Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Taiwan pt. 4 (4/4)

After a day full of sunshine and spring-like warmth, I came back to Taipei amidst a dreary, foggy, wet night which would then continue onto the next day. My intention for my last full day was to ride the cable car to the Maokong tea plantation which also overlooks the Taiwan city skyline as well as the surrounding mountains, temples, and tea gardens in Maokong.

Before I went ahead with my planned itinerary, I made a visit to the National Palace Museum. The museum, interestingly enough, is one of the top 5 museums in the world, and located in all places, Taiwan and not mainland China. Its top recognition comes from the many thousands of Chinese artifacts located throughout the mainland, including those from the Forbidden City that it contains. The question is why are they in Taiwan, and not in China? One of the bigger reasons is that during the Cultural Revolution, Mao's political opponent Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters fled to Taiwan, and with it, came along the boxes and boxes of priceless antiques which were left unopened for several years until the Taiwanese government turned it into a museum. Many have argued that without this move, the artifacts would have been either missing, destroyed, or sold off during the Cultural Revolution which was an attempt at erasing the past, and starting a new socialist society from scratch which would later happen in Cambodia during the 70s.

Upon arriving at the museum, there were several older Chinese tourists from the mainland with their cameras ready. The stereotypical behavior of Asian tourists sadly remains the same. Their incessant need to photograph everything in sight takes away the appreciation that one should have when visiting a place of historical meaning, and the understanding of what went on. The palace was huge and imposing. Entering inside, I was overwhelmed with the countless exhibition halls to visit. There were jade rooms, porcelain, Buddha culture, ancient calligraphy, pottery, artwork, and furniture. The museum gave a detailed insight on the meaning of these priceless works, and how each dynasty influenced Chinese art.

Afterwards, I made a 40 minute subway commute to the Maokong cable car, probably the smoothest subway commute I've had in all my years of commuting. Very little fanfare and fewer people. It was raining which would hinder my ability to get a good view of Taipei from Maokong. I took the 30 minute cable car ride which went through 3 stops. There was hardly a line, and it was remarkably inexpensive (NT 50 = $1.75) compared to Hong Kong's cable car ride which was significantly more with the nearly 2 hour wait. The ride itself was somewhat disappointing with the lack of water, trail views, and having to deal with a foggy skyline which almost completely blanketed Taipei 101.

I've been having to deal with sore blisters on my feet during a good part of my trip, and visiting a place that requires walking was a challenge indeed. Despite the rainy weather, I was fortunate to not have to deal with the obvious tourism exploitation that has occurred at this rural plantation since they put the cable car line in. Despite the commercial tourism appeal, Maokong has a very distinct personality that doesn't seem at all affected by the tourism ambush. There were many local teahouses, little tea farms sprinkled everywhere. It was a rather beautiful, scenic walk with the view of the city not too far yet I'm in the arms of nature as I can feel the droplets hitting my head and making my backpack rather moist. It was refreshing, and a world away from the manic nature of urban life. I visited the Jongshan Temple which also offered a direct view of the city from afar. Being in Taiwan and Hong Kong, I have never been as exposed to temples as often as I have until now. I visited a small tea museum which offered different collections of tea art. Coming downstairs, I was beckoned by one of the ladies working there, and she was fixing me some nice oolong tea. I took the mini-bus back to the starting point, and found some great street food which sold some nice dumplings, tofu soup, and noodles.

It was almost getting dark, and I headed back to the guesthouse. I was already fatigued at that point, and was focused on getting my stuff packed to go back to Busan. I was relaxing at the guesthouse for awhile and talked with Doris, and her father Stephen. Her aunt would consistently ask me each day if I was going to be there for breakfast the next day which made me feel as a guest, warmly appreciated. I said my goodbyes to the Belgium couple I had befriended during my visit.

After thinking about calling it a night, I thought about making one last venture outside. I thought about one of the street markets that's several blocks away. I decided to give it a try, and I arrived at the Ningxia Street Market which quickly became one of my favorites. The market was glowing with lanterns, shops, and food ready to sell. It was quite lively, and as I passed each stall, the crowds became more crowded. Each shop was offering a sample to all of their customers. There were many places where you can buy bags of gummy bears, lifesavers, sour candy, Jelly Belly's. Then there were places that sold herbal medicine, fruit mixes, shoes, various kinds of pastry. Around the block, a man or woman would have a megaphone to encourage customers to come in to their store, similar to how it's done in Korea. However, there wasn't any pressure from store vendors to buy their products which was in return a great relief from the previous street market experiences in Vietnam. I came back to the guesthouse feeling more satisfied than ever about my experience in Taiwan, but sad that it would soon have to reach its conclusion.

I readied myself the next morning, and Doris' aunt fixed me one last breakfast. I said my goodbyes to the two Korean people I met, and finally said my goodbyes to Doris' family for the wonderful hospitality they had provided me during my stay.

I took to the HSR along with the shuttle bus to Taoyuan which took about 40 minutes. I arrived at the airport, and as I got into my gate, I noticed how there are few places to eat inside, but how many nice souvenir shops were available. This normally spells trouble for me as I'm an avid collector of souvenir art (not the kind of tacky souvenirs that would say “I love....”). I bought myself a nice Chinese portrait scroll of a mountain and forest with the characters written above it. As I was walking around the terminal, I noticed that there was a prayer room (one for christianity, the other for buddhism, and the other for Islam).

I left Taiwan with an appetite for seconds. There were many places that I have yet to check out such as Kaohsiung, the famous gorge, and the uncharted east coast part of the country. I was awestruck by the generosity of the people, the accessibility around the main cities, and the charming personality that it has. I hope to make another future visit before I leave Korea for good.

Taiwan pt. 3 (3/4)

After having spent the previous evening deciding where I could do my next day trip, I chose the city of Tainan to be my destination of the day.

Tainan is the cultural capitol of Taiwan, much like how Kyoto is to Japan, Siem Reap is to Cambodia, and Gyeongju is to Korea. These cities have centuries of timeless history and culture behind it. They represent the strongest side of their cultural heritage as this sets them apart from the homogenization of Western influences that's been taking part throughout all of Asia.

The fastest way to get to Tainan from Taipei is taking the recently-built HSR (High-Speed Rail). It's currently one of the fastest railway networks in the world. From Taipei to Kaohsiung (approximately the length from Jacksonville to Miami, FL) is only 2 hours, and more importantly, it's a cheaper and less stressful alternative than taking a domestic flight. The station itself is super clean and quite an impressive experience with the layout, comfort, and accessibility. The main drawback would be the fact that it's a bit of a distance from the city centre, but fear not, there's a free shuttle bus (also very impressive and a bit luxurious) that can take you there.

The train ride itself was one of great comfort. The seats are comfortable, reclines well, and has quite a bit of leg room. The ride was smooth, and devoid of any railroad turbulence and delays. The train was squeaky clean, including the bathrooms. This was already a bigger upgrade from Korea's KTX railway network, and something that is sorely missing in the United States.

After arriving at the city centre in Tainan, I noticed how considerably warmer it was. Tainan is located in the southwestern part of the country, and about 15 minutes south of Kaohsiung on HSR. The weather was about 22 C or 72 F, and the skies were beaming with sunshine for the first time on my trip. Sadly, this would be the only day I would have any kind of sunshine and warmth, but it was a great welcome from the coldness of Korea, and the dreary overcast of my first two days in Taiwan. During the bus ride, I noticed that the first part of Tainan is very modern. There are many shopping centres and nicer apartments along the way. The first stop I made was the Confucius temple. This temple carries a significant part of Taiwan as this was the first Confucius temple built in Taiwan. Small, but artfully beautiful, I roamed around the area. Next to it, was an elementary school. I took the opportunity to take up snapshots, and as soon as I did that, I saw two beautiful female models dressed very elaborately and even a little provocatively so to speak. Their face was powdered white, their hair and jewelry, clothing, and their stunning beauty caught my attention. Of course, I had to take a photo op with them. They kindly obliged, and they spent time modeling their shoots by the fountain.

I walked around the beautiful city district, and came across several local stores. The chairs and desks were out, the smell of noodles filled the air, the sidewalks filled with local craft and tool shops. I got myself some roasted duck for lunch. I walked over to the Koxinga shrine which was named after him. His real name was Zheng Chenggong who was a famous commander during the Ming dynasty who drove off the Dutch settlers. His place in Taiwan's history is undisputed, and many of the places in Tainan are named after him.

I continued walking along and found the beautiful Chikhan Building which had several written tablets in front of the building. The place was filled with many Chinese tourists from the mainland. Across the street is another temple. Interestingly enough, outside the building were posters spread in full view in protest of the human right issues concerning China. Note that in mainland China, many residents there are shielded away of what's been going on due to the heavy censorship from the government. Taiwan and Hong Kong, thankfully, are not censored as the rest of China is, so this allows information to reach into the tourists. Whether this can ever be effective remains to be seen. This would happen at some of the main tourist spots.

Walking around the city was quite a pleasant experience. I wasn't constantly suffocated by the exhaust pipes of Taipei, or the claustrophobic nature of “mini Busan” in Keelung. The combination of old vs. new makes Tainan a city still firmly holding onto its tradition, while embracing itself as a city ready to evolve.

I headed over to Anping which is right by the shore, and a short distance from Tainan. I took a short cab ride over there, and found myself walking along the harbor. It was strangely empty and very quiet, but as I was walking on the bridge to the other side, I noticed how laid-back, and charming that district is. I walked around and found some wonderful local shops. They were selling the sword-lion souvenirs which was originally famous for the Taiwanese people who used it as a defense mechanism. The craft shops made me drool endlessly with its beautiful lanterns, buddha statues, local crafts and artwork on display. I had some amazing fried shrimp wantons along the way. I walked along the shores, and found myself never as impressed with my whole day-trip experience.

I headed back to the city centre, and tried to find the bus station that's supposed to take me to the HSR. Unfortunately, I was struggling to find it; however, I noticed a police car parked outside in one of the government buildings. I came over and asked the officer for some assistance, and he gave me a ride to the station. Just another example of being in another foreign country where you can barely speak the local language, but somehow if you have enough patience, understanding, and self-confidence, you'd be surprised how well you can try to communicate and even more surprised at how generous many of the locals are in return.

As I made my way back to Taipei, I left with what I felt was one of my favorite spots to visit in Taiwan

Taiwan pt. 2 (2/4)

After venturing through a good part of Taipei the day before, I decided to do a day trip to Keelung, an hour northeast of Taipei (40-50 minutes by regular train). Keelung is a decent-sized urban port city in the Northeast part of Taiwan that's best known for its fishing and street market, along with its historical significance.

The first glimpse of Keelung as I stepped off the train was how similar it looked compared to Busan, specifically in the Nampo-dong/Jagalchi district, and the urban port of Southern Vietnam. The commonality that these places share are the focus on seafood, vendor stores, cheap clothing, food, local crafts, and accessories, and the condensed, yet laid-back personality that it has. Unlike Busan, Keelung is roughly developed with the exception of the main shopping/street market area, but similar to Vietnam, there were many small villages sprawled out near the harbor. The weather, once again, was dreary with additional overcast throughout the day. It had rained earlier in Keelung, and the streets were wet with muddy soot. The pungent aroma from the harbour permeated the city air which is already mixed in with the unforgiving fumes emanating from the darn motorbikes. Bicycles seem to be a dead form of transportation these days in Asia. I explored the night market streets which took up several blocks. There were many food stalls, and quite a few unsightly ones as whole raw chicken including the head, and feet are on display, fresh seafood lying on the tables, as the water drips from the dead fish and into the sidewalk. There was a beautiful temple in the middle of the market. Several people pay their respect, and the smell of incense can make its presence felt for blocks. In fact, there are generally several temples and shrines every few blocks. It's worth noting that Taiwan has never lost touch with its Confucian/Buddhism heritage, and strongly adheres to its ancient traditon, even more so than Japan and Korea despite the Western modernization that has taken place in all of East Asia.

The choice of food stalls underwhelmed me, and I had difficulty deciding what food I wanted to eat. The biggest challenge facing me was the lack of English signs and photos so it became a hindrance when it came to ordering food. However, I found a great stall that were selling crispy fried dumplings. It was simply delightful. I had myself some nice bubble tea along the way.

I took a walk around the city, and walked up to the top of the hill which allowed me to view Keelung. While I was on top, I visited the Big Buddha park (fairly unremarkable and almost void of Buddhism authenticity due to its sheer tourist commercial appeal). There was also a ghost museum dedicated to keeping the tradition of the ghost festival held every Fall. The purpose of the festival is to offer the dead ancestors to come back into the living world, and not suffer in the afterlife.

As I walked into the tourist office looking to get additional information, the clouds became ominously dark. It looked ripe for a nice thunderstorm, and a nice dent into the rest of my stay in Keelung. I decided to risk it and hop on the bus to see more of the harbour. During the bus ride, I got a closer look at the working-class villages near the bay. The bus signs were in Chinese of course, so I had to keep a close eye on where I was going. The ride was a bit raggedy. I visited the Fairy Buddha Cave which was uniquely impressive because of the carvings, the quiet yet scenic location it was in, and its authenticity.

As raw and honest of a traditional, urban city as Keelung is, I came away feeling underwhelmed by it. Certainly the weather didn't help matters, and I didn't have enough time to visit some of the more popular, out-of-reach areas closer to Keelung. Overall, Keelung certainly is in a much different world than Taipei with its adherence to tradition and focus on the seafood industry.

Taiwan pt. 1 (1/4)

Living in Korea can truly have its advantage. The biggest advantage is having Korea surrounded by many interesting neighouring countries in Asia. Many of them share similar personalities, cultures, and historical ties with one another (for better or worse--generally the latter), but each of these countries have a strong national identity that they take seriously, and that in itself is what set these Asian countries apart from one another.

My initial impression of Taiwan went more along the lines of "just another Korea," Taiwan was a place that never struck me as a vacationing destination unlike places in Thailand and Indonesia which offers plentiful beaches and sunshine, Japan with its culinary delights, Mt. Fuji, and its timeless tradition, China with its centuries-old history, and must-see historical sites, and even Korea with its main attraction, in my opinion, the DMZ that sadly separates the peninsula. However, after hearing from my friends about their experiences in Taiwan, I have heard things about the famous gorge, popular teahouses, hot springs, breath-taking views of the mountains and coastlines, and also having the 2nd tallest building in the world. Though Taiwan's status as a country or province is still up for great debate, there is no doubt that Taiwan has a great national identity that they are genuinely proud of.

After hearing about the exciting testimonies from some of my friends, I decided to make Taiwan my next big travel destination. Interestingly enough, my school had a cross-cultural exchange connection with a school in Taiwan, I believe in Kaoshiung. Two years ago, before I arrived, a few of my students were chosen to travel to Taiwan and meet their new pen-pals there. THen, early last year, the Taiwanese students came to my school and observed my classroom. It was at that point when I first became interested in traveling to Taiwan. Some of my students kept telling me to travel there, and for them, it was most likely their first experience traveling outside of Korea. Then after Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, I made Taiwan my next priority.

I left Busan later in the evening, and flew on TransAsia Airways. Though unremarkable, the flight went along very smoothly. Our flight landed at Taoyuan International Airport which is about an hour away from Taipei on bus. The airport itself was dreary, and a throwback to the 70s with its outdated colored walls, seats, and plain-looking signs. Getting on the airport bus, I made my way to Taipei. It was already 10:00 pm, and at that point I was a bit fatigued. I was studying the map, and the directions to my hostel. It was during that time, a young couple sitting across from me offered to help me. Though, I wasn't nervous about knowing how to get around Taipei, I was relieved that somebody was willing to help me make my life undoubtedly a little easier. Once I got off the bus, they directed me to the train station, and help me purchase the subway card. I was awestruck at how nice and accessible they were towards a stranger who had just gotten off the plane. After I parted ways with the nice couple, I made my way to Minquan W. Road MRT station. The metro station and format, which closely resembles Hong Kong's, was convenient, clean, and organized. THe passengers, unlike those in Korea and in America, and much like in Japan, have far better public transportation etiquette. No old women hastily shoving you out of the way with their cane which in itself makes for a more pleasant, less entertaining albeit less irritating experience.

It was nearly midnight, and it started to drizzle. I sent an email to the hostel that I was going to arrive close to 11 pm, and it was about 11:30. Normally, check-ins would stop after 11 pm so I was already under a lot of duress. I had problems finding my way to the hostel and I was racing against time. I got some nice help along the way from a few strangers, but as I got closer to the location, the more lost I became. Confused, I was walking around a few more blocks, and studied the map several times. I became frustrated, and worried that I might not be able to have a place to sleep on my first night in Taiwan. Certainly, not the kind of omen was I looking for to start my long-awaited winter vacation. As time was winding down to midnight, I was frantically searching for someone to talk to. The streets were a little quiet. Then, I saw a man sitting on his motorbike talking to his girlfriend. Generally, I am very timid about approaching strangers especially in a foreign country, but despite my apprehensions, I came up to him and asked if he could help me. His English was minimal, but luckily enough, the address was conveniently printed in Chinese. At first, he seemed confused about the address, and then he popped out his iPhone which had the map, and told me to hop on to his motorbike. He drove me a few short blocks, and dropped me off at the hostel. They say first impressions speak volumes, and in that case, I came away in awe of how generous and trustworthy many Taiwanese are towards foreigners. I have had many pleasant experiences in Korea, and places that I've been to, but never in a matter of less than 2 hours have I had that kind of generosity been given to me from people I never even knew. Once I make my home back in Chicago or elsewhere in the US, I look forward to reciprocating that kind of generosity towards any foreigners coming in to my country.

Luckily, the hostel was still open, and Doris, the head person in charge was patiently waiting for me. Walking inside, it was nothing like a hostel. I felt like I was in a really nice hotel with a home environment attached to it. There was a nice communal kitchen, wooden desks, pillows on the chairs. Everything was super clean and cozy. She took me to my room, and it blew me away. I had a nice TV, bed, my own bathroom, big closet, desk, fridge. Granted, I've stayed in nicer hotels before, but doing backpacker hostels/guesthouses, the quality isn't always the greatest. For the price that I was paying for with this guesthouse, it was much lower than I would have paid at any motel. The guesthouse is called Mudan House. You can find it on www.hostelworld.com. It's run by Doris' family. Her aunt makes breakfast every morning to all the guests, there's a washer that you could use, and her family have been wonderful. The service is impeccably amazing, and I met some cool travelers who were also staying there. Without question, this has been easily the best experience I've stayed at a hostel/guesthouse, and it gets my big approval.

My first full day in Taiwan was spent exploring through the downtown part of Taipei. I explored the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Palace which was larger than life. The architecture of these buildings, though fairly recent, are nicely put together. Inside, is a mausoleum which has a large bronze statue of the former leader inside. There is the changing of the guard every hour, and in that hour, there's a 10 minute strategic choreography as part of that exercise. When it is done, the two soldiers stand directly opposite from one another, conveniently in between the statue itself, motionless. This routine is also done at the Sun Yat Memorial in honor of said name who was named as the founding father of Taiwan (formerly known as Formosa).

I explored the botanical gardens, and the government buildings in that area. Around the area is a park commemorating the tragic events of 2-18 during the KMT martial law era. Though the streets of Taipei are significantly cleaner than urban Korea and Hong Kong, the pollution is undoubtedly present. The motorbikes which runs the streets, and many cars that were modeled in the 90s spew out fumes worser than Chernobyl itself. This was the kind of experience I had when I was in Vietnam; the undeniably disgusting fumes that make it necessary to wear a health mask.

I was fortunate enough to make my visit to Taipei 101, the 2nd largest building in the world after Dubai. Being from Chicago, I was used to having the Sears Tower (now dreadfully known as Willis Towers) as the largest in the world. Its architecure is piercingly daunting, and an awkward fit with the rest of the supporting skyline, but it still retains its status as the largest in the US and as the heart and soul of Chicago. With Taipei 101, there are hardly any buidlings that don't come anywhere as half as tall as that building. With that said, I also found Taipei 101 to look a lot smaller in person than what I would see with the Sears Tower.

Traveling through one of the main night markets in Taipei was a special treat. During my time in Hong Kong, I had a memorable time with my friend Ikee haggling prices with vendors, looking at a couple of blocks filled with toys, crafts, clothes, street food, supplies, and endless supplies of sex toys. The night market in Taipei is rather less on the quantity, but more on the shock value. There are the unsightly displays of pig intestines, squid, chicken feet, and one stall selling freshly carved up turtles. A few disturbing displays were the snakes. Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to take any pictures of it, but there was one giant python the size of my studio apartment on display. Apparently, they sell snake blood. What benefits it brings, I have not a clue.

As my first night came to a close, I was comforted knowing how liberating it was to be traveling by myself and experience many new cultural things head on. Not having to negotiate time and places with friends, or be at school dealing with my students, and knowing that I will have less "me" time when I come back for a home visit in February makes traveling that much more enjoyable.

Many more to come.....