Taiwan (Sep 20- Oct. 1 )
A week later we were in Taipei, scheduled to stay with our couchsurfing host Yuying, a retired teacher who was great fun. She said she could pick us up from the station where the airport shuttle drops you off. All we had to do was go inside the station and call when we got in.
But by the time we got into town, it was 1 am, raining, and the bus had dropped us off by the side of the station where they were doing construction so the doors leading into the station were blocked. We found a 7-11, which was not hard since they are on every corner, and spent a good half hour trying to figure out the payphone's card system until eventually a nice man let us use his cell phone, and even gave us money for a cab. This was our introduction to the wonderful friendliness of the Taiwanese. They are so great.
We spent a few days in Taipei over which we did some walking in the hills, the usual touristy bits like the night market, a temple or two, etc. We managed to meet up with Raman Frey of Frey Norris Gallery from SF, our former roommate and Seoul Brother (Valerie and Raman had met in Seoul a few years back.) Now Raman was in Taipei on bidness, checking out the art scene after a jaunt to Beijing in which he managed to buy about a billion pounds worth of gallery catalogs- each the size of a coffee table book. How he manged to get them home I will never know.
Anyway, Raman speaks some Mandarin so Yuying taught him how to sexually harass people in Mandarin, which I forget but the translation is "I want to eat your tofu." Given that Taiwan's national dish, Cho Dofu (stinky tofu) is the nastiest, stinkiest most toilety thing you can imagine, this seems like a pretty hot pick-up line.
Here we see Valerie chowing down on some Cho Dofu.
From Taipei we headed down to Taichung, a college town of sorts and stayed in the expat-chic digs of Dane, Theresa, and Ugo who were excellent hosts. After getting drenched in a downpur, they took us to a BBQ for the moon festival where we sat on little plastic kid's stools which broke under our weight. We cooked on a tiny square grill on the sidewalk, where everyone normally parks their scooters so you usually have to walk in the street. During the moon festival, BBQing is done all over the city, while people set off illegal fireworks. Actually, even barbecuing is illegal apparently.
Later that night we drank in the park with some of the neighborhood teenagers. The leader of the gang, whose name means Fish, is in a death metal band called "Cheese." In Mandarin, it sounds like "go to hell." He'd rather sing speed metal, but his guitarist only likes death metal. Fish taught me some Spanish, having spent a year in Costa Rica living "La Vida Pura" (Pure life.)
A few days and towns later we took a narrow gauge train to Alishan, a mountain that the Japanese had logged to death during their occupation of Taiwan. They replaced most of the thousand or so year-old red Cyprus with Cherry trees. Now there are signs posted that it is an artificial forest. It is still beautiful however. As you go up the mountain you pass tea plantations where they hand pick oolong. The train passes through 3 climates- "Torrid," (Tropical?) Warm and Temperate. The "temperate" zone is nice and cool, a welcome respite from the horrible heat below. At the top it feels like being in Santa Cruz, except instead of the Redwoods, they are Red Cyprus. (There are still a few left.) Apparently, the train is one of only 3 in the world that reach the top of a mountain.
So, the big tourist attraction at Alishan is to take the train up to the top of the peak at 4:30 am and watch the sunrise. You get packed into the train with hundreds of Taiwanese tourists who seemed to come out of nowhere. Everyone pushes and shoves to get into the train even though everywhere else in Taiwan they cue up like civilized human beings. With everyone packed in, the train just sits there on the platform for twenty minutes while you get asphyxiated by the diesel exhaust even though they claim it's a steam train. By the time you reach the top of the mountain, it is already light out, though technically the sun has not risen over the peak. Tour guides scream into megaphones as the hordes snap photos. It's patently absurd.
But Alishan has it's charms. We stayed in a great little guesthouse run by a Taiwanese tea baron and his family and took a walk through the Red Cyprus along a wooden walkway that led us past little shrines and over suspension bridges and what not. If we lived in Taiwan, I'd want to live in the mountains.
After Alishan it was back to Taipei, where for some reason we decided to stay at a cheap hostel that the rough guide book recommended instead of calling Yu-ying who said we could stay with her again. Big mistake. It was nasty- the bed was a dirty foam slab on a box spring and you could just feel the bed bugs jumping on you, even though apparently there weren't actually any bedbugs. There was however a giant cockroach, so we slept with the lights on. The next night, we were supposed to stay with this guy Neo, an event planner who has toured California and Kentucky as part of a cheerleading squad, but we demurred because we had to leave for the airport very early the next day. So we left the squalor of the hostel for the relative luxury of a two and a half star hotel which was worth every penny of the NT$1200 (about $50 USD.) Except for the schtinkwasser coming out of the tap, it was grand.
All in all Taiwan wins for friendliness, food, and convenience. It feels like a cross between Japan and Vietnam in a way. There are scooters everywhere, but you can cross the street. There are vegetarian restaurants all over the place which are quite good and usually pretty cheap. It's also inexpensive and easy to get around. The best part are the people, however. Taiwanese are generally warm and friendly and are not out to rip you off. If you look lost, they will help you, even if they don't speak English. If it weren't for the humidity, I could easily see us living there and learning some Mandarin.
Next Up: Japan...