Taiwan the second time around

Taiwan the second time around

Back in 2005, I flew to Taiwan with my then boyfriend Joel for his dragon boat team’s competition. It was our first trip abroad together, but we didn’t get the chance to explore the country as our movements were limited to leaving our hotel for the race site and going back to it.

Fast forward to this year. Joel and I had since gotten married, and with the strict pandemic travel restrictions eased, and Taiwan’s visa-exempt program for Filipinos extended, we decided to return to the northern neighbor that many Pinoys associate with 1) the F4 boy band of “Meteor Garden” fame, and 2) bubble tea (or milk tea, as we call it in Manila).

We arrived in the capital city of Taipei way past dinnertime, and after settling down we headed to Ningxia Night Market, a 20-minute walk from our hotel, to get something to eat. Ningxia has lots of food stalls and, on that night, was teeming with hungry locals and tourists like us.

It was not long before a pungent odor wafted through the air and assailed our noses through our face masks. It was the famed stinky tofu! Some people swear that it tastes better than it smells, but we ordered the more aromatic and filling braised pork rice instead.

City tour

Panoramic view of the Liberty Square

The next day, we went to one of Taipei’s iconic tourist attractions, the Liberty Square Arch. The imposing structure is the main gate leading to Liberty Square, a 240,000-square-meter public plaza in Zhongzheng District. Completed in the late 1970s, it’s a venue for mass gatherings such as concerts, cultural events, and even political demonstrations.

Inside the square are three national landmarks: the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, erected in memory of Taiwan’s former president, the National Theater, and the National Concert Hall.

We arrived just in time to watch the changing of the guard in the Chiang Kai-shek Main Hall. Everyone was silent when the new guards made their slow, stomping entrance. The precise marching and rifle-twirling were impressive—definitely a must-see! The ceremony takes place every hour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

The square also boasts of well-manicured lawns and pathways that are Instagram-worthy.

One thing we noticed and admired as we toured the city was the abundance of trees on the sidewalks and roadsides, and also colorful flowers on the center islands. Maybe because it was springtime when we visited: The blooms were a refreshing sight to see in an urban setting. 

Bike lanes also abound and public bicycle rentals can easily be had.

We headed next to a pineapple cake factory. Pineapple cake is one of Taiwan’s traditional pastries. We had it as a welcome snack at the hotel and it tasted good, so the factory tour with a pastry-making session was a bonus treat.

Joel and I had fun making the small pastries ourselves, and we were both excited to see the outcome of our efforts. We even bet on whose pastry would emerge the best. The dough and pineapple filling were pre-mixed, so we easily passed the taste test. But looks-wise, our pastries were dismal!  

Taipei 101

Taipei 101, Taiwan’s tallest building

The next stop—Taipei 101—was what we were most excited about. We remembered how we saw it only from afar 18 years ago, and to finally see it up close was a great experience. 

Taiwan’s tallest structure stands at 508 meters and has 101 floors (hence the name). It has offices, a shopping mall, and an observatory. It carried the distinction of being the world’s tallest building from 2004 to 2010 and was awarded certification for energy efficiency and environmental design in 2011.

We were thrilled when its high-speed elevator transported us from the 5th floor (ticketing office) to the 89th floor (observation deck) in just 37 seconds! 

At the indoor observatory, a 360-degree view of the city and the mountains surrounding it greeted us. It was simply breathtaking. Snack bars and souvenir shops are available, and lots of fantasy-inspired photo nooks for visitors to enjoy. An outdoor observation deck is accessible on the 91st floor. 

We ended the day at Ximending Shopping District, a popular hangout for the young crowd and a good place for shopping and dining for visitors of all ages. It has shops that offer everything from clothes, shoes, bags, toys and knick-knacks to souvenirs, as well as cafés, street food stalls, and restaurants.

The tags on the shoes on sale were tempting to the hubby but (much to my relief) he did not give in. Instead, we hunted for good food to satisfy our tummies. It’s said that long lines at a food stall (especially of local patrons) indicate the quality of the offering. With this in mind, we made our way to the Ay-Chung Flour-Rice Noodle Shop, established in 1975. We found locals and tourists lining up for the one dish the shop is known for: a steaming hot and very flavorful misua soup with bits of pig intestines! We added some condiments, chili, and cilantro, and hunkered down to a comforting meal.

Taiwanese fried chicken cutlet

While exploring Ximending’s many stores, we couldn’t but notice the big chunk of chicken that almost everyone we met was chewing on. It was as if we were being lured to follow the trail to where the juicy, deep-fried chicken could be bought. When we finally saw the stall, we joined the long queue and our craving for fried chicken was fully and truly satisfied.

In the countryside

We traveled to the countryside the following day. It was relaxing to see mountains and lush greenery during the hourlong bus ride to Yehliu Geopark on Taiwan’s north coast. It is famous for its incredible rock formations named after the shape they resemble. Some notables: Queen’s Head, Cute Princess, Mushroom Rock, and Candle Rocks.

Panoramic view of the Liberty Square

The rocks, shaped naturally by seawater erosion, are a unique geological wonder that CNN has described as “the closest you’ll get to Mars on Earth.” Indeed, they are phenomenal.

The mountain town of Jiufen was our next destination. It was chilly and foggy when we arrived, but that did not hinder us from enjoying our first sighting of cherry blossoms on our way to the famous Jiufen Old Street.

Jiufen was a gold-mining town that has since been transformed into a tourist attraction with all kinds of shops and eateries lining the narrow, ascending street. It was a bit tiring walking up and down the bustling alleys but the sights and smells kept us on our toes.

After our “stair climb challenge” in Jiufen, we went to the town of Shifen where another walking adventure awaited us. To reach the Shifen Waterfall, known as Taiwan’s “Little Niagara,” we had to cross a suspension bridge and trek for about 15 minutes. But the sight of the waterfall and its natural surroundings soothed our aching legs and knees.

Shifen Old Street

After a few minutes of rest at the waterfall park, we walked again to the famous Sky Lantern Lighting at Shifen Old Street. A Taiwan tour wouldn’t be complete without this popular activity in which tourists paint lanterns with messages and wishes before releasing them to the sky.

Note, however, that this was done on a fully operational railway track; thus, visitors had to move away from the track whenever a train was about to pass.

Back in the city, we had dinner and shopped for souvenirs at the famous Shilin Night Market.

The last day of our tour was spent at Yangmingshan National Park, one of Taiwan’s nine national parks. I didn’t anticipate the cool and windy weather, and I was wearing a sleeveless top and brought only a shawl! But the beautiful scenery made me forget the cold. The famous flower clock and the flower gardens were amazing, plus pretty cherry blossoms were everywhere! 

It was a great way to cap our adventure, and more than enough to make up for the literal come-and-go trip we had the first time we were there. Truly, it’s sweeter the second time around.

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