Juggling two smartphones and a stack of pamphlets, the harried bus attendant welcomes me aboard. He hands me an English-language brochure that doubles as a map along with a paper cut-out that can be folded into a red double-decker bus. I save that as a gift for my four-year-old cousin.
Thus began my journey on Taipei’s first “hop-on, hop-off” double-decker bus service, launched last month as part of an initiative of the Taipei City Government to attract more foreign tourists to the city.
“Don’t think about it as, ‘I’ve lived here for eight years and been to all the sites,’” were my editor’s instructions. “Bring your camera and fanny pack. Play tourist for a day.”
Stop 1: Taipei Main Station. I opt for the blue north-south route. The red east-west route consists of more malls and markets than actual sites. I’m wearing a poncho and cat lady sunglasses. No fanny pack.
There are no tourists on the bus at 9am. There’s a Taiwanese family with three children taking pictures incessantly, a man in a checkered sweater picking his nose and an old man sleeping with his head pressed against the glass.
The latter two don’t seem very attentive to the sites whizzing by, such as North Gate, or Beimen (北門), the gateway to historic Dadaocheng (大稻埕), once a thriving hub for international commerce in the late Qing Dynasty and now speckled with arts and craft stores and tea houses.
The loudspeaker blares upbeat, staccato music and I feel like I’m entering Frontierland in Disneyland. Looking at my pamphlet, one of the “must-visits” is Taipei’s “distinctive humanistic bookstores.” I don’t see any names, addresses or opening hours for these bookstores. The description does, however, boast of the city’s “fascinating book fragrance culture” — a literal translation of shuxiang wenhua (書香文化), which alludes to a literary or scholarly atmosphere.
I open my map. Most sites on both routes — Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (中正紀念堂), Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the Taipei 101 — are easily accessible via MRT. In fact, half of the stops on the red route are MRT stops — Da-an Forest Park, Zhongxiao Fuxing, Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. NT$300 for a four-hour pass and NT$500 for a day pass seems like a hefty price to pay when an MRT ride between two stops is only NT$16.
TOO EARLY FOR NIGHT MARKETS
Stop 2: Ximen (西門), West Gate. The Red House. The century-old building was once home to a theater, the audio guide says.
We pass the Presidential Office Building. The mother herds her three children to the side of the bus to snap a picture. They barely have time to pose before we whiz by the next site, Taipei Guest House. Another eerie-looking structure built during the early Japanese era.
Stop 3: Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Checkered sweater is still picking his nose. Old man is snoring. The kids are screeching and pointing at Liberty Square (自由廣場). I wonder why no one is getting off the bus. Isn’t the purpose to hop on and hop off?
Stop 4: The Ambassador Hotel, one of the first five-star hotels to open in Taipei in 1962. I ask the bus attendant what there is to do around the area. He says there’s not much besides Ningxia Night Market (寧夏夜市). It’s 9:25am.
Stop 5: Tatung Company (大同). Not much to see here either besides Shuangcheng Street Night Market (雙城街夜市). I look ahead and notice that one of the main attractions at Stop 7 (Jiantan MRT) is yet another night market, Shilin (士林夜市).