Standing near a railway track, I glanced down at the words – love, happiness forever, sweet home, family – I’d carefully written in broad brush strokes. Each one meant something to me, and I could feel tears threatening to spill. ‘Let it go,’ my guide Peter said gently, and I nodded.
Holding my hand aloft, I took a deep breath. I was in Taipei, near the Pingxi Railway Line, and I had to be quick – a train could come by any moment. There wasn’t much time to spare. I looked at Peter, then back at the words I’d written on each side of a brightly-lit orange lantern. Then, I let my fingers unfurl.
The lantern caught the breeze and floated into the blue sky. I smiled, watching it drift up and up, until it was just a tiny speck. ‘That’s beautiful,’ I sighed.
It was my second day in the Taiwanese capital and the first time I’d ever let off a lantern, but then this was the place to do it. Tourists flock here constantly to send their wishes to the sky, but its popularity soars during the International Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival, which takes place on Shifen Old Street every Chinese New Year.
Each colour symbolises a different wish – red for health and peace; yellow for wealth and money; blue if you’re focusing on your career and want a promotion; and pink for bliss and joy. The locals believe that writing on four sides of the lantern and releasing it into the sky makes your wishes come true. The sky lanterns range from NT$150 (about Dh17) to NT$350 and the colour dictates their price.
Wishing over, it was time to take a walk to Shifen Waterfall, on the upper reaches of Keelung River, a 20-minute stroll uphill. It was raining, but we passed local women selling vegetables against the backdrop of a cloud-covered mountain, oblivious to the weather or jaw-dropping scenery. At 20 metres tall, the Little Niagara of Taiwan isn’t the biggest waterfall in Taiwan, but at 40m wide, it’s the broadest. And to me, it was just mesmerising, watching the water cascading down in a curtain of soft foam. The breeze was quite blustery; it would catch the water, spraying it over us as we shrieked.
It had been only a day since I landed in Taipei and checked into the Palais de Chine Hotel. It was very chic, and I soon learnt why – all the furniture and art came from France. My room, on the seventh floor, was spectacular with an art nouveau theme. ‘I’ll be comfortable here,’ I’d thought, laughing.
Now, we rushed back to freshen up before heading to the century-old Taoist shrine, Xiahai Chenghuang. I thought it was going to be a sombre tour, until I saw our mini coach, decked out in blue and yellow disco lights. ‘At least we won’t get lost in this,’ I thought, climbing in. I promptly nicknamed it the disco bus.
It wasn’t very far. The shrine has the most number of statues in Taiwan – over 600 – including those of the Chinese Cupid. Tradition has it that if the statue of Cupid is standing, it means he is eager to find a good match for those who visit him. The shrine therefore attracts a lot of singletons in search of their soulmates.
It was dark by now and time for dinner. We stopped at Yunus Halal Restaurant in Songshan District, which serves Thai food. The portions were huge and bursting with flavour – we tucked into plates of cashew fried chicken, tamarind fried fish, green salad, tom yam, yellow curry and sticky rice.
I love shopping and was ready to explore the nearby Ximending shopping district, which has plenty of shops selling handbags, clothes and accessories. It targets the young crowd and is a fun place to spend an evening. If you like to sing, Breeze Centre mall has 15 floors just for karaoke. I managed to avoid it (I only like singing in the shower!) and bought a few tops for NT$ 1,000 and a suede green skirt for just NT$400. And after all the walking, I was exhausted and ready to sleep.
The next morning, after breakfast, we headed off to Taipei Zoo. It’s home to all the usual animals as well as African wild asses, flamingos, leopards, zebras and pandas. I loved watching the gentle black-and-white pandas chewing on their bamboo sticks, playing with each other in the Giant Panda House, or lazing up a tree, staring at us.
More animals were on the agenda at the Leofoo Village Theme Park in Hsinchu County. It had four themes: Wild West, South Pacific, Arabian Kingdom and African Safari. Perfect for a day out, the amusement-park-cum-safari has over 30 roller coasters and plenty of monkeys! They were so cute I wanted to take pictures, but they refused to stay still long enough and kept jumping from one branch to another and scampering around.
All the walking and animal watching in hot and humid weather had made me thirsty, so back in the disco bus, Peter suggested we try bubble tea. Taipei is famous for its iconic drink – Taiwanese tea laced with milk or fruit – to which chewy tapioca balls or fruit jellies are added. It sounded delicious, so we headed to a 50 Lan outlet. The café chain is famous for its tea latte and chewy fen tiao, or glass noodles. I opted for oolong tea with a tapioca topping which was delicious. The menu was vast and I wanted to try them all. (And I can because fortunately, I discovered a branch in Deira City Centre in Dubai!)
For lunch, we stopped at the famous Din Tai Fung dumpling bar at Taipei 101 Mall. It was crowded but luckily we only had to wait 15 minutes for a table. Peter ordered a platter of different dumplings, while I read my guidebook on how to enjoy the xiaolongbao (steamed dumplings), which had to be eaten with chopsticks. As they arrived on our table, I picked a chicken variation of the dumpling, dipped it in the sauce, placed it on the spoon and poked a small hole in it to release the broth. Hollah! My first attempt with chopsticks was a success! And the dumplings just melted in my mouth. I could taste the hot soup, the soft skin of the dumplings and the light filling. Soon, dish after dish of chicken, red bean and shrimp dumplings arrived, each tastier than the last.
Stuffed, I decided to take a stroll around the restaurant and stopped to film the chefs at work in the busy kitchen. They were at it non-stop to make sure there’s enough shaobing (a layered flatbread) and youtiao (a long golden-brown deep-fried strip of dough) to go around. I watched them make each xiaolongbao, which weighs 21g – 5g for the skin and 16g for the filling – wrapped by hand into 18 folds. It was fascinating to discover the level of intimate craftsmanship that goes into creating the scrumptious snacks.
Upon nightfall, we visited the vibrant Shilin Night Market. Brightly lit, it was packed with tourists and locals shopping for hand-made jewellery, handbags and street food. Oriental aromas wafted from food stalls as I explored the 600-metre-long market, flexing my haggling skills over T-shirts and jewellery.
With several bags of great bargains in hand, we trooped into A Mei Tea House in Jui Fen, and quietly, contently, sipped tea overlooking the East China Sea. We sat on the terrace, watching the lights twinkle between the mountains and the sea – a valley of gold glowing in the dark.
I was looking forward to the traditional tea-making ceremony called Gongfu Cha, which literally means ‘making tea with effort’. Peter told me, ‘Trust me, it is not like the ones we make with tea bags.’
Everyone laughed, but it was no joking matter. The ceremony involves nearly 14 steps, from pouring hot water to brewing the tea and serving it with love. We were served a high mountain oolong with dessert on the side – black sugar mochi, mung bean cookies and sugar-coated dry plums. It was magical, sitting there, enjoying tea as the breeze swung the Chinese lanterns around us. ‘It’s so peaceful,’ I thought, smiling.
Sleep came peacefully, and the next day, I checked out and we headed to Yingge Ceramics Street. It has rows and rows of beautiful pottery, creative artwork, local exhibits and DIY activities for kids and adults. I have always been interested in feng shui, and here I found a lot of pieces I’d wanted to buy for a long time: a laughing Buddha, water fountain and a decorative vase for making my own wealth vase. Apparently, you need to fill a pot with precious jewellery or gemstones and cover it with a five-coloured cotton cloth, then hide it in your home ideally in your bedroom which is always a good place to attract and strengthen the flow of wealth and prosperous energy into your home. As I paid for the vase, I sincerely prayed that it would work.
From Yingge, we went to Formosa Pearl, a fine dining restaurant in Yilan and considered one of Taiwan’s finest. It is a dazzling gem cuddled by rice fields in the Lanyang Plain, and serves fresh seafood and local farm products. We were served a brilliant seven-course menu – the presentation was just so amazing that I kept taking pictures before I could destroy it.
We feasted on sashimi, sea urchin and freshwater prawns, served with wasabi and soy sauce, while dessert was local pear and dates with syrup.
Having feasted to our heart’s content, we checked into our new home away from home, Hotel Royal Chiaohsi, a hot spring resort. After such a huge dinner, I was ready to flop on my bed. But what better way to relax than to soak in hot spring water? The springs looked like hot mini pools and after an hour, I felt totally zen.
Sadly, it was my last day in Taipei but my departure was softened by my business class ticket on Cathay Pacific. Time flew by as a fellow traveller and I chatted about Taipei. It was a short flight to Hong Kong, and I spent my jaunt on board in great comfort.
Arriving at Hong Kong Airport, I saw a giant 2.4-metre-tall Buddha statue made of 10,000 seafood tins to raise awareness about world hunger. I thought it extremely creative – something not to be missed.
With two hours in hand until my flight home, I got a complimentary 20-minute foot massage at Cathay Pacific’s The Pier First Class Lounge. I lay back as the therapist used Mayfair’s vitamin oil to massage my feet. A 10-minute neck massage to rid me of my tired knots was also thrown in, leaving me rejuvenated.
The lounge also consists of eight day suites and showers, so I made myself comfortable in one. It was like a studio hotel room, furnished with a comfortable day bed, a reading light, a mirror and heavy curtains for privacy and in case you wanted to sleep. If, like me, you’re not tired, you can pull them back and watch aircraft taking off and landing one after the other – something I enjoyed thoroughly. The lounge was luxurious and the perfect place to unwind before the nearly eight-hour-long flight home.
Once on board, I quickly gulped down my dinner of chicken, rice and salad, turned my seat into a flat bed and drifted off to sleep. The next thing I heard was a crew member whispering, ‘Good morning, we are about to land’.
I wanted to say please don’t disturb me, but I forced my eyes open. As we made our final descent, I thought about my magical time in Taipei and hoped that my lantern wishes would soon be coming true. In my enchanted reverie, I wanted to add one more wish – that I could return for another charming visit.