Taipei: ‘Great Unexpectations’

August 1, 2011 Tessa Bradford 18 comments

Nothing went according to plan this weekend, and I wouldn’t change a thing from the way things actually happened.

Thursday after class I caught the slow (read: inexpensive) bus to Taipei with Nicole and the two Dans. Four and a half hours later we made it and met up with Nicole’s awesome friend, Kevin, who is living in Taipei for the year teaching English. He took us to our hostel, we dumped our bags, then headed out for drinks to relax and see a bit of the city.

We ended up at an outdoor bar, and were immediately greeted by Tim, a tipsy, colorful, and outgoing Taiwanese guy who had grown up in the states, and who was more than happy to see a group of Americans show up in his bar.  It didn’t take long before he pulled up a chair and joined our table, initiating drinking games and personal conversation, all while providing rounds of free drinks.

By the end of the night we were all fairly ridiculous. We parted ways with Tim with promises to meet up again soon, and charged into a restaurant and a 7-11 to get midnight noodles and Tiger tea, which we caused a bit of a commotion over.

By morning, our praises of Tim had turned into curses, but we made ourselves get up by around 10, we grabbed a big breakfast, then headed out to see some of the tourist spots.

Our first stop was Taipei 101, which is currently the second tallest building in the world. We went to the top and peered out across the city, which is a fairly impressive view. The city stretched on forever in some directions, but in others it was cut short by the steep Taiwanese mountains which jutted up into the clouds.

We stayed there longer than we had planned because we were so impressed by the scale of the city. But eventually we moved on to new sites.

The Chiang Kai-Sheck Memorial was next; it was really beautiful, but we showed up there just as it started to pour rain, so I don’t think we fully appreciated it. There was a main hall with a long marble staircase, and a huge statue of Chiang Kai-Sheck at the top. We didn’t stay too long, just snapped a few photos, then went to look for a place to get some food and sit down awhile.

That evening we decided to go and get massages, and got a recommendation from the person at the font desk in our hostel. She told us that there was a good place just across the street, so we headed over. When we walked in we all briefly hesitated; it was a little dingier than we had expected, but we were already there, the people were asking us what we wanted, so we decided to just stay. Me and the Dans opted for a foot massage plus a back massage, while Nicole and Kevin just got a neck rub. They were done fairly quickly, so they paid and then left to go walk around awhile. After our foot massage the masseuses led us upstairs to the tables, and things got weird.

It was a poorly lit hallway with random junk crowding the walkway, and three small partitioned areas with a table in each one. We all exchanged glances, but shrugged and went into our own little rooms. The partitions didn’t go to the ceiling, so we could still talk to each other.  Dan R’s masseuse had him change and hang his shorts up on a hanger, but Dan B and I were just told to lay down. As soon as my massage started I decided I didn’t care so much about the creepiness of the situation, but Dan R was on high alert.

His face was down in the table, so he couldn’t see, but he was paying close attention to his masseuse. About halfway through he noticed that the guy was only using one hand, and then he heard the ting of a belt buckle. He sprang up from his bed, and as soon as he did the masseuse hid his hand behind his back.

“What are you doing?”

I lifted my head at this point, not able to see what was going on in the next room, but listening closely.

“Dude, what are you doing?” Dan repeated. His masseuse brought his hand out from behind his back, and had Dan’s wallet with several very large bills tucked into his fingers. After a split second, the guy dropped the money and the wallet, and started trying to say in broken English— “It’s ok, it’s ok.”

“Guys, we’re leaving. Get up, we’re leaving now.” Dan called out to us. I was still moving slow, unsure what was happening, but I grabbed my purse. Dan B reacted quicker. He jumped up and headed for the door; his masseuse was standing in the doorway, confused by the shouts in English, but prepared to act if he needed to. Dan B scooted past him, and one of the Dans grabbed my arm and pushed me towards the stairway. The three masseuses were crowding around behind us, trying to make us stop. We charged down the stairs and grabbed our shoes as we went for the main door.

Dan R’s masseuse was still trying to make us stop; he followed us out into the street and was yelling in an awkward mix of Chinese and English, while Dan R yelled back in his own mix of language. Then Dan yelled, “Wo zhidao ni de difang!” (I know your place!) and pointed to the sign. The guy got the message, and slowly backed off.

We quickly got to the other side of the street, and went around the block so he wouldn’t see where we were staying. We were all on edge, but Dan had all of his money back and we were unharmed. We called Kevin and Nicole, and went to get dinner and calm our nerves.

As a disclaimer, you should know that the crime rate in Taiwan is extremely low. We just happened to stumble into the wrong place, but it turned out ok.

After dinner we went to Snake Alley, which is a night market where you can go to buy snake meat, or drink snake blood tea if you’re so inclined. I was not. And I was fairly creeped out seeing all the snakes in cages all over the place. But it was interesting to see, and I bought some little souvenirs for people back home. That was the end of our Friday; we were definitely ready for bed by the time we finally collapsed.

On Saturday we woke up early, with big plans to go to a place called Taroko Gorge, about 2 and a half hours away by train. We were at the station by 8am and ready to get on our way. Unfortunately, they were completely sold out of seats on every train until almost noon, which made the trip considerably less worthwhile. So we got some breakfast, rallied our spirits and picked a new place.

We decided to check out a little town just south of Taipei called Wulai. We weren’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be the perfect set of plans.

First we took the metro to the end of the line, then got on a bus to Wulai. There are no words for the experience we had on that bus. It was completely full, so we were packed like sardines and standing in the aisle, trying to hang on to any stable part of the bus we could get our hands on. The entire 30 minutes was like a wild roller coaster as the driver whipped around tight little corners going up and down the curvy mountainsides. People were being jostled and thrown back and forth, muttering “dui bu qi” (sorry) as they knocked into one another, and making every attempt to stop swinging and sliding from side to side.

We eventually made it to Wulai with big sighs of relief, and we headed down the main road to see what we could see. The main shopping area was filled with little stands selling trinkets and food; it is an aboriginal village, so the look and feel of the place was much more tribal than most of the other areas of Taiwan that I’ve seen so far, which are primarily influenced by Han culture.

At the end of the main road we crossed a bridge and followed signs that pointed towards a waterfall. It took us on a long walking trail that ran parallel to a crystal blue river far below flanked on either side by towering, jungle-covered mountains.

The waterfall came into view as we rounded one last corner. It was crashing down the mountain’s edge across the river from us, and the rest of little Wulai was on our side. We walked along the road through town, and found a ladder than I’m certain we weren’t supposed to climb that took us to a lower level of our mountain and provided a perfect view of the gushing water. 

From there we spotted a gondola that ran from one side of the river to the other, so of course we were all for going to see the other side. It wasn’t until we were ON the other side that we found out that there was a small amusement park up there.

With mango smoothies in hand we started to explore. There were boat rides and wading creeks and pirate swings and swimming pools. We found a beer bar, and the guys had a round or two while Nicole and I split a bottle of rice wine. From there we tipsily discovered that there were ostriches to feed and archery ranges to shoot at. I don’t know what this park was doing on that mountaintop; it was almost empty and we had the run of the place to ourselves. As Kevin described, it looked like the world if the apes got the planet. It was perfect.  

After a few hours of the mountaintop we headed back to the main part of Wulai. We grabbed some dinner, then wandered back and forth trying to find Wulai’s famous hot springs. It was dark by the time we did finally figure out where they were (of course they were right in front of us the whole time).

Right along the river bank there were several hot springs, so we would dip our toes into the burning water and ease our way into the pool, then after a minute or two we’d hop out and jump straight into the cool river water. We swam awhile and let our sore feet soak, then all too soon we were piling back on to the roller coaster bus and headed back for Taipei.

That night we cleaned up then headed out to try and find the Taipei nightlife. We stood in line for one club, but quickly realized it was almost all Americans in there, and not at all what we wanted for the Taipei experience, so we got some roughly outlined directions to another place, and set out down the street to find it. Sometime around 2am we headed into a club called Roxxy 99, which we’d been warned wasn’t really the best club, but the place to go if you only had one night in Taipei. It was basically a bar with a dance floor and a dj picking songs off of iTunes; we had a blast. We danced till 6 in the morning, then groggily found our way back to the hostel and passed out.

Sunday we slept all morning. Sometime around noon we headed out into the day and found an amazing waffle restaurant. We ate our fill, then stopped to see Lungshan Temple— one of the oldest in Taipei, where there was some sort of holiday going on.

There were tables in the main courtyard area that were stacked high with piles of food; fruits and breads and flowers were given as offerings to the gods, and there was a mass of people saying prayers and singing together. The air was thick with perfumes and the scent of the lotus flower was especially strong in the heat of the day. It would come wafting over with the slightest breeze and fill your nostrils with its sweet smell mixed with the puffs of incense smoke. I have seen a lot of temples since coming to Taiwan, but at Lungshan we really experienced the rituals of the Buddhist faith.

After that we headed to the bus station, almost missed our bus, got situated in our seats, and fell asleep. Four hours later and we were back in Pingtung.

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