Wrong turn: Getting to southern Taiwan

2013-03-05 08:45
The look after tasting ice-cream beer .

The look after tasting ice-cream beer .

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The first warning sign was the China Airlines flight we boarded – that’s the Taiwanese airline, not to be confused with Air China, which is the largest Chinese carrier. Why is this? Well, while we call it Taiwan, its citizens actually refer to it as the Republic of China, and the country claims jurisdiction over all of mainland China, although practically, as you know, that’s a vastly glass-half-full view.
 
I digress.

While this was a large plane, it was old and it was crappy. As we taxied down the runway a fair portion of the luggage lockers popped open. The interior paint was so faded I didn’t know if my life-jacket was stowed under my seat. The food was something I had never smelled before. And we were flying in the most consistently turbulent part of the world, over the sea, in a plane from the Cretaceous Period.  
 
Mercifully the flight was over in 90-odd minutes, and we were in Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan. However, it was the middle of the night and it was raining. And there was a long wait for a cab. And once we found one he didn’t know where to go.

A tip in Asia: always get the name of your hotel written in the script of the country you are in. Neither of us wrote or spoke Mandarin, but luckily Asia caters for the sorts of failings we presented. As our taxi fare ratcheted up, the cab driver phoned someone who spoke both Mandarin and English and our misunderstanding was cleared up.
 
On we went, excitedly looking out the window, until we simultaneously gasped in shock at the swastikas painted on buildings. Now, my take on Taiwanese history is largely basic, and I wasn’t sure there was all that much Nazi influence despite a Japanese presence during World War II. As we couldn’t ask our cab driver, and neither of us then owned smartphones, we were forced to speculate until someone pointed out to us it is an important Buddhist symbol, and we weren’t actually vacationing in in the modern-day capital of anti-Semitism.
 
It was after midnight. We arrived at our hotel and were directed by a sign outside, mercifully written in English to phone a number to be let in. Well, the sign belied the person who answered the phone: as I spoke in English getting gradually louder, and they spoke in Mandarin louder and louder, we eventually found common ground by me continually ringing the doorbell. Finally we were shown to a room that contained nothing except a bed. Now we usually travel on the cheap. While my husband is thrifty, I am downright stingy, so I know what travelling while scrimping on costs is like. But there was literally nothing in this room except a bed and the paint on the walls. And there was very little, therefore, to do except slam a few swigs from our duty-free bottle of scotch before we collapsed on the only piece of furniture.
 


The National Palace Museum where you will find one of the largest Chinese art collections. We visited on a public holiday. Big mistake.

The next day was spent exploring the sights and sounds of Taipei, including the quite magnificent Taipei 101, which was the world’s tallest building (depending on how you classify Toronto’s CN Tower) before the Burj Khalifa in Dubai was built solidly past it. We caught the bus out to the National Palace Museum, which contains more Chinese art, and more Chinese tour groups, than anywhere else in the world.  Adding to the adventure, we visited the city’s famed night markets which smell of rotting tofu – a delicacy in this part of the world. While we fought to keep the nausea down (it really smells awful) we ate a range of dumplings with anonymous fillings and washed them down with local beer. This was to be our last day of peace in the whole of Taiwan. Back to the hotel room, a few more swigs of duty-free scotch and another day was done.
 
At 6am, with predictably sore heads, we caught a cab to Taipei’s main station and booked train tickets to Chiayi City in the southern part of the island, forgoing booking specific seats to save a few extra bob. Well, unbeknownst to us, it was a Friday - and a long weekend. And booking without reserving seats meant we stood in a crammed carriage for four hours to Chiayi City, while locals practiced their English with us. If you’re ever in Taiwan and a local person says “howzit  china” in an ironic tone, you can come back to this article and thank me in the comments section.

Exhausted, we got out at Chiayi City’s main station, again in the middle of the night, but prepared this time with the name of our hotel written in Mandarin, which we proudly showed to the closest taxi driver, who refused to let us get into his car. We did that thing, again, where he got progressively louder in Mandarin, and we got progressively louder in English, and eventually he broke, frustratedly shoved us into the back seat of his car, and drove precisely one-tenth of a block to our hotel. And made us pay the fare, nogal. While this hotel room contained furniture, it also had great layer of leaked water across both the tiled bathroom and the carpeted bedroom, so it smelled just lovely.
 
At 5am we escaped the smell of damp and caught a bus from the main station, to which we didn’t cab this time, out to Alishan, a national park containing a stunning range of mountains in southern Taiwan. This bus trip, however, was gut-wrenching. A few weeks earlier, a particularly strong hurricane had decimated parts of the country, and some of these parts were the roads we were about to use. Our bus driver, who must have had balls the size of watermelons, was not, in the least, fazed when we drove off-road on the sides of mountains, while climbing steeply. If we had slid off the sides, we would have fallen hundreds of metres; I had flashbacks to our China Airlines flight.

White-knuckled and sweating, we tumbled out of the bus at the entrance to Alishan and went off to the ATM to draw money so we could get a room. The ATM politely informed us, graciously in English, that we could only get money from Taiwanese bank accounts through this ATM. Further investigation informed us the next closest ATM was in Chiayi City – from whence we had left three hours previously. Without money for a hotel room, and the next bus trip back to the city only the next morning, we were forced into some creative financing, which involved a fat commission to an unscrupulous shopkeeper and his credit-card machine. But thank the lord it was resolved, as we were soon to find out just how cold Alishan was when the sun went down.



It was butt-clenching cold!

In spite of the severe cold, which was below zero, we awoke the next morning to catch a 5.30am train up to a high point in the mountains to see the sunrise. We didn’t realise just how cold our trip would get, and as the only people in shorts we froze. While waiting for the sun to rise over the mountains we huddled together and prayed whoever the local deity was would make it warmer. And to compound our suffering, tour guides began screaming in a range of languages about where we were and its history: none of which was conducted in a language we could understand.
 
As we were about to give in to hypothermia, the sun peeked over the mountains. And melted away the awful plane trip, the commuter-like train journey, the arse-clenching bus ride, the dodgily-obtained cash, the swastikas, the smell of damp and rotting tofu, and our feelings of stupidity at our ill-preparedness.
 
The trip down to southern Taiwan was worth it for the beauty we saw that morning. A sunrise isn’t just a sunrise when you worked that hard to get to it. Travel isn’t just a flight from one destination to another. It’s the ability to see what you couldn’t, if you hadn’t. It’s the same sun you see in South Africa. But the experience of seeing it climb through Taiwanese clouds isn’t. It’s difficult to describe just what kind of effect the sun that morning had on me. I didn’t cry, I didn’t feel a jolt. But I felt that the reason I do this stuff is dead on: when you’re seeing the world, make sure you take it in, and not just look at it.
 


Yup, I ate dumplings and watched a sunrise during that trip, things you can do virtually anywhere, but the stuff my five senses took in won’t easily be replicated.

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