Taipei, Taiwan can be a maze of new experiences–night markets, underground cafes, temples and a youth-centric nightlife. Travel correspondent Jordan Whitley gets drawn into the enigmatic spirit of the city and reports back on her pick of off-the- brochure finds.
I am watching Mr. Lin, who must be no younger than 80, skillfully make knives. A cigarette hangs unnervingly loose from his toothless grin. Working in black pajama shorts and a white linen top, Mr. Lin entrances us with the rhythmic push and pull of steel blade over a stone block. Back and forth. Smoke wafts through the tiny, shelf-lined room and with it, oddly, clarity.
My prized satchel of knives in tow, the woman in the khaki fishing vest walks me through the lively corridor, past the antique jade jewelry cases and the woman selling two kinds of chickens: alive in a crate, dead on ice. She buys me dried plums and offers up taro ice cream scooped from a metal canister on a makeshift rickshaw. And she warns me not to buy the illegal shoes and handbags lined at my feet. We navigate through a strange sea of good natured betting rings and pass into Longshan Temple. My new friend shows me how to “make a wish” with two red, peeling, moon-shaped wooden pieces. We kneel together with others on velvet benches. And here, in the swirl of incense and hospitality, I learn to pray.
In this moment, I am awash in the enigmatic pull of Taipei, a city somehow all things at once
—futuristic, fast paced, worldly, yet provincial, kind, easy, its Chinese roots exposed, but with an liberated heartbeat. At every turn, a new adventure, a new friend.
Two Markets and a Temple
I call the area surrounding Longshan metro station the Trifecta of Local Life. In the Sin Fu Traditional Market, sift through Miss Sun Hao’s trove of authentic jade bangles, watch TV with the nice gentleman at the produce stand, and of course pick up some fish knives from Mr. Lin. Keep in mind there are live animals for sale, as well as freshly butchered ones.
Then move towards Longshan Temple. Built in 1738, it exudes the friendly, stripped back warmth of a neighborhood place of worship, with goddess Matsu (who provides the safe return for travelers by sea or land), at the center. To partake in a beautiful moment of chanting, arrive at 8am or 5pm. Just next door is the Hwahsi Night Market, full of grilled corn, exotic fruit carts, and yes, glass cases bearing snakes and mice for sale. For a real treat, walk to the open air end of Snake Alley for the most delicious roast chicken and stewed greens (central vendor on the right). Keep in mind night markets open at 3pm, but the lively crowds pile in after 8pm.
Hob Knob with Young Taipei
A lively village feel permeates through the outdoor cafes and edgy boutiques that make the Da’An District a playground for young Taipei. For a good combination of people watching and heavenly desserts, channel your inner Alice and join the tea party at Dazzling Cafe. Settle into a white leather booth and indulge in the vast array of chocolate and fruit covered honey toast cakes of Wonderland proportions. For nightlife, walk farther east towards Taipei 101 and venture into a deceivingly businesslike building for Barcode, with a city lounge vibe and funky weekend DJs, or the newly opened rooftop bar at the W Hotel, a marvel of contemporary design, with drink menus shaped like fans and striking views of the city.
Two Culinary Excursions
Beef noodle soup is a source of culinary pride for its countrymen. (As it should be). Ask around, and the general consensus on the city’s best is Lao Zhang Restaurant [111, JinHua St. Da’An District] . Handmade noodles, fresh beef, tendons, and homemade broth make up this mainstay of daily life. The Niurou Mian (house specialty), Fanqie Niurou Mian (tomato) and Lawei Niurou Mian (spicy) all spin round on a lazy susan filled with sardines, chili peppers, and fresh greens. Patrons of note include Tyler Florence and Jackie Chan.
Then, drive an hour outside the city, up a winding rural road, to find Shi Yang restaurant perched in the lush mountain landscape. In spite of its widespread culinary reputation, this place still feels like a well-kept secret. Built by a Taiwanese architect and run by a staff of Zen Buddhists, guests nosh on fresh bamboo, lotus flower and sea urchin. Just down the path along a babbling brook is Shi Yang’s tea house. Guests may bring their own wine to dinner, and the property also serves as a jumping off point for a network of hiking trails. Reservations recommended.
Taiwanese people are known for their hospitality and good manners. Jordan shares tips on being at your best behavior at the dinner table. Watch the video below to learn her international etiquette tips:
For more on Asian travel, take a look at our Asia Travel Category.
Have you traveled to Taipei? Share you travel experiences in our comments section below.
Text and photos by Jordan Whitley for PeterGreenberg.com. Jordan Whitley is a seasoned adventure traveler, photographer and action sports host currently based in Birmingham, Alabama. Visit her on the Web at www.jordanwhitley.com or at www.jordanwhitleycanvas.carbonmade.com.