Chrysanthemum: Two Days in Taiwan

Chrysanthemum: Two Days in Taiwan
Chrysanthemum: Two Days in Taiwan

The streets of Taipei churn with traffic, but through all the orderly channels absent in Hanoi. The fleets of motorbikes, halting at precisely delineated squares at intervals, marked a strange transition for me.

I realized I had been circling my way back to the heart of Japan — from the foreign territory of Thailand and Cambodia, to the more closely linked Vietnam, and now my island’s next door neighbor — teeing up for the flight to Tokyo and then homeward.

With just three nights to absorb Taiwan, I reluctantly relinquished hopes of traveling by rail to their jewel attraction, Sun Moon Lake. I would concentrate on all the fascinations its capital city had to offer.

view from my Taipei hotel window

Emboldened by earlier victories in Cambodia and Vietnam, I booked a cycling tour. The day before I mixed in a free walking tour for some variety. When the guides invited everyone to introduce ourselves, a dozen names sounded. Singapore… Finland … Australia … I expected a posse of fellow Americans, but not one of us hailed from the same country.

After a wending our way along the streets of Taiwan’s Golden Age architecture (mighty city gates, a tiny urban temple, and nested stores with the entrance to one at the back of another), a Finnish medical student and I dined on the board walk. She ordered pineapple drinks (the flavor of the summer in Finland!) and obliged me with a geography lesson on her homeland. It dawned on me later that I had gravitated towards the most Japanese of the culinary offerings — a comfortable connection after weeks away.

The next morning, my cycling tour sampled the city’s highlights. We zoomed to the majestic Chiang Kai-Shek memorial, where the solemn corps flashed their rifles in an acrobatic changing of the guards. A street market advertised wares ranging from tropical fruit to Chinese remedies. The final stop at a fabulously ornate temple set me to musing as I meandered under the dragon-topped roofs and admired the delicate garden’s waterfall.

After a restorative lunch of grilled fish and piles of salmon sashimi, I dashed off to hit more hot spots. Taipei 101 tops all the guide lists, as one of the tallest buildings ever constructed. With sunset fast approaching, I opted for the hike up Elephant Mountain to view the skyline from the outside. Hundreds of steps carried me up a steep slope to the wooden lookout, where I squeezed into the small crowd to marvel at the city below.

A visual pun: these kanji spell the mountain’s name
Taipei 101, view from Elephant Mountain

For my final outing, I nabbed the last round of departures on the Maokong Gondolas. Guidebooks had recommended a nighttime trip up the massive slopes surrounding Taipei, but I would have spent the whole day there if I had it over again. The carriages soared hundreds of meters into the air, with intermediate stops graced by tea gardens.

The morning before my flight to Okinawa, I joined a determined queue for a classic Taiwanese doughnut. The shopkeeper revolved around us, offering umbrellas to shield the faint from the fierce sun. Once I had secured my prize, I skipped to the stall immediately adjacent for a tall glass of brown sugar bubble tea. These treats garnished a round of excellent food, from the mango ice cream on day one to the generous helpings of my long-time favorite sushi — now beckoning me back for a final week in Japan.

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