there again, part ii
View from the top of Elephant Hill, Taipei
Here's a pretty nice way to spend a day in Taipei -
Wake up and find yourself the nearest breakfast shop for some 咸豆浆 (xian doujiang, salted soy milk) and 油条 (you tiao, fried dough sticks) wrapped in a 烧饼 (shao bing, a toasted flaky flatbread) . There’s no need to locate the most famous place to have these delights; ask a friend or the hotel staff where the nearest one is, and enjoy. “Salted soy milk” sounds repulsive, but think tofu mashed into the texture of really thick soup, flavoured with chye poh (pickled veggies), scallions, and a dash of sesame seed or chilli oil.
Head to the Zhongshan area for a leisurely browse – there are many shops, small boutiques and cafes to keep you entertained. Alternatively, if it’s your first time in Taipei and you’d like to sightsee, try the National Palace Museum, which is a nice repository of Chinese imperial relics that made their way over from Mainland China after the resumption of the Chinese Civil War. I feel the exhibits could be better explained and arranged, so it helps to read up about the museum before you go so that you get more out of the experience.
Make time for lunch at my favourite beef noodle spot in Taipei – Shi Ji Authentic Beef Noodles (史记) on 60 Min Sheng East Road (Section 2). I think the nearest MRT station would be Shuang Lian, followed by a 10-minute walk but cabs are plentiful and affordable in Taipei and lunchtime traffic isn’t too difficult to bear. The classic “red broth” (braised) version is available with a mind-boggling selection of cuts of beef – you can’t go wrong the classic beef and brisket version while tripe lovers will find the tripe version outstanding (perfectly cooked to the right texture). They also offer a 清炖 (qing dun, "clear") version made from beef that’s simmered for hours to create a subtle yet flavourful broth. The highlight of this is the beautiful, thin slices of beef (a cut I cannot identify) served with it - silky smooth and seeming to melt away in the mouth. When I was there, the restaurant offered a version that combined my love for the traditional red broth topped with these heavenly slices, which gave me no end of joy. The “little eats” are also worth saving room for – have the cucumbers tossed in chilli oil, the braised pork knuckles, the chilled tofu served with century egg, and 豆干 (dou gan, literally "dried tofu" but it isn’t dry at all – it’s a firmer, compressed version of tofu).
In the afternoon, use the youbike app and find the nearest stand to rent a bike from Taipei's wonderful new bike rental service, which are often located near MRT stations. Cycle to the stand nearest to 象山 (xiang shan, Elephant Hill), and prepare yourself for a 20-min climb up to the top for a panoramic view of the city. Bring snacks and water for a picnic. Time your climb such that you get up in time for early evening to see the city of Taipei before you bathed in warm, flattering light. It was all quiet when I was there on a weekday but I have heard that weekends get crowded. Here's a blog post with more useful information.
Clamber down before it gets dark, grab another bike, and cycle to the nearest MRT station, which in my case was Taipei City Hall. Hop on the train to Dong Men Station, and make your way to Yong Kang Street, which, after all these years, still remains my favourite place to induct newbies to Taiwan. There is the touristy but excellent Din Tai Fung for those who haven’t been introduced to the joys of Shanghainese dumplings as interpreted by the Taiwanese. But my favourite is Lu Sang (吕桑), which specialises in cuisine from Yilan (宜籣, in the northeast tip of Taiwan), which is distinct from the usual Taiwanese flavours. Hopefully you’re not travelling alone, because my advice is to try everything.
If you have room after, have a 葱抓饼 (cong zhua bing) from Tianjin Cong Zua Bing a little way across the street – so fragrant, so deliciously crispy yet tissue soft on the inside, a delight to scarf down during an after-dinner stroll. Dessert seekers can also check out 8% for the excellent gelato and soft serve. I loved the Italian blood orange as well as the honey, not to mention the salted brown sugar soft serve. They also serve classics like green tea and black sesame.
Yong Kang Street is packed with cafes and teahouses for anyone who wants to wind down after dinner, but no bars unfortunately. At the very end of the street is also an antiques market that reminds me of a much smaller, Chinese, version of Paris’ Marche aux Puces – very fun for a browse although I know nothing about the quality of what I am looking at.
Taipei’s youbike scheme is new to me and I found it a lot more fun than taking buses and trains, especially in the pleasantly cool fall weather. For single rentals, you need a chip-based credit card to rent from the kiosks at the bike stands, and it costs 10NTD per 30 minutes. I had the use of my relatives’ travel cards (the Easycard) which have been registered under the scheme so it was pretty much tap and go, and is free for the first 30 minutes. Take time to download app which helpfully locates the nearest bike stands, but you can also print out a pdf map from the youbike website.
I also got a map from MRT station staff that helpfully marked out which areas have bike lanes. They seem most plentiful on the Taipei City Hall area. Elsewhere, everyone else takes a very casual attitude to cycling on pavements, but I notice people cycle very slowly on pavements, out of consideration for pedestrians, perhaps.
One thing I didn't do very much of on this trip, but I find to be one of the best things and underrated things about Taiwan, is the hiking and nature experiences Taiwan has to offer. On a drive out to Yehliu for seafood (about an hour's drive from Taipei, many head to the Yehliu Geopark to check out the coastal formations), I was reminded of how mountainous Taiwan is and how Taipei is actually in good proximity to many hiking trails. Hiking Taiwan is an excellent English-language blog with good information on this, as is Neil Wade's Photography Blog.
Finally, if you want to stay connected, the Taipei airport (more accurately, Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport) has the counters of all the major telcos selling prepaid SIM cards at reasonable prices - I got one that provided unlimited data for 10 days plus 100NTD worth of talk time, for 500NTD. It's worth every penny, in my opinion, to be able to use Google Maps to get around, for a start.
Anyway, it turns out that in Taipei, I mostly food-related pictures...