Through the window, I could see a warm rich dark orange light stripe the sky. A beautiful end to a marvellous weekend. A weekend back in that most wondrous of places: Taipei.
That sense of quiet, relaxed comfort never leaves me when I walk the streets. Though I may not understand what is said, it is hard to doubt the warmth and sincerity that one meets. And though nothing I did was very special (a haircut; a little shopping; a dinner of snacks in the local night market) everything was special (the haircut was really very good; the sales assistants were incredibly helpful; the night market didn’t just serve up fresh Korean-style fried chicken, but also the wonderful Taiwanese sausages, fresh seafood – and oysters, and a whole range of unidentifiable local delicacies).
It must be boring to be always told that other journeys and visits to other places are never quite as good. But what can I say? Taiwan simply is the best.
Starved of its proper global publicity and understanding by Beijing, it is easy to underestimate Taiwan. It has a population of twenty-three million: that is over twice Portugal’s, three times Austria’s and roughly the same as Australia. In land area, it is not quite twice the size of Wales, but rather smaller than the Netherlands. Its GDP per capita is higher than that of Spain’s now, and was roughly equal to Spain in 2007 before the Iberian country entered its downward spiral.
Austria, Spain, Portugal; these are not developing countries, and nor, really, is Taiwan. Yes, it isn’t as developed as the most developed of the West, but in no way does it feel like a third world country. This is a place that can hold its own. It is farcical that the island is left to languish in the penumbra of our ignorance.
Yet the island retains a charm that belies its developed state. It churns out high-technology equipment, scooters and (even) frozen dumplings for sale across the world; Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest building, still impresses. But ten minutes walk from Taipei 101 and you are in jungle, climbing up one of the mountains that ring Taipei.
These mountains are close, but they are also accessible. Paths lead the way for anyone who wants to go hiking. And the jungle is real: dense, lush, green and full of poisonous snakes (or so the signs say).
Standing at the top of one of these mountains affords amazing views back over the city. Taipei 101, the city’s sole skyscraper, can be seen from almost anywhere, but stepping back in the way these mountain trails allow one to, lets you take in the city airport, the rivers and bridges, and the different coloured roofs of the different neighbourhoods.
Further afield, the national park of Yangmingshan (阳明山) presents stunning scenery bathed, when I visited in a warming sun and cooling breathe. To sit and watch the wind dance between the reeds, to watch the clouds race each across the sky, these are simple delights that are rarely so easily found close to a major city. In other places, Taiwan’s geothermal activity comes to the surface in arresting fashion with sulphurous whiffs and steaming, boiling lakes.
Such retreats are, of course, non-existent in Riyadh, but they are also far further from one’s reach in London or Beijing. Yes, Beijing has the Great Wall just outside its limits, but getting there is hardly a fifteen minute walk. Yes, it is said that one can walk across London on the green, but that is not a wild, jungly green.
In this mixture, of being a capital city with a clear international flavour yet with a connection to the countryside that is unurban-like in its immediacy, Taipei has something of a pleasant European capital about it. A real city, with all a city’s advantages, but pleasant, manageable and livable. As a friend once commented, Taipei was like the Lisbon of the East. Indeed, given its uncertain future and its contentious links to a past, it could also be the Vienna of the East (sans the architecture: Taipei is anything but a monumental city).
I always fail utterly to describe exactly why I like Taipei so much. So too do I struggle to say what the city is like. All I can really say is come and visit. But bring some sensible shoes.
It is six o’clock in the morning on a public holiday. By all accounts, Da’an High School (confusingly, in Taiwan, what they translate as high schools, for 15 to 18 year olds, are called guo zhong, with zhong meaning middle), should be deserted, its roughly two thousand pupils tucked up in bed snoozing through the boon of a no-school day. Yet the school grounds are busy, even if there isn’t a pupil in sight.
The sports grounds, with its circular running track and basket ball court, are teeming not with the young but with the forties plus. The playgrounds more generally are home to Tai Chi and other exercise groups. Why let such facilities sit idle? Just as Taipei’s parks bustle each morning with dog walkers, runners, and playing children, so too do these school grounds act as a magnet for those with an outdoors early morning routine. It is a scene that is almost unimaginable in a London school. For one, few London schools still have such facilities; but perhaps more sadly, it is also because London schools have come to take on the appearance of fortified prisons: the public are definitely to be kept out. Not so here. Though there is a gate and a guard, I am cheerfully waved through without a word as I go to join an exercise group. If Taiwan suffers from a collective paranoia (as all societies tend to do), it isn’t to be found here.
Yet take a closer look, and perhaps the school playground is exactly where the fault lines are to be found. In large red characters, pupils at Da’an High School are exhorted to be mindful of five key things. Jian kang, or health; ke xue: science; guo ai: patriotism. But there is also ren dao, which covers the concepts of humaneness, human rights, sympathy and human dignity; and min zhu: democracy.
If there is anything to differentiate Taipei from Beijing it is in this. While Xi Jinping has been reminding schools and universities of the imperative of staying true to the Party line, of taking responsibility for what they teach, and to be wary of Western ideas, Taipei gives its pupils a constant reminder of the benefits of democracy and human dignity.
While Taipei’s authorities seem happy to let the public enter its schools, perhaps it is because it has its eyes fixed on a far larger threat. Of all the playground bullies, Xi Dada (as China’s propaganda department until recently would prefer us to call him, dada roughly translating into big daddy) is one that the authorities fear no number of school gates can keep out. Rumours abound about his true intentions toward the island, but some are pessimistic indeed. If the worst of fears comes true, then it is hard to imagine that Da’an High School won’t be asked to change its exhortations.
Perhaps it is this existential fear that explains the another message to be found at Da’an High School, this time adorning the door to the art classroom. Hope is the necessary lie.
Chicken soup’s reputation as a cure all stretches far and wide, but perhaps reaches its apotheosis in Chinese cuisine-culture. The menu at the chicken soup restaurant I went to near Guting (古亭) was as much a pick-and-mix prescription as a list of possible dinners.
There was soup for the skin, soup for the hair, soup for the bones, the liver and everything else. But most especially, it was the names that caught my attention, or rather, their translation. In the end, I opted for a bowl of redix polygoni multiflori broth, with imitation chicken. It was surprisingly good.
Bizarre translations are not as common in Taiwan as they are either on the Mainland or in the West’s mythology of contemporary China. In fact, they are pretty rare, but they do still crop up. A local Korean chicken restaurant (this time deep fried rather than boiled in a soup) offers a dish with an alarmingly precise oligosaccharide sauce.
Sometimes, of course, such precision can still be accurate. Something I read recently contained a curious Chinese phrase that translated roughly as “with one drop of rain one gets as wet as a chicken that has fallen into the soup”. Weird, precise, but, as I learnt in the rain storm today, very accurate.
The rain was coming down in sheets, though the weather forecast on my mobile telephone was adamant that it was neither raining now nor would it do so later. But it was raining and I was getting soaked.
I had decided to walk to Dadaocheng (大稲 程), a park stretched out along the side of the Tamsui River that separates Taipei from New Taipei. It had seemed a good idea at the time. The weather forecast had, after all, said no rain.
But here I was, twenty minutes into my ninety minute walk, already soaked, standing under a shopfront awning as I waited for the green man to signal that I could cross the road. As the light changed and I stepped forward into the rain, a young man suddenly dashed up to hold his umbrella over my head as I crossed the road. I was utterly taken aback. But he thought nothing of it and battered my thanks aside. We parted company on the other side of the road.
In Taipei, one is forever running into such acts of kindness, generosity and friendliness. It can almost be a little disorienting.
But such acts are as much a part of Taipei as the view that was waiting for me at the end of my walk.
There is something about Longshan Temple that draws me back to it time after time. Though I am neither a Buddhist nor a Daoist, something compels me to visit it each time I come to Taipei.
I am not alone. While other temples might have just one or two visitors, Longshang I have never found anything less than busy. Tonight was no different. Smoke wafted up from the big brass incense burners, people stood around lighting candles or genuflecting before the Buddha, and, as always, I could hear the clatter of the jiaobei prayer blocks as the gods were asked their questions.
Outside, a crowd had gathered on the other side of the road to watch a young man playing Chinese yo-yo. As the light failed he switched from an ordinary plastic cup to one illuminated with LEDs. It may have made it easier for him to see, but from the oohs and aahs of the crowd, it was clear that they too enjoyed the light show.
But all of this was just a side attraction to what was really bringing people to the area: Huaxi night market. As usual with a Taiwanese night market, beside the hawkers of clothes, bags and mobile phone cases, there are food stalls selling everything from a sausage on a stick to sit down dinners of soups, meats, tofu and a dozen entirely unidentifiable things that customers nonetheless consume with gusto.
Yet Huaxi night market has something else on the menu as well. It is not for nothing that it is known as snake alley. Though not the cheapest of dishes, nor the most popular (witness the empty restaurants), suppers of snake meat and blood are available.
At the front of two of the snake restaurants there were large cages containing specimen snakes, whether ready for the pot or not, I do not know. Oddly enough, one of the restaurants also had a display cage full of plastic toy snakes. Yet weirder still was the sight behind the cages. For however immobile were the snakes, whether plastic or not, each restaurant seemed to be watched over by an old man sitting even stiller.
In the darkest moments of the Riyadh day, when the door of the office had finally been shut behind me and I was able to sink into the soft cool of the sofa in my room, an oversized packet of crisps had been my comfort. As the heat outside began to bleed away, and the busyness of work fade, I would sit and munch.
The fact is, I like crisps. I remember reading long ago that the British eat more crisps than any other country in Europe. Considering the gusto with which I consumed them in Riyadh, I can well believe it.
So on finding in my local supermarket in Taipei a packet of seaweed flavour crisps I was intrigued.
Alas, it was not a good choice, and I should have known even from the feel of the packet: it was too thick and shiny. The crisps weren’t crisp, and the flavour was unfathomably peculiar.
The city’s YouBike scheme is amazing. A citywide travel card (like London’s Oyster card, but beefed up so that it can act like a prepaid credit card for small purchases in convenience stores) and a local mobile telephone number are all you need to register. The process itself takes just a few minutes and doesn’t require any of the usual intrusive personal questions. No address, no bank details, no inside leg measurements required.
The hire cost itself is pennies: about 25pence for half an hour, but even that is prorated. My usual rise costs around twelve pence, and there is no daily surcharge as there is in London.
Of all the things I may have missed in Riyadh, I realise now that cycling was one of them. There is such a simple, pure joy in jumping on a bicycle to get where you want to go. A sense of freedom, with the wind little riffling through one’s hair.
Just beware. Taipei’s wide pavements all have cycle lanes for a reason. Bus drivers appear not to see cyclists as impediments to lane switching, and taxis do not appear to look before pulling into or away from the curb.
I need to get up early each morning. At 5am my alarm clock shatters my peace. By ten to six I am on a bicycle, wiggling my way to Da’an Park.
There, on a concreted area, about a dozen of us practice Tai Chi. I am the only foreigner in the group, and the only one under 55 if I am at my most generous towards my co-practitioners. Yet if perhaps I am sounding unkind, the others are anything but.
They have all be practising together for years, it seems. I am just an interloper. A sudden (uninvited?) arrival. A foreigner. A youngster. A complete novitiate. They can step through complete sequences in harmony. I don’t even know where to place my feet or when to bend my knees (all the time, it seems).
But if there is any feeling of irritation at my joining them it is hidden well. Two volunteered themselves to teach me, taking me through basic sequences apart from the main group. One is a teacher, the other a translator. I am encouraged with huge smiles and a real sense of being welcomed. There is never a question of money being involved. This is a group of Tai Chi lovers who gather to go through their steps with friends, learn from each other, and teach those who want to learn.
I wanted to try and learn a little Tai Chi for two reasons. First was to indulge in a little Chinese culture. Second was to perhaps improve my flexibility and, by slowing my body, also calm my mind.
If I have found those things in my morning sessions, I have also once again found the enormous depths of Taiwanese kindness and hospitality. I cannot imagine of being afforded such care anywhere else.