From afar, with its classic, building-block skyline, it could be mistaken for any number of vast, global metropolises.
But Taipei is not like other cities. Zoom in and you’ll discover that this modern capital of the island of Taiwan is riddled with sublime surprises and hidden secrets…
A New Old City
Taipei is generally thought of as fairly “new” though it’s been inhabited for thousands of years, particularly following an influx of mainland Chinese during the Han dynasty.
For the past three-hundred years, it’s been at the center of a political tug-o-war. Mostly it’s fallen under under Chinese rule, though occasionally it’s ended up as Japanese territory. It finally became a (more or less) separate state in the 1960s.
The city is home to the world’s third tallest building, Taipei 101, which rises like a 101-story bamboo spear above the cityscape. Built upon an ancient lake bed, this city of 2.7 million is tucked into a pair of river valleys, and naturally protected by the Tatun volcanoes rimming the basin.
Zoom in closer, and you’ll start to see why Taipei has become one of the top 15 most visited cities on Earth.
Taking to the Streets
My friend Ann, whose family I’m visiting during my stay in Taipei, and I are getting ourselves lost. We have a general direction in mind, but mostly we wing it, ducking into various alleys and emerging onto busy (yet shockingly clean and orderly) streets without much rhyme or reason.
“Nihau!” I greet a man washing huge steel buckets in a narrow side street. The acrid smell of bleach hits my nose. The man looks up and blooms into a broad smile when I motion toward my camera to ask if I can take a picture. “Nihau! Xièxie!” he thanks me after I take the photo, as if I’ve flattered him. “Xièxie,” I return the thanks and give a slight bow.
The people here are almost unreasonably sweet, friendly and upbeat, but the buildings are rather drab. Constructed of concrete, brick and steel, they seem to reflect the city’s unglamorous industrial past. The day before, we’d perused a sleek and charming craft shopping center that was once a monstrosity of a cigarette factory.
I learn quickly that alluring gems are often waiting behind rough exteriors.
Tea is for Taipei
At a bustling subway station, we take a sluggish escalator underground and shuffle through dingy yellow halls knotted with shops and kiosks selling tourist trinkets; calligraphy scrolls, Taipei 101 snow globes, t-shirts, temple refrigerator magnets.
I have serious doubts that we’ll find anything worthwhile here, but toward the far end of one corridor, we hang a sharp left and find ourselves inside elegant Liu Yu Teahouse.
A Taiwanese-born, Montreal-raised woman called Jean recommends we try the Pu-er tea, a traditional loose-leaf tea. Much like wine, she tells us, Pu-er tea is usually aged to the height of its flavor potential before being served.
After a fairly involved process of pouring, rinsing, straining and steeping, the tea is ready for us to sample. I sip from my doll-size cup and savor the warm, herbal earthiness. There’s a hint of raisin or prune, which gives it a sweet aftertaste. “Yum,” I declare as fragrant steam washes up over my face.
At a different tea shop, I buy a teensy tiny tea pot and tea cups, along with some packets of Pu-er to send home.
Night Markets in Daylight
Surfacing once again, Ann and I meander toward a covered warehouse-type structure and realize it’s part of the famous Taipei night markets. Stalls of intensely scented foods line the passages; cooked and uncooked, some dried and some still wriggling.
The Road to Heaven
In Taipei there is a thoroughfare called Xinsheng South Road. It’s known as “the road to Heaven” for the sheer numbers of temples, churches, shrines and mosques that cluster along it like constellations.
It is crossed by Longshan Road, which leads to the enormous Longshan Temple, built in 1738. This is where Ann and I are shooting for in our day of unhurried winding.
The temple is ornately and colorfully fashioned, its roof adorned with undulating dragons. Inside, throngs of people mill around. Some kneel at flower-laden altars with their heads bowed reverently, others stand holding red-covered books. Some toss wooden blocks to the ground repeatedly, searching for meaning in the patterns in which they land. The smokey aroma of incense drifts in the air, and all around, people sing a repeating chant in unison.
We almost miss it.
We’re somewhere in the vicinity of the night markets when a subtle temple entrance lures my eye. It doesn’t look like much, and we almost don’t go in. But something about the regal red, blue and gold designs at the doorway beckons me.
Inside, it’s as if we’ve veered off the ‘road to Heaven’ and plunged into something quite surreal, shocking, and rather dark.
Devilish eyes stare piercingly from painted faces, some of which are hideous and colored green and black. Nefarious long mustaches and beards in electric hues top swathes of richly embroidered fabric.
Unlike the Longshan temple, there’s almost nobody around, save for a few men who light incense and tip their heads to pray.
We’re able to get closer to the main altar than normal, and our curiosity takes over as our eyes flow over the intricate details before us. We don’t notice when a Taiwanese man appears out of nowhere next to the altar.
“Have you gone up?”
We’re confused. “Up where?” asks Ann.
The man informs us that there are multiple levels to this temple. “Go see!” he smiles excitedly, “Very old. Very beautiful.”
And it is. We climb steps behind the main altar to a second altar on the upper level.
On this level, there’s a balcony where we can see past the dragon-festooned roof halfway across the city.
Things are not always what they seem in Taipei. Sometimes, when you zoom in, they are more beautiful and intriguing than you could ever imagine.
The city of Taipei itself is, in a way, its own road to Heaven.
Next stop: I hop across the ocean into South America — Bogota, Colombia!
Check out more photos from Taiwan HERE 🙂