On Tuesday, we boarded the HSR (high-speed rail) outside of Tainan and speeded into Taipei barely an hour and a half later. This is the way to travel! It felt just like the bullet trains we’d taken in Japan, and made for an ultra smooth ride. We trekked our way with heavy bags through the unreasonable cold to Da’an District, where we had reserved five nights in a hostel. That evening, I made Steve stay up with me to debate how to travel about in Thailand and reserved a few hostels and flights before we fell asleep.
Yesterday morning, bright and early, we left our hostel for the Taipei 101 Tower, just a 20-minute walk away. Once you get onto Xinyi Road, which cuts east-west, it is hard to miss the Tower because it looms over everything else for dozens of blocks. For comparison purposes, the Sears (never the Willis) Tower in Chicago is 442 meters tall, and Taipei 101 Tower is significantly taller at 509 meters. (Though both are small potatoes compared to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai at a lofty 828 meters.) We took the fastest elevator in the world (deceptively labeled “a life-changing experience” according to a quote from CNN in the lobby) and emerged onto the 89th floor, a 360 degree viewing observatory. It was a beautiful day to see Taipei — slightly cloudy, but not oppressively so. Taipei lies in a basin on the very northern tip of Taiwan, and we could see mountains in several directions as well as a city (Taoyuan, maybe?) to the southwest on an elevated plateau, surrounding the sprawling metropolitan area.
We walked around listening to the audio tour guide, which was basically an advertisement for a bunch of other tourist attractions easily viewed from the tower, and then took a look at the tuned mass damper inside, which is the world’s largest and heaviest at 660 metric tons. This was the most fascinating! Basically, it’s a gigantic gold ball that rests on a set of cables and hydraulic pump rests; in the case of an earthquake or high winds, its movement counters the swaying of the building and thus stabilizes it. For the real physics, see the Wiki article, because I don’t have a physics degree. Dampers are used in other machinery as well as skyscrapers, but the mass damper at Taipei 101 is the only one in the world that is open to observation, and I can tell you it’s a very impressive piece of engineering! We briefly went to the outdoor observation deck, which was only open on one side due to high winds, and took a few photos. There was an eerie, whistling noise due to the wind at such an altitude, and I took a brief video of the noise:
Today, we got a late start, but somehow managed to get to the Maokong Gondolas at a reasonable hour. The gondolas took us a length just over four kilometers and an elevation of 200 meters outside of Taipei to Maokong, a small town on the hills that has historic tea plantations. It was a gorgeous sight especially on a cloudless day like today! Originally, we were planning to visit some of the teahouses around, drink tea and try some Taiwanese sweets, and enjoy a leisurely afternoon. I however decided we should try one of the trails to the nearby Zhangshan Temple. It ended up being a nice time, and I got great pictures from the temple, but instead of going back up the same gently undulating trail, we decided to take two others that formed a triangle with the first one to return to the gondola station. However, due to our inability to read a topographical map, we descended more than 100 meters in elevation on the first trail. No sooner had we reached the bottom, where my legs were trembling and aching from the many stairs we had come down, than we began to climb back up on the second one. It made for some stunning views, but it took an hour out of our time stumbling around the countryside and batting away evil mosquitos — we certainly wished we’d just taken the easy road back! Occasionally, we encountered family mausoleums on the hills that made me suspect some ancestors had to have hated their descendants to insist that they be buried a 30 minute hike from the paved road.
At the top of one staircase, we encountered someone’s home with two squalling geese in their yard. We had to get past them in order to continue our climb, but they were being very territorial, so I beat a hasty retreat. Steve finally had to wave my scarf and jacket at them repeatedly to get them to back off, which they finally did, all the while making an unholy racket! When we got back to the top, it was late afternoon, and the line for the gondolas back down the mountain looked so long we just decided to get in line right away. We got back to our hostel an hour later and fell into a deep, well-deserved nap. Maybe on a future visit to Taiwan, I’ll finally fulfill my wish of visiting a tea plantation instead of just huffing and puffing past one on a staircase.
This evening, we revenged ourselves on the unexpected hike by enjoying amazing
plates of carbs thin-crust pizzas with Eric, a fellow UChicagoan whom we met in Tainan through Kate and Gene. The three of us had fun hunting for dessert at the night market and exchanged stories about terrible and delicious Taiwanese street food. Now Steve and I are sipping on delicious tea drinks back at our hostel, researching our trip in India (Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur??) and massaging our sore limbs. Hopefully, I’ll be able to catch up on my photo backlog so you can see how great our last few weeks in Taiwan have been!