Taichung City (12/26)
I managed to scrounge up a few vacation days and get a nice break to take my family around Taiwan on an adventure. So the day after Christmas, we took off for our first stop of the adventure, Taichung. It had been a long time since I had last been to Taichung my junior year of high school. I felt like I was rediscovering the city as we walked around the downtown area. A wall of flowers triggered a memory of taking selfies with Elaine and Shelly and when we stopped for bubble tea my mind flashed back to my friend Alexis and I drinking as many bubble teas as possible during our short time in Taiwan. In our wanderings we came across a Kirin beer event that was handing out free cans of beer. They even had a mechanical beer can that spun around trying to throw the rider off. Naturally, we all had to take a turn riding and we attracted quite a crowd.
We met up with my host family for dinner that night and once again my worlds were colliding. I had never imagined that it would be possible for these two families to meet because of the sheer distance between the US and Taiwan. They took us to a delicious dinner with the most exquisitely prepared dishes and we enjoyed exchanging stories of Taiwan and the US. Sadly Elaine, my host sister, wasn’t there because she is currently in college in the US. We learned that Stephen will be moving to the US soon for work, closely followed by the rest of his family. After dinner, we wandered around the city on our way back to the hotel. We stopped at a night market and took a few moments planning our next adventure to Sun Moon Lake!
Sun Moon Lake (12/27-12/28)
The next morning, Shelly met us at our hotel and we called a cab to take us to Sun Moon Lake for the next few days. It was a beautiful day and we arrived nice and early for a full adventure. We bought a boat pass and used this as our transportation for the day. Our first stop was the Ci’en Pagoda, a nine story structure with incredible views of the lake and surrounding mountains. Next, we headed to the the gondola that travels over the lake. I had crazy flashbacks to riding the gondola in high school with the exchange group, and Shelly and I even managed to dig up an old picture. Once again I was in awe of the fantastic views. After a delicious dinner with Shelly, she headed back to Taichung for the night and we went back to the hotel for some drinks and mochi on the porch.
The next morning, we got up early and rented bikes to ride around the lake. Our first stop was the Wenwu Temple right on the lake, a huge and majestic structure.
Afterwords, we continued around the lake on the windy road until we reached a small hiking spot and stopped for a quick walk down to the lake water. After returning to our bikes, we continued on the somewhat less desirable part of the road. We were vying for space with cars and turning around blind corners. But eventually this section ended and we made our way to the bike path! This portion of the adventure was filled with hazards, but this time they were in the form of other bikers! There were definitely a few people that were swerving and unstable on bikes, and others that were just simply not paying attention. The views were amazing and it was easy to forget that you were riding on a very crowded bike path. One man even hit my mom when he was biking! Luckily everyone was unharmed and we made it back in one piece. After some pb&j sandwiches and bubble tea, our driver met us at our hotel and it was time for the next leg of the adventure, Kenting National Park!
Kenting National Park (12/29-12/30)
While our ride to Kenting was uneventful, our driver spent the first segment of the journey trying translating everything he said in Chinese into English using his translating app. I found it quite funny because I could understand him so finally I replied to him in Chinese and from then on I was the translator (which was a bit stressful). He brought us to our hotel at Kenting, a huge resort with people everywhere. I was honestly surprised to see how crowded it was. Although most people were on break for a few days because of the new year, I had not anticipated such a large crowd, especially because the weather was less than desirable. It was extremely windy and drizzly, enough that I had to borrow Carter’s jacket to stay warm. We got Kenting late that evening so our main exploring happened in the night market. It was a very different atmosphere than Dong Da Men Night Market in Hualien and felt more similar to Shilin night market in Taipei. People were everywhere! I was a bit overwhelmed. It was also quite touristy and one thing that set this place apart from Taipei was the large number of street bars. They were like food trucks, but instead of selling food you could buy a drink and sit on a stool right there to drink it. Not quite like the US!
We met our driver in the morning and he took to sailboat rock. I was a bit surprised with how much trash was surrounding this beautiful outcropping. We didn’t stay long because of crowds and took off for the Eluanbi Lighthouse next. I had originally thought that this park was just a lighthouse but soon discovered that it was much more than that. There were many paths leading through a forest and amazing ocean views. It started raining heavily while we were there which drove away some of the crowds. After the lighthouse, we made our way to the southernmost point of Taiwan (and of course the family had to stop for a quick geocache). We drove around the coast, stopping at some beaches and the windiest place ever! It was crazy how the wind just whips from the ocean with nothing to block it before it roars across Taiwan.
Our driver was the real MVP of the day and in addition to driving was also our tour guide, personal photographer, and historian. Although I didn’t understand much of what he said, I caught bits and pieces and translated them for the family. He brought us on a narrated car ride along the coast which I understood next to nothing of but he helped translate little things like “rabbit” which we discovered meant the rock looked like a rabbit. He brought us to a good noodle place for lunch, and afterwords to the eternal flame, a place were natural fire comes out of a pile of rocks (so naturally we made popcorn to eat!) Afterwords he gave us a quick history lesson about the the construction of the wall in the late 1800s to defend the Island from invasions. Although I didn’t gather much of his explanation, I did learn about how Japan invaded Taiwan and massacred a large number of Indigenous peoples and this led the Chinese Emperor Qing building the wall and working towards a peace accord between Han Chinese settlers and Indigenous peoples. The last stop of the day was a place were we had the opportunity to feed and see Sika deer at a zoo. They were not so thrilled to have visitors and wanted to be left alone but they were so cute 🙂
The next morning was Kenting National Park Day. After our adventerous first day, our driver decided that he would accompany us on all our adventures the next day and gladly brought us on a tour of the park area. We walked through caves and observed towering trees. We spent our last night in Kenting enjoying a bar on the beach and getting some snacks from the night market. Despite the rain, wind, and crowds we had a blast at Kenting National Park and hopefully I’ll make it back sometime with warmer weather!
Kaohsiung and Taipei (12/31-1/1)
We headed back to Kaosiung for the night and stayed near the Pier 2 art area. Although we got in late, we still had time for a nice Italian dinner (I miss Western food sometimes) and a tour of the art district. There were so many unique sculptures and someday I hope to come back to explore in the daytime. However, Kaohsiung was more of a layover for the next big adventure: Taipei City! We had decided to go to Taipei during probably the most crowded time of the year. It was going to be New Year’s eve and Taipei 101 is the place to be with fireworks, a light show, and a performance from a very famous Taiwanese singer. However, we had a whole day of exploring before it was time to embrace the fireworks madness.
After we arrived at the hotel and checked in, our first stop was the Palace museum. This is a very famous place because there are numerous national treasures from China housed in this museum. Shelly met us and together we all explored the area but it was very unfortunate timing. The whole place was a zoo! Although this was expected due to the time of year, it was nevertheless overwhelming and we didn’t stay for too long. Our next destination was the Songshan Cultural Creative park, a quick stop for lunch and some souvenirs. After that, on to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. What is somewhat disturbing is that while touring this hall, there was only one article that mentioned the White Terror, a nearly 40-year period of martial law in Taiwan. People who dissented to the KMT party under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek were imprisoned, disappeared, or were murdered. I find it kind of shocking that something this egregious seems to disappear in the explanation of who Chiang Kai-shek was and the role he played in Taiwanese history. But then again, Taiwan is definitely not the only country to have a painful history that remains obscured for whatever reason.
We headed back to the hotel to change and discuss our plans for midnight. Shelly recommended heading closer to 101, while my mom worried that this would be a prime location for some kind of an attack. I assured her that Taiwan was a much safer place than the US and finally she agreed. The closer we got, the more excited we became. Our family has only ever celebrated New Years in front of the TV watching the ball drop. While there is nothing wrong with this, it was a completely new experience to be surrounded by so many excited and hopeful people who were ringing in the New Year together. We grabbed some drinks at 711 and watched as A-Mei took the stage and sang about partying for three nights and three days. Suddenly, the countdown began. The New Year exploded with fireworks shooting from the sides of the 101 building and LED lights flashing through scenes of Taiwan. To say it was incredible would be an understatement. We were close enough to have an unobstructed view and watched in awe as the show continued for six minutes. Then, the LED lights shut off. We looked at each other in disbelief, which only lasted for a few seconds, before we started sprinting towards our hotel to beat the crowds.
About 1/2 mile into our sprint of 2 miles, I was dying to go to the bathroom. Luckily, we were near a subway station and rushed in. This turned out to be a brilliant move. We were already in the station and despite our original goal to avoid the subway at all costs, we discovered that thanks to traffic controls, it wasn’t too overwhelmed by people. We had managed to sneak in just in time. So we hopped on the subway and headed back to our hotel. It was not even the most crowded ride I’ve had in Taiwan! We dropped Shelly off at the bus station, and she headed back to Taichung while we walked across the street to our hotel. Despite our relatively quick journey, it was still late and we decided the best option would be to sleep in the next morning.
Taipei day two was a bit bittersweet. I wasn’t ready to go back to school the next morning, and I certainly was not ready for my family and Carter to leave. It’s amazing how in just a few weeks it can feel like you’ve never been separated from someone. Conversations and interactions are so natural, and it feels so easy for them to integrate into your new life and space. This is how it felt for me to have my family and Carter in Taiwan. And now that they had integrated into my Taiwan life, it felt like I was losing part of myself when they left again. But we still had one more day! We decided to start off the morning with a hike up Elephant Mountain. Despite the clouds, We still got some clear views of the city and Taipei 101. It was a totally different beast from the night before, this time sleek and silver.
After a quick hike, we headed to Taipei 101 for Din Tai Feng dumplings. It was well worth the wait and we even tried the chocolate ones (which might have been one of the greatest desserts I’ve ever tasted). Our early meal left us pretty full so we didn’t need another dinner. But we still needed to try one essential thing… so after some quick souvenir shopping in the underground mall, we headed to Shifen night market for stinky tofu! This went over just about as well as I expected and everyone hated it. But I made up for it with candied strawberries and Shao bing, pancakes cooked over a fire on the inside of a barrel, one of my favorite foods in China.
The Goodbye (1/2)
It was about this time that I started to feel quite sad. Carter and I headed back so he could have some time to pack and say goodbye, while my family went on to try to find one more temple. I still hadn’t reached the halfway point for my time in Taiwan, and before this moment I had only viewed this as a positive fact. But in this moment, I realized how easy it is to be around people who really know you. There was no language barrier and I was not a foreigner to them. I didn’t need to be extra enthusiastic or look and be my best self. This is hard and draining, and although I have loved nearly every moment of my time in Taiwan, its not easy. I wasn’t ready to dive back into this for another six months.
For some reason I found this goodbye harder than the first goodbye. Although I can’t quite explain this, I think it was that I was finally feeling whole again and rediscovering a part of me I hadn’t realized I had missed so much. I said goodbye to my family the night before because I knew it would be an early morning the next day. Needless to say, the next morning at Taipei Main Station saying goodbye I was a mess. I definitely attracted some looks as I sobbed my way over to my train to Hualien, and took off looking forlornly out the window. I knew I just needed time to readjust back to my routine and school schedule, and seeing my students would definitely remind me of my purpose and place here in Taiwan. But for now, I just needed time to be sad and reflect. Thankfully, Chinese New Year was just around the corner and it would soon be time for a much longer and needed rest.
I’m spending the next few weeks embracing my favorite home sickness cures. I’m spending lots of time at the cat cafe, and I was lucky enough to find a delicious version of vegetarian shepard’s pie! And of course, spending lots of time with my Taiwan ETA family who I know are always there for me no matter what. Reflecting back, I’m so grateful to have a family and boyfriend who are willing to travel halfway across the world to visit me, despite the expensive plane tickets and for my mom, a terrible fear of flying. I am confident that wherever I go they will always be there supporting me and I’m extremely lucky to have these people in my life. But for now, onward to the coming adventures of Chinese New Year (traveling outside of Taiwan!) and Ben and Hannah’s upcoming visit!