Jo in Taiwan (the very very long post) - part one
I kept a trip journal for the first time ever and filled 57 pages of a book the size of a Rough Guide city guide. So, from that:
The Trip to Taiwan -
although it's not relevant to Taiwan, at Narita (Tokyo) airport, I had a curry. Japanese curry is a bit of a mystery to me. I have NO idea what the flavours are that they use and the colour is rather interesting too. Everywhere I've ordered curry in Tokyo (outside of an Indian restaurant) I've been given the same bizarre flavour. It's kind of like English chip shop curry but a dullish brown colour.
China Airlines were cool. They have a class called 'Dynasty Class' which made me giggle. I didn't see Joan Collins anywhere though. Very disappointed.
On the flight (where I got my emergency exit aisle seat - *gloat*) they brought around a tray of whiskey and beer to start off the flight, which I've never seen before but which went down very nicely!
at the airport they have a body temperature scanner to ensure you're not entering the country with any illnesses or diseases. I thought that was pretty cool. I'm sure they have it at other airports but I've never seen it before. Shame they don't stop people from getting on planes with coughs and colds though.
The first thing to hit me was how dirty Taipei is compared to Tokyo and how smelly. Now, you have to remember that Tokyo is sanitised to within an inch of its life and I've kind of got used to that in the time I've been here. I now expect public toilets to be clean, sparkling and with toilet paper (oh how I've changed in seven months) and to see yucky loos in Taipei airport shocked me / brought me back to reality (ie that's what public loos are meant to be like!)
I headed into Taipei to go and hunt down the Happy Family 2 hostel which is mentioned in Lonely Planet and which someone else suggested to me. Took an age to find it and it was a hot and sticky night so I was kind of dripping by the time I tracked it down. I'd reserved four nights there and told them the time I'd be arriving but there was nobody there to give me a key or anything. Managed to track someone down and waited. Happy Family is a pit. There's no other way to describe it, but as I wanted to enjoy my trip and make the most of the time and not spend it looking for somewhere else, I stayed and it kind of grew on me. Maybe a cross between 'pit' and 'basic' would be more accurate. My room wasn't ready. Half the lightbulbs in the hostel (I stayed in Happy Family 3 in the end) were blown. There were dead mosquitos on the walls. I HAD air-conditioning - but it was a huge noisy unit! Saying all that though, it was cheap and near to the main station so very convenient.
I got bitten to buggery though through my whole trip. I've never been bitten before wherever I've been. The little bastards really went for me this trip though. Every day. I managed to kill a few though which made me feel a bit better. Although I discovered it can hurt quite a bit slapping yourself randomly to try and get the fuckers and the way they expel blood when squished - eek!
Anyway, the first night I went out to meet Carole of http://carolenickle.blogspot.com/ - and I have to apologise for being so smelly - it was getting late and I didn't want to make you wait any later to hear from me. On the way there, I noticed that all the traffic lights have little countdown timers so you know how long you have to cross the road - and there's a little animated walking man to help you. Later, in Taichung I saw they had reverse ones - little animated red men and countdowns to tell you how long you'd have to wait before you could cross the road. Of course, whether vehicles stopped was another thing! And the scooters! Wow. There are hundreds of them, and they seem to all travel in gangs. The funniest thing was seeing combinations of three adults on them, or two adults and two kids - quite something! And litter bins. There are litter bins in Taipei. In Tokyo you can walk forever without finding one as everything is recycled. Taiwan is not so big into recycling, though I did see some bins. And convenience stores always give you receipts and often don't have a bin or anywhere to dispose of them. In Tokyo there's normally a little basket on the counter you can use for disposal of receipts. Anyway, everything was much cheaper than Tokyo and, I've got to admit, it was kind of comforting to see all the familiar things from here scattered around - Mos Burger (no, I didn't have a Mos Burger in Taiwan), the same chains of convenience stores, cold green tea, pocari sweat, other brands and chains. Nice.
Once Carole and I eventually found each other (hey, it's hard making arrangements without a cell phone) we went on a food wander, which wasn't the easiest thing to do as everywhere was shutting, but I settled for a very yummy cabbage omelette (seriously, it was lovely!) and an apple yoghurt ice drink from a little side street and we sat and nattered. It was nice meeting up with someone on the first evening, especially after all the hostel business. And that was the first time random people just came up and chatted. Something I found everywhere I went. And kids would say 'hello'. In Tokyo the kids that ever say hello are the ones I'm teaching.
Wulai - The plan for the first day had always been Wulai as museums are shut in Taiwan in Mondays. Funnily enough, the guide book said it's a good place to go if it rains. Guess what? It chucked it down. Big time - but hey - skin dries off quickly enough and I put my thing were well protected.
The hardest thing to get your head around in Taiwan is everything (eg train stations and street names) has two names, which meant I did a lot of talking to myself trying to figure out what things might be. For example, 'Hsintien' and 'Xindian' are the same place.
Also observed, some of the newspapers and face masks in Taiwan are MASSIVE compared to those I've seen elsewhere. And a large amount of homeless dogs and mangy cats.
So, Wulai: the bus trip there was lovely. It's only about 30 mins from Taiwan and on the route everything was very old, decrepid and beautiful and the windy mountain roads - wow! Plus, everything was so lusciously green. There were lots of roadside vendors, old old houses, murals and statues along the way, and a wall acting as a barrier between road and edge of road that was beautifully tiled all the way and about a foot high.
Once you get off the bus, it's a short walk to a very touristy village that was quite fun to explore. Over another bridge it's a further 1.6km to the waterfall, which is the main reason to go there. There's a little train that goes there but I decided to walk instead. At the base there's then a cable car that runs up to the top of the waterfall where there's a 'theme park' called Yun Hsien Resort. Well, it was a forest with things in it basically and I spent ages there having fun, wandering around, looking at how lush and green everything was and how pretty and spotting frogs, peacocks and 100's of white butterflies. There was also a load of 'adventure playground' stuff there that I had fun on - rope bridges (scary but I did them and was very proud of myself, as halfway across a rope bridge is not the time to decide you shouldn't be doing it!), chairs that you could swing down ropes on, and all sorts of other fun and scary things to play with. It was all very peaceful and there weren't that many people - just the noises of the waterfalls, birds and insects mainly.
I took the rattley, noisy, but bloody fast mini train back to the village with a Taiwanese guy and his daughter chatting to me the whole way. And the whole trip people initiated conversations, which I kind of liked. As we got off the train the family invited me to join them for free at hot springs they were heading to. I was tempted but wanted to go to the Snake Market instead - and to get some lunch!
Back in Taipei - here people stand on the other side of the escalator than in Japan and England which I found a bit hard to get used to. Anyway, I went to the famous Snake Market and got lured in for a foot massage. Now, stupidly I was thinking: "foot massage. hmm. now that'll be nice and relaxing...". How wrong could I have been. I mean this hurt was that having your bikini line waxed. And, my Chinese not extending beyond 'hello' and 'thank you', I couldn't really explain the pain I was being put through. I felt like jumping out of the chair every time she touched me. I thought she was trying to break the bones. And when she did my lower legs too....... YOUCH! So, so, totally not relaxing. I'm not actually sure it did me any good either! Mind you, the relief once she'd finished was something else altogether! I then ate some kind of barbecue that was cooked on a grill in front of me - a heap of cabbage, a heap of bean shoots, some beef and some chicken, a bowl of rice and a large beer. Very nice! The rest of the market: well, I was offered snake blood, snake soup and snake bile a few times. (Nope, didn't try any of them.) And I saw several snakes in cages, a few dead ones hanging upside down, a not dead turtle suspended by a hook through its shell which upset me. The vendor showed me it was alive by prodding it. The poor thing looked most distressed. I also saw some cute little fluffy chicks in a cage next to a snake.... and not so clear, was a piglet in a teeny cage. Was piggy also for the snake? There was also a lot of fish and shellfish of sale and people in wheelchairs with huge trays of tissues and things trying to sell things to people they went up to.
Oh and the escalators in the stations went at 39 metres per minute, according to a sign there. And, the umbrella condoms are baggy. In Japan they fit snuggly.
Have I mentioned yet just how bitten I got by mosquitos? Day three it really rained, so I bought a lovely plastic green umbrella and went off to the 101 Tower - the tallest building in the world with the fastest lift. It took 36 seconds to go up 89 floors - you could watch the graphics showing you the movement. I've never been in a lift before where my ears have popped. Awesome! Once up there the 360 degree view of Taipei was wonderful and I got an English commentary audio guide thing.
Next stop was the wonderful Imperial Museum which I loved. Everything was in English, as well as Chinese obviously, and I took an English guide around some of the exhibits. It was really interesting and the building itself was beautiful too.
On the way to another market, Shilin Market, I saw a badger in a cage. During the course of the trip, I saw a lot of animals in cages. Very upsetting. One part of Shilin market is all about food, and it's all bright and kicking! I did see some terrapins in an open shallow tank that had paperclips taped to their backs. I didn't try and figure out why as I kind of realised you can't really guess about something like that. There was also a pet shop in the main massive part of the market, with lots of sad animals in little cages. I do love markets though - so bright, vibrant and energetic.
Met up and had drinks with a friend of some friends here afterwards who used to work for this company in Tokyo, but now teaches in Taipei.
Day four I discovered my hostel is 5 minutes walk from the station. I'd been going a long way around that took me a good 15 minutes. Shit, I can be a plank sometimes. I headed off to the 2/28 Peace Park and the Taiwan museum. The latter of which was, sadly, shut for renovations. The park was beautiful. Extremely relaxing and filled with ponds, bridges, pagodas, sculptures and trees - and surrounded by new buildings which was a bit odd. The only noise was of running water. People were just sitting around contemplating, or strolling, or doing a bit of Tai Ch'i. It was a very muggy day. There was some kind of cultural festival going on in one part of the park. But I couldn't figure out what it was about. In another part of the park was a sort of path made of bumpy stones designed to envigorate pressure points on the feet if you walked over it. I didn't. My feet were still recovering from my not very relaxing foot massage in the snake market. Next stop was the Chang Kaishek (CKS) Memorial Park, a huge compound with a memorial hall, theatre and opera hall. All the buildings are amazing to look at and the grounds were lovely too. Inside the memorial hall was an 'all you need to know about Chang Kaishek' exhibition, which interested me, and by his statue at the top of the building were two guards. It took me a good three or four minutes of intense staring to realise they weren't made of wax! Outside was a really long, really cool dragon made from small PET (plastic drinking) bottles. It was awesome. I have, naturally, photos of all of these things. Be patient with me! There was also an interesting photography exhibition outside with lots of pictures of disasters and landscapes. I saw a thing that may have been changing of the guards. It was pretty amusing anyway: one group of guards stood throwing their guns into the air, while another group ran forward for a while, stopped, ran back to where they started and then did the whole thing all over again, whilst chanting what sounded like 'oh oh oh oh'. On the way from the CKS Park to the Botanical Gardens and National History Museum I passed a restaurant called the 'Primitive Curry House' - any guesses what a 'primitive' curry might be? The botanical gardens were wonderful anyway, and extremely peaceful and calm, apart from large groups of school kids. And in the middle of the park was a massive lily pond... it was pretty devoid of flowers though. The museum itself disappointed me as there was little information in English, although after the Imperial museum, I at least knew more than I would have done about things. Anyway, I was too exhausted to do any more sightseeing and went and saw the movie 'Sahara' instead. In the complex where the cinema was, I saw a 'BOOTS THE CHEMIST'. Can you imagine how thrilled and excited I was? Until I went inside and saw they only had about five ranges of things and nothing I'd ever buy. Oh well. I miss Boots. Actually the cinema made me chuckle, I nearly saw a fist fight about which of two people should be allowed to put their drink into the drink holder on the arm of the chair between them. I've never seen such a huge deal made about nothing. Amused me no end!
Part Two to follow (hey, we're only up to the end of day four!)