After seeing some classic attractions to start off our time in Taipei, we took a day to head southeast to explore the Taipei Zoo and the Maokong area.
Taipei Zoo (台北市立动物园)
We were really excited to go to the Taipei Zoo for many reasons, but the biggest one by far was for PANDAS! Two giant pandas were gifted to Taiwan from China in 2008 – Tuan Tuan, a boy, and Yuan Yuan, a girl. In 2013, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan had a baby girl, Yuan Zai. They are so popular in the zoo that you need to get panda tickets with a specific timeslot to visit. Even though they were having a nap when we visited, they were still so cute.
An interesting fact regarding the pandas is they are examples of something referred to as “panda diplomacy,” where China gifts giant pandas to other nations as a means of improving diplomatic relations. In the case of Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, it was especially significant, as their names come from “Tuan Yuan,” meaning reunion in Chinese.
Besides pandas, some other highlights for us were the koalas, king penguins and kangaroos, which are not animals often found in the Americas. The Taipei Zoo is the largest zoo in Asia and has animals from almost everywhere in the world. It is also a pretty open zoo – the animals are not all locked up in cages. This is great for visitors as it gives you the sense that you can get really close to the animals and not just see them from afar.
After seeing the highlights of Taipei Zoo, we headed to the south entrance to take the Maokong Gondola.
Maokong Gondola (猫空缆车)
The Maokong Gondola connects Taipei Zoo to the Maokong area, with a stop at Zhinan Temple. Similar to the Ngong Ping Cable Car, the Maokong Gondola also has crystal cabins, featuring a glass floor. Unfortunately, we took the gondola at the Taipei Zoo South station, a middle station, and the crystal cabins were only available at stations on either end. Nonetheless, the view was still wonderful. We were able to see Taipei City from afar, including Taipei 101.
One of the unique things of Maokong Gondola is that it runs into the night. Most gondolas I have ever taken stop before sunset. But not Maokong Gondola. If anything more people come at night for the view. Thus it was my first experience riding a gondola at night! It was especially interesting during the part of the ride over the hills, where it’s pitch black. You can’t see anything outside the cabin, except the city skyline in the distance. It’s both a spooky and thrilling feeling!
Zhinan Temple (指南宮)
Between the Taipei Zoo South and Maokong along the Maokong Gondola is Zhinan Temple. Zhinan means pointing towards the south, A Taoist temple on the slopes of Monkey Mountain, the temple faces south, thus its name.
The way from the gondola station to the temple is surrounded by wishing trees, which were very pretty. Zhinan Temple is famous for its 1000 steps stairwell leading to a shrine and a pond in the mountains. It was only after visiting that we learned this: popular folklore says that unmarried couples who visit the Lingxiao Chapel at Zhinan Temple together break up. Luckily enough, we never found the way to the chapel!
The Maokong area is famous for its oolong tea (tieguangyin) and views of Taipei City! There are hundreds of teahouses here that all serve great tea. We chose Maokong Teahouse based on recommendations and enjoyed our time there.
Maokong Teahouse was really well decorated and with a cute but calming atmosphere. We ordered the signature Maokong oolong tea (tieguangyin) produced in Maokong, as well as some strawberry cheesecake with green tea ice cream on the side.
The strawberry cheesecakes were food art while the tea set was very cute. The teahouse brewed the first cup of tea for us, but it came with precise instructions on how to brew the next cups of tea. Carlos ventured himself into learning the art of tea making. His tea was pretty good, though a tad strong. It was fun to brew our own tea, take our time and drink at our own pace.
We had a great day at the Taipei Zoo and the Maokong area. It was definitely worth getting a little bit out of the city to explore more than just the big modern metropolis that Taipei is.