I’ve hesitated for years about Taiwan, in part due to the language which has been prohibitive for me, despite how much friends of mine have said—and extolled—about this place. This time around, I have 3 travel companions with me and planning for all of them has been a bloody pain and travelling with them, an even bigger one.
But Taipei at least, has impressed me from the very start and reminds me (and this is a complete generalisation here) of what China might have been like had Maoist communism not taken root in the population. I found the people polite and incredibly service-oriented, almost like the Japanese in fact and at first glance, I’d wondered if I actually stepped back into Okinawa when I caught sight of the natural and urban landscape. Despite the language barrier, many tried to speak English and for that, I am beyond grateful and totally aware that I’m behaving akin to a privileged toff in the English-speaking world. The lack of time however—being on a day tour is a timely reminder why I don’t do these things normally in a bigger group—meant that most of it was spent slowing down considerably, and missing out on things that could have been explored.
A day tour with My Taiwan Tour conveniently provided us with an English-speaking guide and a drive northeast towards the old mining towns of Jiufen and Pingxi which have long been converted into tourist attractions. But on a surprise public holiday declared by the newly-elected Taiwan president, we found ourselves on a jam-packed road with half of Taipei determined to make the most use of the day off as well. And that was the start of a long and trying day where I spent most of the time waiting or sitting in a moving bus on a journey that took way longer than expected.
Jiufen (meaning ‘9 portions’) was originally named that way because there were only 9 families living there back in the day and ordering and hauling daily necessities simply became a matter of asking for 9 portions of all of those. From the carpark down below, it was uphill the whole way on narrow and rather steep stairs made treacherous by the sheer volume of tourists playing this route in a bid to look at the number of shops that dot these alleyways.
In Pingxi, sky lanterns are released by tourists painting their wishes or names on the thin paper who then get their photos taken as the lantern floats upwards. I spent the time hoping that no one’s roof caught fire.
I returned to Taipei, sweaty and absolutely knackered, then wondered if I could have done this on my own terms.