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Trash is trending in Taiwan

Press AssociationPress Association 19/06/2016 Frances Wright

I'm looking out at the city of Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, through glass walls on the 88th floor observatory in the 101 skyscraper.

It was once the world's tallest building, but has since been surpassed by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It remains, however, the world's largest and tallest environmentally sound structure.

We are literally in the clouds and the bird's-eye view of the city spread out below reminds me of the computer games graphics I grew up with in the Nineties.

I elbow my way through hoards of selfie-taking tourists to press my nose against the glass and gaze down at the heaving urban sprawl surrounded by lush green mountains. I've flown for 17 hours from London to get to the small island nation of Taiwan, nestled between China and Japan, intent on discovering why Taipei has been named as this year's World Design Capital by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design.

The city is a mixture of ambitious, kitsch and traditional architecture, and what was once considered a trashy, throwaway culture is now revered as creative and cool.

Of all the weird and wonderful delights on offer, top of my list is the bizarre Modern Toilet Restaurant, a toilet-themed cafe where my friends and I sit at chairs fashioned from loos with glittery Perspex seats, and drink Sprite from mini-urinals.

In the huge toilet cubicle next to us, a birthday party of teenagers wearing poo-shaped hats are slurping turd scoops of ice cream. The food doesn't taste great, but this place is all about the ludicrous interior - which provides a backdrop for some fantastically strange snaps on social media, so friends across the world can share in our glee and horror.

Thankfully, throughout Taipei, wi-fi passwords are displayed in almost every shop, cafe and restaurant - so it's cheap and easy to get online.

Another of Taipei's famous novelty spots is the Hello Kitty cafe - a kitsch paradise. At the candy-coloured venue, a saccharine array of bright, indulgent cakes is served to us by waitresses dressed as Harajuku girls.

I discover not all Taiwanese food is as pretty and palatable at the Liaoning Street Night Market, where we sample local delicacies "stinky tofu" and chicken feet. Stinky tofu is tofu marinated in fermented milk. I should have trusted my instincts and given food that smelt like a festival bog a wide berth, but I grimace my way through a small bite and politely decline any more.

If it's more tasty and refined authentic Taiwanese food you're after, follow in the footsteps of American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to the unrivalled James Kitchen in Yongkang Street. The memory of eating green ferns covered in peanut sauce will stick with me for the rest of my life.

The streets surrounding Dongmen Station are full of intriguing, artsy and whimsical dive bars and restaurants, and the area is worth meandering in pursuit of a drink and some food, as it's a key dining destination in Taipei.

We wander off into the Zhongzheng District of the city and stumble upon Huashan 1914 Creative Park. The restored 1914 factory is now brimming with shops offering desirable objets d'art and fashionable homewares for sale.

The park is also an avant-garde performance and exhibition space, and while we're there, I see a group of breakdancers with a J-pop backing track and a man fiercely throwing shapes to the sound of techno.

I can't resist stopping for a selfie at the peculiar upside-down house installation, on display until July 22. Designed like a dolls house, the brightly coloured three-storey structure was designed by a group of Taiwanese architects intent on literally turning their quirky culture on its head.

About an hour outside Taipei is Jiufen, a small mountain village that inspired the much-loved Hayao Miyazaki 2001 anime film, Spirited Away.

Jiufen was originally famous for its mining industry and on arrival at the Gold Museum we - along with a large group of Taiwanese tweens - begin panning for gold.

As we leave the museum, tiny scrapings of gold in our pockets, we are accosted by the schoolkids who all want to take selfies with us. For a few brief moments, we feel like international celebrities, before heading into the village for lunch.

While drinking my rose-flavoured tea, I get slightly irritated by one of my friends - someone, and I'm not sure who, keeps shaking the table. Then a text message in Chinese comes through on one of our phones. Confused, we shove the phone into the face of our tour guide who, in an astonishingly blase fashion, announces the text is a presidential alert and we've just survived our first earthquake.

Next we head off to climb the deceptively named Teapot Mountain, which gives no hint of the vertiginous challenge that awaits us. The coastal views are worth the arduous slog, but I'm crippled for days - surviving merely on a sense of achievement.

We're able to catch our breath and put our feet up on the High Speed Rail - but not for long, as we reach our destination of Tainan in southwestern Taiwan in less than two hours.

Tainan is Taiwan's former capital, from imperial times - but it still feels like a hidden gem. The shops are selling eye-catching trinkets for a lot less than their Taipei counterparts and there's a suitably quirky cat cafe. The place seems a bit like Taipei's cool older sister.

The art here is progressive and modern, incorporating it into the visitor's living space. While there might still be stalls selling naff bejewelled iPhone cases on most street corners of Taiwan, there's also a sense that this place takes artistic endeavours seriously, and it wants its creativity to be accessible to everyone.

* Frances Wright was a guest of the tourist board. Visit eng.taiwan.net.tw

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