a hard time finding a bathroom when needed. In Taipei, there was a little more desperation involved. It appears the only places that consistently have restrooms (sometimes not even restaurants) are the temples and the subway stations. But since the restrooms in the subway are mostly INSIDE the gates, you either have to waste a fare, or wait until you are actually getting on the subway to go somewhere. Even then the lines were really long, and for some reason there seemed to be an issue with people not flushing. Ah-hem.
Since we get so little vacation time with my current contract, one extra day off, I thought, warranted a quick trip out of the country. Part of my goal of living in Asia again is to see as many places as I can while I’m over here. Passport stamps and subway cards to different cities are like little treasures to me.
Although Taipei’s economic success has a longer running history than Korea’s, one of the most striking things about the city is that it still has all the rabbit warrens of snaking alleys, side streets, and numbered lanes that run off the main streets. It’s a city with a huge amount of character, and good maps (and even a couple folks spotted in alleys with GPSs) are a necessity for getting around without losing too much time. The first day was a little rough getting around, but by Sat., I felt like I already knew the basic layout. It has a great subway system, and even more useful, extremely helpful and talkative people.
I stayed at the Eight Elephantshostel, which although a little college dorm like, had some great people staying at it. There are some folks that live there all the time, and some local folks from other Taiwan cities that use it for a weekend launching pad. It was eclectic and the staff was extremely helpful, and like everything else, down a maze of numbered lanes (off of Jinjang street).
I took a wrong turn at first at stumbled on something that turned out to be really common in the city: little temples tucked in between concrete walls. Much like the Hindu street temples in Nepal, they seemed to be in constant use, with folks dropping in for a few minutes to light incense and pay respects. The scent of incense mingles throughout the city with the scent of rotting stinky tofu. Actually, I thought Taipei in general smelled a lot like Beijing, although it is infinitely cleaner.
It was pretty hazy, so these pics didn’t come out that great, but you can see the detail of the largely Confucius temples here surpasses most places for the detail of their artwork.
Since it was so rainy on Friday, I decided instead of heading to the park I wanted to see, to use the back-up plan of hitting one or two of the museums in town. My interest in religious architecture, and role religion plays in both comforting and controlling the masses brought me to choice number one: The Museum of World Religions. This museum was designed by the same folks who made the incredibly powerful Holocaust museum in Washington, DC. I’d say they are both well worth the visit if you happen to be in their respective parts of the world.
The museum is a little hard to get to. The closest subway station is Dingxi, but the museum (and the Pacific Department store next to it, which is the most useful landmark) are quite a few blocks away. I couldn’t find the free shuttle bus to the Dept. store, and was pretty hungry, so I wandered into a market are to find some noodles. The guy at the noodle shop that had pictures I could point at turned out to not only be super friendly, but super fluent in English as well. Something that turned out to be much more common than in Korea. Loads of people not only spoke English, but were willing, and even seemingly happy to use it. When I asked if he could help me with directions, he hadn’t heard of the museum, but called them for me, and wrote down the address in Chinese and said if I got lost again, just to ask anyone on the street. I’m telling you, Taipei is a weekend ramblers dream.
The museum is gorgeous, with relics from every major religion, and a few smaller ones in a stunning main hall. It also has models of some of the world’s most amazing religious structures. I snuck a picture of this one, which is going to be next top of my list of things to visit. The Borobudur Buddhist shrine on Java in Indonesia. You can also see models of the Dome of the Rock and Notre Dame in the background.