I thought I had all the essentials in place: a meticulous list of things to do, gleaned from a Filipina classmate (a bank officer who makes all travel itineraries on Excel sheets!), a hotel booked near the Taipei Main Metro station, and the contact of a former classmate living in the city.

But I had not accounted for an angst-ridden teenager I was meeting after six months. The idea of planning a vacation to Taipei, Taiwan, was aimed at giving us, mother and daughter, a chance to spend some alone-time before I wrapped up my one-year course in Singapore and headed home to Delhi. In the interim, not only had my 13-year-old daughter grown to match me in height, she had also developed her own pig-headed ideas of what a vacation should be all about: namely, lazing in a hotel room. The last time the two of us had taken a trip together, she was 10 and I was “in charge". This time around, she made it clear she would not be dragged through museums or early morning discover-the-city walks, or experiment with strange food.

I soldiered on the first day, thinking I could slip in a museum or two while we enjoyed the hot springs in Beitou, about half an hour’s train ride from Taipei.

Big mistake.

After all, planning a day trip in mid-June to a hot springs area, especially when we had no intention of using the public hot spring houses, is not the best idea. After we had seen steam and smelt sulphur, visited the Beitou Hot Spring Museum, built in 1913 by the Japanese as a bath house, and strolled through the Ketagalan Culture centre that houses artefacts and outfits belonging to Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, the teen was ready with a tantrum. Perhaps the only moment of enjoyment came when she was introduced to the stamp-the-postcard culture. In Taiwan (and in Japan), tourist attractions have stamping docks on every floor. Each stamp has a different image and ink colour, and the goal is to get all of them on your postcard—a smart way to ensure visitors see every nook and cranny.

The making of ‘xialonbao’ at Din Tai Fung.
The making of ‘xialonbao’ at Din Tai Fung.

As we trudged back, my daughter used every form of emotional blackmail possible to get me to promise that we would spend the rest of the day relaxing at the hotel. I, of course, had other plans which included doing some quick Google searches on “what to do with teenagers in Taipei".

That evening, we visited Taipei 101, a landmark skyscraper, and as we zoomed up in 37 seconds to the 89th floor, which has an indoor observatory, I could sense a change in mood. A little later, during dinner at Din Tai Fung, watching how the famed xialonbao steamed bun is made after having devoured quite a few, thawed her some more. As we walked back to the Metro station, she let it slip that she had heard Taipei was a mecca of gadgets, and wondered if we were going explore that part of the city.

The next day, I signed up for Taipei Bike Tours, a 4-hour bicycle ride through the city. Quinn Rudolph, our young tour guide, is an American actor, English teacher, writer—basically a man who wears many hats. We hired YouBikes using the smart cards provided by him and over a breakfast of dan bing (egg crêpes), youtiao (Chinese churros), sesame cakes and soy milk, Quinn told us how he came to be in Taiwan. The daughter was fascinated to hear about how he had taken off from the US to travel halfway across the world to teach English and then set up a business.

The tour gave us an introduction to street markets and temples. As we cycled away from the Shuanglian morning market after paying obeisance at the Wunchang temple, a Daoist temple dedicated to the god of education, my daughter and I chatted about Quinn and his lifestyle. She was curious, and I was happy to encourage her to ask questions. The tour took us along the Danshui Riverside Bikeway to the Longshan temple, where we tried to assess our fate by throwing two half spheres on the ground, to the back streets of the Ximending shopping area. There was incredible local street art, including a dinosaur made of used beverage cans and graffiti that was strange, colourful, and twisted by Taiwanese artist Mr Ogay.

The daughter and I discovered more about Mr Ogay quite by chance. Quinn had no idea who this recurring street art character was as he bid us goodbye at the CKS (Chiang kai-Shek) Memorial Hall. On his recommendation, however, we decided to head to the GuangHua Digital Plaza, a six-storey wonderland of electronics. We didn’t buy any high-tech gadgets but we did discover quirky, fun things like a mini fan that can be attached to a smartphone. On our way back, we chanced upon the Wrong Gallery in Zhongzheng district. A mecca for all things Star Wars, including life-size models of all our favourite characters from the movie franchise, this gallery also houses the works of local Taiwanese artists. When we showed them the images we had taken at Ximending, they were quick to introduce us to the works of Mr Ogay on Facebook.

The Raohe night market.
The Raohe night market.

The experience at Ximending had us planning visits to other markets. The daughter was in charge. Experimentation with food was not a priority, so after consulting the famed Taiwan Excel sheet, she picked four places: Ximending because we wanted to experience it at night, Raohe and Wufenpu, because they are close to each other and the latter is a wholesale clothes market, and Shida, which is considered a fashion hub for students.

Raohe turned out to be the most fun, with its carnival-like spirit and gaming pens of pinball, recreational fishing, and Snatching UFO games. Wufenpu was a bargain hunter’s paradise when it came to shopping for quirky T-shirts, with cat prints, long patterned shrugs and dresses for the daughter. At other markets, we forged a stronger bond over Taiwanese street fashion brands like Starkiki, and all food on sticks, including chilli sweet corn on the cob, seaweed wrapped in pork strips, Chinese cheese waffles, and ice shaving with mango pulp.

We shopped like crazy, avoided an overdose of museums and mausoleums and spent three of the five afternoons just lounging in our hotel room. We ended the holiday with a new set of rules for vacations: Do some stuff that my daughter demands and a little of what I want.

***

Changing of the guard

We knew little about the history of Taiwan. So a visit to the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial was not high on our list. Our bike tour guide, Quinn Rudolph, advised us to catch the ceremonial change of guard that takes place every hour, from 9am-5pm, with a fresh pair of guards being escorted to the statue of Chiang Kai-Shek by comrades marching in perfect synchronization. It is an intriguing sight full of solemnity, grandeur and just the right touch of jingoism.

Anusha Sharma contributed to this story

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