Like the good exchange students we are, of course we travel! Who would stick to just Korea when you have gone all the trouble to drag your rear to Asia.
First we were thinking of visiting a friend in Beijing, but ignorant as I was, I didn’t pay attention to Chinese visa policies before my departure from Finland – to get Chinese visa in Korea your alien registration card needs to be valid at least six months from the day you apply. So no China.
Next we wanted to do something totally random so we were looking for cheap flights to Okinawa, Mongolia and Hawaii. Turned out there are NO cheap flights to those destinations. Lotta managed to find very good deal from EVA Airlines, from Incheon to Taipei – only 250 euros per person.
In Korea all the guys have to serve in the military and do re-training every year (or every two years or whatever). They invite guys to re-training by university and major, on different dates. My class happened to be on Wednesday 4th May and my classes were canceled. Thursday 5th was Children’s day, a national holiday. I don’t have classes on Tuesdays and Mondays I only have one class. So basically I only missed Friday.
We left for Taiwan on Sunday afternoon. Shuttle bus from Suwon Hotel Castle to Incheon cost 12000 won and took 40 minutes. Normally it takes over an hour. We had plenty of time to do stuff at the airport – like exchange money (which was a good idea since our cards didn’t always work with Taiwanese ATMs and they don’t take cards in most shops) and visit the Korean culture center. We got to Taipei airport around 10 PM and took a bus (125 tw$) to the main station.
Lotta booked us a hostel (Taiwan Mex) and it was very conveniently located – five minutes walk from the main station and the same from Zongshan station. The area is very cool – full of contemporary art. Very, very cool. On our last night me and Dara found out why, while drinking beer in front of one cool building – it was the Museum of Contemporary Art, right next to our hostel. Too bad we didn’t realize it earlier.
Taipei has a lot to do: endless temples, beaches, hot springs, night markets, and shopping. We did mainly everything.
Taiwanese temples are amazing – and it amazes me how actively Taiwanese people practice the religion. I saw monks and nuns everywhere (and envied their comfy clothes) and all the temples were full of worshipers, incense, flowers, fruits, cats, music and color.
To be honest, we missed all the “real” beaches, but I’m not a beach person anyways. I saw the sea from the train window, and we spent one night drinking beer on the riverbank in Danshui. Lotta and Anouk went to hot springs, I was too tired and I regret it now. Read more about hot spring visit from Lotta’s blog (in Finnish).
Night markets were certainly worth experiencing. We were very lucky to have Joanne and Christina, two Taiwanese girls, as our guides in Shilin Night Market. It’s known of food, and food there was. Many, many, different kinds of foods and surprisingly large variety of vegetarian stuff too – as in everywhere in Taiwan. Gotta love Buddhism.
Right from our hostel starts a complex of never ending underground malls, filled with similar stores with similar products and similar prices. Compared to Korean sales personnel, Taiwanese have the touch in sales – they don’t disturb you and stare you to death, but when you need to buy something, they can actually speak enough English to get things rolling. And their fashion is cool. The thing that bothers me in Korea is that everybody here looks exactly the same. Nobody wants to stand out. I loved the variety of body types, hairstyles, color and fashion in Taipei. Loved it. And I liked how they were open to rainbow people and I saw a lot of androgynous girls and guys, so me neither had to stick with skirts and high heels. And I loved it even more when I was able to find my size everywhere. So obviously I spent like a maniac.
We happened to walk by Mitsukoshi department store at eleven, opening time. Good thing Lotta was with us, since she had experience on Japanese department stores, so she wanted to wait and see what would happen in Taipei when they open. Whoa, creepy, creepy! The doll like women bowed simultaneously, walked like robots and opened the doors for customers, who rushed in to be greeted by all personnel, neatly dressed, bowing and bidding you welcome. Freaked me out.
Wonder what happens in Taipei 101 when they open in the morning – they only have high-high class brand shops there so I guess they have something similar too. Why I went there? Well, to access the Taipei tower you need to walk through the whole shopping mall. The bookstore is worth the visit – a crazy selection of books in English. Taipei 101 is worth a visit of course – for the cute guys working there if nothing else. And it’s a perfect spot to check how they manage traffic in Taipei – they have a lot of cars, I can tell. And scooters!
Me and Lotta didn’t want to stay in the metropolis area, so on Tuesday we took a train to Hualien (3 h), from where we took a bus to Taroko Tourist Information Center (1h) after waiting for it first for 2 hours… So even though we left Taipei at eight, we were in Taroko at 3 PM. We randomly chose one of the trails to follow, the Shakadang trail. Here, pictures:
(Btw, it’s the local bedrock that makes the water look like that)
(Honestly, everything was like from Ghibli Animation – like the Totoro leaves here)
(Or like here – suddenly, in the middle of the jungle, we have steampunk!)
We got back to the Info Center at 5.30 PM, when the second last bus was supposed to leave. It didn’t show up, nor there were any other people around. The last bus was supposed to leave at 7 PM so we waited. And waited. Took some pictures. Waited. It became dark. Saw fireflies. It became pitch black. Saw Totoro. Heard monkeys going wild. Waited.
The bus never showed up so we started walking towards any light we could see. Luckily we run into a young (cute) guy, and pleaded HAELP! The dude had as good English skills as my Swedish skills are – understand but can’t speak. But he was helpful, and called his friend who was also very cute and very fluent in English, and a cab. With brief changing of contact information we parted ways. They stayed (they work for the National Park) and we went to the nearest station – where we waited another two hours for the last train. But no worries, Family Mart is always open, so we had food and beer and we saw a giraffe. Look:
Oh yeah, one more place we visited. Near Taipei Zoo starts the Maokong gondola, which definitely is worth riding. There are many sights on the way, but we rode all the way to the mountain to taste some tea and eat our bento.
So my advice for Taiwan travellers:
a) Go for it, it’s awesome!
b) Go for it, it’s affordable!
c) Go for it, you get by with English, effortlessly. Easier than in Korea.
d) Take your hiking gear with you, there is a lot of nature worth seeing!
e) For day trips, leave early and check the timetables from locals.
f) Buy the Easy Money card from metro stations. Public transportation is cheap and easy and with Easy Money you can also pay in convenience stores (and get a discount), rent bikes, ride the Maokong gondola and who knows what else.
g) Exchange some money beforehands. Most places don’t take cards, but you can withdraw money in convenience stores.
h) Go to tea shops – they let you taste the tea before you buy it.
i) Go to night markets – they give free samples.
j) Watch out for mosquitoes, I’m still itching!
k) Don’t be surprised by the Jpop and Kpop influence.
l) Honestly, the Traditional Crafts Market or what ever, south from main station, is not worth your visit. Or maybe it is if you want to buy expensive cheap stuff in a clinic, AC’d environment, listening to lounge music. But that was the only place I was able to find a paper umbrella :>