Monday, 19 October 2015

It doesn't always go your way: A super-typhoon during our visit to Taiwan

I remember looking at the weather section in the Taiwan guide book and clearly reading the warnings of typhoons during the summer months. A "grade ten" typhoon passed through Hong Kong while I was there and the worst I witnessed of the damage were fallen trees. It literally blew overnight and gave us clear skies the next day. "It wasn't so bad last time, how bad can it be next time?" I thought. This is the moment I looked back to as we walked through the damages of the typhoon: bent street signs, loose debris on the loose... being almost flown away by the wind. I would choose this time to back to and kick myself if I could. However, I knew I was in for trouble a while before the typhoon hit Taiwan, when we landed and loaded Facebook as soon as we connected to the hostel wifi: "Supertyphoon heading towards Taiwan in the next few days" was the first shared link I see. Shit.

Being in denial in Taichung   

My first move was not the smartest move. I thought, if I don't know when the typhoon is about to hit then I can keep being optimistic that it would never hit Taiwan while we're here. Sounds perfectly logical and scientific, right? So we put our heads down to stay naive and kept to our plan which was heading down to Taichung as our first destination. The city is located on the west coast of Taiwan and only half an hour away from Taoyuan Highspeed Railway Station. Our first sight of the trip was Lukang, a small town with beautiful temples and photogenic winding narrow streets. We started at Longshan Temple and then we followed the Lonely Planet street tour which guided us to some historically relevant sights between the temples (though not all as equally exciting... such as the Half-Well, ahem). We came back to Taichung in the late afternoon and took a break at Chun Shui Tang Teahouse, which is supposedly the birth place of Pearl Milk Tea.

Our last stop of the night was Fengjia Night Market - one of the biggest night markets in Taiwan. We thought that Taichung was very quiet city for one that is one of Taiwan's biggest but as we rode the bus into the night market, we realised we were clearly staying in the wrong part of town. You're not even near the entrance when you notice the mass crowd heading in one direction. Bright lights and smoke filled in the air and suddenly we were unloaded onto an endless chains of stalls and shops. I love night markets, so don't get me wrong when I say I was a little frustrated at the simultaneous overload and restriction of what my choices were. East Asia is not so easy when you have diet restrictions (they love their pork in East Asia) and top that language barrier, it can be really hard to get around food markets and to satisfy your hunger. 

Eye to Eye with the Typhoon in Taipei

The day we went up to Taipei was a relatively stressful one. We tried to find the Laughter Tea House and visit the Confucius Temple but both were closed. Having already wasted most of the day, we sulkily moved onto Taipei. As we were being shown to our rooms in Taipei, the staff joked how we arrived just in time for the typhoon and it was heading this weekend. As if the day couldn't get any worse. I couldn't be in denial anymore and so James and I put our heads together to make an itinerary around the the potential timing of the typhoon - what we wanted to see the most vs what sights are near each other. 

On our first day, I jumped out of bed to see sunshine and clear skies - we needed to make the most of this beautiful weather stat! We started the day with the Elephant Trail to get the breath taking view of the Taipei 101 tower among the rest if Taipei 101.  We then took a train to Longshan Temple, a beautifully intricate temple squeezed between regular residential and office blocks of Taipei. My second favourite place in Taipei was next on the list and it was the Chai Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, where the National Theatre and National Concert Hall can also be seen. We saw the Changing of the Guards and walked around the Gardens. In the evening, we went back to the Elephant Trail to catch a sunset view of the the Taipei 101. In the morning, the platforms were empty and all for us to make the most of but everyone is just waiting for the evening to get the money shot. The rain started coming in and it was the first sign of the approaching typhoon. I stayed until it hit pitch black but it wasn't without a little sacrifice of getting soaking wet. 

The rain were getting heavier and the wind was getting stronger, but we didn't let that tame our wanderlust. On our second day, we set out for the National Palace Museum which showcases some of the few treasures of China that were sent to Taiwan to protect from the Cultural Revolution. No trip to the National Palace Museum can be complete without a visit to the amazing Jade Pak Choi. While James and I love to indulge in a foreign country's culture, art has never been our forte (we prefer food culture) and could only spend a few hours before the visit felt like a drag. It didn't help witnessing new tourist buses overloading a new group every second and being swarmed by the growing crowds and tour groups. We made a visit to the Confucius Temple and Baoan Temple, which we had all to ourselves, before the rain became unbearable. In the evening, we explored more of Ximending, one of my favourite places of Taipei. I'm a shameless shopping addict and I loved the way Ximending came luminous and alive at night. This is where all the clothing stores, korean skin care and accessories can be found as well as some quirky food stalls. We ate some beef that had been BBQ'd with a blow torch, tried some baked potatoes with cheese and pineapple and enjoyed hotpot with duck liver. Ximending is the place to stay if you want to be at the centre of all the action. 

The eye of the typhoon swept over Taipei overnight. Every now and then I would wake up in the middle of the night to hear the heavy rain and the wind banging against the buildings. Unsurprising, weather for the third and fourth day weren't so great as the rest of the hurricane passed Taiwan. We thought we'd have a look at the damage and walked around Dihua streets in the morning where we were warned by a passing Police Officer to take care and we witnessed large pieces of debris being swirled and lifted once or twice. We went to see the Sat Yuan Sun Memorial, closed due to the typhoon, and decided to take pity on ourselves (on the current situation) by ending the day at Beer and Cheese Social House. The fourth day was less of a success: we planned to visit the Beitou Hot Springs but all the outdoor springs were closed due to cleaning up form the typhoon damages (you mean they didn't do it overnight?). Luckily the indoor hot springs where still on offer but they don't offer the same experience. We went back down to Shilin where a friend and her husband showed us about Shilin Night Market and we caught up on their life in Taiwan. He made us try Stinky Tofu, Buns and Shaved Ice. Shilin Night Market felt endless, every corner filled with new kinds of stalls ranging from clothes to food to toys... I could have seen myself getting submerged and lost at the next turn. 

Post Typhoon Recovery in North Taiwan

It soon became clear that we couldn't be optimistic about continuing our itinerary onto Hualien. Despite that being the main drive for our trip, we couldn't fight the struggles of the typhoon any longer as the National Park website declared all trails closed. Luckily North Taiwan still had a lot to offer in terms of beauty and culture, so we grabbed a train to Jiufen on our penultimate full day. For those who love Ghibli Studio movies would know that this place is one of Miyazaki's inspiration. Beautifully decorated with lanterns, the place looks pretty at day but even more spectacular night. We spent most of our time at the Jiufen Tea House and then walking around the streets and picking our a tea set to pass the time until night. We didn't have any plans to stay for or after sunset but I had a hunch that we should. We noticed the tourists gathering on the streets and we joined in to see the beautiful lit buildings. Unfortunately, Jiufen is very tightly squeezed together, the narrow side streets may be fun to explore during the day but it becomes suffocating and difficult to bear with the extremely busy crowd. The streets were filled wall to wall with people and the police had to come in and control the crowd. Our memories of Jiufen still reflect the tea houses and lanterns, which I look back at warmly. 

Our last night we went out on a bang. A trip to Taiwan would not be complete with a visit up to the Taipei 101 (thought the view of Taipei 101 is much better than the view from 101).  The love of mascots if definitely clear as you learn about O Bear and the Damper Babies. We then headed up to Shifen Railway Station. The railway station is on the Pingxi Branch Line, a former coal mine railway that is mow a photography paradise for the Taiwanese Youths but more famously, the site of theAnnual Lantern Festival. Visitors can come in during any time of the year to decorate their own sky lantern which they can realise into the sky... we couldn't resist!  

We still had half a day left before we caught our flight to Yogyakarta. Hualien was still off limits (sadly) so there was only one plan we hadn't visited it: Yehliu National Geopark. Now, the word "Geopark" may give you the impression of spectacular geological formations and dramatic landscapes when in reality Taiwanese love this park because if you squint hard enough, the rocks look like things. There are rocks that look like candles, birds, ginger. The highlight of the park is the rock that looks like a "Queen's head"... maybe if you look at it from a specific angle. Visitors have fun running from one rock to another, trying to find out what it's suppose to look like while the park staff spend their whole day blowing this whistle telling pesky tourists they are crossing the line.

Lessons Learnt from the Experience

This isn't the first time I've told myself not to go to East Asia during the summer - Last year in China we experienced miserable rains during the time we stayed in Hangzhou and in Thailand, we had flee from the monsoon once per day. Now that I don't have fixed holidays, I have more freedom to choose when to travel (if I am on top of my work). Looking at the climate will be my second top priority when choosing somewhere to travel and I'll focus looking at travelling during shoulder seasons when I can. What to do if I have no choice but to travel during low season? I need to learn to be flexible - or be willing to spend more money and research how the typhoon affects different parts of the country. Looking back on my Taiwan trip, I should have made a typhoon friendly plan. I know the west coast is less affected by typhoons and speaking retrospectively, I would have done Hualien first and then Taichung last. More importantly, I need to check the weather!

It wasn't all gloom and doom for my trip to Taiwan. I do feel a little selfish complaining about a typhoon during a trip when this is a regular occurrence in numerous countries which always end with devastations. But no typhoon can keep Taiwan's spirits down and even when the hurricane was still moving over Taiwan, the people were already at work to restore Taiwan to normalcy. Taiwan is one of those countries what treat their tourists like guests. Despite the language barrier, people were prepared to go out of their way to help us. If we looked like we were struggling to find which bus to go on, they'll stay by us and point out which one to take, when we tried to take photographs of the sunset, a photographer gave up her spot for me and when we tried to order food they'd respond with such enthusiasm that I felt like I was in a surreal child's TV show. Taiwan was a incredibly beautiful country for its culture, atmosphere and especially for its people.  

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