I recently found myself with a spare day in Taipei while on a recent press junket.
All I really knew about Taipei (and Taiwan) came from studying history at school, where I learned that the Kuomintang fled there with China’s riches ahead of Mao’s revolution in China. And what I had learned on a TV documentary in the early 1990s that said Taiwan’s rapid industrial expansion had caused such widespread pollution that the rivers were running black with toxins and the entire Western side of the island would be largely uninhabitable by the end of the century.
Hoping to see some of those riches, I decided to spend some time at the National Palace Museum and, checking Google Maps to see if I could walk there, saw an opportunity do it Bernard Levin style. In his book, A Walk Up Fifth Avenue, Levin claims that you can experience everything of Manhattan by walking the length of Fifth Avenue. Google Maps showed me that it was an almost straight line between the National Palace Museum and my hotel, mostly the Fuxing North Road, with a slight detour to get across the river, and a bit of a wiggle through the university and some parkland and another university.
The walk started well but I should have checked the details more carefully.
The first clear indication of Taiwan’s environmental improvement since the 1980s is that it is clearly inhabitable, despite the end of the century being 18 years ago. In fact, as Fuxing North Road indicates, it is relatively clean now – the air was pleasant, it is not an overly noisy city and traffic is not onerous. They even turn the lights off in the office buildings at night.
Most of the single person car journeys in the city are either on public transport or scooters. The fun facts on my complimentary hotel Handy phone tell me that over half of the vehicles registered in Taipei are scooters. They even have a collective noun which translates as “scooter waterfall” to describe the phenomenon of an entire freeway off-ramp full of scooters.
People do walk, though not many and not far. This is partly because of the scooters, buses and metro line, and because neighbourhoods and population are densely packed, so people don’t have to go far to get what they need.
Near my hotel, Fuxing North Road was mostly banks and offices, which gave way to shops and other small businesses, with residential above, as I headed north towards the tunnel under Taipei Songshan Airport.
Unable to walk in the tunnel, I detoured around the perimeter of the airport. The roadside here was entirely dominated by workshops servicing cars, tyre shops and panel beaters. Water was carrying dust from the panel beaters and grease from the workshops into the stormwater drains. Cars were parked on the footpath, and even double parked, forcing me to walk well out into the traffic to pass – completely different from Fuxing North Road, just metres away. And the neighbourhoods behind were cramped around narrow streets.
This part of the journey – and this part of the city – is particularly walker unfriendly. The monotony of car traffic was broken by a lady riding a tricycle rickshaw with an unmatched combination of welded steel cart wheels and a bicycle wheel. The mechanics’ workshops share space with a garage full of vending machines and another garage full of old-fashioned tricycle style icecream carts dressed up to sell Yakult.
There was also a Bike Station offering information, a bike pump, drinking water and a rest room, thanks to “Always caring for you, Zhongshan Precinct”.
The airport was a surprising addition to the mix because it wasn’t obvious except when a large jet swooped down and disappeared behind the rooftops across the road. Even the landing planes were largely silent due to the wind blowing away from the city, across the airport, towards the mountains to the north.
At this point, I began to wonder whether the woodland park on Google maps may have been more mountainous than I had anticipated.
Halfway around the airport, the road crossed a little creek that certainly wasn’t black, and having walked for about a kilometre as the only human on the road, pedestrians reappeared, carrying shopping and lunch after alighting from the bus.
A little roadside noodle stall was on the side of the road, with some dirty noodle bowls waiting to be cleared away from a table out the front. There was also a driving school, or testing centre, with students practising backing into parking spaces, doing hill starts and traversing a mocked-up railway crossing, complete with bells and lights, and tracks painted on the roadway.
So far, Taipei was looking like any other Chinese city that roughly manages to accommodate a lot of people in a small space, to a budget – right down to the ubiquitous white tiled buildings that go a bit grey after their first monsoon. And not looking overly polluted, while also not being the poster child for sustainable development. There are lots of high rises which don’t accommodate through ventilation. Walkability is not universal or widely embraced, but accessibility and public transport are relatively good.
Having skirted the airport, I arrived at the other end of the tunnel from Fuxing North Road, where it becomes Dazhi Bridge, over the Keelung River.
The Keelung River is a major tributary of the Tamsui River and one of the key waterways in the Taipei basin. In 1991, the entire river system was described by Taiwan Today as “intractably polluted” with sewage and heavy metals from a perfect storm of domestic sewage, industrial waste, farm runoff and garbage leachate oozing from landfills. The old people’s stories of being able to dive into clear water and swim among colourful fish were relegated to legend.
The shared walkway and cycleway on the Dazhi Bridge rises over Dajia and Ying Feng riverside parks – both relatively treeless, but riverside parks nonetheless. Enjoying them would have been inconceivable 20 years ago. Now they have shared pedestrian cycleways beside the water.
The river, though a little turbid, clearly supports life. Large fish had corralled an entire school of smaller – plate sized – fish into the shallows by the bank and were feeding flamboyantly. Either that 1990s pollution has bred a strain of superfish, or the ecosystem in the river is recovering. I’ll go with the latter.
Over the bridge, some students and elderly people rode past on bikes, but the footpaths were otherwise bare. It felt decidedly sleepy – not like a large Asian city at all. Shops were closed at 10.30am and parked cars lined the streets.
As I passed a military barracks that isn’t labelled on Google Maps, the small mountain presented its first obstacle for the walk – orographic rainfall– which I sheltered from under the front entrance of Building G, the university gymnasium, at Shih Chien University Campus. I watched council workers weed gardenias and a parking officer write tickets.
After the rain, I followed the line of parking tickets behind the university to the beginning of the woodland path marked on Google Maps. The first ten metres were pleasant enough, with stone paths, bridges and flowing water and a motorbike parked under the trees. Paths led in different directions to Yuanshan Scenic Area and Jianshan Natural Trails. A third option, a staircase, led straight up.
Google Maps said to go straight up.
Close to 1000 steps later, I passed a small shrine found ornamental staircases alongside a stone wall, and a small Taoist temple. I also found the motorcyclist who was still wearing his helmet and leading a tiny, very elderly woman who smiled generously.
The helmet was a good idea given the head-height cables hanging above the path – that was now a mixture of concrete and scooter tyres.
The temple looked like a dead-end but I bravely followed Google’s path between the temple, a newly planted vegetable garden and an out-house to a steep jungle path of mud and green moss-covered stones.
Google Maps seems to be more granular Taipei than other places I have been.
The already hot, humid weather intensified as I climbed closer to the clouds, and the path became narrower, stepper and more overgrown. I could hear scurrying in the undergrowth.
At one point the vegetation opened and I could see the route I had followed through the city, all the way back to the hotel. I was like my recent life was flashing before my eyes.
Then I found graves beside the path. Several of them, complete with stone surrounds, headstones, messages of love and old offerings drying in the heat. Were they the people who hadn’t made it any further?
Suddenly, in the space of a few metres, I heard a motor scooter pull over and park, the path levelled out, my Fitbit buzzed to tell me I’d done my 10,000 steps and I emerged onto a narrow concrete road where the scooter rider was removing his helmet. We politely ignored each other and I set off along the roadway.
I passed a way marker with Chinese characters and arrows pointing along the path in both directions. There was a little gap in the foliage behind it that may have been a path once. I was glad not to be going down there.
Google Maps buzzed.
I was going down there.
The path down was steeper than the path up. It was made entirely of mud and tree roots and a light rain was falling. Fortunately, a knotted rope beside the path provided a handhold that the jungle did not. At one point the path was so steep that I used the rope to actually abseil two metres to a flat bit below.
Then terracotta tiles appeared far below me through the trees and I found myself at the top of a steep stone staircase. It was the large tomb of Dr Wang Chung-hui, a founding father of Taipei, hidden away behind Soochow University.
Google Maps led me down stairs, along paths, through the university food court, down a driveway and out the back gate of the university to a road that emerged from a bat-cave like a tunnel through the mountain. I followed it across a bridge, and wound through the streets for a few minutes to the National Palace Museum, seven and a half kilometres and two hours after I had started walking.
After a couple of hours having lunch, ogling national treasures – the collection is exquisite – and dodging hordes of zombies with glowing audio guide boxes around their necks, I caught a taxi back to the hotel.
The entire journey in the cab, through the tunnels and over the bridge, took less than 15 minutes.
In summary, Taipei is much improved since the horror stories of the 1990s. There is still much to be done, and progress continues. EV car share is on trial and charging stations are popping up across the city. And whatever shape the urban environment is in, and despite extensive deforestation, it is worth remembering that half of Taiwan is a national park, and even cities like Taipei have wilderness within walking distance of the city centre.
Damian Clarke is The Fifth Estate’s publishing director and you and you can talk to him about The Greenlist entries, advertising, sponsored content and other commercial partnerships.