Subways, street markets, and stinky tofu: Taipei revisited

Festival of Lights (Year of the Ox) with Taipei 101 in the background | Canon 5D, 50mm, 1/25 f4, ISO 400

Two years ago today, C & I landed in Taipei, Taiwan. It was C’s second time out of the country and first time to Asia. I, on the other hand, had spent two miserable summers there as a teenager (you can read my journal entries from that tumultuous period here) and accumulated a handful of traumatic moments as a kid, but I’d soon discover that it was like I’d never been there before.

My last trip 15 years earlier was fraught with overprotective relatives, sexist uncles, and ravenous mosquitoes hellbent on turning me into the largest human welt ever. (The typhoon, earthquake, and power outages seemed mild in comparison.) The internet was still breastfeeding, and I had no idea travel guides existed (although I’ll hazard a guess that none about Taiwan existed at the time).

Basically, I was plopped into a foreign land with the speaking and comprehension skills of an eight-year-old, and my relatives treated me like one. I had no lifeline back to the States, except for occasional calls from my mom and letters from friends who were clever enough to xerox multiple copies of my address so that they didn’t have to try to recreate the squiggles and boxes themselves.

Nowadays, the idea of my parents footing the bill for a two-month trip abroad sounds awesome, but back then, I hated it. I was convinced that my parents were punishing me for being too independent and “Westernized.” I wanted nothing more than to spend the summer hanging out with my friends, going to shows, and not worrying about my belongings falling into the gaping maw of a squat toilet. If photography had been my friend back then, my sentence would’ve no doubt passed by more quickly. And perhaps I would’ve appreciated the whole situation from another level.

Unfortunately, I had few pleasant memories of Taiwan, and I was a little nervous about returning after all these years. As it turned out, all my trepidation evaporated the moment we checked into the Yomi Hotel and were not accosted by mosquitoes, flying cockroaches, or crass uncles sucking on unfiltered cigarettes. Instead, we were greeted by a comfy king-sized bed, a flat-screen TV, copious snacks, and a large, brightly lit bathroom with a Western toilet. Ahhh…freedom!

Although I had been completely disconnected from the city, I could tell that Taipei had changed a lot since 1994. The air quality, for one, had improved dramatically since the establishment of the MRT (metro/subway) in 1996. The MRT itself was clean and sleek, and featured signs in Chinese and English, making intracity travel a breeze. In fact, I was amazed by how tiny the city felt–at least compared to the sprawl that existed in my wholly unreliable memory.

Taipei MRT, reducing smog and traffic congestion since 1996 | Canon 5D, 24mm, 1/30 f4.5, ISO 400

Other signs of modernization included quirky themed restaurants (such as Modern Toilet), recycling stations, tattoo/piercing parlors (in trendy Ximending), and Taipei 101 (erected in 2004 and the world’s tallest building until 2010). Even the teenagers, who were on the chaste, geeky side when I last visited, had updated their look, taking their cues from Toyko and Lady Gaga (the profusion of false eyelashes was particularly disturbing). They were, however, speaking the Taiwanese language again, unlike 15 years ago, when doing so was considered uncouth by anyone under the age of 35.

modern toilet

Modern Toilet restaurant (left), Ximending neighborhood | Canon 5D, 17mm, 1/40 f4, ISO 400

Recycling station | Canon 5D, 24mm, 1/50 f8, ISO 200

Happily (if this is indeed the right adverb), some elements–such as the smell–were still the same. One thing that has stuck with me from an early age is Taipei’s smell, a swampy, putrid bouquet that brings to mind dead rats, sweaty socks, or garbage (some might say it’s a combination of the three). In fact, anytime, anywhere I pass by an aromatic sewer, I think of Taipei; I often even make an exclamation to that effect. In Taipei, you can encounter this smell anywhere, regardless of your proximity to a sewer or a garbage can. It’s especially pronounced at any of Taipei’s many night markets because they’re the setting for the country’s favorite snack: stinky tofu. This fermented delicacy and the aforementioned odor have one thing in common–can you guess what it is? We were too scarred by a bad batch of stinky tofu in the States to dare indulge in it again. Maybe next time.

Urban art and excess, Dihua Street | Canon 5D, 24mm, 1/250 f8, ISO 100

Songshan Ci You Temple, near Raohe Street Night Market | Canon 5D, 67mm, 1/25 f4, ISO 500

Our week-long trip took in temples big and small, street markets galore, two vegetarian restaurants, several museums (historical and art), and a few natural areas. The National Palace Museum was much smaller than I remembered, but the tiny ships (complete with passengers) intricately carved from peach pits were no less amazing. The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial sat on one edge of vast Liberty Square, which I didn’t recall at all but was the site of art installations, wushu training, carp ponds, reflexology gardens, and other delights. I took about 750 photos, while C took over 1,000. Here’s a brief post about the street food.

Oh, and we spent time with my some of my relatives. Aside from one uncle, they were a nice, hospitable bunch. It’s said that you can never go home again, but sometimes that’s a very good thing.

Open-air pedicure | Canon 5D, 24mm, 1/200 f10, ISO 400

Open-air meat stall (with a ginormous tongue on the right) | Canon 5D, 32mm, 1/50 f6.3, ISO 200

National Palace Museum | Canon 5D, 28mm, 1/320 f8, ISO 100

Liberty Square at night | Canon 5D, 24mm, 13sec f10, ISO 100

Learning to pray. By Canderson

Dirty, nose-licking pomeranian. By Canderson



Filed under photography, travel

6 responses to “Subways, street markets, and stinky tofu: Taipei revisited

  1. Bowdu would’ve been feasting like a king if we had started him on raw while we were still living in Taiwan…

    Hope you have lots more pics of dogs!! =)

  2. mharrison

    The first time I went to Taipei (as a 洋鬼子) was 1994. Yes, it’s changed a lot. Almost all for the better, except for the KMT being back in power.

  3. mharrison

    Oh, and great photos.

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