the taiwanese capital is a whirlwind of shopping strips, street food and night markets – not that different from other major cities around the world, really. so where does one go to absorb its alternative offerings? these three popular side trips from taipei is your chance to immerse in its culture, tradition and natural wealth.
shifen: letters to heaven
covered with thoughtfully written wishes, prayers and hopes, the colourful domes rise as little glowing orbs, floating above shifen old street and slowly disappear towards heaven. or at least that is the belief behind the sky lantern practice, a tradition that began as a means for men working in the surrounding mountains to communicate with their loved ones back home in the villages. today, it is a thriving commercial venture for lantern vendors as scores of tourists find their way to this short stretch of old wooden shops to pen and send their messages to the gods.
the lanterns are made of layers of coloured paper wrapped around thin frames, and each shade represents a specific auspicious meaning. after you’ve paid for your chosen colour, the vendor will unfold the thin layers of paper and clip them to a steel frame so the lantern is displayed like a canvas onto which you can paint – using chinese calligraphy brushes dipped in black ink – your wishes. when you’re done, the vendor unfurls the lantern into its proper shape, lights it up and lets you hold it above your head for a souvenir snapshot before you release it.
adding to the hive of chatter and camera clicks is the occasional appearance of the pingxi line train, whose track cuts right in between the two rows of shops. for the few minutes that it trundles through, it renders all lantern flying to a complete stop as everyone gets out of the way and retreats to safety. once the train is out of sight, the buzz resumes.
early evenings are shifen’s busiest hours (and the gods’ too), with tens of lanterns taking turns to speckle the atmosphere. but that’s nothing compared to the sight that delights visitors each year during the lantern festival that’s celebrated on the 15th day of chinese new year: hundreds of sky lanterns are released at the same time, obliterating the darkness of the night and turning the sky into a spectacular chandelier.
other attractions while the sky lanterns are meant to be released, visitors can take home miniature lanterns to remind them of shifen and the wishes they made. handmade from printed paper, the decorative pieces are also fashioned into key chains and some are fitted with led lights for additional function.
getting there (train) from taipei railway station, take the train to ruifang station. at ruifang, switch to the pingxi line and alight at shifen railway station. (bus) from taipei, take bus number 15 at muzha mrt station.
beitou: hope springs eternal
you’d think that a lake that reeks of sulphur would keep people away but not at the beitou geothermal valley in beitou, a district of taipei situated about half an hour from the city centre. here, the unmistakable smell wafts from jade-emerald waters that fill a volcanic crater and yet the crowds keep coming. with temperatures averaging 80c and reaching 100c at its most scalding, the spring liquid is also highly acidic with a concentrated amount of sulphate minerals, rendering it completely unsuitable – and hazardous – for human contact. one used to be able to dip eggs in to cook but unfortunate mishaps led to the local council fencing up the crater’s perimeters with wooden railings.
from behind those safety markers, visitors can take in the sight of thick steam rising and curling from the translucent waters that earned the valley a ranking on the list of taiwan’s eight great natural beauties during the japanese occupation between 1895 and 1945. at times, the misty effect is so thick that it engulfs the whole area, leading to it being nicknamed hell’s valley.
to soak in the heavenly bliss of a hot springs bath, seek out the many public baths in town where for a nominal fee, you can soak in the healing qualities for several hours. one of the most popular is beitou outdoor public hot springs, which you will pass as you walk from xinbeitou mrt station towards thermal valley. there are joint men and women pools set around the beitou stream that runs through it, or if you simply want to immerse your feet, you can also find a comfortable spot by the open sections of the stream. better facilities and privacy are afforded at the countless hotels around town, where rooftop hot springs bath are part and parcel of the experience and many are open to non-staying guests as well.
nearby attractions located along the same walkway that leads to thermal valley are three other spots worth making time for: beitou library, a handsome architectural gem built of recyclable materials that’s not only taiwan’s first green library but also one of east asia’s most energy efficient and environmentally-friendly buildings. browse through a comprehensive collection of books or simply take in the view of surrounding beitou park from the balconies.
just a hop and a skip away is beitou hot spring museum, converted from a red brick mansion that was once, appropriately, a japanese-style bath house while across the road, the ketagalan culture centre beckons with its colourful facade and invites you in for a look at the lives of the local indigenous people. the name beitou was derived from the ketagalan word for ‘witch’, as the people believed that the sulphuric waters in abundance here were a sign of witchcraft.
beitou thermal valley is open from 9am-5pm, tuesday-sunday; closed on mondays admission free getting there (mrt) from taipei, take the danshui line to xinbeitou station. the town’s main attractions are within walking distance from the station. (bus) from taipei, take any of these buses to xinbeitou mrt station: 216, 217, 217, 223, 266 and 269.
yehliu: as wild as your imagination
turkey’s cappadocia region is one of the most extraordinary places on earth, where vast tracts of dusty land are punctuated with geological formations of myriad whimsical, eye-catching shapes. like mother nature’s showroom, it’s where she shows her might and artistic inclinations, whipping volcanic tufa rocks into stone animals, mushrooms and meringues.
taiwan’s counterpart (albeit on a much smaller scale) is the yehliu geopark in wanli district of new taipei city, a special municipality that surrounds taipei city. sitting on a cape measuring just 1.7km that is said to resemble a turtle when seen from above, the geopark is a buffet of sandstone-limestone formations, sea caves and potholes that display different effects of erosion by the sea and other environmental elements: honeycomb textures, lattice patterns, weathering rings and shallow basins are among the photo-worthy motifs.
the shapes of the rocks are another conversation point, and each is named as they appear. there’s the pineapple bun that resembles the famous hong kong pastry; gorilla rock looks like a large crouching primate; dragon’s head rock is where people pray for blessings; drumstick rock could have come from a gigantic kfc fryer; camel’s rock sports an unmistakable hump while fairy’s shoe is not unlike a single toe-strap slip-on supposedly left behind by an ethereal creature sent to earth to teach a cheeky turtle elf a lesson.
the most famous and photographed among the rocks is the nefertiti or queen’s head, which bears a striking similarity to the profile of the legendary egyptian queen. there’s always a long line of visitors waiting to take their souvenir snapshot with this royal icon and to keep the crowd in order, a security guard is always stationed here – and often ends up playing photographer.
nearby attraction just outside of the geopark is yehliu ocean world, taiwan’s first marine centre where you can walk through an undersea tunnel while some 200 species of sea creatures swim above. at the 3,500-seat stadium, sit back and be entertained by well-trained whales, dolphins and seals.
yehliu geopark is open from 7.30am-5pm daily, with extended hours from may to mid-september getting there from taipei, buses are available from the national taiwan university in da’an district every 15 minutes from 7.30am-10.10pm. you can also take kuo kuang bus no. 1815 from the taipei west bus station, which runs every 20 minutes starting from 5.40am on weekdays and 6.30am on weekends
this article first appeared in the malay mail online and crave, sunday mail