Backlog of Travels: Part 2: April Fools: Taiwan

The build up to the arrival of one of my best friends and our subsequent trip to Taiwan left much to be desired. I was one of the first to come down with a vicious flu that made the rounds of the office in true Hong Kong/Contagion style. The last class of the day on Thursday takes on dreamlike qualities in my memory: I slipped in and out of a fever while nodding at my student and dropping guiding questions and writing assignments to wile away the two hour private lesson with as little talking as I could manage.

The next day I woke up (cruel world! Shouldn’t we just sleep through illnesses?) to the works: aches, pains, shivers, coughing, sore throat, a touch of nausea. I called in sick, but had to work the following Saturday and half a day on Sunday, the day of Cathe’s arrival, as well.

All this to say: I met Cathe at the airport Sunday afternoon with a pathetic smile, a raging fever, a warning that as much as we wanted to squeeze each other she might want to maintain her distance, and an apology for the inevitable illness that would descend upon her.

In two days we were on a flight to Taiwan. For me it was a massive thrill, unlike any I’ve had in awhile. I was constantly amazed by both the similarities and differences of Taiwan to Hong Kong and the mainland. My brain couldn’t see Taiwan for what it was, only as a comparison to where I’d been before. Nonetheless, it was a favorable comparison: all the (nearly) untarnished flavor of the mainland but with the social standards of Hong Kong (e.g. no public spitting, defecating, or staring). Don’t get me wrong, there were still McDonald’s everywhere, but the Western influence was definitely less in Taiwan than in Hong Kong.

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Taipei 101

And the skyline was so low. There’s one massive skyscraper on the Taipei skyline, Taipei 101. I felt so clear-sighted, reveling in a country that was mostly trees, not mostly buildings, a country that still has its priorities in order.

Because Cathe’s a wonderful writer and keeps her own blog over at Andorran Adventures about her travels as she completes her year as an English Teacher on the Fulbright Scholarship in Andorra, I’m going to post her account and reflections of our trip here. Cathe’s insight is, I think, fairer to Taiwan than mine would be, “polluted” as I am with the comparisons I couldn’t help but make between the other Asian cities and countries I’ve been to. Without further ado:

     “As someone who’s only well travelled in Europe, Asia was overwhelming.  The crowds, the smells, the characters, the colors all inundated me the moment I arrived.  I was a little taken aback by the strict health measures at work in the airport: upon deplaning, I immediately ran into personnel wearing masks over their faces and had to walk past a body temperature scanner that verified I was healthy enough to not have a fever.  Though English is very common in both Hong Kong and Taipei, I found myself tongue-tied and stumbly as I navigated my way out of customs and into my friend’s embrace.

     The poor girl was coming off a bad flu, and I myself had been on a plane or an airport or a bus for the better part of 20 hours, so the first night we relaxed in her super swank 26-floor studio apartment overlooking the bay before heading to the most delicious Chinese dinner I’ve ever had in my life.  The restaurant, Crystal Jade, was located in a mall.  Everything seemed to require passing through a mall in both Hong Kong and Taipei: money talks there and status is about things.  We (I) fell asleep to a movie on her couch after and had a leisurely start to our tour of Hong Kong.  Since I’ve long been a tea-fanatic, we settled on touring Hong Kong Park (after snapping a photo of that Batman building nearby, natch), wherein lies this modest, old British-style colonial house-turned-museum and tea house.  I was fascinated reading up on the ancient, sacred history of tea making, the different ceremonial ways of preparing it, the artistry of creating teapots.  The history of the Chinese dynasties stretches so far back that my American brain struggles to contain them.

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I was informed later that in fact, one does not eat the shell of tea eggs!

     Afterwards we had delicious dim sum and tea, enjoying the custom and watching our waiter pour it in the traditional way, his wrist turning as if in a dance.

     We walked around some more before heading to Kowloon across the bay from Hong Kong Island, where all the museums and flashy hotels seem to be, as well as enough bright lights and advertisements it seemed to my eyes to put Times Square to shame (maybe the foreignness of the Chinese characters and crowds made it seem bigger to me, I don’t know).  We had the most spectacular Indian food (I made her promise to shower me with all the kinds of food I love that is hard to come by in Andorra) and then enjoyed the light show over the bay before taking the ferry back to the island.  We also tried these “tea eggs”–eggs hard boiled in a sweet smelling tea like substance that smelled waaaaay better than it tasted.  We watched an Asian couple bite into the egg, shell and all, so we followed suit before spitting it right back out.

     The next morning we had an early flight out to Taipei.  Coming off of the budget airlines in Spain, I was pleasantly surprised to note that Asian airlines still provide complimentary food, drinks, even tea on flights less than 3 hours.  Once in Taipei’s airport, we took a bus ride into the city, amazed at the way the urban landscape ducked in and out of a sweaty, jade jungle.  The city itself was incredibly crowded; we stayed near the Main Station, and the underground was a swarm of people, malls (of course), and signs, while the outside was a jumble of stalls selling foods I had never even imagined (stinky tofu being one that immediately activated my gag reflexes).  Marie introduced me to her favorites after we dumped our things at probably the cleanest hostel I have ever seen due to its insistence we take off our shoes and leave them on shelves by the door.

     We spent the night exploring the famous (crowded) Night Market, which seemed to me to be a mixture between a fair/carnival and street vendors.  Sipping on bubble tea, wandering in and out of stalls/shops, munching on sweet and spicy fried chicken wings, fresh fruit, and staring at a snake in a cage filed much of our evening.

     The next day we decided to check out the Maokong tea fields, temples, and exposition center, located at the top of this valley overlooking Taipei’s zoo.  We took a gondola ride over the jungle and the tea fields up to the top and then spent a lovely afternoon walking around, sampling tea, passing by red and gold temples, breathing in the herbal scent of the leaves, and hiking down the paths to the river/naturally forming pothole rocks.  We then got an amazing dinner in one of the malls (of course) near our hostel of noodles in a peanut sauce and Taiwan beer before finding a bar and gabbing the night away.  It was so nice to catch up in person with someone so dear to me.  One of the things I hate about our mobile my generation is is that my network of amazing friends keep scattering across the globe.  But then again, leading such different lives has a built-in excuse to travel.  I just would not be opposed if one day we all ended up in the same state again.

    The following day we headed out to Taroko Gorge for a three-night stay deep in the national park.  The train ride was comfortable; big bucket seats, and we wiled away the time reading and gasping over Jane Mead’s Usable Field.  Again, I so miss having friends around me who enjoy the same things, but I digress.  We spent the afternoon exploring the not-so-picturesque town of Hualien while we awaited the shuttle that would take us to where we were staying in nearby TG.  The shuttle ride itself was as winding and as harrowing as the rides up to Andorra, but I nonetheless felt a little sick.  The views were stunning, though.  The air was misty, casting all the colors in a silvery light: the 

grey-green of the leaves, the slate blue of the river, the plunge of the rock.  We marveled over the views from our room, eager to head out into the jungle’s paths the next morning.

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hiking in Taroko Gorge

     Our hike was 5.5 km and took the better part of the daylight.  The views were stunning, the bugs unforgiving, the plant sizes engulfing, the suspension bridges harrowing, and the chain and ropes we needed to descend several narrow, wobbling, steep rocks nerve-wracking.  At several points it started raining, making our already difficult trail even more slippery and unstable.  I love the feeling of hiking for this very reason, however.  The banality of our deadline-driven lives fades into the bush; all that is left is the immediacy of your foot in front of the other, the steady stab of air into your lungs, the insistent thump of your heart and your blood pumping, the calculation of how to proceed forward, never back, the intense appreciation for the beauty of your surroundings, a beauty that can be deadly if you do not carefully honor it.  Food never tastes better than when consumed at the half-way point high in the forest.

     The hike ended near the Wenshan hot springs, which smelled of sulfur and created a heady steam as it rushed out to meet the roar of the cold river.  It was bliss to soak my legs after the exhausting hike at dusk.  We ended up walking back to the hotel on the dark,

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Our gorgeous 5 star hotel; many thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Shubert!

windy roads, our nerves laced with the panic that inevitably floods any female traveling alone, but made it back without incident or cause for alarm.  The hotel had a nice, Western restaurant we treated ourselves to before soaking in the rooftop jacuzzi overlooking the gorge.

    The next day we lazily spent at the hotel, since it rained the better part of the day before grabbing dinner at a Chinese restaurant, which unfortunately contributed to a night of food poisoning for me (Marie smartly avoided the odd texture of the prawns after one bite; I was greedy).  While I was paying homage to the porcelain gods, I felt the earth literally move from under us; ricochets, we later learned, of the Papua New Guinea earthquake.  I was so miserably ill I, not sure how close imminent disaster was, bitterly welcomed it (“TAKE ME NOW”) while Marie imagined how we’d have to get into doorways for safety. We are, as she said, such worst casers.

     The next day was rather miserable for me as I once again navigated public transit with fever and nausea while sitting next to a kind, comforting Marie (for other tales of such nature, see our Spring Break 2009, or my solo trip to France 2008). Since the train had been overbooked, we did not have seats and instead crouched on the floor near the sliding doors of one of the train cars, having to stand up to let in new passengers at each stop of an increasingly overcrowded train.  We made it back to the hostel late afternoon and I collapsed into my bunk in the hostel, entirely spent and entirely empty, choking down water and tiny nibbles of crackers.

     The next day we flew out early out of Taipei back to Hong Kong, and this time, an overbooked flight worked in our favor; the airline bumped us up to first class.  Both of us spent after our (mis)adventure the day before, we passed right out in the comfy thrones they have up in business class (flying CAN be super comfortable) and once we made the long trip via public transit to Marie’s apartment, passed out until the afternoon.  We then did a little tour of other parts of Hong Kong before Marie took me to her favorite Mexican restaurant, which sadly did not sit well with me, so we called it an early night before my last day in Asia.

     The final day was blindingly gorgeous so we headed to Shek-O and its not apt name of Repulse Bay.  The water was turquoise, the sands white, the sun hot.  We spent a lovely afternoon napping in the sun (getting ridiculously burned, whoops) and then wandering around the brightly painted jumble of a town. We got back in time to grab my stuff and head to the airport for my 11PM flight.”

I was back to work the next day, fully valuing and already missing what it means to have a close friend with you connected not just by your mutual past and mutual friendships but also by the way you think and feel and approach the world in so many ways. I miss that, living here, definitely, how could I not?

Likewise, the hike we did in Taroko Gorge awoke something in me that is crying out for space to move and breathe, for green things to touch and dirt to roll around in without the roar of traffic in the not-so-distant background.

But that’s a good thing: to be reminded of what I want, what’s important to me, and to be motivated to go get it, to carve out space in my life here for the things that will make it fulfilling.

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