I am not a fan of architecture per se, but I can faintly trace my fascination with skyscrapers to late 2005, flipping through an edition of Whitaker’s World Fact-book, there was a list of top 10 tallest buildings in the world, and right there on the top was Taipei 101, the world’s tallest skyscraper in 2005, along with a picture. 509 meters, wow. As a kid, I couldn’t imagine a building half a kilometer high, it sounded incredible. I wanted to see it to be sure. And right there, right then, was my earliest itch to travel. That memory stuck around.
Years later, Taipei 101 is no longer the tallest building in the world, but I never really got over that initial fascination. It was never just about a building, it was about what it represented to me, a very early testament to human will. So when an opportunity presented itself, a chance to work at the National Taiwan University, Taipei, for a couple of months, I jumped at it.
I packed my bags and came to Taiwan. 4000 kms from home. For two months. A stranger in the country. Unable to speak the language. Unsure of the food. Alien to the culture. Void of a purpose. The funny thing is that I was never scared. I became aware of the fact that it was a brave thing to do when people I talked to dropped their jaws over there in Taipei. I was excited, right from the moment I landed in Taiwan. I looked at the city from my Airport train window, at the buildings, the hills, a faint silhouette of Taipei 101 in the background, and the only thing I could feel was a rush of adrenaline. I’ve never felt more alive.
Let’s dive into what makes Taipei special, I’ve curated a list of the following points through which I hope to give you some insights into my stay here. I’ve added pictures!
Taiwan has night markets, magical places where you can eat the wildest delicacies at reasonable prices. For me, eating in Taiwan was filled with firsts, first frog, first squid, octopus, shrimp, clams, salmon sushi, japanese curry and a bunch of other stuff. The dumplings lived upto and exceeded my expectations, best I’ve ever had, tofu was aplenty and Taiwanese noodles a pleasant surprise. If I had to choose one meal though, it’d be hot-pot, Japanese hot-pot is pure genius.
Taiwan is rich in culture, and I was lucky enough to be around for dragon boat racing. Admittedly diluted in urban expanses of cities like Taipei, yet Taiwanese culture was a beautiful blend of its Japanese heritage and Chinese origin.
Ask a random stranger on the streets what’s the best thing they like about Taipei, and there’s a strong possibility that they’ll laugh awkwardly and then confess that it’s the convenience. Taipei is convenient, more so than any other city that I’ve been in. The MRT (Metro Rail Transport) system is robust, the buses are good and cheaply priced, and then there are U-bikes. It’s the perfect implementation of a city-wide bike-sharing system, and it’s extremely well-maintained. Transportation is a breeze in Taipei. 7-11s and Family Marts on every other corner are cherries on top, 24x7 access to food and every other shopping emergency is a heaven-sent. Especially when you can bike to it and be back in 10 mins.
I’ve never been a museum-person. I appreciate art and history, but somehow, museums don’t fascinate me, and not for a want of trying. Though I must say, Taipei has some world-class museums, with the Museum of Fine Arts being particularly exciting. It’s exhibits on sound and music, along with it’s exploration of psychedelic lights was something new. Besides museums, Taipei’s central districts like Da’an are prime examples of beautiful Japanese architecture. Phil Knight noticed in his how the japanese strive to add beauty too every facet of their existence, it shows in their architecture. Taiwan’s Japanese heritage is a noticeable and remarkable part of life in Taipei.
The National Taiwan University is located in the heart of the city, a couple of metro stops away from Taipei 101 and a walk away from all the nice bars and clubs of the city. I had a great time at the Gonguang Riverside, a string of beautiful small bars in Taipei right next to the Tamsui river, where you can sit with a couple of beers, chat up with people from all over the world, share stories, dance to good music and wait for the sunrise. Bonus : an amazing dumpling breakfast awaits you, if you can sit tight till 6:00am.
It might be a wee-bit touristy, but street artists are an integral part of any city, in my personal opinion. Taipei does not disappoint, not at all. I saw artists performing rock classics to traditional chinese music and everything in between on the streets. Whether it be the city centres of Yuanshan or tourist hotspots like Tamsui and Shilin, live music was always a pleasure on the streets of Taipei.
I am hesitant in generalizing statements about large sections of the population based on the few interactions that I’ve had in a place, but I must say, the people that I interacted with in Taipei were amongst the nicest and politest people I’ve met. Taipei’s high ranks in security and low crime rates are visible in its law abiding citizens. A lot of factors influence your choice of living in a city, for me, its important for the place to be cosmopolitan, I enjoy talking to people from different walks of life at a local bar or over a bowl of noodles, and Taipei is cosmopolitan, increasingly so.
Taipei has a large variety of weekend Getaways to offer, ranging from beautiful beaches to lush green mountains, with everything in between. A bonus addition is an active volcano at the Yang Ming Shang national park, a short drive from Taipei. The attached picture is from a lazy Saturday out at the Fulong beach with some friends.
Ranked among the top 100 universities in the world, the National Taiwan University is breath-takingly beautiful, and a tourist attraction in itself. I would legit miss sitting next to the Drunken Moon lake on a sunny day with a good book and just watching the day pass by while I read. The main library is an architectural masterpiece, but probably the most intriguing on campus, for me, were the students themselves. It was inspiring to see how dedication can change your entire outlook for college, maybe it was just the people I met, maybe not, but I left with a heightened appreciation for education, and an aroused hunger to make the most of what time I have left at my university.
You saw it coming. This list would have incomplete without Taipei 101, of course. As luck would have it, I had a clear view of this iconic building from my dorm balcony. And an hour after checking into my dorm, I was on my way. On foot, walking towards Taipei 101, without a map. Who needs a map when you can just loop up to check your destination out. I remember pacing, as I got closer. And then I turned a corner and all of a sudden, I was there. I felt a dream being fulfilled so strongly in that moment, standing next to the Adidas 101 basketball court, where people were playing, and I looked at their obliviousness incredulously. I stood gawking at 101 for a solid 5 minutes, and after I had taken the sight in, clicked a bunch of pictures, video-called friends and family, I turned around and walked back to my dorm. I had seen Taipei 101. My 2005 self was happy. I smiled like an idiot the whole way back.
I returned on my last day in Taiwan and climbed to the top, saw the entire city spread before me, and it felt like a homage to the last couple of months. Taipei was good to me. I learnt more about life than I thought I could, in two months. I returned with a renewed sense of purpose, and honestly, I can’t wait to go back someday.