By Josh Withey
One of the first things you witness while walking bleary-eyed through Taipei’s airport is a Hello Kitty immigration desk
You pause for a moment wondering if the flight has taken its toll on you, but no, it’s really there – complete with Hello Kitty passport scanners. No sight could better prepare you for the bustling hub of activity, technology and brilliance that is Taipei.
If you’re the kind of holidaymaker who revels in sharing your photographic expertise and rubbing your incredible trip in the faces of your coworkers and friends, Taiwan is most certainly for you. And Taipei 101 is the ideal place to start. This gorgeous structure is the eighth-largest building in the world, standing at an impressive 101 floors and featuring a huge shopping centre and world-renowned dumpling restaurant at its base. In comparison, The Shard in London looks like a cold day in the locker room. From the huge, air conditioned viewing platforms, you can take in the depth and breadth of the capital itself, a sprawling metropolis that abruptly stops to make way for lush green foliage and sloping mountains – picture every futuristic anime city you’ve seen and you’d get pretty close.
Just around the corner from 101 is Tonghua Night Market, one of the many markets you can stumble across in the city, and an ideal spot for the Insta-obsessive. As you get caught up in the current of tourists and locals, courteously barging up and down the spindly corridors, you’re assaulted by the smells, sounds and sights of local cuisine. Grilled skewered squid crackles on one stand while sweet taro milk tea is sold from another. Less adventurous travellers should steer clear of stinky tofu however; this bizarre creation is fermented in brine and you’ll certainly recognise the smell for the rest of your days.
If, like us, you’re inclined to eat your way through a new country – stinky tofu withstanding – Taiwan’s culinary prowess knows no bounds. Thanks to its incredibly varied history, Taiwan has a beautiful mismatch of influences, and this is most noticeable in its food. From the aforementioned dumpling restaurant Din Tai Fung – which offers a whole host of mind blowing delicacies – to the more traditional Taiwanese cuisine, when traveling you must prepare yourself for foodie nirvana. Our personal favourite spot had to be James Kitchen, located in Da’an District. This establishment, our tour guide told us, was the place to go for the kind of cooking your Taiwanese mother would make. As plates of green ferns covered in miso paste, wharf fish and salted pork emerged, it was almost impossible to stop eating. And as James himself proudly meanders around tables, informing customers which dish he cooked personally, it would be rude not to indulge in a second helping.
A real highlight of our jaunt around this gorgeous island nation was just an hour out of Taipei proper, to a spot named Jiufen, or “nine portions,” so named because only nine households once existed there. Up in the mountains themselves you can find the Gold Museum – where we panned for rare materials in the hopes of packing in this life of gay media and retiring to a small cottage on the Taiwanese coast… Alas, we failed in our hunt for riches, so we proceeded around the mountain to sip tea on the balcony of Siid Cha, a teahouse with a view that even them most seasoned traveler would have to admit is unparalleled.
The real adventure in Jiufen begins down in the market – this warren-esque spot was the inspiration for the food/pig scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away. Stalls and vendors line the tiny alleyways and, much like the night markets in the city, your senses are confounded in the most wonderful ways. You won’t be turned into a pig – as in Spirited Away – but it’s a great place to pick up the cheesiest of souvenirs.
For drinks and bustling nightlife, you need look no further than Ximending – a gargantuan shopping district and home to Taipei’s largest gaybourhood. Located just behind The Red House – an eight-sided 18th century Japanese building that looks as amazing as it sounds – are around two dozen gay bars, shops and hotels that could keep you entertained for hours. Late into the night you can sit outside, sip on a Taiwan beer and take in the bustling atmosphere – small lap dogs yip at each other from rival tables and karaoke drifts out of darkened bars across the busy but incredibly chilled out scene.
It’s also widely assumed that Taiwan will probably be the first country in Asia to cross the line in the race to legalise same-sex marriage. The country’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, came out publicly in support of marriage equality in 2015, and this year a collection of Taiwan’s most famous musicians are putting on a concert called Love is King specifically to campaign in the affirmative.
But if you’re looking for more history than you can shake an incense stick at, then Tainan is most certainly worth adding to your itinerary. Tainan, which literally translates as “Taiwan South” – no prizes for guessing what Taipei translates to – is a short bullet train away. In under two hours you can be at the other end of the country, experiencing all the delights it has to offer. From the Anping Treehouse – a warehouse taken over by an almost mystical banyan tree – to the city’s many ancient and beautiful temples. We were fortunate enough to witness the exiting of the the gods while visiting one such temple – after enjoying their own little excursion down south, six golden deities were blessed, and showered with incense and fireworks, before being serenaded out of the gates.
The best way to describe Taiwan to a prospective visitor would be that it’s a gateway country to the rest of Asia. Its friendly, laid-back and welcoming nature is only matched by its incredibly rich and immensely interesting culture. From the sumptuous food to the glorious surroundings, you’ll never be able to get enough of Taiwan. And when same-sex marriage is legalised, there’s going to be one hell of a party.