Studying Google Maps as I so frequently do, it was beginning to appear as if I would be unable journey over to Taiwan during my teaching stint in Japan. Though I was indeed saddened by this, I shrugged it off, reasoning that I would certainly get there some day. Then along came Peach Airlines with a direct flight priced cheaply enough to justify even a short trip, and then Soeng’s well timed birthday to provide the impetus.
We had to drive through the night to get to the airport for our 7am flight, as paying for a hotel made no sense at all. We got there with time to spare, and also happened across Thomas gearing up for a trip of his own. We made our way over to the separate Terminal 2 building that houses Peach Airlines, passed through immigration, and finally enjoyed the short flight over to Taipei. I tried sleeping, and though managing a few winks, the phalanx of seats were so rigid and tightly arranged that I could only pine for my misery to end.
Once we arrived I drew some ire of my companion by booking that night’s lodging with the airport Wi-Fi. I suppose those feelings were understandable. After getting off the bus at the main station, we both marveled at how many Japanese shops there were, convenience stores especially. Convenience store culture runs deep in Japan, so after reading that Taiwan has the highest number of stores per capita, I had my my doubts. I was however blown away at not only the number of these stores, but also the branded kiosks that dotted the stations and set Taiwan an entire business model ahead of Japan!
The first order of business was to curtail our hunger pangs by seeking out some food. We had traveled far and wide, so the obvious choice was McDonald’s. One of my guilty pleasures while abroad is to always try out a country’s differing menu options. Sometimes the offerings are completely different, such as the McArabia or McD Chicken Porridge, but these were fairly basic. I can’t read what was written on the food boxes so I can’t tell you exactly what we ate, but it was some sort of grilled chicken sandwich, a sweet bean pie, and an American sized Sprite to wash it all down. Our initial thought was to just have a little bit and leave room for some local food, but the language barrier earned us a combo meal from which we left woefully sated.
Once we booked our train tickets using the most frustrating automated machines ever conceived and then stashed our bags in a locker, we set out to cram as much of Taipei into a single day as possible. We didn’t really have much of an itinerary planned, just a few points of interest circled on a tourist map. The first stop was to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. When we arrived at the large public square, the memorial was having some maintenance work done that detracted from it a bit, though it was at least worth the train fare.
The memorial, and myself with a nearby gate
Our next stop was at the National History Museum. I like to learn a thing or two about whichever country I go to, but I was a little disappointed here. The museum was mostly just a collection of old pots and Buddhist statues from as far back as 8000 BCE, which while impressive wasn’t at all what I was hoping for. I have seen more Buddhist statues and relics than you can imagine… Learning about the founding of Taiwan, its military history, and also the current political situation with China would have been far more interesting, though I probably just picked the wrong museum.
The outside of the museum…Huh?!
What was unexpected, though much appreciated was a special exhibit on Michelangelo. The exhibit grouped his areas of expertise – sculpting, painting, and architecture – into different rooms and also explained a lot about his personality and life while we passed through them. Scattered throughout the exhibits were a number of studies he did in preparation for his greatest works. As a perfectionist, he needed to get his depictions of the human form just right. Though the whole place felt out of place for Taiwan, it was very fulfilling to admire such works. I’m no art buff and can scarcely appreciate these drawings and sculptures on the level of a collector or historian, but looking at a world renown masterpiece certainly offers a sense of satisfaction.
”The true work of art is but a shadow of divine perfection” – Michelangelo
From the museum we enjoyed a stroll through the nearby botanical garden and then relaxed for a bit. We plopped down on a bench to take part in some people watching before evaluating our energy levels and heading over to the Taipei 101.
The jackfruits have a sweet aroma.
This building was once the tallest in the world and is still the most impressive on this side of Asia. Though at 509 meters it still sits at #4 in the world, my initial impression was ‘meh’ since compared to Dubai’s colossal 838m Burj Kalifa, it looks significantly smaller. We did decide to pay the big bucks to go up to the top and peer out at the rest of the city.
The Taipei 101 is surrounded by no other buildings that might obscure the fantastic view, though the haze and waning light did diminished what we could see. There were some overpriced shops at the top and also a place to see one of the tower’s three steel dampeners. These massive spheres absorb the lateral motion of the structure during wind and seismic activity.
Posing near the Damper Baby, one of the tower mascots
Following a quick bite at some random roadside restaurant completely devoid English, we returned to the station for our evening train down to the east coast city of Hualien. Though our failure at the ticketing machines had us sitting in separate carriages, Soeng enjoyed her sleep and I a nice chat with the guy next to me. In addition to eating some snacks, I was also thrilled to find that they sold Busch, not that I could understand way. I always find it amusing when I discover America’s worst beers being sold in any other part of the world.
My Japanese lets me make educated guesses about the menu items, but I can’t know for sure
We arrived around 10pm at the station from which a very confused taxi driver took us to our nearby hostel. The guy seemed to have no idea where the place was, but did manage the feat eventually. As always, the hostel staff and patrons included some interesting people with varying opinions and viewpoints and another in particular had a whole lot to say. After my much needed shower, a thought provoking discussion on politics, religion, and whatever else ensued. Our discussions was accompanied by Bar Beer and raged on into the wee hours of the morning.
On the next morning, Soeng’s birthday, we walked down to get a simple breakfast made of dough and egg before seeking out a motorcycle rental. Every time I’ve been in a country where people can rent some sort of motorized, two-wheeled craft, I’ve been in the presence of people too docile to take advantage of it. This was always a source of great frustration and is certainly support for my preference to travel in small groups or alone. With no one to hold us back I decided to pay a whole 15 dollars to get us the most powerful option, and then after selecting our helmets we were off. Not very far though, since I really had no idea how to ride the thing and also because my time in Japan had me quite unaccustomed to driving on the opposite side of the road. After a few more minutes of acclimatization and learning how not to kill us, we were off…for real.
Soeng clearly has her reservations, which is reasonable.
Things started out in one of the busier areas of the city, but as soon as we were able to escape the traffic and cruise through the countryside, the joys of independent travel on two wheels became incredibly apparent. Watching locals farming, driving, and simply carrying about their ordinary lives was fantastic. After about 45 minutes on the road and hitting a top speed of 101 kph, we arrived at the Taroko Gorge National Park. We met a couple girls from the hostel en route and decided to form a biker gang and explore the narrow, twisting roads together.
At the entrance of the park. Things only got better from here.
The stunning topographical features made this one of the more breathtaking places I’ve been, and the added ability to enjoy it at my own pace made it all the more incredible. The unencumbered sense freedom that came from steering down such inconsistent roads and dodging traffic, all the while taking in our surroundings was fantastic. The near vertical rock faces were obviously made all the better with wind coursing through my long, elegant hair.
Clip of us riding towards the entrance, the interior, and near some farm
The first place that we stopped was the Eternal Shrine. This was built in honor of those that lost their lives constructing this East-West highway that we were currently tracing. I did doubt the authenticity of the running water, but everything did look really cool sitting on the side the mountain as it was.
Though Soeng and I would have been content to continue further on into the gorge, one of the other girls was intent on climbing about 800m of steep steps to a small tower. We reluctantly agreed to go along but were rewarded with some nice views and sweat stains. I, for whatever reason, did no research into the climate of Taiwan before I came and was now stuck doing in jeans something I could have been quite comfortable doing in nothing. At the top was a tower to climb and bell to be rung and after catching our breath we returned to the bikes to hit the road.
Just teetering on the edge
Though there were plenty of photo worthy spots along the way, we wanted to get much further along to where a waterfall was marked on the map before it started getting dark . The next hour or so had us stopping occasionally, but we were mostly weaving through the hoards of slow moving tourist buses. Again, the freedom to move at one’s own pace, rather than being at the mercy of traffic and the congestion Chinese mainlanders was a blessing.
They must be having an incredible time
When we finally did arrive to the spot on the map, we realized that getting to the waterfall and back required an additional two hour hike. Neither of us were particularly interested in riding back home in either the dark or impending rain, so it was here that we parted ways with our South African companions. On the way we were able to stop to take in a few of the sights we missed.
Much of the road was carved though the rock
Having only had a late breakfast, we were feeling famished and decided to enjoy some dinner at a travel stop. We were planning on getting to the night market for food that night, but agreed that we needed some sustenance before the longish ride home. We went halfsies on a plate of noodles, a pineapple beer, and also tried a succulent Taiwanese sausage which Soeng claimed was reminiscent of her childhood.
On the way back we decided to get a little adventurous and explored any temples or side roads that caught our eye. The ability to go wherever we wanted makes me want to go back to more thoroughly explore some of the Southeast Asian countries I visited in the last couple years. We also managed to get lost once we reached Hualien and wound up navigating on intuition alone, failing miserably of course. We justified the time sink by doing some shopping for footwear and trinkets along the way.
Buddhist temples have a different look and feel in each country
Thanks to the unlikely help of some stranger, we were able to get back to the hostel and start thinking about dinner. Many cities in Asia have night markets that pop up after the business day is over and sell food and goods to both tourists and locals alike. The low cost and innumerable options make these sorts of places the best for trying a plethora of authentic cooking.
One of the markets
I stepped into one of the many convenience stores to pick us up a couple drinks, including the mango beer we had overlooked earlier, and then we collected any food options we could, palatable or not. In the end we sat down to enjoy the feast that included another variety of Taiwanese sausage, blood cakes, skewered meat & veggies, and noodles. We were both stuffed by the end and agreed that though not particularly glamorous, it made for a wonderful birthday dinner. We didn’t really shoot for anything else that night, since the next morning was supposed to include an earlier departure from the hostel.
We weren’t particularly expedient about getting up, so by the time we had eaten lunch there was only an hour or so before we needed to return the bike and catch our train back to Taipei. We also faffed about searching for a bank where I could acquire the seldom circulated 200 TWD note. We had hoped to cruise down Highway 11, which offers a great view of Taiwan’s eastern coastline and mountains that seem to rise right out of the ocean, but had to cut this from the itinerary. Fortunately, the train back to Taipei did offer some decent views of the shore.
Back in Taipei, we walked around trying to make sense of some useless directions but did eventually get to the bus terminal. There we were directed to a bus based on the airline we were flying. We didn’t have a clue which terminal we actually needed, but thank goodness he knew which where Peach Airlines were located at…or not! Searching around for our check-in kiosk, we realized that he had sent us to the wrong place…aaaannd cue panic.
With only 40 minutes before the flight, and the information desk telling that it was neigh hopeless, we rushed to the taxi stand and were brought over to the correct departure hall. From there we sprinted to the Peach desk where they informed us that it had already been closed for 10 minutes and that there was nothing I could do. I’m not sure if it was our shameless begging, the desperation in our faces, or me dropping to my knees, but as soon as I saw a chink in their armor I urged them to issue the ticket and if we made it great, if not, it was our own fault. They eventually gave in, and after a moment, the two of us were dashing off. We made it through security and immigration and even arrived at the gate all within 10 minutes, undoubtedly setting a new air travel world record. I was panting, wheezing, sweating, and on the verge of death by the time we got there, but we did at least make the flight home. Moral of the story is, never let an airline worker tell you what is and isn’t possible.
At our last meal, the waitress tried so many times to talk to Soeng….no comprendo senorita
Overall it was a great trip which though short left us both with a wonderful experience. There are not a lot of countries I would seriously consider making a return to any time soon, but the combination of having seen so little, and also how wonderful the people were make Taiwan an unlikely candidate. I don’t know why this is the case, but despite a degree of development equivalent to much of Asia, I was never once accosted by touts or made to feel like people were taking advantage of me. These things, paired with the reasonable prices, and also the ability to check my Facebook gives me the confidence to say this: Taiwan is a much better travel destination than China. Though attractions like the Great Wall and Terracotta Warriors can’t be matched, Taiwan offers one of the most tourist friendly and worthwhile travel experiences on this side of the world.