Saturday, January 1, 2011

Traveling in Taiwan

As our train pulls out from the Taipei Main Station for our home in Kaohsiung I reflect back on this past month, the last of 2010.  The beginning of December found Erin and I back from our vacation in Hong Kong and diving back in to work.  As it was the end of the semester there was much work to do (mainly on Erin's part as she tried to meet the austere grading deadlines).  During this time we were also finishing our preparations for the arrival of Erin's family for the Christmas break.  Finally on Friday, the 17th we had our last day of classes in the morning and the school's Sports Day in the afternoon when students competed in a variety of sports.  By that afternoon we were ready to meet with our colleagues for a drink and a chance to relax after a busy semester.  The next night Erin and I had a chance to get dressed up and go out for a nice dinner before leaving on our big trip around the island.

On Sunday Erin and I got on the High-Speed Rail up to Taipei to meet with her parents for the first half of our trip.  Meeting up with them early in the morning we were able to see many sights of Taipei.  We started with the Taipei International Flora Expo with its enormous array of flower arrangements.  We followed this with lunch at our favorite dumpling place, Din Tai Fong.  We followed this with a trip out to nearby Makong where we went up to a tea house on the hills overlooking Taipei.  As the sun set we enjoyed our tea with the help of a woman at the table beside us who explained the steps involved.  Finally we got back down to Taipei for a delicious sushi dinner before heading back to our hotel.

Monday morning we got up early to get our rental car and start our journey.  After picking up the car and negotiating the busy streets of Taipei we faced a new challenge.  Apparently some top-level negotiator from the mainland was visiting and staying at our same hotel, so security was intense.  Luckily we got back in and got checked out without too much trouble.  Once on the road we made our first stop at the Costco at Hsinchu for some travel essentials (e.g. toilet paper, snacks, water, and wine).  We made another stop in Beipu for lunch composed of a hearty tea drink made from self-ground peanuts, sesame seads, and spices.  We finally made our way to Puli in the mountains where we would be staying for the night.  Finding a place for dinner was a little challenging, but we finally found a hot-pot place where we got a pot of boiling broth and could pick out different pieces of frozen meat and vegetables to cook in it.

On Tuesday, after a typical Taiwanese breakfast and checking out from our hotel we were ready to see some sights.  The first was a massive, modern Buddhist monastery for which Puli is known.  The grounds of the monastery and its main building were very serene with many impressive statutes.  Though not highly evangelical, the intersection of modernity, grandiosity, and religion reminded me a little of Billy Graham's Crystal Cathedral in Southern California.  After such a religious experience it seems ironic that our next stop was Puli's museum on making wine/liquor.  While the alcohol wasn't very tasty the museum was somewhat interesting and free.  Our final stop in Puli was a traditional paper-making shop.  Though there was no one there to give us a tour in English we were able to see the process by which they used to make paper.  It was only a short drive from Puli to Sun Moon Lake where we would be staying next.  After a walk along the lake we were able to find a place for a late lunch.  We were then able to check into our beautiful hotel.  We were able to have another walk along the lake and eat dinner at the hotel before turning in for the night.

Wednesday morning gave us a chance to enjoy the lake before moving on to our next location.  We were first treated to a nice breakfast on the hotel's deck overlooking the lake while basking in the morning sun.  The warm temperature made it difficult to believe it was just a few days before Christmas.  We then took a boat ride across the lake where we had a chance to walk around and take a gondola over the nearby hills.  The view from the brand new gondola were breathtaking and we found ourselves wishing that we had scheduled more time at the lake.  Alas it was soon time to check out and be on our way after lunch.  While we had been happy to have a GPS in English for our trip we found on this day its limitations as it took us through curvy, washed-out, mountain roads on our way to Alishan.  The route our GPS chose for us turned out being longer than expected and required driving over some rough terrain as we saw the damage that numerous typhoons and earthquakes have done.  We finally found our way, but it didn't leave us in a great mood when we finally made it to our hotel and saw the terrible condition of our rooms.  No heat, a spider in our room, Erin's parents room unmade - we spent the next hour trying to find an alternative.  We finally had some dinner and resigned ourselves to our rooms hoping the morning light would make things look better.

Over the course of Thursday morning our feelings to leave Alishan fluctuated with our moods.  Breakfast was paltry, but eventually we made our way into the park which turned out to be very nice.  Through plum orchards and ancient forests we were able to see the beauty of the mountain.  By lunch we felt we had seen much of the park and upon returning to our rooms we decided to pack up and leave.  In the future I believe Erin and I may return to the park, as long as we could get a room at a nicer hotel!  Still, it felt good to be heading back home where we knew where things were and could manage day-to-day life without constant language difficulties.  Back at our place we were able to order some pizza and relax for the night.

Friday felt like a mid-trip break when we were able to catch our breath.  We did laundry, checked emails, went to Costco again, and generally relaxed.  We were able to catch the movie, "Due Date" in our plush local theater and have some delicious Thai food.  Erin and I have been here in Taiwan for five months now and though we have difficulties getting around sometimes this trip around the island has shown me how settled we've become in Kaohsiung.  Even now as I write this on the train I find myself looking forward to returning there as we conclude our trip.  I'll write about the second half of our trip shortly, but this seems like a good time to take a break.

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