Taiwan Feb 26 – March 4
It was a nice 3 hour flight to Taiwan with great views of the entire island and its large central mountain range. After landing I caught the city bus 40km into Taipei (pop 2.6 million) for $5. One of the tigers of the Far East, this is a very organized country. The bus ticket clerk helped me find my hotel on the map and gave clear instructions on dealing with the bus. The only problem is street names have two English spellings – prior to 2000 the Wade-Gates system of Romanization of Chinese place names was used, then it switched to Hanyi Pinyin, the current standard in the Chinese world. I thought my hotel was on Jilong Road but the spelling is now Keelung – very confusing.
My hostel, Formosa 101, is great, close to Taipei 101 and the metro. Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world until 2006, the first over 500m, and the one with the fastest elevators in the world at 1010m/min (37 seconds to the 89th floor where the observatory is). I went up at 5:15PM so saw the city in both the light and dark. It is shaped like a segmented bamboo stalk and a traditional pagoda with eight – eight story segments atop a truncated pyramid. Except for the limited views because of smog, it was worthwhile.
The next day I went to the Longshan Temple. Dating from 1738, it is multidenominational like most temples in Taiwan – Guanyin (the god of mercy) is the central deity but 165 other deities are enshrined. The highlights are a waterfall inside the courtyard, beautifully carved stone columns, intricate roof and gable designs, and a riot of gold and red. The place was packed on a Thursday with incense, throwing ying-yang tokens like dice, and much praying going on. Just down the street is Huaxi Street Market, or Snake Alley, where merchants used to skin live snakes, slit its belly and pass out shot glasses of snake bile. Snake blood mixed with alcohol is still offered. Many shops had live snakes but I believe they are mostly for show now. The metro system like those of all big cities is a dream to navigate with fares to most locations less than a dollar. Taipei is a nice city – clean, no spitting, polite and helpful people, very modern and super organized. People que up and never bypass. They all stand on the right of escalators allowing walkers on the left. Even the motorcyclists are considerate. After the chaos of SE Asia, it is a welcome change.
The tickets for the individual sale for Burning Man went on sale at 12 noon PST on February 26th which is 4AM on the 27th in Taiwan. I woke up at 5:30 and all 35,000 tickets were sold. Piss me off. I had no idea they would go so fast but apparently it lasted 45 minutes. Now I will wait for their STEP program where people give up their tickets for resale but unfortunately vehicle passes are not sold on STEP. I am fairly determined to go this year.
I decided to see more of Taiwan than just Taipei, so organized a trip to the east coast to see the natural highlight of Taiwan, Taroko National Park. I caught the train to Hualien City, the biggest city on the east coast and only 40kms south of the park. This weekend was a national holiday and I was only able to get a standing ticket for the 2 hour and 20 minute ride. The only good way to see the imposing canyon is with a scooter, so as I have never ridden one, it was with some trepidation that I took the plunge. The first 10 minutes driving through the busy city were death-defying but by the end of the day, I was much more confident. The canyon is quite spectacular and is accessed by a windy mountain road with many tunnels and busy traffic. The river cuts deeply through the limestone with narrow sheer walls and a deep boulder strewn creek. I got off and walked through the Tunnel of the NIne Turns with views down to the best, narrowest part of the gorge. I made a real rooky mistake and didn’t fill up with gas counting on there being some in Tienxiang, a town 19kms up the road. With only a tenth of a tank left when I reached it, I decided to go all the way back down the canyon to fill up at the bottom, then drove back up.
The most popular and best trail in the park is the Baiyang Trail just above Tienxiang, which follows an old road built for the construction of a hydroelectric project which was ultimately cancelled to preserve the canyon. A virtually flat 2.1 kms, it goes through 8 tunnels, some long and curvy enough that a light is necessary, but there are so many people doing the trail that it didn’t matter that I had forgotten mine. The highlights are a gorgeous creed and at the end with some tall waterfalls and the Water Curtain Cave. It is actually a tunnel built for the road, that during construction fractured the rock so that it has multiple waterfalls in it. My umbrella prevented my from getting soaked. It rained most of the way home, one of the negatives of riding a scooter.
Seeing as I still had the scooter when back in Hualien, I went to see the Gong Tian Temple. Dedicated to the goddess Matsu, it is massive with two stories, the top being accessed via two grey towers on the outside. This is easily one of the most spectacular temples I have ever seen with wonderful carved stone pillars and intricate painted wood carving, plus effigies of a whole whack of gods. With a standing ticket again for the way back, I was told that seats become available just before departure and was able to access a seat for the return journey. Chinese are very asocial, or shy and never show any curiosity about travelers.
Back in Taipei, I went to the National Palace Museum with exhibits on calligraphy, rare books, painting, ceramics, bronze, and jade. I have never been to a busier museum with huge tour groups of mainland Chinese, especially in the jade section. The metro is a dream to navigate. So after a week in Taiwan, I flew to South Korea to see the sights there. Country #11 this winter.