Away in Taipei

My travel experience has taught me that a trip without hiccups or mistakes isn’t a good trip.   It is easily forgotten if not hard to remember.  A trip that went all well and good is harder to remember the full details.  It’s like nightmares where you remember mainly the bad ones and the good ones leave a good feeling only.  Well, my last summer trip to Taipei was nothing short of hiccups and mistakes for a life to remember.

Towards the end of August, I still had a handful of days left for school summer vacation.  I did not want to waste time by staying at home til my work schedule started for the new school semester.  Along with my two mates, A and N, we felt Taipei was a great place to visit as it is very close to Japan and cheap to get there. We agreed to a 4 nights 5 days holiday in Taipei. Planning and organizing this Taipei trip was a challenge.  4 nights and 5 days did not feel like a whole heap of time, but I wanted to make this trip as active, as entertaining and adventurous as possible.  I had traveled to Taipei before and seen the amazing city twice already.  Hence, I made it a mission to plan this trip where I could visit and see more nature and rural areas.  After a bit of research and digging around for travel tips, I managed to put forth a plan.  Along with that plan, flight tickets and hotel bookings all locked in, we were set.

Day one of the trip kick started with a bang. We booked the first flight out (at 5:55am to be exact) for Taipei. I slept at the airport because it was impossible to find budget and timely transportation to arrive in time for my flight from my apartment in Japan. I took the last train from my apartment at around 10:30pm to arrive at the airport at 12:30am.  I didn’t have much fuss with the trains and everything was going to schedule.  While I was sitting on the train, I texted my friends my estimated arrival time.  Friend ‘N’ replied with “Me too.  See you soon at terminal 1”.  I replied “International terminal (in case you get confused) is what you are after”.  Friend ‘A’ replied back with a response saying she was hungry and we should get Mos Burger at the airport.  I agreed and friend ‘N’ responded with “Ahh there’s Mos Burger at Narita?? Sounds good”.  My heart dropped after reading that message. I texted back “N… It’s Haneda airport.  You ain’t going to Narita are you?”.  Dear God I thought.  The first hiccup of the trip had happened. N was making her way to the wrong airport.  She was already half way there and it was 11:30pm by the time we realised.  Transportation options to Haneda airport from where she was was slim and potentially expensive. Somehow N managed her way to Haneda without having to pay any high transportation fee.  The first hiccup managed to get resolved without causing any major issue.  With this, we were on to a great start for this trip.

Flying to Taipei was nice and smooth.  We passed through immigration and picked up our bags to be ready for our adventure.  To make things easier, I had pre-purchased online a local sim card with data to help with navigation.  All that was reminding before we headed to the hotel was to pick up the sim card.  I had to go to a specific wifi/router counter at the airport terminal with a printed copy of my receipt. The lady at the counter needed to see my receipt, verify with my passport as well as take a copy of my passport. She also installed and activated the sim card for me.  With the sim card in place, the three of us made our way to the hotel using the airport bus – very convenient and cheap.  The plan was to drop off our heavy luggage and go exploring.  In no time, we arrived at the hotel and tried to check in.  The hotel staff asked for my passport as the booking was under my name.  Reaching into my bag for my passport, I realised something very very strange. Being as calm as possible, I re-searched my bag a few more times to make sure.  No, it wasn’t there.  The second hiccup of the trip had happened. I could not find my passport.

I closed my eyes and thought real hard to try and trace back when was the last time I saw it.  The wifi/router counter at the airport.  The shop assistant didn’t give it back to me after she took a photocopy of it.  The hotel staff were very understanding and used ‘A’s’ passport to check in.  By myself, I took a taxi to the airport.  It was an hour trip so on my way, I tried to get in contact with the staff members at the wifi counter using the phone number provided on my purchase receipt.  I got through except I was connected to someone in the company based on Hong Kong.  After a bit of explaining, the lady on the line promised to help and call me back in 7 minutes of any news she had.  After 7 minutes, I got a callback.  She said to me the counter didn’t have my passport.  I felt sick to the stomach.  I asked the lady to please confirm again and she promised to do so.  The taxi driver who was taking me back to the airport saw how stressful I was and offered me a bottle of water. It was so kind of him, but I was way to sick to drink anything.  I kept on checking my bag and playing back the moment I last saw my passport.  Finally, arriving at the airport, I ran to find the wifi counter.  The shop assistant recognised me and immediately passed me back my passport. The word relief could not describe how I felt when I saw my passport.  The company lady from the Hong Kong office called my phone a few seconds later and I was happy to share the good news.  With my passport all safe and sound, I took a taxi back to the hotel.  A, N and I had not slept for more than 24 hours by then. We were exhausted. We all agreed to call it a day and sleep.  The first 24 hours of our trip had started with a bang.

The hiccups in the first 24 hours of the trip did not disrupt the plan I had put in place for Taipei.  We started the next day in Taipei with a fresh start.  First, we went to treat ourselves to a Taiwanese breakfast.  We headed to a place called Yong He Soy Milk King (永和豆浆大王).  We got to try their signature drink which was a soya bean drink.  The breakfast we had were panini-like bread wraps with fried egg and crispy congee-bread.  It was really different and delicious to any other Asian breakfast I had ever tasted before.  Aside from us, there were many other foreigner customers there too which indicated to me we had indeed come to the right place. After a satisfying breakfast, we adventured to our first destination – Tamshui.

I chose to explore Tamshui because I had read from a blog that Tamshui was a lovely wharf area with some interesting old street markets to explore.  It was a bit out of Central Taipei.  It took a bit over an hour up north-west on the blue subway line.  When we got there, there was no markets open, yet.  Looking at my watch, it was around 11am. We had arrived too early for the markets.  I should have known that shops wouldn’t been open until 12pm or 1pm.  So to kill a bit of time, we sat ourselves down at the closet Starbucks.  It was a pretty good decision because we got to chill for a bit with a nice cup of coffee while looking at a beautiful river view.  Time passed and we walked towards the old streets markets.  Looking at the map, we realised that Tamshui Wharf was a bit further down the river.  If we walked, it would of been about another 30 minutes.  The sun was scorching hot, so we opted to take a boat cruise there which was a great way to enjoy the river scenery.  As we approached our boat cruise destination, we saw a tall white suspension bridge. The bridge was the main attraction at Tamshiu Wharf.  It was Lover’s Bridge.  Why? I have no idea. Tamshui Wharf was relaxing to walk around, but I would say it may be more entertaining during late later afternoon onwards or in the evening.  Lots of nice restaurants and shops were there. It somewhat reminded me of Southbank back in Brisbane, except nothing was open while we were there yet. Also, because of Typhoon season, some parts of the wharf was closed off.  In total, we spent a good 2.5 hours just walking around Tamshui.  Despite all the typhoon warnings, the weather was perfect for us that day.

Next stop after Tamshui, I took us all to a place called the Millennium Hot Spring.   It came highly recommend by many of the blogs I read.  We took a subway from Tamshui to the station closet to the hot spring.  The walk from the station to the public bath was much entertained by Pokemon players.  Heaps of them were just standing around in a park that we had to pass through.  Some Pokemon Stampede I found out after.  Once we arrived to the Hot Spring, we were met with some disappointment. The third (much minor) hiccup of the trip had happened.  We were not allowed to enter as we had to bring our own swimsuit and towels to the public bath.  Semi-disappointed, we left.  To make up for the mistake, I took all us to eat a late lunch at Taipei 101.  I took A and N to a restaurant called Ding Tai Fung.  Ding Tai Fung is famous for their steamed Shanghai-style dim sims.  After some yummy dim sims, we did a bit of exploring around the shopping plazas in Taipei 101.  When time hit around 8pm, we made our way go up Taipei 101 and saw the beautiful night view of Taipei.  One word to describe the view – stunning.  Taipei city isn’t an enormous city like Tokyo but it is not short of grace and colours. The night view wasn’t the last thing we did.  Taipei is crazy about night markets.  Our hotel was located around the Ximending district.  Xiemending has a market well-known for its pop culture.  Some even call it the Taipei Harajuku.  So, before we called it a night, we explored this mini Harajuku.  Day two in Taipei worked out perfectly and well.

For our third day in Taipei, we went to explore East Taipei for some nature and fresh air. We took a  two-hour train and arrived in Shifen. The moment I arrived in Shifen, I was in a bit of a shock.  It was completely different to central Taipei in that the train station was very run down, and people could freely walk on the train track.  Based on my travel research prior, Shifen is famous for its old street markets. Lantern lighting is another gimmick Shifen has it going for itself.  I somehow thought the markets and area for lantern lighting would be in some nice temple or open space or some sort.   No, it wasn’t.  The market was small and located on both sides of the train track.  The lantern lighting activity was done on the train track. When there was no trains on the track, people would voluntarily stand on the tracks, freely going posing for photos, while others were playing with their lanterns.  These were human sized paper lanterns.  People would write their wishes on the lantern, lit it up, pose for a photo, get it go and it would float into the sky.  Amazing (if not touristy) idea, but also dangerous because god knows where the lantern really ends up.

The goal to visit Shifen was not just the markets but Shifen Waterfall.  Shifen Waterfall was a 30 minute walk from the station.  By the time we arrived, we were all sweating like pigs.  It was well worth it though.  Shifen Waterfall was not a huge massive waterfall or greatly impressive, yet it was a satisfying sight after a good workout.  Besides the waterfall, some local boutiques, cafes and also a BBQ skewers shop are open there.  I would highly recommend trying the mango shaved ice, some local BBQ skewers plus an ice-cream after the hike to the waterfall. After a bit of chatting and relaxing we were ready for our next destination which was about 40 minutes away.  To get there, train was definitely cheaper but not quicker.  Hence we took a taxi and made our way to the place we planned for our  overnight stay – Jiufen.

From what I had heard, Jiufen is a place that has inspired lots of artists and filmmakers over the years because of its natural beautiful.  I had heard of it and seen some pictures, but like any place, you do not truly know what to expect until you get there. My verdict? Jiufen was magically mesmerizing.  Prior to going, I had envisioned Jiufen to be a touristy area with lots of markets by a bayside area.  I thought it would be on flat ground.   I was so wrong.  Jiufen turned out to be a huge mountain. It was very very hilly.  Our taxi driver had dropped us off at the bottom of the mountain, pointing up to where we needed to be.  He explained that the roads were quite narrow and rules of parking were quite strict, so he could not take us up to the next hill and drop us there.  It was fine really, but again, I didn’t expect to be in the mountains! We kept on walking up and found a tourist information center.  The lady was very kind to give us directions.  We continued walking up but would remember to stop and turn to look at the view.  And what a view we got.  Eventually, we arrived at our BnB for the overnight stay.  And very luckily, we also caught site of the sunset.  We were completely buggered for that day, but every minute was met with great surprises and beautiful scenery.

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I learnt from speaking with the BnB staff that Jiufen used to be called “The Mountain of Gold.” Lots of people lived there back in the day and did gold mining.  But like any mining project, people took what they wanted and left.  It turned into a dead city once everyone left and for years it was a waste land.  However, people managed to re-discover this place and the streets became alive again.  One particular thing I wanted to see at Jiufen was A-mei Tea House. This tea house inspired my all time favourite Ghibli movie, Spirited Away.  Not only the Tea House was an inspiration for the movie, but also the old market streets filled with red lanterns there.  I commend you to watch the movie (and if you are a huge fan like myself you’d be watching it for the fiftieth time) and see how Miyazaki has incorporated this amazing place in it.

The fourth day in Taipei, the morning to leave Jiufen came too quickly.  We had to head back to Taipei city.  Because my friends are a couple of history buffs, I took them to the National History Museum.   The rest of the day was very much spent there.  We topped off the day with more night markets and street food.  It is a sin to not try Taiwan street food at least once.  Duck Blood soup and Smell Tofu technically are the main local delicacies to try.  Sadly, my friends were not game enough to try and hence, we ate more recognisable foods.  Still very delicious no doubt.

For our fifth and last day in Taipei, we took it easy and went to Taipei 101 again to eat at Ding Tai Fung for another big lunch.  I was extremely exhausted not because of a hiccup but because I wasn’t able to sleep at all the night before.  Guess that’s what happens when you travel with mates who either snore way too louder or don’t sleep until late late late a night.  Shopping for souvenirs followed after lunch.  That took a while because Taiwan is very similar to Japan where they take their souvenirs very seriously.  Too soon, it was time to make our way to the airport and go back to Tokyo.

We caught a late flight back to Tokyo so we had to sleep at the airport and could not get back home until the was the next morning which was a pain.  Sleeping at the airport, I was grateful that no more major hiccups happened on the trip after the passport incident. The trip back to my apartment was nice and smooth.  I was ready to unpack, unwind and be ready for the new school week.  Little did I know the fourth hiccup of the trip was ready been installed and ready for me to discover.  I learnt that there was a strong typhoon in Toyko and it had caused some damage to my bathroom window. One just can’t take a breath!

If you ask me, was it an eventful trip? I’d say yes, it was.  If you ask me, did I get to do everything I wanted? I’d say absolutely if not more.  If you ask, was it expensive? I’d say, no it wasn’t and I have no idea why not more of my Japanese colleagues have considered traveling here given how close, easy and cheap it is. If you asked me, would I do it again? I’d say absolutely; but preferably without the any hiccups.

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