I had never been to Taipei, and neither had Kat. It was Crystal’s birthday weekend, and she and Sam were headed there too, so it seemed only fitting that we joined them. We left school at 3 sharp, then found ourselves in the rough terminal of NAIA airport. We weren’t to wait there for long: such is the joy of living in Asia, you can shuttle from one country to the next in a matter of 3 hours or so.
Upon landing, we were greeted by a cavernous, clean airport with walls of plants. It was immediately relaxing. An equally clean taxi conveyed us through a cool evening drizzle to our chic little hotel, Chez Nous, located in the heart of Da’an. After a kerfuffle involving Sam leaving his phone in the taxi, we were shown to our rooms. Our hotel boasted an adorably outfitted little room that had, above all, a deep bath tub.
I could’ve sunk into it right there and then, but we were all hungry, so we headed down to our hotel bar. (This involved me trying to find the door and pushing instead on a wall that had the word “DOOR” on it in neon sign. Confusing? Sam and Crystal were amused.)
The hotel bar, called Chill, had a live band, so we paid extra. The band was two young Taiwanese singers donning matching metallic jackets. Neither really spoke English, though the male counterpart in the duo sang in English.
“They dedicate this song to you,” said the bartender.
“They are very young,” he added, for good measure.
They played us “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton, and we ordered another round of drinks. The bartender lingered by our table, reiterating every so often exactly how young they were.
“She is just 16,” he said at one point. When their set finished at ten, he shuffled them over to our table to introduce us.
It turned out that they were no longer serving food, so we headed for a seafood place in town that a colleague had named in his extremely practical “Guide to Taipei” Google doc he’d made. I couldn’t tell you the name of the place, because there didn’t seem to be an English translation, but the biggest part of the appeal seemed to be that you could serve yourself beer from a cooler.
This was true. In addition, the food menu was delicious and full of shareable options that included lots and lots of tofu. It was after midnight that we arrived back at our hotel, dusted with rain. I’d forgotten how lovely it is to walk around at night in a light rain, with clean air. It helped that the beds were super cozy.
Yong He Soy Milk
The next morning, we woke up to “avail” of our hotel’s included breakfast. Our hopes were high, since the hotel had ticked all the boxes so far. So it was with shock that we registered how dismal the breakfast was: no choice except for beverage, everyone was given an egg in some impossibly tasteless bun with a handful of cool, rubbery vegetables.
It wasn’t a disaster, though, because the four of us were heading into town to Yong He Soy Milk, a restaurant that Sam and Crystal had heard about. All we knew about it was that it had some kind of Michelin recommendation and that you would know you were there by the queue outside.
We fell in line and decided that if it didn’t move noticeably in the next 20 minutes, we’d go somewhere else. It moved.
If you go, it helps to consider the queueing part of the experience. It wasn’t bad. We stood in a pleasantly chilly grey morning, chatting and moving forward surprisingly quickly. In all, we were in line for about 45 minutes before we’d turned another corner and ended up in a stairwell. At the top of the stairs, we found ourselves in a food hall-esque place, with lots of different food vendors. You almost felt bad for the other ones, because the entire queue was heading to one place only: Yong He Soy Milk.
Crystal and Kat found us a table (a real miracle, honestly) while Sam and I perused the menu in line and ordered.
No wonder the line moved so quickly: these ladies served up hot bowls of soy milk with sugar, doughy bread sticks, and egg wraps with speed and efficiency. Sam and I were barely at the counter for a full minute before I had my change stuffed in my hand and a tray full of food. (Note: Prices are definitely affordable. You get a lot for your money.)
When Sam tried to order a dough stick, though, the woman shook her head.
“Too much food,” she said.
It was. Kat and I shared ours and Sam and Crystal shared theirs, and thank goodness Sam was with us because otherwise my extra dough stick would’ve gone to waste.
We shared our table with a friendly couple: he was a pilot for Singapore Airlines with a few hours until his next flight, and she was his friend who lived in Taiwan. They showed us how to eat all of the food we’d gotten: you insert the dough stick into the egg wrap for extra texture, and then dip the whole thing into your bowl of soy milk. It was delicious.
“This is a traditional Taiwanese breakfast,” said the woman. “It’s hard to find this now, which is why there’s a line.”
They told us that today’s wait of 45 minutes was unusually short.
“People are out of town because there’s a holiday,” the woman explained.
We ate and left, exiting the way we came, past the long queue of people.
After roaming the area where Yong He was, we decided to take the metro well outside of town to Tamshui, where there was an old walking street full of stalls and food vendors. Stuffed into not unpleasant food comas, we rode the subway for nearly an hour, emerging into a bustling wide space of grass nestled between river and mountains, and a busy-looking shopping street.
Crystal and Sam took off down the street with plans to meet us back at the subway station at 4pm. Kat and I made our way down to the river, where Crystal told us she’d done a bicycle ride before.
One thing I miss in Manila is nature. The ease with which we were whisked out of Taipei’s city and into the mountains was enviable. You can’t do that in Manila without leaving at 2 in the morning to avoid traffic and driving for 6 hours, and even then, you are aware the entire time that you will be sitting in traffic when you return.
Savoring this moment, Kat and I made our way to the bicycle rental where Kat stopped me and pointed.
“Let’s get a tandem bike,” she said, excitedly. “Let’s do it.”
I had never ridden a tandem bike, but how hard could it be?
Hilariously hard. Kat sat in the front on our way out, and I drove on our way back. I thought it would be easy, since Kat and I are both pretty fit and could handle hills and gain momentum, but it’s the fact that you are balancing another person on the back of the bike that really makes it difficult. Twice, I nearly hit a person.
It’s lucky that we both have a sense of humor. We stopped at a number of parks on the way towards a gorgeous red bridge that stood out against the grey mountains. In all, the trip took over an hour, and we returned our tandem bike slightly more skillfully than we’d pedaled it out.
As a reward, we ventured down a narrow alley and found a tiny brewery, where we sat and drank beers and celebrated returning without breaking anything.
Back on the subway with Sam and Crystal, they decided they’d go see a baseball game. When I’d asked Blair what I should do in Taipei, he’d said two things: “Eat the bread, and see a baseball game.”
Given I’d just seen one a week ago in Tokyo, and that I was feeling somewhat tired, I opted to go back to the hotel while the others watched the game.
I passed a glorious afternoon in the bathtub with A Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, the book I’d started on the airplane and couldn’t put down.
We all met up later at a brewery called Zhang Men that served peaty beers (is there such a perfect coupling of tastes?) and happened to be somewhat in the neighborhood. There’s nothing like a good, lovingly brewed beer to bring comfort when you’re in a new country.
Gondolas, Tea, and Bamboo
On our last day in Taiwan, Kat and I decided to take the gondola up to the tea terraces in Maokong. This was after a sad start to the day where we looked up multiple breakfast options and found each of them closed.
“I think there’s a Zara on that main street,” Kat said, pointing. “Where there’s Zara, there’s Starbucks.”
Sure enough, we found a Starbucks. (I will live by these words when traveling next.)
Halfway through my “meal”, a barista approached with quiche on a plate and pointed at my breakfast sandwich.
“Here,” she said. “Because your sandwich is old.”
“It has been out for a long time,” she said. “Old.”
I wished she’d told me that before I’d eaten three quarters of it, but Kat assured me it was probably fine, and we headed on the MRT to the gondola. More queuing. Once in the car, we were conveyed up a steep mountainside for the better part of 30 minutes, emerging on top into a crowd of tourists.
There were a number of roads you could take, but Kat and I were determined to find a traditional, sit-down tea place with views of the mountains. Instead, we found a meandering tea trail that you could walk along. It took us through acres of tea leaves dancing with hundreds of butterflies. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, the perfect occasion for a walk.
We ended up at a touristy tea house where we sipped cold, local tea and ordered bread on Blair’s advice.
“It’s the best bread in the world,” he’d told me. Kat and I had laughed about this, ate some of the (warm) bread, and then looked at each other, converted.
“Oh my God,” she said.
“This is amazing.” It was warm and full of raisins and nuts and so perfectly bready and springy. I stand corrected. If you’re in Taipei, try the bread.
The tea house had WiFi, so Kat searched a top-recommended tea house on the other side of the mountain, which we walked to. The farther we walked, the fewer people we spotted. The road curved along the mountainside, so you were walking on the edge of a deep ravine and a stunning view.
Nearly 30 minutes later, somewhat uncertain (but bolstered by the occasional telephone booth-style WiFi spots that confirmed our location on Google Maps), we found it. Yao Yue Tea Restaurant, perfectly perched on the mountain side with a long, wooden table overlooking terraces.
We ordered a local tea that came with a 14-step set of instructions on how to properly pour it: warming the pot, pouring water through three different small cups. It tasted heavenly.
With it, we ordered sweet potato fries with plum powder, a tofu dish, and, our personal favorite, bamboo. I’d never eaten bamboo, but I totally get now how pandas live off of it. It was delicious. The closest comparison I can make is artichoke.
Our timing was perfect. We enjoyed a lazy afternoon of food and views, took a slow walk back to the gondola, hopped in a car, and headed back down. (Note: Gondola cart lines are somewhat long. There was no line going back down, unless you wanted to ride in a cart with a “crystal bottom”. Then you had to wait. Kat and I are not crystal bottom kind of girls.)
That evening, we dressed up nicely and made our way to Taipei 101. One ear-popping elevator ride later, we arrived at the restaurant/observatory and somehow snagged a window seat.
I know it’s expensive, and the food isn’t even great, but there’s something about enjoying a cocktail from 85 floors above a place. Cities sparkle at night like nothing is wrong in the world, and it’s a beautiful illusion I don’t think you can put a price on.
We ordered a “set menu”: for 800 Taiwanese dollars (about $27USD), you could get a cocktail and something small off an appetizer menu. The food was subpar, but my Manhattan tasted fabulous.
The highlight of the entire experience was the toilet. There are two stalls in the bathroom, and one is comprised of windows that offer the best view you will ever have while peeing. Even though the other one was vacant, I waited for Kat so I could use the toilet with a view.
This was probably the climax of the evening. We ventured back down to earth and found a nearby jazz club that was mostly empty. Two bottles of wine and a meal later, we were dancing to a jazzy rendition of Kansas City. I would regret the wine in the morning, but for that moment, I was perfectly content.