Visit the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, and you'll find much that's strange and unfamiliar to Westerners - but plenty to tickle the tastebuds, satisfy any shopaholic urges, and keep you entertained
“Snakes? You want snakes?” Roused from my sleep at 35,000 feet, why would I want snakes? “Oh, you mean snacks.” Lovely as the air steward was, with a contented tummy already full of EVA Air’s finest Din Tai Fung Braised Beef Noodles, I didn’t quite fancy snacks - or snakes, for that matter.
Fast forward 24 hours and I’m in Taipei’s Snake Alley. Tourists and locals come here to enjoy the many food stalls and shop for goods such as CDs, bags and jewellery. More famously, visitors come from far and wide to view the ‘snake shows’, where snakes are turned into dinner dishes, a process that is not for the squeamish. Snake blood is also available to sip here, and deemed by Asian people to be a great aphrodisiac and virility-booster. I leave it to you.
One of the best ways to sample both the country’s food and its social scene is to head to the local night market in Taipei (and in every other town and city in Taiwan). This is where everyone, old and young, hangs out. Having just arrived that night, I decided to grab the bull by the horns, and hopped in a taxi to Shilin Night Market.
There, I found streets teeming with trainers, huddled with handbags, crammed with cameras, jam-packed with jewellery. In one street, I came across no fewer than 12 shops in a row selling the latest Converse baseball trainers, none of which were yet available in the UK. Plus, they were selling for half the price they cost over here. I managed to do all my Christmas shopping in one fell Converse swoop.
Eat like a local
Having also stocked up on memory sticks, as well as the latest Sony digital camera, we then headed to the food market. Food is one thing that this small country does well. Were you aware, for instance, that in Taiwan there is said to be a snack shop every three steps and a restaurant every five?
Here, we did as the locals did. I shadowed a young Taiwanese couple and confidently ordered what they were having, only asking for the dishes’ names and ingredients afterwards. I tasted delicious oyster omelettes cooked in front of me on a steaming grill. We gorged on the ubiquitous and infamous stinky tofu – which tasted more like a ripe Camembert rather than old rubber boots, as its name might suggest.
To wash it all down, we drank pearl tea, which is milky tea with large, chewy tapioca balls in the bottom – a drink to which I got strangely addicted during my stay in Taiwan, even if it is non-alcoholic. Throughout my travels in the country, we had plenty of fresh seafood and shellfish, from boiled abalone and stir-fried chilli shrimp to freshwater mussels with vermicelli.
Another must is a visit to a foot massage parlour, and we hot-footed it to one after our night market dinner. Qualified foot masseurs can be found all over Taiwan night markets, in chain stores and even in five-star hotels. The Taiwanese revere foot massage as a popular way to release stress, as it stimulates reflex areas that are linked to every organ and gland of the body. It can promote blood flow and metabolism, and is ideal for travellers who are on their feet much of the time.
That was the hype, and the reality didn't fall short - but a Taiwanese foot massage can be somewhat painful to endure! The masseurs often speak little English and instead you are presented with a small card with a diagram of your left and right feet on it. This diagram divides the sections of your feet into separate reflexology areas, which are numbered. The masseur will then knead and prod your feet, and when you yelp in pain, they shout out a number, which corresponds to your diagram, thereby telling you whether you have problems with your heart, lungs or other vital bits, as I did. It’s a little like bunion bingo.
Our first full day in Taipei was a culture vulture's dream. Up early, we caught the MRT Danshui Line to Shilin Station, before jumping on the bus R30 (Red 30) to the National Palace Museum. Fascinatingly, a lot of China’s most precious pieces of art were shipped here during the Cultural Revolution on the mainland, meaning that the museum is home to some of the best Chinese art in the world. It’s no surprise that the National Palace Museum has been voted one of the top four museums in the world.
After lunch, we headed to Taipei 101, which, at over 508 metres, is the world’s tallest building at the time of writing. Built to resemble a large stalk of bamboo, it houses some swanky shops (including Jean Paul Gaultier and Valentino) and a food court on its first few floors. Visitors can take the fastest lift in the world, which zips you at a rate of 36 miles per hour up to the top of the tower for awe-inspiring panoramic views of the capital. All around, you can see new building and infrastructure, proving that Taipei is as modern and thriving a city as Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Views from the tower showed the nearby tea plantations, all of which are still harvested for the country’s famous oolong tea. The next day, we headed out to the Wenshan district, just 40 minutes from downtown Taipei, and sat, as the Taiwanese do, in one of the area’s many tea shops. There, we were presented with a staggering choice of teas, from green tea to pinglin tea and even a flowering jasmine tea. Our local guide performed the tea ritual before us. We watched as the first brew washed the leaves and was poured away. The tea was then poured out of the pot into a separate jug before being served into small, thimble-sized drinking cups.
Taipei has everything you’d expect from one of the world’s most bustling cities. The capital is modern and forward-thinking, its people kind and welcoming. Party-goers, shopaholics and culture vultures will find no shortage of entertainment. And with the chance to feast on stinky tofu, thousand-year-old eggs, chicken feet and pig trotters, it’s perfect for those adventurous foodie travellers too…