Originally we had planned to go to China from Japan, work our way south from Beijing to Guangzhou, visit a friend, and exit via Hong Kong and back to Bangkok. But the flights were expensive, getting a visa in Bangkok seemed to be a major hassle (if we admitted to a previous visit they would want a photocopy of the visa and the main pages of the 30 year old passport that it was in!), and we were getting concerned about our passports filling up too fast. So we dropped China for the second time on this journey and booked a much cheaper route direct from Osaka (cutting out a return journey to Tokyo) via visa-free Taiwan.
The rainy season seemed already to have started as the 1819 bus wound through tree covered hills from the airport down into Taipei. Our luggage was in the section of the hold labelled Ambassador Hotel, so I was hopeful of getting off in the right place – but if not, we’d just have to get a taxi from the railway station.
We weren’t actually staying at the Ambassador Hotel but at the Dahshin, a few blocks away. The room was tired and dated with no natural light, but it was half the price we’d have paid for a smaller, windowless room in one of Hong Kong’s “mansions” (the so-called “walled cities” that just look like fire death traps).
The hotel was in Zhongshan, in an area of mainly middle class shops and restaurants with almost as much neon as Japan. And similar problems finding cheap restaurants serving meat-free dishes. Eventually we went to check out a Hakka place in a basement. It was just a simple place, but we were immediately given a menu in English and the noodles (in soup with fish for Mr V, dry style with pork for me) were tasty, with a distinctly different flavour from the ‘usual Chinese’.
Our first destination was Taipei 101, a 500m tower built in 2004 (and then the tallest building in the world). It looks like a giant stack of Munchies and we admired it from the outside but declined to pay NT$500 (£10) each to go up to the observation deck – although there was a very long queue of people willing to cough up what seemed to me an outrageous sum. The attached mall was a bit weird, very upmarket and quiet, but we lingered outside watching fountains dancing to music in hot sunshine. Now that the clouds had gone we could feel the difference in latitude.
Not far away was the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, at which we arrived just in time to see changing of the guard – white clad soldiers in a stiff, highly choreographed routine with much rifle-brandishing posturing. Sun Yat Sen is perhaps the only person who is unreservedly revered in both mainland China and Taiwan as the Father of the Nation (or Nations, depending on your point of view), and the hall was crowded with Chinese sightseers from both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
In search of dinner that evening we walked along Nanjing West Rd all the way to the Taipei circle, through the Ningxia night market (way too crowded and too hot to eat outside) and back along Pingyang St before diving almost at random into a place that turned out to be Japanese. Fish 180 served us a delicious whole grilled mackerel with rice, veg, miso soup and weak black coffee for, surprise surprise, NT$180 (£3.50). I wonder if they change their name with every price rise?