Finally the summer vacation has arrived and so begins my first trip of the summer – Taiwan with fellow Brit and JET, Emma, who I met in London Orientation almost exactly a year ago!
Saturday 24th July: A quest to find a hotel
After an initial hiccough, wherein we discovered that the airport had 2 terminals. It had been nearly 10 months since I’d last saw Emma, but she hadn’t changed much, so she was easy to spot within in the sea of Taiwanese faces.
Coming into Taipei, we were presented with vast towering appartments, much like the scenes I’d seen of Chinese expansion in Eastern Africa in a Core77 article, shooting up from the earth in striking regularity.
Getting into the main station, I was struck by how wooden and grand, yet aged the building was, especially the main ticketing area with its grandiose hall and high ceiling, creating a cool environment, at contrast to the sticky heat outside.
Emma has the memory and route planning skills of an elephant, and so had us to the Sleepy Dragon hostel in no time. Their ingenious name was the sole reason we had book the hostel.
It was great place, that you could feel was really well considered and planned. The couple Satoru and Shelly bought a floor in the block, and renovated it so that it is (a large) part hostel and part house. The cinema screen, variety of beers and home-handmade breakfasts were all a treat!
The consideration of use extended to the dorms too! With custom built bed units, each with its own curtain to shut it off from the room, and each bed with its own electrical outlet, lamp and fold down desk – hell it even had a cubby for shoes under the bed ! The place is a treat to return to after a day’s hiking.
With a storm looking like it was brewing, we wisely chose to drink beer for a couple of hours, before deciding it wasn’t going to down pour and went in search of the Grand Hotel.
Turns out, I’m now incredibly reliant on mobile internet to navigate, and that Grand Hotel isn’t its name in Chinese!
We first arrived at Shilin station and we had a little wander, figuring the hotel was nearby… We knew it was either north or south of the Shilin markets… We couldn’t see it. We gathered a few people together, they pointed in a direction and told us to take the metro south.
Popping out at Yuanshang, 2 stops down, we still couldn’t see it. We walked past the Expo centre, then further south, before making the call to swing round the stadium. This had an awesome bustling food scene, with little stalls in shipping containers and some big pub bistro restaurants – all very edgy.
After speaking to the Information Man, he pointed us in a direction, and in no time at all, we could see it!!! We made a beeline for it, only to discover the end of the park was fenced off, and we would have to retrace our steps through the park. Then to discover it was on the far side of a metric shit-ton of overpasses and ring roads – cry!
One cool feature we did come across was scooter/motorbike only lanes, running separate to the car roads, which was pretty cool!
The front of the hotel in sight, we could see no access, just concrete express ways rising and falling between us! So we followed the road round and found some steps. By this point we must have been 2 hours down, hungry and hot.
Wasn’t even worth it.
The hotel is a testament to olden architecture. Built in 20th century, it uses traditional Chinese construction methods and Chinese palace design. It was also the tallest building in Taipei at its conception. It does look awesome, if not a little like the building in the opening scenes of Inception!
But the real reason for our visit was the story of the slide. Set on a hill, the hotel has an emergency slide to allow dignitaries to escape.
Unfortunately for us, access for the public is prohibited :’(
Heading back down, we decided to head to the Shilin night market – it was not what I had expected.
Shilin Night Market
It reminded me of the tourist traps from sport-tour holidays in Spain. Narrow streets, with shops on each side selling the latest clothes or Nike trainers, whilst in the middle ran the floor sellers of bric-a-brac and fabrics, helping clog the already narrow streets and forcing people to a slow amble. Supplementing this scene were fruit and smoothies vendors on each corner, and along the edges of the area were the carnival type games; shooting the can, get ball in the milk jug, pop the balloons with the darts. It really had the feel of a travelling fairground, but combined with bright, vibrant shops.
The evening was getting on, and one of our highlights was to be the Cheese and Beer Social house. A little out of the way, we headed their, ordered our obscure beers and a grilled cheese sandwiches. The combined exhaustion of travel, hunger and thirst meant this place didn’t seem overly enjoyable, but had we perhaps arrived earlier, or on a different day, we may have had a more pleasurable experience.
Sunday: Stinkyhead Mountain – 臭頭山
Sunday was to be our first hiking day. We didn’t feel the need to rush, so we enjoyed the breakfast at the hostel, and then set off on the MRT to work our way out of the city. From the end of the line, we caught a bus through the rolling hills of East of Taipei to Pingxi.
To be honest, the view was much the same driving through Japan, with luscious green vegetation disrupted by low rise buildings that line the roads and speckle the distant hills.
Pingxi was far more developed than I imaged, I had images of small farm houses, mostly from the fact I was unable to find a hotel that had a website in the area. But it was very much a small town with shops along the main road, and naturally a couple of konbinis.
The hike was just a wee way down from the bus stop, and so we headed up the trail. Initially it seemed like a small, stoned path up to a temple or something, but it soon gave way to a well trodden path that in turn lead to paths and sections that required more careful footing, hand ropes and at one point a ladder!
Within the first minute or two I was immensely relieved that I had purchased and bought with me a 3L camelbak, so that I could frequently sip at my water. Within no time at all I had drench my tee shirt with sweat.
The view from Xiaozishan – 孝子山
After scaling the initial peak, Xiaozishan – 孝子山, we descended down the other side, heading towards the next peak. Only when the gentlemen we had met at the top of the first peak started heading back towards us did we realise this wasn’t a circular path, and were walking back towards the road.
Not being able to understand the maps and signposts was to be a common occurrence throughout the holiday!
We made friends with these two guys, and scaled up and down the trail a little, eventually deciding to tackle Zhongyangshan together, then pausing part way down for lunch, and to ring out my shirt and shorts – I was soaking!
Then we split up with Emma and I heading after Stinkyhead Mountain. Everything seemed to be going well, and we followed directions to the grasslands mentioned on the hiking blog we’d read. Then we continued through the grasslands… And this was our mistake… Another 30 minutes down the track, no longer seeing trail flags, no other people, nor any more maps, we concluded we may had gone the wrong way…
Back the Way we Came
A considerable time later we were back at the point near where we’d stopped for lunch, and took the only remaining, unexplored fork left in the path. And not a moment too soon! Thunder rolled over us, and lightning flashed behind us, egging us on to go that bit faster.
After a considerably longer walk than anticipated, we started approaching civilisation and were soon back in Pingxi, drinks in hand, sat on a step.
But we still had to get to Jiufen! It was gone 4 o’clock! Looking for a bus, we decided instead to take the train, allowing us to walk around the old street and purchase one of the weirdest treats I’ve ever had – a multi-flavoured icecream, sprinkled with peanut brittle shavings, and coriander, wrapped up in a rice paper, a bit like a spring roll. It made a delightful treat after all the hiking!
The train was pretty cramped, and we got to Ruifang a little before dusk, and followed directions to the bus stop. By the time we were on the bus, it was dark, and got chatting to a man on the bus.
Jiufen Old Street
We hit up the Old Street, whilst looking for our hostel – turned out I was taking us to the wrong star on my map, and we had to ask a lady in a shop for help. She eventually drew us a map and sent us on our way. After asking a few more people, we had found the hotel, and checked into our cramp little room.
Wary of the hour, I went off for food whilst Emma showered, and after trying some spicy fish balls, settled for stinky tofu in a side restaurant.
It reminded me of Uganda food; plain/weird/not so nice taste, with a foreign texture – best not to sniff it either!
Later, Emma joined me, and I tried palming it off on her – she tried a little, but we had to leave a half filled bowl :/
Back at the hostel, we got chatting to one of the other lads, and with him, went for a night-time explore, wherein we took some drinks in an old tea house, over looking the hillside town and sea, discussing China and travels.
Monday: Sandiaoling Trail 三貂嶺
I finally got through to my bank and I had money!
We took the bus back to Ruifang, then found the bus stop to the cat village. Naturally the bus was covered with cats!
The Cat Village
The cat village was small but nice, a series of ‘streets’ stacked on the hill side, wherein it seemed everybody had decided to own a cat. It wasn’t exactly over running with the fuzz balls, but every shop had things cat related, and so we stroked some cats and grabbed a snack in a cafe, bought some postcards and then took the train a few more stops.
Emma had heard about a waterfall hike we could take, and it began by having us walk along the railroad tracks! Under the exposed sun, it was tough going, but soon we turned off it and began uphill under the shade of the trees.
It was a pretty quiet hike for the most part. Early on we saw a waterfall from a distance, crossed a number of rope bridges and by lunchtime climbed down past the “do not climb down” sign and were paddling in the shallow waters – some fellow hikers even offered me some boil in the bag rice which I gratefully scoffed down!
Then we were at the top of a waterfall, overlooking the valley, and climb various terrains; from some metal stairs to a rope and log ladder.
As was becoming usual, we were a little lost, but came across some handmade signs for Shuifen, which was home to a recommended waterfall – ideal! This way our path became more following the roads, and maybe an hour later my thirst was being quenched by a sweet nectar from the shop next to the waterfall.
The waterfall was kind of anticlimactic. It was essentially a building site, with noisey builders working on making new viewing platforms from which to see the falls, along with a number of tourist posing for photos – far from idyllic!
Shifen Old Street
By now we were getting hangry, so continued into Shifen, a small town that, like Pingxi attracted tourists based on the premise of customising and releasing paper lanterns into the sky from the train tracks, between trains arriving and departing.
The tracks at Shifen
It was mostly a single street that lead down to rows of shops on either side of the tracks, with old ladies sat on benches outside houses presumably discussing the world and maybe us.
It was getting dark, and a storm was rolling in, so we looked to find a restaurant we could eat in – no luck for my veggie friend!
We spent a little time looking for a bus, and drinking a few beers as it began to round and we found the bus stop and waited. Exhausted, the weather miserable, we sat on the bus and road back into Taipei.
Sunset over Taipei
Reaching Taipei, the weather had cleared, and so we took a gamble on climbing Elephant mountain to watch the sunset over Taipei and behind Taipei 101, picking up a delicious bagel and beers en route, before having to race up the slopes to catch the sunset. We were sweaty, but happy.
Photographers love dusk on Elephant mountain
Without the excitement of the sunset, the way down was dark and tiring, but not long after we were settled back into the hostel, drink in hand, watching a film on the projector screen.
Tuesday: Wuliaojian – 五寮尖
Determined to make the most of our final full day, and not be left hiking into early evening, we set off at 6am for our hike South West of the city in Wuliaojian, travelling to the end of the MRT, then catching a taxi to the beginning of the hike.
After setting off a few dogs as we passed, we began the long ascent up the incredibly steep road, it must have been nearly 50° incline at points.
Finding a map near the end of the road was were the initial confusion began. We attempted to go right, the more direct path to the peak, but found workers, cranes and vans blocking our path, and they seemed to gesture that we couldn’t take this path.
We double backed, spotting some hiking tags up a small path, and set about following this, only to find the path disappeared and we lost confidence in this ‘path’.
So in the end, we took the only other path available to us.
Even still, it wasn’t the path we had expected, and soon found ourselves passing through a man-made bamboo forest, and heading out much further west than anticipated – it was going to be a long day!
After getting some directions from a man, we knew where we were on the map, and began the longing loop path up the mountain, climbing near vertically at points! After a few more crossroads, where at we rung out our shirts and snacked, and a few more ups and downs, we began the rockier sections of the mountain. Exposed to the sun, relying on ropes to guide us up, it was a real adventurous hiking style!
Without the trees obstructing the view, we could see all around us, and spotted a peak much more similar to the ones we’d seen in photographs…
Which may explain why we never reached a huge exposed ridge with ropes and guides – oh hey ho!
The final peak was a vertical climb assisted by ropes – on the way down we took the rickety old ladder and wooden-rope ladder – much faster but a little hairier!
Not ones to back track, we continued our circular path, rather than return they way we had come – in the end, this turned out to be quite a flat, slippery, tree lined route, which I was glad we hadn’t traversed at the beginning for boredom!
After a time, we spotted some vans and work men in the distance – we’d looped all the way round and come from behind the men that had told us to go back earlier in the morning!
By the time we got back to the main road, it was only a bit past 12! The early rising had done its job! We asked a shopkeeper if they could book a taxi, and soon were we riding in a swish black car to the station, and back into central Taipei.
Visiting Longshan Temple and its market
Arriving back at the hostel and showering, we decided to have a bit of tête-à-tête time, discussing life, the universe and everything, then setting out for the Longshan Temple and its market.
The temple was surprisingly busy, though a strange mix of worshippers/practitioners and people taking selfies, but with the flurry of incense, and rich woods and golds, it was enough to create a longing to belong and accept the falsities of religion.
Next to the markets!
Maybe we went to the wrong areas, maybe we were too early, but the night markets weren’t much of a sight to behold. Though totally different to Shilin market of the first night, it was more just empty, with small wooden stalls and metal frames, and I remember a lot of offle…
Grabbing some free internet at 7-Eleven, we looked for the famous toilet themed restaurant – Modern Toilet.
Having spent the best part of an hour finding it, we arrived a bit after nine to some bad news – it had stopped serving food – but at least we had the photos!
A craving for western food, combined with the guarantee of vegetarian food, lead us to TGI Friday, taking me back to the memories of spending many a meal and session drinking cocktails in such a place with an ex-girlfriend!
Whilst you can take the JETs out of Japan, you can’t take the Japan out of the JETs and we googled for a karaoke place; we were in luck!
“Storming through the party like my name was El Niño…” Karaoke
We soon discovered Chinese karaoke isn’t exactly the same as Japanese karaoke…
We booked in for a hour, with the price seeming a little high, but we wanted a laugh! As it turned out, part of the cost was a drinks order, so had credits with which to buy beverages – 6 honey beers it was then!
The other major difference is the paper book from which we had to choose songs, and the limited number of Western songs. Japan had spoilt us with the latest hits, new songs every month and a full back catalogue of classics. We have maybe a 100 songs to choose from here!
Thinking about it, this wasn’t so surprising.
Chinese/Mandarin/Cantonese don’t have phonetic alphabets. Each character has a sound, and a meaning, but you have to know them. Japanese and English both have phonetic alphabets. In Japan, western lyrics can be approximated by the phonetic scripture. It’s meaningless, but you can read and sing.
But in Chinese, you would have to choose characters purely for their sound. This would make nonsensical sentences, since each sound and character within itself is a word. Then you’d have to decide which of the same-sound-character you would use, and then expect people to be able to sing this nonsense.
The other alternative would be to translate the song and set it to the music – hard work, expensive – so why bother?
That god I’m in Japan!
After buying a second hour, we had nearly exhausted the playlist, and so set out for a cab back to the hostel.
Wednesday – Home Time
Another delightful breakfast at the Sleep Dragon preceded us checking out and heading to Taipei 101.
Taipei 101 had, at one point, been the tallest building in the world, and was based aesthetically (and probably philosophically) on bamboo!
We’d heard about the Starbucks inside the main business tower and wanted to check it out. Alas, this Starbucks required you to make a reservation! The plan scuppered, we created a new plan of checking out some museums in the Expo park area we had walked around on our first night.
After the first few were shut, we ended up the at the Art Museum. One thing I like about Emma, is she doesn’t dilly-dally, so we could hit the works at quite a pace! It showed a real variety of old to modern Taiwanese art, through to modern pieces that explored the effects of climate change and our advancing society and the consequences of it.
It being lunch time, we headed to the stalls around Expo park to munch on some delicious food.
Shortly after that we parted ways. Quick and without ceremony, it was weird to think that we may never see each other again. Between geography, and some personality clashes it seems likely to be the case, but equally it would be a shame not to spend time with somebody with strong conviction, and unafraid to speak their mind.
Arriving at the main station, I felt a lil like a meerkat as I popped out of a number of underground exits from the station and I looked for the bus stop. Then I was on the bus, phone charging, rushing through row upon row of highrise flats, listening to a bleak podcast on the life of a man who’d been sentenced for murder and 17 years old, and was now in his 40s in prison.
Getting back to Japan, I had overlooked the times, and would be arriving too late in Oita to get the final train back to my town. Thankfully, the JET network is expansive, and I was able to find somewhere to lay my head, before having to depart at 6am, and go to straight to school from the train!
Another exhausting, but enjoyable holiday! Bring on Hong Kong!!!