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Three days in Taipei

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I had wanted to visit Taipei for such a long time, so with my dear friend from Scotland/NZ and the other from the UK, we planned a long weekend from Beijing.  My start of the long weekend was great albeit a little embarrassing as I arrived at Beijing Airport (Terminal 2) and the queue to go through immigration was very long both in the normal channel and also the diplomatic channel (that I use).  I was standing in the diplomatic channel looking around trying to assess whether the other channels were shorter (they weren’t) when an officer came up to me and asked me if I was a diplomat, when I replied ‘yes’ he whisked me past everyone else and took me to the front of the line – I kept on saying ‘bu hao yisi’ [sorry] to everyone I overtook (but I was clearly not that sorry as I did go to the front of the line and within minutes was through immigration).  Another plus…the plane from Beijing took off on time – completely surprising!!! THEN I arrived at Taipei airport and within less than two minutes, I cleared immigration and went to the baggage carousel and there was my suitcase – now this has never happened before – ever – so I knew this was the beginning of a great love affair with Taipei.   Great [and quick] ride from the airport to the hotel as well.

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Not so for one of my friends; she travelled separately with flight delays from Beijing/very lengthy immigration queues and extraordinarily lengthy delays in traffic from the airport to our hotel in Taipei – all made for a very cranky friend upon arrival.  She got over it pretty quickly when my Scottish/NZ friend met her in the hotel foyer with a glass of NZ sauvignon blanc and a Cadbury chocolate.

We stayed at the Landis Hotel (www.taipei.landishotelsresorts.com) which was really lovely – clean with extremely professional and helpful staff and a lovely roof area to enjoy the sights of Taipei and a glass or two of champagne.

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Our first night we did some internet research and decided on an Italian restaurant for dinner called Merlo Cafe & Bistro which is said to be the number one Italian restaurant in Taipei.  It was a great intimate restaurant with white tablecloths, great service, excellent home made pasta and good Chilean wine – a really good choice by my Scottish/NZ friend – so much that we ended up going there twice during our three day visit.

After dinner we walked back to the hotel where I was surprised to see so many motor bikes on the road – and of course having come from Beijing, was even more surprised to see every rider wearing a helmet – excellent safety precautions in Taiwan!!  It was also unusual (for someone living in Beijing) to also see tens of police bikes neatly parked on one street – ready for use by the wonderful Taipei police.

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A little further up the street, we saw a sign outside a hotpot restaurant which seems to say Louis Vuitton bags were not allowed!!! My friend in Australia, Simone, would not have liked this sign one bit; being a huge fan of LV.  Perhaps for anyone who reads more Chinese than me can work out what the intention of the sign is.  And of course my UK friend had to put her face into the strange menu outside the same restaurant.

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The next day we took a taxi to the National Palace Museum to look at some of the wonderful bronze and jade sculptures.  The museum holds 696,000 artefacts, calligraphy, jade and artworks which I am told makes it one of the largest in the world.  We, of course, didn’t make it to see all 696,000, however, one exhibition we really enjoyed was one where many current day artists were invited to interpret relics from the 18th century (belonging to Emperor Qianlong) and transform them to fit into a modern sculpture.  A really interesting exhibition.

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From there we took a taxi to Longshan Temple which was built in the 16th century by settlers from Fuijian, southern China.  Like the majority of temples in Taiwan, it is multi-deonimational and along the back wall of the temple there are several bays containing different gods.

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The vibe inside the temple was calming even though there were a lot of people leaving offerings and praying.

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We didn’t have any offerings but my friend had a lollipop in her bag and respectfully placed it on the table.  We then made our way to the exit and when we walked outside the front of the temple we saw monks selling cedar wood beads and an old woman selling magnolias which we could have bought before entering to leave for the gods.

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Anyway I am sure the gods were happy with my friend’s offering!!  Our taxi driver was incredibly friendly, (I must say like all the other Taiwanese people we met) spoke English and proceeded to tell us about the other great sights in Taipei, so we booked him for the following day to take us to a famous site thirty minutes drive from Taipei.

Our next stop that same day was to Chiang Kai-shek’s memorial hall, so my trusty friends took out their iPhones and maps and told me that it was a very short distance to walk – now as we all know the distance is very short ‘on the actual map’ not so short in reality – but anyway off we went.  An hour later we were still walking around trying to find the memorial hall but as luck would have it we came across a wonderful little coffee shop selling of course coffee but also frappe – I had never had one before so I ordered a chocolate frappe and after a couple of ‘ice cream headaches’ [because it was so incredibly cold but delicious] we made off for the memorial hall.

After another fifteen minutes walking with me whining about not wearing proper walking shoes, we found the memorial hall.  Thank goodness!! Along the way we walked past a lovely street named ‘bird street’ as it was selling thousands of different types of birds and met some really lovely Taiwanese people who just stopped and started talking to us.  As I mentioned such lovely people.

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Our last stop of the day was to Taipei 101 – which was the world’s tallest building from 2004 until the Burj was built in Dubai in 2010.  We walked into the adjoining shopping centre, bought our tickets for the viewing platform and were given a time to return.  At that point we decided on a glass of wine whilst waiting.  Of course the price of the wine very nearly matched the price of a LV bag I was eying off – but decided on the wine rather than the bag.  I am still yet to work out the marketing by LV using plastic duck feet to hold up the bag in the window, but clearly something is working as they certainly sell enough bags.

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By the time we finished our wine and returned to the queuing area, the line was very long – my friend said it brought back memories of her time in the airport queue!!  Anyway, we waited patiently for about ten minutes and at that stage we were told we had another forty minutes to wait before we would arrive at the elevator to take us to the viewing platform.  We promptly walked back to the counter, got reimbursed for our tickets and returned to the hotel rooftop for chips/chocolate and wine.

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Our second day in Taipei, our lovely taxi driver ‘Tom’ picked us up from the hotel and took us to Yeliu which is a cape in the town of Wanli.  This cape has many distinctive rock formations that have been given imaginative names based on their shapes.  One is the ‘Queens Head’ which is also the unofficial emblem for the town of Wanli.  Others are ‘sea candles’, the ‘beehive’ and the ‘fairy shoe’.  We were so lucky to have such a fabulous day; bright blue sky and beautiful water views.  My UK friend even brought her swimmers with her and took a dip in the sea – all supervised by ‘Tom’ who was very scared she would drown.

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That afternoon we took a half day trip to the northeast coast to Chiufen (or Jiufen) which is a mountain area in the Ruifang District of New Taipei.  Some history: the town is called Chiufen/Jiufen as during the first years of the Qing dynasty, it housed nine families and those nine families wold request nine portions every time shipments arrived from town.  Gold was discovered in the area in 1893 which hastened the town’s development along with Japanese rule.  After WWII, gold mining declined and the town became desolate.  Then in 1989, Chiufen was the setting for a Taiwanese film called ‘City of Sadness’ which was based on one of Taiwan’t most critical historical events.  After that film, people returned to Chiufen to see the nostalgic scenery as seen in HOU Hsiao-hsien’s film.

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Chiufen also became more popular after its downtown was used as a model in a Japanese animated film (‘Spirited Away’ – said to be the most popular animated film of all time).

I must say I didn’t care much for Chiufen shopping district, as our guide left us at the top of the street (shop number 4) and told us to meet him at store number 142 in one hour.  I genuinely love shopping and am happy to do it any time any day, but this was a very stressful experience; thousands of people (literally) all walking along the this tiny street with shops at both sides selling the same (kitschy) things.  We immediately found some steps and walked to a parallel street without any people; much less stressful.  At the end of the ‘busy’ street there is a rather quaint and smaller street with many less sightseers and cute doorways and little shops.

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One little shop I found sold all things cats and had a huge cat sitting on the roof which might be the sister shop to the one I saw earlier which has a huge dog on the roof – a veterinary shop by all accounts.  So instead of shopping in Chiufen, we found a gorgeous tea house overlooking the water and enjoyed a cool drink.

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Taipei is a fabulous city with wonderful people and I know I have only visited just a few of the magnificent sights – but I am so glad I took the opportunity to visit.