My 15 hour long layover in Taipei may not have been enough time to settle in and truly explore all that Taipei, Taiwan has to offer but it’s plenty enough time to eat!
There were moments where the Asian culture shock was creeping up but the familiar pace of a city extinguished a lot of the potential angst. Instead of focusing on being lost throughout the day I followed my nose along the streets of Taipei, allowing the locals on their lunch breaks to dodge around me as I poked my nose into all kinds of treats.
Some were suspiciously meaty and avoided. But a busy street food cart perched right on the corner of a busy sidewalk caught my eye. The muffin pan-like cart top took about one minute to produce a whole steaming hot treats filled with mysterious fillings.
The man pours what looks like pancake dough into the holes. The woman scoops in your chosen filling. More dough. As the lunch snacks briefly cooked the well honed dance of movements between the duo working the street cart never faltered.
The long queue of locals flowed with swift ease and stood as a testament to these tasty and simple treats.
When my turn came I put the first glitch in their process and both of them smiled indulgent if harried smiles as I indicated through pantomime my choice of two pancakey-things filled with a thick red bean paste and a third with sweet creamy custard.
These eats got me through my hike to Taipei 101 and before my street eats had fully digested dusk painted itself across the sky and the Shilin Night Market beckoned.
To be truthful the entire point of the Shilin Night Market trip was to spend as long as possible wandering food stalls sampling foreign treats with name’s I knew not then and know not now.
I found that Taipei was like so much of Asia, even to many of the locals the street eats are incredibly affordable and families converge on the street stalls for their nightly dinner as well.
Sweet treats weren’t far either and with a small crowd around these fried milk balls I was intrigued enough to try a stick of the burn-your-tongue-hot sweet cream coated in batter.
It makes me chuckle to think that for all that the rest of the world laughs at the US for deep fried ice cream and snickers bars, we’re not the only ones take odd concoctions, coat them in batter and drop ’em a vat of grease!
For the record, they were tasty as expected and I munched them rapidly as I ran from the beginning rain and back to the metro terminal.
My fifteen hour layover in Taipei, Taiwan was long…fifteen hours in a city is that in-between length of time. Perhaps not long enough to really justify renting a hotel room but an exhausting marathon of site-seeing without a resting spot.
And though my Taipei layover was way longer than I would normally choose, I had little choice in the matter so I embraced the craziness of filling that much time without a home-base and explored the city on the three recommendations from my Taiwanese friend Ben (met him in Belize actually!).
Three top spots for the widest range of experiences:
The National Palace Museum for some history and context
Taipei 101 for the view and national pride
Shilin Night Market for culture and fantastic street eats.
Once I got over the culture shock of Taipei my game plan shaped up nicely. Getting around Taipei is quite easy—the metro system is fantastic and each of these classic tourist destinations is easily accessible from the metro system –transportation and travel tips included in case you find yourself on a long layover in Taipei too!
The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese artifacts in the world and sits perched on a green hillside above the nearby mid-level gray city-grid. The museum is vast and it is truly one of those “choose your own adventure” type museums…there was no way I could (or wanted to) wander through every room so instead I picked out those artifacts I most find intriguing.
For me, that’s intricate carved trinkets rather than pottery, and ornate ancient scripts written by the hand of people who have died hundreds of years ago. The museum has an entire room dedicated to delicately carved curio boxes (much like a women’s jewelry box of today). The drawers and doors on these were puzzles and this is where the emperors and royalty stored the valuable trinkets bestowed upon them through the centuries: ivory carved elephants, jade tigers, wooden figurines and precious stones.
This is the “hardest” of the three layover spots to visit and that’s only because you have to transfer from the metro to the bus. But the National Palace Museum is very touristy so once I was on that side of town there was a fair amount of English spoken.
Quick Travel Tips: Taipei National Palace Museum Where: Take the red metro line to the Jiantan stop, walk directly out of the building and straight ahead to the curb. Find the bus signs for the Red 30 or 304 – take either of these two buses to the National Palace Museum stop (less than 10 minutes), it stops right out in front of the museum but sit near the bus driver and he’ll tell you when to exit. When: 8:30a to 6:30p and some Saturdays offer free extended evening hours. How Much: Adults: NT 160, Concession: NTD 80 More details: Official site for the National Palace Museum
Taipei 101: Taiwan’s Skyline Masterpiece
Nations around the world compete for the status of owning the tallest building in the world and Taiwan couldn’t stay out of the competition. Taipei 101 is Taiwan’s contribution to the tallest buildings in the world and I think it may be one of the prettiest.
The building is layered in pagoda-like tiers from top to bottom almost like a very Asian wedding cake – complete with a single candle-like point thrusting from the top and bringing the total height to a staggering 1,671 feet. The building dwarfs all of the nearby city buildings and when I exited the metro stop I craned my neck upwards and wove my way through the streets to the slim and elegant building.
Observation floors ring the very top of Taipei 101 and free audio guides describe every the surrounding city buildings, hills and tunnels sharing the evolving history of Taipei and its suburbs.
Quick Travel Tips: Taipei 101 Where: Taipei 101 is on the blue line at the “Taipei City Hall” MRT stop. There are free shuttle buses from this metro stop, but it’s actually a short walk from the metro stop (10 minutes or less). When: Open from 10am to 10pm (last visitors allowed up at 9:15pm). How much: NT$400 (US $10+) – student discounts available More details: Official site for Taipei 101
Shilin Night Market
I love markets anywhere in the world and the Shinlin Night Market doesn’t disappoint. This nightly market takes over several city blocks with mazes of food stalls, clothes booths, kitschy plastic knickknacks and people.
An ice cold bubble tea is ideal for wandering the market while you scope out where to start on street foods – the selection of meat, tofu dishes, sweets and fruit are overwhelming and the mingling scents of street eats permeate the market.
The market gets into full swing around dusk so out of the three layover activities, the night market has the shortest time frame of operation.
Quick Travel Tips: Shinlin Night Market Where: The Shilin Night Market is on red metro line, get off at the Jiantan stop and the walk the market (just across the street from the Jiantan exit). The market runs all the way to the next stop on the red line, Shilin so you can take that stop back! When: Head there at dusk or later, once the sun has firmly set the market really begins to bustle. Tips: Go hungry because there is a truly huge selection of foods to sample and make sure your camera’s battery has lasted this long for fun market shots.
Layover’s Over, Get Back to the Airport for Your Flight !
Wherever you are in Taipei it’s now time to catch the metro line back to the Taipei Main Station – this is the same basic place where the airport bus dropped you off and the central point for the metro lines.
Give yourself at least 30 minutes to get lost finding the return bus terminal for international airport-bound buses, Taipei West Bus Station (bus ticket: roughly NT$150). The station is tricky to find – get a map from the information kiosk in the metro before you even head out for the day and keep in mind that it’s near the underground mall K12 and Z3 exits and MRT exit M5.
Then tell the driver your airline and he drops you off right precisely where you need to be to catch your flight to some other exotic location!
How do you spend a long-layover in a city? Sleep through it or sightsee?
Hugging the ice-cold bubble tea to my chest I continued wandering up and down the streets, looking for any sense of normalcy. The bubble tea lady was so smiley and friendly just moments ago…but she didn’t speak a lick of English. And I was confused.
As I walked among the tall city buildings I passed surprisingly few other people. I kept a clear mental map in my head of where I was in relation to the huge main bus and metro terminal just two blocks to the right and one street behind me.
I can just go back to the airport…there’s no shame in going back to the airport…it’s only a 15 hour layover…
What else can I do? I don’t know where I am. The metro is confusing. No one speaks English. NO ONE. What was I thinking?! Landing here without even a map.
Crap. Crap. Crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap crap.
Anxiety had set in and I could feel little pieces of fear bubbling up to the surface.
I was hungry and so very, very tired.
And a little scared even though I wasn’t in danger, which made me all the more confused.
I hadn’t spoken English to someone who comprehended it in hours.
I couldn’t even see a café or restaurant. Just a bizarrely commercial area with all of the shop fronts still locked up tightly closed; the lettering on the windows a bizarre pattern of incomprehensible lines and squiggles.
I was too overwhelmed to even start the pity tears, instead continuing my confused and aimless wandering.
Until I saw it.
Shining like a beacon of recognition I gave no thought to ditching my bubble tea in a nearby trashcan as I all but fell over my own feet in my haste to suck in a hasty breath of the rich and warm aroma of roasting coffee that hits you the moment you pull open the door to a Starbucks anywhere in the world. The décor and interior looked like a standard issue Starbucks and the ringing greeting of a “Hello, how are you?” nearly brought tears to my eyes.
Oh thank god, I thought. Thank god, thank god, thank god.
Earlier that morning coming off a flight from Bali
I floated through Taipei customs without a hitch – I had a ticket out of there in a mere 15 hours time so the customs agent had no issue stamping me into Taiwan with a temporary entry visa.
It was 6:15am and eerily silent in the airport. At a stretch, I’d say five other people were wandering through the baggage claim area of the airport with me. Clutched in my fist was a ragged strip of paper with my scribbled instructions to myself – take the bus to the main train station terminal in the center of Taipei and from there all of the major sites were easily accessible by metro.
Easy-peasy, I thought to myself.
First task in any new country? Money. Thankfully ATMs look pretty similar anywhere you go so I made a wild guess on the exchange rate since the deluge of rain pouring down from the sky in Bali the previous night took out the power and thus my internet researching skills.
The bus ticketing window was blessedly easy to find and the signage was in English so I pointed to the ticket I wanted then proffered my fist full of money, letting the woman take the coins she needed to pay my fare.
An hour later we were driving through the tall city buildings of Taipei when the bus driver pointed at me and then pointed at the door…not a word spoken, but clearly my cue to get off.
The sprawling building in front of me was a maze of business people rushing in and out of the metro terminal. I took a moment to drink in the huge TV screens filled with incomprehensible information… and no information stand in sight. Overwhelmed I turned quickly and headed into the city in search of food, wandering the streets until I found a friendly face sticking out from a window in the side of a building – surrounding her were photos of dozens of different tea combinations.
I pointed to something simple and again offered a handful of change – a few coins taken from my palm and in exchange I had a cold bubble tea in clenched between my fingers; a handy prop for myself as I continued the search for food.
Twenty minutes later, tucked in the corner of the Starbucks
The coffee and blueberry muffin – such a painfully western breakfast –calmed me immensely as I pondered my options. The food began to hit my system and the panic subsided…even seemed foolish.
I whipped out my laptop and found a wifi connection; between the ability to now scour the internet for information (and gmail chat with my dad) and the English speaking Starbucks barrista, I was feeling a lot more confident (do you think they have to speak some English to get hired at Starbucks?).
And it hit me right then that I had just experienced a lovely little punch in the face of culture shock. Coupled with low blood sugar, the completely overwhelming new culture had me in a state of absolute and debilitating confusion.
But food and familiar comforts brought me back to a state of sanity – instead of wanting to hightail it back to the airport I wrote down the metro stops for the three tasks my Taiwanese friend had recommended: Taipei 101, The Palace Museum, and the night market.
All things I should have done before I landed in Taipei for a 15 hour layover. Normally when I land in a new major city I have plotted out transportation from the airport and my first night’s accommodation. But without a guesthouse and a home base I had literally landed in Taipei with no more than instructions to get into the city and the name of three activities/sights.
In some places that would have worked; but not Taipei. I had arrogantly assumed I would simply locate an English speaker for directions…but what happens when there isn’t a single soul in sight who speaks a common language?
Once I wrote down the name of the stops and the color of the subway lines I needed I was back into familiar territory.
The culture shock was passing.
I had done all of this before.
A metro system is a metro system and Taipei’s is actually awesome once I was armed with more information.
I’ve been on the road for roughly two years now and didn’t see the culture shock coming. As a long-term traveler I ask my mind to constantly adapt rapidly to a lot of new situations –and as a solo traveler there’s an added element because there’s no one to help sort the information or watch my bags while I go investigate something, no one to communicate with just for the mere comfort of being understood.
This was my mind’s way of telling me: slow down, don’t get cocky, there’s no shame in advanced planning to smooth over the first days (hours) in an entirely new country…I don’t have to prove I’m superwoman by landing in a new country and magically knowing everything.