After spending a few days in Tainan, the ancient capital in the south, I headed up north via the high speed train to Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan.
Taipei thrives. The moment I stepped into the platform of the capital city I could sense how alive it was, as hundreds of youths thronged through the station, mingling in fashionable clothes and designer shopping bags, clutching tea like it was the last cup of earth. The difference is seen everywhere, not least in the scooters that fill the streets; unlike in Tainan though, where the driving was reckless and careless, vehicles ancient, worn and faded: riders with helmets casual and looking as much use as a paper hat. No, in Taipei the scooters gleam; they shine under the neon signs and are pimped out with purple strip lighting and flashy helmets.
Like all major cities though, people are king; and unlike Tainan where pavements were figments of safety conscious imaginations, pedestrians have reclaimed the spaces either side of the road. The capital is served by the MRT, a substantial metro system that links the city, making it easy to navigate and reduces traffic as the tourists and locals alike opt to navigate the city underground and by foot. The metro system is great, passing close to all the major tourists attractions and various districts of the city. It’s also super clean and organised. Lines are demarcated on the ground by the gaps where the metro doors will appear. People actually use them: standing in such orderly queues that I no longer feel we Brits deserve the crown for this pastime. There’s no food or drink allowed, and the ticketing system is dependant on distance travelled, all the machines come with an English version so it’s easy for tourists to look like they know what they’re doing.
Taipei is ablaze; glowing advertisements flashing from every building; shops compete for attention, as a gaze down any road is a riot on the eyes: billboards and placards fighting for space. I was told that they’ve been told to reign it in of late, that regulations are needed to prevent establishments blocking daylight as they attempt to install the biggest sign on the street. In all that they’re vying for attention they lose any individual appeal as they become a collage, a background to the life below.
And what a life it is. Taipei is full of food. No one cooks at home- what’s the point when there is so much great food on offer everywhere you go? And excellence comes at low prices, there’s a plethora of delights for less than $50. Great food for less than a quid? It’s too easy to be permanently stuffed full- how they’re not a nation of fatties I’ll never know. The other thing that strikes me is the apparent youth of the city; lithe and well dressed they roam in packs, bedecked in backpacks and thick soled shoes. They walk with a confident nonchalance, an ownership; they are at home here. In the areas I’ve been in at least, the style is cool- no suits roam here, only fashionistas and the trendsetters.
It is a comprehensive city that caters for the locals as well as the tourists, and you tend to see a mix of both everywhere you go, not least at the night markets that pop up all over the city every night. Some are better than others; Shillin- perhaps the most famous is dreadful, don’t bother going. Roache however, is brilliant, serving incredible food with a great atmosphere. ShiDa is also fab, especially if you’re looking for the best clothes in town. Likewise many of the cities tourist haunts are the temples that are still in use, and so as you go to admire the decor, the colour and the burning smell of incense of a religion alien and ancient, you do so amongst those going about their regular prayers, wishes and religious habits.
The city was comfortable, and I really liked it. The map of the metro that I’d picked up in the arrivals lounge of the airport became my faithful bible, my safety blanket that guided me around the city and always got me home safe. People did not speak English, but like any traveller in foreign lands, I got by with my meagre Ni Hao (Hello) and Xie Xie (Thank you) and the usual pointing and gesturing. I loved Taipei. As my first venture into Asia I think I picked a good country to go to! I’d highly recommend it.