Taiwan, the underdog of Asia

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Passport control, Taipei International Airport, 4am. I was stood before a facemask-clad female immigration official who, while pawing through my passport, was sternly asking me exactly what I planned to do in Taiwan.

"Errrr..." came my instant, hesitant reply. "I don't really know to be honest. I decided to come here for a few days after reading about your wonderful country." There. I thought, as I stared deep into her serious eyes. That'll butter it up a bit.

She looked back at me and for a few seconds, the air was tense. Then, she laughed and I could suddenly see a smile peek beyond the boundaries of her mask. "Ohhh!" She marvelled. "You will love it here! I am so happy you came to my country! I am very proud! Please enjoy yourself and don't be afraid to ask anybody for help!"

My passport was returned to me with a stamp and with that, I was on my merry way.

When I first even thought about Taiwan as a travel destination, I remember exactly where it came from. I'd just discovered Lauren's wonderful blog Never Ending Footsteps and read her rave reviews of this wonderful island destination way out there in Eastern Asia. For her, it was her gateway into a brand-new continent near the beginning of her long term travels, and I soaked up every last morsel of her posts with wide-eyed wonder. I thought to myself, "Tai-wanna be startin' something?"

...I didn't really but I had to shoehorn that in somewhere!

I originally wanted to spend way more time in Taiwan, making my way across the whole island from the slicker cities of the north and east coasts to the tropical forests that lay more inland. When my first itinerary came out at 7 weeks, around 10 days of that were solely dedicated to Taiwan. In the end I cut down my trip to a square month and in a last minute booking frenzy, I chucked three full days in Taipei in there. I couldn't not, really. Flights in and out were costing no more than £30 in total and I was addicted to the mere notion of going to Taiwan, knowing no-one who had personally be there. I had the hunger to be a pioneer.

Firstly, I am totally glad I squished in some Taipei time. On the other hand I am completely gutted that it was so short. What was I thinking? I ended up with even less time as at this point I was still getting over jetlag (I'd been away a whole week, do I win any records here?) and one of my Taipei days was spent, again, in bed until 4pm. I was totally unprepared for how much I'd like it, more or less falling head-over-heels in love almost instantly.

I say "almost" because from the moment I landed, I just wasn't sure I'd made the right choice after all. After landing from Macau at 3:30am and with nowhere really to go at that point, I decided to wait in the airport until a more reasonable hour, fuelling myself with coffees from 7/11. 8am finally rolled around and I headed to the bus station to make my way into the centre of the city. This was all a bit frantic, as after buying a cheap ticket I was ferried onto a local bus that smelt of smoke and hosted a driver with an interesting approach to driving (although now I'm in Thailand, I'd go back to that bus in a heartbeat!) The journey into Taipei took about half an hour and you get dropped off at the main station, a central hub for all buses, trains and MRT services, that sprawls out as far as the eye can see. I stepped off the bus, looked around at the uninspiring landscape that surrounded me... and I just wasn't sold.

After struggling with Google Maps a bit in trying to find the best route to my hostel, I resigned my desire to walk everywhere to failure. It was 30 degree heat and I was wearing skinny jeans for crying out loud. I decided to take my first MRT journey of the trip so far, having avoided it in Hong Kong previously. I felt like I'd given up - I didn't want to be hidden away underground, missing all the sights. I wanted to be a proper savvy traveller, soaking it all in and wasting no time at all. But I told myself that I could literally sweat no more and just wanted to dump my 9kg backpack at my hostel and chill the eff out. MRT it was. I suppose this is the perfect time to say that cities like London have a lot to learn from the MRT systems of Asia. Taipei's, I feel, is a force to be reckoned with in the most positive way. Here we have a transport system that is on time, sparkling clean, everybody is polite and totally unpushy, and it costs circa 40p a journey pretty much anywhere on the network. Once I'd got through the initial attempt to buy a ticket without a hitch and had found a seat on the next service, I suddenly felt pretty serene.

The stop closest to my hostel was Ximen and as soon as I peaked at the escalator, I breathed in a sigh of awe: this was more like the Taipei that I had imagined. It felt like Hong Kong but without the crowds and way more vivid. It also smelt just as interesting, but totally different. As I walked down the street lugging my backpack with a map in hand, looking every bit the backpacker, I didn't feel vulnerable at all but instead totally welcome. Locals would smile earnestly at me, sometimes offering a wave, and a couple even stopped when I was probably looking around in a tad of confusion to ask if they could help at all. That's one of the greatest things going for Taiwan, is how friendly everybody is. They are really happy to see tourists in their country - and in return, I was finally incredibly happy to be there.

Has anybody else been to or ever considered going to Taiwan?

Beating the crowds at Victoria Peak

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

I suppose I better come clean now and say that I never made it to Wan Chai. I've also been a pesky poor blogger, but we'll chalk that up to actually being out there and enjoying myself. As a traveller, I'm certain that it's my prerogative. However somewhere in the chaos of Phuket, I've managed to find myself some time for chillin' - time that doesn't involve simply existing or perhaps reading a book on the beach, more like sitting on the sun terrace in the bar of my hostel, sipping a sweet iced coffee - and I feel like I can just pick up where I left off. Right? Right.

I also suppose that I should admit that the little devil otherwise known as 'jetlag' well and truly beat me for at least a week. It just couldn't seem to be shaken. I'd spend one night up until 6:30am or with no sleep at all and then the next sleeping like a baby by 10pm. Every evening that I thought I'd got rid of it, it came back with a vengeance. On the morning that I headed to Victoria Peak, Hong Kong's best known viewpoint, I'd actually been wide awake the entire night. As soon at daylight hit I jumped up and into the shower, pulled on some clothes and got out that door just in time for the Pacific Coffee outlet around the corner from me to open at 7am. Ahh, Pacific Coffee - the Starbucks of East Asia. They do mighty fine americanos, I'll give them that. After two of those and a huge croissant I felt like I was sufficiently fuelled to be on my way to find the Star Ferry from Kowloon Pier over to Hong Kong Island, where my quest for Victoria Peak would begin!

Now, public transport in the whole of Asia is AWESOME. Especially those that involve either underground systems or boats. Infact, I feel like Britain's shambolic collective of delayed trains and overpriced buses are third world compared to the 40p tube journeys you can get in Taiwan, for example (and on beautiful, clean and tardy trains too!) Star Ferries are no exception, literally ferrying you across Victoria Harbour in no time at all for the equivalent of 21p a pop, and with a lovely view of the Hong Kong skyline thrown in too! The gorgeous skyscrapers still glistened even with grey clouds rolling in from behind the looming mountains. Once docked at the other side, I began to follow signs for the Peak Tram.

The Peak Tram, I guess, is essential to get to the top of Victoria Peak - unless you've got legs of steel and a whole lot of willpower. If the tram journey is anything to go by, then it's definitely the steepest ascent I've ever bore witness to. But it makes for some tantalising previews, seeing the skyscrapers suddenly make an appearance through thick foresty trees that adorn the mountain. Upon this sight, the people sat on the "wrong" side of the tram stood up to get a better look... and immediately regretted it, almost falling short to the 30% incline before they perched back on their backsides and waited patiently for the top. I'd definitely picked the right side of the trundling vehicle - and the right time to go on the tram too! At 8:20am, my tram held a total of 12 people and the queue at the ticket booth where I merrily handed over HKD$40 for my return tram (that's just £3.30 - an absolute steal!) was non-existent.

If you make it to the top this early, just be aware that while Victoria Peak is an out-and-out tourist destination with restaurants and shops and caf├ęs coming out of your ears, nothing will be open before 10am apart from the chain coffee shops. This is why I suggest that the best way to make the most out of your journey and costs is to simply soak it all up. Walk around the top, find different views, bring a book or some headphones to listen to some good tunes, and just take in the awesome view. Which, by the way, if you've ever perused photos of Hong Kong as much as I have over the years, is exactly how it looks in said images. It honestly looks like a painting!

I was enjoying the peak for about two-and-a-half hours before I made my way back down. By this time the top had begun to get overpopulated with group excursions and Chinese tourists and the peace that it had previously offered and become quite the opposite and very noisy! One super-steep journey down later and I was at the bottom once again, fighting my way through the 300-strong crowd queuing to get the tram to the top. I discreetly made rock-horns at nobody but myself, applauding my jetlag for once and being glad that I'd beaten the rush this time. Does this make me a savvy traveller or what?

Hong Kong state of mind

Thursday, 5 November 2015

There's a little something that I am desperate to get off my chest.

I am inconceivably and irreparably in love with Hong Kong.

If I'm honest, I knew it would happen. For starters, this is a nook of the world that I've wanted needed to visit for the best part of the last decade, ever since I was dazzled with tales of this magical city by a hefty influence (alright, you got me: it was a boy). I was completely mesmerised by the mere thought of it and now it's physically tickled every single one of my senses I can confirm I was right to be so obsessed all along.

Secondly, there is nothing to not love. Even the semi-negatives have their charm, like the interesting smell that Hong Kong seems to expel - I can't describe it but if you've been to HK you'll know exactly what I mean. Well it certainly wouldn't be Hong Kong without it. And that's what this city is: a string of unique occurrences and appearances that lace together into a wonderful knit. No part of it is knotted or matted or broken; it all weaves together seamlessly.

And I am saying this having not escaped my neighbourhood of Tsim Sha Tsui as yet. Basically, I have a confession to make: I am jetlagged to fuckery. I have also used this descriptive so many times in a last hour on my mobile phone in various conversational outlets, that the non-word fuckery is now firmly planted into my device's dictionary. But jetlag for me is something entirely new. I almost snorted at it's existence up until this point, instead believing it was more of a fairytale excuse in place of admitting that you're actually one lazy mofo. I apologise profoundly and take it all back. After staying up ALL NIGHT last night because I was absolutely in no way tired, my brain frantically pulsing neurons back and forth, I finally crashed into the land of nod at around 9am. I then woke up at 5pm - which is 9am back in my homeland, the United Kingdom. If this ain't jetlag, then I'm reluctant to admit that I'm a fully-qualified lazybones. I'm jetlagged to fuckery, don't judge me.

All this fuckery though means that technically I've lost an entire day in Haytch-Kay. And to say that I am gutted is a complete understatement. Remember, I already have an undying love for this city, so this is almost heartbreaking stuff. My days here are numbered: I'm moving on to Macau on Saturday and that in itself is to enable me to move on to Taiwan (my my Macau, what a wonderful budget airport you have...) So tomorrow I need to get back on it: formulate a proper plan and stick to it. No sleeping in! I'm eager to take a trip on the cable car up to the peak to take in the awesome views and I also want to break out of Kowloon and explore Hong Kong Island, an area I've yet to set foot on yet. This is not to say that my time thus far in Hong Kong hasn't been jam-packed, oh you underestimate me. Aside from my all-day-snoozing today, yesterday was drastically different in comparison.

On Wednesday, after a rather frustrating sleep - because everybody in my hostel room was up and at 'em at 5:50am, for no apparent reason - I hauled myself out of bed and into fresh clothes and out of that door all before midday. I was a girl on a mission with no directive at all. My only plan was to wander aimlessly and see what I happened upon. After an hour or so looking for coffee (and failing miserably) I eventually came across Victoria Harbour, the body of water that sits between Kowloon on the mainland and Hong Kong Island, bordered beautifully by the double-decker promenade at Kowloon Public Pier and the sea of skyscrapers across the way. As soon as I caught glimpse of this astounding row of metal towers I was sold into just sitting there and soaking it all up. Which is exactly what I did for the next hour and I recommend everybody taking the time out to do exactly this in Hong Kong, as the scenery belittles anything you can imagine. Even London's offerings pale in comparison to this skyline. The art of just admiring and appreciating what was in my field of vision was very settling and all the nerves I'd previously had pre-boarding back in Manchester (which, believe me, were plenty) suddenly dissolved and floated away. I felt like I was home. A strange feeling for somebody that had never set foot in Asia before!

But for a London girl it's easy to spot the British influence over this small now practically autonomous region. There is never a lack of the English language in speech or in type, so there's no case of getting lost in translation or having to crack out ye olde internationale hand gestures. All of the street signs are anglicised too, with names such as Ashley Road, Bristol Avenure, Cameron Road, Granville Road, I could continue but what a waste of wordcount. You get the picture. Another thing that stands out is how diverse and multi-cultural this place is. You can stumble upon a myriad of world cuisines all lined up on the same street and be spoilt for choice. You definitely won't go hungry in Hong Kong, even if you're shy to try street food!

The rest of my day yesterday was spent non-stop walking, for about 7 hours. I think I've pretty much covered my little district in Kowloon and tomorrow I'll be ready to conquer places such as Wan Chai, HK's answer to Manchester's NQ, and all that lies around it. My alarm is set and I'm raring to go! Even if it means waking up hideously early; what can I say, with morning views like this, it's hardly horrendous.

Have you been to Hong Kong before? What did you love about it?
Also shout out any recommendations that you might have!