Travel

We fly to Tai­wan and bunk in its cap­i­tal’s most in­fa­mous hotel.

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents -

Taipei, Tai­wan.

Itis with a smidgen of con­ster­na­tion that I make my way to the await­ing li­mou­sine sup­plied by Grand Hy­att Taipei. Be­ing weaned on a steady child­hood diet of True Sin­ga­pore Ghost Sto­ries like many Sin­ga­pore­ans, my mind is nat­u­rally run­ning wild with the sto­ries I’ve read about the hotel I am about to stay in.

Of course, it’s a cliché, to begin this the way many other pub­li­ca­tions and travel sites have be­gun a re­view of this hotel. But it’s the ele­phant in the room, even Google sug­gests “haunted” be­fore I even com­plete typ­ing the hotel’s full name.

If the tales are to be be­lieved, the hee­bie-jee­bies should have de­scended upon me the mo­ment I step foot in the lobby. Gi­ant tal­is­mans stand­ing guard by the lifts should have caused a chill to run down my spine. Auras, bad ju­jus and spir­its to in­spire ev­ery goose pim­ple to come forth.

But no, the in­fa­mous tal­is­mans are no more. There is a gweilo stand­ing still by the lifts but that’s just Char­lie, a hy­per-re­al­is­tic sculp­ture of a se­cu­rity guard done by Ser­bian-Amer­i­can artist Marc Si­jan. He stands frozen, looking into the dis­tance as lost in thought as Rodin’s Thinker. I al­most ask him for di­rec­tions.

I am met in­stead by the warm hos­pi­tal­ity of the staff so char­ac­ter­is­tic of the friend­li­ness of the Tai­wanese, and tons of de­li­cious food crammed into a four-day visit of the city. Over a meal at Irodori, the hotel’s Ja­panese buf­fet restau­rant, I broach the sub­ject and am pleas­antly sur­prised by the open­ness of the staff and their readi­ness to sup­ply the his­tor­i­cal re­ceipts. Grand Hy­att Taipei was not built over a POW camp, folks, and the tales of Jackie Chan be­ing spooked have been drummed up by fevered imag­i­na­tions. If you think about it, there’s not a square foot left on Earth that has not been touched by death, some­times vi­o­lent, in the past. We would be con­stantly haunted if that were the case.

For a city known to many Sin­ga­pore­ans as the place to go to for non-stop binge­ing, it makes sense that tourists will not turn to their ac­com­mo­da­tion dur­ing meal­times. But the many restau­rants of this hotel re­main full; it is the lo­cal Tai­wanese that pop­u­late them and, ac­cord­ing to the staff, they are pop­u­lar lo­ca­tions for lunches and din­ners, the sheer va­ri­ety of cui­sine on of­fer and the pres­tige of a classy hotel draws peo­ple in. Their buf­fet restau­rants in par­tic­u­lar draw the most crowds and I hap­pily join them, stuff­ing my­self to break­ing point with de­li­cious sushi, noo­dles, fried stuff and grilled meats. A visit­ing Ja­panese chef from the hotel’s out­post in Tokyo serves up some sig­na­ture dishes at Irodori, in­clud­ing a cold, creamed corn soup with del­i­cate chewy rice balls. But it is over shared slices of cheese­cake at The Café, with its hugely pop­u­lar in­ter­na­tional cui­sine con­stantly en­sur­ing full ca­pac­ity all day, that I ham­mer out a plan to check out the night mar­kets of Taipei.

Eschew­ing the ob­vi­ous choice in Shih­lin, I go with the rec­om­mended Lin­jiang Street Night Mar­ket. It’s just

one stop away from the hotel on the city’s highly con­ve­nient MRT sys­tem and a quick walk through the dark streets of Taipei at dusk as the bright lights of the mar­ket beckon. This is a place catered to the lo­cals and so has less tourist tat while still keep­ing with the spirit of the clas­sic Tai­wanese night mar­ket. I try to find the rec­om­men­da­tions from Ex­ec­u­tive Chef Tan Bankhim, a Sin­ga­porean who’s been work­ing at the hotel’s Chi­nese fine-din­ing restau­rant Yun Jin, but be­ing full to the point of burst­ing, I de­cide on just drink­ing in the sights with my other senses in­stead. The aroma of stinky tofu lingers and snakes through the whole ex­pe­ri­ence—although, thank­fully, other smells soon over­power; deep-fried crispy chicken in par­tic­u­lar is a wel­come in­tru­sion.

The riot of smells and colours is a stark dif­fer­ence to the elegance of my lunch at Yun Jin ear­lier. Clas­sic Chi­nese flavours first draw you in be­fore the more ex­otic leaves an in­deli­ble mark on your taste mem­o­ries. Kara­sumi, or salted mul­let roe, holds my palate hostage, hit­ting the taste nodes in the back and the top of the tongue. I can still sum­mon the mem­ory of the taste at will and re­mem­ber the smooth­ness with which the slice yielded to my teeth. It’s a del­i­cacy al­right, highly-prized with com- plex flavours pro­duced through a painstak­ing process of salt­ing, press­ing and cur­ing. The in­tri­cacy of flavours in the high Chi­nese cui­sine of var­i­ous re­gions whis­per of these dif­fi­cult tech­niques. I try my hand at mak­ing a rice flour cake, easy enough at its demon­stra­tion, but draw­ing dis­ap­pointed head-shak­ing from my teach­ers once it is my turn to make it. I will need far more years and a less ex­citable na­ture.

All that eat­ing begs for some en­ergy re­lease. I climb up Ele­phant Moun­tain after a short me­an­der­ing walk through the city. It’s as much a moun­tain as Bukit Timah, and in 30 min­utes, you will be granted a sweep­ing view of Taipei, but the steep steps may do a num­ber on your knees. Climb­ing and pant­ing wearily, the weight of tens of thou­sands of calo­ries press­ing down on me, I soon fall be­hind a steady stream of vig­or­ous se­niors out on their daily morn­ing hike. I grit my teeth and press on.

Cy­cling back to the hotel on one of the many bike-shar­ing ser­vices, I re­turn to a lobby bustling with very im­por­tant-looking peo­ple from var­i­ous em­bassies. It does ap­pear to be more of a business hotel, but its cen­tral­ity, ex­cel­lent restau­rants and taste­ful room in­te­rior design should be at­tract­ing more hol­i­day­ing guests. If you need more con­vinc­ing, there’s the Oa­sis Spa, its sim­ple menu of treat­ments be­lies the sump­tu­ous ri­tu­als of re­lax­ation that you’ll be treated to once you head to its rooms. My aching body and fraz­zled work-dec­i­mated nerves are soothed by a three-hour ses­sion in a treat­ment room that im­me­di­ately be­gins to re­lax you right at first look. It is prob­a­bly the best spa ex­pe­ri­ence I’ve had in ages.

Now, what was that about the ghosts again? With a mind un­oc­cu­pied by sto­ries meant to prime you with fear and un­ease, ev­ery strange noise and co­in­ci­dence do not linger on the psy­che. And if the sto­ries still bug you, at least rel­ish the thought that it is you with the cor­po­real pres­ence that will be able to en­joy all that Taipei has to of­fer with your phys­i­cal senses. Eat that, ghostly dudes.

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