The Incidental Tourist

The Month of Living Expatriately: Part 4 – Weekend Shenanigans

Taipei can be a very busy city.  The locals work hard from morning and often well into the night.  It’s not uncommon to see businesses that westerners would expect to be closed by 6:00PM to remain open until nearly midnight.  For example, you’d be surprised at how many real estate offices are open until at least 10:00PM in Taipei.  Perhaps it’s for that late night rental crisis, or more importantly, they figured out that everyone works into the evening and staying open later to catch people as they leave the office is worth it.

When the weekend comes, things are no less busy, the focus just shifts from the drudgery of office work to more personal exploits.  You could spend a day in one of Taipei’s many parts, like Da-an, full of children playing soccer, playgrounds, benches, running paths and other places to just sit and enjoy people watching.

From Da-an park, it’s just a matter of crossing the street to the Artist Market, Holiday Flower Market and Holiday Jade Market as well, which are built under the highway and are best described as bazaars that sell flowers, plants and gardening items and Jade, wood carvings, coral beads and jewelry, pearls and other gifts.

There’s also 288 Peace Memorial Park, that also has many pathways, soft, grassy knolls to lay out on, or play frisbee or football, benches to rest on, fountains and two museums, the National Taiwan Museum and the 288 Memorial Museum.  288 Peace Memorial Park was built by the Japanese in 1908 and was the first European style park in Taiwan.  It’s also near one of the busiest MRT stops, the National Taiwan University Hospital and close to the  Presidential and National Offices of the Republic of China.  Another close-by attraction is the Taiwan Handicrafts Promotion Center, a 4 story shopping center that provides all Taiwan made merchandise ranging from cheap trinkets and T-Shirts all the way to excellent teas, Taiwanese pottery, paintings, calligraphy and sculpture.

Image of Moon Bridge at Dahu Park

One may also find oneself over in Neihu at Dahu park, location of the famous Moon Bridge.  This is a peaceful park surrounding a small lake, the centerpiece is a steep, beautifully built bridge that has been photographed countless times.  I never made it there during the day, but at night, the park is a seemingly magical place and I found myself feeling at peace while just standing across the water looking at the symmetric perfection of the Moon Bridge.  At night, the pathways are well lit and it’s not uncommon to find late night joggers, families strolling the stone paths and lovers on benches, cuddled together in the darkness enjoying an intimate moment.

Heading south on the Wenhu line of the MRT, you will find yourself at the Taipei Zoo.  Outside the fact that it’s in Taiwan, and thus seems exotic, the Taipei Zoo is like any other Zoo in the world I’ve been to.  What it DOES have, however, that makes it stand out from many others, is that it’s a very well laid out walking zoo.  One feels less like one is looking at caged animals and more like walking on safari on several continents at once.  It’s a very nicely built zoo, the animals seem well cared for and as much as possible are provided natural habitats rather than concrete cages, which is something I was unable to say for the world famous San Diego Zoo, which, to me at least, was underwhelming at best.

Outside the Taipei Zoo, you can take the Maokong Gondola, a long cable gondola that will cost you 50TWD a ride up to the village of Maokong, the location of many tea farms, tea houses and the Tea Pot Museum.  Along the ride is also a stop at Zhinan Temple.  The views from the Gondola are amazing, though also highlight the rising pollution problem in Taiwan.  But even from this far out, you can see Taipei 101 towering in the distance and below you, lush forest, steep valleys and mountainous terrain.

At the top, Maokong is a series of narrow paved roads that wind around the mountain where throngs of pedestrians fight with cars, buses, trucks and scooters for space.  Don’t expect to get anywhere quickly, but Maoking is well worth spending a day walking around.  You can tour the tea farms, and in some places venture out into the fields to explore the plants and enjoy the smell.  Believe me, a field full of tea smells heavenly!  There are also the common small temples, and of course tea houses.  Lots of tea houses.  Also, you can find carts selling various xiaochi from fresh fruits to baked treats to my beloved sausage on a stick.

Or if you would like a nice, relaxing soak, head up the Tamsui (Red Line) to the Beitou stop.  Then take the short Xinbeitou train to Xinbeitou, home of a very popular hot spring.  In Xinbeitou, you can tour an old Japanese style bath house, hike in the hills, visit the real hot spring with water that is just below boiling.  There’s an amazing library, the ultimate green building having won awards all over for it’s construction methods, design and efficiency with heating, cooling and power consumption.  Take a while to soak in the public bath at Xinbeitou.  For a few TWD, you can soak in pools of various temperatures from cold to scalding hot.  Be sure to bring your own trunks and a towel, but if you forget, you can also buy both at the entrance for a few hundred TWD.

If you like to just explore in an ad hoc fashion, one of my favorite things to do is just hop on the MRT and get off at random stops to explore what’s around them.  Doing so, I’ve found night markets, shopping areas (Camera Street is a favorite), underground malls and traditional markets, historical areas and many other things of interest.  Or rent a bicycle.  Taipei is an amazingly bike friendly city.  If you are not comfortable riding in the street with the insanity that can be Taipei traffic, it’s perfectly acceptable to ride on the sidewalks and  the many bike paths around the city.  If you have an Easy Card (get one!) you can rent the bike or as little as 10TWD per half hour and explore the city to your heart’s content.

If Shopping is your thing, head to Xinyi for world class shopping at the ATT4Fun shopping center across from Taipei 101, or at the Taipei 101 mall.  You can also walk the roads like Xinyi road which has many stores for fashion, accessories and shoes.  The Eslite Bookstore is more like a giant department store that focuses on books and is worth a trip.  There are hundreds of coffee shops and cafes to sit and sip the time away while you read a book and watch the people going about their lives.

There are also various shopping centers along Zhongxiao East Road and underground malls can be found at Taipei Main MRT Station and in Ximen and Longshan Temple areas and across Taipei.  For electronics, the Guang Hua Digital Plaza is several blocks of almost exclusively electronics and computer stores selling everything from complete computers from name brands to discrete components like ICs, resistors and breadboards.  Also in this area is the Guang Hua Electronics Market, a 6 story building full of small stalls all selling various gadgets, computers and accessories.

As mentioned earlier, Hankou street, also known as Photography Street or Camera Street, is the place to be for all things photographic.  From cameras to film to development to antique photo equipment, everything you can imagine that is photography related can be found here.  Keep in mind, however, that when you buy various things like electronics and photo gear, the price you pay could be more than what you expected.  This is mainly due to taxes an the fact that a lot of the items sold are actually imported from other countries into Taiwan.  You can find a LOT of really good deals, but you have to know what you’re looking for and know the general pricing very well.

Needless to say, you should never lack for things to do on a weekend, or after work in Taipei.  With it’s seemingly countless restaurants, bars and shopping areas, parks, historical areas and tourist attractions, the only real problem you should have in Taipei is finding time to just relax and do nothing.  For that, I’d suggest a good, relaxing massage.  You can find massage parlors all over with services ranging from Western style like Swedish and Deep Tissue massage to Eastern style like Thai and Chinese massage that can be somewhat painful if you’ve never had one before.  These usually involve a mix of massage, accupressure and chiropractic like manipulations that can be surprising if you’re not expecting them.

Whether you’re in Taipei for a weekend, a week, a month or longer, there is always something to do, day or night. Taipei is a very diverse city with things to satisfy every taste and desire from traditional to modern, from provincial to  digital and beyond.  Taiwan itself is a country with rich history and tradition, exceedingly beautiful and incredibly personable.  It’s a place that is forever making itself over to remain a part of the future while honoring and maintaining ties to it’s past.  In short, Taipei is an amazing city in a wonderful country and should give you memories to last a lifetime.

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