Travel | On the outskirts of Taipei
Awhile back, my dad mentioned he grew up on a farm in the rural areas outside Taipei. As I could only imagine the prairie homes on the Great Plains, I concluded my dad grew up some alt version of the Oregon Trail. As the plane landed in Songshan Airport, I was surprised to find that the area was neither tan nor flat.
The landscape of the Taipei area incredibly green. This shade of deep green cloaks the surrounding mountains and trickles into the cerulean blue sea.
This green should be Taiwan's unofficial color. It's everywhere. Especially in little towns up in the mountains surrounding Taipei. You can find it on street signs and painted onto railings along tight alleyways.
Prior to visiting, I only knew of Taiwan's big cities: Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung. I hadn't heard of any of these regional towns. I was missing out. This time around I got to see a few towns in the outskirts of Taipei. Each was beyond my imagination.
Beitou | 北投區
Here, we had the luxury of soaking in natural hot springs at a quiet hotel perched on a hill. Back in the day, businessmen—apparently including my bad ass of a grandpa—used to escape the bustle of the city to do some illicit shit up in the bathhouses.
This was a rather hard to imagine.
All I saw was quiet greenery alongside peaceful roads curving down the hill. Even the scooters seemed quieter out here. There was a babbling stream running downhill. Like c'mon.
You can access Beitou via train from central Taipei. There a ton of hotels and resorts with natural hot springs. My favorite thing about the hot springs here is that they're the least sulfuric—so while they still have a hint of the natural funk, it's no where near as pungent as other places.
From Beitou, you can take a little shuttle bus up the twisted mountain road to the top of Yangmingshan. I was struggling the whole way up. I get carsick so easily these days and this little bus was taking to the mountain curves like a rollercoaster ride. But, we made it. And—in hindsight—I regret nothing.
This place was stunning. It was spritzing rain the entire morning so the clouds were hanging low, which made for a mystical arrival. Among mist was this incredible field of calla lilies. Before this, I'd only seen these flowers as cut stems in flower shops. And they're expensive AF. We wandered along the little paved pathways between the wide fields. I felt like Alice when she chats with the sassy flowers in Wonderland.
Zhuzihu | 竹子湖
To get out of the rain, we tucked into a tarp-covered little eatery on the side of one of the fields. Here, we ate maybe one of my favorite meals of the trip: sautéed local mountain greens, steamed whole fish, the juiciest chicken I've ever had. If I wasn't so dizzy from the bus ride up, I would've tried their wine-marinated chicken. It smelled amazing. The greens were the most interesting to me because I'd never seen them before. I still don't even know what they are called. They're basically the shoots of a couple plants that naturally grow off the trees that we passed on our way up the mountain.
Jiufen | 九份
The peacefulness of the towns above were a stark contrast to the bustling Old Street in Jiufen. This place was pure chaos.
Full disclosure: I—like many other tourists—came here to see A Mei Teahouse (阿妹茶樓). It's the teahouse that inspired one of Miyazaki's most iconic films, "Spirited Away" (千と千尋の神隠し).
It's not hard to see he was become inspired by this place. Many filmmakers, local Taiwanese and visitors like Miyazaki, have used Jiufen as a source and scene of inspiration. It's an incredibly beautiful place. Perched on the side of a mountain, the buildings and views are widespread and dramatic.
We tucked into a different tea house, Skyline Tea House, which had significantly less crowds than A Mei and offered—you guessed it—sky high views of Jiufen. It was the perfect place to rest with a pot of fresh fruit tea. We passed the rest of our afternoon looking over the crowded streets below to rest our eyes on the ocean hugging the coast in the distance.
Within Taipei, we did a lot of walking and eating. The train system within central Taipei is pretty convenient. It's not overly-developed just yet, I'd liken it to the MBTA system in Boston. It's easy to figure out even if you aren't familiar with subway maps.
I highly recommend exploring the famous night markets as well as the local Old Streets¹, preserved historical market streets lined with artisanal shops and local eats. My favorite eats were: red bean tangyuan (glutinous rice balls) soup, beef noodle soup, and tien-bu-la (which I have a lot of feelings for). Have an open mind—try everything.
Visiting Taiwan exceeded any and all preconceived notions I had about being there. In some ways, it was less-developed yet more culturally-rich than I expected it to be. Some things made me uncomfortable (squatty potties) and other things really warmed my soul (chicken and mountain veggies on a rainy day). The food absolutely blew my mind. The landscape certainly caught me off-guard. I loved every moment I got to spend there.