Taipei was the dark horse of my trip thus far… a real unexpected joy. If I had to sum up this city in just a few words, it would be: clean, creative, fun and efficient. I throughly enjoyed my time here, wishing I had booked more of it, and that fact probably had some subconscious bearing on a little snafu I had at the end of the trip where I sort of lost track of time (generally a good sign) and completely missed my international flight to my next destination… but more on that later.
So to begin, let me get the annoying things out of the way, because there are only a few of them. First off, if you’re looking for bargains or to maximize your dollar like you can in countries such as Thailand or Vietnam, this is not the place. While Taipei is not as expensive as neighboring Japan, who the Taiwanese clearly find a lot of influence from, I found that a lot of the prices were comparable to my home city of San Francisco, which happens to be the most expensive city in the US right now. Little things such as coffee, fresh fruit or basic sundries such as toothpaste, and bigger things such as mid-range restaurants or hotel accommodations were about the same price I would pay at home. However not everything here was super pricey. For instance, taxi’s and the metro trains were very inexpensive, as well as admission prices to the museums (at least the couple I made it to) making it easy and affordable to get around and immerse yourself in the abundant culture here. And although there is plenty of high-end food to be found, as is the case in most cities, you can definitely eat inexpensively if you look in the right places, and in Taipei there are millions of choices.
Which leads me to my biggest annoyance and inconvenience… the challenge of being vegetarian, or worse, vegan. Truth is, most Asian countries have a food culture that surrounds meat, but some are definitely less diverse than others. In Taipei, many, many restaurants had absolutely nothing on their menu that was meat-free. I mean, nothing. So it took a lot of extra effort to just find places that had vegetarian options. And while I try to be flexible on the vegan front while I travel, I really prefer to uphold not supporting the animal-abusive dairy industry, which was actually the more challenging aspect here. Non-dairy milks such as oat, almond, cashew and coconut are pretty much unheard of here yet, but with enough searching I was able to find soy milk at a couple of tea shops. Regardless, with some effort I did find some really delicious, mostly vegan foods, like hot-pots with mountains of fresh veggies, barbecued tofu, spicy edamame, red-bean sweet-cakes (not vegan,) soy pudding, black sesame and pepita rice cakes and of course tons of fresh fruits. So persistence and integrity definitely pays off!
Ok… now on to all the things I loved, and there are many. The very first thing that strikes you is how clean the city is. Now, I had just come from India, which I can safely say, despite it’s many merits, does not count ‘clean’ amongst them. Far from. That comparison aside, the cleanliness of Taipei’s public spaces puts other cities to shame (I’m looking at you, San Francisco.) I truly can’t remember seeing a single piece of garbage on the streets or in the train stations, and the public bathrooms, which are literally everywhere (again, hello San Francisco!) are well attended to, even in the high-traffic tourist areas where one would simply expect a mess.
Interestingly, although Chinese is the main language spoken here and many Taiwanese claim Chinese roots, there is a strong Japanese influence in the culture despite the historical colonization by Japan, and this cleanliness as well as attention to detail you see everywhere are but a couple of the many noticeable aspects of this influence. Like Tokyo, the Taiwanese are in love with shopping and all things pop-culture, particularly animation, cartoon characters and cute little animals. Everything from city street signs to advertising campaigns and the packaging of consumer products has some sort of cutesy-cartoony thing on it. And honestly, I think it’s pretty charming the see grown men walking around with little stuffed animal trinkets hanging from their backpack, particularly when, by contrast, other Western cultures such as in the US are media obsessed with things that are more violent in nature, as evidenced in our billion dollar entertainment industry. There is an overall gentleness and politeness here that I hadn’t expected, and it was very refreshing. Despite the rather dense population, people for the most part upheld the idea of ‘personal space’ – a concept I greatly appreciate – and from places like the airport to the city streets, train stations and restaurants, you had a sense of both the order and efficiency of the Taiwanese people.
The other thing that was entirely unexpected was the artistic influence. There is art literally everywhere… from huge street murals to random sculptures along the sidewalks. Every restaurant, retail store and hotel space has an abundance of art, and there is an aesthetic tucked into the fiber of the city. Whether you love minimalism, eccentricity, anime, natural elements, modern art or classical design, there is something here that will be pleasing to your eyes. There are also what seems to be an abundance of art-dedicated spaces, such as the Huashan Creative Park, the Treasure Hill Artists Community, the Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab and of course the Museum of Contemporary Art. These space encompass things like large open park areas where local artists meet to display or sell their wares, collaborative, interactive and teaching spaces, studio communities, artist co-ops and other things of this nature. And these are just the places I got to within the limited circumference I traveled. For someone like me, who absolutely loves looking at and admiring art, aesthetic, design and various types of creative outlet, being surrounded by creativity was one of the joys and highlights of my trip, and I particularly loved my time at Treasure Hill.
Treasure Hill is an eclectic community of artist live/work spaces. Originally the area was nothing but a collection of haphazard buildings that had been put up by military veterans after the war, and a slow-growing sprawl of illegal and makeshift housing continued to crop up over several decades. But over time, the unregulated housing began to fall into a state of disrepair leaving the entire area in a rather depressed state. Early in the new millennium, a collaboration between the city government and an organization called Global Artivists Participation Project began a project to renovate the area in hopes of bringing new life to the dilapidated space. Today, you can stroll through a sort of self-contained village that is replete with cafe, a little market, a community garden, a hostel for visiting artists and the original Guan Yin temple, and you have access to many of the artist studios. The full time residents can decide whether or not to open their studio spaces which are often connected to their home, and there are certain areas where visitors are not allowed which helps residents maintain their privacy. On the weekends most of the studios are open and the village sees a lot of visitor activity, but during my time there it was very quiet and honestly, it was one of the favorite places I got to explore in Taipei.
High on my list of priorities was visiting the hot springs here. Like Japan, the island of Taiwan has an abundance of natural hot spring activity, particularly in the mountainous area of Yangmingshan Park, a beautiful national park north of the city and easily accessed by public transportation. I spent a few hours hiking around the area in the foggy, misty weather and while it wasn’t great for photographs, it was pretty magical to be in. The weather also made for an awesome backdrop for the sulphur geysers of the “thermal valley” which feeds all the hot springs downhill.
There are literally hundreds of hot-spring spa choices and so as to get diverse experiences, I chose two at opposing ends of the spectrum. My first visit was to the well known and well established Millennium Hot Springs at Beitou (Beitou is a large area where an abundance of the spas are located, Millennium being the oldest.) This is the place to go for the most authentic, locally-flavored experience. Admission was $40NTD (about $1.20 US) although my friend Rachel and I did have to spend an extra $240NTD ($7.50 US) on ‘appropriate’ swim bottoms, as our bikini bottoms were strictly prohibited according to the signage outside. While I’m pretty sure we could have circumvented this swim-bottom detail at other places, it would never have flown here. Rachel, a beautiful, tall, blonde Aussie and my tattooed self were literally the only Westerners in the small, crowded pools of hot sulphur water, so to say we stuck out would be a bit of an understatement… and our bathing companions consisted of about 200 elderly Asians. It goes without saying that no photos were allowed, but the beautiful, old faces of these people will stay etched in my memory for some time. Surprisingly, our Western presence didn’t seem to create much disruption, as most of the people looked at us with only mild curiosity (although I suspect that might not have been the case in bikinis!) but I mention this because it was in such direct contrast to India where eyes bear into you like laser beams no matter where you are or what you’re doing! Regardless, it’s safe to say that many of these people were locals and have been coming here for years, and it was all rather charming and worth the experience. The green-sulphur waters are well known to have healing properties, and all I know is that despite the cramped quarters and amusing swim wear, the water felt amazing and I felt pretty amazing for days afterwards.
A couple of days later I opted for some stress relief in the form of a more luxurious hot spring experience. The Grand View Resort is one of the few hotel/resorts that also has a public hot spring, meaning that for a fee, you can visit the pools and stay at your leisure to use the amenities, such as the sauna, steam room, shower and dressing room, and you can enjoy coffee, tea, a variety of cold drinks and snacks, all included in the price. The pools are housed in an indoor/outdoor type setting with a gorgeous, minimalistic aesthetic. The visit (for up to four hours, although I was done cooking and lounging after two!) cost about $45 US, which is only slightly higher than the similar Japanese style bathhouse I regularly visit in San Francisco (Kabuki Hot Springs) and to me, totally worth the price since soaking in the white-sulphur spring water is a healing treatment in and of itself. It was a glorious way to spend a few hours, particularly since at that juncture, I was a bit stressed out… something I rarely say during my travels!
You see, I guess I was having such a fantastic time in Taipei that I sort of lost track of what day it was, and as I spent the day traipsing around the aforementioned Treasure Hill Artist Community, I was supposed to be getting myself on a flight to Manila. But somehow I had made a critical error, thinking I was departing on a Thursday and thus spent my Wednesday absorbing more of the city instead of leaving it. It was only after several missed calls from my hotel, anxious to know where I was because it was past check-out time and they needed the room, that I figured out what had happened! Several hours later, after furiously trying to rework complicated (and expensive) logistics, I got things settled and decided a trip to the spa was the perfect panacea for the moment, and it did not disappoint! The resort even offered a complimentary shuttle back down to the train station, making the trip back to the new hotel that much easier.
Although I did a ton of walking, getting around the metro area of Taipei by train is hands-down one of the easiest (and cleanest and cheapest!) experiences I’ve ever had in a city. The train system is very large and can take you most anywhere you need to go (hello hot springs!) but there were a few places farther afield where the trains don’t extend to, so one day I hired a taxi for a full day-trip to the Northeast part of Taiwan and explored some of the small towns there.
Pingxi and nearby Shifen are old gold-mining towns built around the railroad system and are now destination spots for many tourists due to the popular lighting of sky lanterns that happens there (they are the only places in Taiwan where this activity is allowed for environmental purposes.) The sky lanterns originated in Pingxi as a means of communication during the war-time era and today there is an annual lantern festival where thousands of people gather to send their lanterns up into the night sky. As customs do, the lighting of the lanterns has since morphed into a sort of good-luck ritual. The lanterns themselves come in different color combinations with each color representing a different prosperity… wealth, health, happiness, love etc. Once you pick your colors, you write category-appropriate wishes on the colored panels before lighting and sending the lantern up into the ether.
Since being on such a deep spiritual path these last few months, pink – the color for bliss – was my main focal point. After all, the bliss state – samadhi – is the pinnacle state of yoga, and since I’m working toward climbing that proverbial mountain, I figured there’s no harm in using all the rituals available to get me there! It was a fun way to spend an hour, creating my own lantern full of wishes and watching everyone else write their wishes and set them aloft toward the sky gods.
Shifen also boasts a beautiful waterfall surrounded by lush, green land you can walk through on the way to the falls, and after lighting my lantern it was a beautiful stop on the way to the side by side coastal hill-towns of Juifen and Jinguashi. Juifen has become very popular due to it’s influence as the setting for the film Spirited Away… a beautiful Japanese, animated fairy tale. That being said, after reading about it I had fantasies of my own about how charming the place would be, but found it to be mostly a huge tourist trap… my least favorite thing ever. That being said, as is the case when I travel, I made a point to veer myself away from the crowds, opting to explore hidden staircases, alleyways and viewpoints wherever I could, which wasn’t difficult since the town is densely inhabited and built on a hill, making tight alleyway staircases the main connecting pathways. I do have to give credit where credit is due, however. It was here that I enjoyed some of the best street food to date. Did I mention the tempura oyster mushrooms before? So yummy!
Directly adjacent to Juifen is Jinguashi. The main attractions here are the gold mining museum, a beautiful Buddhist temple, and the nearby ruins of a Japanese Shinto Shrine, which involved climbing many, many, many (many!) steps straight uphill to reach. While the ruins weren’t all that interesting, the view was spectacular and after hours spent in a car getting there, I really rather enjoyed the uphill climb.
I would be remiss if I did not mention what brought me to Taipei in the first place, as the city had been nowhere on my radar and definitely was not on my itinerary. My first several days were spent at one of the cultural art centers where a KAP (Kundalini Activation Process) weekend immersion was being held. KAP is a specific form of energy healing that I facilitate with along with my yoga and meditation teaching, but I won’t go into any real detail about it here since I have an abundance of information about KAP on my professional website if you’re interested in learning more (which you should totally check it out if you’re into any sort of holistic healing and/or spirituality.) However, I will say that I was incredibly excited to meet up and reconnect with my mentor Venant Wong and his partner Sigrid Brelid, to help them facilitate this modality and introduce KAP to a new region.
One thing that has been readily apparent throughout my travels over the last few months, has been the experience of synchronicity, which I directly attribute to KAP, as the energy has a way of putting you in direct harmony with the bigger picture of life. While coming to Taipei was not exactly an easy re-working of my plans, as things unfolded it became apparent that it was turning out to be a hub for synchronicity. To begin with, it had been ages since I had connected with Venant and I was really wanting to, but knew it would be a long while before he was back in the states and most of his recent destinations were European. But when I saw they were going to be in Taipei, which wasn’t originally on their tour, it just happened to be right about the time I was heading to the nearby Philippines. So, being in the ‘neighborhood’ I rearranged things and was able to attend and facilitate at the event… which was so deeply expansive and meaningful for me.
More interestingly, my last stop in India was the Swami Rama ashram (another synchronicity hub, for sure) where I stayed for several weeks, and on my next to last day, I was talking to one of the girls, asking her how long she was staying at the ashram. Turns out we were leaving the on the same day, and in passing I mentioned that I was headed to Taipei. She stopped in her tracks and said “Really? Taipei?! That’s where I’m going!” Now I’m not sure what the chances of that are, particularly since Taipei isn’t exactly a destination spot like say, Bali is, but since we ended up in Taipei at the same time, Rachel and I got to traipse around Yangmingshan Park and venture to the Beitou hot springs together. Not only was it absolutely wonderful to have the company, but it was full of spiritually rich, uplifting and thought-provoking conversation and it was such a treat.
Lastly, on the no-such-thing-as-coincidence front, one of the other women who did the KAP facilitator training with me earlier this year now works on a cruise ship and happened to be on a ship in the Pacific, docking for one day only in Taipei. So timing wise, although she missed the KAP event, I was able to connect with her on my last day in the city, which was the day I wasn’t supposed to be in town but was supposed to be on a plane to Manila!
Make of all that what you will, but for me it’s easy. I call it “being in the flow” of the universe, where despite mis-steps and things seemingly being disrupted or not working out, there is a seamless plan of some sort at work. I really didn’t know what I would think of Taipei and after four months of deep spiritual and primarily introspective work, I also didn’t know if I would be in the right frame of mind for the hustle and bustle of a big city… but Taipei turned out to be literally one of the most fun and inspiring cities I’ve been to in a very long time… truly, an unexpected joy and many good times!