Tainan’s Cat Ghetto – AKA N.C.K.U Sheng-li school dormitories

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Everyone living in Taipei will know that recently the weather has been god-awful. As if the constant humidity, incessant raindrops and general dampness weren’t quite enough of a nuisance, a painfully icy wind has been terrorising the northern population, transforming our jaded tears into ice cubes. For this reason it seemed like an inspired idea to catch a bus south for a few days, as according to the weather reports Tainan not only didn’t have any rain, but I might be lucky enough to catch some sun too. Plus Tainan rocks and I fancied riding around on a bicycle for a few days. All the weather reports were bang on the money so I had a pleasantly warm(er) break from Taipei for a few days.

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Interesting Taiwan shaped logos adorning the gate here.

It didn’t take much for me to spot a couple of clearly uninhabited blocks of houses from cycling along Dongning Road, one of the main routes to and from Tainan railway station. The first was a well preserved stone bungalow with the classic old-style turquoise doors and window frames that we know and love. A couple of dogs in the front garden saw me coming and decided to slink away with guilty faces, as though they’ve already been told to several times. My attempts at finding an open door proved futile, although there didn’t seem to be much of interest inside after my nosey peek assessment through the mosquito screens; just some plastic or glass cases on pedestals, the kind you’d see at an exhibition or museum. Maybe the nearby school are using it as a storage room.

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First cat of the day, wondering what the hell I’m doing in his garden.

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I saw an intriguing narrow alleyway sandwiched between the school basketball courts and a row of old stone dilapidated houses as I rolled past, but initially decided against going in because there were three people standing at the far end chatting. Then I thought: what’s the harm in going down there and taking a few pictures over the wall? So I did. The three consisted of a young couple speaking to an older man in a fluorescent jacket; which I mistook for a hi-visibility vest and therefore also that he would be involved in the demolition and/or development of the site and could give some info on the place. As I propped up my bike they all studied me curiously. I broke the ice with a quick ni-hao and a nod, which they all warmly returned in unison. I casually and innocently poked my head over the top of the walls, sneaking a peek at the ruins and took a couple of quick shots on my phone. At this point I realised the conversation between the three had moved on to me, which I think continued for a few minutes as I wandered up and down the alley looking for decent photo angles. The younger man said hello again.
    “Are you looking for something?”
He reacted flattered to my enthusiastic reply about the buildings; and that they are my favourite reason to come to Tainan. The old man chimed in at this point, also speaking excellent English.
    “Almost all abandoned now. But some people still live here, they don’t want to move.”

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A shot from the alleyway.

He explained that they were a block of dormitories that belonged to the nearby National Cheng Kung university in days gone by. There are no plans to refurbish or even redevelop that he is aware of, so these old places are being left to rot. However, even the empty houses aren’t strictly abandoned. A pounce of cats (yes, that’s the collective noun apparently) are the new owners of these neglected icons of the city, making full use of any available space. Crumbling wooden beam above? There’s a cat on it. Old sink clinging on to the wall for dear life? Cat in it. Rusty bucket on the floor? You get the idea. It’s normally a potential issue when exploring places like this that you might run into a pack of stray – and often territorial – dogs, but cats? It’s definitely a first in my books. After researching a little into the immediate area, pretty much all I could find out is that there is a lady that lives in one of these houses that runs some sort of cat adoption agency. That would explain the vast feline population, then. Anyway, I asked the old gent if it would be a problem to have a look around inside the buildings, to which he obligingly responded “as long as you close the gates when you leave and watch out for the dangerous roof, it’s OK.”

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Well that mattress needs turning over, for a start…

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Meow about that, then?

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I’m too lazy to think of a “purr-fect” pun. Oh, I just did. Ha… Cats.

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Not much further down the road were a conspicuous row of terraced houses – five in total – all clearly empty and abandoned. Nothing particularly interesting to see there, except some cool tiling and a continuation of the cat theme: loads and loads of bowls of water and cat food left inside the old buildings. One of them stank to high heaven before I’d even walked through the door, just as I noticed an XXL rat hunched over one of the bowls, thoroughly enjoying some poor kitty cat’s lunch. It looked at me in that cocksure fashion that scavenger animals do when you catch them eating something, as if to say “what, human?” I gave the door a quick rap and he scuttled off. After that I decided not to venture inside. Who knows how many are in there? And I doubt the smell will get any better as I go into the house. Therefore, F dat.

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Sorry about the rank quality, this was taken through a mesh screen on the door. Didn’t fancy going in there, to be honest with ya.

No more than a minute’s walk from Casa de la Rat are yet more rows of houses, three overall.  At least two rows are completely empty, with one row sporadically occupied by a few residents. It seems that way judging by the myriad of CCTV cameras and police-themed deterrent stickers on the front gates of some. Oh, and speaking of deterrents, how does the police station located right at the end of the damn lane sound? It wasn’t too difficult to gain access to the clearly empty ones, but they had barely anything inside. Simply just walls and old toilets. After checking one row I assumed the other would be the same so passed up the opportunity to have a look around. The most interesting thing about this row was that one of the end houses was clearly a rebuild, and a nice one too. Good condition, high ceilings inside, 3 bedrooms, parquet flooring, and multiple bathrooms. Some brooms and whatnot left in the kitchen suggested that someone was coming to clean up occasionally, but judging by the dust on the bedroom floors it hadn’t been for a while. I was surprised that no-one was living in such a nice, modern place. But then there’s a lot I don’t understand about Taiwan…

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Ghost town. Not even a cat here.

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Raiden hats.

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Now I’m no detective. But if I was, I’d say a cat has used this toilet bowl at least once with serious intent to snuggle.

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NOOOO! You’d better save these damn windows, Mr House-dude.

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Seeing an unappreciated floor like this makes me sad. Now there’s a sentence that 18 year old me never thought I’d say.

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Ahoy, new tiles.

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The standard living room for each house in the row.

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Scared this little fella off by accident when I walked into one of his houses. Then he tried scaring me off. Pretty intense evils.

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One of many bowls of cat chow. Or rat chow, depending on how you look at it.

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View from the car park.

Apologies for any disappointment from a lack of information on these places. The only lead I have is a sign on Google street view that says “University creative centre”. I tried asking some of the locals and no one seemed to have a clue. My limited Chinese skills weren’t able to unearth anything notable on the ‘net either. If anyone knows anything, personally I’d be interested to hear what you’ve got and will update this article accordingly. Cheers.

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Fuhe Grand Theatre (福和大戲院)

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I hadn’t planned writing much about this one but to my surprise there isn’t a lot of English info online which is available without a bit of sifting. So, I’ll write more than I intended but less than usual. Satisfied?

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Eh? Eh?! I know, it’s cheesy. Luckily I couldn’t find an ‘end’ part, so you are spared 50% of all potential cheesiness.

The Fuhe Grand Theatre (福和大戲院) in Yonghe closed after 30 years in 2002 following the introduction of the DVD and various multi-screened plush modern cinemas. Unfortunately a pretty common way to go for smaller independent Taiwanese theatres in the early noughties. The huge difference is that this place had the honour of being used as the set of practically an entire movie called “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” made by acclaimed director Tsai Ming-liang, which was released in 2003 just after the theatre closed down.  It’s also worth mentioning that the film is set during the final day of business of a once great theatre in Taipei closing after years of dwindling interest, and the final movie shown there is the 1967 martial arts classic “Dragon Inn”. Whether intentional or not, capturing such an important part of local history forever in the most appropriate way is bloody touching and a lovely send-off.

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Bear with me here… the above boards are the showing times for each of the two screens at FGT: one is showing “Dragon Inn” (the movie shown in the theatre during “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” which was set and filmed here) all day, and the other is showing a slightly pornographic movie called “Love Stuff” or something. Interestingly, the handwriting used here matches exactly with the writing in a scene of GDI, meaning it must have been used during filming and left there. This should debunk the reports that the movie was shown here on its last day, because it appears as though it was out of business before filming even started. Phew.

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The main screen.

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Raunchy film posters all over the bloody shop.

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Finally found a decent movie among all the pap that was shown here once.

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Translated to “Four suicidal girls”…

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Ceiling wallpaper throughout the corridors. Fetching, eh?

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The old front entrance, totally unrecognisable from one of the final scenes of Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

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Small projection room. Full of old film canisters.

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FGT was built in 1972 within a familiar type of social housing structure in Taiwan which I could best describe as a self-contained community; the ground floor has a sheltered marketplace, the next floor houses the theatre along with dozens of small shops and the levels above provide typical basic apartments. It’s fair to assume that the closure of the aforementioned marketplace didn’t help the fortunes of an already struggling and ageing cinema that isn’t conveniently accessible by MRT. However, with over 40,000 people per square kilometre in Yonghe district it’s hard to imagine a place like this not thriving even when past its heyday.

P.S 15 years since closure and Taipei’s destructive climate is definitely taking its toll on the wooden sections of the building so tread carefully if you get in. But, when I returned to take some extra shots the entrance I found was locked up again. It took me over a year between visits so be patient, eh?

P.P.S thanks to various Taiwanese for putting up with my endless barrage of questions. You know who you are.

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Hooray, more tiles for my collection.

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Well well well, if it isn’t a big pile of guā zǐ (瓜子), aka melon seeds. Back in the day they were a common snack to graze on while watching the movies. I’m not sure that Vieshow sell them in 2018. Why would they be poured onto the floor like this? The blue cushions suggest someone wanted to make a melon seed bed. Regrettably, I didn’t test it out.

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Exit.

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Various pictures of various scantily-clad women in the smaller screen’s projection room.

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A hooker’s business card? I wonder if her number still works. Maybe she’s retired.

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Back room full of old toot except a charming old rocking chair and a traditional hand painted movie poster. This would have hung on the huge frame on the corner of the building illuminated by spotlights. The poster, I mean. Obviously.

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Seen loads of these bad boys on my adventures.

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Upstairs entrance and the snacking area.

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The gent’s has seen better days. It lseems to be the room chosen for a particularly amusing scene in the movie.

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Sometimes Mother Nature is a resilient bugger. Back in my day, this used to be a urinal…

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One of the first scenes is from this angle. Roughly.

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“One team, one target”. Taiwan high-speed rail’s slogan during construction in 2003.

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See ya soon, boppers.

Taiwanese character building – ugly blocks or a beacon of culture?

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I’m BACK. Christmas laziness combined with seeing friends and family back home, then returning to Taiwan to act as a personal tour guide for my dear Mother for two weeks has given me a legitimate excuse to have not written anything recently. Apologies. But it was a lot of fun, so you should be happy for me. And if you aren’t, well you’re just selfish aren’t you? Anyway. Let’s get stuck in.

One of my favourite pastimes while travelling is to have a good look at the local architecture. Generally one of my first planned activities when arriving in a new city or country is walking around to suss out what my new neighbourhood has to offer, and to have a thorough but leisurely gander at the buildings – ideally in the older part of town.

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I recall my first visit to Taipei in 2015. After a couple of hours catching up on sleep in the most sweaty and strange hostel I’ve had the misfortune of staying at in Taiwan (possibly anywhere) I decided to go out for my first stroll around town. The most nearby and attractive point of interest seemed to be CKS Memorial hall, so ambling along Linsen South Road in the warm afternoon sun I looked up at the surrounding buildings. I wasn’t that impressed. Basic concrete and metal with barely a hint of decoration, my immediate thought was “Soviet Ukraine” followed by “1970’s British office block”. During the next 6 weeks, my opinion didn’t change much.

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Ouch… needs a bit of love.

I returned in the Summer of 2016 after developing a slight crush on Taiwan and spent several months here as a result. As an amateur photographer with a love for shooting alleyways and backstreet disarray, many hours were spent wandering around my local area in search of moody shots. I think it was during this first period of off-road exploration that I started to notice little things about the buildings in Taipei.

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Interesting curved window frame I reckon. But I bet it’s a bit of a ballache to get the end ones replaced… hence the boards on the right hand side.

After looking closer than a passing glance, I noted that each building is different here. Undoubtedly, there is a particular style that is most common: tiled cladding, square windows, and often attached to one of them is a sheltered laundry drying cage. But, minor variations of the common formula create an individuality of sorts, ensuring that it’s rare to find exactly the same building (unless they are side by side and were clearly constructed by the same developers). Some abstractly designed apartments have diagonally laid out floorspaces with triangular balconies that jut out into the street. Many architects have experimented with curved (gasp) balconies and windows.  Some have fully tiled Juliette balconies, sometimes clad completely in a different colour, or often at least a different trim. Occasionally residents will decorate an entire alley with plants (below), making a journey through a dingy walkway much more pleasant.

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The tiled cladding seems to have been an initial afterthought to try and improve the drabness of concrete apartment blocks. They look cleaner and nicer than grey concrete, and as a bonus reflect sunlight into otherwise dingy roads and alleys. But they aren’t perfect. A common problem is that the tiles are rarely – or have never been – cleaned, so many suffer from huge staining that give it a tired and grimy look. Tiled flooring on the other hand is only magnificent, and it should be compulsory to have it in every Taiwanese household. If you’ve looked through any of my urbex stuff, you may know that I have a mild obsession with this and document most vintage floor tiles that I discover. In fact, the preview picture for this blog is a damaged kitchen floor I stumbled upon in an old wooden house in Taitung city.

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Another element that I’m fond of are the famous window grilles. They are far more prevalent in older parts of the country, such as Dadaocheng (大稻埕) in Taipei or throughout olde Tainan, and come in all kinds of shapes and designs. In their heyday they were used as a means of showing your social status; so the more well off the owners were, the more intricate and pretty the design. Luckily for me and anyone else with the same enthusiasm, there is an instagram page dedicated to old floor tiles and window grilles in Taiwan. Yippee!

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I think it goes without saying that I (and probably most people with eyes) am a big fan of the older houses in the country. Siheyuan (四合院) buildings, Japanese era wooden homes, and the vast majority of brick built houses with purdy little wooden framed windows all hold a special place in my heart. It’s a crying shame that there is such indifference towards keeping the old style alive with renovations, meaning that a huge number are left to rot and slowly become reclaimed by nature. House forests. Forest houses. Dirty great trees growing out of the roof. Yeah, that’s a thing.

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So, out with the old, in with the new. Unfortunately, modern builds often will not utilise these pearls of traditional Taiwanese architecture. There are many newly built examples of toned down Neo-Baroque style apartment buildings with carved decoration on the exterior (and vomit-inducing gaudy gated entrances) but far more commonly than not they look horrendously cheap, seeming as though they have been moulded from PVC. It looks too perfectly polished, but there must be some appeal to these places otherwise developers wouldn’t be erecting so many of the ugly sods.

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An example of what I mean on Guangfu S. Rd. Not a great one though, if I’m being honest. But the railings are rank. And if you have a look through the windows downstairs it’s full of tacky but obviously expensive furniture that I suppose they imagine all wealthy Europeans have in their homes. Maybe quasi-European is a better term, which seems generous.

What’s your point, I hear you cry. Taiwan has a lot of unspectacular functional buildings which were knocked up pronto during the post war population boom at a low cost, meaning aesthetic quality would be sacrificed. Despite this, just as one could distinguish a street in the United States, Japan, or Spain; Taiwan holds a particularly recognisable identity. Although it may be considered a fairly new city in the grand scheme of things, it is teeming with life, energy, and history, and has its own identity and soul. Back in the UK it seems that every new development or housing estate is being built with the same cheap yellow bricks, roof tiles, and plastic window frames. The character and traditional sight of beautiful stone decoration on British homes is slowly disappearing into history. Conversely in Taiwan, while the buildings look the same at a glance reveal unique features on closer inspection which gives them a personal identity. Even though it may not be considered technically alluring, the style has grown on me to an amount that I never expected. It made me wonder if I am an isolated case.

Like ’em or loathe ’em, Taiwan’s apartment blocks have a personality. And isn’t that what your Mum always told you? Go for a good personality not good looks? Respect your elders and embrace the beauty of function and tile grime.

What’s so good about Taiwan? A brief look into tourism marketing

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Not too long ago while on a hike at Wuliaojian (五寮尖) with a mate visiting from the UK, we bumped into an American chap taking his dog for a mountain stroll. It transpired that he had been living in Taiwan for around ten years now, so it’s safe to consider him an ex-pat-vet. We chatted enthusiastically for around half an hour about several things; the best routes to walk on the mountain, the latest news in English football (that’s “Soccer” to the ignorant) and swapped information of other local hikes and nearby scenic spots that we should investigate. Following on from the latter conversation, the topic of Taiwan’s tourism promotion came up. Well, lack thereof.

Though I’d wager many long time resident ex-pats would argue against this, but Taiwan is criminally overlooked by Western visitors. It seems to be principally known as a convenient and pleasant place to study Chinese; the accent is generally softer and easier to understand than that spoken in Mainland China, the Internet is unrestricted (Wi-Fi is available seemingly bloody everywhere), and the culture shock factor is considerably lower on this little island compared to it’s mahoosive next door neighbour.

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A rainy evening in an alley off of Tonghua night market ( 通化夜市).

I’ve lived here for a combined total of about 12 months now, and am frequently asked by folk back home and even some of my local friends here: what’s so good about Taiwan? Not in a tone that implies rudeness, but intrigue. Half of the people at home think I’m talking about Thailand, not Taiwan, and the other half seem to have no idea what exists here beyond microchips and factories. So, I enthusiastically tell them about my main hobbies here; biking, motorcycling, camping, hiking, river tracing, wallowing in wild hot springs, et al. I’ll mention the dirt-cheap travel fares, that you can surf within a couple of hours of Taipei City, and the fact that – unlike China – people don’t seem to give a chicken’s arse if you’re white skinned and don’t want to constantly take photos of you (some people may consider this a negative). To summarise, it’s cheap to travel, there’s lots to see, and it’s a pretty clean, developed country with a friendly population and decent grub. Suffice to say they are often shocked that they hadn’t already heard of this outdoor paradise. So why does no-one seem to know anything about it?

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The roof of Pingxi (平溪), just an hour or so out of Taipei city. Lots of steep, spiky-ass mountains here.

My first observation would be that traditionally the vast, vast majority of Taiwan’s tourism trade came from China, so most of the promotion handled itself. However, President Tsai Ying-Wen’s landslide victory of 2016 caused a sharp drop in visitors from the Mainland as the PRC see her as a pro-independence, and were clearly sending her a message by introducing a cap on the number of visas issued to Chinese tourists. Despite this, in 2016 Taiwan had a record amount of visitors from abroad, yet a drop of 20% less Chinese visitors still wasn’t enough to sabotage that.

However, data can be misleading. Did the other visitors spend more or less money than their Chinese counterparts? Conversely, where would the tourists spend their money? Are Japanese visitors more likely to spend in local restaurants whereas Chinese would rather pay all of their money to the tour company? Beyond speculation it’s impossible to tell. One Taipei-based tour group has told the NY Times in an article that holidaymakers from Thailand and Vietnam have increased sharply since 2016, alleging that they will spend around $400US per day – not including accommodation. This is a lot of dough, compared to my own daily expenditure while travelling as a tight-fisted backpacker anyway.

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I noticed during a recent trip to Hualien (花蓮) that I heard some train announcements in Vietnamese and Indonesian Bahasa, and there are new language options on the Taipei MRT ticket machines to include more South East Asian countries. It would be prudent for the tourist board marketing department to set their sights on this demographic and push hard if the spending numbers in the above paragraph are to be believed, and it looks like they are heading in that direction. Thai nationals now temporarily have 30 days visa free until August 2018, and Malaysia benefit from the same arrangement, though permanently not temporarily. Indonesian and Vietnamese tourists are currently only granted 30 day visas if they are travelling with an approved tour group. It’s a slow process, but relaxing the tourist visa laws is heading the right way.

Promotion of Taiwan in the UK is pretty minimal, but getting better. The effort is going into it at least; I remember my shock when I saw a ‘Come to Taiwan’ advert on the side of a London bus for the first time in 2016, and when one of my mates sent me the following picture just two weeks ago.

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“Oh!Bear” (喔熊) giving Londoners the lowdown on Taiwan. Though he looks like he’s threatening that woman. No need to resort to those tactics yet.

They are clearly trying, but I’m not sure exactly what or how effective their tactics are. On the Taiwan Tourism Bureau website I found a few pseudo-artsy short promo videos, one of which follows the clearly fictional adventures of a group of perpetually over-excited Japanese girls that want to shop and eat absolutely everything in sight like a human Ms. Pacman, a milderly (middle aged/elderly) North American couple having what seems to be their last ever holiday due to the unintentionally ominous overtones during conversation, and a backpacker that sports a shark-tooth necklace (not joking) looking to “see the world through [his] own eyes”. It’s terribly cheesy, but the lack of a low production value makes it more difficult to laugh at, and easier to cringe and pity. I haven’t yet decided which is worse.

One idea that I genuinely believe has legs is to invest into and promote the film industry. Encourage Taiwanese production companies to create movies that appeal to other nations, and persuade foreign producers to use Taiwan as a filming location. If I had a penny every time someone told me of their plans to visit somewhere just because it’s in a film… well, I’d have a shitload of pennies. Probably couldn’t retire though. Anyway, Taiwan has that – to a very limited extent – with Juifen (九份) commonly believed to be the inspiration for Hayao Mayazaki’s “Spirited Away”, the internationally famous Japanese anime film from 2001. That’s what people say anyway, but after researching it myself some months ago I quickly found out that it was untrue. Sorry chaps. Another is Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” which, although set in Japan, was filmed entirely in Taiwan around the Taipei area. But I wonder how many people know that, as I certainly didn’t until today.

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Yangmingshan ( 陽明山) in the north of Taipei. Scenes from “Silence” were shot around these grassy volcanic hills last year.

But back to my original point. You only need look as far as the aforementioned Thailand as an example of how film creates tourism demand. The Man With The Golden Gun. The Deer Hunter. American Gangster. The Beach. The Hangover II. As far as Western audiences are concerned, I feel that the latter two have the biggest influence in painting Thailand as a desirable holiday location; an exotic, sun-baked land full of friendly people (unless they are drug cartels), perfect beaches, delicious food, and cheap sin. Speaking of which, in the case of The Hangover II I dread to think how many groups of lads/ladettes tried to emulate that night. And succeeded.

One of the things I like about Taipei in particular is that it oozes a thick “cyberpunk” atmosphere; and by that I mean it blends futuristic architecture and technology with basic concrete buildings, tight alleyways, bright lighting, often drab weather and a high density population. On certain nights in certain locations I feel like I’m an extra in a Sci-fi movie, so I definitely wouldn’t have been surprised had Dennis Villeneuve wished to use it as a filming location for Blade Runner 2049. You missed a trick there, Taipei.

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It’s a fair assumption that people are generally afraid of the unknown. What crazy person would book a holiday in some random country that they had no idea of what to expect? Seeing exotic locales within movies give them more familiarity and creates a desire to see these places, especially if the film is enjoyable. Taiwan has some of the most amazing landscape I’ve ever seen, and it’s not out of the realms of possibility for moviegoers to fall in love at the first sight of the island’s countryside beauty.

I know I did!

How do you think Taiwan can promote itself to more visitors?

 

Green Mansion – Xizhi (汐止區)

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This is another popular ruin that I marked on my map a while ago, in fact it’s hard to remember exact when and how I found out about it. Being located in the mountains on the outskirts of the city is probably the main factor to explain why I haven’t checked it out until now, but on October 31st, the spookiest day of the year, I finally decided to go and have a lookie.

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The exterior. Loads of girders, bags of stuff, and things. No-one around though, not even any dogs. Phewie.

I won’t write a lot about it for two reasons; firstly there are a few decent articles on the history of the place (particularly this one) and secondly there isn’t really anything to see there as of November 2017. Comparing my photos to the ones on the previous link, it’s difficult to mentally picture how they were taken in the same place. Literally everything that isn’t cemented in place has been taken or rotted by now – even the coving around the windows – and the buildings have some sort of periodic construction (or maybe de-construction) work going on but as with most of the abandoned places in this state, progress is rather listless.

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Nice try, kid. Although, if they meant to write “life is whale shit”, then I might have laughed. Oh, I just did. Ha.

I doubt any non-Taiwanese will be aware of this, but the building was used in the popular Taiwan soap of the early 2000s called ‘Meteor Garden’ (流星花園), as the set of some rich bloke’s mansion. Previous articles state that the buildings were used in conjunction, as a filming set, editing studio and possibly accommodation for the crew and actors.

If you’re looking for a stage to take some grimy photographs, this might be your thing. If you’re looking for old nik-naks and interesting forgotten possessions then expect to be disappointed. This is a total shell. Except for one creepy item I happened upon…

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Boo. Like always, my senses were particularly heightened while looking around this place, so bumping into this little lady gave me a nice spike of adrenaline.

Healthy and high quali-tea: My top 3 tea joints in Taipei

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Delicious pun, eh? Thought you’d like it. Tea-riffic.

Anyway. Despite being a small island, Taiwan is home to a number of fantastic teas, yet the traditional gong-fu method of tea brewing seems to be less common in the 21st century. Arguably the modern lifestyle has played a part in that; people like convenience, speedy service and value for money, hence the rise of the bubble tea shop. Also, it may have something to do with the fact that for 9 months of the year Taiwan is essentially a sauna, so the chance to get thirst-quenching fruity iced tea is a godsend.

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Gong-fu style. Well, an extremely simplified, non-pompous version.

Bubble tea was invented in Taiwan during the 1980s, and there is no single definitive story to establish exactly who invented it, but two people from different cities claim to be the inventor. The story isn’t as magical as you might hope; both tales involve the creator deciding to put some jelly/dessert into tea, Bob was confirmed to be their uncle, and bubble tea was born.

There are tons of chain shops, and I’ll bet you a couple of kwai that you’ll find one within ten minutes walk from wherever you are in Taipei city – but I’m not talking about Yangmingshan or any other places out in the sticks btw, so don’t get cute with me. However, the difficulty doesn’t lie in finding a tea shop, it’s finding one that has decent quality refreshments.

Personally, I’m a tea purist. I don’t like milk or sugar involved (with the exception of a power-shot of Indian chai) and feel the addition of fruit often makes it difficult to retain the flavour of the tea itself without overpowering it. Most chain stores realise this and tend to use low quality tea leaves which are easy to spoil and thus taste bitter, but this is normally covered up with some sugar and/or fruit flavourings, which coincides nicely with the popular tastes. So, if you’re like me and prefer a classic iced tea with no flavourings and without 4 kilograms of sugar, then often you’ll be disappointed.

Here’s a list of my go-to shops that provide good quality, non-bitter tea:

Yi Fang Fruit Tea (一芳水果茶)

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It’s hard to know exactly how many Yi Fang shops there are, but my investigative Googling tells me it’s around 40 branches just inside Taipei and New Taipei city. This is great news chaps, because their tea is BANG ON THE MONEY. Also on the plus side, they buy all of their ingredients from within Taiwan and use no concentrate liquids in their tea. And it’s pretty cheap too, a medium cup of decent black tea will only set you back 20NTD, cheaper than a bottle of tea from the 7-eleven. And they have a pretty cool traditional style theme going on; unvarnished wood, old windows, and Japanese noren (them door curtain things). Menus are in Chinese and English, so non-Mandarin speakers need not panic.

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Alright, what’s the downside I hear you ask? Well, if you go during lunch time or any other busy period, expect to wait a while. It can get a little hectic, and they even have a little butcher-style number screen so you know when your order is ready. FYI, I normally go for the Sun Moon Lake black tea or Four Seasons oolong tea which are both phenomenal. I tried a “Yilan kumquat green tea” recently which was fine, but a little heavy on the kumquat and so tasted more like lime juice than tea. Depending on your opinion, another criticism could be that their menu isn’t as vast as other shops, but in my mind it’s a positive point. More often than not (and this includes restaurants too) a balance between range of choice and quality is struck, so the more choice the less quality.

SUMMARY: Excellent tea if you are lucky enough to be near one, and definitely worth the wait if you can spare the time.

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“Show Tea Shop” a.k.a Da Cha Pu (打茶舖) – No. 110-1, Yitong Street, Zhongshan District (near Songjiang Nanjing MRT)

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Coincidentally living up to its name, this was the first tea shop that showed me that iced tea doesn’t have to be bitter. The quality here is outstanding for a reasonable price, but sadly they only have one branch! They have a pretty decent selection of teas, more than Yi Fang but less than the big boys.

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Big plus: everything here is organic. They source their honey and plums locally from partnering farms, and use freshly squeezed juice in their teas. STS appear to be passionate about using local produce and keeping their drinks free of any preservatives or additives at every stage of the process. The sugar cane used to sweeten their tea is brewed daily, and used to provide a more natural and distinct taste (all according to their Facebook page).

They sell their own packs of loose leaf tea in-house, so you can take home a foil bag of deliciousy goodness.

SUMMARY: Truly top notch tea. But for me, because they only have one shop it dictates that unless I’m around the Songjiang Nanjing area it’s too much hassle. If they had more shops, it would be no contest. Build more pls!

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Ten Ren’s Tea (天仁茶業)

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An old stalwart established in the 1950s, and is Taiwan’s most globally famous tea brand with stores introduced to Canada, Japan, Malaysia, USA, Australia and Singapore. First impressions are good here as you can see the whole drink preparation area, and the fact that it doubles up as a tea retailer. And they’re pretty stocked on ginseng products too, if that’s your thing.

The tea is good. My favourite is the 913 King’s oolong tea which will set you back an above average 60NTD for a big cup, but the tea itself is definitely above average. It contains a little ginseng and young tea leaf buds from the mountains of central Taiwan – according to their company website – and has a slight bitterness to it which compliments the strong and authentic aftertaste. The green and black tea taste pretty good too, but my brew of choice is the 9-1-thrizay. Furthermore, you can find these shops all over the city, and the option to buy your own leaves after tasting a cup of heaven is pretty convenient, and a nice little gift for the folks back home.

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Downsides? It is expensive. While good quality, I still think I would opt for Yi Fang over Ten Ren’s as the extra cost doesn’t seem good value if the two shops are within walking distance of each other.

SUMMARY: Reliable, have shops all over the place, and kicks the arse of other similarly common shops like 50 Lan, Ching Shin and Comebuy, though not Show Tea and Yi Fang. Expensive, but you get what you pay for.

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Losheng Sanatorium (樂生療養院)

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I am now enlightened and realise that this is one of the more commonly visited abandoned sites in Taipei, most likely due to the ease of access, preservation of furniture inside, and a lack of security; or perhaps just an indifference toward urban explorers. Though the negligible guard presence is particularly common around abandoned buildings in Taiwan, I want to believe that any watchmen at Losheng are keen for people to visit the sanatorium, take pictures, and share what they have seen with the world to advertise the historical beauty of the site and plight of the residents and neighbourhood. It’s almost certain the surrounding population feel this way, as I was told a story first-hand about how one explorer was offered tea with a couple of locals after being “caught” leaving the site.

The complex is, and has been going through a series of struggles. It was built in 1929 by the occupying Japanese administration to house and treat people suffering from leprosy. Back then the disease was believed to be highly contagious, so institutions like this were set in isolated places, such as islands or mountainous areas to ensure strict quarantine. Fast forward 70 years or so, and the sprawling tentacles of the Taipei MRT system are beginning to reach out further and further to combat high population density within the city limits. The site of the sanatorium has been chosen for redevelopment in the form of a brand spanking new MRT station by the Taiwan government, despite several protests from local residents, activists, and those pesky kill-joys pointing out that destroying a chunk of mountain could have dangerous consequences for the current residents – even the future station – and that the site should be relocated.

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Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the father of Taiwan. Placed just outside the operating theatre.

Nonetheless, the powers that be were insistent that the plans should press on, despite several landslides at the construction site in 2010 which paused matters for a couple of years. As things stand, it seems a compromise has been made to preserve 39 of the buildings, refurbish or reconstruct 10, and demolish 6. From my visit, I’d assume that the demolition has already happened but the refurbishment is on hold for now. The only notable act of preservation is the erection of a huge steel shelter above most of the buildings, shielding most of it from the rain.

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The current state of preservation. It’ll probably be a few years before anything else is done here.

Anyway, fancy having a look inside? Although it has been cleared of most of it’s intriguing articles (I read another blogger’s story about finding a heart in a jar) as of September 2017 there’s still more than enough to satisfy the curiosity of the average urban explorer. Loads of equipment, files, beautiful architecture and windows (very much my bag) and an eerie atmosphere that makes the hospital seem like it’s still in use. Maybe it is, I did visit during ghost month…

Managed to unearth a multiple entry permit visa for Hong Kong, I’m guessing it belonged to one of the previous residents. Dated 17th October 1990.

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This is an interesting one: it looks like a sign made for a protest but has been left inside the hospital, maybe by a local resident to give visitors more information. Roughly, it translates to “The government is evil, no human rights – who will save Losheng?” Pictures of various politicians have been stuck to a red side and a green side of the circle, but the text is too faded to make much sense of either. The previous president Mr Ma Ying-Jiu is placed at 11 o’clock, who was charged with leaking secret information from a corruption enquiry earlier this year and is awaiting trial.

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Now I’m guessing again, but I reckon this is where the doctors kept their lunch.

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No idea what’s going on here, sorry.

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The old operating theatre. There’s still a fair amount of equipment here, and in pretty decent nick, too.

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…including this X-ray machine.

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Quality sanding job the boys did on this ceiling. Good work lads.

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The nurses office.

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Looks like this may have been the mortuary. Unlikely that it wasn’t, as I can’t see anyone bothering to move those slabs.


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I didn’t look close enough at these bottles while here, but from this photo the brown containers in the top left look like they may have something interesting inside… looks like I’ll be heading back soon, then.

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Elephant mountain’s secret rival

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I’m a big fan of sunsets. Perhaps surprisingly, the concrete jungle of Taipei city is actually a good place to see them; at ground level thanks to the city’s NESW grid layout, meaning that in the correct spot the falling sun is framed nicely between glass panelled office buildings, and at higher points in one of the many surrounding mountains. Since I arrived I’ve been keen to keep searching for viewpoints that beat Elephant mountain, and thankfully my quest hasn’t been fruitless. Here’s one I like in the south-east of the city, called Zhongbu mountain (中埔山).

There are two ways you can find this spot. The first and easiest method is to take the trail from “Lane 24, section 4, Xinhai road”, which is a short walk from the Xinhai MRT station on the brown line. The hiking path is clearly noted on Google maps with the help of a handy dotted line, so finding your way to the peak is pretty self explanatory. Just look for the brown camera/photo logo with “中埔山東峰” (Zhongbu mountain East peak) underneath. It’ll probably take you 15 minutes or so from the start of the trail to the top, and as far as I could see there are no drinking fountains, so take your own water lest you wither and die like an old leaf in the sun.

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Easy route: follow the blue trail. Easy peasy.

The challenging route is more fun, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone that isn’t confident with a little climbing, especially if it’s wet. Nearer to the peak there are several ropes to help you scale up steep rock formations and traverse narrow mossy ridges with some scary looking drops below. There’s even a conveniently placed ladder at one point. Still want to go? Alright, listen carefully.

The nearest MRT station is Linguang (also on the brown line), and your first checkpoint is the criminally under-visited Fuzhoushan park (福州山公園) which incidentally is another cracking place to take photographs of Taipei city at any time of day. The best view here is at pavilion 3, shown on the park’s map below.

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After pavilion 3 you can head pretty much directly south to get to Zhongbu east peak, which eagle-eyed readers will notice is marked at the bottom of the above map. If it isn’t clear, you can cross reference this bad boy with your GPS to figure out the exact route.

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If you take the route through Fuzhoushan but decide that you don’t want to take the difficult route, there’s a cheeky shortcut. When you reach the shelter two-thirds of the way to the top, you’ll see a path going uphill afterwards (tough way) and some stairs leading slightly downhill to the right (see below). Take the stairs to avoid the climbing and it will bring you to some stone steps that will lead you to the peak. I normally take the difficult route up and this way down. Otherwise, enjoy yourself on the obstacle course…

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Easy right, hard left. Easy, right?

The peak is distinguishable by it’s ramshackle shelter overlooking the city, which seems to have been built by local peeps. A large number of chairs, some tables, and various other personal items suggest that this is a community area of sorts, where locals gather to cook, talk and let the children run wild. Maybe if you hang around for long enough they’ll invite you to join their hot pot.

So in my opinion, the finest and most peaceful view in Taipei city (and I’m talking the city not the literal boundaries of Taipei city) easily accessible by public transport. So get yourself some snacks, a six-pack of cold ones and send off the day in style.

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The gutter installed on the roof here is part of a water collection and filtration system which is stored in the metal tub at the end. It has a tap on the bottom, and I’d guess they use it for cooking here. Probably wouldn’t drink out of it though.

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The views. Yeah, you don’t get 101 in your sunset shot, but you also don’t have to jostle your way to the best spot at Elephant mountain.

The final day: Hualien to Taipei

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Today was going to be a trek. Heading 168km north back to my flat in Taipei isn’t exactly a short distance, but fortunately it is incredibly scenic. To quote myself from the prelude of this diary:

“Imagine a day’s drive of winding paths through hilly green tea plantations and quaint villages, a flat cruise through scores of utterly still fishery ponds reflecting the surrounding mountainous landscape and warm rays of the sun. Lastly, a coastal finale providing all the good stuff; hairpin bends, clear blue ocean, and practically vertical towering cliffs with house sized waves regularly and spectacularly crashing into them, producing an astounding natural water display”.

Just put the order of that description back-to-front and you have my journey for day sixteen. The weather looked good, I felt good, I found a nearby breakfast joint for a bacon bagel and hash brown pancake, and was ready to rock and – even more so – roll. Except I needed to get my bike serviced before the long drive home, and didn’t fancy my chances of locating an English speaking mechanic. Time to give the old Mandarin a run out.

After filling up with petrol I saw a couple of mechanics on the opposite side of the road, and aimed for the one with the Kymco sign outside (I’m loyal). A gaunt old gent in a faded vest which looked older than me stood up from his tiny plastic stool to greet and wave me inside. His mostly toothless, betel-nut stained grin seemed much more friendly than alarming as he looked at me curiously for my request.
“Wo… xiang yao… huan yo” (I’d like an oil change)
“Huan yo! Hao…” (Oil change! Alright…)
“Huan yo ma??” *uses both hands to demonstrate a mechanical rolling motion, an ‘exchange’ action*
“Er… dui” (Er… yeah)
“Hao” (Alright geezer. I’ll get on it immediately)

He clearly overestimated my ability to speak the lingo, so began asking me a couple of questions while the oil drained from my engine. I met each one with a shrug and shake of my head, while apologising for how terrible my Chinese was. Ironically, one thing I’m very good at is explaining how bad I am at it. Clearly he noticed the bags I was carrying as a couple of words randomly registered; “huan dao ma?” (which means, “round-island trip?”) along with another brilliantly acted charade – a single handed upright oval-shaped circular motion. Yes. I felt like a native speaker. I nodded and smiled enthusiastically while verbally machine-gunning “dui-dui-dui-dui-dui!” as is the fashion in Taiwan. He nodded his approval in response. With a few taps of his finger, he noticed the Union Jack sticker placed just underneath my number plate and asked if I was from England. Yes sir, I am! I’m in there. I’m practically fluent. This is amazing. And to top it all off, it was cheaper than I’d normally expect to pay.

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One of Hualien county’s many rugged yet bushy cliffs.

Less than 100m from the mechanic’s garage, I waited at a crossroad junction next to Hualien airport for the light to turn green. As I did so, two cars approached each other from opposite directions, and neither were using indicators (surprise, surprise). At the last minute, driver one decides that he would, in fact, like to turn left (Brits: we have right lane traffic here) in front of car two going straight ahead. Car two screeches to an immediate halt, while car one continues on to the left as if nothing happened, at a consistent slow speed. Car two does not appreciate this, and as soon as I spot him fuming through his open window at a standstill in the middle of the junction, I gleefully notice he is wearing a police uniform, and furiously bellows “GAN!” (basically, the Taiwanese version of FUCK) at the top of his voice. Much to the restrained amusement of some other scooter drivers and I, he takes drastic action and spins his car around in pursuit of the dodgy driver. As some of you already know of my disdain for some Taiwanese drivers, you’ll also know how satisfied I was to realise that it’s not only me that gets wound up by these careless morons.

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I ride what’s left of the sublime 193 road (and incidentally, I pass a lone pig strolling through a village) before it joins onto the number 9, and decide to stop at one of the many viewpoints over the ocean for a rest. It’s the last chance for me to enjoy a view of the Pacific like this one for a while, so I park up at the side of the road and sit on the grassy cliff edge for a short time, which drops steeply by about 30 metres straight into the tumultuous water below. In between the rhythmic slams of waves battering the rocks I hear a scooter side-stand kicked into position, and turn around to see a younger man in his early twenties. He waves and shouts hello to me with a smile, then points above the mountains towards a thick manifestation of moody black clouds, as if to say: you’d better get moving, son. I gave a thumbs up and nodded to him in thanks and with absolute agreement as he put on his yellow poncho and headed northwards.

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I ride another 30 minutes or so before stopping off in a small village within Nan’ao township called Wuta. It’s home to a tour bus pit stop, made up of toilets, a gaudy souvenir shop, and overpriced restaurant. Actually, the last comment is unfair because I’ve never eaten in there. It just looks like it’s overpriced. Anyway, it seems to be the halfway house for buses driving between Hualien and Yilan, but I used it as a free shelter from the increasingly heavy rainfall, and was a suitable spot to put on my waterproof gear. I wasn’t the only one, however, as I spotted ol’ yellow poncho from earlier pull up and set his scooter underneath a small area of cover, that was probably only enough to keep his handlebars dry.
“I followed you here!” he jokes cheerfully, while searching for a dry spot to place his helmet. His English is at least conversational level, and clearly wants to practice a little, or perhaps just stay out of the rain for a bit. He tells me that he is on his way to Yilan (宜蘭) but the rest was a little unclear, as I couldn’t establish if he was going for a job interview or starting work today. After examining my chic rain poncho and fake crocs, he tells me – sincerely it seems – that he thinks Europeans are “very gentle”. After hearing this a lot, I’ve worked out that here people seem to confuse the adjectives “gentle” and “gentlemanly” pretty often, but I don’t have the heart to tell him right now. Especially after he says that out of all Europeans, British people are the most gentle and stylish. I ask if he’s interested in going to the UK for a working holiday, but with a frustrated smirk he quickly responds that he needs to work for a while and save a wad of money before he could afford to do such a thing, but travel is high on his list of priorities. He had to get a move on to reach Yilan, so said his goodbyes and zipped off into the distance.

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Several of the billions of people that queue up for a shot in front of the gates of Hualien’s Taroko gorge daily.

I stopped about five minutes drive away in Nan’ao (home of the beach caves) for some luncheon, as my hunger was getting the better of me. On a previous visit my friends and I stopped at a popular seafood restaurant by the train station, and remembering the high level of deliciousness it was the first option that came to mind. I park up and walk towards the restaurant, thinking of what I want to eat, but more importantly how I’m going to order it without the assistance of my local buddies, as reading seafood menus isn’t one of my strengths. In the end, none of that is important as piles of bouquets, balloons and a panicked hubbub from the workers inside tell me that it has been booked out for a wedding. Instead I found a small family run restaurant around the corner, but at first glance couldn’t tell if it was open for business or not. The frail old lady inside gave me a menu and sat me down at the smallest 2 seater table. Maybe they were expecting guests too? I ordered lamb fried rice, and noticed that the restaurant started to fill more as I ate it, and some of the visitors held a larger degree of curiosity towards me than I would receive in Taipei. I don’t mind, as long as they don’t ask me to have my picture taken with them. Stop that nonsense pls.

On the outskirts of Yilan it started to get considerably wetter, so my scheduled visit to the Kavalan whisky distillery couldn’t have come at a more suitable time. Yeah, you heard me right, whisky. Kavalan was established in 2005 after parent group “King Car” realised that the high quality of the water and damp, yet hot climate in Yilan would make ideal factors for producing and ageing one of the world’s favourite spirits. In fact, the climate is so suitable here that a barrel can be aged for just 6 years and have the taste of a 12 year old cask, as the frequent change in temperature and constant humidity considerably speeds up the ageing process. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case the ‘World’s best single malt’ prize in the 2015 World Whiskies Awards, and considering that was a mere 10 years after opening, the brand clearly has a big and exciting future ahead. In recent years Japanese single malt has started to challenge the big boys in Scotland, but now I’d bet that other Taiwanese brands are either thinking about or actively moving to join the fray. Anyway, if you’re in the area it’s an interesting place to visit, and previously I was lucky enough to be given a free personal English tour. The staff are very nice and pretty good at explaining the company’s background and their manufacturing procedure. If you can, visit during the week…

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A sneaky peek-er-oo of the copper stills within.

As it was a Saturday, the car park was utterly rammed with dithering tourists and awful children. Parking was a living nightmare as I fought the urge to run down zombies totally unaware of their surroundings, that is, a car park. A park for cars, buses, and other shit that will seriously injure you if you don’t move out of their way. Eventually I found a spot without murdering anyone and slowly made my way inside the building. One of my main objectives – as I’d already visited here – was to buy a bottle or two of the Kavalan distillery reserve, unavailable to buy anywhere else but from this building. Thankfully, the shop is just to the left hand side as I walked through the front door, but sadly is heaving with people. I find the bottle I’m looking for, but it’s more expensive than I remember so decide to pass up the opportunity. I was going back to the UK in a couple of weeks so it seemed like a slight extravagance considering the relatively cheap price of scotch in comparison. But, I text my mate back home to see if he wanted me to pick him up a bottle as he also rates it, but after hanging around for 30 minutes and hearing no response I decided to leave empty handed. A large part of me was happy with the lack of reply as I almost instantly realised after texting that I had absolutely no room in my backpack to get it home.

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Ageing oak casks of delicious Taiwanese whisky.

Driving through central Yilan at the weekend can be a huge annoyance. As if someone decided that traffic rules don’t exist for two days per week. On the way through I experienced a few incidents, one of my favourites was a car driver that simply decided that he didn’t want to wait in a traffic jam, so attempted to jump the entire queue and pull in front of someone, while almost knocking my bike. I had to brake sharply to avoid any dinks, and made a point of giving him the most evil of looks I could produce to hopefully notify him of his colossal level of bellenditry.  Another was planning to U-turn on a main road. No problem, there’s no traffic coming, so go for it pal. So he slams his foot on the brake for some unknown reason, meaning I have to stop completely and find a way around him in the busy traffic, as does everyone else. Maybe he had an epiphany that he was Taiwan’s shittest driver. If not, hopefully he will soon. But not while driving.

Another road that I enjoy riding is the number 9 from Yilan to Taipei. It takes a couple of hours but has a lot of sweeping roads in good condition, leafy scenery, and a great view of Yilan city from the mountains as you ascend. Alas, I wouldn’t be able to experience this road at it’s finest today, as the rain continued to beat down mercilessly and a thick fog rolled in, shielding the majestic view. Being December there was also a mighty chill in the air, causing my hands to numb slightly at times. Frankly, this was one of the least enjoyable sections of my whole trip, and it was a little sad to finish on this note. Boo. But, it was nice to sleep in my own bed once again.

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My apartment, last door on the left. Keep the noise down.

Lenpep’s final thought:
So that’s that, as they say. 16 days of thrilling adventure and hilariously entertaining stories. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it down (that is, only briefly for once a week). My main purpose of this diary was to have something to document the finer details of a trip that I’d never forget, but I’d be over the moon if it inspires or helps others do a similar thing.

Taiwan is such a surprising country with seemingly unlimited interesting places to visit, home to a friendly population, rich flora & fauna, and a far more interesting history than you might expect from such a small island. If you’re considering coming, then I hope this has persuaded you. If you’re already here, then what are you waiting for? Get yourself a motorcycle and do the huan dao, mofo’s!

– L

Day Fifteen: Hualien city

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I awoke at around 9am and was pleasantly surprised to realise that I had been granted my own choice of wake up time for once. I was the only backpacker staying in this dorm room which gave me more peace than I’d hoped for. The bad news was that I checked the weather outside and saw possibly the bluest sky in the world. Bugger it. I starting thinking that I’d picked the wrong day to go to Taroko, but unless I bumped into Doc and Marty McFly then there was no chance of changing that. And even if I did, they’d probably feel a little put out only going back 24 hours.

The plan today was simply just to have a wander around the city, maybe pick up a souvenir or two and check out the local grub. With a rumble in my belly I hopped onto the KTR and headed towards an area that had been recommended by hostel staff for having decent food options. I arrived to find that almost nothing was open. I previously mentioned in one of the earlier days that finding breakfast between the hours of 9am – 10:30am can be a nightmare for some reason, and it was certainly the case today. After around 15 minutes of careful checking of opening times and menus, luckily I eventually stumbled across a shop which I later worked out was called “Mr Goose”; the drawings of geese on the fascia clearly showing that at least I know what animal I’ll be eating.

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Qixingtan beach (七星潭海邊) in Hualien.

The restaurant cook, a moon faced auntie sporting a hairnet and stained black apron grinned at me as I approached, with the usual tourist pleasing “hello, hello”. In Mandarin, she immediately asked if I could speak Chinese, to which I replied “only a little, it’s not good”. “Hao-ah” was her response, which kind of means: “alright then”. Then she proceeds to point at various dishes and explain what they are in Chinese, which doesn’t help much. Every time I use the phrases “bu zhi dao” (I don’t know) and “ting bu dong” (I don’t understand) she holds her stomach and roars with laughter – like a Bond villain – and repeats what I said, followed by more chuckling. As I can recognise a little writing on menus, I crane my neck to the front of the cooking stall and try that approach instead. I see something that looks like “oil rice”, so I order one of those, then I notice that inside one of her broths has a favourite of mine: duck’s blood pudding. Now hear me out… it’s delicious. OK, that’s all I’ve got. I point decisively at the red squares, and she motioned for me to sit down.

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After some brekkie I headed back to the hostel for a shower, before I planned to hit the souvenir market. Well, if you are looking for pineapple cakes or jewellery then you’re in luck. But there’s practically nothing else for sale on the street that was recommended. This is another Asian phenomenon that puzzles me; rather than have a street consisting of different types of shops and businesses, they will often be located all in the same area. For example, it’s not uncommon to see three or four mechanics all working next door to each other, or in this case, a street of mainly jewellery and pineapple cake shops. How do the ones in the middle of the street make any money? Do people walk along for five minutes, passing cake shop after cake shop and think “no, not today” and then finally succumb to the temptation? Anyway, I digress. The hostel had mentioned a decent souvenir shop that sells aboriginal and hand crafted items, so I headed there first. As luck would have it, it was closed that day. Bugger it again.

The urban explorer side of my brain had been keeping an eye out for something interesting, even though I had heard that abandoned buildings were either few and far between or not particularly interesting around these parts. I spotted a Starbucks on the corner of one of the city’s main streets, and the windows above the shop showed a number of indications that the second floor might be abandoned. Sadly the first hurdle was insurmountable; a concierge at the main – and only – entrance. I gave up on that idea pretty sharpish.

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While I continued my search for some decent trinkets I couldn’t help noticing that the sky was becoming extremely murky, and sooner than expected it started to come down relatively heavily (say that three times fast). I was passing a McD’s and had the desire for a burger and ice cream, so I ducked in there for an hour or so while the rain poured. Unfortunately this continued for the rest of the day, which – if nothing else – gave me ample reassurance that I did pick the correct day to visit the gorge, and allowed me to get some nice shots of Hualien during the evening rush hour. My final evening didn’t get much more exciting than that, as I watched episodes of The Office to the sound of rainfall outside, and enjoyed a relaxed hotpot dinner courtesy of the generous hostel hosts.

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At this time tomorrow I’d be back in Taipei.