Taipei, home to some 2.7 million people, offers more than the busy street markets and skyscrapers that I had initially looked forward to on my first visit there.
Our multi-national band of media members boarded Malindo Air flight OD 632 from KL International Airport (KLIA) and touched down at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport at 11.45am sharp, less than five hours after it had taken off at 7.15am.
A mini tour bus then took us on a 45km journey to Yangmingshan national park in Beitou district, a national park within a metropolis. We were awed by nature's beauty as blue skies and shimmering hills greeted us. Shrouded in mist, the 11,455ha national park sits at an altitude of between 200m and 1,120m above sea level.
Hundreds of local hikers come to this place every morning to scale the mountains that oversee the city from its highest peak – Qixingshan, otherwise known as Seven Star Mountain. Within the park, we set off on an hour’s hike in Qingtiangang grassland, known for its wide, grassy meadows.
During the Japanese occupation, the area was established as a range for cattle to graze. Signboards along the walking path warn visitors not to step over the fence and touch the cows. We were happy anyway just to enjoy the spectacular view.
Not far below the hill, before you can even see it, the smell of sulphur lets you know you’re close to Xiaoyoukeng, a post-volcanic geological landscape area at approximately 805m above sea level and famous for the fumarole activities, sulphur crystals and hot springs.
Attractions in this area include the uniquely designed Beitou Public Library, Beitou Hot Spring Museum, Beitou Geothermal Valley and Atami Hotel, the largest hot spring hotel in Taipei City and the only such hotel in Taipei that is approved as Muslim-friendly.
Taiwan is home to major global tech brands and it is where the world's biggest companies release their new ranges of innovative gadgets every year. Syntrend's tech mall in ZhongZheng District was built for that purpose. The four-storey Eslite Spectrum Songyan store in Xinyi District, meanwhile, is not to be mistaken for a conventional mall. The store serves as a platform for over 180 individual designers to produce their works ranging from clothing to decorations and food. The public can also pay and custom-make their own versions of the items, with guidance from the artists. Here, a custom hand-stitched leather name card with a name stamped on it can be done in about four hours, for about NT$900 (RM120).
We didn't see any money-changers in either shopping mall or along the streets where we walked. As night fell, we had emptied our wallets and purses from shopping in Ximending pedestrian shopping and street food heaven. Touted as the “Harajuku of Taipei” and the “Shibuya of Taipei”, it has a variety of clothing shops, street food stalls and electronic stores. If one is looking for edible souvenirs, such as Taiwan's popular pineapple cakes or sun biscuits, they are priced from NT$250 (RM33) to NT$300 (RM40) per box here.
One cannot say that one has been to Taiwan without trying its beef noodle soup. The Halal version can be found in Chang's Halal Beef Noodles on Yanping South Road. The humble eatery is operated by a Muslim couple who has been serving the traditional homemade noodles for more than 60 years. Besides the noodles in stewed beef soup, other Halal dishes are available, such as fried and steamed dumplings. The homemade soy bean drink sold here is infused with the aroma of burnt charcoal that was used during the cooking process.
Longing for a taste of home, Chinese Muslim cook Li Hai-Jung from Ningxia, a Hui autonomous region in China, opened the Hui Guan restaurant in Bade Road. Most of the dishes are rich in taste, with a hint of spiciness. Although it is prepared in the Halal method, the cooking retains the authentic taste of traditional mainland Chinese cuisine. (At the point of writing, I'm already missing the taste of the food.)
Indian and Pakistani food lovers should not miss Khana Khazana restaurant on Keelung Road; it is well-known for its spices and thick curry. Located within walking distance from Taipei City Hall, it serves exotic vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, authentic briyanis and delicious halwa. The restaurant owner Syed Muzafar Ahmed, who originates from Pakistan, ensures that all cooking and recipes there are bona fide.
The magnificent 14-storey Grand Hotel in Zhongsan North Road is a landmark. It looks like a palace, with its golden roof and gigantic red columns. The main building boasts 500 rooms and suites which offer a bird’s-eye view of Taipei – bustling in the day and serene at night. The five-star hotel has hosted celebrities and dignitaries from around the world.
Taiwan's iconic Bubble Milk Tea is nothing new anymore; now shaved ice dessert is the rage. Ice is just ice, but we tried Halal versions of it at the Ice Monster outlet on Zhongxiao East Road. Its famous signature Mango Sensation consists of shaved ice and a pile of fluffy mango ice shavings topped with fresh mango pieces, mango syrup, mango gelato and a blob of creamy almond tofu – pure bliss to those who love cold desserts and tropical flavours. Do not be surprised at the high prices, though, as each bowl is large enough to be shared between two persons.
With an estimated 60,000 Muslims that make up Taiwan’s population, the city is no stranger to Muslims. Thousands congregate at the Taipei Grand Mosque in XinSheng South Road for Friday prayers. Being Taipei's largest mosque, it also approves Halal certification to businesses throughout the country, besides those approved by the Taipei-based Chinese Muslim Association.
Muslim prayer facilities are also readily available at the Taiwan Cultural Mosque and Taipei Main Station, within reach of Taipei's much-praised public transportation system. The city government has been vigorously promoting Muslim-friendly tourism, with more and more eateries and hotels receiving Halal certification. To date, there are over 80 Halal-certified eating places in Taiwan.
Affordable travelling in Taipei makes it an ideal destination for Malaysians to visit. With the currency exchange now – RM1 to about NT$7.5, the price of products and food is not that different from what we would pay at home. (Do note that it’s very difficult to exchange the ringgit here, though, so please come with enough local currency.)
Payments can be done with cash or by swapping the Taipei Easycard, locally known as youyouka. The debit-style card can be bought at 7-Eleven stores or MRT stations across the city. Taking public transportation is easy; there are thousands of taxis and buses that ply the routes, and a vast network of subway trains. We made several taxi trips during our stay and paid for them with Easycard. If you're into more physical means of commuting within close distances, Taipei is also pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly but watch out for the rain.
This trip to Taipei was sponsored by Malindo Air in collaboration with Taipei City Department of Information and Tourism. Malindo has daily return flights from KLIA to Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan.