Tuesday, January 25, 2011

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 The airport itself was dreary, and a throwback to the 70s with its outdated colored walls, seats, and plain-looking signs.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.....

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