A Trip to Taiwan

7 min read by Dmitri and Betty. Published in Essays, Stories.

In Thailand, school is out for March and April. That’s also when the burning season begins. During this smoky time when the farmers light dry vegetation on fire to clear the path for more crops, it’s best to just go away. Our city, Chiang Mai, is especially bad as it’s surrounded by mountain ranges which prevent winds from carrying the orange smoulder away. Thankfully, this year we’ve got a solid travel plan, away from the terrible air.

Betty and I heard good things about Taiwan, which is typically enough for us to buy tickets and fly (transportation being relatively cheap around East Asia). Which we did.

Bangkok.

There aren’t any direct flights from Chiang Mai to Taipei. Even if there were, it’s almost always cheaper to fly to Bangkok and then to an international destination. With that in mind, we planned to spend two days in Bangkok, a city we knew fairly well on our way to Taiwan.

“Asiatique Ferris Wheel,” shot with a four-second exposure on Instax Mini 90.

Betty and I have been here on various (brief) occasions which were usually for business or transit. A leisurely two-day stay as a wind-up mini-trip before hitting up a new country felt like a great way to get to know the capital better.

Long walks along the canals and park lanes, a ride on a water taxi and a visit to the local fair. Bangkok, being a unique and diverse city, did not require searching for an adventure. For a casual visitor, like ourselves, even the most unremarkable ventures tend to bring about surprises.

One of those ventures was our day at the mall complex. The sheer size of it (hectares upon hectares of multi-level downtown shopping) has dazzled us. In its entirety, we’ve spent the day walking around with jaws unhinged, though we have decided to save our money and baggage space for travel to the next destination.

Landing in Taipei and getting acquainted with Taiwan.

After our stay in Bangkok ended, we took a plane due to arrive in Taipei at 4 AM.

A double-exposed photograph at the Exhibition centre in Taipei. Instax Mini 90.
“Prayers and Offerings” — a double-exposed photograph from the Lungshan Temple in Taipei. Instax Mini 90.

Immediately upon landing, Taiwan has impressed us with its cleanliness, which seemed to persist as we travelled around the island during the next two weeks.

The airport express train took us to downtown Taipei. As we looked out of the window, getting acquainted with the colours, shapes, and movements of the new country, the first thing we noticed was nature. The vegetation is wasn’t nearly as lush is it is in Thailand. No deep, dark greens of large-leaved tree canopies, no intense shades of bamboo forests. Though Taiwan is still a tropical country, its greens are light, sparse, almost identical by texture to eastern Canadian forests.

Drowsy from a red-eye flight we dragged our backpacks onto the street, looking for the motel. As soon as we stepped onto the pavement a heard of scooters zoomed no more than an inch away at breakneck speeds.

The food is more expensive than in Thailand, although public transit is priced very reasonably, and booze cost less than half of what we’d have to dish out in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Counting the currency in a new country, as it turns out, is far more complicated than figuring out the conversion rate; things are just priced differently.

The coffee shops in Taipei did not impress us, not in the least. Perhaps it’s impossible to have them as good as they are in Chiang Mai, being the city at the foot of a mountain covered with plantations. We switched to bubble tea. The abundance of shops that sold it, the quality, the flavours, the selection made replacing our drink of choice easy; a pleasant alteration.

Jiufen.

A small town which once used to mine gold is located on the hillside right next to the sea. It’s just about an hour by bus from Taipei.

Our arrival was met with intense rain and chilly ocean gusts. The misery of shivering chills added, rather than taking away, to the experience. The town that hugs the sloping rock glistened in the rain under the dark clouds as the blood-red lanterns lit the tunnelling walks through its main streets. Setting the mood for wanderlust.

“Night Lanterns at Jiufen Market” - shot with Instax Mini 90.

As the night swooped over the once busy tourist streets we went for a walk to catch some of the creepy vibes Hayao Miyazaki portrayed in his movies, inspired by Jiufen long time ago on his visit.

Cherry blossom tree in Jiufen. Shot on Instax Mini 90.

Taroko & Hualien.

Up until we’ve reached Taroko trails, laid in the mountains above Hualien city, we’ve enjoyed mostly restful dwells around Asian metropolitan areas. But the style of our vacation has changed dramatically upon arrival in this mining town.

We took a route through the closed highway tunnel that terrified us to the bone. In retrospect, I’m still not sure why we ignored the signs that read “danger: unstable, falling rock!” at the entrance.

We walked at least 50 kilometres all-together along the narrow paths and stairs reaching over one thousand meters in altitude.

During this exhaustive three-day trekking adventure we managed to witness some incredible exposed rock along the way and the tunnels which burrowed through it for miles and miles. The tallest peak on the island (which we haven’t reached) is higher than Japan’s Mt. Fuji. The centre of the island is so rugged that it’s practically inaccessible by land — we got the gist of how difficult it could be navigating such landscape as we huffed along the edgy cliffs.

As we strolled along the highway some tunnels would double as the construction tends to expire fairly quickly after years of high seismic activity native to Taiwan. There seems to be no end to the work in the rock, burrowing through the unstable terrain.

I read a plaque about an engineer who got swooped by a landslide along with his entire crew while building the bridge that bears his name. “Taiwan is built on a constantly-changing landscape” — it read.

“Taroko Mountain Highway” - shot on Instax Mini 90.

Sun Moon Lake.

Betty remembers Sun Moon Lake since her years at the kindergarten. Being only an hour away from Taipei we went.

The colour given by the limestone compounds dissolved in the water was an incredible teal-blue, it pulled our gaze throughout the bicycle ride around its body.

“Emerald-Green Waters of Sun Moon Lake” - shot on Instax Mini 90.
“A Boat Approaching the Docks” - shot on Instax Mini 90.
Perhaps best-composed and best-lit photo from the entire trip. “The Boat and its Buoy” - shot on Instax Mini 90.

Taiwan was good. It felt comfortable, safe and easy to get around (at least while in Taipei).

The island has a turbulent and interesting history, phenomenal culture, and, undoubtedly, a notable position on the world’s political landscape. I’m glad we were there for a while, away from the smouldering ashes of dead crops in Chiang Mai.