Welcome to Taipei, Taiwan / Every year, I pick a month or two between November and February to spend in Taipei. These long trips are made possible by working remotely as a freelance illustrator. But once each day’s work is done, I’m free to grab my sketchbook and explore.
This annual trip is my chance to conveniently miss a chunk of Chicago winter and to enjoy daily life in Asia, surrounded by mochi and savory buns. It’s an eating paradise. With vendors hawking sweet and savory treats from afternoon until past midnight, it’s easy to see how snacking has become something of a Taiwanese pasttime.
With so many tasty distractions on every street corner, it’s easy to forget that the city is surrounded by lush, subtropical forests and mountains. So in the pursuit of moderation, I’ve spent more and more time trying to see the natural parts of Taipei. From hiking to the highest peak in northern Taiwan to walking among fireflies in a city park, there is a lot to discover!
BEING ACTIVE AND SEEING THINGS
I first thought that jogging through the streets of Taipei would be a great way to explore the city. In the humid Taipei winter, I’d only need a tank top, shorts, and running shoes to take off in whatever direction I wanted. However, I always felt like there was something a little weird about it all.
One day, I was running back home when I heard an elderly grandpa yelling across busy Jientan Rd. It took a few minutes of yelling before I realized that he was yelling at me in Taiwanese. “COLD!!! LADY! IT’S COLD, LADY, VERY COLD.” Oh my god, I’d managed to get yelled at by an Obasan on the open streets of Taipei. That’s when I realized what was weird about me running in Taipei streets: me. Taipei city streets are not a normal place for exercise.
Since then I’ve realized that there are plenty of places where I can run and explore without getting scolded. The community rec center in my neighborhood is more packed every year, reflecting a rising interest in being physically fit. Taiwanese people have always loved being in nature, so hiking is probably the most natural fit. Here are a few things I like to do to stay active on my trips back to Taipei:
Hike, then soak on Yang Ming Shan
The silvergrass-covered Yang Ming Mountains are so easily accessible from Taipei that all it takes is getting on a bus from Jientan MRT station. Hiking up Qixing Mountain, the highest peak in northern Taiwan, is a 11 to 19 degree grade, 5.7km, 3 hour hike. For something shorter or easier, walk to flat, grassy Qingtiangang. You might even bump into some grazing buffalo, present in this area since the Japanese occupation.
Stroll in Daan Park with the fireflies
Taipei has been restoring fireflies in this large city park over the past few years, releasing young glowworms and limiting nighttime lights. With an increasing focus on being an ecofriendly city, Taipei is actually holding the International Firefly Symposium this April 2017. Aside from chasing fireflies at night, Daan is a bustling city park, and one acceptable place to run! In the mornings, you can’t get far without coming up on multiple groups of seniors doing tai chi or dancing. You’ll usually hear their boom boxes or smell the tiger balm before you see them, but it’s a nice testament to the way that the older generation is taking care of itself.
Walk up the strange back side of Yuan Shan
This mountain is best known for the Grand Hotel. In its heyday, it was one of the most glamorous hotels in the area. Still in operation, the huge red hotel’s placement on Yuan Shan makes it visible from many parts of the city. The rest of the modest mountain appears heavily forested, but there is a small system of stepped trails that reach the summit lookout in 30–45 minutes, and then connect to the hotel after another 15 minutes.
But I don’t come here for the views or the hotel. It’s hard to describe the strange shantytown village that has been built along these trails, but it keeps me coming back year after year. Imagine a squatter’s philosophy in place here: if you build something, it’ll belong to you. As a result, a hike up this trail will take you past elderly citizens waltzing, playing ping pong, singing karaoke, raising chickens, and even doing a little bit of farming.
Run or bike along the Taipei Riverfront Trail
The three rivers that run through Taipei have been outfitted with a beautiful series of riverfront parks, with a trail winding through 62 miles of it and stretching as far north as Danshui. This tranquil path hosts runners and bikers, who can then watch the dragon boat rowers practicing on the rivers. My favorite stretch starts at the trail entrance behind the Story Museum / Fine Arts Museum and winds north towards the Grand Hotel, mostly because of a particularly pretty mural along that stretch. You can rent bike shares (YouBikes) from many places all over the city — just look for the orange stacks of bikes.
For a rainy day, go to Eslite Bookstore
Imagine a beautiful 24/7 bookstore, with floors dedicated to different book sections of all types, music, gifts and stationery, and a particularly good eye for product design. It’s hard to spend less than a couple hours in Eslite, thanks also to the comfortable coffee shops and restaurants. Loitering and reading on the spot are encouraged!
One morning 8 years ago, I was grocery shopping with my mom in the humble Shilin produce market when we caught a rich, buttery smell. We wandered around until we found the source: a pineapple cake vendor! Pineapple cakes are a beloved national snack, an individually packaged square cake with a hint of pineapple jam inside. The vendor had just put a few trays of cakes in the oven, so he offered us some cooled versions. But that’s not what I wanted. If they were any bit as good as they smelled, I had to try those freshly made cakes.
I started visiting this pineapple cake man at least once every day. He would roll his eyes and scold, “Lady, they’re not done yet! That’s not how you’re supposed to eat them!” But one day, I showed up at the perfect time. The pineapple cakes were out of the oven, but not long enough to cool and harden. They were warm and crumbly, buttery and gooey. They were amazing.
Although I kept visiting the pineapple cake man, I never caught him at that perfect moment again. That Shilin produce market was demolished in 2011 and is waiting to become a performing arts center. Pineapple cake stores have since risen to a new level, and you can do tastings at some particularly upscale name brand shops. 8 years can change a lot of things, but I still think about those fresh pineapple cakes.
Vendors often come and go, and international influences are perpetually showing up in new fusion creations. But there are some popular shops and stands that have stayed constant over the past 8 years. Here are a couple stops I always make on my visits back to Taipei:
Fluffy scallion pancakes / 葱抓餅 stall outside Shilin MRT stop, on your right as you’re walking out from Exit 1. These fluffed up versions of scallion pancakes have topping options like egg, basil, and hot sauce. You can even toss a square of Kraft cheese on there — I always do! I like this particular stall because it’s usually not a long wait, and the portions are small enough to still be a snack and not a meal.
Oyster omelettes / 蚵仔煎 at Ning Xia Lu Nightmarket. Ning Xia Lu is a small, traditional night market, so locals come here to avoid tourists as well as to get a few classic dishes: oyster omelets, oyster noodles and rice balls. One particular shop, Yuan Huan Oyster Omelette / 圓環邊蚵仔煎, has been killing it at the oyster pancake game for years. Taiwanese people think long food queues point to quality, and this stall always has people lined up down the street. Oyster omelettes are a sweet and savory mix of egg, leafy greens, small oysters, and sweet chili sauce. These omelettes are much more glutinous than their American counterparts, although the sides are sometimes fried to a nice crisp for contrast.
Black pepper bun / 胡椒餅 at Shilin Nightmarket. The opposite of Ning Xia Lu in many ways, this is the largest night market in the city. It hasn’t been the same for me since the outdoor eating place was demolished a couple years back, but I still come here during off hours to grab a bun. The black pepper bun is a palm-sized, sesame crusted doughy bun filled with pork, scallions, and of course black pepper. It’s baked in a hot oven for 10 minutes, leaving the outside crispy and the middle soupy and piping hot.
Pork belly bun / 割包 at Gongguan Nightmarket. Pork belly buns seem to be everywhere in the States these days, thanks to the fatty meat trend. But I still go back to the first place I had my all-fatty-meat pork belly. 藍家割包 is a stall in the tiny streets of Gongguan Nightmarket just off National Taiwan University. If the all-fat option scares you, go for the half fat / half lean combo instead! It’s also hard to leave without a drink, so pick up some boba across the street from 陳三鼎黑糖粉圓專賣店.
Big big fried chicken / 大大雞排 at Ximending. This place is always as hyper as the high school kids that frequent it, although I have a greater appreciation for its history now that I’ve watched the Taiwanese gangster flick Monga. I just can’t resist the freakishly huge chicken nugget and its flaky MSG crumbles, despite the obvious signs that it’s come pretty far from once being a chicken. I still don’t get how it could possibly be one continuous piece of meat (there are bones)!
Handmade Mochi at IJYSHENG / 一之軒. This is a chain bakery with excellent fresh mochi in many flavors. The black sesame is one of the best. These mochi are made twice a day, so you don’t have to worry about getting stale mochi at night. I love taking a couple dozen home to the States, but beware that you’ll want to hand carry them and eat them all within 2–3 days. Just remember to never refrigerate them, or else they’ll lose all their magic!
There are always new things to do, eat, and drink every time I go back, but not before I stop at my old haunts. This list of favorites grew out of the many responses I’ve written to friends with suggestions for their trips. In my opinion, the snacks are tried and true, while the outdoorsy recommendations range from standard to a little weird. I’d love to hear about your favorite spots and must-dos in the comments!
Julia Kuo is a Taiwanese-American illustrator. She currently works out of Chicago for most of the year and Taiwan in the winter. Julia illustrates children’s books as well as editorial pieces for newspapers and magazines. Her clients include Science Friday, the New York Times, Hachette Books, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan Publishing. When she’s not drawing, you might find her running around in a national park and looking at moss. See her work at: http://juliakuo.com