TAIPEI, Taiwan — On the escalators in the immaculately clean subway stations, Taipei citizens line up single-file on the right-hand side, allowing a passing lane on the left for those in a hurry.
Sounds simple enough, but I remember recognizing how orderly it was mostly because I had never seen anything like it in the United States.
Upon landing back in the states and getting on escalators first at Los Angeles International Airport and then again at Denver International Airport, I saw my fellow Americans and their luggage strewed all about and I remembered why I admired the Taiwanese for being so considerate.
Taiwan was the first of five stops on my latest offseason trip, the third trip to Asia in four years that my boyfriend, Ryan Leland, and I have gone on together.
We chose Taiwan because out of all of the trans-Pacific flights we could choose from, the one that stopped over in Taipei before continuing on to Kuala Lumpur fit our budget and schedule the best. Other options were Tokyo, where we’ve already been; Hong Kong, which was intriguing but not as much so as Taiwan; and Seoul, South Korea, a place we didn’t think we should visit at the time due to rising political aggression from North Korea.
So we landed in Taipei and, as in true Lauren and Ryan travel style, crammed in about a week’s worth of travel into a few days.
Taiwan, like Tokyo, has high-speed rail lines on the western side of the island with trains that can reach a top speed of 300 kilometers, or 186 miles, per hour. It’s a smooth and cozy ride, but if you blink an eye you could miss something.
Purchasing the ticket can be a bit confusing, as we found that most Taiwanese — understandably so — speak only Mandarin. We found a few English speakers over the course of four days, but not many. We initially bought the wrong train ticket, but a Taiwanese woman who spoke perfect English helped us sort it all out.
With just four days in Taiwan, the high-speed trains are an excellent way to see the countryside and some other towns and cities in a day trip. You can ride the rail line from Taipei all the way to the southwestern tip of the island to visit a national park or simply take a ride to enjoy the sights.
On Taiwan’s eastern side, regular rail service travels through rugged terrain to reach the coastal city of Hualien in about three hours. The ocean-side town sits in the gorgeous shadows of nearby mountain ranges and it’s also the gateway to Toroko National Park, set way up in the hills about 30 minutes north.
Toroko was a nice surprise. While you can see Taiwan’s mountainous terrain from the city of Taipei, venturing off into the countryside is a beautiful escape from the urban centers, and Toroko’s jagged cliffs and steep peaks were awe-inspiring.
We hired a driver in Hualien and paid about $40 for him to drive us through the park and over to the beaches over the course of about five hours.
Perhaps the best surprise in Taiwan came next, though. After a relaxing train ride back to Taipei city, we exited the station and decided to take a side street back to our hotel. We passed a tiny restaurant that had its kitchen conveniently located street-side where three women sat rolling up fresh dumplings of some kind. We couldn’t tell what they were exactly, but we had to try them.
We went inside and one of the women searched around through some papers and drawers before pulling out an English version of the menu, which featured variations of wonton soup, noodle bowls and a la carte wontons.
We ordered what the guy at the next table was eating. He was leaned over his steaming bowl of soup and slurping up the noodles and broth with chopsticks and a spoon.
When it arrived, we, too, instinctively hovered over the bowl. We could smell the freshness — we knew before we tasted it that these women knew how to cook.
And then we tasted it and had one of those moments where we just looked at each other and knew that we were in the presence of greatness. The broth was complex and delicate, but the wontons were the real stars — soft and silky, filled with tender pork and cooked to perfection. The flavors were a beautiful balance between ginger, pork, scallions, fresh wonton dough and soy.
We slurped the bowl clean and ordered another round, plus a wonton-only appetizer that impressed us even more than the soup. It came covered in a ginger sauce and just a tiny bit of soy-based sauce in the bottom of the bowl. The wontons broke apart with the slightest prod from the spoon, and as cliché as it may sound, they literally melted in our mouths.
The Maokong Gondola
We walked around the city and thought about these wontons for the rest of the day. We thought about them from the top of Taipei 101, the city’s 101-floor skyscraper that was the world’s tallest building from 2004 until 2010, when the Burj Khalifa in Dubai opened and stole the title.
We thought about the wontons at the Long Shan Temple. I watched worshippers pray to the Buddah, but the only God on my mind was the pork wonton I had eaten earlier.
The only thing that could really stop our minds from going back to those wontons was the Maokong Gondola, a 2 ½-mile gondola high up in the hills overlooking Taipei city. The gondola passes through four stations and makes 90-degree turns, heading higher and higher into the rugged mountains.
The ride can be scary, even for a mountain girl with thousands of chairlift and gondola rides under her belt. The stations are spread out and the spans can be a little unnerving at times. The ride is worth it, though — the views aren’t this good anywhere in the city, not even from the top of Taipei 101.
At the top of the gondola, we got out and followed a touristy road lined with tea shops and cafes up to a long staircase that led to a restaurant on what looked like the highest point on the mountain. We walked to the top, got a table on the balcony and sipped on some Taiwan Beer as we watched the city lights twinkle in the distance. Our flight to Kuala Lumpur was early the next morning, but we didn’t worry about that because right in this moment, all we could think about was the beautiful time we had in this spectacular country — that, and the tasty pork wontons we would have just one last time after the gondola ride back down.
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-777-3125.