Taiwan: Good Morning, Taipei.

May 03, 2011
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After a two-hour flight, the writer wakes up to the Taiwanese capital and its many quirks.

669 Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

I might as well have shouted that when we stepped off the plane a couple of weekends ago, since it was technically morning by the time we reached Taipei on a short two-hour hop from Manila. Landing past midnight in a foreign country was the real price we paid for availing ourselves of a ridiculously cheap budget fare on Cebu Pacific, which likes to sneak into Asian cities like Shanghai when everyone else is snoring.

I booked the promo flight online last April, aware of the possibility that we would be flying – if at all – into Taipei in the typhoon season. As it turned out, late August was steaming; we were soon dripping – not from rain, but from sweat. Our tour guide would later explain that, because of its topography, Taipei was a natural hothouse, a valley over which, to borrow an image from Steinbeck, the clouds closed in like a lid over a simmering pot.

The hotter-than-Manila weather was a novelty to Beng and me, because neither of us had been to Taiwan before, which was another reason we made the trip. We’ve made a pledge to travel together as much as we can – and as far as our meagre budget will allow – before arthritis and dementia make even a trip to the bathroom too arduous to manage.

We’d seen a ton of documentaries on Taiwan on Living Asia and the Discovery Channel, so we had some idea of what to look for and what to expect – the National Palace Museum was right on top of our list – but as always, you never know what’ll turn up until you actually get there. (I’d circled the charmingly named “Museum of Drinking Water” on my city map, but ran out of time to verify the oddity.)

So as soon as we woke up in our hotel at noon the next day, I went down to the concierge to book a couple of bus tours that would take us around the city and a bit of the island. Each afternoon tour ran for about four hours and didn’t cost too much – the city tour included the National Palace Museum and its entrance fee, for less than P1,300 per person (one Taiwan dollar is about P1.40). For just a little more, we also signed up for the next day’s tour of the old hilltop mining town of Chiufen and the northern coast.

I’m a great believer in package tours and bus tours, especially for first-time tourists, which was what we were. They’re cheap, they’re efficient, and they make sure you hit all or at least most of the tourist highlights. If I were in my 20s or 30s, I probably wouldn’t mind backpacking and darting off into strange alleyways with little more than The Lonely Planet Guide in hand, but in my 50s, I want a soft seat, air-conditioning, and someone to tell me what I’m looking at.

The tours were, as I expected, a great success. We gaped and gawked at the crown jewels of the National Palace Museum, which houses over 600,000 artefacts, much of it carted across the strait by the late Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek when he and his forces fled the mainland after Mao Tse-Tung and the Communists won the civil war in 1949. As a self-confessed teenage Maoist, I couldn’t muster a drop of reverence for Chiang, even as we stood at the foot of his colossal, Lincoln-like statue in his memorial. At the same time, I had to be quietly thankful that many of these artifacts escaped the destructive wrath of the Cultural Revolution’s Red Guards, who would have found such baubles as jade cabbages insufferably bourgeois.

Still better than guided bus tours, however, are the walking tours that literally ground the tourist in the everyday realities of a new city. At street level, some of these revelations popped out immediately.

- All taxis in Taipei are new, yellow, and spotlessly clean. Some drivers decorate their dashboards with huge, fragrant lilies.

All taxis in Taipei are new, yellow, and spotlessly clean.

- The sidewalks along the main roads are three metres wide. No vendors, no billboards, and, unless you look really hard, no cops.

- Taipei loves coffee, with homegrown coffee shops dotting the boulevards – Merry Café, Barista Café, Coffee+, eCoffee, Ikari Coffee, Is Coffee, Mr. Brown Coffee – aside from the inevitable Starbucks.

- Taipei loves English and an American education, with a whole street downtown devoted to review courses for the GRE, the GMAT, the TOEIC, the TOEFL, the IELTS, and whatever will bring your son Edison Chan or daughter Penelope Wong to Princeton.

- Clothes are expensive by Manila standards, but food is cheap and scrumptious (although I didn’t dare try the stinky tofu – that’s what it’s called, and it’s the honest, godawful truth).

- As with much of Asia (except, strangely enough, the Philippines), the night markets are the place to go for food and shopping. The sprawling Shilin Night Market goes on and on (as does the underground Taipei City Mall, beneath the main Train Station), offering everything from mushroom-rice balls to the new iPhone 4. (Shopping note: fellow Filipinos, get your iPhone 4, factory unlocked and at the cheapest global prices, from the online Apple Stores of Hong Kong and Singapore. You’ll need local friends in those places, though, whose shipping addresses you’ll borrow.)

- The fashion du jour for young women in Taipei seems to be – aside from hot denim pants – frilly, lacy, and flowery skirts, also worn short, of course. Beng couldn’t help noticing the ubiquity of short shorts in Taipei; on the racks of the Shilin stalls, they seemed to be no more than four inches from top to bottom. Everywhere we looked, long pairs of milky legs grew out of these shorts. I, of course, sympathized with Beng’s dismay, remarking for her benefit, “Ugh, isn’t she disgusting… and there goes an even more disgusting one… oooh, I can’t bear to look.

- There seems to be a 7-11 around every corner in Taipei (alternating with its chief competitor, FamilyMart). When you step into one before noon, you’re greeted by the cashier with a chirpy “Good morning!” When you step into the same place at, say, six or seven in the evening, everyone behind the counter greets you again with, you guessed it, “Good morning!”


Good morning, Taipei!


Jose Dalisay Jr is a Filipino collector of old fountain pens, disused PowerBooks, '50s Bulovas, poker bad beats, and desktop lint. He blogs at Pinoy Penman and is a regular columnist for the Philippine Star.