Falling in love with Taipei: the ultimate Southeast Asian expat escape

By Calvin Godfrey   December 6, 2016 | 02:00 am GMT+7

Taiwan's capital offers hikes, public transit and honest coffee, a perfect antidote to the average Asian megacity. 

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Mt. Qixing, Taipei's highest peak, can be accesssed via the city's incredible public transit system, assuming you're up for the brisk hike.

At some point in Taipei, you accept that you have won the Southeast Asian vacation jackpot.

The realization comes like a string of tapioca pearls -- most arrive in a steady stream, but the final few pop up and surprise you.

You understand immediately that most things work marvelously well (trains, traffic, the internet) but so does a city-wide system that allows people to rent bicycles for nearly nothing and ride them on the sidewalk.

You can fill your belly for little over an American dollar or you can drop a few thousand of their Taiwanese equivalent on something transcendent. 

Scooters are everywhere, but so are people who (brace yourself Saigon) dismount and push them through crosswalks and crowded intersections. People look happy here or, at least, they don't seem miserable in the Singaporean sense.

Maps reveal a city covered in parks you might actually want to visit, mostly because your body isn't covered in the cocktail of sweat and particulate pollution served throughout the region. 

Nothing here feels as crushing (financially or physically) as it does in Hong Kong, where a comparable population is packed twice as densely.

After a week here, you may find yourself wanting to spend the rest of your life in this little big city.

Taiwan topped a recent global survey on expatriate satisfaction. Free healthcare. Promising salaries. All you need to do is master Mandarin Chinese.

Sun Yat-Sen after sunset

A giant Sun Yat-Sen statue occupies a throne at the heart of the city.

The cherished Leninist-democrat nationalist led a series of unsuccessful revolts that loosened China's last emperor up for a fall, making way for the glorious people's revolution and Taiwan's current ambiguity.

While the powers presently governing Beijing now pay more lip service to Sun's significance than those in Taipei, he remains one of the least controversial of the island's bygone heroes. 

Stretching out from his gigantic Lincoln-like memorial sits an impressive park, which gets particularly interesting after dark.

Old folks break out portable speakers and perform tai chi to Chinese opera while, just out of earshot, still larger groups line dance to the alien sounds of Billy Ray Cyrus.

High on the monument steps, kids engage in rigorous break-dancing regimens right at Sun's feet.

On your way out of the park, join the generation somewhere in the middle for waffles and ice cream manufactured in America's Pacific Northwest.

You don't need to spend all week reading history to appreciate the special cultural space the island occupies. Just go to the park.

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Youngsters engage in a rigorous breakdancing regimen on the steps of the Sun Yat-Sen memorial hall after business hours.

Get a haircut

At first glance, Taiwan looks like another nexus of monsoon-proof shopping malls connected by a gleaming MRT.

Nestled between stations, however, lies a kind of charming underbelly.

The New Singapore Barbershop has sat in the same alleyway in near the main bus station since 1970.

Step onto the warped rubber pressure plate to open the doors to this magical time warp, where it seems the same white-smocked ladies have worked since the place opened.

The whole ritual begins with a hot towel, proceeds to a seated shampoo and ends with you being hosed off on a stool over a tile sink.

The ten dollar scissors-only trim at New Singapore covers all bases -- from neck to nostrils.

They'll offer extras: an ear scoop, a clippers-only beard trim. Try your best to smile and say no thanks.

Don't be confused by the ostensibly fancy barber shop that shares the same building.

“No haircuts there,” said the half-bald owner, pantomiming the shaking of dice. “Just sex.”

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The New Singapore Barber Shop offers $10 neck to nostril haircuts somewhere in the spaghetti of alleys that lies just south of the city's main train station. Do not go next door!

Do coffee like a drug

Most guide books will tell you to take an afternoon at one of Taipei's tea houses, but Taiwanese regard a perfect cup of clean black coffee with the same gravitas extended to tea — with less ceremony

Tiny cafes lay hidden like Easter eggs throughout the city. There, baristas obsessively source and roast their own beans. Ideally, you'll find one of these places all on your own.

If you must start somewhere head to Barsac Coffee, which sits on a nondescript lane just a short walk from Da'an forest park. Though the place contains a pair of tables and baristas, neither of whom speak any English.

No matter.

They welcome you with a small plate of homemade butter cookies and point you through a menu that ranges from fruity Ethiopian beans fermented in their own skins to the rich biscuit-y buzz of a nice Kenyan AA.

Equally excellent is Hai Cafe, where a husband and wife maintain an impressive array of beans roasted just to the edge of darkness. They also speak no English, but their regulars (sake salesmen, paper executives) prove some of the most talkative in the city.

Take a hike

Even on the most miserable of dreary days, Taipei's eager teenagers and die-hard old folks pile into short buses armed with everything from boots to flip-flops to hike the Qing Tian Gang grasslands. Perched atop a saddle of volcanic mountains still studded with defunct pill boxes, trails here can lead one to the northern coast of the island or nearby peaks for a view of mist-shrouded mountains.

Watch out for slick stone steps and cowpies; though the place hasn't been an active ranch for many years, the bovines continue to lay claim to the hills in their own special way.

Take in the clean air, which smells of fresh grass and other things you don't expect to find on the edge of a municipal transportation system.

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Even in bad weather, Taiwan's die-hard citizens stroll through the Qing Tian Gang grasslands, which sit at the top of Yangmingshan National Park.

Eat yourself stupid

Valiant efforts to map Taiwan's impressive galaxy of cheap food quickly come to feel overly-complicated — like guides trying to finding needles in haystacks.

One can waste time and precious mental energy trying to locate the best of this or that, but the tastiest meals seem to appear when you engage in a kind of culinary trust fall.

As you wander, keep your nose and eyes open. Never miss an opportunity to jump into a line. When it comes time to order, simply point to whatever the person next to you is eating. 

During a week's worth of wandering, the most memorable meals proved entirely random — sichuan river prawns cooked in a pop-up tent full of late-night carousers, cold roast duck served at an all-night Hong Kong-style restaurant and a bun rieu lovingly replicated by a Ho Chi Minh City woman in a cramped dining room that abuts her husband's auto repair shop.

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Bun rieu lovingly reconstructed in the non-descript restaurant of a Ho Chi Minh City woman who "took a Taiwanese husband" – the mechanic next door. Her version incorporates spongy Taiwanese tofu, thick wheat noodles and pork (rather than crab), but it hits the spot.

That last dish contained a valuable lesson in all its goodness.

The plump proprietress had swapped field crab for ground pork and the semi-fermented rice vermicelli for fresh wheat noodles. Hand-carried jars of fermented shrimp paste, bottles of fish sauce and pickled eggplant sat high on a shelf behind her busy cash register.

Some things, it seems, are still hard to find in Taiwan.

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