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Taipei | Lanterns, Robots, and Xiao Long Bao

Having spent nearly a year in the tropics, it was finally time for us to start making our way back towards the USA. We decided to break up the long journey somewhere en route that was completely different from Bali. Taiwan definitely fit the bill there, pretty much exactly what we needed at this stage in our travels. Simple things like being able to drink tap water again and wear a jacket were welcome changes indeed. Springtime was just kicking in there as well, with cherry blossoms in full bloom around tourist sites like the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. There was so much cool stuff to do here, which made uprooting from Bali a bit easier on everyone. One thing that felt really bizarre, however, was being in a country with right-hand driving again. After residing in Southeast Asia for so long, the driving system that we’d known all of our lives in the USA felt wrong all of a sudden. Adjusting back to life in Texas is going to be a trip.

We had the added bonus of being in Taiwan for the Lunar New Year festivities, with massive dragons lanterns set up all over the city. The epicenter of the decorations near Ximen Station was heaving with revelers and not ideal for keeping an eye on a small child, but Minke Street near our hotel looked just as impressive sans the crowds. Even Taipei’s airport was full of dragon decor, some even offering candy (a good luck thing I think).

One thing we missed while living in Bali was having dedicated bike paths devoid of shops and pedestrians. Taipei is a cyclist’s paradise, with rental stations almost everywhere. Finding bikes with kid seats took a bit more effort, but we were able to utilize a digital scanning kiosk to check one out for a few hours from Taipei Riverside Bike Rental – Dajia. The main river trail is traversed by numerous colorful and car-free bridges, even equipped with bike elevators to get up to the street level.

Since we only had a week here, we wanted to stay put at our Taipei hotel but still see some other parts of Taiwan via day trips. Hiring a driver via Klook was easy, albeit quite a bit pricier than we’d become accustomed to in Indonesia! Yehliu Geopark was out first stop, and actually our driver’s suggestion – a good one for sure. Andy loved climbing all around the mushroom shaped rocks and letting us know how good of a hiker he was. The whole scene appeared even more dramatic with huge waves crashing through parts of the park.

Juifen was next on the agenda, a picturesque village full of winding narrow alleys and street food. Our faves from the day included a bucket of popcorn soft-shelled crabs and a stuffed chicken wing- which was similar to Cajun boudin (and made me excited about getting back to the culinary delights of the southern US). We also made a stop at the Houtong Cat Village, which on a normal day is full of friendly felines all throughout the cobblestone streets (Andy has a HUGE cat obsession). Sadly it was raining when we arrived and only 5 or 6 cats came out to say hi. Andy also let us know that the kittens were “adorbable” and we didn’t have the heart to correct him.

Our most memorable day trip spot from Taipei by far was to Shifen, where we got to launch a lantern from the town’s train tracks. For about US$6, a shopkeeper set us up with a 4 foot high lantern on a painting easel to decorate with wishes – then helped us light it and send it up into the clouds. The whole experience was super unique and fun for everyone, but Andy’s reaction was absolutely priceless – he was literally jumping with joy. Shifen Falls, a short walk from the Old Town, was also quite a sight – and shockingly devoid of tourists too.

One of the biggest draws for us to Taiwan (as with mainland China years ago) was the food, and we were not let down. Our first stop in town was to Ze Lin Handmade Dumplings, where we got to watch the dumpling gods make their legendary pork-filled delights. Then it was off to Hang Zhou Xiao Long Bao for soup dumplings, where we waited in line for about 30 minutes with hungry locals- it was worth every second. And as nighttime rolled around, we popped into our closest night market (Ningxia) – which are ubiquitous in Taiwan and known for tasty treats. My target was the infamous sausage in a sausage that had been recommended by a friend who used to live there. It was awesome!

The real culinary prize for us came on our last day in Taiwan – Din Tai Fung. Even through it’s a chain with branches in the USA, our Taipei-native friend told us that the main one at Taipei 101 was absolutely worth going to. We got our ticket for the notoriously long queue and killed time by exploring the outdoor art and admiring the 101 Tower itself. We even found a 5D theatre nearby called i-Ride Taipei where we soared high above the mountains of southern Taiwan – with feet dangling below and misty wind blown at us as we splashed into the sea. And after about 1.5 hours, our feasting number finally came up! A robot waiter greeted us and took us to our table, Andy could not have been more excited. He even devoured a huge bowl of beef broth noodles here, a rare feat for our picky eating little boy. The Xiao Long Bao here was probably the best we’ll ever have, and my wontons in house soy sauce would also have been enough to make the trip. Amazing experience all around.

The Pier 5 area, a short walk from our hotel, was also a super fun experience. Dozens of little pubs have set up shop in containers along the river, most having a staircase to rooftop seating. Even getting down there was fun, with little doorways through huge city walls. Tasty treats, skyline views, and lunar new year decorations were also plentiful here.

It was nice having access to big city amenities again like Taipei’s National Science Learning Center, something we’d unexpectedly missed while living in Bali. Andy couldn’t get enough of the interactive exhibits there: cranks to release bowling balls onto tall tower tracks, stuffed bison, and cycles riding on tightropes – to name a few. The huge playground outside full of friendly (and English speaking) locals was a surprise too, as we’d previously been to mainland China where such cultural norms seemed markedly different. Seeing firsthand the stark differences across the Taiwan Strait was eye-opening too in light of the geopolitical tensions building in the region. Hopefully the long-feared forceful reunification never comes to pass, Taipei was such an incredible place to visit.

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