Taiwan is an island country/state. At best, its existence in the international community can be described as politically ambiguous and in indefinite limbo. During the Chinese Civil War between 1927 and 1949, the ‘Republic of China’ withdrew from the mainland, retreating to current day Taiwan, while the Communist Party of China took control of mainland China and has maintained that control ever since. Knowing only a small amount of this, I was uncertain what to expect of Taiwan. I was pleasantly surprised to find the rich Chinese culture in a country rife with anti-communist sentiment and passion for independence.
Hannah and I arrived a week prior to Chinese Lunar New Year, which is best described as wrapping Christmas, New Years, and 4th of July all in one holiday. Schools and companies alike shut down for several days to prepare for feasts, fireworks, and friendship. The atmosphere was light and festive. Vendors sold bouquets of bright flowers and others offered traditional trinkets given as gifts during the New Year celebrations. Hannah and I picked up a few as momentos and decorations for our own Christmas tree back in the United States.
Approximately every 10-15 blocks, a night market unfolded in the different neighborhoods of Taipei. The night market is a societal social construct where locals go to shop, socialize, celebrate, and seek entertainment every night of the year. Each neighborhood’s market had its own flavor, both in food and attractions. Hannah and I sought out about 6 different markets to craft a well-rounded experience. One evening we stumbled upon a purple event occurring on Google Maps stating “Lunar New Year: Happening Now”. It was occurring at a market we intended to see, so we arrived and immediately melted into the several thousands of people that packed the skinny street. It was intense, to say the least. At times we could barely move through the crowd, making only inches of progress over the course of minutes. Locals ate street food, bought red trinkets and presents, and perused dried fruits. The culture of Taipei was visceral and alive with excitement.
Along side night markets, temples were the other top attraction of Taipei. Confucian, Maoist, and Buddhist temples intermixed throughout the neighbors of the city. During one visit, a local representative of the temple invited us to a free 30 minute tour and explanation of his religion. It was quite interesting to understand more of the backstory of the visitors’ actions and the imagery around us. For example, all visitors are invited to enter on the right through the dragon door and exit on the left through the tiger door. The local explained if someone chooses to deviate, they may end up with bad luck for the day. Hannah and I needed all the luck we could get, plus we elected not to stick out in a foreign place.
Much of the religion reminded me of superstition. For example, certain actions were done for good luck. Locals arrived to pray for a need. They threw 2 crescent shaped red pieces of wood on the ground, and their end position indicated a “yes” or “no” from the deity. If a yes, they then twirled a series of sticks around and picked one at random. They read the number and then proceeded to then throw the same pieces of wood down, needing 2 of 3 as a yes to move on to the final wall of prayer answers and outcomes. It was very interesting and intensive.
Looking back on the food of Taipei, we agree, we would do a lot to have it again. Our absolute favorite was what American’s might call a hole in the wall. The kitchen was a cart on the front porch area with a large bubbling pot of boiling noodles and another cooking area for the beef soup. We entered skeptically and pointed at other peoples bowls to order without a single word of shared language. All of the locals glanced at the only white people seated at one of the many long crowded tables with small stools. We returned the glances to observe people adding a variety of ingredients to their soup noodles. We followed suit and enjoyed one of our favorite meals from the entire trip, which we then repeated 3 other times.
Taipei boasts the fastest passenger elevator in the world in one of the tallest buildings in the world, the Taipei 101 Observatory. Like a Twinkie, there’s a little something special in the middle: a damper. It does not mean the building is a party pooper, it actually means it is quite stable. The mass damper is a very large, heavy pendulum-esque contraption that stabilizes tall buildings susceptible to wind movement or earthquakes. It is a very common structure, but this damper is the only damper open to the public. A video inside the building showed it in action, moving opposite of the building during a recent earthquake. Visitors on the video struggle to stay standing as the CC camera shakes and the damper moves in accordance. It was fascinating, especially for my nerdy engineer wife.
When we were not in awe of the surrounding mountains and heavy green foliage in Taiwan, we gawked at the high tech skyscrapers and modern infrastructure. When big was too big, the intimate dozen or so night markets offered refreshment and escape. I was so sad to leave. Taipei is only one small piece of Taiwan, a small island with so much to offer, and we cannot wait to go back.