Comparisons are odious.
Well, at least that’s what my grandmother would say. Try as we might, though, comparisons are hard to escape. It’s human nature to compare, to use points of reference to guide our experiences. Travelling isn’t spared in this equation. If anything, our critiques of destinations are usually harsher because of the euphoria which is so often attached to travel. We either abhor destinations or absolutely love them – very often there is no in between.
With very little idea of what to expect, I caught a two-hour flight out of Muan Airport on Saturday 4 May to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. I’d been somewhat lackadaisical in my planning, after all, this was pretty much a last-minute trip (I’d received my visa three days before departing and applied only a week prior). The fares were dirt cheap, however, and the long weekend in South Korea made it an obvious choice for a getaway. Taiwan was a destination that had always intrigued me but was still a little enigmatic, with some travel writers giving it the moniker of "Hong Kong’s poorer cousin."
I digress. After the short flight over, I landed at TPE Airport, about 45 minutes away from the centre of Taipei by high-speed rail. I ran through the formalities like getting my MRT card and local SIM, both relatively decent value and comparable to what I would pay back in South Korea. I found my way to my hostel within about 20 minutes of arriving at the station, located pretty much in the city centre and within 10 minutes walking distance of the Ximending shopping district. My initial impressions? The streets felt subdued, calm, and if anything, a far cry from the manic bustle of Hong Kong, or the noisy streets of Saigon. Comparisons.
Alright, check in, drop off bags and off I go to Guanghua Electronics Plaza, my first stop on the trip. This plaza reminded me a lot of Yongsan Electronics Market in Seoul: Five storeys of different electronics stores (mostly big name brands). The real finds, however, are outside the main plaza, little mom-and-pop stores hawking cheap accessories (think GoPro and mobile phone accessories) that can be hard to come by. There are also a fair share of PC shops nearby the Plaza, selling all types of components. I was in dire need of a hard drive, so I decided to price out a few options, 2TB and 4TB. All in all, there was pretty much no price advantage over what I would pay in Korea. The other item that I was looking for was a GoPro mic audio adapter, an item which was sold out both in the US and in Korea. No luck there, either.
After Guangha, I headed to Ximending. I’d heard nothing but good things about the street food, something which I was intent on sampling. I spent the better part of the evening filming a street photography video for YouTube, coming away with a decent selection of shots which I think captured the essence of the district for me as a first-time visitor.
The one thing I hate using is travel writing cliches, but yes, Ximending is a must-visit. It’s your typical walking district and there is lots to be seen and done here. It’s almost akin to Seoul’s Myeongdong shopping district, albeit a bit less upmarket, but far more flavourful. On the way back to my hotel I stumble upon the famed Camera Street and much to my surprise, I managed to source the elusive GoPro audio adapter. After a decidedly average evening out, this left me in a much better mood.
I rose early the next morning to catch a bus to Jiufen, an old district about an hour and a half outside of Taipei. This picturesque town is towards the north-east coast of the island, and was once a mining town which has now, for the most part, become a tourist attraction. The main artery that runs through the town is lined with vendors hawking souvenirs and snacks, as well as tea houses and cafes. More importantly, I wanted to see THAT cafe – yes, the one that you always see in the pictures. It took me a little while to find Amei Teahouse but just as well I did, because it was very quickly overrun with Korean tourists. I do believe that if you do want to visit Jiufen, night time might be your best bet, as the lanterns cast a stunning glow along the cobblestoned alleys.
I also happened to stumble upon an epic Chinese festival of sorts (I wasn’t too sure of the occassion, nor did I bother to ask). It was a huge procession of characters dressed in larger-than-life costumes and dancing to traditional music. The shrill of the Chinese flutes was punctuated by the claps from fireworks. It made the morning that much more fascinating, but unfortunately also meant I had to wait for almost an hour to get a bus back to the city.
I was back by early afternoon and checked into a new hotel later that afternoon. I wanted to get back to Camera Street (Hankou Street, to be exact) to pick up a new bag from one of the friendliest camera shops I’d ever come across: Happy DV. I’d found that the sling bag that I was using simply didn’t have enough space or compartments to hold all my essentials. After a bit of bargaining, I secured the bag and went back to my hotel. It was lights out for me at around 8pm, with very little sleep the night before.