My first trip abroad was ‘far east’; it was when I was twelve, and almost transiting to a teenage temperament, with a newfound fascination for everything fast and glistening. The city life in Hong Kong with its vibrancy albeit crammed streets and clusters of gleaming skyscrapers, Bangkok and its cultural fiesta and little lanes with dead meat displays, Pattaya with its fast life and several no-entry boards for below eighteen, Genting Highlands with its roller coasters and cloudy armor, Singapore with its prim, chiseled roads and methodical vigor. I was in awe, it was impossible to not have been. I remember Port Dickson where I first witnessed a mirror of the sun and swam in chlorinated waters of a swimming pool with a gorgeous view to offer.
Since then, I have, fortunate enough to be born in a family full of travel enthusiasts and being a massive travel enthusiast myself, voyaged to many lands, with family and friends.
On 21st June, 2017, I left for Taipei, yet another of those much-talked about cities in ‘far east’. I was travelling abroad on my own for the first time ever, and I couldn’t be more excited or nervous. I had done the list of essentials before one must travel alone – I had done my research about the cheap modes of transportation of the city, enquired about a local SIM, learnt about my hotel area, learnt about the must-dos and must-nots, learnt the ideal way to commute to places I wanted to visit (which wasn’t hard at all since Taipei offers excellent connectivity in the city through its MRT system). Passport – check, flight details – check, visa – check. My stay was to be for about a week, and I was ready.
Traveling alone isn’t really like the romantic or indie movies show they are – your life doesn’t magically change after ‘that one trip’, you don’t meet a perfect stranger cut out of a fiction book, and when you come back home, chances are that your old life will greet you the very same way it always did. You don’t revolutionize as a person; at least, I didn’t. But I did get the kick I wanted from tasting that Korean barbeque in a largely recommended Taiwanese joint and I met a beautiful 63-year-old Taiwanese man whom I enjoyed talking to for a good 30 minutes while we awaited our metro stop (he happened to be the only man in Taiwan with that great a command on English). I did love the sky a little more when I was on the top of Taipei 101. I didn’t complain about fatigue to myself when I walked for a good 6-7 kilometers on the streets, without a destination, simply with an agenda to explore and stop by whatever I felt was interesting.
What makes Taipei an ideal city to travel solo is not just the fact that it has excellent and cheap metro connectivity and carefully installed direction boards (in English!), but also the fact that Taipei is an extremely safe city with a low crime-rate, and it is safe for everyone to travel alone on the streets any time of the day – in fact, it is advised to travel during all times of the day especially due to the city’s vibrant night life. I do recommend the Shinlin night market, an all-night local street market, stacked with everything pretty you could ever want.
Although, Taipei does have plenty of other tempting nightlife options to offer like 24-hour karaoke bars and convenience stores with eating areas, I opine nothing would probably come close to Eslite. I fell in love with Eslite Tung Nan Store, a massive bookstore which also has a wine cellar, teashops, clothing boutiques, a food court and cafes. Eslite is one of the few 24 hour bookstores across the world, and stacked with a curated, extensive collection of every kind of literature you can possibly imagine – the best of comics, classics, contemporaries, in English as well as Chinese. The busiest time of the day for Eslite, the store staff claims, is after 10 PM, although you’ll find a lot of people with their noses in books almost throughout the day. Eslite has a policy of allowing their customers to read as long as they want, without buying anything, like a giant library. I found the books a little too expensive as compared to India, but I did have a great time reading, and exploring new, undiscovered pieces of literature and music.
People in Taipei are among the sweetest bunch you’ll find on the planet, and I, for one, couldn’t find a single outlier to that sweetness during my stay in Taipei. Every place, street and system in Taipei has a set of convenient rules and courtesies associated, and everyone follows them rigorously – not out of fear, but simply, from what I gathered, out of discipline and respect. Everyone is kind to you, especially if they sense you’re in the dark about something or are in the need of help. I used Google maps to commute to wherever I wanted, but if I ever did sense I was lost or in dilemma, I only had to ask the stranger near me. Everyone answered with warmth and ventured to offer more than what had been asked for. This brings me to one of the only central problems I faced in Taipei – communication owing to the language barrier, since Taipei had a high percentage of locals who spoke only Chinese. However, the kindness of the Taiwanese and their genuine willingness to help came in as a rescuer. There was this one time when I was speaking to a middle aged local woman, asking for directions by gestures and pointing out places in Maps. When some passersby sensed that the woman wasn’t able to explain herself to a foreigner, they stopped by to help. Here’s the deal: none of them spoke English. Soon, it was quite a scene. Quite a crowd had gathered, all peering into my phone and discussing directions among themselves in Chinese. After they had all decided, they pointed out the way to me in broken English words and expressive gestures. One of them even offered to walk me there even though she was headed the other way. I was in love with the Taiwanese warmth.
Just as I was in love with the suave streets of Taipei.
The only actual problem, if I had to pinpoint to one thing, (and it pains my heart to say this) was the food in Taipei. It is a rule of the most rigid kind that local cuisines and must recommended eateries of every new place I go to must be tried.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think everyone will have a problem with the food but Indians most certainly will – vegetarians and non vegetarians alike. Chicken used in their dishes is their local chicken possessing a peculiar, raw-ish taste, just like the fish. And almost everything you try to eat in Taipei will taste the same raw-ish, smothered in meat stock or fish oil. When I finally found a McDonald’s in Taipei, I ordered a meal expecting it to finally be the carbs my stomach was craving for but even the chicken burger there tasted like raw chicken skin and french fries were fried in fish oil. At least Coca Cola tasted like home, thank god.
I finally did manage to find an authentic Italian joint and ordered the things that couldn’t go wrong: bread, cheese, marinara – a margarita pizza. And it turned out to be one of the most delicious ones I have ever had.
After the food lessons learnt and a lot of epic fails later, I finally learnt the art of finding the right food in Taipei. Look for cheese, bread, desserts – basically dishes and ingredients that cannot be altered across the universal. Do not rely on fried items as local fish oil is used in almost all dishes. I survived on desserts a lot – and I was happy to, for they were delicious. I once tried a chocolate ‘snow dish’, which was basically chocolate flavored ice shredded to a smooth texture. I tried a Chinese moon-cake at a local dessert bar, mascarpone macaroons in a food expo I attended, and the classic truffle cake and loaded red velvet shake in the campus café of National Taipei University of Technology.
Traveling alone to Taipei was one of the best decisions I made this summer, apart from learning to bake killer chocolate chip cookies. I am a frequent traveler but the experience of being an independent traveler was something I couldn’t have ever written about had I not done this alone. Like I said, your life won’t be transformed into a magical Woody Allen movie and you won’t be showered with epiphanies by just a visit to a different place all by yourself but I can assure you this – when you travel solo, you earn yourself the liberty to listen to nothing but your own thoughts; you construct yourself as a badass hero in your eyes when you tackle the littlest obstacle; you laugh at your failings along the way and revel in the comfort that no one will ever know; besides, your successful solo expedition shall give you that booster-dose of courage to help you feel that you can survive in the indefinite world out there, especially with a little help from Google every now and then. (Come on, they owe you the help. They’ve destroyed your privacy.) We’d all be hypocrites if we condemn the internet. Internet FTW.
P.S. How was your experience traveling alone for the first time? Would be very interested to know.
P.P.S. Have a great monsoon. Must-shareable page has been updated. I’m working on cataloging all my previous posts of the Must-Shareable page. Expect that soon. Thanks!