Well hey, Blogger!! Haven't been on you in a while! I had a wonderfully amazing time in Xiamen spending time with new and old family and learning about my roots. I come from some really awesome people and it makes me very proud :-)
I'm currently in Taipei, Taiwan and absolutely loving it!! Since I've been slacking with the posts, here are a few separate snippets about my time here so far.
This city is unlike any I've ever been to. Below are some factors that contribute to my adoration of this beautiful place:
The Taipei metro is fast, cheap, convenient, accessible, clean, and super easy to navigate. Scrolling marquees in both Chinese and English make getting lost difficult. Before you even enter a station there are screens outside the gates indicating whether a train is about to arrive or has just left, so you never have to run frantically to the platform only to watch your train pull away from you. There are lines on the platforms to organize people entering and exiting the trains, and what's even more fascinating is that people actually abide by them! This was an immediately noticeable difference from the metro in Shanghai where everyone is constantly pushing and shoving their way on and off the trains in utter chaos. Children, elderly, disabled folks, and pregnant women are not spared any courtesies on the mainland. Chinese people on the mainland are in a constant struggle with each other because there are just SO many people EVERYWHERE. It's no wonder they've inhabited a fend-for-yourself disposition. But Taiwan is miniscule compared to the mainland. The entire island has only 23 million people compared to the mainland's 1.3 billion people (not to mention the glaringly obvious difference in land mass), so it's only natural that there would be differences. Plus Taiwan is democratic! So for example, with escalators, everyone (I mean EVERYONE) stands on the right side so that people can pass on the left. While this is also common in America, it is more a theory than an actual practice. And here, priority seating is always followed. There are often empty seats on the subway cars even when there are several people still standing. I've never experienced a city with people who are so cooperative as those in Taipei. Bus systems, especially in foreign languages, can be overwhelmingly confusing. But bus signs and routes here are very clear (also in Chinese and English) and are pretty easy to understand. If subways and busses weren't enough, there are also cheap, fast trains that cover the entire perimeter of Taiwan. Easy peasy lemon squeezy! Also there are clean bathrooms in every metro station. I feel like I haven't seen that in other cities, but maybe I haven't been paying attention?
To piggyback on transportation, it's incredibly easy to access nature from this modern city. Just hop on a metro line and ride it til the end and you will be only minutes away from outdoorsy wonders including hiking trails, hot springs, and lush mountains. No need for a car to get your nature on here!
Two words: street food!! It's cheap, delicious, and, unlike some other areas of Southeast Asia, Taiwan's street food is not likely to divert you to spending half a day on the porcelain express. $5USD will get you plenty satiated at a night market. If you've had enough of foods that have been fried and skewered, just walk around and you'll undoubtedly come across a variety of international restaurants to choose from, also very affordably priced. Taipei offers the same diversity of cuisine available in Hong Kong but without the dent in your wallet.
History and Culture
Museums? Art? Temples? Monuments? Shows? Artifacts? Festivals? It's all here!!
OK so let me tell you about a glorious day I had here.
I took the metro in the morning to Xiangshan station and walked about 0.5km to the base of Elephant Mountain (there was excellent signage). I spent almost 4 hours hiking (and not leisurely) around the mountain and didn't come close to covering even 1/4 of the trails. These are well-paved, well-signed trails that satisfy explorers of all ages and skill levels. Some may scoff at the artifice of groomed steps instead of rugged rocky terrain, but a smoother path does not necessarily mean a less arduous hike. I personally loved seeing a number of elderly people dedicated to what seemed like a routine trek for them. I got winded throughout my journey (and I'm a triathlete, damnit!) and was impressed with their nonchalance and perseverance. A non-paved path would surely result in less people able to enjoy fresh air and exercise in such beautiful scenery. There are points along the trail with exercise equipment, even a barbell with weights!
There are tons of side spurt trails for those looking for more of a challenge on a less populated path, and I took my chances on one of these outliers. I'm so glad I did because I eventually discovered a very steep path that had knotted ropes to climb up large mossy rocks! It was like rockclimbing, but without the security of a harness. Before I committed to the climb, I realized that I was very much alone. I hadn't seen anybody on this side path and I was at least 30 minutes away from the main path. If I fell or slipped it was very likely I wouldn't be found for a while... I could hear my mother's voice in my head urging me not to risk it, but I shook it off and decided that this was my do-one-thing-every-day-that-scares-you moment (shout out to Baz Luhrmann). So up I went! In retrospect I feel like it really wasn't that scary, but I was actually a bit shaky when I reached the top! I was rewarded with a beautiful view of Taipei101 that was blemished by an enormous spider resting in its spectacular web. I went up a bit further, feeling very cat-like; if there is a higher place to go, I wanna be up there! I almost laughed out loud when I saw what was at the very top: IT WAS THE MAIN PATH!!!!! Miffed at the sheer thought that anyone would take the easy way back down after such an exhilarating climb, I promptly turned around and went back down the ropes course! It was much less scary going down, although that might be because I actually put away my headphones on the descent :-P
Feeling wonderfully accomplished, I made my way back down the mountain with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. I hopped back onto the metro and only rode it one stop to the Taipei101 station. Walked a few blocks to Eslite Bookstore, which is a large chain with several floors of books, shops, and food. I had lunch at a vegetarian place that used a plate-by-weight system (like Whole Foods' cafeteria). At only $109TWD (<$4USD), I was thoroughly full. I wandered around the bookstore a bit, but it wasn't like Borders or Barnes and Noble. No big comfy couches or chairs to post up in and get lost in a crisp new cookbook (my personal go-to). Instead there were only hard chairs or benches and most of the books were sealed with clear wrappers to preserve the mystery of their contents. It was crowded, noisy, and cold, so I went back out into the steamy city streets.
I took the metro from Taipei101 over to the Taipei Zoo station to catch the gondola up to Maokong. The gondola costs $50TWD (<$2USD) to the top and another $50TWD to come back down. It takes approximately 30 minutes each way and has a few exit points along the way for tea and temples. I spotted a rooftop restaurant at the top and went straight there to settle in for the sunset. To my surprise I was the only one there for a good while. Granted, I got there around 17:30, so a bit early for dinner, but still. With a view like that I'm shocked it‘s not packed 24/7!
I stayed for a couple hours reading and soaking in the view. Ordered fried noodles (kinda like Pad See Ew) for $100TWD (~$3USD) and it was almost too much food. Sunset was around 18:30 and was absolutely marvelous from Maokong. What a great way to wind down the day :-)
Today I had a nice turn of events. After just missing the bus to go the a national park, I botched that plan and explored Shilin instead. I meandered along the Keelung River, which was lined with a long bike path, rugby fields, and softball fields. I then went past the Taipei Astronomical Museum (which I did not go to because I decided that I have to wait and go with my aerospace/astrophysics best friend!) and noticed a sign that said something like "Science and Physics Park." Say what? It was like Sci-Trek... OUTSIDE!! Tons of interactive structures all over! Very very cool.
I then went along a perpendicular river and it was smaller and quieter. The bike path continued on along this river, but there were no more sports fields. Instead, locals with fishing poles dotted the riverbank. I sat and relaxed on a bench under a bridge for a bit to enjoy the shade and the breeze. A group of tandem bikers came and took a break under the bridge as well. Some of the bikers were escorted to the benches and had walking sticks. Half of the bikers were blind! The group leader made an announcement and was given a plaque from the group. He started crying as he spoke to the group and it was so so moving. How wonderful that this group enables blind people to experience bike riding in a safe way! And how rewarding it must be to give someone that kind of experience. No doubt they do it voluntarily. Does this kind of organization exist in the States? If not, it really should, and I want to be a part of it!! I was so glad I got to witness this special moment. I love how even despite language barriers, so much can be understood by one another. So much of what is communicated is through body language and facial expressions, not specific words, and I've experienced that so fully on this trip.
I stayed there on the bench under the bridge for a while after they left, almost paralyzed by their compassion. Call me naive or sheltered or even my mother, but I will always believe that people in general are good. I know we get exposed to so much negativity and cruelty with the news and media, but when I am out in the world and I see people helping each other, in small and big ways, it's powerful. When I pay attention and I disconnect from my phone, my iPod, my tablet, and other distractions, I see so many little gestures. From alerting someone of an item dropped to assisting with lifting a heavy object to giving up a seat, these are all meaningful acts of kindness. Yes it's cliché, but they make the world such better place, and I feel so grateful whenever I witness them.
People helping people. That's what it's all about, guys :-D