Surviving a Taipei Typhoon with Minimal Mandarin
For most of September, I was on a rollercoaster that seemed to only go down... like a Drop Zone that never ended. We began a new semester at school, and, per usual, it was a massive cluster fuck. In the midst of the transitional shit storm, I also moved from a relatively spacious, but windowless, apartment to a smaller, more boxy, apartment with broken air-con (but a window). Long story short, it was not my month.
To say I was ready for a holiday would be a massive understatement. I was counting down the days, minutes, and seconds until I could escape smoggy Seoul to explore Taiwan for the Chuseok holiday weekend. It wasn’t until the day before my trip that I discovered someone else would be visiting Taiwan, too… Super Typhoon Meranti – the strongest typhoon of the year... And I thought to myself, wellllp, go ahead and add that to the list of unfortunate events for the month.
The flight to Taipei, and into the typhoon, was the scariest and most turbulent flight of my life – (we literally tried to land three times and couldn’t because it was unsafe). Flying hasn't been the best time for me lately, as, for some unknown reason, I've been having seizures and/or passing out in the air. The second time we failed to descend, I started to REALLY not feel well, so I was so glad the wheels finally touched the ground before I had to go on an oxygen tank.
After a hectic, and low key terrifying, flight, I finally made it to Songshan Airport. Since I planned to do lots of exploring in and around Taipei, I pre-ordered pocket-wifi for the trip. Online, the pickup location was listed as the twenty-four hour 711 right beside the airport. Easy enough, right? I figured it would be a breeze. After picking up my backpack and heading to the info desk to ask how to get to the 711, I was informed that the 711 in the airport was closed, and the 711 address I had was, in fact, NOT beside the airport.
The lady at the info desk suggested I take a cab there, and so as to avoid toting my massive backpack around in a torrential downpour, I agreed. She grabbed a sticky note, wrote the addresses of the 711 and of my hostel in Mandarin, and then sent me on my way with a little wave and a, “Good luck.” I contribute my success to her note and well wishes alone.
The cabbie I chose outside the airport did not speak a word of English – and my Mandarin abilities didn't, and still don’t, extend beyond hello and thank you. I handed him the little note, and, after pondering it, he shot me a very confused look. I pointed to what I guessed was the 711’s address and held up a #1 on my fingers… then pointed to the second address and showed him the #2.
Still confused, he called over the other airport cabbies to figure out what in the world he was supposed to do with me. All the while, I sat there thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” I seriously wondered whether I would make it to my next destination, or survive the next four days on my minimal, (aka nonexistent), Mandarin abilities. After much deliberation with the other cab drivers, we were off into a very rainy Taipei.
Though we initially stopped at the wrong 711, by some miracle, we made it to the correct location within the half hour... and then I was dropped off at my hostel shortly after. I can only imagine what a sight I must have been - drenched, lone female traveler carrying a backpack two-thirds her size... because, yes, once again, I overpacked.
If you have been to Asia, you know how much of a miracle it is that I managed to pick up the pocket wifi and make it to my hostel in such record time. There is literally a 711 on every single corner. Shout out to you Songshan Airport Info Desk lady... and to the random English speaking person at the first, wrong, 711. You the real MVP’s.
I was pretty exhausted from the journey, and relieved to be in a bed, so after arriving at my hostel, I opted against having a beer at the cozy downstairs bar, and got an early night instead. The next few days would be an absolute whirlwind of figuring out public transportation, failing at Chinese, and checking off almost all of the destinations on my Chuseok, Taiwan bucket list.
Normally I’m totally a go with the flow kind of traveler, but I have been dreaming of Taiwan for years, and, with only a few days to explore, I wanted to hit as many of the places on my "must see" list as possible. This time, I had my travel plans down to a science. I did my research on the MRT, transit passes, bus times and routes, and things to see and do. By the time I left my hostel early Thursday morning, I had the subway lines and my map of the city practically memorized.
Now, I in no way expect that anyone will take my word for it, or take the following information to heart, but I really wanted to write this anyway - both to reflect on my trip, and to put all of the information I spent hours searching the web for all in one place. So here ya go - in no particular order, my top eleven highlights (because I couldn't choose just ten), and comprehensive guide to Taiwan (or, rather, what I saw of it).
1. 228 Peace Park
My hostel was located near NTU Hospital station on the Red (#2) line. This location was highly convenient. A short walk through 228 Peace Park and I was at the station. This park was among the top places I wanted to see in Taipei, and I was not disappointed by it. It was clean, laid back, and seemed like a great place to chill on a nice day - unfortunately, most days I spent in the city, it was pouring down rain, and the one day the sun was shining I was breezing through the park on my way to catch a train to the North Coast. Regardless, I'd definitely recommend stopping by 228 Peace Park if you're in the city.
2. Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
After a stroll through the park, my next stop in Taiwan was to see ole' Chiang Kai-Shek. Turns out, he didn't say much. Despite the rain, I really enjoyed wandering around the Memorial Hall grounds. It was very accessible from the subway station, (that goes by the same name). It was also a selfie stick war zone, and I'm not sure how I managed to get such desolate looking photos.
3. Taipei 101
This is both a must, and unavoidable, place to see while in Taipei. No matter where you are staying in the city, if you get out and about at all, it's likely that you'll see this pagoda style sky scraper at some point.
The only touristy activity I paid for my whole trip was going up to the observatory, (and, honestly, the only reason I did is because the friends I was with wanted to go). If you've been in other observatories, or tall buildings in big cities, the view is very similar. I personally preferred the view of Taiwan, that included the tower, from Elephant Mountain.
4. Elephant Mountain
Hiking Elephant Mountain is an absolute must. It's not so much a hike as it is climbing up a bunch of stairs. Be sure you bring or buy a water bottle before starting your climb. Even though I consider myself to be pretty fit, about halfway through, I was winded. I was so parched and sweaty, that I didn't even mind the torrential downpour that started on my way down the mountain.
All of the travel sites I searched before going here recommended hiking the mountain just before sunset. This is also apparently the most crowded time. I'm sure it would have made for epic photos of the skyline at sundown, but it was cloudy my entire trip and I doubt I would have been able to see the sunset anyway. Plus, I much preferred the peace and quiet.
To get there, go to Xiangshan Station at the end of the Red Line. Take exit 2 and walk along the side of the park. You'll see signs for Elephant Mountain!
5. Taipei Confuscious Temple
This may have been my favorite place I visited while in Taiwan. I am always pretty wary of going to temples because they are, after all, where people practice their religion and not a tourist attraction. Before going in, I asked a security officer standing at the entrance if it would be okay, and, with a smile, he assured me that it was fine.
Once inside, I found myself surrounded by people in the middle of a special Mid Autumn Festival service... in the pouring rain. I found a seat and just watched, taking it all in. Sometimes I think we get so caught up in "doing all of the things" that we forget to be 100% present in the moment... so sitting there in the temple, that's what I tried to do. I felt each rain drop as they drenched my skin. My eyes traced even the smallest details of the temple's intricacies. With every breath I could smell burning incense. My ears could hear chants in a language I didn't understand, and flat stones hitting the ground as worshippers tossed them to have their questions answered by the gods. I felt like I was exactly where I need to be. I felt thankful.
The very first major I chose in university was cultural anthropology, but since I didn't want to become a college professor and be in debt for the rest of my life, it wasn't a very practical one. I have always enjoyed learning about the different cultures and religions of people around the world, and, though I'm not a cultural anthropologist now, I am so thankful to have the chance to see and experience the traditions of people around the world first hand.
I have visited temples before, but actually taking the time to sit down and soak it all in was unlike anything I've ever experienced before. I left feeling a refreshing sense of clarity that I haven't felt in a really long time.
After a busy (and wet) Thursday, I woke up bright and early Friday morning to sunlight streaming in the hostel window (FINALLY). Within the hour I had jumped out of my bed pod, showered, eaten breakfast, and was headed to Taipei Main Station to buy a train ticket up to north. Trains run frequently, only take about 45 minutes, and cost NT$49 - which is the equivalent of US$1.50 (UNREAL!)
Once I arrived at Ruifang station, I set out to find a bus that would get me to the places I wanted to see along the Northern Coastline. I caught the Gold Fulong bus which picked up not far from Ruifang Station. You can apparently buy a one day pass which is good for unlimited rides on the same day. It's a really good deal considering the view on the ride is fantastic - but I'd recommend starting early to see as much as possible.
My first stop was Jiufen. The notorious Old Street is an old narrow alleyway covered with hanging red lanterns and filled with food, drink, and souvenir shops. In one word, I would describe Jiufen Old Street as hectic. I ended up dipping up a side street to get out of the mob of people shuffling slowly down the bustling street. I was SO glad I did, because the temple I stumbled upon at the top of the staircase had the most epic view of Taiwan's beautiful northern coast line. Wow. Just wow.
7. Golden Waterfall
This was another stop on the bus route. It was pretty, but I ended up having to wait over half an hour for the next hop-on-hop-off bus to come by. Thankfully, I brought my notebook and a book to read with me, so I spent most of my time at this waterfall relaxing, reading, and writing. It definitely wasn't a bad spot for it.
8. Nanya Rock Formations
Sadly, this photo is pulled from flickr, as I had to enjoy these epic and unusual rock formations from a bus window. I got so caught up in taking in the epic coastline, that I forgot to actually press the "stop" button to GET OFF the bus and take in the epic coastline. The driver sped right past... and I didn't realize how spaced out and absentminded I was being until it was too late. Rookie mistake.
Though I'll have to save climbing on the Nanya rock formations for my next trip to Taiwan, thankfully, the next place I stopped was THE number one North Coast destination I wanted to see during my visit to Taiwan.
9. Bitou Cape
This place was absolutely worth the $3 US that I spent collectively to get to and from the North Coast. Though it had been a beautiful and sunny day, naturally, just as I began the climb to Bitou Cape's lookout point, it started drizzling. A little drizzle never killed anyone, so I kept trucking along the pathway. Before the first few drops even hit the ground, people had already started breaking their umbrellas out, but I refused to buy one on the trip. A drizzle quickly turned into a torrential down pour, and, within minutes, the torrential downpour was so intense that two middle aged Taiwanese ladies insisted on sharing one of their two umbrellas with me. (If there's one thing that can be said about Taiwan - it's that the kindness of strangers is incredible. I love Korea, but there doesn't tend to be very many friendly interactions among strangers on the street).
There were two hiking trails, and unfortunately, the one I was aiming to take was closed. Despite the warning signs, I began the hike on the closed off Lighthouse Trail... and within ten minutes decided that I was being an idiot. I'm one of the biggest adrenaline, thrill seeking junkies you will ever know, but when typhoon waves crashed against the shore to my right and small rocks started to fall on the narrow path from my left, I knew it was time to turn around. I'm all for living on the edge, but mostly I'm for living, so I turned my lone, drenched, female travelin' ass right on around and headed for the trail that wasn't closed off.
Unfortunately, this was my last stop on my very short North Coast tour. I really enjoyed my time here, and would highly recommend a visit to Bitou Cape if you're ever in Northern Taiwan.
10. Wuji Tianyuan Temple - Tiantan Altar
On my last full day in Taiwan, I wanted to go back up to Rufiang to hit the last couple of places on my north coast list (namely Elephant Trunk Rock), but when I got to the train station, I found that all of the trains to the coast were cancelled. Something about a typhoon... (I was just like, yeah, yeah I get it, It's raining.)
Since Elephant Rock was out, I decided to head to Tamsui to check out Old Street along the water and this temple. Tiantan Altat was beautiful. I can't even imagine how amazing it would be to visit this place during cherry blossom season - (note it would probably also be swarmed with tourists and not empty like on my mid-typhoon visit.)
11. Ximending Cinema Street
I'm a huge fan of murals and street art, so, despite the constant torrential downpour, this street was a must see. On my last afternoon in the city, I headed to Lane 96 on Kunming Street in Ximending. The walls, shutters, and electric boxes are all covered with original Taiwanese graffiti art. Even the actual streets are painted in some parts. It was dope. I loved it. I got really wet. Apparently the art changes frequently, so no matter when you go, I guarantee you'll see something you like.
TPE or TSA?
If are staying in Taipei, and have the option to, fly in to Taipei Songshan Airport (TSA). It's literally in the city. Depending on when you arrive, you can just catch the MRT (which closes at midnight) to your hostel or hotel. The alternative airport is Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (TPE). It's a larger and more popular airport, but is also significantly further away.
The hostel I stayed in was a 15-20 minute cab ride from TSA, versus 50 minutes by taxi (and even longer by bus) from TPE.
If you plan on using public transportation, which is really easy, cheap, and, therefore, highly recommended by yours truly, get a transit card of some sort as soon as possible once you're in the city!
One option is a TaipeiPass. This card can be used an unlimited number of times for a specified number of days (1, 3 or 5). The current prices are:
1 day: $180NT
2 day: $310NT
3 day: $440NT
5 day: $700NT
You can also get an "EasyCard," which is basically Taipei's version of Korea's T-money card. They can be purchased and charged at any MRT station and many convenience stores. I opted for a 3 day TaipeiPass transit card so I didn't have to deal with adding more money to a transit card. It was a really good investment (about $14USD) and made getting on and off the subway really easy.
If you plan on taking buses anywhere outside of Taipei city, your traveler card won't work and you'll need change. The buses I found myself on at the North Coast required exact change, so make sure you’ve got some jingle with you. I did not know think about this, and had to resolve the issue, the hard way (aka by paying double for a bus ride, and having to ask people on the next bus for change).
This thing was a god send… a very cheap god send. It cost me less than $4USD per day to rent a portable wireless router. I highly recommend getting one if you’re planning a trip to Taipei. There are lots of places online to reserve pocket wifi, or (depending on when your flight lands) you can get one at the airport. Aside from the initially illusive 711 pick up location, reserving and returning pocket wifi through iVideo.com.tw was really easy.
RAIN GEAR, RAIN GEAR, RAIN GEAR!
Based on what I heard from friends in Taiwan and the people I met on my trip, Taiwan is rainy. Always. Waterproof jackets and umbrellas are Taiwan essentials especially during, but not only in the event of a super typhoon. I refused to pack/purchase the latter, and was proudly rockin' the wet dog look all weekend because of it.
MANDARin, Mandarin, Mandarin
Download a basic language app or learn a few common phrases. Pleasantries go a long way. I would know... because I somehow got by on mainly just hello and thank you.
Where I stayed
This capsule style hostel was incredible. Not only was it incredibly cheap, it was also clean, cozy, and extremely convenient. The hostel had a cafe/bar downstairs on the main level and separate floors for males and females. Towels and clean sheets were provided, and the bathrooms (and makeup room for the ladies) were perhaps the cleanest I've ever seen in a hostel.
Oxygen Hostel was a short walk (through 228 Peace Park) to the subway station, and really close to many popular Taipei attractions. Additionally, the hostel staff was extremely friendly and accommodating!
After getting back to the hostel late one evening, they cooked me a burger even though the kitchen was closed. The food and beers were both delicious and affordable, and hostel guests even got a discount!
I would absolutely recommend Oxygen hostel to anyone traveling in Taipei, and will likely be staying there again on my next visit to the city. They also host volunteers on WorkAway, so if you're planning a lengthy trip to Taipei, look them up!
Humble House Taipei
Since I stayed in a hostel that cost me very little for the majority of my trip, I decided to splurge on the last night and booked a stay at the Humble House Hotel. This place was anything but humble, but was so necessary for some much needed end of trip R&R. The bed was amazingly comfortable, the bath was suitable for my extremely long legs, and the desk overlooking the city was the perfect spot to get some writing done. I drank wine, took a bubble bath, ordered room service, jumped on the bed in a bathrobe, and various other totally adult-y activities.
While their website boasts that they provide an airport transfer service, it should be noted that it is actually a very unnecessary limousine service that will cost you an additional arm and/or leg. My backpack and I caught a cab instead.
Things I'll Go Back For
All in all, I LOVED Taiwan and am already itching to go back. I was there for five short days, and, though I saw and did a lot, I didn't get anywhere close to going everywhere I wanted to go. Specifically, I’d really like to go back to see the Taipei Modern Art Museum, Elephant Trunk Rock in Northern Taiwan, this modern art park with the upside down house... and all of southern Taiwan.
Even though my month got off to a rough start, visiting Taiwan was a really refreshing, renewing, and cleansing holiday. I was reminded just how beautiful life is, and how lucky I am to be able to see and experience so many magical places. I am forever grateful for the miles I've covered and the many smiling faces I've encountered along the way. Taiwan, you were a dream (albeit a wet one - lol). Thanks for the memories.