Sunset from the Guando Bridge (Photo by Amelia Dogan)

by Amelia Dogan

Editor’s Note: In the July 12 Issue of the Local, rising Penn Charter student Amelia Dogan shared her initial impressions of Taiwan to study.  She is there as part of a program of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) designed to give high schoolers around the U.S. opportunities to study languages critical for national security.

I’ve been in Taipei for several weeks and I’m now getting into the meat of the program. Instead of just going to the top 10 places on Trip Advisor, I sought out lesser-known tourist places like the many hot springs around Beitou, a neighboring district to Taipei.

The are many hot springs in the area, one of the more popular ones being Thermal Valley, at the foot of the Yangmingshan National Park. While there are several hot spring resorts in the area, public hot springs are also an option and typically cost less than $2 USD. Inside one of the springs I visited, there were two cold springs and four hot springs. I went into all of the springs except the hottest one due to its high, unsafe temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the clientele appeared to be older and came to the springs regularly for health reasons. The two cold springs felt especially good considering the hot, humid weather in Taipei while the hot ones provide a nice contrast.

Unbeknownst to many, there are several ethnic groups in Taiwan. Near the public hot springs is  the Ketagalan Culture Center, a cultural center dedicated to Taiwanese Aboriginal cultures. In Taiwan, there are 16 recognized indigenous groups, the largest being the Han people and the smallest being Aboriginal. The Ketagalan Culture Center includes exhibits that span cultural aspects of these people, from examples indigenous clothing to displays of urban-dwelling Aboriginals being assimilated to main stream Chinese culture.

Two of my counselors identify as Amis, one of the largest indigenous groups in Taiwan. They were able to answer our questions and explain some of their culture to us, like teaching us a traditional Harvest Festival dance.

The Harvest Festival traditionally celebrates the New Year and the crops sown. Taiwan is however always green, especially in Jiufen, an old gold mining village on the mountainside and the inspiration for the movie “Spirited Away.” On the breathtaking car trip toward the Eastern side of Taiwan through the mountains, I saw the natural beauty of the island. Due to tropical climate of Taiwan, the mountains are continuously lush. Along the way, we even ran into a mountain impasse that required multiple cars to back up in order for us to continue forward on the road.

There are various old roads and mining buildings scattered alongside the Jiufen mountainside but the main attraction of Jiufen are the various stores. The stores are a combination of tourist traps and good deals. Many of them have samples for famous things like Jiufen taro balls, a gooey sweet dough ball.

Jiufen’s picturesque views offered plenty of opportunities to take photos for Instagram. Even on the walks home, passing places such as the Guando Bridge, the sunsets are amazing. Since mountains surround Taipei, only rarely during rainstorms do I not see mountains from where I am.

Some of the best photos come from the everyday food and scenery in Taiwan. The most famous restaurant, a common chain in Taiwan, is Din Tai Fung. Din Tai Fung specializes in xiaolongbao, a type of soup dumpling traditionally with meat in the middle. Din Tai Fung is world renowned for their dumplings and the many variations of fillings offered. In Philadelphia, my favorite place to get xiaolongbao is Tom’s Dim Sum. Din Tai Fung also serves different traditional dim sum dishes like fried rice and shumai. Personally, I found the xiaolongbao mediocre, while the other dumplings were quite satisfying.

In downtown Taipei, there’s an area called Ximen that has stores like Nike, Adidas and Supreme. I resisted buying clothing, but I did try famous straight noodles from a stand called Ay-Chung Flour-Rice Noodle. The noodles come with a flavorful salty broth with flakes and pig intestine. Unlike Shilin, another district in Taiwan, Ximen has many more structural buildings. However, Ximen is not as renao, an alive and busy place, as Shilin.

Exploring can become tough while balancing with intensive language classes. The MRT however, the public transportation system here, allows for a great deal of freedom. The order and accessibility of the city makes me long for a system wide SEPTA upgrade. Overall, staying in Taipei a little longer than initially scheduled gives me more time to see more sights in the city.