It’s a long flight to the other side of the world. About 16 hours in total to get to Taipei airport including a transfer in Hong Kong and a fifteen minute delay at Heathrow.
It’s my second time here; the first visit just over five years ago, and although most of the people I met have moved on, not much else has. My cousin, Nick, is still living in the same building, a big and airy house near Jungli (pronounced Djong – Lee) which is in the north of the country and south west of the capital, Taipei.
Since my last visit he has taken in his fiancé – Maxine, and a excitable daschund – Coffee, who follows you around as though his life depended on it.
I arrived late on Thursday evening and after a few beers took a good long sleep which seems to have prevented any jetlag outright. With Nick and Maxine working on Friday I spent most of the day taking it easy in preparation to get back on a plane – a trip to Hong Kong organised at the last minute. Nick has to get a visa renewal every 30 days or so, and it’s a regular journey, although not generally anything more than getting a passport stamp then heading back into Taiwan. This time however we were staying for two nights and being as I’d never been before, a bit of a general exploration.
A few more beers later, it was Saturday and Nick and I headed into the centre of the city – a packed metropolis that rises up out of the edge of the water and one of the most densely populated places on the planet. It’s pretty hard to take in the size of the buildings – we were on the 18th floor of our hotel and yet we couldn’t see over any other building out of our window. Most were double to three times the height, and every one adorned with some glowing neon advertisement or video board.
We took a cab to the Peak Tram – a steep train ride to a vantage point that sits upon the mountain directly behind the main business and residential district which gives a panoramic view of the whole harbour, and Kowloon, which sits directly opposite. The clarity was fair, but despite being overcast, the clouds diffused the sunlight so brightly that it was with regret I realised I hadn’t brought my shades with me. We walked the path that circumnavigates the top of the mountain – peering through the fences that protect the opulent mansions that sit right up here, well away and above the crammed apartment blocks and skyscraping offices below.
We ate well here – and in true Hong Kong fashion – an almost entirely western experience at Bubba Shrimps. OK, so not particularly cultural, but they do make bloody good cajun shrimp with fried bread…
We got a cab to the town of Stanley in the afternoon – a trip that took us to the other side of island and past several busy beaches but deserted waters (it appears people don’t swim here, for whatever reason) and after briefly skipping through the packed market made our way to the ferry pier.
We sat and waited under the pontoon watching the locals mussel-picking and line-fishing until our trip back to Hong Kong arrived – a traditional sailing junk (powered entirely by a very noisy engine) but on which we managed to get the best seats and enough beer to take us right around the island again and then onto Kowloon.
This busy shopping district heaves with people pouring in and out exclusive shops and malls – Boss, Cartier, Prada, D&G etc but with a little extra searching, yields some truly hidden gems. Little local markets and malls which are practically unvisited by tourists or Chinese – they swarm with Hong Kong’s African and Indian communities.
We stopped harbourside to watch sunlight disappear only to be replaced by the garish glow of a thousand neon billboards and a million office and apartment lights flicker on across the city. If there is ever a place to try and gauge the size of a city population in one eyeful, this is it.
We stayed for the daily light show (and as Nick pointed out, disappointingly not accompanied by live music) then fell back into the hustling market halls to find a small Indian restaurant somewhere in the heart of a building which served a fantastic meal of poppadums, lamb on the bone, saag (spinach) chicken and naan amongst others. It’s the best Indian food I’ve had since Delhi, and cost us next to nothing.
The next morning was much clearer, a symptom of an approaching or nearby typhoon, but we had to catch a flight back to Taipei and so took ourselves back to the airport for the 90 minute jaunt back across the channel.
By the time we got back, the wind had really picked up and although we didn’t get any rain, it was pretty clear from the cloud that Typhoon Parma was getting close. It’s not hard to see the menace in the skies – the clouds split into layers and move rapidly. As the weather system revolves, the tail brings the rain, and so the further out you are from the centre, the less frequent the downpours. We remained pretty dry until late afternoon when Nick needed to get into Taipei city for a Kung Fu class – and so while he got on with that, Maxine and I braved the weather on the streets of the city – getting to Memorial Hall to watch changing of the guard, and trying a few local delicacies.
I’m pretty good with most food, and tried ‘stinky tofu’ at one of the night markets on my last visit, but there was a real mix of stuff this time – some good, some I wasn’t that so bothered about. The small fried ‘snack fish’ and shrimp (which you eat, shell and all) were nice, but I wasn’t so keen on the the peanut-powdered pigs blood lolly (too spicy) or the deep fried tofu (I don’t really care for tofu anyway, whatever you do to it). The nicest thing was definitely the white rice sausage and the luminous green sugar cane juice.
We made our way to Taipei 101 – the largest building in the world since 2004, and though we didn’t go up to the observatory (visibility was pretty much negligible at this point) the structure itself looks incredible amongst the swirling clouds and inside is every bit as huge as you might expect.
In the end we had to rush back for the final event of what had otherwise been a pretty packed day anyway. Nick plays in a band and there was the weekly jam session back in Jungli. Squeezed into a tiny little padded room on the fourth floor, it was great to get to hear some live music and meet some more long-term Taiwan-resident westerners. Following a pattern fast emerging on this trip, after a few more Taiwan Beers, we found food at a small, family run, late-night patisserie.
And so today is Monday and I have another chilled out day. The typhoon hasn’t truly struck (much to the chagrin of everyone, who it turns out were all looking forward to a day off work) but the rain is persistent and so this evening I’m heading to Fulong – a beach on the east of the island where I will be staying alone for the next few days to get some respite, read a few books and hopefully see so whatever of the typhoon remains.
Oh, and I’d forgotten how much I liked this place and how strangely crazy it all is.