TAIPEI is seedy, a never ending red light district. Illuminated signs flash, studded lights line up in arrow formation pointing to unknown places.
Elegant, grotesque Banyan trees flank and frame streets. Blackened bark. Tendrils drool. Branches dance with one another: making contorted shapes with their bodies.
Buildings are smothered in a layer of dirt that seeps into the cracks between the tiles, coating the thickets of wires that spew out of buildings: the guts of the city laid bare for all to see.
But this is just an impression seen through a Western, British lens. Relative to there where streets are ordered, straight-laced, sterile: to pass through, not to be touched.
Here, the streets are alive. The streets are workshops. Unfinished projects left out everyday: Brooms, fabric, nails, sinks, pipes. Protected by the city’s endless arcades, that extend shop units outwards.
Find a well positioned bench with a good view, or grab a stool and watch the theatre of the street for a minute or two, soon to be passed by a tirade of colourful scooters, their riders of whom, on rainy days, come dressed head to toe in matching rain jackets.
At night the streets are transformed again. Night markets are prolific and exceptional. This is where to eat and how – sample so-called ‘stinky tofu’ (a dip on the cities smell scape), fish balls, pineapple cake. But night markets are not only about eating but socialising, playing: sit down for a moment of calm and engage in a game of Mahjong while sipping on a papaya milk.
In Taipei, people are polite, kind, fashionable; they leave you alone. Here masks worn not because of air pollution (as with some neighbouring countries) but are worn to signify that one is unwell, as a courtesy.
Culturally you’ll find yourself musing on the cities influences from its Japanese and Chinese colonial times, and more recent influences from the USA and Korea.
In terms of religion and spiritual practices it is decidedly Chinese. Temples here (majority Taoist) are prolific and some of the most beautiful. They range in size and scale and are as regular and convenient as the 7/11 shops that pervade the city, and you’ll find them nestled in busy shopping streets and back alleys.
Listen out for a tinny clacking sound emitting from the larger temples: the sound of crescent shaped Moon Blocks being thrown by worshippers with questions. Depending on the way the blocks fall gives the answer – yes, no, undecided.
A sound you will not have to bend to hear in the city is Beethoven’s Fur Elize. In fact it will get stuck in your head: with a somewhat erry, chinzy version of the masterpiece chimed out by the city’s waste and recycling trucks five days a week. The melody as a trigger for residents to come running out with their diligently sorted waste (of which there are 13 categories), when it is checked out the spot, with fines issued for mistakes made. A less welcome ice cream van; or a precious moment for community coming-together? (The trucks also play out the lesser known A Maiden’s Prayer by Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska).
In commerce, the smiley face is pervasive – found on logos, stationary, medicine: nothing is safe. In some ways very charming: or is this just capitalism with a smiley face plastered over it, cajoling you into spending more?
Sitting in a valley the edges of the city are green. Stretch up to stroke the ridged underbelly of a banana tree leaf, never too far from reach. The trees peel, collapsing upon themselves like the fruit they bear.
Here you’ll encounter a natural noise palette made up of a chorus of frogs, crickets, singing their evening song that encases the city…
Mountainous, hiking is always on the agenda and you need not travel far to find a challenging peak. Travel via bus to Jinguashi, rumoured to be the inspiration for Studio Ghibili films, to climb Teapot mountain via unsanitized trails, where you’ll soon find yourself scrabbling on all fours to get up the mountain face. Here many-storied tea-houses totter on stilted legs atop mountain ranges,in a way that invites a magical realist re-imagining.
Want to get further out still? Tainan, in the south, is where you’ll experience the ‘real Taiwan’, argue some: smaller in scale and with breaks in the skyline that Taipei lacks. An appeal of Tainan is that it is surrounded in agriculturally rich towns and villages such as Yujing. Home of the mango, in Yuging you’ll find godly sculptures of mangos held up on plinths. Hailed as the King, the Tsar, Emperor of the town. The most organic, representative and charming placebranding scheme you’ll ever see. A common phenomenon in Taiwan, other towns hailing their own vegetative god.
You’ll notice key cities are prefixed by Tai-:Taipei, Tainan, Taichung. Meaning Tai- North, South, Central reflective of a certain sense of unity you’ll experience: a sense that ‘we are all Taiwan’ here. Even the Easycard (for trains and metros) works cross-country. Yet you’ll find distinctly unique character and culture within each region and city.
An Island 394 km long, come not only for the capital, but for the rest of this intriguing, kind, and in fact very clean – in a way that is quite different from the West – island and city.