Taiwan, part 1 – arrival

The east coast looking north from Shitiping, Hualien

“And we’re off!” joyfully flashed through my mind as I was looking at the station through the window of a bus leaving for Prague. Finally. We were leaving for New Zealand.

It was the end of winter in 2013 and our long-standing dream finally came true. My girlfriend and I were finally headed somewhere outside Europe. The first stop was Taiwan.

The main thing we wanted to see in Taiwan were its beautiful national parks. Discouraged by the requirement to arrange permits for various areas of Taiwan’s national parks up to a month in advance, we had decided we were just going to wing it, as well as everything else on this beautiful island. Make it sort of a getting-to-know visit. It turned out to be a good idea for the most part and certainly made our visit more interesting.

Taroko National Park
Taroko National Park

We got on board an early morning flight with China Airlines from Prague to Amsterdam and then from Amsterdam to Bangkok, where the leaving passengers received instructions – first in Chinese, but there were a few English words clearly audible throughout the monologue as well, in a nice succession: “…engine…blow up…get out…start crying.” Judging from the reaction of two girls a few seats back, I was not the only one who heard that. Contrary to the stoically delivered information of doom, the engine didn’t blow up, and after a short break in Bangkok, we made the last leg to Taipei. This journey from Prague to Taipei was my first time flying, and I spent much of the time looking out the window. The highlights were the snow-covered Tatra Mountains (Tatry) in Slovakia and the meandering reddish rivers and dustroads of the same color in the green rainforests of South East Asia. And of course the ocean. We flew around Himalayas at night, so perhaps next time. I also have to give it up for China Airlines, an absolutely great experience.

The front gate of the National Chiang Khai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei
The front gate of the National Chiang Khai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei

We repacked at the Taipei airport and left the unnecessary stuff at the left luggage office. Our wing-it approach hit the first minor obstacle when we asked the lady at the information desk where the nearest campsite was. Well, as we later found out, there are about seven campsites in all of Taiwan. Apparently, camping is not big here. But we probably weren’t the first ones to have come unprepared, and the lady produced a list of hostels and called one of the cheap ones for us. She and her colleague were very nice about it, which we later found out to be typical for Taiwanese people – very nice and accommodating people, ready to help anyone anywhere. You don’t even have to ask – they just see a foreigner with a map looking for a way and they help on their own initiative. That was something new for us, a very pleasant surprise indeed. A side note for those who have visited SE Asia before – it is not like in Thailand or Cambodia, where the act of helping is usually the start of a more or less elaborate scheme to extract money from you; in Taiwan, the helping is sincere, selfless.

Since the airport is not in the city itself, we got on the shuttle bus from the airport to the city. The journey took about forty minutes, if I remember correctly. The bus dropped us at the train station in the center, and we started looking for the street with our hostel. At this point, we already stank quite a bit since we hadn’t showered for almost two days and didn’t change our clothes at the airport. Also wearing pants was not a good idea, especially since we came straight from the freezing temperatures back in Europe to a very humid climate with temperatures around 25°C. But as I stated above, the Taiwanese are very nice people, and despite our appearance, it didn’t take long and a nice lady asked us what we were looking for. We showed her the address written on a piece of paper by the airport information lady. The nice lady thought about it for a while, during which another 5 or 6 people joined our little orientation session. Finally, after a brief discussion with the others, the lady took us to our hostel and even gave us her business card, saying we could contact her in case we needed anything. This was another one in the long line of selfless, hospitable acts we were yet to encounter during our stay in Taiwan.

The inconspicuous entrance to our hostel – a tiny door among many shops and street buffets

Practical note – maps and orientation

We bought a map back in the Czech Republic, but there is no need for it – you can get very good free maps at the airport or at any information center around the island, both bilingual (in Latin and Chinese scripts) and in Chinese script alone. We ended up using these free maps.

We got by fine with English, a Chinese dictionary, and hand gestures. The main touristic points, stations, and public transport connections are English-friendly. Since the maps were bilingual, it was easy to figure out when and where the buses go at small bus stops as well, despite the timetables being only in Chinese characters.

Many people speak English in Taiwan, and those that don’t are patient and nice enough to communicate with using hand gestures, schematic drawings, and a Chinese dictionary. With the exception of the oldest generation, they all know Chinese (the primary language being Taiwanese), as we have been told by locals.

Taipei 101 from the Elephant Mountain
Taipei 101 from the Elephant Mountain

mj

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