27 July 2008

Travel: Taipei - Maokong Gondola

The Muzha Line terminates at the Taipei Zoo Station, and it is a short walk to the Maokong Gondola, a cable car which takes you a full four kilometres into the mountains in an L-shaped route that takes 30 minutes. Each car seats up to six people, and after a queue that stretched up three flights (by escalator, thankfully) but was surprisingly quick, I boarded with a Taiwanese family. I faced backwards, giving me a great vantage point of Taipei as dusk settled on the city. It is an impressive sight from there, looking back north to the valley that is home to the capital. And the views got better as dusk turned to full darkness, with the city alight. Taipei 101 was particularly eye-catching, with its colored lights (they alternate by night – this Sunday, the main color was purple) outlining the building towering over the skyline. (My camera battery died during the ride, so I include only two pictures here.)

The mountains overlooking the valley are home to acres of tea plantations, and the mountainsides are dotted with teahouses. These are one of the main attractions for gondola riders, and I was looking forward to relaxing with a view of Taipei below. I had pored through my guidebook to try to find the best spot.

Throughout this trip, however, I found my guidebook to be only mildly helpful. It provided English names for most of the places (or Taiwanese, written in Roman characters), but all the signs at the places themselves were in Taiwanese (and Taiwanese characters). As loyal readers know, I am to a fault obsessive about trying the suggestions found in guidebooks. This meant that I just had to find the places in the book, even though I passed a dozen or so that looked just fine. The idea was to find a location high enough on the mountain to get a great view of the city. After trying a couple of places with fantastic vistas, I gave up looking for the exact ones mentioned in my book (I may very well have found them and not known). Anyway, it was a pleasant evening, sitting looking back towards Taipei, enjoying the cool weather and mountain breezes. I could have stayed for hours. Eventually, I headed back for my half hour trip back down in the cable car, this time sharing it (in silence) with two young Taiwanese couples.

It was early enough that I thought I could find another night market. I had located the Shida Market on the map, near the National Taiwan Normal University, and I thought I could walk from the MRT station. Well, I walked and I walked, and only after about an hour did I find it. By that time, it was past 10 (on a Sunday), and many of the stalls had shut down. So, I ended up in a MOS Burger, a Japanese fast food chain (found in Singapore, as well) that serves all kinds of sandwiches. Its burgers are a mix of In-N-Out and Tommy’s burgers, for your Southern California burger aficionados. Although not technically a local place, I was hungry and this was familiar. It would be a fine way to end my night.

But, I was in for one last experience. As I sat there alone eating my chicken sandwich (they talked me into trying the special), I noticed the music. Mind you, this is mid-May. And “Away in a Manger” is playing. I thought , surely not. Maybe it is a well-known tune in Japan. Or Taiwan. A song that shares its tune with the Christmas carol. So, I kept on eating, not thinking much more of it. Until “O Little Town of Bethlehem” came on. I laughed – Christmas in May in Taiwan! At a Japanese fast food restaurant. It was time to go back to my hotel.

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