I flew China Airlines for the 4.5 hour flight to Taipei, Taiwan. Lovely airline, very comfortable, good food, and lots of refreshing Chinese tea. The hostesses were impeccably polite, and spoke in a kind of American-Chinese accent. ‘Would you care for more tea?’ they kept enquiring. Very well-drilled. Got to the airport and went straight through immigration. No visa required, no hassles. Welcome 2 Taiwan – an ad campaign I’d seen on the little TVs in the back of the taxis in Singapore. It looked great whilst driving through the drab streets of Singapore. Now I was here!
I got the Evergreen Bus number 5201, which dropped me off in Shuanglian MT station. From here, my hotel was a 2 minute walk. The Shin Shih hotel is in a good location, just opposite the Mackay Memorial Hospital. I got a nice, cosy little room with no window for 1,880 NTD, about S$75. Bargain! Dropped off my big bags, I’d taken far too much on this trip, reordered my rucksack, which contained a guidebook, maps, pens, a change of t-shirt and a camera, and headed straight into the district.
The surrounding neighbourhood, while grey and at first glance not particularly charming, had an air of bustle, industriousness, and an honest and undisguised happiness. People smile a lot here. I wandered up and down a few streets, getting my bearings, before trying to buy a sim card to no avail (I needed my passport). It was getting on for 6, so I went underground to catch an MRT to City Hall, where the once-tallest building in the world is situated, Taipei 101. I bought an EasyPass for 500 NTD, which works just like the EZ-link card in Singapore, or the Octopus card in Hong Kong. The MRT is spotless, the MRT route maps clear and uncluttered, which makes it really easy to get around. I took the red line to Taipei main station, changing to the blue line, and got off at City Hall. Easy. It was more modern in this part of town. Sleek, shiny new skyscrapers everywhere. This could be one of many Asian capitals, though immediate comparisons with Hong Kong, Osaka, or even Ho Chi Min (with all the scooters around) came to mind.
I turned left and left again, and saw the towering behemoth of Taipei 101. I took a 10 minute stroll to its base. It’s huge, 508m high, and designed in the image of an ever-flourishing bamboo stalk. I bought a ticket, and was ushered inside the world’s fastest elevator, a pressure-controlled one travelling at 1010m per minute. An attendant points to the roof of the elevator as you go up, where stars twinkle to the rhythm of cheesy ‘space’ music. It took only 40 seconds to get to the 89th floor observation deck.
The views from here were impressive, but Taipei isn’t really a night view city – it lacks the neon-soaked buildings and districts of Tokyo, or the well-lit bays and quays of Singapore or Hong Kong. It doesn’t shine as brightly as other cities at night. I made an empty promise to myself to come back in the day, though I knew the views still wouldn’t be comparable with some other Asian capital’s birds-eye views.
I bought a postcard and sent it to my mum and dad from the postbox in the observation deck. When I was writing it I looked around and saw a girl taking a photo of me. I smiled and she looked a little embarrassed, then plucked up the courage to practice some English on me. She was nervous – apart from her English teacher, I was probably the first English person she’d spoken to. I became aware again of how few foreigners there are in Taipei, and that a novelty value is still attached to them. I’d forgotten that feeling, but it happened everyday in Osaka and Jakarta. In small doses, the attention is welcoming. It was nice.
I said goodbye, making her night I’m sure, and went up to the 92nd floor for an open-air view. Then I got the elevator back down, the ‘whoosh’ and ‘twinkle’ of the music making me feel like I was teleporting back to earth. Feeling puckish, I went to the food court and got an omrice, as I don’t think I’d had one since I used to queue up for one at Hep 5 department store in Umeda, Osaka every week. Absolutely delicious. From here, I decided to walk all the way to a bar on Annhe street called Carnagies. I didn’t know where I was going really, but found it eventually, and sat at the spacious bar with a pint of Carlsberg. It was clearly the kind of place that is a favourite with expats, and those seeking expats, but it was pretty tame being a Monday.
A guy called Jim from Canada came and sat next to me. He’d been in Taipei for 1 and a half months, and taught World History at a local school. He was over-worked and underpaid – his school was making him teach a course they didn’t have a syllabus for, meaning Jim had to write the whole course while he was teaching it. But Jim was one of those super nice ‘gee, I don’t know man’ Canadians, and hadn’t kicked up a fuss. He just took the shit, though by the way he was talking, increasingly bitterly, staring at his glass of Abbot’s Ale, I could sense he was going to snap soon. Jim told me he was going to seek a pay rise. He was a real teacher, qualified and everything, and he was pissed to know other ‘mickey mouse’ teachers were getting the same, or more, than him. But qualifications aren’t really important here. Being white is. Jim’s school would never accept his demands. Jim’s are 10 a penny in Taipei. They’d just trade him in for a naïve model if he started demanding too much. He was gonna have a hard time, poor Jim.
We got on the subject of astrology, and I learnt that today was Jim’s birthday. Alone, far from home, sat in a bar in Taipei with a complete stranger for company. I felt sorry for Jim, and bought him a birthday drink. ‘Gee, thanks a lot man, that’s real nice of ya’ he remarked when I offered. The night couldn’t possibly end there. I asked Jim if he knew of any other bars. He didn’t, so I took him to Saints and Sinners just down the road. It was empty, save a couple of other lonely souls at the bar, but we sat and had a drink anyway. And another. And another. The barmaids in here were nice and flirty. One of them looked Korean; she had a typically big Korean face, but she was 100% Taiwanese. She was funny, encouraging us to drink more, which we did, though Jim wisely stayed off the shots as he had to teach in the morning ‘Gee….you know, I think I’m just gonna stick with the beeeeeerrr’ he drawled each time a shot glass was put in front of him.
A geezer from London came over and started chatting to us. He was a salesman, here on business. He had the gift of the gab, as all London businessmen seem to do, but seemed, like Jim, a slave of his company, flying off anywhere they tell him, the ‘Up in the Air’ lifestyle that sums up the zeitgeist. He kept repeating a story of how he’d shagged a 28 year old. ’28 mate. Genuine. 28….for a 46 year-old like me, brilliant. Shagged her and put me hand in me pocket instinctively you know, like you do all over Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, but she wasn’t like that. Couldn’t believe it. 28 mate. Geunine….’ I had horrible visions of myself going down the same route, bragging about a rare success that didn’t involve a transaction. Time to settle down then! I mentioned it was Jim’s birthday to change the subject. ‘Really? Mine too! That’s amazing!’ enthused the salesman. ‘Can’t bloody believe it!’ So that was 2 lonely souls, celebrating their birthdays with only a flirtatious barmaid and me for company. It was a bit sad, but they didn’t seem to care. The geezer left. Soon, so did Jim. I’d enjoyed his company.
I was on form with the drink, nailing bottles of Taiwan beer and Tsingtao, racing to finish drinks with Roxanne. It was 2am, and I still had a mean thirst on, energized by being in a new city, with new people. Roxanne the big-faced barmaid told me she’d take me to a 24 hour bar she knew of. We hopped in a cab and went. It was nice, with a collection of blessed-out hippy travelers and sizzled Monday club Taiwanese. I ordered a bowl of chips, more beer, then got on the spirits and mixer. The rest of the night went by in a blur, and it was 7:30am before I finally staggered home and to bed, through the dining room with fresh-faced businessmen having breakfast. An incredible first day.