The crowds and the smells always indicate that something food-related is near. Well, it’s certainly true of the legendary night markets in Taipei – there’re 14 of them at least, some lesser known to the tourists which locals frequent – that are noisy, bustling affairs of smoke, dirt and well, some delicious finds.
We managed only 3 here and if the plan was to eat our way through the streets lined with stores and persistent sellers, there’s really only so much I could stomach when it comes to fried chicken, bubble tea and starchy oyster omelette, let alone consecutive days of this stuff. More traditional dishes do tend to be under represented at such places though – not that it’s a bad thing – though I could hardly say that a Taiwanese night market showcases the best of Taiwanese dishes.
But food here in general, has a lot to offer and can be sublime, especially if one understands the smaller shops with Chinese-only signboard, menu and order sheet. Otherwise, it’s back to pointing at a picture (if there’s one), then raising your fingers for quantity and hoping you’ve been understood.
Beyond food (and it’s difficult to get past that), I struggled to see under the veneer of commercialism and the glitzy, glamorous buildings that have sprung up in the city centre. The older generation seems to anchor the place still; much of the architecture in the older parts of Taipei date from the Chiang Kai-Shek era that used to house his followers who thought they’d found a temporary home in Taiwan but never left in the end.
There is much yet to be discovered: the eastern but near-inaccessible coast, the far south or even the natural mountainous landscape that beguiles so many people. Instead, there were spaces that I peeked into: the pulsating, hip young district of Ximen, a hike up Elephant Mountain in the heart of Taipei, taking a Youbike rental up and down the Keelung River, going to the hilly, Maokong village to hike and sample tea.
But I’m strangely happy with taking it slowly for once.