Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Taiwan 101

For the last month, Korea has been hot. With temperatures reaching over 35°C and humidity often hitting 100%, it would be fair to say that we have been mildly uncomfortable. We had originally hoped to spend the summer vacation in a cooler climate, though that quickly proved to be a fanciful wish. Taiwan became the obvious choice when two old Kiwi friends offered to not only show us around their surrogate country, but also accommodate us on the floor of their living room for no extra charge. The perfect deal! Before we knew it we were booking tickets and making plans for the eight full days we would be spending on the beautiful, kumara-shaped island, officially, but not affectionately, known as the Republic of China.

Just days before our scheduled arrival a typhoon passed right over Taiwan, causing a substantial amount of damage and cancelling flights. We were lucky enough to fly in shortly after the storm had cleared, although the flooding would have an impact on a few outdoor activities we had lined up for later in the week. Our flight landed behind schedule, as befit China Airlines' reputation. The luggage also took a strangely long time to unload, but at least immigration was a breeze. In the end, a new passport stamp makes all the hassle worth it. Shortly after midnight we made it to our makeshift sleeping arrangements, where slumber swiftly concluded the long but thankfully painless day of travelling.

As the sun rose over Saturday morning we were given our first look at Taipei and its inhabitants. The similarities to Korea are numerous, but it is the little differences that are the most noteworthy. Despite their city being grubbier and a bit more rundown, the Taiwanese people seem happier. A large part of this may be due to the Korean stigma surrounding interacting with strangers. Still, life feels more relaxed in Taiwan, and this is reflected in everything from the friendliness of its citizens to their more casual fashion sense and marginally lower incidence of cosmetic surgery. Either way, the abundance of smiling faces made for a warm welcome as we rushed from apartment to subway to bus on the way to our first sightseeing destination.

Jinguashi is a small tourist town in the Ruifang District of New Taipei City, known for its historic copper and gold mines. We took the bumpy local bus up a misty, winding hill road, occasionally catching a glimpse of clusters of the traditional family mausoleums which pepper the countryside. As we wandered through the old town looking for the entrance to the open mine tunnel, we met for the first time an odour which we will forever associate with our time in Taiwan: stinky tofu. This local delicacy is commonly found at night markets and roadside stalls, and authorities have recently ruled it an offence to bring this fermented delight into enclosed public spaces, such as cinemas. Despite the encouragements of our hosts, we did not partake.

After a pleasant, sweaty walk into the hills behind Jinguashi to an old Shinto shrine we made our way down to Jiufen, also a former mining town now famous for its labyrinthine streets which have served as the setting for several films. We sat out on the balcony of a local restaurant, perched precariously over the Pacific Ocean, sipping cold beers in the warm evening. As the sun eased out of sight in front of us, faraway mountains slowly sliding from view, it was hard to deny the charm of this precipitously placed settlement.

A few hours from Taipei by train rests Hualien, the largest county in Taiwan. Sparsely populated, the area is favoured among travellers looking to experience scenic views and outdoor adventures. We were there for a bit of both, with our Sunday to be spent river tracing, a famous activity in the area. Our guide Matt, a Canadian expat who has lived in the area for a number of years, treated us to a scrumptious breakfast at a local western-style restaurant before we set out for the river. We were lucky to be in a very small group, consisting of just us, the couple we know from New Zealand, one of their American friends, and a mate of Matt's. The original plan may have seen us joining a group of over 60 Taiwanese and Chinese river tracers, and after passing one such group at an early stage in the river we knew we'd made the right choice. Togged up in full body wetsuits, attached to climbing ropes and waiting patiently for their turn to be escorted by whistle-blowing officials across the tamest of rapids, many of the members of the larger group looked on enviously as our compact party of seven forged past to reach more exciting parts of the river.

The water was running much higher than usual due to the typhoon, so between bouts of fighting our way upstream and scrambling over wet rocks in our felt-bottomed booties, we ventured into the forest, along traditional hunting paths forged by local aboriginal peoples. Enter the spiders. Due to the fact that she has something of an aversion, Emma was careful to place herself at the back of the group for these overland parts of the trip, and Matt, to his credit, did his best to protect her gentle sensibilities while still enabling the rest of the group to enjoy the various eight-legged beasties that presented themselves. Many of Taiwan's native spiders grow to the size of dinner plates and can spin expansive webs. Despite this there were only three instances of paralysing terror and no tears, so we count this a victory. The majority of the afternoon was spent wrestling with waterfalls and seeing who could jump the furthest into natural diving pools. Stephen claimed the most memorable slip of the day, sliding several metres down a rock face and then being dragged under the rapids before the white water spat him out into a whirlpool. He smiled as he fell, and resurfaced unscathed.

Monday saw us back in the city, enjoying a local water park. The rides were fun, the water not too cold, the sun not too bright, and the froyo mighty delicious. With a few hours to kill before dinner we treated ourselves to a much needed full body massage, while listening to the soothing sounds of Simon & Garfunkel's greatest hits played on the xylophone. You never know how sore a muscle is until someone is burying their knuckles into it. Perhaps our favourite meal of the trip was not a traditional one at all, but rather some unpretentious South African cuisine at Frankie's Pies. We were even lucky enough to spend the evening with the owner of the establishment, listening to the story of his rather unique life.

For a change of pace we took the next few days at walking speed, passing Tuesday at the enormous Taipei Zoo, where we did not even come close to seeing all the animals. Of all the creatures big and small it turned out to be the slow loris that we found the most captivating. That night we walked to a street market in the Banqiao district. It brimmed with atmosphere as we tried out various foods and carnival games; a colourful and lively scene, with plenty of scooters buzzing by to keep us on our toes as we flittered from one stall to the next. Tasty kebabs too!

Now confident navigating the public transportation system alone we set off for a more conventional day of tourism. Up first was the National Palace Museum, a gorgeous building that was striking in the perfect weather, and, luckily for us, air conditioned. Tragically the crowds prevented us from getting a look at the famous 'Jadeite Cabbage'. Back down the metro line we found Baoan Temple, a vibrant, highly decorated symbol of Taiwanese folk religion. A surprisingly peaceful spot, considering its location in the city. Taipei 101 served as our final stop for Wednesday. The enormous pagoda shaped tower was the tallest building in the world until 2010, and still boasts the fastest elevator, for now. We learned a lot about the layout and history of the city with the help of an audio guide on the 89th floor observation deck.

5am is an early start when on vacation, but defying sleep deprivation we made it to our pickup spot on Thursday morning and were soon on a plane heading back to the lovely Hualien, this time for a tour of its most notable landmark, Taroko Gorge. To see as much as possible the majority of the distance is covered by van, with plenty of opportunities along the way to hop out and explore the most picturesque regions. From brightly painted shrines and temples nestled into the cliffside, to dazzling waterfalls and rock formations, the entire trip was a natural, harmonising feast for the senses. We were guided by Josephine, an enthusiastic Taiwanese woman who toggled between Chinese, Japanese, and English to point out the effects of the 'rockfall situation and typhoon condition'. It was heartening to see how proactive local authorities have been about getting crews out to clear the many parts of the gorge road that were blocked by falling debris, despite the remoteness of the area. The provided lunch at a 5-star hotel was an interesting twist, with the Taiwanese custom of offering hot tea rather than cold water to guests who have been on their feet in the humidity and heat all morning causing much bemusement. We enjoyed lively conversation with a young Londoner who was also on vacation from his teaching position in Korea, and three adult sisters from Malaysia who now live in Melbourne.

Due east of Taipei City sits Pingxi, another old mining town. Pingxi is famous for hosting a sky lantern festival every year in late winter, giving locals and visitors an opportunity to have their wishes carried up to the gods aboard large lanterns made of oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame. The district is also renowned for its hiking trails and waterfalls. Heading out around lunchtime we arrived at the base of the Pingxi Crags by 2pm. The three crags jut violently from densely forested foothills near the town, with hand carved steps leading one along an almost vertical path 450m into the air. We climbed two of the crags, hauling ourselves up with the help of guide ropes installed by locals to create what are possibly the most exciting short hikes to be found anywhere. Virtually deserted, accessible, completely free of charge, and with spectacular views, exploring the Pingxi Crags was easily one of the best experiences of our Taiwan holiday. We returned to the town below as the sun began to set, and in the hour before the bus came decided to let off our own sky lantern. A friendly local man sold us a 1m tall bright red lantern, provided markers with which to inscribe our messages, and as the sky darkened he helped us send our wishes up into the night. We capped the halcyon day off with a delicious dinner at an all-you-can-eat (and drink!) hot pot and ice cream restaurant in Taipei City.

The final day of our trip came about sooner than expected, but as we would not depart until the evening we still had time to visit a few more local spots of interest. A short ride on the metro brought us to Mengjia Longshan Temple, a lively place of worship, extravagantly designed and overflowing with incense smoke. It was great to see it all in action, with the tables drowning in offerings of fruit and other items, and barely enough room to walk around without bumping shoulders. Our crowning destination was one that few tourists in Taiwan would miss, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. An august structure, it sits alongside the equally impressive National Theater and National Concert Hall buildings, with the land between them forming Liberty Square, a prominent location for gatherings and festivals.

None of this trip would have been possible without the great generosity of our hosts. Thank you for taking the time to introduce us to Taiwan, for offering us your home and hospitality, and for making this vacation an all-around marvellous experience. We can't wait to reciprocate in the future!

You can find the full photo gallery right here.