Pit Stop: Taipei

The quest is to sift all major Asian cities into our travel snare before plunging into long haul flights, and Taipei as a must-see city nearby has long been indexed in my very elaborate to-fly-to list. 

Filipino travelers enjoy unrestricted access to Taiwan for a limited time which started in 2017. But at the time of this holiday trip, we were required to lodge-in an application for e-visa and pay $80 as processing fee. The application wasn’t as daunting as to what similar countries requiring this kind of precondition before travel is. So I guess the added experience and excitement of accomplishing our Taipei tourist visa is lawful enough.

I simply go by the edict imposed by our travel fund and by our limited AL’s per calendar year when choosing our wanderlust adventures. Taipei has beguiled me even before I was young, so visiting Taipei only in 2017 is obviously long overdue. So let us begin perforating your sleepy brains with even more stodgy stories of our (mis)adventures. 

 

Snippets of what you should know…

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Taipei City is Taiwan’s capital with a population close to 8 million people. In total it has 12 districts, Central and Suburban areas combined. Even when Taiwan was granted a provincial status in the 1800’s by People’s Republic of China, Taipei remained as the center of economic, financial and cultural activities.

Point of Compass

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Located at the far north of the Philippines and southwest of Okinawa, Japan, Taiwan is a favourite amongst Mainlanders for short recreational activities, also to other Asian nationalities. It is a giant land mass that is not only made up of bustling cities and modern skyscrapers, but also of serene mountains and peaceful countryside.

The main language is Taiwanese Mandarin for the general population, but there are recent laws created by the government to bring back the use of aboriginal languages and Hakka Chinese. 

Taiwan Dollar is the only currency used islandwide. They have competitive rates when we changed our money inside their airport. And if ever you are not comfortable in carrying too much cash, not to worry, Visa and Mastercard could be used to almost all forms of commodities in Taipei.

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Getting There

There are 2 major airports in Taipei that travelers may choose as point of entry:

Taoyuan International Airport is the primary and bigger travel hub for international flights. This is were we land during our trip, and based on observation, it was organized and tourist friendly. The usual long queue on Immigration counters could be experienced both arrival and departure. Infrastructure wise, TIA is ultra modern, clean and orderly. It was my first time to not be issued with boarding pass during a flight when we are about to leave. We were instead asked by both gate entry personnel and immigration officer to use the QR code sent by our airline via email when we did mobile check-in. Proud to say, it was very convenient and fast. I think I’ve taken a peek at the future of traveling at this unexpected city.

Taipei Songshan Airport is the smaller airport between the two, it caters to both domestic and international flights. This airport’s proximity is closer to city centre, and it looks a little dated judging by its outside appearance. How did I know? The airport transfer we booked from airport to city is car-pooled, one passenger was dropped-off to Songshan and so we were able to have a quick look. 

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Gastronomic Gratification

Night Markets

Ishai Golan single handedly opened my eyes to this aspect of traveling. Through his show, Market Values, he has taken me to a whole new level of consciousness when it comes to visiting a new city. He has been fulfilling his grandmother’s ultimate telltale that there is absolutely no better means of living like a local than discovering what they have in their markets.

Taipei’s night markets are so well-known, they say that you have not truly experienced Taiwanese life if you haven’t been to one. What’s surprising is that during the day, they all look seemingly normal. But at night, they become this mega space  suffused with stalls and carts selling a multifaceted selection of nibble-ons. This is where hungry nocturnal souls converge!

🔘Raohe Night Market

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🚇 How to get here: Through MRT Green Line, board the train towards Songshan Station and alight at the end of the line. Raohe is just across the street of Exit 5.

It was quite an overwhelming site, more so when you take a stroll with a grumbling stomach. There are a lot, and I mean A LOT of food stalls and the air is filled with an assorted blend of wonderful smell. Most distinct of all is the stinky tofu — that horrible smelling, deep fried bean curd that is weirdly enough a blockbuster almost all the time. I could not take the pungent smell, and I wasn’t brave enough to try. Sorry, no review. 

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Some of the small-eats we enjoyed were potato balls which were freshly cooked (so damn good!), Chinese sweet sausage and chin chao (grass jelly drink).

The king of my joy that night are these flame-grilled beef cubes that not only were awesomely tasty and tender, but were also cheap! I bought the biggest serving in black pepper sauce and savoured in every dripping juice and marbling fat. Ooohhlala! You have got to try these! The beef quality is equally 5-star to that of Japan.

 

🔘Shilin Night Market

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🚇 How to get here: Through the MRT Red line, board the train towards Tamsui, and alight at Jiantan Station. This station’s proximity is the closest to Shilin night market so don’t be confused as there’s a train station called Shilin. At Jiantan, take Exit 1, then diagonally cross the street to the left. 

The ground level is filled with shops suited for souvenir hunting, while B1 is where every foodie’s secret lair could be found. Unlike Raohe, this basement is not filled with mere food stalls but of big restaurants, food court style. 

It was dinner time and so we settled in to dine at one of the biggest and jampacked eateries. There must be a reason why they are full, right? We ordered beef noodles, bee hoon and my husband’s instant favourite, the minced pork rice toppings. I fell in love with the in-house chilli sauce, I wondered if I could make one at home? Prospect jotted down in my Notes app.

 

Din Tai Fung

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Located at the basement of Taipei 101 is the original and first ever Din Tai Fung made famous by their handmade noodles, dim sum and dumplings. We clocked in at 6pm plus, and voila, the queue was 10 people deep. It was 40 minutes of waiting before we were finally ushered in to a vacant table. 

Of course when in DTF, we always order the same yummy selection from the menu: beef tendon noodles, pork chop with yangzhou fried rice, yam dumplings and xiao long bao! Waiting time was well worth the grouch, the varicose from standing and the saliva-inducing smell, needless to say.

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Bubble Tea & Milk Tea

Asia’s obsession with bubble and milk tea is unprecedented, and it all began in Taiwan. Pioneering this industry, the city’s selection of milk tea brands were a big hit among young people that it has galloped the neighbouring countries like wildfire. I personally could not keep up with the hype sometimes. But in Taipei, ready to drink milk tea could be purchased at major convenience stores like 711 and Family Mart. While the more flavourful and pearly bubble tea has sprouting stores everywhere. Well why not, it’s delicious alright.

 

 

Never Dare Miss…

Ximending Youth Shopping District

Our hotel in Ximending is lucky enough to be situated some 250 meters away from the Ximending shopping district. We spent almost every afternoon and night strolling these frisky area. But if you are coming from other parts of the city, you could take either the green or blue MRT line and alight at Ximen station. All exits could lead you to the main shopping area, the sparkly lights and vibe are unmistakable even from afar.

As this was hailed the youth shopping center, expect to see mega stores of your favorite international brands, specifically millenial-targeted luxe enterprise. Also, bargain shopping could be done in some areas, aside from corners full of food and gadget vendors. There is no limit as to what you can find in Ximending, so make sure to never forget including this in your itinerary.

 

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall

🚇How to get here: Through MRT Green Line, board the train towards Xindian and alight at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall station. Take Exit 6 and once you step out, you could already see this very spacious open area.

4 massive and grandeur structures make up this square: Chiang Kai Shek monument at the west, Liberty square at the east and the National Theatre and National Music Hall on the north and south ends. Be inspired by the architecture of these buildings, and marvel on the beauty of the square which could challenge your cardio by the amount of walking you need to do to cover the 4 corners.

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Trekking at Elephant Mountain

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🚇 How to get here: Through Red line, board the train towards Xiangshan and alight at Taipei 101 station. From there, take exit 2 and walk your way towards oblivion, lol. 

Trekking will hustle you to climb the 1,000 plus UNEVEN steps, while the giant, bee-like mosquitoes take a feast on your legs and arms. I was so highly spirited for the first flights of stairs, but the higher altitude combined with the sight of seemingly endless steps I still need to take to make my ascend, I hyperventilated. We needed to stop for more than 2 times to catch our breaths and shoo away the nasty bugs.

But at the top, selective amnesia will hit you hard. Forget about the sweat and breathlessness, the cool breeze is paired with outstanding natural beauty in full 360 degrees. There are viewing decks placed at different levels of the mountain, but of course, the best vista is only available in the uppermost one. The wooden platform is unbelievably congested. Photo-savvy people set up all sorts of video camera to capture pictures and video the sunset to what I assume in time-lapse. There were giant rocks in the center where you could sit while cooling down from the climb, but like the decks, they could be a little crowded and slippery. Nevermind that I almost met my Creator during the trek, because what i came upon was a little closer to heaven. 

 

Taipei 101

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After Elephant Mountain, we decided to go to Taipei 101, the once tallest skyscraper in the world with its of course, 101 floors. It is the Financial Center of Taipei, equipped with  high speed elevators that could take you from ground level up to the 89th floor in 37 seconds! 

The observatory is also located at the 89th floor, and for a fee, you can enjoy free access to what is Taipei’s bird’s eye view. But if you would like to skip the queue and never pay for entrance tickets, I would suggest booking a table at Starbucks located at the 35th floor for a guaranteed, unobstructed view, in the company of your favourite cuppa. It isn’t the uppermost level, but hello, you get to enjoy the same view without dishing out some wasted cash. Call Starbuck’s hotline to reserve a table, and it would be best to seek assistance from your Chinese speaking hotel concierge as the telephone operator is jiang hua yi (Mandarin speaking). Important to remember that Starbucks sets a minimum amount of order per table, so, make sure you aren’t caffeinated yet for the day before making your way up. But if you are like me who casually overdoses on a daily basis, then it shouldn’t be a problem. You’re welcome. 

 

Beitou Hot Spring & Thermal Valley

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🚇How to get here: Through MRT red line, board the train towards Tamsui and alight at Beitou station. From there, transfer to the Pink line and alight at Xinbeitou.

Right outside the exit, you can stop and visit some interesting and noteworthy spots like the Beitou Hotspring Museum and Beitou Library– all free of charge. The area is so peaceful and clean, my kind of neighbourhood if given the chance to nest in permanently. 

At the far end of the road is where the Beitou Thermal Valley is located. It is wafting with sulfuric steam and is emiting heat that could sometimes reach 50 degrees. We were lucky that it wasn’t crowded when we visited (a luxury if you are a frequent traveler) so we were able enjoy the peace with only birds chirping in the background for a good 20 minutes. If only all of the world’s tourist attractions are as serene as this experience, then no photobomber will ever land in your gazillion photos. =) Ahhh, this is life.

Since we were already at the area, we went and try to bathe on the cheapest and only public hot spring resort in Beitou. You can actually pass by Millenium Hot Spring on your way to the Thermal Valley, and for a mere $40NT (2USD), you could enjoy soaking up in the pool with temperatures ranging from 30-40 degrees. Tickets can be bought at the vending machines situated by the entrance doors.

The hot spring is open to public for certain timings during the day. We were able to get in before the morning schedule closes which is from 10:30am-1:00pm. They also have a strict rule on swimming attires, the lady on the gate would check the clothings you will use before you go in. At the right side is a little shop that sells bikinis, rash guards and different swimming clothings that you can purchase and use. Cameras or any photography gadgets are not allowed as some guests are basking in naked. Skinny dipping to boiling point, I cannot. 

 

A day at Jiufen & Shifen

The PingXi sky lantern experience I have been seeing from friends is the principal reason why I was very eager to visit Shifen. So when I saw from Klook that they offer day trips to Shifen & Jiufen, it excites me like a flower at the first drop of rain. For only $200NT you can choose the giant lantern you want to light up and then write down the wishes and messages you would like the gods to receive. We chose yellow which is the color for money & wealth, and wrote down the 3 important dates in our lives. 

The backdrop is actually the old Shifen Rail Station that was used by miners back in the day. These tracks were created to ease the life of miners transporting goods and machineries to and from the city. At present, these are still being used by trains serving as public transport to commuters heading to the provinces. It may seem empty, but it is possible a train could pass-by any minute, so make sure to train those ears properly so as not to be run-down while taking that Instagram-worthy shot.

There are also souvenir shops and eating nooks in the area. And the far end, just across the main station, there is an old hanging bridge with pleasing views. Make sure not to miss it, as the area is actually concealed.

Jiufen is located some 15 minutes away by bus from Shifen. It is an old mining town densely populated up to this day. The whole area was built on a hill, so expect uneven slopes and steep stairs while strolling. Funny that this used to be considered as ghost town, but over the years, it became increasingly popular because of people wanting to get away from the modern and bustling life of Taipei. Now, it takes strong will and meekness walking the narrow streets, as the ratio of people to space is utterly disproportional. Gear up for a claustrophobia episode, seriously.

What struggle you may come across in your trail, it will be compensated immensely by a lot of gastronomic glee through the day. We had lunch at this small but decent restaurant that serves really cheap xiao long bao and rice meals. My husband, too delighted on his food, actually requested for seconds on his rice topping. If memory serves me right, we spent less than $300NT all in all. 

And when in Shifen, you could find a lot of vintage bakeries with traditional recipes handed down for generations. Sun biscuit and pineapple tarts are what you should look for, and they are selling them way cheaper than those found in Taipei City. Just look at my stash, I would have bought more if only I could apparate with them going to Singapore. #potterhead

For cheap shuttle bus going to Shifen & Jiufen, visit Klook website or check their app on your mobile. The one I book is just the 2-way bus service from Ximen MRT up to these two places and it only cost me $17 per pax. The driver has limited English, and there will be no guided tour included in this package. But they do provide bottled water for your hydration needs, and designated pick-up and drop-off points will be stated in your booking voucher. Click this link and search for this tour: Klook Activities & Tours.

 

Globetrotter Tips

Airport Transfers

We always opt for cheaper alternative to save bucks whenever we are out exploring the world. From airport to city, multiple ways could be utilized in Taipei and the most recommended for budget conscious tourists is via the city train. We could have chosen this route but my husband and I brought in 3 big luggages as we are headed to another city after Taipei.

In comes AirPopo!

It is a popular transpo app that offers seamless booking for smooth ride from airport to your hotel. It is available not only in Taipei, but also in Tokyo and Singapore. The app is very easy to navigate, and at the time of booking there was on going promotion where I have saved $400NT for a return service ($200NT savings per way). But it wasn’t the ease of choice that impressed me, it was the hands-on customer service they have rendered to us. As soon as we landed TIA, I received a WatsApp call from an agent reminding me of  the time the driver will arrive, the make and model of the sedan to look for and which area in the Arrivals Hall should we wait. About 15min before my requested timing, I received another call that they have changed the vehicle that will fetch us, as the previous one was stuck in a traffic jam somewhere in the city. 

It was obvious that our comfort is their primary concern, the driver was very friendly and has explained to us the route of our trip. Not only the arrival, our return trip was also very satisfactory. The driver even sent message 2 hours before pick-up time to check with us the schedule of our flight, so he adjusted his arrival because he said we might be caught in traffic in the freeway. If all these things are not personalized and customer-focused, I don’t know what is.

Over all, booking through AirPoPo was one of the best decisions I have made, not only for my Taipei trip, but also to my entire traveling life. Would highly recommend using this when you happen to visit the cities I have mentioned above. Know all about this reliable transport service through this link: AirPoPo VIP Private & Shuttle Airport Transfers.

 

City Transport

Taipei has one of the most efficient rail lines in Asia and maybe the world. Each line is connected through some interchange stations, and the entry and exit points are never confusing as compared to other major cities. You could easily purchase your EASYCARD at one of the Passenger Service booths or ticket vending machines in the airport or any MRT station. Preload with some cash and you can already travel within the city with ease. 

I highly recommend buying it instead of purchasing train tickets before every trip. Not only you can save time, I also learned that EASYCARDS are charged lower compared to one-time use tickets. Most of the attractions we visited in Taipei are within the limits of the MRT, so we were able to maximize the use of this prepaid card. 

Another option you have to take you from point A to point B are the usual metered taxis that could be hailed at any major sidestreet. But traffic could stir a bit of a hassle, not to mention that a single trip could easily make you fork out extra money as compared to train rides. Another disadvantage is that these taxi uncles could only speak Mandarin most of the time, so the possibility of getting lost in translation is sky high. 

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Where To Stay

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The hotel were we stayed as I’ve mentioned is located at Ximending. Booking at that location was deliberate as I wanted to stay somewhere near a major MRT station, and right at the heart of the city. Since all the places we wanted to see were accessible via MRT, it is only practical to arrange our accommodation this way.

Hotel-101s is a newly renovated, 4-star hotel that is just 500 meters away from Ximen MRT. As the rooms and facilities are new, the entire building was clean and good-smelling during our 6-day stay. Room service was every morning, on the dot, and the concierge people are profoundly commendable. Aside from good breakfast selection at the ground floor every morning, they offer flee-flow drinks 24/7. And so after every day tour, my husband and I would hang around the lobby for a while and try the different drinks they prepare for all guests. Room rate is quite high, but I think I would not mind paying  because their accommodation is a huge improvement to that of Hong Kong especially when it comes to size and amenities. I only trust 2 sites when it comes to scouting for a place to camp in while traveling: Booking.com and the site where I booked Hotel-101s, Agoda.

 

Globetrotter Rating

Growing up, I have come to love the city of Hong Kong that my family and friends make sure we visit at least once a year. Even after I started dating my husband, we have forged this tradition, “Annual HK” wherein we would go back and aimlessly walk around our favourite shops and streets, eating the same food over and over.

In an impetuous turn of events, I found myself altogether succumbing to this echantress –– Taipei has plagued me reservedly. It has suddenly made me regret why I waited for so long. But life is too short to sit at one corner and mope. Some people may not be in the same boat with me on my stand that Taipei is cheap. Maybe it’s not, or maybe it is. That is why we have a travel fund, to support and appease our globetrotting needs! And bottomline, I am outlining a return trip, especially now that my passport will allow me to go in and out without the usual stipulations. 

So allow me to profess again what I have surmised during the album upload in Facebook of my Taipei trip: It is a Mandarin-speaking Hong Kong, with the safety and convenience of Singapore and a cost of living as cheap as Manila. 🖤 

Taipei, wait for me. ✈️  

You are my favourite 8+ rating. 🥰

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