From going on a jog at the Yangmingshan National Park and soaking in a thermal spring in Beitou to witnessing a tea ceremony, Nolan Lewis spends a day exploring Taiwan’s capital
It’s an old city with a young heart. That’s the charm of the capital of Taiwan (Chinese Taipei), Taipei. Around 300 years old, Taipei is a perfect cocktail of local, Chinese, Japanese, American and South Asian influences. Taoist temples of Chinese origin coexist with Japanese mansions and buzzing karaoke clubs flourish along with twinkling markets. Another popular culture in the city is dining out. From snacks at night markets and Chinese dishes at a local food joint to fine-dining restaurants — Taiwanese love their food, including the characteristic fermented tofu and the local Taiwan Beer!
The best way to see the world is in your running shoes. So I start my one-day-trip in Taiwan’s capital with a jog. Early mornings in winter can get slightly chilly in Taipei, so don’t forget to layer yourself with some warm atheleisure gear and carry a water flask. En-sconced by forested glades, hot springs, flower markets and volcanic peaks that still emit smoke-screens of sulfuric fumes; the Yangmingshan National Park attracts picnickers, horticulturists and birdwatchers throughout the year. I jog through its ancient paved brick roads, as fellow joggers from the neighbourhood nod at me and smile. Taipei is a friendly city and I look forward to my explorations. As I jog, I stop for a while to wonder at the precise moves of an elderly group of people practicing tai chi. If you want, you can join the classes held here. After my run, I stop to catch my breath and gaze in awe at the landscape of the park. With rolling greens and flower beds framed by olive mountains, it resembles a film set straight out of the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Taipei gurgles with hot springs, a result of many dormant volcanoes in the area. Many hotels in Taiwan have their own private hot springs, where you can spend hours lazying. The city has a flourishing bathhouse culture and a great way to ease your aching muscles after your workout at Yangmingshan National Park would be to try a hot soak before breakfast. After my run, I stop by at Beitou Hot Springs recreational area. I strongly recommend spending some time at one of the many thermal pools wedged into the mountains here. If you want, you can plan a day trip to Beitou as well.
I am famished after the relaxing bath and attack my breakfast at a street side cafe. Soy milk is a staple in a Taiwanese breakfast. So if you stumble on any street food eatery whose name ends with ‘soy milk’, for example Lai Lai Soybean Milk Shop, Fuhang Soy Milk, Yong He Soy Milk King, know you’re at the right place to have your day’s first meal! A typical breakfast here includes egg tarts, bao (a type of bread), Jiangsu lion head meatballs (a dish from eastern China, consisting of large pork meatballs) and char kuey (a popular stir-fried noodle dish), with cold noodles on the side. On the way back to my hotel, I stop at the much-reverred Longshan Buddhist temple in the Wan Hua district.
The fragrance of sweet incense fills the air at the temple, which dates back to 1738 I catch a quick hotpot lunch, which is very popular with Taipei residents. Several eateries serve hotpot meals, where you get your own pot, filled with a flavoured broth of your choice, in which you can boil meat and vegetables. Ben Shabu Shabu is one of the best places in the city to try this healthy meal. After this, I amble across the artisanal town of Yingge, the Chinese centre of ceramics that is world-famous for the craftsmanship of its heirloom Oriental tea-sets; the kind you’d like to have around the house when friends drop in for a cup of matcha green tea! Tea ceremonies are an integral part of Taipei’s social fabric. Book a table at any of Taipei’s designer teahouses, like the Wisteria Teahouse or Zen Zoo Teahouse, and let yourself be guided by a tea master. Dressed in a cheongsam (traditional dress), the tea master will take you through an elaborate tea ceremony, pam-pering you with dried winter preserves, served on the side.
The best time to visit Taipei is in spring, when the sakura (cherry blossom) blooms, enveloping the city in shades of dreamy pink. It’s also the time for Gong Xi Fa Cai or the Chinese New Year (to be celebrated on February 5 this year). Another great time to visit this city is during the Lantern Festival, which is held in the last week of September at Pingxi in New Taipei. Inscribe your wishes in Chinese calligraphy with black ink on giant lanterns and see them float up against the dark night sky. To watch the horizon dotted by thousands of levitating lamps is surreal!
I dine at Shi Yang, a Zen mountain abode that doesn’t cater to pre-fixed menus but organically prepares what is foraged. It is a finedining restaurant where the food is had with chopsticks, and authentic Chinese ingredients like preserved lotus are used, and reservations are usually confirmed months in advance.
My evening tour starts at one of the world’s tallest buildings, Taipei 101, glistening like a glass needle. At 508 m, it was the world’s tallest green building till 2011. My next stops are Taipei’s many myriad midnight markets, where socialising truly happens. The list is long: Shilin, Ningxia, Huaxi, Raohe and Linjiang night markets. At these markets, you can shop for electronic goods, knick-knacks and even traditional craft items. If you don’t have a weak stomach, try the famous stinky tofu – a pungent yet delicious bean curd.
The author is an avid traveller and the views expressed in this article are his own