Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Seven Days in Taiwan

If I had a lot of time on my hands right now, I'd love to sit at my computer and type a novel about my trip to Taiwan last week. But since it is nearly midnight on a Thursday night- and since I am wholly opposed to blog entries that reach novel-like lengths, I'll try to keep this as short as I possibly can.
I have swine flu to thank for this amazing trip...and my fellow travelers, Shauna and Christine, too! We were a bit bummed at first about not booking a trip to some more tropical or exotic location...but with the hassle of flights to Thailand and the Philippines (which require much more than 2 hours' notice to book and plan for), we opted to stay closer to home. One google search of "beaches, asia, cheap" later, we were already set on Taiwan as our destination- and only $200 poorer. Two hundred dollar airfare, a two-hour flight, and tropical beaches for a week- a pretty convincing argument for us to head to Taiwan!
We had googled Taiwanese currency, transportation, and attractions as much as we could in the 24 hour period before our Sunday morning flight. Other than booking a hostel in the south (the more tropical region of the country), and checking on the cost of the high-speed train to deliver us there from the north, we decided to just roll with whatever else happened during our travels. And lucky for us, Taiwan turned out to exceed any expectations we may have began with...if we had any at all, other than the google images of its beaches!
We were all immediately by its difference in landscape from Korea. Landing at the airport in Taipei, we were glued to the windows, taking in the abundance of green fields and palm trees and plants surrounding the airport. No high-rises! No hazy layer of smog between the clouds and the ground! No random patches of rocky, barren landscape in-between the cities! Before we even stepped off the airplane, we were in love with Taiwan. Lush greenery, rivers not tainted by sewage, and even flowers...Taiwan had something very valuable that Korea certainly lacks...NATURE.
And before we even left the airport, we were aware that Taiwan's culture was very different, too. It just felt so relaxed compared to Korea. No one rushing through the airport, or butting in front of you in line, or stopping at every window or reflective surface to check their reflection and fix their hair (yes, everyone does that in Korea- especially men). Maybe it was the warmer, tropical weather...or the abundance of nature and greenery...or just the overall culture...but we immediately found Taiwanese people to be much more friendly, welcoming, and hospitable than Koreans. Not that I haven't had some great experiences with Korean people- I have few complaints about them, and probably much less than a typical Korean would have with any given American! But it was so apparent that the Taiwanese were much more open, much less concerned with themselves, and more willing to initiate acts of friendliness and generosity.
I wish I could describe to you our every encounter with a friendly or generous Taiwanese person...but that would take forever! We met so many incredible people, especially down south where it was more rural. Our hostel owners (Terry, a Canadian man-turned-Taiwanese teacher-surfer, and his wife Ee, a Taiwanese woman) ranked at the top- they were so personable and willing to do anything to ensure a great vacation for us! They even drove us to best, but most obscure, beach in the area- which turned out to be our beach of choice for the week. It was so beautiful- isolated from the rest of the resort town, surrounded by a thick jungle of palm trees, and covered in white sand. We practically had the whole beach to ourselves for most of the days- and we were perfecly content to just set up camp in the same spot each day, with our snacks from 7-Eleven (basically the ONLY option for convenience stores in Taiwan- they're everywhere!) and our sunscreen.
And even on the beach, we met some very interesting people- including a few young Taiwanese who were so excited to see Americans and to practice their English that they ran over to us excitedly and asked to take our pictures. They kept saying, "you're all so cute! You're all so beautiful!" It was funny- we felt like celebrities! But we were also very taken aback at first- that definitely never happened in Korea...people in Korea don't give you much more than a glance, if even that. Americans and other foreigners just aren't acknowledged as much as in Taiwan, or as in China (so I've heard about China- but it seems likely that Taiwan would be similar, since they have a strong Chinese culture and background, too). They also invited us out for drinks with them that night- so much fun!! They were hilarious- and just so friendly! As they helped us find a taxi home later in the night, they all gave us a million hugs, made us promise to "stay in touch" through facebook, and said that they would "miss us so much!!" So funny- but also very refreshing to meet such truly kind and friendly people. We were sad to only have known them for a day before they had to leave!
Our days in the south passed by so quickly- with the majority of the hours spent at Baishwana Beach. When it came time to make the trek back up north, where we would fly out of in a few days, we were so reluctant to leave...and considered just skipping our intended days and nights in Taipei. To think of leaving the jungles of palm trees...the beaches...the open fields...the small towns...a VERY unappealing idea! We were not ready to transition back into city life...not in Taiwan, and certainly not in Korea just yet. We were definitely spoiled by our short time in the south, with its tropical weather, lazy island lifestyle, and our beloved Surf Shack hostel.
Taipei brought us some pretty interesting adventures though, too- and I immediately felt as though I'd love to have another week just to explore that city in itself. It was a very beautiful city- as far as big cities go. You could definitely see that it's a more recently-developed city- the architecture, the landscaping, just the overall urban design were all very modern and efficient. And the subway was laughably easy, compared to Korea's! We visited one of the famous night markets when we first arrived- a chaotic mess of streets and alleys lined with vendors selling everything clothes, shoes, bags, jewelry, tropical fruits, smoothies, puppies and kittens and even pet mice! We wandered through the food building first, which reminded me of the state fair- row after overwhelming row of street food, with every vendor yelling at you to try their squid on a stick, or their stir-fried chicken anus (yes- truly), or their pig liver (again, yes-truly). It was loud, crowded, dirty, and smelled strangely like the swine barn at the state fair. But the food we tried was delicious, hard to believe...but it's definitely for the brave of stomach (and nose).
On our last night in Taipei- and in Taiwan- we visited the 101 Tower. Interesting story how this building got its name...it has 101 floors and is the tallest building in the world! Check out my picture of it above, once again- it looks freakishly tall compared to the rest of the city- and that is not photo-edited, or super-imposed (though it is a picture I got from the internet, ha). Taking the elevator up to the top? No big deal...unless you are deathly afraid of heights, as I am, and unless that elevator also happens to be the fastest elevator in the world. Well....I can still hardly believe it, but I had quite the record-breaking night with our visit to the tower...tallest building in the world, fastest elevator in the world (it reaches the top in just 45 seconds)...and I overcame both of those phobias at once! On a psychology sidenote, it was a perfect example of "flooding" therapy, which is used to help people overcome their phobias. Basically, you "flood" the person with the object or context of their phobia- so that they are forced to overcome the full extent of the phobia all at once. Well, I really outdid myself on that one!!
The view from the top of the building was absolutely amazing...it was a perfectly clear night and not too windy (a hellishly windy night on the top of a 101-story building? No thank you). I was so happy with myself for going through with it- SO worth it!!!!
And we were all so happy with ourselves for taking a risk and heading to Taiwan...it was definitely not a country I had ever intended on visiting, or even knew that much about, aside from the fact that it's in Asia. But I'm hooked on it now- I know I have to go back! Still can't believe all of that happened in just a week.....thank you, swine flu pandemic '09!!!

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