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Chinese New Year in Taiwan

 

Taiwan-map_edit

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I spent 8 days in Taiwan, and no more than two nights in one location. The itinerary looked like this: 

Night 1: Taipei

Nights 2 and 3: The Sun Moon Lake

Nights 4 and 5: Taichung

Night 6: Jiufen

Night 7: Taipei

Night 8: Taoyuan (by the airport)

Normally I like to park down in one place for a while, so I was a little weary toward the end. On the other hand, I saw quite a lot of the country.

Early on the morning before I flew out, there’d been an earthquake in Tainan, shutting down all trains south of Taichung. It didn’t change my travel plans or hamper my safety, but it meant I spent more time checking the reports while I was in transit. As a result, I didn’t realize the extent of the damage until I got back to Korea.

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News about the earthquake on the bus to Nantou County.

Not speaking the local language was a problem in some cases, but not in the ways I’d thought. I was a little overwhelmed by how very little I could understand; in Korea and even Japan, I can understand enough of the language to get by. Lost in the middle of a major national holiday and unable to communicate, I sometimes felt like a deaf-mute at a party I hadn’t been invited to.

Thankfully, Taiwan is full of really sweet people who will step in if they notice a visitor in distress. I can’t count the number of strangers who randomly translated something for me, gave me a recommendation for a cool local site to visit, or helped me find something I was looking for. Every time I spoke to someone, I felt like they wanted to make sure I had the best possible experience in their country.

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My first stop, the Sun Moon Lake, was worth the trip out. I figured a lot of things would be closed on New Year’s Eve—the day I arrived at the lake—so I thought I’d prefer to spend some time outdoors and walk around. I spent New Year’s Day walking to Wenwu Temple and sitting outside with some milk tea and a notebook at a café by the Bamboo Gardens on the lake’s north side. My goal was not to work too hard. I think I succeeded on that front.

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Wenwu Temple. 

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A café with exactly the view (and minimal crowds) I’d been looking for. 

The next stop, Taichung, was intended to be a place to park for a little while en route to Taipei, but proved to be worth a visit in its own right. There’s a lot more green space and varied architecture in Taichung in comparison with Taipei. I spent much of my time walking around and admiring the scenery. 

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Since I had more unstructured time in Taichung, I tried to see some unique local sites as well as some of the more typical “Taiwanese” sites.

The first thing I did when I arrived was take a bus out to the Rainbow Village. It’s not really a village, proper, but rather a small army base. The entire thing was painted over four years by one man, and now it’s become a popular tourist attraction. Try to see it if you can!

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Being the art museum enthusiast that I am, I’m also going to plug the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, which presents a remarkable collection of contemporary Taiwanese art. I especially liked the collection of art from young Taiwanese artists, which focused on the theme of dreams.

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Above: Building on the Tree by Ma Chun-Fu. I don't think this one is part of the gallery on dreams, but it looks like it could have been. I was obviously on a Studio Ghibli kick. 

Taichung is where I explored Taiwan’s food culture. There are a couple unique spots for this in town, including... 

Chun Sui Tang’s original restaurant, where the bubble tea craze began:

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Tasty, but a little overpriced. They spoke English, though.

Miyahara Ice Cream is across the street from the main train station, and not far from where I was staying, so I had to check it out. If you go, you’ll recognize it by the long line. The servers expedite the ordering process for you by handing you a list of the ice cream flavors to help you choose your dessert:

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(Just so you know, 180 Taiwanese dollars is about $5.50 USD.)

You might notice there’s a large variety. For example, these were the types of chocolate ice cream available that night:

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My final concoction was one scoop of Venezuela 72% dark chocolate, one scoop of Kumquat lemon, a piece of cheesecake, some sliced bananas (on the opposite side of the bowl, I swear), and a monkey-shaped New Year’s cookie in a waffle cone. It was delicious. 

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Of all the recommendations I had from my friends who’ve been to Taiwan, I was told every time to visit a night market or two. Even though things seem to open pretty early in Taiwan, the Taiwanese obviously have a prominent night culture as well. When do these guys sleep? 

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I was a little concerned about visiting the night market alone, being female and obviously from out of town. I didn’t bring anything valuable that I didn’t need with me, but there wasn’t very much for me to worry about. If anything, I felt welcomed by strangers waiting in line, who struck up conversations or recommended particular food items. These are some of the things I sampled:

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Above: stinky tofu. You can smell it from up the street.

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So-called wax apples. (Yes, they’re edible.) Pretty tasty!

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Imagawayaki, a custard- or sweet red bean-filled treat brought over from Japan. It’s like boong eo bbang

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My personal favorite: fried mushrooms. The picture does not do it justice.

Go to the night market for dinner, and sample everything to your heart’s content. Thank goodness you do a lot of walking between stalls!

After Taichung I made my way north of Taipei to Jiufen, a mining village that has become a popular tourist attraction. It came to my attention when a friend of mine informed me that the spirit world in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was partially inspired by the narrow, winding streets of the old town, which still bear traces of their former life as a Japanese colony. Since I knew it was a popular attraction, I went there on a weekday. On a national holiday, unfortunately, it didn’t make much of a difference. This was the view en route to the guest house: 

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In Jiufen, I fell in with a couple of tourists from mainland China. We wandered the rainy streets, tried snacks from some of the vendors, and then holed ourselves up in a tea house to wait out the bad weather. Once the skies cleared, the view got even better. We decided to go exploring.

 

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We found the Ah Mei Teahouse, famous for having supposedly influenced the Spirited Away. There weren’t any baths nearby, but there was a flood of Korean tourists.

To appreciate Jiufen without the crowds, stay overnight and get out early in the morning. I promise you won’t regret it.

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As much as I loved Jiufen, the rest of my trip was still waiting for me. I left rather early from town and made my way back to Taipei. There’s far more to do in Taiwan’s capital than I would ever have had time for in two days, but I did my best to mix tourist obligations with the things I actually wanted to see.

At the recommendation of another friend, I took the gondola up to Maokong to have a fancy tea set and take in the view. I whiled away the afternoon drinking tea, writing, and people-watching, which is basically how I’d like to spend the rest of my life. Taipei was especially hot, even in February, and it was great to escape the heat and the crowds.

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I went to the equally-crowded Taipei 101 out of obligation, but unfortunately didn’t know Taipei well enough to be able to appreciate much of its night view. I had a better time getting to know Taipei when I walked around to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, where I could watch groups of college kids practicing their dance routines and see pairs of runners getting in some exercise once the temperature had cooled.

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Before Taiwan was even on my travel radar, I’d read about 24-hour bookstores in Taipei. Do I need to tell you what I did next?

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It was such a relief to wait in line to go up the Taipei 101 and know that I wouldn’t have to hurry out to Eslite before it closed, because Eslite never closes. I went in around 8 PM and found it full of customers crouched in corners and on steps, reading whatever books weren’t sealed in plastic wrap. The Dun Nan branch of the store has a pretty nice selection, even if you can’t read Chinese characters. I had fun looking at translations of some of the texts I know, and flipping through the art books.

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Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, translated into Chinese.

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An art book of the storyboards from the original Star Wars trilogy.

While I was in Japan, I bought some Haruki Murakami books (translated into English) as a souvenir for my trip. I’d been hoping to do the same for an undetermined Taiwanese writer, but didn’t have much luck on that front. The closest I got was the two-volume unabridged translation of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which I’d love to read when I’ve got the time, but even one book from the set would have been too expensive for my backpacker budget and too heavy to carry home.

At 8:30 PM, a wave of customers swept in. I stood in line and watched a young man with a pile of books sift through his red pocket (New Year’s) money and see if he had enough to pay for everything he was going to buy. I’ve bellyached about the state of reading in Korea before. Taiwan rekindled the spark of hope in my dark, smoldering heart.

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My last morning in Taipei was a mad rush to see some last things, including a trip out to the National Palace Museum (nice collection, but far, far too crowded to really appreciate the items within), before I rushed out to my hotel in Taoyuan for the night. It was an early flight back to Seoul the next morning.

So much happened in such a small space of time that I feel like I’m still processing my experience in Taiwan. What is there to say? I was impressed by how many kind people I met, and how welcome I felt there—even though it was pretty obvious from people’s reactions to my presence that they don’t often get solo, obviously-foreign female travelers over the New Year holiday. But that meant I had a better view of Taiwan: a little big country with warm, down-to-earth people. I hope to go back someday.

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