Sunday, January 29, 2012

Everything's Closed, or, My Chinese New Year Staycation

You know what it's like: the weather is a dark, drizzly Taipei Gray, roads are mostly devoid of people,   accordion metal pull-down doors cover every storefront. Everything's gray, everything's quiet, and everything is closed. What do you do when you're stuck in a city that's shut down for an entire week? When much of the population takes flight and you have expect the horsemen of the Apocalypse to come riding down the empty streets?


It wasn't quite so gray on Saturday, but Dunhua South Road was still dead.

This year, for the first time, I spent the entirety of Chinese New Year vacation in Taipei. Last year we went to Kaohsiung and visited a friend, among other things. The year before that, it was attempting and failing to camp at Cingjing Farm and eventually escaping the rain in Puli. Before that had been trips abroad: Egypt and India (including the gorgeous Hampi), Indonesia, the Philippines.

Never before had I attempted a staycation - in fact, I'd never really done that in my life previously, being a bit of a wanderlust and all, but so soon after our trip to Turkey, our CELTA courses and our new apartment we couldn't justify the expense of leaving town, and we had enough to do in Taipei to keep us occupied.

I have to say that staying home for a week gave me a taste of what it might be like to be a housewife (not stay-at-home mom, since I don't want kinds - that's different) and while I fully support others' choices if that's what they want, I can now say for sure that it's not for me. It was a fun week, but I like my career.  I'm ready to be a breadwinner again.

Taipei is infamous for being the city that shuts down over Chinese New Year. Other cities celebrate briefly, with businesses closing for maybe one or two days. Taipei shuts down for days on end. Why? Because unlike most other cities (Hsinchu may be an exception), most people in Taipei aren't from there - they're from somewhere else in the country and they go home. The incentive to stay open in everyone's hometowns (which always seem to be Taichung, Miaoli or Kaohsiung - I swear Miaoli's tourism slogan could be "Miaoli: Home Of Every Taiwanese Person's 92-Year Old Hakka Grandmother") is greater, because everyone's home. In Taipei, they've all left to go home, so why stay open? A lot of business owners and employees want to go home themselves.

A lot of foreigners stay in - movies, books, TV, 7-11 food - but I find that that's not really necessary - although I didn't set foot outside between Monday evening and Wednesday afternoon. There are things to do, if you know where to look.

So, basically, this is how I spent 11 days off (you all had 9, I had 11, but that's not necessarily a good thing) in Taipei - what does one do when "everything's closed"? For more than a week?

I wish I could have posted this before Chinese New Year, but I couldn't - and didn't - but I had to live it to be able to write about it.

Here are some things to keep yourself occupied:

1.) Walk around Xinyi at night

(no photo for this one yet, sorry)

Shinkong Mitsukoshi and the 101 mall are generally open, and by the second or third day of Chinese New Year, you can bet on it all being open and there being a crowd. The length of the public walking space down Shinkong Mitsukoshi's multiple buildings is decked out with red lanterns and, especially in the evening after the sun sets, bustling with people. Come here to shop if you like, eat - everything's open, including the 101 food court, but expect crowds because this is what a lot of the locals still in town do, too -  or just walk around and take pictures. I didn't get the chance to, although I might head out and try to get a few shots in the next day or two.  There are also outdoor market stalls and public art installations and a stage where I assume there are performances.

If you're feeling like the city has completely emptied out, this is also a good place to go if you just want to be in a lively place to soak up the atmosphere.

2.) Wander Tianmu for awhile


Me, on a romantic sausage-eating excursion with Brendan at Wendel's German Bistro, Tianmu
...and, with glasses!



Things in Tianmu tend to stay open, because that's where expats tend to live, and where businesses catering to them tend to congregate - by the second day or so of the New Year (and often before that), things tend to stay open. Many restaurants that are often crowded and attract foreigners not only stay open but are easier to get into, since much of the city's population is gone. Most likely this will be posted on the websites of such establishments. One example: Wendel's German bakery and bistro. Notice on website ("We still open for Chinese New Year!") and not that hard to get a seat. Brendan and I went the other day for a nice, if expensive, meal out and had no trouble getting a table and fantastic service. I recommend the beef tartare appetizer, by the way, but ask for bread with it - spreading it pate-like on bread helps cut through the sheer...richness of the dish.

3.) All the grocery stores are open - buy ingredients and practice your cooking skills; try new recipes



I made kung pao chicken!
Wellcome is open as usual even on the main Chinese New Year day and all of the fancy groceries, such as Jason's and City Super, stay open (though on Chinese New Year's Day they may have shorter hours). The Indian import store near MRT City Hall is also open.

So, with a quiet city, generally bad weather - we got, what, two days of decent weather over this vacation? - and everything open, if you have the means, then this is absolutely the time to try your hand at recipes that intrigue you. I'm lucky in that I live walking distance from a City Super (we are practically across the street from the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel - I know, faaaancy) and I could make muhammara, babaghanoush, lamb biriyani and other treats without too much fuss (although the biriyani wasn't as good as I would have liked).

4.) Decorate! New paint job!


PURPLE AND GREEN OFFICE!!




Our painted bedroom, with cat and man
If your lease allows and you are willing to make the financial investment - ours does, as our landlady is a rockin' Buddhist nun - this is a great time to repaint your apartment - as well as to do various decorating jobs (IKEA is also still open!) and hanging shelves and pictures (Sheng Li, at Fuxing/Heping intersection, is open and sells Dr. Hook for all of your hanging needs, without needing to drill). We did this, and ended up with a gorgeous cranberry and gray bedroom with textiles framed in IKEA frames hung up with Dr. Hook and a crazy colorful purple and green office (the teal living room wall had already been done). The places where you would go to get decorating supplies and paint - Carrefour, B&Q (for paint - one in Neihu near Costco and one in Qizhang above the big Carrefour), IKEA, Ikat (some days), Hola, Sheng Li - all open.

5.) Invite friends over


Biriyani night - don't even ask what they're doing

My food-loving whiskey-drinking Taiwanese friends


Chances are you are not the only foreigner, or friend (Taiwanese or not)  who is in town for some of all of Chinese New Year. There are tons of foreigners who find the weather generally too gross to travel in Taiwan and too expensive to go abroad, and you may have Taiwanese friends who are from Taipei and itching for a chance to get away from family for a night.

With everything open and your gorgeous newly-painted apartment, what a great time to get everyone out of the house and host a dinner party - especially for those poor friends of yours who have been eating at 7-11 for days on end?

6.) Visit temples


The too-often overlooked Qingshan Temple on Guiyang Street is a favorite of mine




Longshan Temple and Xingtian Temple are popular spots for public prayer in Taipei on Chinese New Year - visiting these can get you out and among other people, which might perk up your spirits (it does for me; I'm a natural extrovert). These are great spots to visit anytime during the week, especially on New Year's Day itself, and remain crowded through the vacation period.

Alternately, you could visit Bao'an Temple or some of the lesser-known or less visited temples in Taipei, such as Qingshan or Qingshui temples. They stay open,  are crowded but not as much as the big draw temples, and for these reasons, CNY is a good time to do this kind of sightseeing.

7.) Wander around the Longshan Temple Area



People-watching...or are they watching you?


With so many people pouring into Longshan Temple to pray, the areas around it are hopping, Chinese New Year is a good time to visit Bopiliao, the Longshan Temple Underground Mall, Guiyang Street (linked above) or the street market that pops up along Guangzhou Street and seems to be open in the daytime on most days of the Chinese New Year vacation. If you're feeling isolated or lonely and don't like hoew quiet the city has gotten in your neighborhood (I live in Da'an - it was pretty bad), this is the place to go to get your mojo back.

Also, great for people-watching!

8.) Try your hand at a new hobby or get back into an old one


A necklace I made for a much-loved but rarely-worn jade pendant



My favorite DIY shop
Dihua Street shuts down to scarily quiet levels right after Chinese New Year's Eve - the crazy market selling all sorts of products and foodstuffs goes silent and most of the shops are shuttered. In the days leading up to that, though, it's all open and if you're a crafts freak like me, that's fantastic. My hobbies, besides travel, reading and blogging, are beading and drawing. I have the drawing supplies I need but in the days leading up to the vacation I paid a visit to my favorite bead shop to stock up on stuff for various specific projects I had in mind. I only got one done - I made a beaded chain (faux) for a jade pendant of mine (real). I have a few other things up my sleeve, though, that I might putter around with tonight.

You don't have to be a beader or artist - what do you like to do? Do that! It's a great time to catch up on blogging, even if you write up posts in word to be posted later. It's a fantastic time to meditate, practice yoga, go biking (bike trails are dead quiet), write or do whatever it is you like to do. It's also a decent time to take photographs of Taipei without crowds in your way.

No, really, certain photos are much easier to capture when nobody's around to walk in front of your camera or bump into you.

9.) Get your Taiwanese friends who are still in town (there are probably a few) to teach you how to play mahjong.


(no photo, but check your own Facebook feed. If you have any Taiwanese friends you'll see pictures of this)

Seriously. They're all doing it (got Taiwanese friends on Facebook? Look at their CNY photos. It's all mahjong, all the time) and some of them are probably still in Taipei. See if you can't learn how and get invited to such a party. Could be fun!

All in all, I enjoyed my week off in Taipei. I might be up for another staycation next year. One thing I can say for sure - I didn't feel bored!

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