Thursday, 21 January 2016

Jiufen, Taiwan: The definition of Travel

Let me introduce you to Jiufen.
Welcome to Jiufen
Boat straight from here, you'll eventually reach Hawaii. Crazy.
Spot me! 
This is Travel.

These pics define more or less my image of Travel with a huge, beautiful capital T. Mountains, sea and an exotic temple to remind you this is not just anywhere.

My last whole day in Taiwan I spent with T and L exploring further away Taiwanese areas. That’s what I would recommend to do when holidaying in Taiwan – go into the nature, go see the majestic scenery in the forms of mountains, waterfalls and the ocean. Taipei’s cool and all, but I probably should have dedicated more time (and ideally less clouds, too) to exploring outside of the centre.

So, Jiufen. Jiufen is a mountainous area in Eastern Taiwan, famous as the filming location of the City of Sadness, a well-known historical drama film 'hailed as a masterpiece'.

First sights towards Jiufen

Their roads are narrow, curvy and steep and their bus drivers deserve buckets of admiration. The steering wheels get into some good usage! Just bussing around the area itself was a fantastic experience, vaguely reminiscent of the double-decker bus rides up and down the South Downs in England, but definitely a more extreme version. Here you had to be prepared for crazy sudden stops when the driver realises that behind this curve there’s a bus driving in the opposite direction, and then we proceed to reverse back down the curvy road. Exciting. (Can you call a road curvy?)

Luckily L spoke Chinese, so getting around was a whole lot more hassle-free than if we'd all been complete novices to the language. We found our correct bus, and luckily the group of Chinese ladies with us recommended we don’t get off in the town centre, but take it to the end, where there’s a beautiful view.

Definitely stunning. You know those feelings when you know you’ve just experienced something so magnificent, that even if the whole rest of the day goes abysmally, you still feel satisfied with the way your time was spent that day.

After viewing the view point we headed towards the Gold Mine museum, near which our bus back to town was meant to leave from. On the way we popped into the most adorable little traditional teashop, where the owner lady brought a third chair from some back room so we could all have a chair as we squeezed around the one and only table. (And had thoroughly untraditional lattes, I regret to say.)

Latte and menu
I got my first ever Chinese lesson when L pointed out certain symbols on the ultra-cool menu created on a slab of wood, and explained their meanings.  

The Gold Mine museum seemed like a surprisingly cool complex, which we unfortunately didn’t have the time to explore properly. Got to pose in an old gold cart thing though.

We eventually found a bus, which took us back to Jiufen town centre. 

I've seen worse
Local dried seafoody things stall
We admired the views, dodged the hordes of people who had decided to congregate at this one specific random point on the side of the road, bought custard apple from a local fruit store (TAIWAN WAS THE LAND I REFOUND MY LOVE FOR CUSTARD APPLES) and incredulated over the amazing traffic-organising police. For some reason, the founders of Jiufen decided that their centre should be upon the steepest hillside possible, and it most definitely should include a narrow road with the steepest curve possible. The local authorities utilised a very useful method to minimise risks of bumping into pedestrians/driving your bus off the edge – two policemen were situated at different ends of the curve, not seeing each other, but being able to hear each other’s whistles. When one dude blew in his whistle, it meant traffic was coming, and the dude on the opposite side stopped the traffic from his side. And vice versa. This was especially fascinating when there were buses doing the loop.

But Jiufen was known for quaint alleys, and we didn’t see any quaint alleys. L marched into a souvenir shop, picked up a postcard of the famous alleys, and asked the shop assistant where we could find them. We were kindly pointed into the right direction where, surprisingly, the hordes of people were. Ah, they weren’t just gathered there – it was an opening to the alleys, they were going in and out.
Hello Jiufen alleys!

Peanut ice cream roll - why did I not introduce this in the food entry??
A pause
Flavoured mushrooms
Local wines
Them tea-marinated eggs again
So, Jiufen alleys were beautiful. Crowded, yes, but full of all your delicious foods (many of which were introduced with more detail here), quirky souvenirs and the softest cats ever. Seriously. And they sleep in boxes. In shops. An excellent marketing technique, at least for soppy-hearted people like me – pet our cat and then feel obliged to buy something out of politeness. (I know it shouldn't work like this, but still………)
After a pleasant stroll around Jiufen-alleys, we decided it’d be time to move on to our next destination, where we got to by bus (which ended up being one that went all the way to the top to our original view point, before descending back through the town centre in our direction) and train.
On the way
More of Jiufen

The way down
At the train station

Houmong Cat Village. 
Yes, cats and cable cars, that’s how you can summarise my trip it seems.
How many cats can you see?
Well, Houmong Cat Village actually had LOTS of cats. It had very little else, to be honest. 

But why would you need anything else but me??

Ok, there was one souvenir shop, which we spent a long time in primarily because there was heating and it was getting preeeeeetty cold outside, and a cat lady selling over-priced postcardy photographs or drawings of cats in houses, cats on streets, cats on railways, cats in trees, cats in temples, cats in front of temples, cats on boats, cats on trains, cats sleeping, cats doing shopping, happy cats, sad cats, tired cats, traditional Taiwanese cats, excited cats, angry cats, silly cats… oh, you get the point?

While Jiufen and its surroundings far surpassed expectations, I’d say the Cat Village was definitely fun, but possibly not as… entertaining as expected. 

It was also too cold to enjoy it 100%. I think my best moment was getting this pic…
It's a tiring life being a cat of the cat village
Or maybe, witnessing the differences between cats and dogs

This dog was going absolutely INSANE, barking, howling and LITERALLY jumping off walls, while the cat sat there, motionlessly satisfied, apart from once or twice glancing judgmentally at its companion. (In all fairness, I'd judge it too - what's a dog doing in a cat village!? It's like getting a screaming toddler as your housemate when you specifically moved into a house for the over 60's.)
Taipei has its Damper babies, Pingxi has its Flying baby-lanterns
Our final stop of our trip was a little town called Pingxi. As described in my travel journal: ‘The land of non-existent, freezing lanterns. We saw one lantern. & an EPIC full moon. Cold & empty streets.’ 

Nothing much to add to that. Pingxi is indeed known for its epic Lantern Festival, where thousands of lanterns light over the town. It was not Lantern Festival season. But we visited some interesting(once again, slightly more heated than the ever-freezifying outdoors) shops and watched some people write cool stuff on huge lanterns. (well, the ‘cool’ is debatable since it was in Chinese characters) (It is SO fascinating watching people ‘fluently’ write in Chinese. I know it’s just a question of what language and symbols and alphabet you grow up considering the norm, but it’s still astounding from a European point of view.) 

Then we agreed on getting the next bus back to Taipei, where we wandered the streets until we found a well-heated restaurant with hot food.

All in all, an exhausting but such a perfect day, definitely one of my favourites of the trip!

And that’s Taiwan done and dusted. A beautiful country, I thoroughly recommend it if you want somewhere as exotic as Malaysia, as interesting as Vietnam, as Chinese as China, as technologically impressive as Japan (weeeeelll... nearly) and as friendly as Bali. 

For our next entry we'll be in JAPAN. It’s so nice living an alternate life through my blog posts, even though I’ve been back in cold empty Finland for nearly a month now. This is why I love writing. And travelling. And memories. Yay.

Ystävällisin terveisin (as I sign most my job applications nowadays),


Bye bye, see you in Japan! 

Saturday, 16 January 2016

A study of Taiwanese clouds

Taiwan is known for its gorgeous scenery. The ‘easy’ option for stunning mountain views, nearish to Taipei, was the famous Yangmingshan National Park.

Courtesy of lonelyplanet. Beautiful, right!? 
So, one morning me and my mates J & T (the ones in the celebrity selfie a few entries back) decided to try it out. We had been warned the previous day it had been way too cloudy and rainy for it, and they’d predicted the same for today, but I made a point of not caring. It can’t be that bad, even if it’s not ideal weather, it’s a national park, you’ll be able to see / do something… And in any case, most people are slightly oversensitive to a little bit of drizzle. (Though, I should’ve had alarm bells ringing in my pompous mind, because the person who had complained about this bad weather was not, in any way, someone you would imagine to be 'oversensitive' - he was this middle-aged German dude who's been to all sorts of places, stories of camping in mountainous Iran and stuff... He didn’t appear to be the most delicate of souls when it came to drizzly weather.)

Courtesy of Pretty cool, yeah?
Well, in any case, I was wrong about ‘a little bit of drizzle not harming anyone’. Well, not wrong, but definitely not right either. Yeah, sure, cool, we were at a national park, awesome, but, well, let’s put it this way, a cloudologist would’ve had a whale of a time.

Here you can see the clear, spectacular view of Mount Qixing,’ boasted the signs at the viewpoints. We read the sign, looked at each other and agreed to disagree. No, here you can see the damp, foggy clouds of Mount Qixing. Yes, it was atmospheric. But no, there were no mountain views whatsoever.
See the majestic peaks to your left

After a fifteen-minute wander in the damp sogginess on the empty roads of Yangmingshan national park, we finally reached our hike's 'starting point'

Beware of the giant frog
It'll be about a 40-minute hike, explained ever-efficient J who had everything mapped out on his smartphone. I seriously considered staying behind and sitting at the nice sheltered bus stop. I was in no way dressed for a foggy rainy mountain hike – neither were the guys, but they at least had some kind of rain coats and also today they had decided against wearing their heeled boots (not that I had much choice, you have limited options when you decide to take only carry-on for a three week trip!) I wasn't grumpy or sulky, no, but I feel I am old enough to know not to force myself through voluntary unhappiness. I mulled it over, then decided to go for it anyways since it looked a tiny percentage sunnier than it was a few minutes previously.

After a long, damp climb of ridiculously steep and uneven steps, with I’m sure what was gallons of sweat pouring except you couldn’t really feel it because you were drenched throughout with fogginess, the friendly signpost informed us we’d done 100 metres out of the 1,400 metres. That was another point I seriously considered turning back. But alas, no, I perservered!
National Park selfie depicting my mood
We introduced ourselves to fumaroles, which are openings in the earth's crust that emit steam and gunge. Apparently if you inhale them too much it's bad for you.

Clouds mixed with fumaroley smoke
But, we reached the top, and we were happy! :D Photos were taken though not much of a view to be seen, surprisingly.
The celebratory pose of the model of How Not To Dress For A Wet National Park Hike
It was soggy and effortful, but definitely worth it. And the steep steps... well, let's just say we'd be able skip the squats for the next ten years-ish after that workout. 
My awesome hike companions 
But obviously you don’t want super fit legs without a super fit top half, right!? Luckily Yangmingshan catered for those needs too – after our soggy hike, we caught the Most Packed Minibus Ever. Somehow we managed to squeeze in even when, before any of us had got on, the bus door clearly was going to have problems closing. Well, anyways, in that bus I practised my arm muscles by half-holding onto a railing trying my utmost not to fall, at every bend in the road, onto the tiny woman in front of me.

It was a happy moment when we got back to civilisation, bought some steaming pork buns and a new pair of socks. Ah, it was so worth it.



PS. Tomorrow, I promise, it will be sunnier! :D