I started Day 2 of my Taiwan trip with a delicious B&B breakfast of sliced apples and guava, homemade banana bread, and a bowl of noodles with bits of pork covered with fish. Not exactly my typical morning repast of Cheerios and Coke, but it was very tasty and much healthier.
I’m staying at the Solo Singer, a funky inn hidden in a back alley of Taipei’s Beitou district. Each room is decorated in a different theme by a local artist. One of my walls has colorful paper cutouts of a tree, a truck, a house and a sunset, representing scenes from daily life in Taipei. A group of young artists, designers, writers and world travelers took over a 50-year-old hotel and renovated it with loving care. The place is filled with books and the lobby contains antiques such as an old telephone operating board.
After breakfast, I walked around the corner and got a two-hour Thai aromatherapy massage. The masseuse dug her elbows and knees into my back, and her hands were so strong that by the time I left, I felt like I had just gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson.
Following lunch, I headed to one of the many mineral baths and hot springs that Beitou is famous for. The one I visited is favored by locals, mostly because it’s cheap — $3.65 for as long as you want to stay. I shared a public pool with a dozen naked old men who stared at me as if I were a Martian. They were friendly – one reminded me to take a shower before entering the pool – but they seem perplexed by my presence. I stayed for about 30 minutes and almost fell asleep in the soothing water.
I had expected a pungent, rotten-egg odor from the sulfuric fumes, but it wasn’t that bad. I’ve smelled much worse on the streets of Zhengzhou, which children often use as a public bathroom.
I then went back to my room for a quick nap before taking a short bus ride to Yangmingshan National Park. It’s a 308-acre nature paradise filled with hiking trails, hot springs, flower gardens, mountain streams, an inactive volcano and hundreds of tree and plant species.
One of the landmarks is a flower clock that plays traditional Taiwanese music every half hour. It’s a giant circular flowerbed with two wooden planks that serve as the hour and minute hands, and a burgundy stick that ticks off the seconds. Next to the clock is a long list of banned behavior at the park, including gambling, clothes drying, fighting and “defecating.’’
The section I visited also had many painted pavilions along with statues of former Taiwanese leader Chiang Kai-shek and Wang Yangming, the Ming dynasty scholar who the park is named after. I walked around at dusk and didn’t see a single other person. It was eerily beautiful, like being alone on another planet.
A few hours later, I got that otherworldly feel again at the Shilin Night Market, a vast indoor/outdoor food and shopping complex that was as crowded as Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The downstairs food court alone has more than 500 stalls selling everything from frog eggs and oyster omelets to phallic-shaped waffles and grilled chicken butt.
The outdoor stalls sell clothes, jewelry, shoes, luggage and just about any other item you can imagine. Picture the world’s largest flee market or a downscale version of the Mall of America.
In front of one store there was a TV playing a bizarre Japanese game show where contestants competed in events such as eating a bowl of noodles while running on a treadmill. When I asked the salesman what the show was about, he smiled and said, “Doing crazy things.’’