Monday, 5 September 2016

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VISITS — TAIPEI
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Taipei brims with life, youthful, historical, progressive; modernity on a backdrop of cracking facades and twisting back alleys. Crammed full of fun and food, Taiwan's capital has built upon its rocky historical roots and transformed itself into a city where young people are unafraid to be themselves—they push the boundaries past the unforgotten years of history and political unrest to produce a city that thrives on its misfortunes, combining a penchant for Japanese culture with the ancient history of China and the mad buzz of Southeast Asian cities to become a tangled whirlwind of unimaginably delicious street food, surprising angsty androgynous fashion and intriguing design: a city that is intrinsically Taiwanese and proud. Understanding Taiwanese history and their ongoing strained relations with the PRC is important before being too impressed by the grandeur Liberty Square; it's worth a look to see scale of the square, the traditional architecture as was used by the Kuomintang in their monuments even on the Chinese mainland, but we can understand why some might feel that the area could be put to better use. Previously known as Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square, this large glorification of the late President of the Republic of China stands in stark opposition to "China" as the world knows it, but sadly feels as authoritarian and as cold as that against which it stands. Politics haunts many aspects of this city. Google "White Terror". This is the name given to the early years of martial law imposed by the Kuomintang throughout Taiwan until 1987. It's astounding to think that less than 30 years ago, this unique country was just emerging from a 38-year period of harsh rule that saw the notorious Taiwan Garrison Command, the "secret service", crack down on everything from democratisation and criticising the government, to something as innocuous as language (Mandarin being favoured over the semi-native Hokkien and indigenous Taiwanese languages). In this period it's estimated that around 140,000 individuals were arrested, tortured, executed, or a combination of the three, right up until the same year The Smiths broke up. And even then, this was only the beginning of the road to democracy paved well into the 1990s. Taking a walk around the sights and temples of Qing and Japanese-era Taipei can be interesting to put this history into architectural context – you'll find many examples of Qing influence around the Songshan area. Actual context can be found at The 228 Museum, housed in a radio station used by the Japanese and then Kuomintang, in the 228 Peace Memorial Park. It's got foreign language audio guides, a modern layout and an offers a seemingly unbiased view into Taiwan's tumultuous modern history. Whilst here an old Taiwanese gentlemen accosted us. "I hate the Chinese, they're dirty," he said. "I had a Japanese education." His Indonesian carer abashedly tried to pull him away from us. It was possible to imagine that he wasn't alone in his opinions. After reading about Taiwan in the 20th Century at this illuminating museum, a walk around the Park will feel more profound. Fast-forward to the present day and the city is awash with creativity and a long overdue sense of liberalism. We thought we'd find a concentrated bastion of this sentiment at the Huashan 1914 Creative Park. This renovated warehouse area, however, is pretty much an Instagram theme park stuffed with overpriced art gallery-style shops and incongruent exhibitions (think Where's Wally?—seriously). There's an upside-down house. All of it can be seen in 30 minutes, but, whilst some of the Park consists of ticketed attractions, a wander around the factories and warehouses resurrected from their days of 20th century toil and disuse feels like a wander through an urban botanical garden. An urbanical garden? As if on cue, coffee shops around the area sell stupidly priced coffee. Keep clear unless you want to fall into what feels another tourist trap set up to take Mainland Chinese tourists' money. Another more odd place was the Taipei Artists Village, hyped by a guidebook (Lonely Planet), we literally could not understand this place, it was deserted and didn't seem to be more than an empty restaurant in a courtyard. Maybe we turned up on the wrong day or something, maybe there's a schedule. The central district of Ximending is electric. A place where same sex couples are open about their relationships, this area is an excitingly eye-opening view into the liberalism of Taipei. Androgyny is huge here with clothing strikingly reflecting the openness of sexuality, the visibly dark vibe of muted palettes, punchy statement t-shirts and cleverly satirical pairings are all worn with the type of knowing apathy that grunge demands. Trends and tourists whirl together, streets formed by currents of gloss and grit. Get lost and find out for yourself what the future of Taipei has to offer: it is exciting. For some greenery, a quick metro ride out the centre of town are the intriguing residential areas almost swallowed up by the jungle at the feet of Elephant Mountain. A 15-minute hike up endless stairs reveals a view of the city and the famous silhouette of Taipei 101 all on a hill that is shaped like an elephant raising its trunk. A little touristy at times but locals also make the climb to get fresh air and a view of the spread of Taipei and the surrounding mountains to get a better understanding of where you really are. Equally natural, The Taipei Botanical Garden is a slice of natural calmness in the busy city. Enjoy a coffee from a local food place on one of the roads that lead into the gardens and sip on it while munching on tasty onion bread and take in the lotus pond, while locals meet with friends around you. The different walkways and areas are really well laid out, rare birds can be seen – we encountered a group of twitchers playing bird noises through their phones – and it's free. Another element of the city deserves a particularly special mention: Food. Food is everywhere in Taipei and pretty much all of it is worth trying. Alleyways and street corners are home to multitudes of food stands providing passers by with seriously fulfilling snacks like the deliciousness that is onion bread or red bean waffles. Small restaurants and independent cafes have taken up down backstreets in otherwise run-down buildings with urban designs and modern, Westernised menus selling fresh coffee and sandwiches. Old ways of doing things like buying and eating food also fervently exist among the older generations, who still dominate a lot of the city's areas with shops and socialising and daytime markets and all manner of daily life. And then of course, there are the famous night markets of Taipei consisting of row upon row of resident food vendors, each cooking up their own eye-popping combination of traditional tidbits, western junk food and modern Taiwanese creations (like coffin bread), they are places of sheer wonder for the hungry, from the traditional Taiwanese pig's blood cake to deep-fried taro, everyone can find themselves something new and mouthwatering to chow down, probably daily. To wash all of the greasy goodness down, monster sized watermelons are juiced and sold with ice everywhere – or try a bubble tea, an inconceivably huge Taiwanese creation that has led to pretty much everyone wandering around with plastic cup of tea in plastic bag. Alongside stuffing yourself silly night markets are a great place to fill up on the energy of the city, locals hanging out with friends, ladies cooking up a storm, children fishing goldfish at stalls; life, more than in the day, comes out at night and it is the best place see the hot and sweaty happenings of Taipei.
THINGS THAT ARE TASTY
🍔 H.M Burger
Down the graffitied back alleys of Ximending, you'll find young Taipei-ites hanging out with their friends in here. With very decent burgers, of course, and towers of French toast layered with fillings amongst other things on the menu, it's a tasty business for late Sunday breakfasts and lunch. The menu's in English, the staff are friendly, and their veggie burger is well meaning: it just comes without a burger patty. It's a collaboration between two previous establishments, Hometown Development x Mary's Burger茉莉漢堡.
🌯 Raohe Night Market
What wonders the night markets of Taipei ushered in to our lives... Raohe Night Market, glitzed up and packed with throngs of people, got us salivating like crazy over rolled barbecued pork stuffed with green onions and spiced to taste. Then there was a green onion pancake wrap with meat, peanut dust, tofu and chilli sauce. This is a big claim, but we think it's the best wrap we ate in Taiwan (vegetarian option: minus the meat and more vegetables).
🍖 Shilin Night Market
One of the most fun night markets in Taiwan. The gurgling energy of the city can be found as you walk along the sidestreets casually grabbing snacks from a crazy array of vendors; people gather near the metro station and spill out on to the surrounding streets, meeting up with friends and enjoying what the city has to offer. Also equals delicious food. Has its own site. We tried stinky tofu here, the spicy type, and yes: the smell is almost blinding, but the taste is somewhat neutral, with a hint of that fermented-foodstuff tang. We found a more heavenly morsel in the form of Taiwan-style green onion bread rolls stuffed with minced pork.
🍺 Drink At A Roadside Bar
Not really a "roadside bar" but we made do. Drinking is not so big in Taiwanese culture, but beer can be bought and drunk in small local roadside eateries, pretty cheaply too. We went somewhere down the same road as this Italian restaurant, for example. Foreign beers are on offer but when in Taiwan it's Taiwan Beer for us please sir.
🍢 Ningxia Night Market
This smaller market is sensibly located on Ningxia Road. Try out the tasty Taiwanese pig's blood cake, they are more doughy and salty, much less bloody than you'd imagine from the name. Here we also sampled another type of green onion pancake wrap, this time filled with sliced beef and onions, greens, bean sprouts and egg. Salty, sweet, warm and gooey in equal parts, the deep-fried combo of pickled egg yolk inside a mashed taro ball is unusual but worth a try (see below). The stall, piled with pyramidal stacks of these bitesized snacks ready for the plunge, is quite famous and seems to be known to some people as "Deep Fried Taro Balls and the Ones with Pickled Egg Yolk" (劉芋仔香酥芋丸蛋黃芋餅). Google Maps says it's here, but just go to the market and you'll find it easily enough.
🧀 Prince Cheese Potatoes
A classic Taipei street food, this stall in Ximending featured its own menu guy who quickly dealt with dithering patrons to keep things rolling. Deep-fried potato croquette islands in a flood of cheesy cheese sauce and topped with anything from meat and vegetables to pineapple and egg. So, so good, especially with a Taiwan Beer.
🍉 Smoothie/juice/bubble tea
Every corner, everywhere, try out the juices and bubble teas—the constant antidote for the humidity of the summer in the city.
🍞 Green Onion Bread
Walking around the sights of Taipei in the heat, green onion bread (a thick version of the thinner pancake version, 葱油饼 Tong Yo Bin) sold by street vendors is a life-saver. Cheap, filling and tasty it is the perfect, most basic snack for taking a break in the park or Botanical Garden. A real delicacy for lovers of stodgy, properly mouth-filling food. Our favourite lady served us from behind a glass shelf stacked with piles of the stuff in a tiny shop somewhere on Hengyang Road, maybe at this point, on the way to the 228 Park from Ximen MRT. It was yellow, if that helps.
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THINGS THAT ARE NOT SO TASTY / HYPEFRAUD

🍜 Ay-Chung Flour Rice Noodles
One of those following-the-guidebook mistakes that we felt had to be included to warn people, the "famous" Ay-Chung Flour Rice Noodles of Ximending will be busy with Chinese and Hong Kong tourists and, unless you like stodgy noodles and unidentifiable grey meat, we'd say steer clear: there's way too much tasty food in Taipei to waste a valuable meal on hype. Google the name and you'll see waves of approval from many blogs and online publications espousing its greatness. Maybe we're missing the right tastebuds or something. Judge for yourself if you want, but for us these gloopy noodles tasted like the smell of a cheap supermarket, and the meat – probably supposed to embody "Q" (bounciness in Taiwanese food terms) – was impervious to innumerable chews, making it literally hard to swallow. No, no, no.



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accommodation

We stayed at Tomorrow Hotel, perfectly located almost on top of Ximen MRT. We paid the equivalent of £20 per night for a twin room and that's with breakfast included. There's a 24hr 7-Eleven in the always bustling lobby. There's free breakfast, which is either a 70NTD$ voucher for the 7-Eleven or an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet downstairs, with rice and noodles and various vegetables, and also steamed buns, toast, smiley faces (or chips, some days) and a vat of creamy scrambled eggs—possibly our favourite scrambled eggs ever eaten. Fill up and take yourself safe from hunger into the city. The location provides constant excitement: one entrance is 60 seconds' walk from Exit 6 of Ximen MRT, another is on Chengdu Road, and one spills into the alleys towards Ximending's pedestrianised area. For this, and for that breakfast—DAMN!—yeah, stay here. Hotel staff aren't the best English speakers but if that bothers you maybe reconsider a trip out of the Anglosphere altogether. Visit their site at longchengroup.com/TomorrowHotel.

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