We arrive in the darkness of the wee hours of the morning and wait in the lobby of our hostel. It’s 05:00 and we cannot check in until 15:00. It’s warm inside though, thank goodness because my body (nor my wardrobe) is not equipped for the cold temperatures outside. The hostel has warm tea and fresh, filtered water available. I prepare two cups just to warm my hands on. Defrosting, I lounge on the settee drunk from delirium. It’s a few hours until sunrise and a reasonable hour of the day to begin to explore this, the third largest city, of the once Chinese (and then Japanese) occupied island nation of Taiwan.
The sun begins to rise, throwing a blanket of soft grey over the high rises of the city. My attempts to blink away the burning sensation of my tired eyes is folly, but as the haze of the evening melts into the crevasses and shadows of the awakening city streets my wanderlust is far too intrigued to let these swollen peepers do anything other than gaze out of this second-floor lobby window. Signage on buildings are all in Mandarin (save the occasional English word like hotel or hostel) and hang in sequences; vertically from the rooftop to the lobby or garage levels for buildings as far as my eyes can see. The roadways, slick with rain, reflect the hues from the changing stop lights; muddled reflections on inky-colored puddles.
A rushing river that divides the road just in front of this hostel from the busy intersection, adjacent to the train station, holds my gaze. The long-distance bus that transported us (myself and a digital nomad I befriended in the Philippines three months earlier) from the airport in Taipei, these three hours south, to Taichung; where our week-long journey will begin. We disembarked cold, groggy and dehydrated only a handful of hours ago, but thankfully, ahead of this downpour. I stare at the surface of the river, the increased rainfall encouraging the pace of the current. The frantic splashes of its inhabitants, large multi-colored koi, wagging their tails desperately swimming against it.
I’m already completely fixated on the aesthetics of this county.
Considering the length of our travel day there isn’t much on our day’s schedule. We’ve lined up a free walking tour for the morning, which we would follow up with lunch at one of the many must-try destinations on my travel companions ever-growing list. The afternoon would be spent lazing around on our own, which for the both of us translates to hanging around at the hostel; snacking and working. As digital nomads, we must carve out the time to work while on the road. Having this in common makes traveling together relatively easy.
Admittedly, this destination was not on my radar, but a few days after setting my personal travel goals for the year, my friend asked if I wanted to join her on her birthday trip. I relished the opportunity to add another stamp in my passport and to reunite with a fellow female traveler. I’d be making my way East back towards California immediately following, so it lined up for me in more ways than one. The tour was longer than normal, but it was just the two of us (plus the guide) allowing him to really take his time explaining the history of each place. The architecture drips with both Chinese and Japanese influences of Taiwanese past. It’s not long until I’m lost in wonder and on sensory overload taking in the dozens of smells and noises around me; embracing the rawness of the culture.
The petite size of the island allows one to go from the cityscape to the mountains in minutes; it’s impressive, to say the least. Southbound towards Nantou the palm trees tower over the concrete temples and abandoned warehouses made of sheet metal; the green of the fronds glistening in the morning sunlight. The mountainous landscape compliments the isolation of these small towns as the city bus passes one after the other. There were more faces of color in the capital, but far less here in the center of the island. The presence of dark skin likely dwindles farther south. Still, locals look at me more than stare, smile vs point and snicker and not a single soul has asked me for a random photograph.
The topic of heritage is a polarizing one among locals; some take offense to the label Chinamen, while others sincerely commemorate the time of Japanese rule, admitting that the Japanese (at a minimum) brought infrastructure and industry to the island during their totalitarian hold on the country. Collectively those I’ve spoken to concur with the latter stating that the Japanese did more to enhance the Taiwanese way of living than mainland China ever cared to. Nowadays there’s an unspoken bond between the two neighboring island nations on this side of liberation. The collision of these cultures is felt more strongly the closer we journey back north. My travel companion and I soak in the data, both of us drunk on the history of this region. The impact taking on a more poignant meaning for her as a citizen of Asia.
Arriving at the capital city of Taipei I am intimidated, almost immediately. Wide roads and too many intersections have replaced the charming one-way roads or hidden alleyways that were my first impressions. An influx of bodies, fast food chains, sky rises and Western boutiques are plenty and mastering navigation on the MRT is crucial to survival. Still, the lack of pollution is impressive considering the density of the population here. There’s an uptick in the Japanese influences of old, mostly evident in the architecture and fashion trends.
Our days begin early and we walk our feet to new levels of soar exploring the city taking full advantage of free walking tours. We pass an eight-story building dedicated to the art of karaoke, an old brothel house turned into a bar, and visit the old market stalls in a historically protected portion of the city. We learn about snake venom shots, how to pray for answers at the temples and which food items were improvised during war times. Japanese anime characters resembling Dao Gods and Goddesses pop up sporadically around the city and the crowds begin to swarm as the long weekend grows near. A national holiday to remember the heinous crimes of the “White Terror” (an era of Japanese and Chinese oppression on the Taiwanese people) has shut down businesses and brought foreign domestics from all over the island to the capital. There are parades in the streets and an influx of magnifying lenses pointed from various vantage points. It’s only been a week on this island, but I am thoroughly intrigued and genuinely sad to be leaving so soon; too soon. From just this glimpse into Taiwan, I’m beginning to doubt if now truly is the time for me to leave Asia…
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