Not warm, not lukewarm—but hot. And I mean that literally and figuratively. I was in Taiwan for four days and four nights with some press people upon the invitation of the Taiwanese government as part of its tourism program. We flew to Taipei on Wednesday and was back in Manila on Sunday.
Quite unfortunately, two of the four days that we were there were the hottest in 21 years. At over 37 degrees on Friday and over 38 degrees on Saturday, one would think it shouldn’t be a big deal for a Filipino who was born and raised in the Philippines. But humidity in Taiwan is a totally different story.
The trip was a learning experience. The first lesson is that you don’t really want to go to Taiwan in July – July and August being the summer months. Your best bet would be around January when the weather is friendlier. That will give you a better chance of appreciating what Taiwan has to offer – and it has a lot to offer.
Second, one ought to stop thinking that Taipei is all there is to Taiwan. Personally, apart from the thrill of taking photos from the 89th floor of Taipei 101, currently the world’s tallest building, I was least excited by Taipei. Still, one has to be impressed with Taipei 101’s high speed elevator which did things to my ears that I nevertheless ignored because I was much too entertained by the images of stars and constellations on its ceiling. As of July 21, 2007, the still unfinished Burj Dubai is already taller than Taipei 101 but until it is completed, Taipei 101 holds the world record.
I felt great entering Taipei 101’s shopping mall area with no security guards poking through my bag nor berating me for taking photos. Gosh, until that moment, I never realized just how much of a hassle – and a violation – those security guards in our shopping malls represent. They inspect your bags, feel you up as though they can spot an explosive device with their token inspections – as though they even know what a bomb looks like, the imbecile fools. They’re more likely to find a snake inside my bag than anything that explodes. Even my cell phone occasionally gets lost in the mess. But, anyway…
When in Taiwan, the third lesson is to think food. There is simply no point in visiting a country and eating only in those Western fast food chains – and they were everywhere. But you just have to ignore them because Taiwanese food is just heavenly.
You have to see the countryside
The main attraction of the Yehliu GeoPark is the rock formations along the coastline. Limestones carved by wind and water have transformed in shapes that resemble mushrooms, candles, ginger and even a woman’s head. Unfortunately for us, we arrived at Yehliu at mid-morning and we had to go through the obligatory video presentation. It wasn’t until late in the morning that we explored the rock formations to take photos. By that time, the sun was directly overhead — not exactly the most ideal lighting for taking nature photos. So, if the colors appear too saturated, you know why.
Between the parking lot and the entrance to the park were stalls selling dried fish and seafood. Not surprising. Yehliu Geo Park is located along a fishing coastline.
I’m just glad I survived the heat.
There are quaint shops in the countrysides that offer interesting items like bracelets with preserved insects. No, it isn’t yucky at all. They are beautiful, actually. I bought two for my daughters and despite their aversion to bugs, they love the bracelets. I would have bought two more for Manila Standard editor-in-chief Jojo Robles and associate editor Chin Wong but, after careful consideration, I concluded that their wrists wouldn’t do justice to the bracelets.
It was the countrysides that I found so captivating. We spent some time at the Sun Moon Lake area, a three-hour drive from Taipei, and it was grand. We stayed at the Hotel Del Lago right on the waterfront where the dining area extended to a veranda overlooking the marina. If the day hadn’t been too darned hot and humid, and if the schedule hadn’t been too tight, I would have spent hours lolling there, sipping coffee, gazing at the clouds that descended on the hills across the lake and taking photos of the ever changing scenery.
Of course, we did more than sit on the veranda and gaze dreamily at the clouds. We went around Sun Moon Lake on a boat, embarked on a spot and climbed all of 150 steps to a temple where the view of the lake was even more breathtaking. Okay, I won’t sugarcoat this part. The climb was terrible. I was carrying a DSLR camera with a telephoto lens attached to it and a handbag with another lens inside and I thought I would collapse right there. The vegetation in the area was very dense and, naturally, until we reached the clearing near the temple, there was very little breeze to relieve the suffocating heat. When the climb was finally over, I just plopped on the temple steps and waited for the perspiration to stop. It didn’t. But, after a few minutes, I was ready to put the bad climb behind me. If you’re a photography buff, the punishing climb is not that hard to forget once you start framing every part of the scenery. It was awesome.
Across the lake was an aboriginal village with more quaint shops and unforgettable food. We had a “fruit dinner” at one of the restaurants in the village the night before the boat ride and the experience was one for the books. Outdoor tables under canopies (some with large umbrellas) with crystal chandeliers and centerpieces made of fresh fruits… but more on that in the to-be-written Taiwan food trip article.
From the Sun Moon Lake area, we drove to the town of Puli, famous for its wine. I was expecting a tour of the winery itself, not just the exhibit area but we never saw the inside of the winery. The only consolation was the array of food stalls where one could eat the equivalent of an entire meal with the free samples. I was especially thrilled by the Taiwanese version of the local cream puffs with its flakier crust and lighter custard filling.
Visit a night market
I was sorry to leave the countryside to go back to Taipei. But there was the train ride to look forward to. Traveling at a maximum speed of 300 kilometers, the train ride did things to my ears the way the high speed elevator at Taipei 101 did. We arrived at the central station in Taipei an hour later, switched to the MRT that plied the city and got off at the station beside the Shih Lin Night Market.
From day one, I had been pestering the tour guide to bring us to the night market which wasn’t on the official itinerary. But I figured that if I was going to get any shopping done at all – at prices I wouldn’t feel sorry about later – it would be at the night market. And I wanted to have my taste of street food – not just the pricey restaurant food but the kind that the average residents enjoyed. So, the trip to the night market was, to my mind, going to be the highlight of the Taipei part of the trip.
It’s not like we weren’t warned. The tour guide did say it would be crowded because it was a Friday evening. But having lived in Metro Manila all my life until we moved to the suburb six years ago, and being such a veteran of places like Divisoria, I thought I could breeze through the Taipei night market scene. I was wrong. Think Divisoria in December and you’ll get a good picture of Shih Lin Night Market on a Friday evening.
Pay attention to what goes on around you
Scooters are like a national mode of transportation in Taiwan — they actually outnumber cars by a ratio of 1:3.
We were on our way to Yehliu in northeast Taiwan when we stopped at an intersection to give way to a funeral procession. We crowded in front of the bus and started taking photos through the windshield. Of course, the costumed figures stood out. I asked the tour guide what they represented and she said each figure represented one concubine.
There are five figures visible and another is partly hidden between those with green and orange flowers on their heads. I commented that that was a lot of concubines and the tour guide said it was a rich man’s funeral. So, the number of concubines was proportional to a man’s wealth?
I didn’t ask anymore. I’ve long ago learned that cultures will always differ and it isn’t wise to judge another based on the standards of one’s own culture. I used to smirk when I read about widows in India setting themselves on fire after their husband’s death but I don’t anymore. I mean, it’s not like monogamy — imposed by Christianity — guarantees the best and most stable society. So, live and let live.
The crowds and the heat notwithstanding, Taipei is not without its charms. Although I felt that it lacked the bustle of a real metropolis, Taipei is a modern city where zoning and traffic laws are strictly followed. What our tour guide called the after-five rush hour traffic was milder than the 10.00 a.m. or 2.00 p.m. traffic in Metro Manila. It was amazing how pedestrians only crossed the streets at designated areas even with no traffic cops in sight. That most private vehicles appeared to be in good condition must have something to do with the fact that there were no potholes in Taipei.
I read that Taipei has its version of our tricycle and I was on the lookout for them. I saw none though and it was a such a pleasure not to hear the croak of motorcycles with two-stroke engines. And although there was the occasional food hawker on street corners, sidewalks were largely places where pedestrians walked rather than a venue for the makeshift shops of unregistered businesses.
There is so much about Taiwan and the Taiwanese that we can learn from, and vice versa. The language barrier is a serious issue for sure but I can’t say that it’s a total hindrance to communication. I speak no Chinese dialect whatsoever and most Taiwanese speak no English. But the times I went out on my own to buy food, drinks and toiletries, we managed to understand one another.