The first leg of the flight was simple enough. Long, but simple. We tried to sleep, and succeeded here and there.
When we arrived at Narita, we were greeted with some awkward news: our flight to Taipei was cancelled. Tricky, that. As we learned later, it had had mechanical troubles with the landing gear, and had turned back to Taiwan halfway to Japan. Yikes. So we waited patiently and joked about the possibility of sudden adventures in Japan. Eventually they came and told us they had found us a new flight, on JAL, and we were good to go again.
We took the bus to the next terminal over, and stopped off at a conbini for some quick ramen. It was, of course, delicious, and made me miss spending time in Japan rather profoundly. I need to get back there for more than a few-hour layover one of these days…
At any rate, the flight to Taipei was similarly uneventful, once we got on it. The highlight was getting to practice my Japanese a bit more; for whatever reason, the stewardess assumed I spoke Japanese before I ever opened my mouth. Fortunately, I'm not as rusty as I thought I was, so I was perfectly able to keep up with her talk of immigration forms and delicious airplane bento boxes.
In Taipei we were met by A.Lee's aunts, Jennifer and Julien, as well as one of his (very shy) cousins. The three of them gave us a ride from the airport to our hotel, a good hour away. I promptly passed out, and slept for the duration of the car ride. We arrived, dropped our things, and proceeded to sleep very, very well.
This morning we woke up and wandered downstairs in time to catch the complimentary breakfast. It was a curious mix of eastern and western delights--cereals and congees, coffee and rice noodles. We ate well enough, though it was nothing spectacular.
Then we began our epic city-sprawling ten-hour wander through the streets. A.Lee quickly established himself as an experienced, knowledgeable, and quite obliging guide. Our first stop was in a little local grocery store, where we found my beloved choco koalas, as well as some good Kinder chocolate. Why don't they have Kinder in the states? Silly.
From there we spent a good long while exploring the various side streets of Taipei. Periodically we'd stop into a shop and pick up a pastry, or admire a particularly lovely banyan tree. It was a foggy day, and rained lightly off and on, but we were unbothered. If anything, it kept us awake and invigorated.
Taipei is a beautiful city. Its buildings form a dense tangle, with no sidewalks to speak of, a maze of alleyways and secret parks. Greenery is everywhere--trees peek out from concrete boxes, banyans line even the smallest streets, and creepers and vines spill from every balcony. This verdant life is mixed with the omnipresent signs of urban decay, as shingles crumble and tiles crack, and pipes spill brown leaks down the sides of fading buildings. The resultant effect is one of worlds colliding, an effect only heightened by the periodic traditional wooden homes tucked in amongst the many-story apartment buildings.
We eventually ducked into a particularly interesting-looking alleyway, off of a main street. This quickly opened into one of Taipei's myriad covered markets. It was full of dozens of stalls, each hawking some strange and unique ware. Meats, dried fruits, clothes, magazines, herbs, custom tailoring, whatever. There were squids, cages stuffed full of live chickens, melons I couldn't name, and all manner of fascinating scents.
Our next stop was the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. The main building was a vast white marble building, with iron doors two feet thick. Inside was a colossal bronze statue of Chiang himself. The scale felt very reminiscent of the Forbidden City in Beijing--a running theme, perhaps? We walked back out, past the mannequins of soldiers by the door.
We made our way downstairs, into the inner parts of the building, only to be told to head back upstairs for the changing of the guard. We headed back up via an inside staircase, and to our surprise found the mannequins had come to life--and were being replaced. There followed an elaborate and precisely-choreographed routine involving much flipping and spinning of bayoneted rifles, saluting, and loud clicking of boots on marble.
We spent another hour exploring the inside of the memorial--some lovely art and some curious artifacts of Chiang's life and rule--before moving on. We hopped on the MRT and rode to a different part of town, where we found the clothing store that Jennifer and Julien own and run. As it was a busy day, they shepherded us off to a favorite restaurant of theirs. A.Lee and I luncheoned on gloriously delicious food (including rice so good it was once featured on NHK, apparently), then headed back to the store, where we were gifted with some boba tea. So warmed against the rain, we headed back out.
From there we mostly wandered some expansive malls, including one masquerading as a bookstore. We explored the lower levels of Taipei 101, admiring the architecture, and stopped off in a MUJI store, as A.Lee had never seen one. This part of the city felt distinctly westernized, in no small part due to the prevalence of Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger and Chanel. The basement food court in Taipei 101 was a little more interesting, but in general still felt like it could've been anywhere in the world.
By this point we were fairly sleepy, as jet lag was setting, so we once more hopped aboard the MRT, and skipped back to our hotel.
Day one: done. Tomorrow promises further exploration, temples, and hopefully one of Taipei's famous night markets!