Taiwan, my Chocolate Factory

Prelude

A meeting over a cup of coffee with a friend sealed my fate. I was going to Taiwan. His advice was get a ticket.

During that time my passport was expired from 1995. The novice traveler argued that it was best to wait for a passport.  My sage friend countered my argument by saying buying a ticket would only allow me to put off my plan until the desire diminished.

To the sage I listened. I purchased a ticket. I let few of my friends know about plan. The next thing I knew, my friends Jun and, his girlfriend, Din were tagging along.

The plan started to take shape. From the realm of my imagination it,came the ticket. Then came my passport, and eventually the visa. It was going to happen. While my itinerary was mainly focused on Tainan and Jiufen, my friends did the groundwork for the Taipei itinerary.

The Arrival

We found ourselves chilling at the Taoyuan Airport. Literally. Their air conditioning system must have been top notch. We expected that going outside would spare us from the cold. It did not. The winds outside only made it worse for us.

There was a man in a suit, who appeared to be an airport assistant at first glance. He helped us put our luggage into the trunk of the cab. The mysterious fellow then took the driver’s seat. He was the cab driver. Before he stepped on the gas pedal, he made sure that we pay him and an extra $100 NT because of the holiday rate. He started the car and blazed the road.

The ride to Ximending was like we were in Fast and Furious. Vin Diesel had nothing on this guy. He drove with all his cool while bobbing his head to a Jazz tune playing on the radio. All ended well as we got to our transient home unharmed, body parts intact. The dude even had the courtesy to call our host at 3 A.M. in the tell our landlord we had arrived.

Taipei 101 and Getting to Tainan

That morning we woke up excited because we were going to Taipei 101. We bought our Easycards, and headed to the tower.

We went to the 89th floor of the Taipei 101 via one of the fastest elevators in the world. We got there in less than a minute. The view from the tower was breathtaking.

We had our not-so-food-court-like-costing Lunch on the ground floor of the commercial buildings. And had our dumplings at  Din Tai Fung, aa restaurant famous for their Xiao Long Bao.

That afternoon I parted ways from my friends because I was leaving for Tainan. But not without any internet connection, not to mention losing my data cable on the way to Taipei 101. So I looked for a store where I could hit two birds with one stone.

A store clerk, whose name I forgot, assisted me in getting me a sim card and a data cable. When he told me that there was no prepaid regular SIM card, he offered the one that would allow me to have unlimited data for 7 days. The only takeaway was that I could not make any calls, or send text messages, which wasn’t too bad of a deal as I relied heavily on the internet for communication. The best part was it was free. I only had to sign some papers and show them my passport and another valid id (my tax id). I just wished they were not deportation papers.

Going there was also an opportunity to ask how I can get to the Taiwan High Speed Railway (THSR) station. He gave me these options:

a) Taipei Main Station

b)Nangkang Station

But he later said that option B was better because it was the first THSR station. Since I would not choose to go for any reserved seats, it would be easier to get a good seat. Yet another piece of advice, but I did not take was I go to Kenting, similar to a tropical paradise. Maybe next time.

So I went to Nangkang station. I used my THSR ticket to enter the platform, but it didn’t work. So I gave it another try, but it was still no go.  I asked for assistance. The origin station I had chosen was Taipei, instead of Nangkang (which was $35 NT cheaper). To fix the problem, I just paid for the difference.

Return to Taipei Faux Pas

Upon my return to Taipei, I took the Tze Chiang Limited express as advised by Tainan local. He told me that taking a regular train, would give you a better view of Taiwan scenery. Unfortunately I did not get to see much because the train left Tainan at six o clock. It was already dark.

I took out my passport because I had not booked my Airbnb home for the rest of stay in Taiwan. I initially intended to stay in Shilin because of its night market.And its host required me to scan one of ids,but the efforts to scan the passport were futile. (Not sure if it was the Airbnb’s ID scanning service feature, or because my data connection was intermittent) Out of my frustration. I threw my passport back into the bag.

As the train was approaching Taipei Main Station— like a shrewd traveler would do, I checked for the things if they were intact. Except that it didn’t seem like I have my passport there, and I wasn’t smart enough to remember where I put it. My heart was racing. I was only a few stations away. The people shifted their attention to me as I was pulling all of things out of my bag.

It was an understatement: “Never lose your passport. Lose everything except for your passport” And I was minutes away from turning my vacation into a nightmare.

Or so it seemed.

The passport was pressed between the secret compartment and the inner sheath of the bag. I was safe. There was no need to appear National TV to ask for help. After losing face the situation, I told the old man who was in 60 or 70’s that I ‘d found my passport. He later started a talking to me. There was barely any English words. By some sort of trance, I somehow deciphered that he was asking where I was from. “Philippines”, I said, but “Manila”  had a better recall to him. He also wanted to know where I was staying in Taiwan and the places I had visited.

He suggested I visit a place. “Beitou” I thought he said. I was confident because I had seen a video on Youtube about it. He had a dissatisfied look on his face because I wasn’t quite getting it. So I took out my phone and looked for images of Beitou on the internet. He wasn’t happy with my progress, so I used google maps instead. It turns out he was referring to the Xinbeitou (Old Beitou) all along. To him it was the best place in Taiwan, and he was telling me to visit it.

The next words he said was indecipherable. My limited knowledge Mandarin  (as if I had any) had reached its peak. I kept asking him what he wanted to say. Sensing that we’re not going anywhere with our conversation, a soft spoken young man came into our rescue. With unease with his translation, the twenty-something said that the old man telling me to call him, so he could take me to Xinbeitou.

Because I could not make any calls in Taiwan, he just left me his phone number. When the nice man reached his station, he gave me his well wishes for my trip. The old man shook my hand as he reached his destination.

Back in Taipei

I didn’t meet the old man the following morning. Instead, I joined my friends, Jun and Din who were flying back to Manila; and Celest, their colleague.Who knows if I might have ended up scrubbing the old man’s back in Beitou?

Before parting ways with Jun and Din, we had our dinner at Ximen area.  We noticed the place was teeming with people. so we decided to give it at try. The kicker was they only had three food items in their menu: Noodles, Rice Noodles, and Duck.

It was homegrown cooking at its finest.

The Lantern Festival

I took the train to Ximen station where I had agreed to meet Celest. It was the Lantern Festival Celebration. They had stages set at various locations to match the Chinese New Year theme. The main stage, which aimed to amuse the children, was at Ximen starion. Because of the event, the trains were unusually crowded as it carried children and their parents who were going to see the main stage show. The regular exit from the station was crowded, so I decided to take on a different path. I followed the sign that said,”Lantern Festival” only to find out it was a warp zone. It took me to the other side of the station.

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The show was for kids. There a was a mascot, and the set that boasted a chick half out that from an egg that just hatched to match the Year of the Rooster theme on display. There were also performers were in animal costumes, and machines that spewed bubbles to match the evening’s festive mood.

It felt like I was ready to document to take on the world with my camera. I pulled the camera from its pouch, and pressed the button to turn it on. Nothing happened. I was armed with a camera that had no batteries. They were left in my room in New Taipei.

We went to the Raohe Market via the Blue Line, got off Houshanpi station, and took about 30 min walk to Raohe Market. We were following a travel guide off the internet which apparently wasn’t the best one. All could have been avoided, had we taken MRT from Ximen to Songshan station. No transfers needed.

We took pictures of the magnificent temple and the beautiful lanterns, and decided to just eat all of our blunders away in the best tasting food Roahe Market had to offer.

Xinbeitou and Jiufen

It was Sunday when I heeded the old man’s call to go to Xinbeitou— without him.

Betitou station was 16 stations away from Dongmen station, the transfer station the to the red line (if you are to board the orange line from Nanshijiao) It then required one transfer to the Xinbeitou line (Pink Line) from Beitou Station.

Xinbeitou station was not like any other station. It had an artsy display of faceless people enjoying the hot springs.  A train covered with a cartoon art arrived. The train ride was rather short, made longer by train’s sluggish pace. Outside the train station, it was even more beautiful.

As I walked towards the mountains. The view became greener. There were huge trees on the sidewalk. So were other plant species. It was a nature lover’s paradise. The plum trees by the side of a house-like structure that was inspired by old Japan were a visual treat as well.

The Taipei Public Library, an eco-friendly structure, was also popular with the tourists. Visitors had to leave their things, including their electronic gadgets ( if I remember correctly). So I decided not to go into the green library, and just took pictures of it from the outside.

Bathing in the hot springs was another activity I could have enjoyed there. But  upon checking the rules and regulations at the public bath house, I realized they were too complicated for me. The place was also getting crowded— taking a dip was no longer an option. I kept walking, and followed the sign to the Thermal Valley.

Steam arose from the hot spring, which was the source of the bath water Xinbeitou needed for its bathhouses. The old man was on point . Xinbeitou was the best place. Each spot just begged for your attention.

After the hot springs, it was time to cool down in Jiufen.  Back at Beitou, station, I asked  the receptionist some information on how to get to Jiufen. A middle aged man was nice enough to add more information. He was also on the train I boarded, where he was sitting few seats away from me. Before he got off at his station, he reminded me to get off Taipei Main Station.

I got off at Taipei Main Station, and transferred to the Blue Line going to Zhongxiao Fuxing,  as the man  had advised. As I was looking for the bus stop for bus no. 1062, the bus that would take me to Jiufen, a man approached me. He was holding a sign that had the number of the bus I needed to take. Only that it was not for the bus, it was for a taxi ride.

The man holding the sign led me to 4 people who were on the sidewalk. A group of tourists, accompanied by with the driver, were looking for last person to share the taxi fare with. And I was the perfect their candidate.

The cabbie was more adept in speaking Japanese as his English speaking skills were only subpar. He spoke Japanese mostly during the trip for the sake of the Japanese tourists on the backseat. During the trip; he played  testimonial videos of his previous Japanese passengers. Marketing stuff. The video was also shown to rid off any suspicion of driver’s intentions.  Apparently, the  driver had a good sense of humor– to the Japanese; as the tourists from Japan: Kaho, Airi, and Chika were laughing most of the time.

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The gust of wind blew past us as we got off, as if the mountain climate was not enough. It took me a while to get the jacket from the bag. My senses were betraying me. Any smart traveler wouldn’t have gone there just wearing a shirt.

Because I had only drunk Egg and Honey Milk Tea at Xinbeitou, I was hungry. Time for a break. I looked for the that didn’t cost as much, but was novel to my taste buds. The Vegetarian Red Vinasse Taiwanese Meatball, and a bowl of soup fit the description.

Aside from taking pictures of the place that inspired Hayao Miyazaki for his Spirited Away setting, I was also on a quest to get black tea for my cousin, and get pineapple cakes back in home country. At the end of my trip I was not able to bring home any of those heavenly cakes from Jifuen with me because there only few stores that accepted Visa cards.

Final Day in Taipei: Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Jin Feng Braised Pork

After eating breakfast my host Shinghuei prepared,  I went to Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial. The weather was relatively warm the other day, so I left the jacket at the house. Big mistake. Only five minutes after leaving the house, the cold weather started seeping through my skin. Running to the train station would only give temporary comfort. Even though the winds at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial were brutal, it was not enough to stop me from capturing the moment on my camera.

Before leaving Taiwan, Celest recommended that I eat at Jin Feng  Braised Pork. She said the it was only a short walk away from CKS Memorial station Exit 2. Yes, a short work if I had known where Exit 2 was.

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I had already trotted around the walls of CSK memorial before getting to place  where they served the golden braised pork. Not too long after I was asked to join the queue, I got a seat.

The couple in their golden years, whom I sat with, looked at me. The woman whispered something to her husband. The wife looked at me and smiled. The husband said his wife whispered a compliment about my looks. A good icebreaker.

I planned to leave New Taipei at 6:00 pm. My host asked me if I could stay for some sweet potatoes. Afraid that I was pressed for time, I politely declined the offer. After thanking her for having been a gracious host, we had a groupfie with her cat, Hola.

 Reflection:

My  plan for this trip started on an blank slate. The sketchy plan of “just getting there” was completed through a series of events we could coincidences. serendipity. happy accidents— whatever you’d like to call it. They filled the gaps I had on my itinerary, thus making this trip a worthwhile adventure.

The ticket I bought on September 4, 2016 was my Golden Ticket. Taiwan was my Chocolate Factory. Except that in it, it had night market street food, nougat,  and pineapple cakes.

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