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.
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.
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.