Or “Wishing Lanterns sent into the Heavens”
When we set out on our journey some 9.5 months ago all we had was time. A vast ocean of it, that spread far, far away into the horizon. Its vastness was so great and undefined that it was almost incomprehensible of what we would do with all the free time we had on our hands. I mean, 11 months of travelling, how can you really know at the beginning what to do with it? So with this vast sea of time in front of us we had set out into the lands of the American Midwest, never thinking that at some stage in our travels we would actually reach a point where we could start to see the end of that ocean of time.
Yet here we are, having reached the last day of our fabulous time in Taiwan, a country that I had absolutely no idea how it made it on our list, yet ended up being one of my most favourite ones. We had reached the point where we could already see the end of our journey, not in the distant future along the shores of “Spring 2013”, or “yeah, we got almost 6 months left”. Nope, the time had come where the saying “Last this” and “last that” was in fashion, and with that piece of knowledge I shall return to the actual point of this blog, which, funnily enough is not to philosophize about mankind in the shadows of fleeting time, but of our journey around the globe...
So we had reached our last couple of days in Taiwan and really wanted to spend them outside the city. The weather was on our side, sunny skies greeting us in the morning. Unfortunately it was Sunday and as we had already found out, the Taiwanese love the field trips into nature on the weekend. And not only was it weekend, but it was also the second memorable day of the Lantern Festival, which would mean that every spot that was even halfway touristic would be overloaded with people. We didn’t want to spend our day wedging ourselves into some Taiwanese hotspot only to get a 5-second photo opp window before being pushed aside, so we decided to take it easy and headed to the former residence of Chiang Kai-Shek and its surrounding park, assuming that not many people would opt for this venue on this summery day.
As it turned out, although it was not as packed as some other places, it definitely was not empty. Several tour busses on their way to Yangmingshan National Park had made a brief stop here as well, and as the masses entered the park we thought ourselves lucky that we had decided against going to one of the more touristic places. The tour busses continued on their merry way after a while, leaving us, and a few dozen other locals, to enjoy the park and walk amongst the various ponds.
Since we aren’t really museum freaks we haven’t visited too many of them on our journey so far, but since the day was starting to get quite hot and the promise of an air-conditioned venue seemed more appealing by the minute we took the MRT to the Fine Arts Museum to get a little...ahm, culture, into our heads!
Whilst some of the art was lost on me (I don’t really ‘get’ modern art with all its quirkiness and weirdness), there was local artist Hsin-yueh Lin who actually had some very realistic and colourful paintings of Taiwan scenery and countryside. There were also some various slightly more “deranged” paintings of skeletal fish and gnarly trees, howling to a black or red moon, but these I presume are connected to his somewhat unlucky orphaned childhood.
Although our legs were tired (museum walking, like shopping and standing at a football match, is exhausting to your thighs!), the amount of people that had gathered in the nearby Expo Park had us intrigued. Where there are so many people, there must be food, my common sense told me, and my tummy concurred that thought. Indeed it was only minutes later that I found myself in these very common situations in Taiwan.
(In case you’re wondering, yep, that’s boar pig meat – don’t ask me what part although it does look like you know what and some delicious meat of unknown origin that was grilled with white and green onions and had a FANTASTIC flavour to it...)
All around us were lanterns in the shapes of the Hakka tribe. Although it wasn’t dark yet, they were still beautiful to look at.
Suddenly, in the midst of another mouthful of explodingly delicious meat we heard...well, how should I put it, amazing music!! Apparently one of the Hakka people had such a radio phonic voice that he took up singing and guitar playing....and the outcome was awesome!
It even had some of the elderly intrigued, whilst others were moving their hips and legs in harmony with the music.
I cannot write about this afternoon without mentioning some of the more ‘unique’ appearances. The Taiwanese love their dogs, so much in fact, that they like to take them everywhere. But whereas normal dogs like to walk, these ones like to be 1) carried 2) put in ‘dog-strollers’ and 3) dress up!
Hansel and Gretel seem to have found their sidekick :-)
With this cute image in our mind we left the park and headed back home as the next day we were planning to head out of Taipei in the hopes of leaving the masses back at their work desks and universities.
It must be said, that this was our second attempt to reach the town of Pingxi, the first having occurred on Valentine’s Day, which was also the first day of the Lantern Festival. Let’s just say that getting onto the platform was a feat by itself, let alone getting near the train...
Serves me right for not taking my gal somewhere romantic and I must say, that you would be right! I did, however, try to regain my sweet romance but buying cake and a very refreshing chocolate smoothie... :-)
Our second attempt was on a Monday, supposedly the day when everything was back to normal and as per locals “empty”. As we boarded the train that would take us to Ruifang, the station where we would need to change trains, I sensed that the Taiwanese word “empty” must have another meaning in English, as the train was packed with students, who, as it turned out, had another week of vacations and used that to...fill up my personal space!
But we succeeded in getting on the second train this time, mostly due to the fact that the Taiwanese have no problems in sticking 100 people where only 50 should fit in. Since they are all super-skinny and have no breasts I guess that their assumption in calculation “personal space” is adequate. I just tried my best on the one hand not to get butt-handled, and on the other not to let my hand move too much around me, lest one of the girls think I was doing something inappropriate. God only knows how Ronni survived the trip :-)
We got off at Shifen station where town and tracks had bonded to form an interesting harmony where the train passed the houses at a mere distance of maybe 1.5 meters. Some of the shops were also built so that you could buy something without ever leaving the train. This was probably connected to the history of coal mining that was present here until the 1920’s.
Our main focus was actually not the village itself, but its nearby waterfall. And since the Taiwanese don’t really like to walk too much, and to reach the waterfall one had to walk 40 minutes each way, we quickly found ourselves almost alone on the path which was refreshing and slightly weird as we didn’t know where everyone from the train had vanished to...
After a while we reached the waterfalls and were quite impressed with them. Although not the highest we had seen so far, only about 20 meters or so, they were quite wide and the surrounding scenery gave them a majestic and noble appearance, which was only enhanced by the rainbows.
I found myself mesmerized by the beauty of the waterfalls, or maybe just the fresh, cool drizzle of the water that cooled the sticky sweat on my forehead...who knows?
We did enjoy the landscape and moreover, the quiet and remoteness of the place, which was only 40 minutes from the train station and the village, but felt like somewhere else in the country.
On our way back we passed near the tracks and here I got my trifecta, all in one shot; bridges, train tracks and mountains... :-)
Oh, and a small waterfall as an encore to the first one!
Next in line was the village of Pingxi. Mostly known for its “Wishing Lanterns” I really have no idea what happens here on the other 345 days of the year. But, already upon leaving the train we saw the first “Wish sticks” hanging on the wall, memories of people past, evident in the present.
By now we were both tired and hungry and would have killed for a Starbucks or even a French Brasserie...unfortunately we were in Pingxi, where the word Starbucks might mean Pigsty, or Pigmeat, but there was nothing of that sort to be had, so we settled for a fresh popsicle and a small bench somewhere along the narrow alleys of the village! And yes, people took pictures of us :-)
Having gotten a little strength back we entered one of the many shops and got ourselves our own Wishing Lantern. You can choose the amount of colours you want the lantern to be, the more colours, the more glorious it would be. We chose only red, the lucky colour of the Chinese, which was enough for us. Ronni dived right in, writing in Hebrew and adding some drawings, whilst I added the German language, just in case the fates above are not fluent in Hebrew...
This was the outcome of our masterpiece and the time had come to set it free.
Fire was lit underneath it, and slowly our lantern gained height and volume and my fingers started to feel uneasy...
So off it went, high into the heavens, our wishes hopefully picked up by someone who speaks more than just Chinese.
But I can think of no better way to end our stay in this beautiful country than with one of their own traditions, up in the mountains...
So this is Taiwan’s Report Card -
The language barrier: We had our doubts before coming to Taiwan. We worried that we would be lost in translation and that we would find ourselves stranded in some distant ditch with no way of communicating to the people. Whilst that almost happened in Longtou (where we were saved by a local and his truck), most people speak some sort of English, and whatever is not understood with the spoken language can be bridged via theatrics (as my “Chicken dance” and “vomit explanation” clearly showed). There is a chance that you won’t know what you’ve ordered, and that once you get it, it doesn’t look at all like the picture in the menu. But as long as you remember to say “small spicy” I think you will be fine. I mean, we survived, didn’t we?
The food: If there is one thing that the Taiwanese like to do all day long, it’s to eat. I mean, I have never seen people eat so much food anywhere else. They eat street food all the time, then they seem to go for a quick makeshift local diner buffet and end up at a Raman place in the evening. The markets are filled with all sorts of tasty and disgusting unknown dishes, and for the brave ones, weird dishes like deer penis wine can be obtained...I think that we have eaten more street food here than anywhere else, and except that one time Ronni got food poisoning (due to my shaved beard), we not just survived, but loved the taste of it. So when in Taiwan, come with an empty stomach!
The landscape: Whilst Taiwan has no real world wonder, no real mind blowing scenery, it does boast some beautiful places that can compete with many of the touristic hot spots on the globe. Alishan in the morning, the mesmerizing landscape of the mountains around Sun Moon Lake, the forests and jungles around Taipei; all just a stone’s throw away.
The people: I think that this is the main reason why I loved this country so much. The locals here are one of the friendliest I have ever seen on our travels. Their curiosity of the world is like that of a child. Everywhere we went people asked us where we came from and seemed intrigued by what had brought us to their country. Many locals wanted to help us find our way when we seemed lost and offered their help to bring us where we needed to go. Although English was not always spoken, there was still a real warmth coming from them as they saw us walking amidst the masses in the markets, or MRT, or local trains. Mothers getting their kids to practice their English on us, elderly people who learned English from the Japanese wanting to know where we came from and how we liked the country, or just plain people looking at us like we were the most interesting celebs in the world.
The shopping: One cannot write a report card about Taiwan and not mention their shopping frenzy. They seem to be shopping ALL THE TIME! In markets like Wufenpu, in street stalls in Ximen, in malls, in tourist markets, in shops. There is no down time with the Taiwanese and any excuse to go shop is acceptable! This is how even I found myself back on the shopping spree, but with the prices that can be found, it would be irresponsible not to!
Bottom line: In essence, I had no expectations of Taiwan. It was merely a spot in Asia that was as similar to China as one could get without the hassles of China. But the warmth of the people, the uniqueness of the country and the sheer curiousity by which foreigners are met, left me all warm and fuzzy on the inside. Although I really want more people to discover this beautiful gem that lies not far away from China, I secretly also wish that the tourist masses never discover this country, afraid that it would then lose its most desirable aspect – the warm friendliness of its people.
Good bye Taiwan, and thank you for a wonderful time!