Travels to Taiwan

Following the incredibly long spring/summer term (essentially from the middle of January through to the beginning of August due to desk-warming in the spring vacation) the time finally arrived for me take a well-earned break. In July I had booked my flight tickets and with little else planning done, due to being busy at school, August 4th came around and I was on a flight from Busan headed for Taipei, Taiwan. From Taiwan I would head to Japan the following week before returning to work just over two weeks later.

When considering my holiday destinations I decided to try to visit some countries that are a little closer to home in Korea. I travelled back to England and spent time in Finland in January and I plan to visit Australia this Christmas. With this in mind it seemed right, financially and mentally to spend some time in Asia. Taiwan and Japan seemed the perfect combination, cheap flights and both countries that I had heard good things about from friends in Korea and at home.

My trip to Taiwan would begin with my first real couch surfing experience. I had tried to couch surf in Finland but like the weather the Finnish  couch surfers  seemed a little frosty. Everyone seemed to be travelling or unavailable. When searching and messaging potential hosts in Taiwan the response was significantly warmer. Hot you could even say. People were actively seeking me out to host me when I posted my travel plans and I must have had 30 offers for accommodation or people who wanted to show me around. My first host was Sofia who lived in Taipei. I planned to stay at Sofia’s for two nights but ended up staying for three. Taipei turned out to be a city that I really enjoyed and Sofia’s kindness and generosity made it a simple decision. In fact I loved Taipei so much I returned for one more half-day and night at the end of my trip.

Sofia lives quite centrally in Taipei and near a subway station. I thought Korean places were small but I guess Taiwan gives them a close run. Her apartment didn’t even have a kitchen. Fortunately for Sofia and I Taiwanese food is cheap and delicious. After a little mix up on meeting due to me not having an international phone and relying on my Ipod and it’s wi-fi capabilities we stopped off at her place, made my futon bed up and headed out to experience one of Taipei’s many night markets. Sofia suggested we take her bike and after deciding it would be better for me to drive, despite not having an international drivers license or ever ridden a bike in Taiwan, we set off.

I can’t remember the name of the market we visited that night but we enjoyed walking around the packed streets. Digesting all the food on offer with our eyes and eventually eating some delicious chicken dish. Sofia then showed me the university she had attended and we walked around the local streets taking in Taipei’s laid-back social vibe. After returning to her home safely on the bike I slept well despite the evil intentions of a persistent mosquito.

On Sunday Sofia and I visited some of northern Taipei’s scenic attractions. We ate a tasty and filling breakfast near Shuda Temple of sweet soy milk and handmade breads before our first stop, the naturally stunning Yangmingshan National Park. Yangmingshan overlooks Taipei. Famous for an extinct volcano, hiking trails, hot springs and venomous snakes, Yangmingshan is a perfect city getaway for Taipei’s locals and tourists and a home for Taipei’s rich elite. We took a small but gutsy bus to the entrance of the park and braved a little drizzle to walk to one of the peaks. The inclement weather did not detract from the cracking scenery. Steep-faced peaks flirted with the grey clouds and the green pastures above the tress were home to a few native cows. I spotted some local lizards with pearlescent blue tails amongst the rocks and some colourful butterflies. One of which allowed me to get a few good photos. After reaching our peak and taking in the view of Taipei below us we took a trail to a waterfall. Sofia expertly walked down the rocky path in her poorly chosen heeled shoes as I kept an eye out for snakes. After the waterfall we caught a bus (eventually) down the mountain and travelled off to Danshui a market area and notorious spot for watching the sunset. When we arrived at Danshui we encountered possibly the greatest pedestrian ever who pulled off some Michael Jackson dances moves every few steps. Obviously in a world of his own. I ate my first Taiwanese dessert. Shaved ice and milky mousse with marinated peanuts; bizarre but delicious. We then headed over to the market and river estuary area to watch the sunset and walk around. The market was vibrant with street performers and food retailers and the sunset glinted between the clouds. Later we went to Shilin. Shilin is another famous market area but with a more commercial, fashion vibe. We ate street food and watched the people go by. After an exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable day we headed home to a night of mosquito free sleep.

Sofia had to work the following day so I was left to my own devices in Taipei. As Sofia left early for work I enjoyed a nice sleep-in before heading out. My main destinations for the day were to visit Longshan Temple and Taipei 101 the world’s tallest skyscraper from 2004-2010. My first stop was Longshan Temple. Longshan Temple is the most famous temple in Taipei and serves as a place of worship for Buddhist and Taoist worshippers. It is by far the busiest and eventful temple I have visited. On first impressions it seemed there was a festival or holiday event but the crowds turned out to be the natural day-to-day crowds. People packed the temple offering fruits, vegetables and other groceries to the idols and shrines. The smell of incense dominated the air as I walked around taking photos and watching the rituals that the people performed. It was interesting to see the diversity of worshippers, business men in suits, foreign visitors, young, old and the visibly poor all standing side by side worshipping and praying. Longshan like many of Taiwan’s temples is architecturally vibrant. Dragons and bright colours dominate the decor despite parts of the temple being destroyed by fires and earthquakes over the years.

After my visit to Longshan I walked around the local area looking for Bilipao traditional area but was left disappointed when I discovered it (like many other attractions in Taiwan) was closed on Mondays. I took a few cheeky pictures over the gates and headed east to Taipei 101.

As I exited the metro station I caught my first close-up glimpse of the giant skyscraper but my first destination was the Sun, Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. Sun, Yat-Sen was a revolutionary leader in the Republic of China which Taiwan, (much to the annoyance of the Taiwanese) is still part of. I didn’t really read about the history of this man while I was there but the Chinese tourists that were in abundance seemed quite excited by him and the changing of the guard ceremony that I watched. For me the most interesting thing was the impressive building and the local high-school youths that gathered outside the building to practice their street dance routines alongside the older generations practicing some T’ai Chi.

Visible from Sun, Yat-Sen’s Memorial Hall is Taipei 101. I set off on the walk to the skyscraper but was distracted briefly by an electronics fair in the neighbouring exhibition centre. The electronics fair was incredibly busy. Males dominated the floor as they checked out the latest offerings from the electronic giants and chanted in unison as promotional girls teased them with free gifts and discount vouchers. It was possibly the saddest and most comical case of corporate transaction that I have seen.

Outside it was beginning to rain so I scuttled across the road avoiding the traffic and the angry policeman who wanted me to wait for the little green man and ducked inside Taipei 101. Inside 101 there is a large designer shopping mall that frankly seemed a little deserted. Taiwan has the 19th biggest economy in the world but I think the people leave the exuberant price tags of Louis Vuitton to the gullible tourists. The main attraction of 101 is the 89th floor observatory and the weather permitting 91st floor outdoor observatory. The rain outside stopped my outdoor observing aspirations but the views, mysteriously misted by the rolling rain clouds, were incredible. I’ve looked down on cities from the mountains before in Korea but there is an exciting and unnerving feeling that grows inside as you stare at the sheer 450m drop to the thread like streets, the toy cars and the roofs of the embarrassed skyscrapers below.  After winning the battle with vertigo I headed to central Taipei to check out some street art near the cultural centre of Zhongshan as the museum of modern art was closed on a Monday.

In the evening I met Sofia again and we went for dinner in Ximending. Ximending is the trendy youth area and is packed with cinema screens, shops and restaurants. We ate a Taiwanese/Mongolian feast. I forget the name but if anyone should suggest the words Taiwanese/Mongolian fusion in your ear I suggest you go.

After having my Taipei fix and saying a sad goodbye to Sofia I headed to the train station the following morning and boarded a west-coast train bound for Hualien. Taiwan ordered some bullet trains from Japan to serve its new HSR service but this has only reached the East coast so far. The west coast service is reminiscent of British rails medium paced service. My journey to Hualien was motivated by the lure of The Taroko National Park. Taroko is considered Taiwan’s greatest attraction. A beautiful national park highlighted by the incredible gorge that runs through it.

Hualien is a sleepy little city. The loudest thing about it is the air force that operates out of the airport on Hualien’s outskirts. As I arrived at the train station i watched the jets buzz overhead as they prepared to land before I went to find accomodation. I had looked up two hostels online but had not booked. I missed the first one in Hualien’s streets and was contemplating continuing on the road to the second but turned back for a second look. This turned out to be a great decision as when I found it I turned out to be the nicest hostel/guesthouse I have stayed in. “HOME” hostel is run by a kind young man named Benjamin and his equally generous mother who turned up frequently during my stay with delicious snacks. Benjamin had converted the property with unique, contemporary style and had undertaken all the work by himself. I chose a private room as I was tired and wanted to enjoy a little luxury and some decent sleep after the hustle and bustle of Taipei. After an afternoon nap in a room that would rival most 4 star hotels I went downstairs with the intention of dinner. Benjamin informed me that there were two beautiful girls outside who wanted to meet me and join me for dinner. A little surprised I was introduced to 蔡宜芮 and Chien Han Lin. During my stay these two girls were kind enough to join me for dinner in the evenings and tell me about their country and travels in Taiwan. They showed me some great Taiwanese movies to watch and gave me advice about places to go. As people you meet on your travels go 蔡宜芮 and Chien Han Lin are two of the best. We went for dinner and had some delicious beef noodle dishes, walked around Hualien’s market district and checked out a charismatic bookstore/cafe. We returned to HOME and they entertained Vivian the kitten whilst I tried not to drift off to sleep on the massive bean bags…

The following morning I headed back to the train station to board the local bus that passes through the gorge for a day of adventure and relaxation. The bus ticket allowed me to board any bus for one day so I could stop off at different famous points in the gorge and follow the trails and visit the shrines, temples etc… I stayed on the bus to the last stop and planned to walk back most of the way (19km) but it was evident on the bus ride that this wouldn’t be feasible. The distance and the heat were not really an issue, the large landslides, rockfalls and missing parts of roads that told the tale of typhoon Saola that had hit Taiwan the week before were. Saola killed six people and the recorded rainfall of 70 inches destroyed farmland crops and caused landslides across the country. The crumbling mountains in Taroko being incredibly susceptible to landslides meant the roads and trails had been heavily damaged. During the bus rides and my own, slightly fearful, navigation of the trails and road it was evident that being caught up in one would result in death or serious injury. The sun blazed down on road crews that were clearing rubble and mud from almost covered roads, repairing barriers that had been swept away into the Liwu river 50 metres below and in some cases laying charges in the rock face to widen the road as half of the original road had disappeared. The danger of the gorge is underlined by the tragedies that have occurred along the road, people being caught up in rock slides or vehicles crashing over the edge due to driver error. In May this year a tour bus went over the edge and all would have died had the tour bus not got snagged on trees below. Some parts of the road are now permanently closed higher up in the gorge due to the intense damage caused by a large earthquake in 1999 and anyone walking through the gorge can obtain a safety helmet to protect from falling rocks or mischievous monkeys that like to push them down the slopes. In January a Chinese tourist was killed when a rock fell from above.

Heeding all of the warnings but taking none of the safety advice I explored the gorge. The relative safety and beauty of Xiangde Temple was my first stop. Crossing the surging river below I walked around the temple and the unique pagoda and took in the breathtaking scenery. From Xiangde I walked down the road and through the tunnels, this is where it got scary. No footpaths, narrow roads, no lights in the tunnels, bats, signs warning of venomous snakes, missing road barriers and uncleared landslides. It was exciting, beautiful and nerve-wracking! I tried to walk on some of the trails but most were deemed too dangerous and had not yet had the attention of safety experts and workers like the road had. My day in Taroko was amazing and will be impossible to forget this was all supported wonderfully by the people I met and my lodgings in Hualien.

On the train returning north I chose to visit Jiufen and Jinguashi. These two small mountain villages were home to the Taiwanese gold rush that has long left the region. Thankfully their importance in the Taiwanese economy has remained due to the incredible coastal and mountain scenery that frames these villages. I stayed in Jiufen for one night but it was a great night. After getting the bus to Jiufen from the local town station I jumped off and went in search of a Taiwanese version of a B&B called a Minsu. Jiufen, like Jinguashi has a restriction on hotels that enables the people of the villages to open up their homes as guesthouses and retain a living. The first place I tried to book into turned out to be full, but the kind owners went out of their way to ring a friend who lived higher up the twisty slopes to see if they had a vacancy. Ten minutes later a kind lady turned up in a scooter and whisked me off on the back through the incredibly narrow pedestrian streets, expertly avoiding tourists and animals and carving around u-turns as I held my breath on the back. It turned out that her husband had lived in Australia for 15 years and we had a good chat until his daughter took me on a walk further up the village to the very top where they had a second premises with an amazing balcony view….

In the evening I walked the market streets, drank in the tea houses and ate the most delicious beef noodle meal ever. An equally delicious local dessert followed later as I had a sign language conversation with the cute waitress as I was the last customer remaining. Bidding her farewell I retired to my room and read a book as I sat on my balcony over the wonderous view below.

The following day I briefly went to the gold museum at Jinguashi but persistent rain foiled my desire to pan for gold in the mountain streams and I took the bus back to Taipei and booked myself into a hostel in Ximending.

Back in Taipei I went to the coin laundry nearby and cleaned my clothes ready for leg two of my trip in Japan. In the evening I had arranged to meet another couch surfer, Sandra, in Huashan Creative Park. Huashan had been recommended to me by the girls in Hualien and I wanted to take in the creative side of Taipei a little more. We met at a nearby tube station and had some ridiculously oversized noodle dinner at a ridiculously cheap price and headed to Huashan. Huashan has a great vibe, sadly it was too late to see any exhibitions or buy any tickets for performances but we cheekily listened in from outside before heading to a relaxing bar for some drinks. Sandra is great company and a testament to the friendly nature of Taiwanese people that I encountered throughout my trip. I really hope she comes to Korea so I can return her hospitality. We talked about her life and her travels and I tried not to bore her with mine! We just about caught the final subway to our respective homes and I went to bed with a great final impression of Taiwan and the Taiwanese people.

The following morning I took a bus to the airport and checked in for my flight to Osaka, Japan. My trip to Taiwan left me feeling with an incredible desire to go there again. Earlier this year I had considered moving there to teach but the fear of the unknown made me re-sign (happily) my contract in Korea. I love my job and life in Korea but I think I will seriously consider a position in Taiwan next year and I plan to actively pursue that desire. I really hope to meet all the friends I met in Taiwan again. Their generosity, kindness and passion about their country is humbling.

Coming soon….. Journeying in Japan!

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