Even the Taiwanese people identify themselves as being Chinese. As a matter of fact, the official name of the country is the Republic of China, which also very much pleases their mainland big brother, who in effect still considers the island of Taiwan to be one of its provinces. All aspects of the culture are strikingly similar, so is the official language and there seems to be consensus among part of the population that one day reunification should occur. However, only under certain conditions, namely that actual China shifts to a democratic political system and cleans up its act when it comes to human rights, freedom of press and wage disparity.
This confirms my original impression that Taiwan was an improved version of China, where people are more welcoming, friendlier and helpful; where cities are safer (not that the continent was particularly unsafe) and cleaner; where tradition and modernity mix in interesting and anachronistic ways; where in general, the inhabitants make you feel that they are happy and grateful you are visiting their country. Owing to its smaller size, one cannot really expect as much variety as can be found across the Taiwan strait when it comes to sights and people, but this also means that distances are smaller and consequently that travelling around is not as much a grueling task as it is in China.
Making a stop in Taiwan was not part of my original plans, but upon hearing positive comments from a variety of people I had met up north and noticing it was halfway between Japan and South East Asia, I figured I should break my journey south in two and explore what this little island is all about besides manufacturing computers and cell-phones.
Taipei may be the capital of a bustling economical power, it has managed to stay relatively relax and in spite of the spurious growth that has affected most Asian urban centers in the past decades, is well urbanized and pleasant to walk around. True to my travelling habits, lots of urban exploration on foot I did. First to find my hostel. Due to strong lobbying by hotels, hostels are not allowed to advertise at all their location. All you get is an address and mine pointed to the fourth floor of an apartment building. Not really knowing they were so hard to find, I had decided to use the “show up and see if they have room” technique. Luckily, as I was climbing the stairs, the owner was going down so in the end I managed to secure accommodation for my stay in Taipei.
Over the next days, I simply walked around the city and visited a museum or two, checked out the famous Taipei 101 and walked some more. Obviously, I also entered some temples, which to my surprise are generally very extravagant in this country as a whole and a nice departure from those I had seen thus far in Asia. The hostel was practically empty so I spent most nights being productive in front of my screen, but one evening my roommate, Shab, a girl from the UK, offered me to follow her to a Couch Surfing meetup, where through the famous website/social network, foreigners gather around at a bar to exchange about various things related to not being home at present. The following evening, we linked up with someone we had met at that meetup to have some drinks and plenty of them were drunk, the last ones on the steps of the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, which even at 3 am looked impressive.
After four nights, I had decided I had had enough of concrete and cars and left the capital for a more nature oriented experience. David, the owner, had been very thorough in his briefing of all that there is to do for a stranger in Taiwan and strongly recommended that I go to Taroko National Park. Upon him suggesting that it was possible to rent scooters and ride them around mountainous roads I was pretty much sold.
Hualien and the Taroko National Park
After short train ride to the east coast of the island, I disembarked in Hualien, a regional capital and my basecamp to the Taroko National Park, famous for its mountainous landscapes and spectacular gorges. It was too late to go there when I arrived so all I did for the remainder of day was to borrow a bicycle from the hostel and ride it around the city. As planned, the next morning, I got up as early as I could (still late by most people’s standards) and got to the scooter rental shop that I was recommended by the hostel, the only one that will rent machines to foreigners.
Riding a scooter is quite easy and instantly I got the hang of it. Much easier than motorcycles in my opinion, but that also makes them very treacherous at high speeds as their small size and wheels do not provide as much stability nor braking power. Still, scooters should be driven like their bigger counterparts, in other words, not like bicycles with engines. They are not as fun, but provide a convenient way to get around, especially that my objective was at least 20 km away and the park being set in a gorge so essentially linear, this also meant that sights and trails could often be separated by several minutes of driving.
Aside from having to share the road with massive convoys of Chinese tourist buses on occasions, I had a blast riding on the only and sometimes single-lane road that winds its way up the gorge. Along the route where different trails and sights and I managed to see the better part of them; I even found a natural hot-spring that you could bathe in for free. Everything that I saw was just spectacular but about the trails themselves I’m slightly ambivalent as most were in such a state I never even got close to be able to call was I was doing hiking. Some high heeled tourists were probably very relieved that there was pavement everywhere, but I was sort of expecting a closer to nature experience. Then again, with the amount of visitors the park gets and its geology, classic dirt paths would not last very long. Whatever, I got to walk on several scary suspended bridges and found trails far away enough from the helmet wearing hordes (yes, some had helmets on to protect themselves from falling rocks) and surrendered my scooter after two days pretty satisfied of having admired such spectacular landscapes, especially while driving in them.
One last night at the hostel where I stayed up very late with the staff, their friends and some guests drinking all sorts of alcoholic beverages and that was it for my time in Hualien. Funny anecdote: Chinese people, during their very of first class of English in school, get baptized with a name foreigners will have an easier time remembering. Most opt for something classic like Kelly, John and so on, but some choose to elect their own and one Taiwanese girl that night had picked Jelly. Jenny? I replied. No, Jelly, as in jellyfish, or jellybean (incidentally the comparison she prefers). Sure that could provide to be an hindrance to finding serious work abroad, but in her case, it befitted her personality very well and if anything, with the kind of job that would employ her, a silly name could actually provide to be an advantage. Her real name was Jin Xue and I’m most likely not writing it correctly.
Kenting National Park
Located at the very southern tip of Taiwan, Kenting National Park was another thing David back in Taipei strongly recommended in his lengthy and thorough tourism briefing. Apparently, you can do surf there and given the large quantity of surf shops, it was probably the case, but not really into gliding on the surface of the water and bragging about it for hours afterwards, what closed the deal on Kenting was the fact that you could do diving there … and rent scooters.
Different park, same formula. I rented a motorized two-wheeled mean of transportation as soon as I could and got to all places that were apparently hikable in the park. Once again, where I was hoping for a good solid two hours of proper trails, I got half an hour walks in the park on concrete or brick layed pathways. Since most Taiwainese and Chinese live in cities and are not really used to moving themselves around on uneven and loose surfaces, they come very poorly prepared for actual hiking, both physically and logistically speaking. It seems to me that given their long history of civilizations and millennias of human influence on the landscape either through road-building or agriculture (rice cultivation being the most obvious example), the Chinese have lived removed from true wilderness for much longer than the average North-American. For this reason most go to parks for the same reasons that they go to zoos, to get a glimpse of nature in a safe, controlled and convenient environment. It was not bad per se, but travelling all this way just for this would have been thoroughly disappointing.
In Taiwan, there is so much scooter traffic that the authorities thought wise to build special lanes for them which on some roads materialize themselves as bike-paths sized side roads where all the small engined two-wheeled traffic gets channeled. Quite dangerous if you ask me. Motorcycles go as fast as cars and in consequence require nearly as much space for breaking and for reacting to unexpected events or obstacles on the road. Coupled with the tunnel-vision effect created by speed the requirement for space is even further justified and since people in Taiwan drive like idiots, close calls are a normal occurrence. Crashes? not as common as one would expect. I passed a lady with a severely damaged leg she broke while swerving to avoid a truck that suddenly pulled into the motorcycle lane, but that was it. I guess you get good at driving like an idiot.
Anyway, for supper, I went to the nearby night market, which are quite the thing in Taiwan and very popular with both tourists and locals. A large number of small stalls set up shop along the street or in a dedicated lot and sell a wide variety of food from all over Asia. The one in Kenting was quite conservative as it catered mostly to tourists; the most original food you could have there was fried oreos, the rest was generally your average Asian fast-fare. In Taipei however, I was told that at one night market snakes could be ordered.
Second day was diving day. Woke up really early, drove to the dive shop and found out I was the only customer. Excellent, this meant I would be diving alone with their divemaster. I got my equipment, which was in poor general conditions but working fine otherwise, hoped on the car and we drove to the first dive site, which was located in a artificial cove created by a large wave breaker. Popular with snorkelers, the site apparently boasted a wide variety of hard and soft corals along with a good population of fishes and other creatures of the sea. Compared to other places I have been, it was nothing to write home about, the flora and fauna appeared to be in rough shape and there was thrash all around. The highlight of the dive were a giant clam, very large pufferfish and some clown fishes swimming around in their anemone habitat. Otherwise, most would have found the dive to be somewhat boring but since I get a kick out of breathing underwater and had not been diving for some months, I enjoyed it. Next dive was done at a deeper site, which provided interesting topography and wildlife and was in fairly good conditions due to its remoteness from human activity but once again, nothing extraordinary except for a sea turtle, which according to the divemaster, are quite a rare sight these days. Having been accustomed to hanging around with sea turtles, I found the sea snake more exciting to watch. it may sound like I was let down but in reality, I’m quite thrilled with having had the opportunity to experience Taiwan’s underwater world. The majority of animals and plants look similar to those I got accustomed with in the Caribbean, only differing slightly in shapes and colors, but there definitely were some newcomers to my repertoire. If only the divemaster would have known their name in English, but sadly, a bunch of Chinese characters are not of much use to me.
The afternoon was devoted to riding the scooter around the area, but out of the touristic roads. The driving was quite spectacular and so was the scenery. A stop at the Sichui grasslands scenic area to stretch the legs provided me with the best views of Taiwan I have had on my entire trip, the lighting was perfect, it has just rained so all the vegetation was glittering with water droplets and thick clouds were rolling up and down the hills. In the distance, I realized that the many abandoned concrete buildings I had been passing on the way there were part of an expensive decommissioned military complex occupying the whole top of a nearby hill, with coastal gun batteries protected by large bunkers and radar arrays. Had I had the time and prior knowledge of this place, I really should have trespassed for a bit of exploration. After I got back to the hostel, I worked for some time and then went for food at the night market again. This was my last night in Kenting but given my discoveries of the day, I wish I could have spent a bit more time in the area. It always pays to veer of the beaten track once in a while.
Unsure of what my next move would be, I decided not to return to Taipei just yet. I could go to Hawaii, get stuck a couple more days in Taiwan and then go to Hawaii, or have some weeks to spare, go somewhere else than Taiwan, and then go to Hawaii. In every cases, it was best to spend whatever time I had left in the country to visit another place, even if it was for a couple of hours. That morning, I woke up to find that in fact, Melissa really had enjoyed my company in Japan and wanted to see me in Hawaii, so I quickly booked my plane ticket and proceeded to Tainan, a middle-sized city that apparently had a nice old quarter.
At least that is what I remembered from David’s briefing. He had circled Tainan on my map and wrote a bunch of Chinese characters near it. Once there, no old quarter to be found, but the lady at the hostel kindly redirected me to the night market, apparently the largest one in Taiwan, where after dawn every day of the week stalls set up shop to provide clients with food, carnival type of games and cheap clothing. Indeed the market was big and it took me a solid hour to explore it. Later on during the night, I befriended an Indian guy who told me he had been to two markets this night. What? I asked the staff that had provided me with directions about this conspiracy and her answer was that I had gotten to the small one. The other, the largest in Taiwan for that matter, was only two blocks away. Whatever, the market I visited fitted the bill so I did not really bothered going again. Let’s go for a drink the Indian guy proposed and so we did. Himself a software engineer as well and working in Taiwan, we had some interesting discussions … but not about computers.
That was it for Taiwain. Up at the crack of dawn the next day (Sunday the 19th), bus to high speed train station, high speed train to Taipei, flight to Osaka, flight to Honolulu and at 9 am I landed in the Hawaiian capital, crossing the international time delimitation and going back in time to an extra long Sunday.
So you want to experience China but not the Chinese? Go to Taiwan. So you want a country you can actually properly visit in less than a month? Go to Taiwan. So you want cheap and tasty food? Again go to Taiwan. So you are in Asia but don’t really know where to go next. Go to Taiwan. Enough said.
As for myself, I’m off to Hawaii, where I intend to soak in the island lifestyle and not do (comparatively) much for the next couple weeks. It’s an unplanned destination, but after all, what is travelling? An escape from the ordinary.