OK! I have officially been in the Asian continent for 1 week now – on the Island of Taiwan to be more specific.. And absolutely everything about this place feels foreign.
I am here, beginning my travels around South East Asia with my boyfriend (Sam) – who has been living in Taiwan while completing an internship at an Engineering office for the last 6 months. Unfortunately this does not mean that he is able to fluently speak Taiwanese or Chinese at this point in time.. But it does mean that I have expended pretty much 0 effort in the organisation of this leg of the journey – as Sam has been able to plan and book everything in Taiwan for us both, which has (so far at least) made our time on this wee island work out in quite an orderly fashion.
Although….. my use of the word “orderly” in this case definitely has to exclude those events which have thus far taken place which have been completely out of our control and which we really could not have predicted were going to occur, or at least could not have prevented.. Because in my 1st week here… I have already had a severe allergic reaction across my arms and legs to either the heat or some sunblock which I put on during a beach excursion… and also… I have been unexpectedly strapped into a stretcher, stuffed into an ambulance, and hospitalised for half of a day after a semi-seizure/entire body cramping event.. But as that was quite a recent occurance.. I will come back to it later on..
FIRST! what have we gotten up to in week one of the long awaited Asia journey? Where have we been? What have we seen? Where are we off to next??
Well, I arrived in to Taipei airport around 7pm on the 27th May 2015.
Sam greeted me at the arrivals gate after an extremely laid back customs and baggage collection experience that took surprisingly little time.. And we got straight onto a bus and then a subway, and finally completed a short walk to arrive at our room for the night. Which was right in the middle of Taipei city. And I really do feel like I have to endorse the goodness of Airbnb for a second time in my blogging life here, because this website has helped us find accommodation (throughout our first week in Taiwan) that is not only SUPER cheap, but also.. pretty nice. And our room in Taipei did just the trick. I mean, here the rooms we have stayed in so far are what I would consider pretty typical of budget Asian accommodation – they feature tiled/Linoleum floors, they are sparsely furnished, and come with a bed with a single bottom sheet and maybe a top blanket (which in this heat… is completely unnecessary whether it is there or not). Also, there is always some form of air conditioning, a cold shower, perhaps some Wi-Fi and most of the time – someone friendly to welcome you in. I guess what this means is that its all basic, but none the less very comfortable and also, very clean.
Anyway! we spent the first 2 days of our trip in Taipei, and will get some more time there in a couple of weeks as this will be the city that we depart from at the end of our 3 weeks touring the island. But for this first, short visit we spent our time, walking around the city streets, checking out temples, and looking at monuments. For me I guess I spent these first two days largely just trying to take in the complete foreignness that is Asian culture to a “Westener” such as myself, and trying to comprehend the depth of immersion which I had suddenly found myself landed in..
I guess if I were to sum up Taiwanese culture as it appears to me after my first week here, the main characteristics which come to mind would be:
Scooters – Everywhere – people seem to favour these over cars), heat and sunshine (like… much more heat than is commonly found at home in New Zealand – it has been above 30degrees C every day we have been here so far.
Walking and cycling in the streets alongside traffic – Because the footpaths are over crowded with food stalls and shop fronts and so are actually not convenient to walk on at all..
Chinese symbols on every store front – Which I, of course, cannot read.. So if I want to know what a shop is selling I do have to physically walk past the window-front.
A vast inability to communicate with anyone in English – No Taiwanese people apparently do NOT have to learn English as a part of their schooling, and very few of them have chosen to learn it..
A LOT of seafood – Particularly squid.
A lot of curious faces sussing out the foreigners – We are often stared at like we are aliens by younger children here.
Street vendors selling deep fried and skewered food and iced tea, pretty much.. EVERYWHERE – Like… you would very rarely have to walk a block to find food in Taiwan… The people here set up fruit stalls and seafood trucks on every street, and on every footpath.. Its amazing..
But of course aside from food there are other things on the streets too…. theres the occasional (very rare) grocery store – Which is often less of a grocery store and more like a spice shop which also sells rice.. There`s a few pharmacies about. There`s a 7-11/convenience store on most streets. There`s always generic tourist souvenir stores. And there`s also quite a few interspersed, brightly coloured, cartoonish temples – Which stand out from the rest with their red beams, dragon-adorned rafters, abundant lotus carvings and fragrant scents of burning incense.
BUT ANYWAY! – Taipei.
So In Taipei we visited a very impressive shrine and monument for a guy called Chiang Kai Shek – who was essentially a Chinese military leader… He is dead now, but will undoubtedly be remembered for years to come due to the construction of this seriously impressive seated monument in his likeness. – — Several meters tall and roped off to the public, the monument of Chung Kai Shek sits in a guarded temple overlooking the gardens and grounds which have been laid out before him. And these gardens and the grounds are no regular sight.. They are perfectly clean and perfectly manicured..
and there`s even an art gallery and theatre hall to accompany the temple that the monument itself sits in. The total complex is both huge and immaculate. It really does all indicate quite an impressive dedication to who this man once was.
We also strolled through a few green parks, full of their own (lesser in size and status) statues and monuments, and we walked around the base of Taipei101 – The tallest building in Taiwan – which is shaped kind of like… A bunch of Chinese take-away boxes stacked on top of one another…
And we visited some of the night markets! – I love markets. The markets in Taiwan are a vast mix of food stalls, clothing fronts and carnival-style games. There are generally fairy lights everywhere, people everywhere, and sounds and smells everywhere! – Speaking of which… One smell actually.. dominates the rest.. Its the smell of Stinky tofu – Which is exactly what the name suggests… It just smells absolutely terrible… Even as a vegetarian, struggling in this meat-loving world, I don’t think that it is something that I could ever actually put in my mouth…
And we also visited an old British Consulates house which was set in an old fort – Fort San Domingo.
And after a brief 2 days in the big city, we re-packed out backpacks and headed off to Fulong beach – making a quick stop along the way to buy a small tent for some $16NZ ($430NT). And for the next 2 nights and 3 days we freedom-camped on Fulong beach, in the little tent.. and in the Taiwanese heat… Without access to a shower.
And I must say… I always thought I enjoyed camping. Or rather, I guess I always have enjoyed camping in the past. But sleeping on the sand, under the thin cover of a budget tent, which does little other than trap in the body heat of 2 people who are sleeping under the sun (which rises a some crazy early hour of every morning)… was quite uncomfortable to say the least. And using the ocean as a bath for 3 days was a novelty which quickly wore thin with me, as I realised that this meant no soap, no shampoo and no moisture left in my skin.. And I, being the 'problem child' that I am, have very sensitive skin… So after gambling with Sam's sunblock on night one, I burst out in a glorious allergic reaction of lumpy, red, itchy skin, which I am living with still..
But this doesn't mean that the beach itself was hideous.. It was actually really spectacular to float in the ocean (which never actually seemed to get deeper than knee height, no matter how far out you waded – so really, we were sitting in the ocean…) and realise that in looking back towards shore, you were looking back on a gloriously over-grown tropical coastline, composed of thick bush and sloping hillsides. It was like, this little beach, was cut off from the rest of bustling, populated Taiwan.. by mother nature in her full force. It was breathtaking.
And we also found that if we swam along the coast a wee way we could sneak onto a 'private' beach (which was clearly visible from our camping spot) which featured a giant sand-sculpture display.. So of course we did that… And got to see some giant teddy bears, barbie dolls, GI Joes, board games and all sorts of weird and wonderful creations that had been built out of sand! But it was too hot to hang around for long… And we were back to our non-regulated, public beach in no time.
And actually we met up with a small group of Sam's friends here, and they too camped (uncomfortably) on the beach with us.
And there was a Taiwanese Psytrance party going on just a short stroll from the beach front – which Sam and his mates enjoyed… But which I stayed quite clear of.. Not that it was dangerous or anything.. It just wasn’t my scene I suppose.. It was pretty much just a small shack in Fulong which had hired a DJ and stuck up a couple of colourful banners, and was welcoming people in to sit under the shade, bob to the repetitive music and drink.. After about an hour of listening to the same beat repeat itself and watching people try to get drunk in the heat.. I was done with the idea. And so I spent the large part of our 2 days here walking up and down the beach, swimming and reading and watching the sunset.
Then, after hardly any time at all, we were packing our backpacks again, and we were off to the next stop – Tainan.
Here we stayed in a beautifully air conditioned hostel and did some major sightseeing over another 2 day stop off.
We visited Tainan’s Chikan Tower,
All of which were tourist attractions, and historic points of interest which were each set up in very much the same way I suppose.. Walking through these old temples and places of learning and worship, was just like walking through a the old house of a royal family member in the UK.. except, with a lot more simplicity, a lot more natural beauty – based around gardens and trees, and.. completely different architecture.
The Chihkan Tower was possibly my favourite – It was a traditional style Taiwanese/Chinese building with delicate orange roofing tiles and intricately carved, multi-coloured beasts and creatures adorning the highest corners and the entry points. But it was also surrounded by perfect green lawns and trickling water falls and features – which were filled with colourful fish.. I could have watched those fish bathing in the cool water for half a day.
The Banyan Tree tree-house was also pretty cool. It was essentially an old building which had been taken over by the growth of a massive Banyan tree, whose roots and leaves now consume the building and at the same time help to complete it.. Unfortunately with this one though… It took me a couple of attempts to actually see the inside…
That story… Could maybe have a post of its own.
But in this post I will also mention that we popped into a few other less touristy temples along our way when in between established sights in Tainan. And I guess as often is the case, in these temples was where we found the real cultural experiences.
In one such temple I enjoyed picking out the languages of the prayers of many international visitors – who had written their dreams and wishes on small wooden boards and strung them from the temples entrance beams.
But the best of all… was when we happened upon a lovely group of locals who were having tea and biscuits inside one temple we came across. They welcomed us into their circle, made us sit down, and served us tea and smiles. They were absolutely fascinated with our Western faces, and took many, many photos of us all together. And although we couldn’t really communicate with one another at all… They tried to speak with us and include us in their talk. And ultimately they really did make us feel welcome – even without words.
And laughter is so universal anyway. Just listening to these ladies laugh and seeing them chatter amongst one another was comfortable and contagious..
It’s funny how humans comfort each other purely through presence like that… we are pack animals indeed.