Monday, December 30, 2013

Made in Taiwan (Part 1)

[ Many procrastination. So long tiem. Wow.

I wanted to wait to post this until I'd uploaded and edited all of the videos properly, and wow, that's taken almost a year. Also, I was wrong about only being able to go overseas once in 2013. Hah! ]

Oh yay, time for another 6-day-vacation-to-an-awesome-place post! Since I have so much crap to pay off I'm pretty sure my summer trip to Taiwan is going to be my only overseas excursion this year, but that's OK. Doesn't matter, went to a tropical paradise.

The precursor to this was that post about everything that was getting me down about living and working in Korea, and I'd been so apathetic that I couldn't even be asked to plan my own vacation. I mean, that's pretty bad, right? Not to mention totally out of character for me. I barely even looked anything up online, and when I left was one of the only times I've ever dozed off during a takeoff. 

Halfway through the flight my eyes suddenly snapped open, and I was like: "GYAHH, do you need a visa to get into Taiwan?! ... I would have seen something, someone would have mentioned it. I've got an American passport, I'm sure it's fine. -nods off again-" 

Yeah. It was bad.

What isn't bad, though, is how easy it is to get to Taipei from Seoul. The express train to Incheon is very comfortable, convenient and calm. I'd left almost 5 hours before my flight just to make sure I'd have plenty of time, and watching the early morning sun shining through the misty, peaceful landscape of small rural farms, clusters of woodland and the occasional city or industrial area was very pleasant indeed. Plus, getting on and off the train makes you feel like you're in the future. It involves fancy elevators and subway gates that open in a way that reminds me of airlocks.
The flight itself takes less time than the bus ride to Gangneung, only 2 1/2 hours. 

Day 1

Approaching the island, it really felt like an adventure once I saw those dramatic, jagged rocks carpeted in greenery jutting out of the sea. It wasn't entirely unlike a scene from one of the Jurassic Park movies. While the plane was circling over Taipei before landing I saw a couple of enormous marigold roofs, which I later found out were the tops of the National Theatre and Concert Hall. 

The buses to Taipei Main Station in the heart of the downtown area leave the airport every ten minutes and only cost around $4. 
The Hello Kitty pastry shop in Taipei Main Station

When I got to the station, I found out where the lockers were so I could stash my stuffed backpack while just wandering around Taipei without having any idea of where I was going. It cost about a dollar to keep it in a large, perfectly safe locker on the floor below the main floor of the station for around 7 hours.

I picked a direction from the station and just started walking. It was hot as balls, but not in a disgusting way like in Seoul. The air in Taiwan (and even in Taipei) is cleaner, as it's less densely-populated, surrounded by water and subject to frequent rainstorms. It was like a sauna, yes, but I didn't feel like there was a perpetual layer of filth on my skin or like my lungs were weighed down by warm, dingy, oxygen-depleted soup. It was a cleaner, brighter, tropical heat. Instead of pollution-laden grey haze that settles over everything, limits visibility substantially and makes you feel like you're in Silent Hill, there was only normal fog that rolled in from the ocean.

The direction I'd picked happened to take me straight to the National Taiwan Museum, which is over 100 years old and has a lovely colonial feel to it because of the architecture. Having a good guess about what it was when I saw it but not being completely sure, I did my best to find food before checking it out. I ended up with a side of fried tofu and a side of water spinach at a little fast food-type restaurant, and then with sour and salty pickled plum tea, which I'd mistaken for something fruitier based on the picture. Both were extremely cheap.

I was also amazed by how cheap entry to the museum was: 67 cents. So of course I was like, yeah, fuck it, I'll check this out. They had a couple of stuffed dugongs in the front along with a number of other preserved native animals in simulated habitats, a quipao (or cheongsam) exhibit, environmentally-oriented photography of Formosan island landscapes, and stuff about aboriginal Taiwanese culture, though all the placards and everything were in Chinese. I'm not sure what the Alice in Wonderland-esque rabbit courtier statue near the door signified, but it was neat, too. 

Some of the traditional aboriginal tattoo designs. I
especially like the little stick dudes with spears.

They're big on papercraft in Taiwan, as you might expect from the lovely novel people who brought the world bubble tea and pet cafes. I got crab and pink Formosan deer papercraft cards, a really cute Asiatic black bear bookmark and a couple of postcards to send home from the museum gift shop. These, too, were very cheap.

Immediately behind the museum is the Peace Park, which has some really neat pagodas and is quite beautiful all around. There was a solitary old man feeding pigeons in picturesque fashion. I walked through the park and to one side, having seen a few glimpses of tall and important-looking buildings through the trees. The only thing governing my choice of direction was the thought, "Oh, there's something big, I'll go toward that". 

It's not easy being this stunning. Take notes, ladies.

I walked past the Presidential Office Building, which is opulent and heavily guarded in a very twentieth-century kind of way. The entire time I was walking around, all I could think was that I felt like I was on the set of one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or in a Tomb Raider game.

When I finally caught sight of Taipei 101 in the distance via a long main street that broke the treeline, I said, "Ah ha!" and went toward it. That's how I ended up coming to the National Theatre and Concert Hall. 

The scale of these buildings is just really stupid. The only ones I've seen that made me feel the same way are the Met in New York and the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest. Hence the sort of befuddled look.

The gardens that surround these buildings are quite beautiful, as is the Chi'ang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. At the time I didn't know what it was, or if it was even him or Sun Yat-sen. I took several pictures of this trying to capture the scale of it as well. The stairs alone are about four stories high. I kind of wish I'd invested in a nice DSLR before going so that I could have much nicer images, but oh well.

What I also didn't know was that there's a ceremonial changing of the guards at the Memorial Hall every hour on the hour, and that I was there in time to see one. Keep watching or skip ahead to two minutes for the best-looking bit.

I went to the edge of this enormous complex and along an ornate wall that was also a covered walkway, skipping what I only noticed was in the bottom of the Memorial Hall - a library and museum - once I was a ways away from it. 

Knowing that Taipei 101 was too far to walk to after I'd already been wandering around in the heat as long as I had, I just took a taxi. The driver was very friendly and spoke more English than I expected him to: after I'd been in the car a good 6 minutes, at a red light, he languidly started the meter. I gave him a look and he slowly turned around and went (read this in your best "Ancient Chinese secret, huh?"  voice): "Eheh. Forgot to... push... the button" with a silly smile. So I said not to worry about it and that I'd give him extra. It was only a dollar anyhow. 

Taipei 101 doesn't look that tall unless you're either very close to it or you get a good view of it from a distance and from higher than street level; nothing in between. I wasn't impressed at all until I was standing under it and said, "Wow, that's pretty fucking tall" out loud. 

I get the gum, food and dogs part, but I'm 
not sure why you can't have yoyos or roses 
in your backpack..
You can't go into the main building itself; it's an office building. I'm sure plenty of idiots like myself try to wander in every day. A young, handsome, friendly, English-speaking (that's right, lock up your sons, Taiwan) guard stopped me, being conspicuous as I am, informed me of this, and told me that I had to go through the mall annex to get to the observation deck, if that's where I wanted to go.

One of the three expensive things of the entire trip, going up there is around $20. I was like, screw it, when am I going to be back here to stand at the top of the tallest stack of take-out boxes in the world, anyway? 

They give you a coupon for shaved ice with mango and a scoop of mango gelato on top among other things, so I went ahead and had one since I love mango and was really hungry. 

Something I'd never seen from the top of an extremely tall building before was a construction site in motion. The backhoes were so tiny and cute-looking, smaller than the Micro Machines I had as a kid. They looked like dots with sticks attached and moved around like clumsy insects. The lush green mountains that cut into the cityscape and big banks of monsoon clouds looming in the background set the view apart from that of other cities; I definitely recommend going up and taking a gander. 

And, of course, on the outdoor observation deck, Rule #1 is No Jumping.

As promised, there is indeed and enormous wind damper insider the tower as well.

The Taipei 101 mall is the hugest, fanciest, priciest mall I've ever seen. Every big name is there, from Louis to Ferragamo to Cartier, and in enormous shop spaces. The design itself is cavernous and impressive. I went to a really neat collectors' shop called Toy World, and I'll just say that I'm glad they didn't have the Nano Block alpaca I found on display, 'cause I would have bought it. I got a couple of Rody Horse goodies for a friend, a couple of Sanrio cookie mascots and smirked at their model Godzilla and Mothra destroying model Tokyo Tower. There were also really cute gourmet macaron and cupcake kiosks.

Outside there are these walls that look like Lego blocks and light up when it starts getting dark.

Actually, most of them seem to be Asian

I eventually found my way to Keelung after wandering through labyrinthine underground shopping malls all confusingly and erroneously labelled "Bus Station", wondering after a while if someone had just chosen the wrong word for the English translation. It took me ages to find the bus terminal I needed, which is separate from the main station and not labeled anywhere in plain sight.

Steph's directions turned out to be really vague, and I had to call the women at her office and have them help me explain which bus stop I needed. The very patient woman behind the desk wrote a note for the driver, who had me sit up front so he could tell me when to get off. As I was leaving Taipei, I also got a photo of the average number of scooters stopped at every traffic light. It's mind-blowing. Why don't other big, crowded cities have this many? It'd be so much easier:

Nothing was really open by the time I got where I was going because it was about 10 P.M., but scootering down to the night market was a blast. I'd never been on a scooter before. We didn't have any luck finding anything vegetarian outside of some fresh fruit and ended up just having some French fries at the big 24-hour McDonald's in downtown Keelung.

Day 2
The first of many surprisingly nutritious 7-11 breakfasts. My favourite thing was definitely
 the little trays of fresh-sliced papaya. Nom
In the morning, before Steph had to go to work, we scootered to Yehliu, a famous coastal "geopark" with cool volcanic rock formations called hoodoos. We had a great time wandering around there and even went to a couple of little beaches where, instead of sand, the ground was comprised of endlessly interesting and varied pieces of coral, shell and sea glass. 

Don't these ones look like weird blobby creatures?

Growing right on the beach with the amazing multi-sand.

When Steph did go into work, she showed me which bus to take, gave me her transit card, and I spent the afternoon wandering around downtown Keelung and laid down the first layer of what was to be a super gnarly sunburn. 

First I went to a Thai restaurant Evanuska had showed me before and ordered mushroom and mixed veggies in curry sauce, an order of fried tofu and mango juice. So, all the food. I needed a meal. 

This corner brought to you by: 'Murica

Then I went to the big cultural centre at the main wharf next to the cruise ship dock - which had a surprisingly nice collection of very recent local artwork - and had a lovely conversation with a painter who lived in Canada for 11 years, who seemed very surprised that I lived in Seoul. She visited once and didn't like Korea or Koreans that much. Apparently a lot of Taiwanese people talk shit (though in a really nice, polite way) about the Koreans and Chinese, but absolutely love the Japanese. It was the only country, I think, that was willingly occupied by them. They just kind of went, "Oh, ok, sure" and let the Japanese build all kinds of infrastructure and run the place for a while. Seems like a pretty good deal. To this day it's a popular Japanese tourist destination, and things like anime and Japanese snacks are ubiquitous.

This one's made of thread. Neat, huh?

After that I wandered around the little back streets downtown near the main market looking for a pair of comfy cotton pants. I found lots of slutty clothes shops and a sex shop, and who I'm fairly confident were prostitues shopping there. Instead of pants I ended up with a sleeveless cotton dress and a thin, flowy navy blue skirt with a stretchy waist that can double as a dress. They were each around $10. 

I popped into the most prominent temple on street level (not the one you can see behind the rainbow building on the hill) and then tried a Green Tea White Chocolate Pudding Frappuccino from Starbucks (which wasn't so great) before heading back. 

We went into Taipei for dinner and ended up at a California Pizza Kitchen across the street from Taipei 101. We shared a spinach and artichoke dip and I had a lychee martini and roasted vegetable salad while Steph had a pina colada and Sicilian pizza. We were pretty tired, so we got the last bus back without going anywhere else. I do so much drinking in Korea, though, that it was actually super refreshing to just go back and sit on a couch (when was the last time I sat on a sofa?) with someone and watch Futurama. And interrupt the more recent Battlestar Galactica with genuinely surprised but extremely inconsiderate interjections about how terrible the camera work is. ;>_>

Day 3

This time we scootered to Jinshan and into Yangminshan National Park to visit a hot spring before Steph went to work. It took us a while to find it and I very sadly somehow lost the video I took of an incredibly ornate temple in the middle of a field next to a small village as we went by. Throughout the park you can see steam rising up from the hot springs at certain points on the mountains.

There's one main road with lots of little turn-offs to different hot spring, hiking and hotel destinations, and the one we were after is one of the few that's still out in the wild (well, kinda), not enclosed by a building. It is on the property of a large, beautiful resort, though.

Going to the hot spring was a bit of a trek, but it was beautiful. There were caterpillars, butterflies and incredible views everywhere. Taiwan truly is a tropical paradise. It's also super hot, and by that point I was carrying a crappy black umbrella to avoid getting sunburned any further, if it was even possible to achieve a level of crispiness over 9000. I don't think you can get heatstroke twice in the same year.

As we told a rapidly-tiring Singaporean family we passed on the way back down, the trek was totally worth it. The springs, welling up with their characteristic pungent volcanic odor from somewhere beneath the rocks, combined with the cold water from a small waterfall. People have simply blocked areas off with rocks to create a sort of terraced series of a few pools, which get progessively cooler the further down you go before just turning into a very shallow, rocky stream that winds through the jungle. Yes, seriously, as far as I'm concerned: jungle

The waterfall was really powerful and cold, it was so refreshing.

For some reason it was also caterpillar city. I don't know why, but the stupid little things kept falling in and getting washed away.

Afterward, when Steph had to head off and teach, I got some hot delicious lunch and then went to Waimushan beach and just floated in the cool water and vegged out on the sand. There are lots of cute little fish swimming around, and actually, quite a lot of little purplish jellies getting through the safety net. 

I don't know why, but that steamed pumpkin was SO DELICIOUS.
Just looking at this makes me want some! There's also tofu, water
spinach and steamed broccoli.
This guy had the right idea. 

I know, I saturated the shit out of these, but you could barely see
the thing and now they look cool.

Looking up at the craggy jungle-covered mountains and the steamy island in the distance, I thought, "I really am in a tropical paradise. Only a year ago I was staring up at the sky like that in my old apartment swimming pool wishing I could be somewhere else".