Taiwan [week 3]

Week three began with a 6.1 magnitude earthquake whose fifteen seconds of bed shaking were sufficient in waking us both up at 4am fearing for our lives. A less tangible jolt arrived later in the week with the start of Chinese new year celebrations, a spanner in the works of our travel plans as the price of accommodation and transport skyrocketed or just sold out completely. After some tactical rerouting, we now find ourselves back where we began three weeks ago, in Taipei.

From Kaohsiung we travelled south to Kenting National Park, the notch at the base of the giant sweet potato Taiwan is said to resemble. On our second day there, we hired electric scooters and zipped silently around the park in a sixty kilometre loop.

We stopped at various scenic spots along the way, including some dramatic coastline converging towards the southernmost tip of the country.

The scooters were fun and less terrifying ridden in the countryside compared with the chaos of the cities. I was stuck with the florescent pink one.

Other stops included the Gangkou Suspension Bridge, which didn't really go anywhere.

The town of Kenting itself was a crowded hive of souvenir shops, exhaust fumes and hundreds of buses unloading Chinese tourists into overpriced restaurants. We didn't stay very long.

Back at the hostel in Hengchun, we met some local hotel workers who were keen to showcase some Kenting cuisine at the nearby night market. The red scrolls in the photo were part of a makeshift pet shop which could be selected at random if the buyer wasn't sure which animal they wanted. This ethically questionable pet roulette could land you with anything from a goldfish to a python.

We feasted on steak and noodles, BBQ chicken heart, tomatoes dipped in sweet ginger sauce, dried squid, and papaya milk, before enduring appalling Cameron Diaz romcom "The Other Woman".

On Sunday we thought we'd give hitchhiking a crack, an idea that seemed quite scary and unrealistic before we arrived in Taiwan, but one that has gradually strengthened in appeal over the last two weeks the more we've got to know the Taiwanese.

Sure enough, within 20 minutes we were picked up by a family in their van returning home from holiday. None of them spoke English besides the eldest son Brian, who acted as translator. They were amazing people who, against our polite insistence, bought us lunch, which we ate together at the park.

For dessert we had locally-grown sakyas (or custard apples), green capsules of sweet pulpy mess which required some tutoring to eat correctly.

The next couple of days were spent in Dulan, a small village on the northern outskirts of Taitung. We did almost nothing in Dulan and relished it, reading books and writing my blog during the day, and drinking cheap beer with the other hostel guests at night.

The reason behind tiny Dulan's inclusion on the backpacker trail of Taiwan stems from its abandoned sugar factory, which nowadays functions as an art gallery and concert venue. It struck me as being the sort of place you might find a masked villain from Scooby Doo operating.

We had originally intended to press further north on Wednesday but checking hostel prices online made us reconsider. It was Chinese new year's eve and the prices had more than doubled in preparation for the influx of Taiwanese and Chinese vacationers making the most of five consecutive public holidays. After some painful deliberation, we decided to backtrack and return to Kaohsiung, where we knew we had somewhere cheap to stay. Emboldened by our previous experience, we decided to hitchhike again.

Once again it took less than 20 minutes before we were moving. Our new chauffeurs, a married couple visiting family for new year, were as friendly as the last but this time spoke no English whatsoever. Towards the end of the ride when communications were particularly strained, the woman called her English-speaking sister to act as translator.

The sister let us know our drivers intended to stop in Wanluan to pick up some last minute gifts before continuing to Kaohsiung, and made sure that was okay with us. The gifts turned out to be a special variety of pork thigh only available at this particular market stand in Wanluan. Five heavy bags of the cooked meat were purchased, one of which was given to us, along with a pair of wooden ornaments for new year. I love Taiwanese people more every day.

We arrived in Kaohsiung late in the afternoon without any idea of what new year's eve generally entails. After some fruitless googling, we gave up and started watching a film instead. At 11pm, our Couchsurfing friend Rita got in touch inviting us to spend the evening with her friends. When we arrived, they were all drinking tea prepared by expert Mister Chang. The process was long and ritualistic, involving several kettles, cups, filters and other tools I had never seen before. It was an honour to watch the master at work, and the tea was obviously great.

Minutes before midnight, we headed to the local temple where hundreds had already assembled below a canopy of red lanterns.

Glowing incense sticks were distributed into the crowd, with everyone encouraged to make a wish.

At midnight, there was a short ceremony in Chinese which involved lots of coordinated bowing, followed by a short but intense fireworks display. The ones in this picture were far away but the majority were set off in the street directly behind the crowd by crawling temple volunteers.

The gates of the temple were then opened, having been locked shut for a day preceding the event, and everyone slowly filtered in.

Traditionally, there is a mad rush to the alter in the belief that the earlier you deliver your incense stick there, the better luck you will have that year. To improve safety and fairness, temple volunteers instead collected everyone's sticks and delivered them to the alter simultaneously, thereby blessing everyone with equal luck. A future safety measure might be to not light fireworks metres away from a large crowd.

The final task was exiting the temple past a gauntlet of smiling volunteers handing out snacks and miniature golden envelopes each containing a lucky $50 coin, whilst loudly proclaiming "gong xi fa cai!" to each passer, a new years greeting which literally means "congratulations, get rich!". I loved the whole experience and I'm very grateful to Rita for inviting us foreigners along.

The next day we accompanied Rita and her family to Cishan, a township thirty minutes inland from Kaohsiung where we hoped to see the new year's parade.

The entire town was packed with revellers which made it very difficult to get around, and the parade never materialised, perhaps also a victim of the swarm. While it was fun hanging out with Rita and co, the experience convinced us that attempting to see new places over the next five days was probably a bad idea.

So we decided to return to Taipei and stay at Susan's place for negligible rent while the fuss died down. Faced with a choice between the 6 hour standard train and the more expensive 1.5 hour high speed alternative, I decided to splash out as a new year's gift to my inner railway nerd. Thundering across the country at 300 km/h was brilliant, something that doesn't seem like it should be possible on land. And before we knew it, we were back where we started.

Taiwan [week 2]

Taiwan is a relatively small island with a mountainous spine dividing its large population between strips of flatland on the east and west coasts. The vast majority live on the west, in cities so populous and confined they blend into one another. This extreme urban conglomeration gives Taiwan the title of third most densely populated country in the world, just behind Hong Kong and Bangladesh (and discounting silly places like Guernsey). Our first two weeks here were spent descending the crowded west coast, beginning in northern Taipei and concluding in southern Kaohsiung.

On Friday we waved goodbye to our friends in Taichung and caught the train to Chiayi, where we stayed for a single night in a cheap hotel.

Chiayi's fame amongst tourists derives from it being the gateway to the Alishan Forest Railway. This elderly railway was built by the Japanese in 1912 to service the various logging towns in the Alishan mountains, but more recently its cargo has switched from timber to tourists.

It climbs 7000 feet in three-and-a-half hours across some pretty awesome terrain.

Typhoons swept away large portions of the railway five years ago and they're still in the process of rebuilding it, so instead of going all the way to Alishan, the railway currently terminates halfway at Fenchihu, a formerly sleepy mountainside town nowadays overwhelmed by its disaster-induced fame.

We stayed in our first ever Catholic hostel, a quaint grouping of red and white buildings complete with a chapel and nuns.

Our dorm was fairly basic, with beds consisting of duvets and sheets spread across the hard wooden floor. This actually didn't make much of a difference as Taiwanese beds tend to feel more like tables anyway.

We spent the afternoon tracing various boardwalks through the beautiful forest.

Back at the hostel, we got talking to a Taiwanese/Australian couple familiar with the area who offered to give us a tour. We ended up sharing dinner in a tiny "restaurant" in the back of someone's house, an assortment of homegrown vegetables with the usual rice and tea.

Strolling around the village before dinner, our new friends commented that remote communities like Fenchihu can sometimes feel a bit frozen in time. They pointed out this blue sign, which translates roughly to "get the land back", old nationalist propaganda relating to Taiwan's ambition to reclaim mainland China from the communists, a goal that seems slightly unrealistic now.

The following morning we had coffee at another small family operation. The guy grew and roasted the coffee himself (we could see his plantation twenty metres down the road) and it was delicious.

He kept the unroasted and roasted beans on display.

Later on we caught the return train to Chiayi, then a second to Tainan, the historic capital of Taiwan.

After a single night in perhaps the worst hostel I have ever stayed in, we were airlifted to safety by cheerful locals Joseph and Kitty, friends of Susan. They kindly agreed to share their cosy 11th floor apartment with us for a couple of nights. Avid planners, they carefully plotted out everything we needed to see, do, eat and photograph during our stay in Tainan with military precision.

We began ticking items off Joseph and Kitty's list, starting with the Taiwan Confucian Temple, the oldest of its kind in the country. I was already starting to feel "templed out" by this point, but really enjoyed this one.

Another was a well-hidden cafe only accessible via an extremely narrow alleyway (not properly visible in this photo), rendering the overweight effectively barred.

Fort Provintia was built by the Dutch during their brief rule over Taiwan. Clearly resentful towards their colonial masters, the Chinese spitefully and hilariously named it "Tower of Savages" or "Tower of Red-haired Barbarians". It was later surrendered to the Chinese, destroyed and rebuilt as "Chihkan Tower", though a few bricks of the original Dutch construction remain for tourists to feel underwhelmed by.

Inside, hundreds of parents of local schoolchildren had photocopied and pinned their child's student ID cards onto a special wall, hoping for divine assistance with upcoming exams. 

We spent the next day in Anping, a former Dutch trading post and the oldest part of the city. Hundreds of wooden fishing boats lined the jetties at Fisherman's Wharf.

A popular tourist attraction is the so-called "tree house", an abandoned warehouse overcome by a giant banyan tree.

It was very cool.

Later that evening, our hosts drove us to the Chimei Museum, which was closed though spectacular to walk around at night.

Kitty insisted we pose for a photo with someone else's dogs, a confusing experience for everyone involved.

Afterwards, we attended yet another night market, where Sam bought an ice cream she could have won sword fights with.

Before catching the train the next morning, Kitty put together a delicious parting banquet of pork sausage, marinated egg, dried tofu, kimchi, and rice with chocolate cake and wax apples for dessert. 

Our final stop for the week was Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second largest city.

We arrived just in time for the weekly Couchsurfing drinks, a rare opportunity to socialise with other western types, most of whom were in Kaohsiung teaching English. Beers were the equivalent of £1.

The next day we visited the most futuristic shopping mall I have ever seen.

We also visited "The Lotus Pond", an artificial lake around which several temples have been constructed over the years.

The temples varied in architecture and decoration, from ceilings covered in unthinkably detailed wood carvings depicting legendary battle scenes, to the sort of brightly coloured plastic animal statues you might expect to find vandalised at Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach.

Just outside one of the temples was a stage with a karaoke machine. We sat for half an hour watching a group of presumably retired men taking it in turns to select a song and perform, while the others slouched on plastic chairs, smoked, danced, or slept. It was so brilliant to watch because of the shear range of singing styles, abilities, and general levels of enthusiasm on display, which ranged from impassioned melodies and wild gesticulating, to walking off the stage before the song had even finished to continue the cigarette being held throughout. Each performance topped the last, and it was perhaps our favourite experience in Taiwan yet.

Even the nonparticipants were entertaining, from Fast Asleep Man, to Obsessive Plant Photography Man.

The next day, we visited the Pier-2 Art Center, a old warehouse turned creative outlet for local artists. You had to pay to get in the main exhibition so we just visited the stuff outside, which included this cool nest structure.

Some of it was a bit more weird.

That afternoon we climbed Shoushan, also known as "Monkey Mountain" for reasons that soon became clear.

Formosan rock macaques are Taiwan's only species of primate, besides us. They were great fun to watch.

With so many people crammed into such a small space, air pollution was always going to be a problem for Taiwan. You don't really notice it from the ground (except during sunsets where the sun disappears behind a thick haze before it can reach the horizon) but from height it was very obvious.

Free tea stations could be found at special checkpoints along the trail, a lovely idea sadly hijacked by some extremely territorial macaques.

This complete bastard swiped at me when I tried to dispense some tea using the special tool designed to prevent the monkeys from draining the kegs themselves. An old Taiwanese man watched the confrontation and threw a rock at the monkey, which did the trick, and we were able to drink in peace.