Finally it was time to leave work. The lessons were planned. Every one had instructions in front of them. The clock read 12:00am. In twelve short hours I would be on a plane taking a break from the grind of my students, work, and those whom I surround myself. I hop in the cab and let out a sigh of relief. Vacation is here. I am ready.
The alarm went off early and I groggily finish packing my backpack. Slowly I start my journey towards the airport on a cloudy Thursday morning. I think of my friends still in bed, only to go to work in a few hours, teach my classes on top of theirs. I feel a twinge of sorrow, but then shrug it off. They’ve done the same to me.
I ride the subway and transfer accordingly. Each stop brings me one step closer to adventure.
Arriving at the airport I look for a few Korean treats for the people that will be housing me during my time in Taiwan. I pick up some kimchi, rice cakes, and a few bottles of Soju. I can’t think of anything more Korean. I board the plane, settle in, press play on an in flight movie and await landing.
The moment I step off the plane, the humidity hits me like a wall. The air is so thick you need a knife to cut through it. A smile crosses my face, I almost feel like I’m home.
I welcomed the humidity as Taiwan welcomed me
As I go through customs the woman at the desk begins asking questions. I panic.
“Where will you be staying?”
“Where do they live?”
“Umm, I’m not really sure. I’m just supposed to meet them in Taipei.”
“Do you have a phone number?”
“Well yes, but I have a Korean phone. It doesn’t work here.”
“What is your friend’s phone number?”
“I don’t know.”
“Excuse me, do you speak Chinese?”
“Okay, you don’t speak Chinese, you don’t have your friends address or cell phone number. Can I ask you what you’re thinking?”
“I’m not worried about it. Everything will work out.”
“You’re brave. Enjoy you’re stay ma’am.”
After the inquisition I make my way into the city. The bus takes over an hour. I sleep, only waking when the bus stops to check if I have reached my destination. Finally I arrive at the metro station. I struggle for a while to find the MRT. Finally, I find the right set of stairs and head underground to the station.
As I take a seat on the train, something that is incredibly difficult to do in Seoul, I look at the people. A teenage boy sits in front of me. Between his legs is a small terrarium with two sugar gliders. The two creatures are fighting and making a terrible racket, really the only sound that can be heard other than the train rushing through the tunnel. Their fight turns into fucking. The man sitting next to me is just as confused and concerned as I. We exchange wordless glances, but come to an understanding that what we are seeing is strange.
I walk off the train and head toward the hostel. It’s about 100 meters from the MRT station. I find it with relative ease. I walk up the stairs and the manager greets me. He gives me a tour and explains the rules of the hostel. Simple things, clean up after yourself, check out is at 11am, don’t be a jackass. I am expecting my friend to meet me soon, so I wait around the hostel. I write my parents to tell them, “I’m alive. The weather is nice.” I check Facebook and talk to my co-worker asking how the day is going. Everything is fine. Nothing out of the ordinary.
I wait about an hour for my friend to arrive, it’s now 5:30pm. I grow impatient and decide to take a walk around the block. As I step on to the street, I’m greeted by the sounds of cars buzzing on the road, a foreign tongue I can’t begin to understand, and the smell of food cooking. If there is one thing my mother and travel shows have taught me, it’s to follow my nose and the longest line. I walk a few blocks and find a street market full of vendors and admire the different fare at each cart. Some are only fried food stands, others have meat on a stick, and others have fruit. I come to the end of the street and decide to walk the block again. This time around, I stop and buy some mango. The sweetness explodes in my mouth. I cringe with delight. All is right in the world. I finish the mango and continue walking down the street wondering what all the food tastes like. I don’t know how to order. I need my guide.
I stop at the 7-11 underneath my hostel and grab a few beers. I’m not sure if my friend is upstairs or if I will continue waiting. I walk back upstairs to find the staff having a conversation. I ask if a girl with long brown hair had shown up. They shake their heads to say no. I pull a book off the shelf, Lonely Planet’s Guide to Taiwan, and crack open a beer. I’m about half way through my beer and she walks in the door. A figure from my past; a long lost friend.
We both squeal a little as we see one another. It has been about seven years. I offer her a beer and give her the Korean fare from the airport. It’s a nice reunion. We finish our beers and head out into the city. It’s about 8pm
The first place we go to is the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. We step out of the subway into the muggy evening. The courtyard is dark, but the buildings are magnificently lit up. I try to take pictures, but I only have my handi-cam. Justice isn’t served.
Quite a gate
She begins to tell me about how the Taiwanese love their dragons. “You’ll see them everywhere”, she says. We walk around the courtyard, discussing the difference between her life in Taiwan and mine in Korea. We are more similar than different. We walk toward the actual memorial, where Chiang Kai Shek sits and overlooks the city. Unfortunately the doors were closed. I stand in the square, take the scene in, and leave.
We rode the MRT to Longshan Temple. The architecture is stunning. As I look at the ornate pillars, I think about the people who have rebuilt this temple time and again over the centuries of war, earthquakes, and fires. How has it changed, I wonder. I try and take pictures, but the cover of night veils the beauty. We walk around for a little while and I begin to get frustrated with the pictures I take. We leave and head out into the night to try and find Snake Alley.
The alley way is supposed to be close to the temple. I had read and seen on the internet where people go to this alley and are able to watch snakes be drained of their blood, bile, and venom. The aforementioned liquids are then mixed with alcohol and consumed by tourists and people looking to cure an array of ailments. The tourists boast of hallucinations. I was a bit wary of the idea of drinking snake blood, bile, and venom. However, when you’re in the moment you just got to do it.
My friend and I walk down an alley. We think, certainly this has to be it. It looks like the picture we saw online. We walk down the alley. There are no snakes, no people, only chickens and geese, unattended in cages. We spend a fair amount of time searching for this snake alley and then give up.
With the Snake Alley a bust, we head toward one of Taipei’s most famous night markets, Shilin. We walk out of the station, back into the night. There is a cool breeze coming from the East. I can’t complain. We see no signs for the market, so we wander into a small restaurant. We take a seat and order two plates of pork noodles with cabbage and local beer.
First "real" meal in Taiwan. Pork noodles with cabbage and the salty red sauce.
The noodles themselves are bland, the pork salty. I take some of the red sauce on the table and plop it onto my plate. I hope for spice, I get salt. Overall I think it’s a fine meal. However, not much to write home about.
We leave the restaurant and continue to wander. We find alleys where one would expect life. We mostly find prostitutes with their customers. It’s only 10:30pm.
I feel a bit of defeat. I suggest we head towards the hostel,
“I saw some street food around the corner, we can drink some beers.”
It’s agreed that we should just head back.
We arrive at our station and walk down the street to find only a few vendors still open. She immediately begins ordering. She asks my opinion about a few items, but does all the work. I wait for the food and she runs to 7-11 to grab some beers. As I wait, a man orders. I look at what he gets and it looks divine. I politely ask the woman running the stall, “what was that he ordered?” She laughs a little and says, “It’s a Taiwanese hamburger. It has pork belly, peanut powder, pickled cabbage, and parsley.” I look at my bag of fried food and then order a hamburger. My friend arrives with the beer and we opt for an al fresco meal. We walk into an alley way and take a seat. I take a bite of my “hamburger” and my taste buds explode with joy. The parsley turned out to be cilantro. The juicy pork belly melted in my mouth and the peanuts popped. Every bite is like heaven.
I finish my “burger” and we take turns stabbing at the different fried bits inside the bag. There are mushrooms, green beans, pigs blood cake, and chicken butts. All of it is tasty. We both finish one of our beers and head back to the hostel. She has to work in the morning. I have to get to Taichung. We both have had full days, it doesn’t hurt to just chill. I do have five days in Taiwan. We sit on the couch in the common room and put on the TV. There is a Kung-fu movie playing. Our attention moves from the TV, to our beers, to a card game, mostly in that order. The movie is great. I don’t have television in Korea, so it’s a nice treat to be able to sit on a couch and just watch a film. The movie ends, our beers are empty, we decide to go to bed.
I wake up with sweat on my brow. For a minute I forget where I am. My friend packs her belongings and we say good bye. She needs to get to work and it’s going to be a commute back to her town. I know I will be seeing her in about 30 hours, so it’s an easy good bye. I take a shower and scrub the night off.
After the veil of night is gone, a minor buzz still rings in my head. I push on into the city of Taipei. This time I’m alone and move at my own pace. I take my time looking at the different buildings and shops. I walk all the way to Taipei 101, the second largest building in the world. The walk is about 30 minutes. I notice there isn’t much in the way of architecture in the surrounding area. However, Taipei 101 doesn’t need any help standing out; it towers over the whole city. The observation deck can’t be seen through the early morning fog coming down from the mountains. I can’t help but be impressed.
Morning fog covering the spire of Taipei 101
I walk inside the building. Like any other piece of human engineering the building boasts about itself. The walls are covered with explanations of innovation and genius, even the elevator has a placard. “This elevator was designed by the Toshiba Corporation. This eleavator reaches speeds of 60km/h, making it the fastest in the world!” Clearly they hadn’t yet changed the sign. The current title holder for “World’s Tallest Building” is Burj Khalifa in Dubai and its elevator maxes out at 64km/h.
I ride the elevator to the 89th floor and walk toward the glass. I notice the designs of gardens and rooftops. It’s obvious the neighborhood surrounding 101 knows they are being watched. A good amount of city planning was done to ensure the city is beautiful from above.
Looking down on the city.
Swirl gardens and Pagodas.
A quick digression: Tall buildings, why do people love them? I’ve been to quite a few towering structures in my short life time, the Empire State building, Namsan Tower, L’Arc du Triamphe and others I won’t take the time to mention. All these places are the same, tourists taking pictures while waiting in line to get to the top, a few screaming children, and a ticket price that should include at least a beer when you reach the top. People rush to the observation deck to snap the “Hey, look where I am!” picture, stand around for a few minutes reading whatever placards are present, look at how far away they are from home, and then leave. I’m certainly guilty of doing this, but I wonder what is the reason people are drawn to these structures. Do we need to look over the land that we have tamed to the best of our abilities, see cities and suburbs sprawling out, knowing that everything the light touches belongs to us? There is a moment of possession which occurs while we are on top, it feels good, to look at what human ingenuity and engineering has created. However, we can’t stay on top that long. We must come down back to the reality that we are small and will fall one day, just like the buildings. After going to Taipei 101, I don’t think I need to stand “on top of the world” again. I just find it depressing.
I reach my limit in the clouds and head towards the MRT station. I am bound for Taichung.