November 25, 2010 2 Comments
Within hours of arriving in Taipei, I had shed my fifteen-pound laptop bag, my bulky Canadian sweater, and my fear of public nudity. It was heavenly.
When you travel twenty-three hours to get somewhere and you only have twenty-four to explore, you want to make the most of it. There was no time for standing in lines, so I skipped some of the more popular tourist attractions including the Taipei Fine Art Museum (TFAM) and the city’s signature skyscraper, the “101“, and headed straight for the hot springs in Beitou. I wanted to immerse myself in the deeper spirit of the city, to soak in 1000-year-old water that had been warmed by the heat of a 200,000-year-old volcano.
People have long recognized the therapeutic properties of natural hot springs, and Taiwan’s hundred plus sites are ranked amongst the best in the world, containing rare minerals that are said to provide a wide variety of health benefits.
With temperatures reaching as high as 200°F, some visitors find the water uncomfortably hot, but there is one place where you can enjoy nature (and naturalism) a little more comfortably. Nestled behind a stone wall on an otherwise bustling mountainside, only the rising tendrils of mist give away its best kept secret: Villa 32. Located in the Zin (or “new”) Beitou area, this discreet and luxurious spa hotel boasts a mere four rooms for rent, and has cleverly filtered the area’s natural hot springs into eight temperature-controlled pools, each retaining its natural color and unique blend of healing minerals.
While the cost of a private room might scare the average spa-goer away, anyone can enjoy the public hot spring pools (which are divided into men and women’s areas) for $60 USD. The luxurious amenities alone are worth the price of admission.
After shedding the constraints of street clothing, I donned my white robe and sandals and curled up in the reading lounge to savour a cup of delectable TWG Grand Wedding tea. I then began my first cycle through the eight hot spring pools: four indoor, four outdoor, Azure, Jade, and Crystal, named after their colours. Some of the baths were hot, some warm, cold, bubbling, still; each had its own unique complexion and combination of calcium, sulfur, sodium and iron. My skin was soon tingling from the sheer goodness seeping in, minerals from deep within the earth’s core fizzed around my ankles while stress escaped from every pore, and worries lifted from my mind like the steam rising up off my wet shoulders.
I indulged in a very thorough Chinese massage, and then completed another cycle through the hot springs, this time my body even more at ease and ready to receive the benefits of a soak. When I finally melted into that last pool of milky turquoise water, I decided that paradise was definitely not lost. In fact, from downtown Taipei, it only takes 45 minutes to get to there, and if you use the city’s excellent high speed train system (MRT) it will cost you $2.
I was pleasantly surprised by how easy and inexpensive it is to get around in the city: you can take a taxi all the way across town for $20. Just make sure you have any addresses written down in Chinese because most cab drivers don’t speak English. The staff at my hotel were happy to help with this, or you can also print the addresses from Chinese web sites.
English travelers will find the MRT very easy to navigate, and many of us could take a lesson from the “waiting lines” where people line up nicely to get on the train as opposed to the rushing and pushing that I’ve experienced just about everywhere else. As an added bonus, many of the trains run both below and above ground so you can take in some sights along the way.
There is no shortage of things to see: massive green mountains and towering skyscrapers compete for height, palm trees sway over endless rows of tin roofs, and motorcycles whiz past under a flurry of eye-boggling billboards and flashing signs. The city has a mystical way of interweaving chaos with serene calm. But no matter how busy the city seems to be, people always take time out in the afternoon for a cup of tea.
As a great tea lover, I thought I honored my daily cup to a fairly rigorous extent, but my staple method of preparation (dipping a tea bag directly in a mug) is considered near sacrilege in Taipei. The drinking of tea in Asia is an artful ritual, and there is a meticulous step-by-step process for both the preparation and serving of tea that is carried out with great care.
I began my education at Wisteria Tea House, a charming and homey spot where tea can either be served tatami style (sitting on the floor) or at a traditional table in the cozy interior or outside in the peaceful garden. The historic tea shop (as seen in Ang Lee’s film Eat, Drink, Man, Woman) has an extensive tea menu, and each table is equipped with its own candlelit burner and a clear glass pot so you can watch the water boil.
I opted for Chrysanthemum tea, a blend of small purple and white flowers, which I was told is “good for the eyesight.” The tea had a dense flavour, not unlike chicken broth, and eating the floating buds (which I was instructed to do) took me quite a while. The waitress and I were equally surprised, I think, when she looked at my empty cup and said, “you’re done already?”
After leaving Wisteria, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a local tea merchant right around the corner, Dignitea Garden. The owner invited me to share several cups of Oolong tea with her in the back of the shop, and had personally picked the leaves only a couple of weeks earlier on her own farm. She gave me a small packet of tea leaves from each harvest of the year (Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall) so I could compare how the taste of each was subtly different, even though they had been grown in the same soil. I realized quickly that I was now in the company of a real tea connoisseur.
I learned here that tea should never be poured directly from the teapot into the cups. First, hot water should be poured into the cups to warm them up and then discarded. Second, the tea should be poured into a second pot (without any tea leaves) before being served to into the cups to ensure that everyone’s brew tastes exactly the same. Who knew?
I showed the woman a teapot I had bought earlier on my trip, which is precisely when I learned lesson number two: teapots should never be painted. Tea purists only use raw pottery or earthenware pots (and only one pot per kind of tea), because the clay will gradually absorb the flavor of the tea.
I wonder how she would get along with the staff at the Wedgwood Tea Room, where they take tea equally seriously but serve it up in heavily decorated and frilly pots along with designer finger sandwiches. These teapots are so dressed up that they are practically ready to go out with you for a night on the town in their cute tea cozy outfits.
This British-style high tea room sits pretty, and looking slightly out of its element, on the top floor of the massive SOGO shopping complex (connected to the Zhongxiao MRT station.) I probably looked equally out of place sitting on the ornate cushions in a sea of baby blue and white, sipping Earl Grey and eating a square of crustless, smoked chicken sandwich off of a floral plate. Maybe it was criminal to be enjoying so much decoration on my chinaware, but it was glorious.
SOGO was full of pleasant surprises, and no one who enjoys shopping should miss out on this nine-story spread of boutiques, including an obsessive compulsive’s dream store, Muji, which is full of organizational solutions for even the tiniest, neatest parts of your life.
For any shop-a-holic, there are equally exciting, and far more gritty treasures to be found at one of the city’s many night markets. I started off with one of the smaller ones: Tonghua Street. Let’s just say it’s not a good place for vegetarians to go.
The market’s singularly meaty fares included liver and heart kebabs, lollipops made of congealed pig’s blood, and crunchy chicken feet (legs included.) Looking closely at the leathery skin and nails, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to eat a chicken’s foot, much less how they could digest one. A local merchant explained to me that chicken’s feet are to be eaten on a rainy afternoon because “it takes a long time.”
In front of every market stall, there were metal pots bubbling over with bobbing bits of pig knuckles, and tiny, smoking grills covered in rubbery squid tentacles. I was woozy from the sheer meatiness of the place, and the medley of fishy smells wafting through the air, but I would have been disappointed in myself had I not at least tried to indulge in some of the culinary excitement.
I swallowed my fear and bought some unidentified soup which was served to me in a small plastic bowl. I don’t know what the white or grey meaty bits were – that may have been for the best – but it actually tasted pretty good.
I preferred the seaside market, in Danshui, where I found delicacies like cranberry frozen yogurt, fresh seafood, and plenty of fun souvenirs as well. The vendors along the waterfront are lively, yelling the price of wares into megaphones while children play carnival games, trying to win teddy bears and burst water balloons, with noisy bells and whistles announcing their success.
There are some amazing traditional Chinese sweets on offer on Danshui’s Old Street, which I discovered only thanks to a local pointing to a hidden door in the wall. That’s the thing about being a foreigner in Taipei: you can look things up, but you may not necessarily know how to pronounce 那裡乾酪. You won’t find many of the best restaurants on a Google search, but I kind of like this problem because it renders the internet impractical and useless and forces you to go out and explore.
Even the most avid planner and itinerary-maker will likely come to the conclusion that the best thing to do in Taipei is walk around and see what you find. Unless you have mastered the 47,000 plus characters in the Chinese alphabet before your trip, you may have no choice but to let your spirit guide you.