One week after being unceremoniously dumped in Taipei’s city center an hour after midnight, I’ve felt this massive city shrink in scale as I’ve familiarized myself with its public transportation system and started to explore. I’ve also started to get a feeling for how small Taiwan is itself – taking a 3.5 hour train ride halfway down the eastern coast of the country to visit one of Taiwan’s most scenic destinations …and then a Typhoon crossed my path.
With over a week’s worth of activities to summarize, I find myself wondering where to start. For the sake of simplicity – I’ll try to categorize everything into the four T’s: Taiwan, Taipei, Trains, and Typhoons.
Most people know Taiwan for one of a few reasons: Either your electronics were manufactured here, your clothes were made here, or China has recently threatened to “take the country back” and it’s in the news again. Officially speaking, Taiwan is the Republic of China, while China’s official name is People’s Republic of China. (Sounds like semantics but it’s a pretty big deal here…) Language wise everything is written in Chinese and some things are in English – primarily anything to do with transportation (trains, planes, and automobiles) and some food menus. As you can see on the map below, the presence of English eliminates the need to play “match the symbol” when attempting to find your way around town. (Trying to find the intersection of “Christmas tree and square with a woman under it” never ends successfully…)
There’s also one more normal reason that you may know of Taiwan. Because the country has fully adopted the idea of global economics (as it relates to electronics and manufacturing), there is a fervent demand for native English speakers to come to the country and teach English. This places it in leagues with Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, and other Asian countries actively recruiting 20-something year-olds to spend a year or two teaching English. Due to Taiwan’s extremely low crime rate and high rate of pay for English teachers, it’s quickly becoming the place where people are going for English teaching jobs. (A quick search of tealit.com can give you an idea of both pay and demand. Making $1,000 a month for a 12 hour work week is within the realm of possibility.) In a very indirect way – this is how I ended up in Taiwan. Not to teach English, but because I met two people who are teaching English. (Ironically that story goes back to a rooftop bar in Kuala Lumpur where I happened to meet a girl from New York and a guy from Kentucky on their way to Nepal for a week. After keeping in touch with the girl and finding myself uninspired in Australia, Taiwan seemed like a place worth checking out and maybe staying at for a little bit and earning some money teaching English…or at least least that was the idea worth looking into.)
I’ll be the first person to admit that it’s too early for me to really make a verdict on Taipei that is either positive or negative. What I can do is describe what I’ve seen. It’s like going to Chinatown in New York, except instead of it eventually ending …it just keeps going and going. The sidewalks are difficult to walk on because they double as parking spaces and extra roads for people with scooters. The abundance of scooters also adds to the aroma of the city – a combination of exhaust and heat mixing with the smells of fish and meat from open air markets sitting around for hours and gently coming to your nose as you cross a random alleyway. Although that may best describe the ‘real Taipei’, it’s certainly not the only one you’ll come across in this city. A quick visit to parts of town in the north (and elsewhere) where there is more money and you would be perfectly excused for thinking that you were in a recently built European city (where everyone is Asian).
One of the places I walked to during my time in Taipei was a $1 childrens amusement park/learning center. It was quite small but did have a few rides including the ferris wheel above. A few days later I took a city bus (50 cents each way) to the National Palace Museum (a word I still have trouble spelling). Photographs are not allowed…so please enjoy the pictures I took with my iPhone when none of the security guards were looking. I spent about 90 minutes walking through all of the exhibits. About half of them I very quickly walked through – white porcelain bowls with blue flower detail work start to look exactly the same after the first 30 bowls. The same can be said for the bronze exhibit, although the bronze weapons were pretty cool to see.
More impressive to me were the different art exhibits that were setup. One was based entirely on Chinese calligraphy and quite impressive to look at. The others covered traditional Chinese art (towns, mountains, cherry blossoms), but one was dedicated to fantasy and other odd themes – like the one above. Goblins, trolls, and other animal/human hybrids all dancing about on paper much much older than I will ever be – Very Cool.
I’ll reserve the rest of my judgements of Taipei until a later date, but one other thing I’ll briefly mention is the food. It’s quite clear to me that I do not have as adventurous of a stomach as I need to eat all of the local Chinese cuisine in town. Steamed blood cakes, cow intestine soup, pigs feet, and mystery meat dumplings don’t get me nearly as excited as massaman curry (Thai), bun bo hue (Vietnam), or nasi lemak (Malaysia).
Trains and Typhoons
On paper, I had a really good plan for how to spend this last week. On Monday I would hop on one of the national trains going south along the eastern coast of the country to the cities of Hualien and Taitung (also spelled as ‘Taidong’ to make things fun). Hualien is home to the Taroko Gorge, a stunning 12 mile/20km canyon with windy roads and picturesque vistas. Taitung has…well I’m not entirely sure but there’s an island off the coast that I wanted to visit. Unfortunately this plan didn’t come together very well.
Unbeknownst to me, a typhoon has been busy cutting through the majority of the Philippines and into the South China Sea. The day before I was supposed to visit Taitung it received 3.5 inches of rain. Similarly, the city of Hualien offered nothing but clouds, wind, and rain during the two days I visited. My days in Hualien were spent at the night market in the evenings (one evening was shortened by said rain) and walking around the city when it looked like it might stop raining for at least an hour. Otherwise – a lot of time was spent in the hostel, as can be seen below.
During one of those brief moments of ‘not rain’ (I can’t justify calling it sun) I was able to walk down to the waterfront of Hualien. By the time I got back to my hostel it was raining, but I was able to grab a few decent shots of town.
Given the extremely limited amount of travel around town I was able to do, it’s no surprise that the night market was the highlight of my two days. The night market in Hualien is actually one of the smallest night markets I’ve seen on this entire trip – there were probably 25-35 food stalls in total. Overall I was pretty happy with some of the pictures that came out of the first evening there.
There were actually three different shops at the market that were all serving what looked to be the same thing. A 6oz piece of beef, some noodles, an egg, and some really strange looking brown sauce dumped on top of everything. Doubting both the quality of the beef and terrified of what the brown sauce looked like, I instead sat down at one of these places and pointed at the sign below. There’s no way that a crispy chicken meal could ever be screwed up.
The award for “Best Food of the Night” was EASILY handed to the man making what I can only describe as ice cream burritos. The man had a large block of chocolate that had peanuts mixed in – it’s consistency may better be described as a block of peanuts held together by a little bit of chocolate. With what looked like a early 1900’s hand lathe, he would shave off the combination of peanuts and chocolate and cover a handmade tortilla type bread with the shavings. From there, you had your choice of three flavors of ice cream. The total cost for this – $1.
As opposed to my attempted east coast trip, I was able to make a successful day trip via train to Fulong and visit the local beach. While there I rented a bike (and rode around holding my camera with one hand for most of the time), had lunch, and watched the locals enjoy a beach as only the Asians can – with umbrellas.
As for the bike ride, on one side you have the coast and on the other you’ll have the main road. There was a surprisingly well paved bike trail to bike on for the entire distance along the coast, and other destinations worth visiting will keep you on the main roads sharing space with cars.
One of those ‘other destinations’ is a path through a mountain that was formerly used to transport coal. It looks like…well it looks like what you would expect an underground coal tunnel to look like.
Along the way I also found some abandoned apartment buildings. I probably could have spent 45 minutes walking through them all, but that would have increased the chances of me finding someone actually living in here and then things would have gotten uncomfortable.
As for what’s next – I’m not 100% sure. I plan to stay in Taipei through the weekend and then on Monday head back out on the train system and check out more of the country. I think I’ll go to the west coast this time although I’m not yet sure where. The weekends are when everyone in town goes traveling through the rest of the country – so I’m sticking in town to avoid the masses of crowds along the way.