Basically every point in Taipei can be reached by means of the subway, provided that one knows how to read and speak Mandarin. For someone who does not, making sense of the “helpful” diagrams posted all over the train stations can be downright confusing – even if the place names have their Roman letter equivalents written just below the Chinese characters.
Luckily, employees manning the ticket booths have a working knowledge of English and can certainly point any lost tourist to the right direction. For our group though, we had Dave and Marlon to guide us. In addition to being able to speak enough of the local language to be understood, both of them have spent some time living in Taipei, so they’re quite familiar with going from place to place within the city.
Naturally, (for me at least) the first stop should be Taipei 101. For a time, the building was the tallest in the world and it would be no less thrilling to see it up close. I might have mentioned before in past blogs that I prefer destinations that showcase nature, culture and history when choosing places to travel to, but I still am awed by significant feats of modern human achievement. And the Taipei 101 certainly fits this category.
So there we were, walking sidewalks, crossing streets, going down underpasses and riding trains from one point to another. Hard to imagine seeing the Taipei 101 in the skyline given that, at street level, we were surrounded by buildings all the time. But eventually, the buildings thinned and wide open spaces increased that we were able to see our first glimpses of it in the spaces between buildings.
We then came upon a very wide open space that gave us just enough room to take photos of ourselves with the entire building within our cameras’ frames. The locals, probably very used to tourists doing exactly what we were then doing, instinctively avoided straying into our frames. We eventually tired ourselves of this and thereafter went to the direction of the building.
At this point, three of our companions – Veronica, Tessa and Melissa separated from our group to go do some shopping somewhere else. We agreed to all assemble at a certain place in the city at around 5 pm.
So as we got nearer and nearer to the building, I was appreciating more and more the scale of it. It’s one thing to see Taipei 101 in the distance towering over every other building around, but it’s a completely different thing observing it up close and seeing with your own eyes just how massive the entire thing is (and if you have a bit more time to reflect on it, just how small you are in relation to it.)
At that point, I really was ready to just hop on a plane and go home to the Philippines. I felt that I’ve already seen all there is to see about Taipei and that I’d only be wasting time had I stayed longer. Unfortunately, my flight is scheduled the next day, so I’m stuck in the city for another 24 hours.
The base of the building has a mall, and that’s where we went. Being the tourists that we were, a some of us began snapping photo after photo of the surroundings. Actually, photography is supposed to be prohibited in the mall area and there were signs clearly posted everywhere that say this, but it was almost universally ignored by everyone.
This was especially apparent when we got to the large atrium at the center of the mall, where some of the support structures of Taipei 101 can be seen. There, people of various nationalities openly take photos and videos of the surroundings, with the mall security not even attempting to stop anyone. Taking that as my cue, I then took out my phone and took a video of the indoor scenery.
Owing to the fact that the mall serves as the entry point to the building, store space is predictably expensive, and spaces facing the atrium are occupied by big-name upper class brands.
I initially tinkered with the idea of climbing to the uppermost view deck that’s open to the paying public, but was almost immediately dissuaded by 2 apparent facts: (1) A ticket to climb is very expensive (for me); and (2) there was a long line of tourists who already had tickets and were waiting for their turn to go up. Even if I was willing to pay, I would have had to wait a couple of hours before I get my turn. So never mind.
A short while later, Our small group got even smaller as our companions Ronel, Ian and Sheryl had to leave for their flight back to Manila later that afternoon. Dave had to leave too to assist them because there were some packages that they would be bringing along for FGS and he wanted to be sure everything was in order.
That left only me, Marlon, Chingbee, Jove and Quennie (who also left much later) doing the informal walking tour. Whereas before I frequently strayed from the group, this latest development made me stick to them a bit more frequently as I had absolutely no idea by that time how I’d go back to Taipei Vihara.
After Taipei 101, we continued walking around. Owing to the nature of the places that we went to, we literally spent the entire afternoon mostly indoors and underground. Here’s the reason: Not only does Taiwan have an extensive subway/railway system, it also has a network of wide underground walkways that link the subway stations to certain landmarks and commercial establishments.
Because of this, it is possible to stay underground an entire day provided that the places one goes to are linked by them. By the way, these are not dark and murky underground paths. These are brightly lit, well-ventilated (and sometimes air conditioned) areas with commercial establishments at almost every step of the way. In one instance, we even came upon a large food court where we spent some time just hanging out.
It was summer at that time and I imagine there were a lot more people staying underground to escape the heat.
Eventually, it was time to get on the train and on to the Ximen district to meet up with Tessa, Veronica and Melissa. Once we got above ground, it was apparent there was still a lot of daylight, but it was about to get dark really soon. Good thing that the first thing we saw upon exiting the station were three familiar faces from across the street.
The name Ximen was the butt of jokes during that entire afternoon and evening owing to the fact that it sounded close to “semen”. Green humor aside though, I remember the place quite clearly because of its huge public square that is brightly lit with various billboards at night. There were also public performances by bands that draw crowds to the square.
A short walking distance from the square, there is an old red brick building that’s apparently historically significant, but it is currently occupied by shops and art exhibits. It’s called the “Red House” if I remember right. Stalls also surround the building and at night, it apparently becomes a mini-night market.
Along the way there we had a bit of a funny moment when we came across an underwear store that catered to gay males. Even the outside signs and posters were pretty suggestive. Of us, only Veronica and Melissa had the guts to go inside and check things out. They must have liked what they saw because they exited the store snickering. Here’s the proof:
About an hour later, Dave arrived at Ximen and we picked him up near the train station. He appeared stressed out. Apparently, he encountered some difficulty in checking in the packages that were to be delivered to FGS in Manila.
It was already dark by that time and the square was very brightly lit. We spent some time taking pictures and (in my case) videos. We also experimented with bokeh photography so we made Melissa our model. (Which is just appropriate since she’s been turning heads since we started touring Taipei.)
After that, it was time to take the subway going to Shilin.
SHILIN NIGHT MARKET
The Shilin Night Market is possibly the most famous night market in Taipei. (Fun fact: Taiwan is a nation of night markets. It’s a way of life in most urban areas.) I’m not really too eager to spend more money since I’m not the shopping type, but having gone to another night market a few nights back (Feng Chia), I was curious to see how different Shilin was.
Answer: not much. I’m quite sure a “night market connoisseur” would be able to detect the subtle differences between different night markets, but as for me, all I saw were many people, many shops, and many brightly lit signs with bold Chinese characters. Not saying it’s a bad thing though. I rather like being lost in the crowd and soaking up all the aromas, sounds and sights that a place has to offer, and night markets typically have the three of those in profusion.
We were a group of 8 when we entered the market. It was a given that we would at some point lose each other in the crowd so we made an agreement to assemble at a certain hour at a place near the main street. Soon after, we indeed lost each other. I was too engrossed in taking pictures that I either strayed to someplace or got left behind by the rest of the group.
Purely by accident, I came across Marlon, Jove and Chingbee, who managed to stay together. This was really great because I was getting hungry and I was scared of going into some restaurant alone and staffed by people who don’t understand me. (And I don’t think I would be satisfied by merely sampling the different types of street food being sold there.) So the 4 of us ended up together again and we picked this place that had all its set meals advertised in a huge billboard in front of its building.
As far as I can tell, no one in the restaurant spoke a working level of English, but we somehow communicated our orders by means of hand gestures and pointing to the pictures of what we wanted to eat. It turns out it was a good thing that we entered the restaurant at that moment because, soon after, a long line began to form outside of the restaurant composed of people who wanted to also eat there.
Having already eaten, I felt quite comfortable again separating from the group, so I eagerly set of to explore as much of the night market as I can with the remaining time that we had. In all of my travels, whether in the mountains, the cities, or the temples, this is the activity that I enjoy doing the most – getting “lost” and aimlessly wandering, with the only thing leading me being whatever catches my fancy at a given moment.
In my wandering, I came upon a Daoist temple at the far end of the market area where I spent some time hanging out and observing people, taking note of how different this scenario would play out if this were in the Philippines. I noted how the streets were so clean despite the seeming chaos of people coming and going and in different directions and buying just about any kind of street food. I also noted the [for me] noticeable lack of beggars, especially child beggars. I could only wistfully wish for the day night markets in the Philippines would someday resemble what I was seeing that night.
On the way back, I decided to video the long walk just for the heck of it. I was doing a rather constant treatment throughout the walk until I was stopped dead on my track by the unmistakeably heavenly aroma of fried squid. If you go to the very end of the clip below, you would see that the video stopped the moment I was given a free taste by the store proprietress.
Of course, I just had to buy myself a cup. It cost a lot, relatively. But it was worth it. (Do note that I just had a full-course dinner not long before that. But I still ended up eating everything with almost no effort.)
So I was munching on my diced and spiced fried squid tentacles while walking back to the meeting place when I bumped into Melissa. I gathered that she has not had dinner yet and she spent the whole time just shopping. We still had around half an hour before we needed to go back, so with nothing better to do, I just tagged along with her while she did more shopping. She initially got intrigued with the fried squid I was eating, but she eventually just settled for some succulent guava slices being sold by an old man pushing a cart.
When the time came, we simply walked back to the meeting place where Tessa and Veronica were already waiting. Others arrived in a short while, one by one. I took the my last photos of the night market while shooting a colorful fruit stall. It had the largest and most succulent cherries I’ve ever seen. (They tasted great too – Melissa bought a large cup full and shared it with everyone. The cherries we know don’t even come close.)
We made our way back towards Taipei Vihara to retire for the night. So another subway and another set of long-distance walking, this time along Taipei’s streets which were increasingly becoming deserted of traffic due to the lateness of the hour.
BACK TO TAIPEI VIHARA
So we were back in Taipei Vihara. We were all so eager to get in our rooms and just doze off. And in fact, some of us almost immediately did that – probably due in no small part to the air conditioning in each room. As for me, I spent some time in the common area because I wasn’t all that tired yet and the common area had Wi-Fi.
(A bit of a digression: although my BlackBerry had Wi-Fi capability, for some reason, it did not work at all up until that night in Taipei Vihara. So it was more or less an Internet-less week for me the entire time I was in Taiwan. At one point I even had to sneakily log into my Facebook account in an Apple store in Taichung just so I could update everyone that I was doing fine.)
So there, that night, a week’s worth of FB, Twitter and push email updates came pouring into my BlackBerry and it was buzzing like crazy. I must have deleted around 100 Lina Jobstreet.com notifications, and I spent most of the night just reading all the updates I missed while I was gone. While this was happening, Marlon, Dave and I were joined in the common area by some members of the French delegation. Actually, they were ethnic Chinese French citizens, so it was a bit confusing to hear them talking to French to each other and to converse with us in English with a European accent. They were also taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi, and I imagine it would have been too slow for them since there were so many of us using it.
As the minutes ticked by, the crowd thinned until i was the only one left in the common area. I was watching a particularly engaging TV movie so I think I finally turned it off at around midnight. upon entering the room, I found Marlon slumped on his bed and restfully snoring the night away. He was still wearing the clothes he wore the entire day so he almost certainly slept the moment his body came in contact with his bed.
As for me, i couldn’t bear sleeping with all the dust and grime still clinging to my face and wearing the same clothes since that morning, so I took a long shower prior to retiring for the night.
My dreamless sleep was interrupted by someone knocking on our door. It turns out that it was Dave, and he was waking us up. As part of the deal of us being able to stay for free in Taipei Vihara, we were required to tour the premises and be exposed to the different operations in the building involving Fo Guang Shan.
Since I slept in rather presentable clothes, and that I was still feeling fresh due to the aircon, I was able to immediately join the group Dave was assembling. Marlon, however, was still in the outfit he was wearing the day before, so we didn’t begrudge him the fact that he needed to take a shower first. Aside from Marlon, a few others also were not able to join the group on time.
So once again, we found ourselves at the temple at the top floor. We had morning prayers/rituals while we were being educated about Buddhist tenets. Oddly enough, I could not remember if we had breakfast that morning. My camera battery died around that time so I had no more documentation until about early afternoon.
Dave brought us to the offices of Merit Times – a Chinese-language newspaper published by Fo Guang Shan. We were “interviewed” the paper’s Editor-in-Chief (whose name I’ve forgotten and didn’t note down). She was apparently an industry veteran who was supposed to be retiring but was somehow talked convinced by Venerable Master Hsing Yun to take the job. She also explained to us the thrust of the paper under her tenure and how it is different from its competitors and all the other papers she’s worked with before.
After that, we also got to tour Fo Guang Shan’s TV station and visited the sets of the TV shows that they produced. We also got to visit an art gallery that they were hosting at that time. Finally, we visited some of Fo Guang Shan’s administrative offices to have a look at how they operated locally and around the world. Every step of the way, we were given gifts and treats. I’d say it was fair compensation for not being able to stay in bed for a few hours longer.
Just before packing all my stuff for the trip back to Manila, I went to the in-house souvenir shop to buy some bracelets for family and friends back home. In hindsight, I realize that they were very overpriced, but I just consoled myself with the fact that, overall, there were a lot more things I got for free. Some of us still went out of the building to do some last-minute shopping, but I just decided to stay put and relax. (I would be going straight to work that night upon returning to Manila.)
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This entry is part of the Taiwan series dated July 19-27, 2012:
1. Gallery: Fo Guang Shan Main Shrine
2. Gallery: Feng Chia Night Market
3. Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 1
4. Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 2
5. Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 3
6. Taiwan: The International Youth Seminar on Life and Ch’an, day 4
7. Taiwan: Tainan & Taichung, with Lukang in between
8. Taiwan: Science and Religion
9. Gallery: The Taiwan Theater Museum
10. Taiwan: Traipsing around Yilan
11. Taiwan: Closing Program at Fo Guang University
12. Taiwan: Leaving Yilan, Arriving in Taipei
13. Taiwan: Last 24 hours in Taipei
14. Taiwan: Epilogue