The stars have aligned to make the beginning of this year quite unforgettable. The questionable Korean public school calendar, a bonus ten days contractual holiday for re-signing last June and my ability to be thrifty over the last few months culminated in me being able to have another adventure. Since moving to South Korea in 2010 I have used my vacation time to visit new countries and cultures. When I was younger my vacations were always spent in the Balearic Islands, snowboarding in France or a few cheeky trips to Germany with the boys. Broadening my horizons has definitely become one of, if not the key motivator when it comes to planning my travels. You may question why I visited Taiwan again for the second time in seven months. Was I in love, did I have a baby there, am I getting married, was I in trouble with the police, did I have a job there? All fair questions, but none fortunately applicable. Quite simply I enjoyed it so much the first time, and I missed out on half of the country last time, that it seemed only natural to return.
What did I enjoy on my first trip to make me go back? In all honesty I’ve enjoyed every country I’ve visited over the last 30 months but Taiwan has stood out for many reasons. Firstly, the people. Their kindness and generosity in August was beyond expectation and precedent. Secondly, the land. Taiwan has one of the most beautiful landscapes I have encountered. Simply, stunning in some places. Thirdly, food and drink. Night market food is both delicious and potentially killer to your figure, bubble/pearl tea is a revelation. Finally, culture. As I get slowly older I find myself less interested in partying (but not completely!) and more interested in the things that have, at times throughout my life, inspired and fascinated me.
Enough unconditional waffling and gushing. Time to talk Taiwan, take two.
After struggling for weeks to find reasonable flights anywhere in Asia from Korea, I plumped for an Air Busan return flight to Taipei. All my flights, throughout my life have left me feeling comfortable and safe, apart from my previous Air Busan experience when I was sure the noises emanating from below my seat were going to end in a grisly but swift death. The legroom however, on that occasion , was commendable. This time, I was relieved by a non-fear inducing low hum throughout my journey as opposed to the squealing and screeching that I endured last time. I landed in Taipei, got a bus connection to the HSR (High Speed Rail) and was in Kaohsiung at my hotel in no time. Rapid. Previously in Taiwan I had visited only the North and East of the island, and so the focus of this trip was to experience the South and West of Taiwan.
Kaohsiung is the second largest city in Taiwan and lies on the significantly, more heavily populated west coast. The east coast is dominated by seemingly inhospitable mountains and jungle, whilst the west coast, separated from east by said spine of mountains, opens up more favourably with low plains, ripe for urban development. My plan was to get around as much as possible in ten days, this left me with limited time in each place, with this in mind I settled in quickly and headed out for the evening. My stay in Kaohsiung coincided with a lantern festival. The focus of the lantern festival was around an area known as “Love River”. Being alone I was almost anticipating the over sickly atmosphere of loved up couples. Fortunately the sheer throng of the crowds meant I felt more lost amongst thousands than being subjected to amorous acts of love at the riverside. At the harbour I grabbed some food at the mandatory event night market, grabbed a much anticipated passion fruit and green tea bubble tea, and began the fight with the crowds to get to the lantern festival. Bridges had been adorned with neon fairy lights and I followed the crowd across one to the river mouth. On one side government and private towers dominated the skyline and on the other the brightly coloured lanterns shined across the waters. I headed toward the lanterns and was greeted by colourful wire and paper creations. Some re-enacted scenes from animated movies and cartoons, others hinted towards Kaohsiung’s culture and history and others marked the recent turn of the Chinese New Year. After battling the amateur photographers and iPhone snappers I crossed the river and watched street acts and performances that livened the water-side atmosphere. Later I stumbled across part of an old movie set and was treated to a fireworks show across the harbour. It was a pretty good welcome from Kaohsiung.
The following day I had arranged to meet Sandra, a friend I met through couchsurfing on my first trip to Taiwan. Sandra lives in Taipei but was visiting her family at home for the holidays so she had the opportunity to show me around a little of her home town. We met on the subway platform and headed to an area known as Pier 2. Pier 2 is an art district in Kaohsiung, due to some dubious sign-posting we however managed to miss most of it. Although, it turns out that most of it is closed on Mondays anyway. We had hired some city bicycles (a bit like Boris bikes in London) and we explored some of the outdoor sculptures and bicycle paths in the area before taking the ferry across to Cijin island. Cijin island is a long reef adjacent to the shoreline and is slowly becoming a tourist destination as well as practically serving Kaohsiung’s harbour industry. First we explored the island fort, Cihou. Following a short climb we were greeted by a scenic view across the city coastline and a rebuilt fort that had protected the island, firstly for the purpose of the Chinese and later the Japanese. It’s nothing remarkable, but the view was great.
We grabbed our bikes and explored the island. We came across what can only be described as an island with a confused purpose. There was a beach, of sorts, a wind park, some kind of shore/beach development, an old harbour, half in use half abandoned, a tourist street to feed the en mass Chinese tour groups that spilled off the ferry and various other small and out of place developments. Apart from the harbour, the fort and the lighthouse nothing else really felt like it should be there. Our journey continued, we ate some tasty fresh tomato with ginger dip on arrival and before we left we had a tasty kind of savoury pancake snack. We crossed the short stretch of water on the ferry and headed towards the Former British Consulate at Takao further round the coast. The consulate was built to service the stretching British Empire and the trade that went through the local area. (Kaohsiung is still one of the busiest ports in the world). Made of red brick it is perched upon a cliff and overlooks the harbour entry. Although British in a historical sense it would appear that the Chinese tourists have now acquired temporary rule as it was overrun with incessant tour groups. The sun set when we were there and I tried to imagine a British ambassador donning cream chinos and a blue blazer quaffing on a Pimms watching his exports roll in but the illusion was smashed by the overly loud hacking, couching and spitting of some middle aged Chinese men. We hiked back down and avoided being run over by tour buses before returning our bikes and saying goodbye.
Tuesday was upon me and that meant finding the bus station and heading to the countryside for a change of pace. My destination was Meinung a small town towards the heart of the island. Bus station found and ticket bought, I waited for my bus to arrive. A girl sparked up some conversation with me a she observed my anxious peers out of the bus station window to decipher the destinations of the buses that were pulling in and out. She had overheard me buying my ticket and was heading in the same direction. Arki introduced herself and seemed quite confused as to why I was heading to Meinung (in fact everyone I met in Taiwan seemed a little confused by my choice in destination). I told her I was seeking a quiet few days, a bit of nature and some exploration. Her inquisitiveness satisfied we boarded the bus and she told me about her stay in Australia and her family in Meinung. On learning that I had not booked anywhere to stay, she offered to take me around some minsus (Taiwan’s version of a B&B) in her car. This is the kind of generosity that I have begun to almost expect in Taiwan and has been a welcome feature of my travels. She went as far as negotiating a price with the minsu owner and telling him that I might require a lift to the bus station when I left!
The minsu was a little weird. I was, by all observations, the only guest. Despite it being a balmy 25 degrees everyday, February is considered low season. I had my choice of bikes ( free bikes to explore the area were part of the price) and the run of the two buildings, one old and a little rundown (unfortunately mine) and a newer building that had been built to expand the business. The aged owner was polite enough and brought me breakfast in bed both days that I was there. The housekeeper seemed obsessed with sweeping leaves, but was pleasant enough. Neither spoke English but we communicated through the language of wonders that is hand gestures and me drawing pictures. In the late afternoon I took one of the bikes and rode around the lake and amongst the peaceful rice fields. In the evening I took a long walk to the town and struggled to find some food to eat. To say this was a sleepy town would be an understatement, by 8pm everything was closed. If I’m honest there wasn’t much to be closed either. Unlike Taipei and Kaohsiung no one spoke English, my Korean was redundant and my Chinese language skills extended to hello and thank you. Ordering food was definitely an adventure. The few restaurants and the handful of food stands all had Chinese menus and sadly no pictures. My tactic in these situations is to usually look at the picture and point, a reliable and safe educated guess. Risking disastrous fish and egg encounters, I picked and pointed at the most appealing Chinese characters and was rewarded with pork and leek dumplings. Result. I walked home read my book and went to bed early.
The next day I had arranged to meet Lou another couchsurfer. Lou lived in Kaohsiung but had traveled home to Meinung’s neighbouring town, Qishan, to visit her family. She had kindly offered to spend the day with me and enjoy a little tour of the area. Lou arrived at 11am on her scooter and entrusted me with the duties of driving us around. We began in Meinung and visited a shop where a local man makes traditional waxed paper umbrellas and other crafts associated with one of the indigenous tribes of Taiwan, the Hakka. I wasn’t in the market for a paper umbrella, but it was good to see something that relates to the daily life of the people who lived and worked in this rural area.
We then went to Qishan. We took a walk down the traditional main street of Qishan and took in the construction of a huge faux temple in the town square (in preparation for a forthcoming Buddhist festival) while we enjoyed some fruit tea and a huge spring roll each. Lou took me to a small temple famous for being one that offers wealth in return for their patronage and donations. While we there, the temple was hosting a small event. Contestants paid 300TWD ($10) and had the opportunity to throw two colour coded wooden pieces in the air. The idea was to get the same combination of colours in consecutive turns. The higher your run the better opportuinty you had of winning the grand prize. Contestants knelt and made a prayer to Buddha, sat inside the temple before you and then tossed the wooden pieces. Lou managed zero. One lady managed four whilst we were there and the excitement as her run continued was palpable amongst the few passing residents and fellow contestants. Four however was a long way short of the record that the winner would need. After our religious gambling adventure we took to the bike and made the longer than expected and occasionally bumpy journey to Fo Guang Shan.
Fo Guang Shan is an international Chinese Mahayana Buddhist monastic order based in Taiwan. Their headquarters were our destination and I was to be introduced to the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. This place had stayed off my radar when I researched places I wanted to visit during my trip, but I almost find it impossible to recognise how I didn’t come across it. The monastery itself was perched upon a small cliff and in many ways, especially to the uninitiated visitor, it is barely the focal point of the site. What makes Fo Guang Shan so impressive now is the adjacent, imposing and massive Buddha Memorial Center. Whilst the monastery I’m sure is extremely significant to Buddhists it is the Memorial center that steals the show. After parking the scooter we walked up a vast drive way to what I presumed was the Memorial Center. As we passed giant elephant and tiger statues we walked into a huge air conditioned “gift shop”. restaurants, numerous themed shops and even a bakery filled what had at first appeared to be the destination. However, at the back of the large sliding glass doors opened (or not as was the case because of maintenance and plant watering) onto an inclining courtyard. At the very top of the scenic courtyard that is lined with towers, trees and statues was the Memorial Center and the largest sitting Bronze Buddha in the world.
The Memorial Center only opened in 2011 and maybe this is why it didn’t feature in my initial research and planning. We walked around the huge complex and stood in the shadow of the massive Buddha. I learned that the bigger a deities ear lobes are the richer he is perceived to be. This Buddha was mega rich. His earlobes were probably a good 10 metres in height. The Memorial Center itself is resemblant of an ancient pyramid (although spotless in condition) and is surrounded on all four corners by towers that symbolize the Four Noble Truths. You may question what this giant Memorial Center is all in aid of, so meticulously constructed with donations from Buddhists around the world? Quite simply, because of a tooth. Buddha’s tooth. His actual tooth. The tooth is enshrined inside the Memorial center within the Jade Buddha Shrine. When the tooth fairy came to Buddha she left a lot of wealth, my 50p per tooth pales in comparison. At the end of our trip we returned to Meinung and enjoyed the local fried rice noodle dish, saving me from the Meinung point and pray restaurant lottery. I had a fantastic day and thoroughly enjoyed my time in the countryside. Although I was in another continent and country my time in Meinung made me think about my home in Devon a lot. You can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy.
My Taiwanese adventure will continue in Part 2…