Lunar New Year in Taipei
Within 24 hours of my return to Seoul, Craig and I were back at Incheon Airport heading to Taiwan to spend Chinese New Year with the Chinese. I haven’t worked up a real desire to see China-proper, so we settled on China Lite.
The airport was sadly devoid of monks in search of the latest Apple gear, but Craig made up for that by getting us into the lounge and then priority boarding with his super-duper miles card. He also showed me a lounge anyone could use (but which was empty). I assume it was empty because it didn’t have free food and drinks, but it is a quiet area of the airport with a coffee shop and tons of comfy chairs. I’ll be there next time I fly without him.
Moving on. The flight to Taipei is only a few hours long, so it seemed like a good choice for a four-day weekend. In the end, his office was closed an extra day, but as usual, they didn’t tell him until the last minute. We arrived at about midnight and lined up for a cab. The airport gets points for having an orderly system for waiting for taxis, and for having the line inside the building, but loses points for having a building that smells like it has been flooded. The line was long, but moved fairly quickly. The taxis have a surcharge for airport runs, and tacked an extra 20% for the holiday (nine days long there), but there was little traffic, so it cost us several hundred Taiwan dollars less than the guidebook had estimated.
Craig had arranged us an amazing suite with a living room at the Gloria Prince Hotel. We had two TVs! Ironic, since we normally watch less than one hour of TV a week. The hotel was well-situated for us to walk to the various sites we wanted to see: a temple, several outdoor markets, a river walk, etc. It was also near a Starbucks, which was a bonus, because the hotel internet was not wireless, and we had only taken his iPad.
On the first day, we saw the temple, the markets, and the walk along the river. LOL The river walk was startlingly similar to Seoul, circa 1998. The city is still full of low rise buildings, as Seoul was when I first moved here. The look of the city itself was so similar to Seoul, that it was really only the Chinese shop signs and lack of English that made it obviously NotSeoul. After walking along the water for a couple of hours, we went to Longshan Temple a few blocks away. There were crowds of people praying, lighting candles, and making offerings of food (which they then took with them), but we were able to wander around and have a look.
We wandered around the temple for a bit– it was a pretty big one and had several different areas, some of which I haven’t seen in Korean temples, but people were praying and otherwise exhibiting their faith, so I didn’t take any photos. I may take photos of monks buying cameras, but I try not to be that tourist.
When we walked back out, there was a guy on the sidewalk across the street selling birds. From an onion bag. Live birds. There was a guy buying them, holding onto them for a second, and then letting them go. At first, we thought he was a bit of a butterfingers, but he let five or six birds go, so we figured he knew what he was doing. I assume it was something to do with the new year, but I’ve never seen anything like that in Korea.
After that, we tracked down the Handicrafts market, which is a bit like the big souvenir shop in Insa-dong, except that they are honest about everything being made in Taiwan, and it’s meant to be a goodwill thing for tourists, so the prices are lower than in the shops. Craig reckoned it was a pound shop specializing in souvenirs, but I got a vase that had been carved from stone. I later saw the same one at the Taipei 101 building for twice the price– I had paid about US$150, so that’s a pretty big savings. Along the way, we passed by an old city gate. There was something about it which seemed vaguely familiar.
We also found a Carrefour, and since we can’t pass an opportunity to find good cheese, we checked it out. It turned out to be another way in which Taipei resembles Seoul 1998. But that was fine, because we went to a restaurant that served frog legs three ways for dinner.
At one point, the waiter set several servings of mango pudding on our table. We hadn’t ordered it, but we had ordered food for three (or four), so we just left it. Good things, too. About five minutes later, he came back, picked them up, and served them to the table next to us. They thought it was all quite amusing. I developed a greater understanding of why so many Chinese restaurants at home get in trouble with the Health Department.
The next day, it was raining, so we decided to go with plan B: a visit to the National Palace Museum to see all of the Chinese relics that had been packed along with the household goods as people fled China “back in the day.” There was a surprising number of items in pristine condition. A lot of the art work was extremely, uh… primitive, though. It was a good way to spend a few rainy hours, at any rate. We headed from there to the Taipei 101 building, but it was too overcast to see the top. We didn’t think that boded well for the view from above, so we put that one off for another day.
We knew there was a restaurant on the 85th floor we wanted to have dinner at, so we tried to make a reservation, but it was New Year’s Eve. Since it was all full, we settled for the next evening. We then began a trek around Taipei looking for a restaurant to ring in the Year of the Water Dragon, but everywhere was either closed or full. In the end, we ate at McDonald’s. Happy New Year. LOL We finished off the evening at the hotel bar with a bottle of wine, so it wasn’t a complete wash.
The next morning, it was still raining (this is the dry season?!). We had already done our rainy day activities, so, we headed out to Danshui, at the end of the metro line, to the beach. The boardwalk looked just like the ones in Korea: squid snacks, cheesy games, and shops full of kitschy items you wouldn’t buy if you weren’t on holiday. One shop was distinguishing itself from the crowd by stringing firecrackers to a tree.
There were several aboriginal handicrafts shops, though, which intrigued me. There are about a dozen native groups in Taiwan, so I wanted to see their crafts. I still do. The shops were full of dreamcatchers and other knock-off Native American crafts, but that was about it. One shop did have a new take on the three wise monkeys, though: there was a fourth holding its penis. (Wank no evil???)
There was an old fort there we wanted to see, but it was closed for the holiday (just the one day). So, off we went in search of lunch. After living in Korea for so long, it always comes as a surprise to me that there are places with more than one block between restaurants. We walked a couple of kilometers along the water before finding a seafood restaurant.
We had two lobsters for lunch, after a stilted conversation making sure we understood the price. One was prepared in a Chinese sauce, similar to broccoli beef back home and the other was served in a broth with tofu. The heads were made into miso soup, which was served to us, then taken to another table, before finally being brought back to us. I just pretended that it was possible that the other family had had our soup on their table for five minutes or so and not double dipped a spoon in it…
After heading back into town, we went up the Taipei 101 building, because the weather had cleared up a bit. The upper observatory was closed, but we got to walk around and see the entire city. Apparently, we would have been able to see an incredible distance if it hadn’t been so overcast, but I saw enough to be happy. I’m always excited when we go to a city with a tower with a 360 degree view. Yes, I AM a dork, but I don’t care.
For dinner, we went back to the Taipei building (that’s the third time in two days, if you’re counting) for our reservations at Shinyen and had an 8 course meal of lamb, abalone, fish, shrimp, and a bunch of other stuff. There was even shark’s fin soup, which I really don’t get the point of. It doesn’t even taste good. The rest of the meal was amazing, and we ate until we were stuffed. As usual. We didn’t manage to get window seats, but we were close enough to see… the rain.
The next day, it was still raining, so we spent a few hours reading in the hotel. All in all, we had a good time and enjoyed the sights of Taipei, but the weather was a bit of a downer, since we had planned so many outdoor activities, what with January being the month with the least rainfall, and all. A long weekend was enough for us.
We learned an ancient Chinese secret or two while we were there, too: