I spent the last week in Taiwan, and in between the work meetings I’ve gotten a chance to see a lot of Taipei, and some of Tainan in the south. It has been cold here by Taiwanese standards, but 10 C is still 25 C warmer than when I left Norway. In fact, the day we were in Tainan it was 20 C. By Norwegian standards, this is summer. So naturally I was wandering around in a t-shirt. This caused the locals some distress. Didn’t this girl own any clothes? Didn’t she feel the cold? And when I got ice cream at the train station the other day, there was lots of whispering behind my back.
When you are a Westerner in Taiwan, it’s excruciatingly obvious that you aren’t Taiwanese, and people will stare and comment on your behavior.
My philosophy when it comes to exotic foods is generally Try everything, once. I regret to say I failed myself and did not try ‘stinky tofu’; the smell alone was scary enough. I did, however, try ‘meat floss’, as well as ‘soft fried crabs’, which doesn’t sound so ominous, but looks pretty ominous when you consider that the crabs have been fried and are consumed whole.
Soft fried crabs. I would compare them favorably to potato chips. With legs.
A couple of days ago, we went to Shilin night market, which is the epitome of Taiwanese food culture. It is noisy and crowded, not a place to go for a tranquil meal. You buy lots of cheap, street food dishes to share. All around the night market are shop peddling clothes and accessories, and all manner of cutesy cartoon knick-knacks, from Minnie Mouse charger covers to umbrellas. I may have bought a bow for my hair. Or three.
The crowds at Shilin Night Market
In the foreground of the picture I am holding a sausage in a roll made entirely out of rice. The vendor is in the background.
We tried lots of good food, but I was surprised at how bland it was. I kind of expected Taiwanese cuisine to be spicy, but actually many of the sauces used are slightly sweet and subtilely spiced. I actually found some of the dishes not salty enough, which I guess says something about how much salt I usually eat!
Ready for some beef noodle soup!
Although I mostly think of Taiwan as an urban nation, it turns out there are a fair amount of mountains here. So when I had the afternoon off I naturally found a way to sneak off to the mountains with my PhD supervisor Helge. We managed to get a nearly useless map and promptly got lost, but eventually found the top of the mountain we were looking for. The hiking trail took us past sulfurous vents, on a trail cut through densely packs stands of bamboo. The weather wasn’t great (it hasn’t been for the whole trip!), so there was no view from the mountain top, but it felt great to get there anyway.
‘View’ from the top of Mt Qixing in Yangmingshan National Park.
On the way down there was a warning sign for poisonous snakes, eek!
After finding a bus back down to the city (not easy when all of the bus stops are announced in Chinese!), we went up Taipei 101, the 5th tallest building in the world. It was shrouded in clouds that day, and looking up, the brightly lit layers of the pagoda-inspired structure seemed to extend into the infinite. I was most impressed by the enormous steel ball in the 89th floor that is used to balance the swaying of the tower. The engineering required to build a structure of that magnitude is really interesting.
Me and the giant balancing ball.
The people working at Taipei 101 spoke some of the best English on the whole trip. And that’s how it was - the further you got away from the big tourist attractions, the less English information. I downloaded an app and bought a set of flashcards to learn Chinese characters. I recognise maybe 10 or so of the most common now, and by the end of the trip every metro ride was a big puzzle, scanning the signs for characters and fragments of characters that I knew.
If you look confuse though, people generally approach you and try to help. Taiwan is a really friendly country, if foreign, and I was glad of that when I went running in the mornings. Some people would stare and comment on my clothing (they always thought I must be freezing!), but it was always good-natured.
Taiwan is also filled with gaudy temples, which seem to pop up from out of no where from behind otherwise drab street corners. They take their temples seriously despite the gay colors, and there are many different gods for everything from good grades to healthy childbirth to martial arts.
A temple in the Anping district of Tainan.
Although the dominating religious views aren’t Christian, the Taiwanese still celebrate Christmas. Or they put up Christmas decorations at least - and leave them up until the end of January (at least)!
Here’s what I did, training-wise, last week:
Monday: First exploratory run in Taipei. I had studied the Strava Heatmap and decided to run to Daan Park. The park was nice, but there was a lot of stop and go waiting for crosswalks on the way there. I saw lots of older Taiwanese doing Tai-chi in the park; it was very peaceful to run past them. Total: 8.5K, 43 vertical meters, 59min.
Happy to have found trails even in the big city!
Tuesday: For my second run in Taipei, I decided to head in the opposite direction from the day before. This turned out to be a good idea as I got to park areas more quickly. I ran through Xinsheng park and the Fine arts expo park; the paths through these were all paved. It was rainy (gack); it rained almost every day we were in Taiwan. Total: 6.3K, 13 vertical meters, 40min.
Jogging track rules at Xinsheng park. I’m glad they made some rules so that I didn’t run in high-heeled shoes by accident.
Wednesday: I headed back to Xinsheng park and found the connector to Dajia park past the ghostly Lin An Tai historical sight. That park was all paved as well, and bookcased by the river on one side and a noisy freeway on the other. Not incredibly beautiful, but at least easy running terrain. Total: 10.5K, 18 vertical meters, 1h4min.
Dragon head along the river in Dajia park. The big temple-like structure in the background is the Grand Hotel, the first five-star hotel in Taiwan. I refrained to take a picture of the noisy freeway on the other side!
In the afternoon I hiked up Mt Qixing in Yangmingshan National Park with Helge. I’m adding this to my total this week because we hiked fairly hard, and it was quality time on my feet, an important aspect to endurance training. Total: 10.2K, 746 vertical meters, 3h15min.
Steep stairs through the forest on our circumvent way up to Mt Qixing.
Thursday: Rest day. This felt necessary; I woke up in the morning and really did not feel like running.
Friday: We spent Thursday night in Tainan, and I had planned out a running route and everything when I realized I forgot some of my running clothes in Taipei. Bummer! I did 45 minutes of fairly intense yoga to loosen up and shake off the restlessness.
Saturday: I had time for a slightly longer run, and decided to go back to Daan park and run the loop around the park, hard, to see what kind of Strava placement I could take. I ran via Chang Kai-shek Memorial park which is nearby. The Memorial is really grandiose; two enormous, temple-like structures and a big stone memorial in the middle. The park around the memorial is nice though, with lots of cool statues and little bridges and winding paths.
I ran the two kilometers around Daan Park at around 10K effort and thought it would be good enough to take the Queen of the Mountain. Unfortunately, I started walking while still in the Strava segment and didn’t get it after all. Too bad, now I have a goal for my next trip to Taiwan ;)
Total: 11.5K, 76 vertical meters, 1h9min
Sunday: Short run before we headed to airport - to fly to Osaka, Japan for more work! I went back to Xinsheng and Dajia, and accidently found myself on the final kilometer of the Taipei Standard Chartered Marathon race course! I ran along with some tired-looking 10K runners before ducking off the course just before the finish line. How funny would it have been to sprint across the finish line though!
Total: 6.9K, 15 vertical meters, 42min + 20 min AM yoga
Running/hiking: 54.3K, 908 vertical meters (almost all on Mt Qixing!), 7h51min
Not bad for such a busy week! I’m in Japan for most of this week, more exciting meetings and maybe some exploratory runs are in store.
- The Wild Bazilchuk