Tromping Through Taipei

Taipei has great food and plenty to see, but it is not an especially attractive place. Most of the buildings in the city went up between the 1950s and the 1970s, not necessarily a high point for architecture in Southeast Asia. It’s all very blocky and grey, featuring a great deal of concrete and grillwork (not the fancy kind).  You end up with a lot of buildings like this …

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… and like this:

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Here is a pretty common street view in the northern part of the city:

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Still, there are surprises. For example, you never know when you’ll turn a corner and stumble on a temple (or, as on the right in the photo below, the turret of a preschool’s castle).

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There are also an unusual number of claw machine shops along the streets:

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That’s it — just rows of claw machines. My friend says that they’re run by the mafia. I have to imagine that the mafia has better ways to make more money, but I’ll have to admit to being pretty ignorant of the mafia’s modern day economic structure (my ignorance of the claw machine economy is equally vast).

I was in Taipei to meet with colleagues from China, Korea, and Taiwan at the Taipei American School.

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We spent all day talking all things college counseling. Taipei American School (unlike Singapore American School) is conveniently located near a whole host of restaurants and shops. So we were able to take a break for lunch at an excellent (and inexpensive) dumpling place called Wu Wha Ma Dumpling House. (As a side note, if you’re in the area, I would also recommend Lutetia bakery for a breakfast pastry or a small loaf of tomato-basil ciabatta.)

In the evening, we went down to Taipei 101. This used to be the world’s tallest building; it reigned supreme from 2004-2010, when it was surpassed by a tower in Dubai..

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The people who run Taipei 101 do all they can to take advantage of the thousands of tourists that stream through their doors, including selling crazy photoshopped pictures of everyone waiting in line (this business model clearly works, because we bought a copy):

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The world’s fastest passenger elevator (which is meant to be life-changing experience, if the sign is to be believed) takes you to the top.

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I will say that the elevator ride is (a) fast and (b) aesthetically pleasing — they dim the lights and put colored pinpricks of starlight on the ceiling.

The views from the observation deck on the 89th floor are spectacular.

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We arrived just in time for sunset:

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Taipei 101 is the first building I’ve ever been to that has made a mascot to represent a piece of structural engineering.

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What is that? Good question. That is a Damper Baby, a representative of the (drumroll, please):

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Yes, Taipei 101 has the world’s largest open-to-the-public “tuned mass damper.”

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That giant ball, made up of four layers of steel and held in place by steel cables and hydraulic dampers, is essentially the base of a giant pendulum. It sways to offset the movements caused by wind (and the occasional typhoon or earthquake) and reduces the building’s vibration by up to 40%. To celebrate this feat of engineering, there are now four Damper Babies (and a million Damper Baby products in the gift shop).

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Marketing aside, Taipei 101 is an impressive building.

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They set off fireworks nearby during holidays, but this is the closest I am ever likely to come to seeing them:

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After dinner, we went to the incredibly popular Shinlin Night Market.

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This market features street food of all kinds, including lots of sweets:

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We also passed row upon row of games of chance …

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… including an unusual number that involved popping balloons, both using darts …

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… and scary-looking guns:

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We passed hundreds of booths filled with what I’ve now come to think of as normal Southeast Asian night market wares, from iPhone cases to cheap clothing to handbags. Here’s the gang sorting through small plastic earbud holders:

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Even the night market had several temples:

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The next morning, I went to have tea at the Wistaria Tea House.

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This house — much renovated and added-to — was originally built by the Japanese colonial government to house naval personnel (Taiwan was occupied by Japan from 1845 until 1945). It retains a distinctly Japanese feel.

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Inside, you can choose whether to sit in regular chairs or in a room with tatami mats.

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I loved the menu — the descriptions are so beautifully evocative.

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I ordered a black tea that is not on the English menu, so I will never know what it was called. But it was lovely. And there is nothing like sitting in a traditional teahouse to make you feel relaxed and removed from the rest of the world.

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As a final Taiwan note, I would like to note that welcoming people to your country with a miniature airplane in one hand and a billy club in the other might not be entirely reassuring …

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