My Last Days in Taiwan

I was sad to leave Hualien and my new friends on Sunday. I really got to know and like the place – it makes a difference when you can become a ‘regular’ somewhere, like a juice bar or breakfast place, even if it’s just for a week. Seeing the same faces and the same smiles is comforting while you’re on the road.

By Sunday though I felt completely drained – I hadn’t slept well for two weeks and it suddenly hit me as I dragged myself, backpack ‘n all, out of the hostel.

The hostel was quite far out of town (too far to walk with a backpack anyway) so I was wandering around looking for a bus when a nice couple in their 40s stopped me outside the 7 Eleven and asked me where I was going. When I said the train station, and asked if there was a bus, they signalled for me to get in their car and took me to the station. They went out of their way to help me out – typical of Taiwanese people. I was so grateful! I couldn’t thank them enough, and they seemed delighted to have helped out a foreigner – I had to pose for a picture with them as they held up my bags gleefully to the camera. I walked away smiling to myself that we’d all benefited from their kindness.

I got the cheap 200NT train back to Taipei and found my new hostel, just down the road from Taipei 101, which was once the tallest building in the world until Dubai came along to steal the glory.

Taipei 101
Taipei 101 on another grey and rainy day
Vieshow Cinema nr Taipei 101
Vieshow Cinema nr Taipei 101

All I’ve done in the last few days is walk around the Taipei 101 area, go to the cinema twice (to see Star Trek and Trance), visit the nearby night market and eat as much fruit and healthy foods as I can to restore my energy. I’ve also read a colossal amount on my Kindle and generally enjoyed not doing a lot.

Modern Taipei
Modern Taipei
Street buffet at the night market - the only food stall I can understand
Street buffet at the night market – the only food stall I can understand

Taiwan has been a great experience and as I always say, I’ve learnt so much. I really mean it – doing the volunteering (HelpX) projects has allowed me to get a better insight into the people, the customs and the way of life here, and I’ve loved it all. I hope I can come back to Taiwan one day and see more.

 

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The Scenic Route to Taroko National Park

“Go to Taroko National Park!” they said. “The gorge is spectacular, there are hiking trails through it and hot springs at the end!”

“Great!” I said, “As soon as it stops raining I’ll go”. I waited a week, each day peering glumly out of the window as the rain battered noisily against the metal roof of the hostel.

I found out that during this week of incessant rain a gigantic landslide occurred almost at the entrance of the park, completely blocking the road to all this wonderful scenery and experts say it’ll take a month to clear.

No matter, there’s still a small amount to see, and a beach on the way. I awoke early to sunshine streaming through the curtainless window and couldn’t believe my luck. Actual sun. I was out of the door and on my bike by 7am and racing towards the coast.

Qixingtan Beach
Qixingtan Beach

When I reached the beach it was almost deserted except for a couple of fishermen. What more could you want than the sea and the mountains all at once? I dipped my toes into the sea and thought about going for a swim, but I wanted to get to Taroko while it wasn’t raining so I carried on up the coast admiring the views.

The path turned inland a little and took me through a peculiar and quirky cemetery…

cemetery_with_a_view

…and then through small villages where a couple of people waved and shouted hello as I sped through.

193road_to_taroko

I was pleased to eventually reach Taroko National Park, and headed straight for the Shakadang Trail which is one of the only places still open after the landslide.

Taroko Gorge
Taroko Gorge

The trail takes you through one of the smaller gorges along a river and takes around 2 and a half hours to walk in total. I’d hoped to find a trail that looped off to the East but despite it appearing clearly on the map it was in reality non-existent so I had to walk back the way I came.

shakadan_trail_taroko

I met someone who was surprised I was hiking alone and exclaimed “but aren’t you afraid of the snakes?”. I wasn’t up until that point but kept a keen eye on the ground afterwards – I did in fact almost walk into one a little later.

hiking_taroko_national_park

When I finished the trail I was pleased to see my bike was still where I left it, just propped up on its stand with a flimsy lock on the front wheel. I didn’t even need the lock though – in Taiwan nobody thinks to steal a bike, I mean, it doesn’t belong to them so why would they? You can cycle to the shops, leave your bike completely free and unlocked outside, and come back to find it still there and in one piece. I wish that was the case at home.

The next and final stop available to me was the Eternal Shrine, an interesting shrine built into the side of a mountain with a river running through it.

Eternal Shrine
Eternal Shrine

I took a half hidden pathway behind the shrine wondering where it would take me, but it was steep and hard work and turns out to have been a path almost to the top of the mountain where I found an interesting bell tower with spectacular views.

taroko_tower

taroko_bell

temple_taroko

I only scratched the surface of Taroko National Park but one day maybe I’ll be able to come back and see the rest of it.

Practical Information: To cycle from Hualien City to Taroko National Park the scenic route take the 193 road up along the coast for as long as it will go then bear right onto Highway 9 (which is very wide and very safe to cycle on) and follow it round onto Highway 8 which goes all the way through Taroko. It takes 2 hours at a reasonable pace with a few stops (at the beach for example) so could be done quicker.

 

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Hualien Friends

Even though I’ve been in Hualien for 4 days now I still can’t show you much of the area because it has rained pretty much non-stop, preventing me from being able to explore.

It hasn’t however prevented me from having a good time. It makes such a difference having friends you see every day, like Jessie and Ronell, but also I’m regularly invited out by Allen (the hostel/HelpX project owner) who loves to show new hostel guests around and never lets anyone be alone if they don’t want to be.

sea_snails_dinner
Scott, Vera (top), Mona, me, Allen and Eric

On Monday after a disastrous attempt to walk into town (when I discovered that my waterproof coat isn’t actually waterproof) I gave up and went back to the hostel, where I was invited out for ‘aboriginal’ food. That turned out to be sea snails amongst other things, which were surprisingly nice but had an odd texture a bit like mussels. We stopped in town afterwards for some sweet tofu and red bean pudding – delicious.

I had a good day at work yesterday sand papering rust off 479 metal fixtures, and when I took my mask off Jessie laughed and exclaimed “You’ve got a Hitler moustache!” Good to see the protective equipment is working then! Hmm.

PPE
Not so protective mask

Jessie took me, Ronell, Felix and Mona to the night market for dinner last night and I had a delicious spring roll and stared longingly at a special kind of big deep fried bread thing where they cut out the middle and put a filling inside. Next time I go I’ll have one of those and show you what I mean.

night_market_hualien2
Me and my leaky raincoat
Fresh spring rolls
Fresh spring rolls

jessie_and_monaIt was actually my first night market in Taiwan which is quite shocking when you consider I’ve been here for 3 weeks and there’s at least one in every town. In Asia the food is so cheap that people can eat out often, and the night market is the place to do it.

kiddie_ride
Felix and Ronell
 

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A New Vocation in Taiwan

I’ve always suspected I might really enjoy renovation work, and my new job in Taiwan confirmed that I do indeed love it. I remember helping my mum and dad scrape wallpaper off the walls of our old house when I was a kid and thinking it was so incredibly satisfying I could do it all day.

Today I started my second HelpX project (the first being at a cram school) – this time in Hualien City in the East of Taiwan, helping to transform an old building into a cool hostel.

A spot of grouting on a Sunday afternoon
A spot of grouting on a Sunday afternoon

Lead helper Jessie (the most enthusiastic ambassador for CouchSurfing I’ve ever met) showed me the ropes and we quickly got to work filling in holes and smoothing over the walls, chatting along the way until lunch, where she introduced me to a really nice South African woman called Ronell (who had kindly brought us coffee) and her cute little toddler Felix who are based in Taiwan for a while.

After lunch I got to work on a large tiled area of the room (soon to be showers and toilets), scrubbing it all clean which I found to be just as satisfying as peeling wallpaper.

helpx_cleaning2

helpx_cleaning

After we finished a day’s work Jessie took me and our South African friends to a vegetarian restaurant. If ‘you are what you eat’ is true then I’m definitely becoming a dumpling – it’s all I eat here and I certainly feel like one with the amount of food I’ve been shovelling in!

My experiences here so far have just strengthened my feelings about Asia and Taiwan – hospitality here is just the best. Everybody is so generous, not just with things, but with their time too. The owner of the hostel Allen took me to his house to have dinner with his wife last night, and Jessie will happily show anyone around Hualien in her free time and nothing’s too much trouble. Their generosity is not only heart-warming but also infectious and I’ve been truly welcomed here. I’m glad I can help them with their renovation work, and am looking forward to another day of it!

Want to volunteer abroad for free? Read about my first HelpX placement here and check out HelpX.net for volunteering opportunities.

 

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Volunteering in Taiwan

In the last two weeks I’ve been an English teacher, cleaner, childminder and sports instructor. It’s been a busy introduction to the world of HelpX (Help Exchange) – a chance to volunteering abroad for free and get food and accommodation thrown in too.

The city of Zhongli (pronounced chung-li)
The city of Zhongli (pronounced chung-li)
Enjoying the park in Zhongli
Enjoying the park in Zhongli

I’m helping at an after school club (also known as ‘cram school’) in the city of Zhongli just south of Taipei, where kids as young as 7 and as old as 17 come for homework help, extra lessons and a bit of leisure time if they’ve finished their work, enabling parents to work late and pick them up afterwards.

school

It’s really opened my eyes to the depressing amount of school work kids here have to do – some stay til 10pm, and I’ve been at the school for 11 hours every day myself, but after the initial surprise I eased into it and by the second week felt a lot more comfortable with the routine.

I’ve done presentations, Q and A sessions, taught one-on-one and marked homework. I’ve had to fill 90 minute lessons sometimes, or been asked to change my presentations at the last minute, but somehow it’s worked out ok.

It’s amazing how someone as incompetent as me is let loose on these kids with no training, supervision or preparation. As long as I get them speaking English then I’ve done my job, and it’s good experience for me because I’m more of a listener than a talker.

football

My favourite times of the day were when I could take the young kids to the park and then everyone else to the school a bit later for football. I thought I’d lose at least one child but thankfully they’re so obedient they always stay nearby and when I say it’s time to go they stop and follow me straight away. Such a difference from life back home. No “Owwww just five more minutes!” It makes me life a lot easier! Swimming on a Friday is the highlight of the week for everyone I think.

park_zhongli

The owners and other teachers are so friendly, typically Taiwanese with their hospitality, that I enjoy lunchtime when we can chat a bit before the kids arrive and the day becomes more demanding. Their home cooked food is the most delicious food you can imagine and nothing’s wasted – lunch leftovers are used in dinner, and dinner leftovers become tomorrow’s lunch, but always re-imagined into something totally different but equally tasty.

posing

It only took a couple of days for the kids to be confident enough to talk to me properly and I’ve loved interacting with all ages – being silly with the younger ones and trying to teach the older ones to find a passion and pursue it for enjoyment – their lives are so regimented that they probably don’t realise all the opportunities that are open to them. When I asked one shy but bright 17 year old what she enjoyed she couldn’t think of anything. A little bit of me died inside.

One of the younger ones and Mimi the cat
One of the younger ones and Mimi the cat

I was the only helper for a week and then suddenly 4 more arrived this week so it’s been more enjoyable being able to chat to someone and have a laugh. By the end it was also rewarding to have kids speaking to me who were previously too shy to say anything – one taught me a basketball game which he hopes I can show my friends, and one asked me if I’ll come back to Zhongli soon because she didn’t want me to leave.

It’s been a challenging but rewarding experience, and as they always told me at school, you get out of something what you put in, and I put in a lot.

It’s time to move on and see some of Taiwan’s stunning natural beauty before I have to get my flight to Singapore. I’m in Hualien now where I will become a painter and decorator for a week… read about that here.

The local park
The local park

Bonus: This is what happened when I gave the kids my phone!

 

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Longshan Temple in Taipei

A cough I developed a week ago is still going strong and woke me up at 4.45am today, so my shattered self decided to take it easy and only have a half day of sightseeing today.

I went to Longshan Temple which is a short Metro ride from Taipei Main Station, and as it’s Sunday it was buzzing with energy and soul that I haven’t seen much of so far in Taipei. Central Taipei has a McDonald’s and Starbucks on every street and it all feels a little flat, like you could be anywhere in the world, but the neighbourhood I went to today was completely different – streets were lined with food vendors and locals were out in force at the park, reminding me I was definitely still in Asia.

longshan_temple

longshan_temple_taipei

No sooner had I arrived at the temple than large raindrops started falling one by one, but everyone instantly dashed for cover, knowing that a few spots of rain would very rapidly turn into a torrent. They were right and I made it to shelter just in time.

Inside the temple it felt very different to the temples of Burma, Malaysia and Japan. It was interesting to see the customs there that I hadn’t seen before. When you enter there’s what appears to be a tuck shop selling crisps and biscuits, and a few more steps into the complex you see tables laid out covered in these snacks. I thought there was some kind of festival going on, like a giant temple picnic, but quickly realised these were offerings to the Gods, or is it to Buddha? I wasn’t sure what branch of religion was being worshipped here because I didn’t recognise some of the statues, but I thought it could be like the religion I saw in Thailand where Buddhism is combined with belief in the Hindu Gods too.

offerings_at_temples

There was also a custom of shaking two wooden objects and dropping them onto the floor. I assumed this was some kind of fortune telling but I wasn’t entirely sure whether the fortune was open to the thrower’s interpretation and what exactly two objects could be saying by the way they fall. It’s a shame really, I’m not learning anything in moments like this.

longshan_temple_taipei2

A nice Singaporean man offered to take my photo which was kind of him, and a lady with a dog in a bag gave me a big smile when I took a photo. I probably should’ve asked one of these people about the fortune telling but I didn’t think to – I keep forgetting that people’s level of English here is pretty good and that I don’t have to be a mute like in Japan.

Looks more like a fairground ride than a shrine
Looks more like a fairground ride than a shrine

dog_in_a_bag_taiwan

En route back to the hostel I stopped for a bowl of beef noodles (the favoured local dish), struggled to pick anything up with my chopsticks, caused some embarrassment when I spilt a whole glass of coke all over the table, then left to crawl back into bed and protect the lovely Taiwanese people of any more mishaps caused by me, your sleep deprived traveller.

Tomorrow I travel to Zhongli to become a teacher. I’m not sure whether internet will be available but will endeavour to update the blog whenever I can.

 

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Zen Meditation in Kyoto One of the things I was most looking forward to in Kyoto was doing a session of Zen meditation in one of the temples here. I heard about a temple call...
The Scenic Route to Taroko National Park "Go to Taroko National Park!" they said. "The gorge is spectacular, there are hiking trails through it and hot springs at the end!" "Great!" I said...