Camping Truths in Taiwan

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Free camping in Dulan.

Free camping in Dulan.

For some the lure of camping is non-existent and for good reason. You drive (or hike) into the middle of nowhere with very few comforts from back home, set up your shelter, forage for firewood, battle mosquitos, rodents and other pesky creatures, often eat bland food and on the tail end of things you end up smelling like shit.

I hear the complaints and I can sympathize, but I also enjoy escaping the city and its traffic noise, annoying neighbors, blaring stereos, barking dogs and that damn garbage truck song, in exchange for some fresh air and natural scenery.

I never took the chance  to camp while living in Korea, but on a scooter trip during our last vacation we camped out for seven of nine nights at different locations scattered about Taiwan’s east coast and central mountains.  The trip went as planned but I now realize that there are several truths about camping in Taiwan that may or may not hold true elsewhere.

I tend to better enjoy camping when there’s no more than a few people along for the trip (The less smelly bodies in and around my tent the better). Nonetheless I was baffled by how many large groups I saw during our trip. It seems that for many Taiwanese, the more people you can cram onto one campsite, the better.

At a campground in Kenting we saw a group that, by outward appearance, looked like a small family reunion. They erected a mansion of  tent that made our small 3-person look like a plastic dog house. Right next to it they set up an equally impressive screened in gazebo with a fold-up table and a few chairs underneath.  By the time they rolled out their buffet style dinner spread I almost forgot that we were at a seaside campground and halfway expected to see them cart out a portable karaoke machine.

The view from the campsite in Kenting.

The view from the campsite in Kenting.

Honestly I can’t blame them for wanting to enjoy the scenery as a family. The campsite is run by a friendly Taiwanese gentleman who rents out space on his land situated just above a coral beach, there’s no swimming, but you’re close enough to the water to hear the waves from inside your tent.  That being said, 15 people nestled onto one campsite is a tad excessive by my standards.

In  Dulan I would learn a second truth about Taiwan camping: despite popular belief, you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere you deem appropriate.

Our original plan was to utilize the free campground at the Dulan police station (yes, the police station), but because all the sites were claimed we end up with having to find another place to put our tent.  We ask around at the nearby sugar can factory turned art studio, and are told by an elderly fella to just set up our tent in a grassy area next to one of the factory buildings. We do as such, but are eventually told (rather harshly) by a young girl outside of the Dulan Cafe that if we wanted to camp there we would have to pay a fee to the owner of the property. We decide to take down our tent and set it up across the street in area where a  few other tents are already set up. This time we take no chances and ask permission at a nearby house before unpacking. The other tents just so happen to belong to some friends from Kaohsiung and we lay waste to a few beers 7-11 before taking in some live music at the Dulan cafe.

The "campsite" we got booted out of.

The “campsite” we were booted out of.

Further north in Shihtiping I began to understand that when camping in Taiwan, it’s better to do with than to do without.

In the states  it’s perfectly acceptable–encouraged even–when camping, to go a few days without bathing properly, or having decent facilities to use the bathroom. You haven’t lived until you’ve had to drop a deuce in a 2-foot hole  that you dug yourself. Still, it appears that most Taiwanese campers don’t share this sentiment and many insist on having as many comforts as possible when enjoying the outdoors.

Despite its ill sounding name, Shihtiping was the nicest campsite we stayed at during the entire trip. Each individual site has a raised wooden tent platform with shelter and and an accompanying picnic table. Bathrooms and showers are just a stroll down a footpath lined with night lamps. Theres also electrical sockets just in case you decide to bring along a blender for beachside margaritas. The entire campground faces the ocean and some pretty funky rock formations. There’s a small pebble beached cove near the center of the main row of campsites–perfect for a sunset swim after everyone retreats to their campsites for dinner.

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Shihtiping campsite at sunrise.

The place is stacked with more than enough amenities, but you also come out of your pocket for it. At $NT 1,000 a night ($NT 800 on weekdays) it is just as cheap or cheaper to crash at a hotel. I wouldn’t mind giving up the use of electricity and the sheltered platform in exchange for a few hundred NT off the bill. Still, given the gorgeous setting, we couldn’t pass up a chance to camp here regardless of the price tag. Shihitiping also has the advantage of a nearby fishing harbor with a few seafood restaurants worth checking out.

After getting gouged in Shihitipeng, Taroko National Park ushered in the truth that camping in a nice location doesn’t have to break the bank. Being the biggest tourist draw in Taiwan, you’d think camping here would cost a fortune. Instead NT$200/night gets you onsite bathrooms with showers and wooden platforms (unsheltered), and it’s in the middle of the gorge. Taroko was also the only place where we were able to build a campfire. There’s a fire pit and barbecue grate at every site. Because we were so close, we were able to explore most of the gorge early in the day, before it got overran with tourist buses. It was easy enough to find a site midweek but, I’ve heard that you need to get there early on the weekends to stake out a spot.

Sun Moon Bay campsite at Sun Moon Lake was the last campground we stayed at before heading into Tainan and it’s a perfect example of a place that should probably give up and close shop. It’s right on the lake, but you can barely see the water because of the boardwalk leading to the gondola that crosses right in front of the campground. During the day it can get a tad noisy with all the people strolling past and there’s little to no privacy. There’s bathrooms and showers, but no wooden platforms. Instead they’ve cleared an area at each campsite and covered it with jagged rocks so you know where to put your tent. If you’re lucky enough to have thick sleeping pads (we were’t) you might not feel the rocks stabbing you in your gut as you sleep. We were the only ones at the campground, but it didn’t look like the place had been used in while. That being said, the bathrooms were still clean and the showers (mostly) bug free.

Campsite info

Kenting $NT 100/person/night

Look for this sign on the right side of the road.

Look for this sign on the right.

Besides Dulan (where the camping was free) this was the cheapest campsite on the trip. To get here follow the main strip in Kenting south past the parked van bars. Look for a sight that has with a picture of a cow on an ATV and turn right toward the water. If you’re on a scooter it’s about a  3-5 minute drive past the van bars. There’s showers and electricity on site.

Dulan Free
Again, the police station in town provides free camping so if you’re not planning anything crazy, this should be your first option. If not Head to the field across the street from the sugar cane factory and Dulan cafe. turn right out of the parking lot of the factory then take your first left. The field will be on your left and it has a ring of wooden benches around a fire pit, I believe. Watchout for snakes. I’ve heard there is another paid campsite in the area but we never found it.

Shihtiping $NT 1,000/night 
2 km north of Fengbin in Hualien county, The campsite is a part of the Shihtiping recreation area, but the camping itself if ran by a private company. Book your site at the building just above campsite 25. I’d suggest walking around the campsite and choosing a site to your liking before going to book. There’s a store across from the park entrance for munchies and as I mentioned above, trying the seafood at the nearby fishing harbor is a must. The place we went to had no English menus so pointing at dishes that look good on other tables might be the preferred strategy.

Taroko $NT 200/night
There are actually two campsites in Taroko, Heliu and Lushui (free). Heliu is across from the Lushui-Heliu eastern trail head and is the better of the two (fire ring, showers, etc). Showers are cold water only. Luishe is 600 meters or so down the road near the Lushui service station. Each site has a fire ring, but there are no tent platforms. There are no showers but you could easily use the showers at Heliu. The campsites are inside the park, 20 mins buy scooter from the main entrance.

It’s important to mention that it’s worth it to stock up on food before getting into the park. There are a couple food stalls and a small store in Tianxiang, but the selection is paltry.

Sun Moon Bay (Sun Moon Lake) $NT 200 for the site and and additional $NT 200/person/night
Should you actually want to camp here you needn’t only find the Sun Moon lake gondola. If your’e facing the gondola entrance there is driveway to the left that leads down to the water. Head down it and inquire about camping at the coffee shop. We didn’t encounter any English speaking staff so be prepared to point and mime if your Chinese skills are shitty.

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Weekend Wanderings: Green Island

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Photo by author

Taiwan does a good job of providing an abundance of places for quick weekend excursions and with the heat and humidity beginning to set in on Kaohsiung, we recently jumped at the opportunity to join some friends on a trip to Taiwan’s Green Island.

The small speck of an island, located about 19 miles east of Taitung in southern Taiwan, is a popular diving and resort destination for those within the country, but is rarely mentioned as a “must visit” among other travelers in the region. It would be a rare sight, for example, to see a hoard of Aussie backpackers slamming beers on the ferry deck in route to Green Island’s Nanliao harbor.

Still when our group of five showed up there were plenty of Taiwanese tour groups moving about in scooter herds and crowding the souvenir shops.

For us, the trip brought welcomed respite from the Kaohsiung smog and an opportunity to see some more of Taiwan’s fabled coastline. The island itself–a stunning mixture of lush vegetation, crushed coral beaches and jagged volcanic mountains–seems much to0 pristine of a setting to have ever been home to a brutal political prison.

We planned to grab a few scooters as our transport for the weekend, but a recent fatal crash involving two foreigners on the island prompted scooter rental companies to change their policy, renting only to those with Taiwanese drivers licences–frustrating, but understandable.

Instead we settled on the option of bicycles. Sadly I was quite disappointed with the quality of the rides we were given. Had they been bicycles properly suited for the terrain, circumnavigating the island–and all her seaside cliffs–would’ve been a welcomed challenge. Instead I found myself dreading the trips we made from our campsite into town and back again, pretty much ensuring that an attempt at cycling around the island would not be made (big shout-out to Nomad Notions author Jenna Longoria and her boyfriend Dominic for accepting the challenge and succeeding).

We were able to set up camp on the southern tip of the island, on a bluff just above the island’s famous hot springs, about 100 yards from a scenic lookout post. I’m not entirely sure if camping here is even permissible, but the official camping grounds were closed due to renovation and the small herd of goats grazing nearby weren’t noticeably bothered so we claimed it as our own for the night, taking taking note of the goat shit scattered around the site.

Among all the things to do in Green Island, I was probably most interested in visiting the Zhahori salt water hot springs–one of only three in the world.

There’s five or six pools that range from chilled to steamy and you can grab a basket to put your belongings in while you take a dip. We changed in our tents, but there’s locker rooms with showers on the premises as well.

As is the norm we attracted a few stares but many others couldn’t have cared less about about our presence. Before we could take the plunge, however, we were quickly informed that we would need to wear swimming caps if we wanted to enter the main pools. Should we not want to wear  swimming caps, we would only be able to sit in the pools closer to the beach. The only noticeable difference besides the location was that the two pools near the beach were essentially dead coral tide pools ringed with cement barriers that have the warm spring water piped-in. Fair enough.

None of us were in the mood to purchase a swimming cap so we headed towards the beach and joined two Taiwanese guys already there. The water wasn’t as hot as I wanted but still relaxing and whereas were were told we couldn’t have beverages at the pools requiring swimming caps; here we’re able to knock down a couple of beers in peace–at least until one of the attendants began glaring at us and grabbed his walkie-talkie. I have no idea what he said to the person on the other end, but we clearly heard him mention “weiguoren” (foreigner). The jig was up.

We returned to the the other pools and wrapped our heads with towels and sarongs, satisfying the swimming cap rule. The sight–I’m sure–did little to combat the “crazy foreigner” stereotype (Kay looked like the Chiquita Banana lady) but none of us cared as we were finally allowed to enter the other pools. I went for hottest available and followed the example set buy an elderly Taiwanese woman–lapping water onto my neck and shoulders. I somehow felt this was the more therapeutic way to enjoy the hot spring. I added to the strategy by sipping wine out of a paper cup every so often. I would go on to try out all but the coldest of the springs before rain sent us scurrying back to the tents.

It should be mentioned that there’s nowhere near the hot springs where one can easily take a swim in the ocean. Nearby Dabaisha beach is one of main spots for snorkeling and diving, but is also ill suited to take a dip due to dead coral. From the road I could see a few people swimming off a small strip of beach just south of Nanliao village, but never went down to explore further. I’ve also read that the eastern side of the island has beaches where one can easily access the water.

In terms of eating, there seemed to be plenty of places in Nanliao village, near the harbor, but on our visit there were a lot of people who were contently eating at 7-11. We took the recommendation of another visitor and ate at a restaurant on the main strip. Among other things on the menu they offered rice and noodle dishes with venison (deer meat). So far as I know there’s not many many places to try venison in Taiwan so we decided to give it a go. A plate of the venison with noodles, some sashimi and a bit of sautéed cabbage did us well and was cheap enough that I could’ve ordered another dish and not felt guilty.

On a return trip to Green Island I think I’d prefer to have a scooter to throughly explore the whole of it, but I still enjoyed taking in the views and soaking in the hot springs. Our small second-hand tent did well to combat the light rain, but suffered two broken tent poles from battling the wind. Rain on the last day left us soggy on the ferry ride back to Taitung, but the weather more or less cooperated other than that. I won’t count it as a complete success being that we were limited in what we were able to do, but it held it’s own in terms of a quick weekend getaway.

Enough said.

*You can get to Green Island via Taitung. From Kaohsiung it takes about 3 hours by train, after which you will need to make your way to Fukang Harbor (easiest by taxi NT 150-200) and hop the 50 min ferry to the island (between NT 800-900 round-trip).

*Update: a taxi ride from Taitung station will be closer to NT 300-350. I previously posted the price at NT 150-200.

If you decide to camp at the designated campground it will run you NT 400 a person.

Entrance to the hot springs is NT 200 plus the cost of a swimming cap, should you decide to buy one. Avoid the crowds by going during the early morning or doing the day.

Rental scooters can be had for NT 300-400 per day, but you’ll need a Taiwanese scooter license. Should you choose to rent bicycles (not recommended) they’ll set you back NT 150 per day.

Angeles City on a Visa Run

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ESL teachers know the visa run quite well: you leave the country for a short period of time (sometimes just a few hours) to reset the amount of time your’re allowed to stay on a certain visa. Expats in Korea make a quick sojourn to Japan, folks in Laos head to Thailand and those of us in Taiwan usually head to Hong Kong.

In most cases you can simply leave and come right back, but sometimes you might also need to visit an office, fill out forms, submit passport photos, wait in line and do a secret handshake with a certain official who is only available from 1 pm to 3 pmand pay an expensive fee before they let you back in.

My run wouldn’t involve jumping through said hoops, but I would still need to leave the country and return to allow enough time for my work permit and Alien Registration Card to be processed without overstaying my original 90-day landing visa. Confusing? Yes. Convenient? Not in the slightest.

Before coming to Taiwan I anticipated the possibility of having to make a visa run in the event that I couldn’t find a job within the first couple of months so I bought a ticket ahead of time hoping I’d never have to use it. Most expats in Taiwan head to nearby Hong Kong, but tickets to the Philippines were significantly cheaper for the dates I needed. I figured I might have a chance to sneak off to the beach before my flight back to Taiwan.

I figured wrong.

I half-assedly look up where I’ll be landing and discover that I’ll be nowhere near a beach. The Air Asia flight from Taipei drops me just outside of Angeles City, the sex entertainment capital of the Philippines. When Clark Air Force Base was still up and running (a few miles west) Angeles City was where U.S. pilots would go for wholesome R&R.

I arrive by bus from the airport and the first image I see is an elderly caucasian fellow with a fanny pack being led down the street by a much shorter, much younger filippino girl. On the walk to my guesthouse I see different versions of the same “couple” several more times.

My first trip to the Philippines and I end up in the red light district.

I make my way to the Villa Santol Lodging House tucked away on a quite street just off the main drag. When I pass through the yellow iron gate I’m greeted first by a group of 7 or 8 elderly casually sipping beers at a table in the open air bar. I say hello, but no one seems to pay me any attention. They’re all speaking in thick Australian accents.

A short round Filippino woman checks me into my room and gives me a couple pointers: I can help myself to beer and other beverages in the cooler so long as I write down what I take; after dark I am to lock the front gate when I leave and I need to stay alert when walking through the neighborhood. I inform her that I will only be staying for one night and request a cold beer.

I grab a seat at the counter and can’t help but listen in on the table of Aussies behind me. One of the guys is telling a story about a friend who was recently overcharged at a bar. None of the others seem to understand because they keep arguing over the details.

“So he had 6 beers but was charged for 7?”
“Was the waitress cute?”
“What kind of beer was it?”

I get the feeling they meet here regularly–an Aussie shriners club or something, only these guys have done away with the maroon felt hats and are wearing t-shirts with the names of bars and strip clubs printed on them in bright neon letters.

They finish their beers and the conversation shifts to their plans for the evening.

“Dancing girls or football tonight, boys?”
“Well you can’t fuck a football, mate!”

I imagine these fellas are the surviving remnants of Full Moon partiers that never gave up partying. The magic mushroom shakes and booze buckets have given way to watching rugby and ordering lap dances. Life must be rough.

They ask about my plans for the night and I tell them I will only be having dinner because I’m heading back to Taiwan the next day.

“Back to the band?” someone asks.
“Uh, not exactly.”
“Oh, I figured you’re in a rap band.”

I’m slightly offended, but also curious as to how he came to the conclusion that I’m a rapper from Taiwan.

They take off and I am left to figure out where to eat dinner. A quick Google search brings me to the Angeles City “Gentleman’s” travel guide (link NSFW). In addition to restaurant listings, they also offer advice on how much to tip local prostitutes. Clearly they aim to be comprehensive.

I settle on a Mexican restaurant within walking distance and am once again told to be aware of my surroundings when walking throught the neighborhood at night.

On the way there I pass places called Honkey Tonks, Shadows and Gobbles Heaven, all with their own cluster of showgirls sitting out front. I get cat-called with phrases like “We love the sexy black man” and “Sexy Bob Marley!” A boy selling cigaretts out of a large wooden box stops me and goes into a rehearsed spiel about Marlboro and other popular brands that can be had for a good price. I decline the offer, but ask where Tequila Reef Cantina is. Frustrated, he mumbles something under his breath before moving to the next passerby.

A motorized tricycle driver (the Filippino version of Tuk-Tuks) points me in the right direction of the restaurant and I deposit myself at the bar and order a margarita. The restaurant is half full with the same lot of older white guys I’ve been seeing around town, along with a few Filipino guys knocking back bottles of San Miguel. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen any young tourists or travelers in Angeles City. With discount airline Air Asia flying in and out of Clark Airport to and from tourist hotspots elsewhere in the Philippines, I halfway expected to see a bustling backpacker ghetto with family run hostels and internet cafes when I arrived. It certainly has the feel of Koh San road or even Vang Vieng but all the twenty somethings in flip flops have been replaced with fifty somethings in tube socks. Instead of cart vendors laden with t-shirts and pad thai, the vendors here hawk condoms and foreign cigaretts. When the sun goes down in Angeles City there are plenty of tourists about, but many of them appear less interested in sand pales filled with vodka and Red Bull and more interested in exotic pleasures.

Back at the restaurant I ask the bartender what’s good on the menu and she steers me away from the Mexican fare.
“I like the bistek tagalog.” I take the suggestion on the thought that during my first visit to a country, the first thing I eat should be something local–plus it’s one of the cheapest items on menu. The bartender–a slim gal named *Sophie who wears her “don’t fuck with me” face as well as any female bartender I know–replaces my empty margarita glass with a bottle of San Miguel and I ask her how she feels about Angeles City being a hot bed for cheap thrills.

“Why? Are you fishing?” I’m thrown off by the question, but quickly comprehend the meaning. I once again explain my visa situation She skeptical–but satisfied–with my response.

“I don’t like it all. I was born and raised right here in A.C. …but I wouldn’t raise kids here.” I assume this is because girls from Angeles City run the risk of ending up working at one of the red light bars, but Sophie tells me that many of the bar girls are from elsewhere in the Philippines–mainly Manilla. Instead of staying in Angeles City, Sophie plans to join her boyfriend in New York once she has saved enough money. I want to ask more, but my food arrives and Sophie gets hit with a wave of drinks.

I finish my food and decide to take the long way back to the guesthouse. Fields Avenue–the epicenter of Angeles City’s gentleman’s district–is just starting to rev up. Distorted club stereos compete with traffic nose and cat calls from the bar girls. Trike drivers offer to take me wherever I want to go, roaming sun-burned tourists stumble in and out of bars, some with drinks still in hand. Most of the shops on Real st. are closed, but a few vendors are stil selling souvenirs and trinkets to anyone willing to stop and take a look.

My flight tomorrow leaves at 12:05.

Angeles City probably won’t make my Top 10 list of day trips, but as visa runs go, I’d imagine it’s as good a place as any. The accommodation is cheap, the beer is good and–unless you’re into strippers and bar girls–you’ll be ready to leave the next day.

A few tips for those making the same visa run:

-Air Asia offers flights between Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) and Clark (CRK, just outside of Angeles City) for as little as $44 USD one-way.

-To get to Angeles City from Clark airport, hop on a Jeepney (half jeep, half bus). They wait for passengers just outside the airpot exit on the right. The cost is 50 Pesos. It won’t leave until it’s full. Get off at the first stop near Jollibee restaurant. To get back to the airport head to the Clark/Freeport Jeepney Terminal just across the street from Jollibee and ask one of the drivers to tell you which gate to wait at for Clark Airport.

-The Villa Santol Lodge is worked out well for a night’s accommodation. It’s about a 10-15 minute walk from the Jeepney terminal, on Fatima and S.Surla. If you book by phone you’ll get a small discount. I paid 490 Pesos for a simple room with a fan and shared bathroom.

-Unless you plan to do some serious partying, you shouldn’t need more that 1,500-2,000 Pesos for a single day visa run. This will be enough to secure a cheap room, grab dinner and breakfast, and get a few beers. Keep in mind that you will also be charged an exit tax at the airport when you leave. If I remember correctly it’s about 450 Pesos.

-Don’t be stupid. There’s a lot of nonsense you can get into if you’re not paying attention. When you go out, don’t bring any more money than you need.

*Author’s Note: Named changed to protect privacy.

Bang Bang–(Surviving)The Yanshui Fireworks Festival

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It’s Saturday night and we have our friends Simon and Tina over for dinner. In between bites of tacos we’re discusing our plans for the rest of the weekend. I have to turn down Simon’s invitation to a pick-up game of ultimate frisbee on Sunday because Kay and I have made tentative plans with some other friends to visit a town north of Kaohsiung in search of a fireworks festival. Tina says she’s been to the festival before, but that she probably doesn’t need to do it again. She also tells us that if we go we’ll need to wear motocycle helmets.

“What for?” I ask. I’d heard very little about the festival and was putting off doing a web search until I knew for sure that we were going, but  certainly didn’t anticipate needing a helmet to attend.

“For protection against the fireworks,” says Tina.

Now I’m confused and thinking about all my previous firework  experiences: numerous Fourth of July celebrations, carnivals, the Minnesota State Fair, the Busan International Fireworks Festival in Korea. I don’t recall needing protective head gear for any of them.

Maybe the Taiwanese have different, more sinister versions of fireworks than what I’m used to. Maybe the festival is a town-wide Roaming Candle war pitting visitors and tourist against the locals. Maybe “fireworks” is an incorrect English translation and the meaning is closer to “gunpowder” or “dynamite.” Who wouldn’t want to visit a Taiwanese dynamite festival?

The next day I do a quick web search and discover that every year on the 15th day after Chinese New Year visitors flock to the town of Yanshui to be repeatedly shot by hundreds of bottle rockets.

The Yanshui Fireworks Festival (widely considered to be one of the most dangerous festivals in the world) stems from a cholera outnreak  in the late 19th century that nearly wiped the small town out. The citizens of Yanshui called upon the Chinese god of war, Guan Dong (also called Guan Di) to help fight the the disease by carrying his statue around town on a palanquin while shooting off  fireworks every step of the way. The epidemic receded and the locals have been paying homage ever since by annually reenacting the pyrotechnic exorcism.

The highlight of the festival revolves around the sporadic lighting of “beehives” –large structures built with wood or steel, laden with thousands of bottle rockets connected to a single intertwined fuse. Once lit, rockets fire in all directions and festival goers donned in motorcycle helmets and coveralls gather around and allow themselves to be pelted.

Positioning the beehive.

Positioning the beehive.

Kay and I decide to visit the festival with some friends, but opt out of being bombarded with fireworks. In fact, of the four people in our group only our friend Jenna (author of the blog Nomad Notions) is brave enough to join the rocket fodder. We hop a train to Tainan City then continue by taxi to Yanshui. We don’t make it more than 5 feet out the car before  hearing the rumble of fireworks in the distance.

The streets are lined with food vendors and local shops have tables set up with scooter helmets, gloves, safety glasses and other rocket protection gear for sale. the air smells like rotten eggs and the entire town is under a heavy blanket of smoke. Dim pulsating lights can be seen flickering through the smoke overhead and groups of people wearing matching coveralls with burn stains are roaming around–no doubt in search of the next beehive explosion.

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We stroll towards the center of town stopping sporadically to sample street food and buy beer. There’s not a lot to do for those uninterested in pyromania, but families still gather for photo ops near a creek littered with glowing ornaments of different sizes, and to send  the occasional prayer lantern floating into the sky. It’s been about two hours since we arrived and we still have yet to witness the lighting of a beehive. We’d gotten word that a large one was set to go off at 10pm, but when that was pushed to 11 (and later, 11:30) we followed others who claimed to have knowledge of one being lit a few blocks away.

Anticipation mounts as the large contraption is rolled into the middle of the street and a fellow who’d clearly been chewing betel-nut all night encourages all the foreigners who want to get blasted by the bottle rockets to be doused with water beforehand to avoid their clothes catching fire. As with many small towns in Asia, the large group of foreigners draw a lot of attention and many of the locals are taking pictures with several expats who have added themes to their protective gear (big shout-out to Captain America).

Waiting for the Beehive to be lit.

Waiting for the Beehive to be lit.

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Participants have water sprayed on them to avoid catching fire.

I snap as many photos as I can then retreat to what Kay and I think is a safe  distance–20-30 yards from the beehive, behind a parked car. They parade the palanquin of Guan Dong around the premises and the crowd quiets as the fuse is lit.

When it starts the first few shoot straight up into the air and rain down sparks onto the entire scene. Then row after row of the rockets fire directly into the crowd, causing those in the front to dance and turn away in an attempt to dampen the force of the barrage. As the fuse travels through the frame the smoke thickens and only long streaks of light left in the wake of the rockets are clearly noticeable. None of them have shot in our direction yet so I rise from the hiding spot (fully exposing my head) to take some photos. By now everyone close to the beehive is hopping around trying to cover the more sensitive areas of their bodies and the entire street looks like an astronaut rave in the middle of a meteor shower.

I whip out my iPhone and begin recording video hoping not to catch a bottle rocket to the face, and a Taiwanese gentleman appears at my side gesturing for me to follow him to a better vantage point. I crouch down and scurry behind him, feeling like a solider scrambling into a foxhole for cover. As he ushers me into a nearby tent (turns out it’s the same tent where they were storing the beehive) two rockets go off near my head and I give up on the recording. I’m way too close. 

 Luckily I end up next to a couple who have gotten ahold of some cardboard and together we hunker down behind it.  After a few minutes the barrage of rockets shifts to a different direction and I’m able to make my way back to the previous shelter behind the car. It’s been ten minutes since they lit the damn thing and it’s still going strong. Some people emerge from the crowd to take a breather and bat out the flames on their clothes before retuning to the onslaught.

When it’s finally over we emerge from our shelter and search for Jenna and some other friends to inspect for injuries. There’s a few burn holes and a mangled umbrella, but no one is hurt and everyone is wearing a wide grin. Beers are drank and we take some time to enjoy the fireworks that are being shot overhead instead of into the crowd.

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Captain America took one for the team.

We watch a couple more beehives explode (one made to look like Sponge Bob and the other shaped like a tea pot) before calling it a night and heading back to Kaohsiung. It’s 1 a.m. but some people are just arriving as the festivities will continue until 4. I’m secure in my decision not to join in on the action, but pledge to partake next year. It’ll be two hours before we make it back home–plenty of time for my ears to stop ringing.

Peace

*Author’s note: If you’d like to read about Jenna’s recount of her experiences on the front lines, you can do so here.

Anthony Bourdain VS Eddie Huang: Taipei

I recently watched the Taipei episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “The Layover” (big thanks to Thinking About Languages for the heads up). To be honest this was the first episode I’ve seen since the show first aired in November of 2011. I’m a die-hard junkie of “No Reservations,” often times watching it to scout for future travel destinations. I didn’t enjoy everything that Bourdain and his producers chose to highlight (the dancing and guns segment in Greece was a little odd), but they did a solid job of showcasing the glamorous and gritty of different countries.

The premise of “The Layover” is different from “No Reservations” in that Bourdain only spends 48 hours in each location, mainly focusing on the must-see, must-do and must-eat.  We still have the normal bleeping-out of Bourdain’s colorful language  and a solid mixture of destination insiders to consult, but the clock is always ticking. It’s not a format I would personally ascribe to for visiting anywhere, but it works for the purposes of television.

That being said, I couldn’t resist comparing Bourdain’s view of Taipei to that of Eddie Huang, the badboy chef/hipster host of Vice Magazine’s ‘Fresh Off the Boat.’ Here, the Taiwanese American raised in Orlando but based in New York, along with his crew, strive to “venture into subculture through the lens of food”  (though the food part sometimes takes a backseat to other subjects). Since the show’s release (via YouTube) last October Huang has shown us some of the lesser known angles of his destinations (he goes hunting for rabbits in Oakland), utilizing an eclectic cast of chaperones and a heavy dose of east coast slang. It’s not the type of stuff you’d find on the Travel Channel, but that’s not surprising given Vice’s reputation pushing the envelope.

Coincidentally, the last segment of “Fresh Off the Boat: Taiwan” was released a week after ‘The Layover’ and naturally I thought the two hosts would present us with different but equally important views of the island. After watching however, I was surprised at how similar the two episodes were. Normally Chef Huang has a penchant for slamming other celebrity chefs.  

Both Huang and Bourdain do a good job of talking about the different foods they sample and Huang in particular seems to dim his east coast bravado when doing so, taking great care to explain the different flavors and textures. They both stroll throug night markets stopping periodically to showcase a specific item; Bourdain quickly gobbles down a pork belly gua bao (steamed bun sandwich) at the Keelung night market and Huang pauses to joke about penis shaped waffles at the night market in Shilin.

The two hosts also visit the 24-hour shrimp fishing restaurant, Cheun Chang as well as a place where western and Taiwanese fare is served in different types of miniature toilets. Neither of them seem to enjoy either experience which makes me think the shrimp fishing and toilet food segments were included only for their novelty.

I could see why both hosts decided to include a trip to Din Tai Fong. Bourdain and Huang rave about how good the restaurant’s soup dumplings are, and the process of how they’re made is worth showcasing. I’ve never been there personally, but I’m inclined to seek the place out next time I’m in Taipei. (If there’s a Din Tai Fong chain in Kaohsiung let me know and the first round of dumplings is on me.)

Given all the similarities between “Fresh Off the Boat: Taiwan” and “The Layover: Taipei” there’s still enough differences to warrant taking in both. Bourdain has a drink or two during his time in Taipei, but Huang goes for the gusto and picks up some betelnut, a popular Asian stimulant that is chewed–similar to chewing tobacco. Huang (who speaks fluent Chinese) is able to mix it with locals without a translator and is thus easily able to tackle the sticky subject of Taiwanese independence, while Bourdain focuses keeps it pithy with conversations about strippers at Taiwanese funerals and an odd form of martial arts. The aims of “The Layover” involve giving a short-term visitor an idea of what to see on a visit, but “Fresh Off the Boat” attempts (with varied success) to unearth the layers of culture often unseen by tourists. Fair enough.

I haven’t been here long enough to decipher which account of Taiwan is more encapsulating, but I’d love to hear feedback from anybody who has.

Fresh Off the Boat has two episodes in Taiwan, broken up into six parts. Find part one as well as The Layover: Taipei below.

Peace.

Formosa First Impressions: Kaohsiung

Kaohsiung

There are plenty of cities on this planet that suck and make you vow never to see them again after the first date. There are plenty of cities that suck less once you get to know them a bit and allow them to soothe you into a bittersweet commitment (I’m talking to you, Ko Pha- Ngan). Yeah you might date for a while, but you don’t tell your friends about it. Then there are cities that you plunge into head first and are quickly wooed into a long-term love affair after only a few days together. Suddenly that other hot city you promised never to cheat on is long forgotten and you find yourself making direct comparisons between the two in order to justify the money you’re about to spend going exclusive. Yeah that other place had sexy beaches, but the food this city churns out makes my mouth water from the smell alone. You feel the burn of guilt for a little while, but only until your work visa arrives.

For me Kaohsiung is one of those “love affair” cities. Hanging out on the southwest coast of Taiwan and facing the Taiwan straight, it’s home to about 3 million and receives less rainfall than most other cities in Taiwan–and ideal location to set up shop. Insert me.

It had been 4 days and we’d had about as much rain as we could take in Taipei (not to mention the steep hostel rates) so we decide hop a bus south hoping to find sunshine in Kaohsiung. Luckily we secure a host on Couchsurfing willing to put us up short-term while we search for either more hosts or paid accommodation. We moan about the possibility of paying week-to-week hostel prices, but are prepared to shoulder the costs if need be. After 5 hours we arrive a begin the task of finding our host’s apartment. We make it to within one block of the place, but still manage to spend 45 minutes stranded in confusion, looking for an “orangey looking” building with a semi-circle driveway. It took a troop of Taiwanees women on their way to dinner and a friendly security guard to help us find a building that was not more than 60 yards away from where we stood.

This is where the love affair with Kaohsiung begins to take hold; not from her sunshine or wide boulevards or quirky coffee shops, but from the wealth of generosity her residents (expat and otherwise) bestow upon us newbies.

Our host–we’ll call him Catlard–couldn’t have been a better person to meet just arriving in the city. He offers us a place to crash, shows us around the neighborhood, takes us us out to breakfast, gives us a quick Chinese numbers lesson and sets us up with a pre-paid phone(this is in addition to teaching me poker, something I’m still horrible at). He also introduces us to a few of his friends who are equally helpful in answering questions about the teaching market and providing possible avenues for finding work. You’re the man, Catlard! I try to return the favor(s) by teaching him how to Moonwalk, but somehow I don’t think it compares: He lets us sleep on his living room floor. I teach him the signature dance move of a deceased, loony, mega pop-star. You be the judge.  After 4 nights, Kay and I find a cheap room to rent in central Kaohsiung (from another awesome expat) set about making it the base of operations for finding teaching gigs.

We’re not there 2 nights before meeting yet another friend who tips us off on an teaching position opening up nearby. Within a day Kay is able to secure an interview, and as I type, she’s probably finishing up a lesson demo. Time will tell if it all works out. Meanwhile I’m still in the hunt.

After canvasing some well known teaching websites I head out and get lost while searching for a school I heard is hiring. I pass a mega-department store boasting every designer brand from Gucci to Ferragamo (after walking 3 blocks in the wrong direction) and enjoy the feeling of not really being noticed. I’m sure I stick out in every way possible, yet  no one seems to care. I stroll past small shops and restaurants, a dental clinic and an European looking round-a-bout and no one bats an eye at my presence or tries to fondle my odd looking hair (which happend all the time in Korea). I find the school I’m looking for and am greeted with a look of confusion as I tell the receptionist that I would like to drop off my resume.

“May I ask what country you are from?”

The question doesn’t come as a surprise. Unfortunately there just aren’t enough black Americans/Canadians/South Africans traveling about Taiwan to justify her assuming I’m from an English speaking country. Fair enough. I tell her I’m from the U.S. and she nods in approval and accepts my resume, promising to submit it to the director of the school. Being that this is my first morsel of a job opportunity, I leave feeling like I’ve already got the job.

On the way back I cut past Kaohsiung’s central park. It’s rush hour. People are walking their dogs, middle schoolers frolic and flirt at a busstop an old man rests on a bench sipping a liquor bottle filled with a mysterious green tonic. It’s getting dark and the city begins to put on her make-up of neon lights and flashing billboards. You’re a fly gal and your friends are pretty nice, Kaohsiung. We should hang out for a while.

Peace,

Jay

Formosa First Impressions: Breakfast

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A solid night of sleep does wonders for the senses. When I arrived in Taiwan it was dark, raining and mostly unappealing. The next day however (after realizing that I was in fact, in Taiwan) I wake up amped at the thought of kickstarting my day in a new country.

After paying for the first couple of nights at the hostel we set out for breakfast. The kind lady at the front desk assures us that there is a great place for a traditional Chinese breakfast just around the corner and scribbles out a map on small piece of paper along with our order written in Mandarin to make sure we get the right food. After taking a look at her map I’m skeptical about our chances of  finding the place. It takes us a while (after walking in the complete opposite direction) but eventually we end up in a large 2nd-floor cafeteria lined with food stalls. In front of one stall there’s a long line of diners extending from the cash register to the stairwell at the back of the cafeteria. The whole place is packed with people eating, conversing and taking pictures of their food with smartphones and large DSLR cameras. If this isn’t the place, who the hell cares. One thing I’ve learned about seeking out good food in foreign countries is that if the locals are lining up, follow suit.

We hop in line and I begin scanning the room to see if anyone has noticed the brown gentleman with mop hair and his short female companion who have just entered their popular food haven. No one seems to care. I can’t help but compare the situation to Korea, where it was an everyday occurrence that someone would gasp or sigh or point whenever I’d walk into a local restaurant or market. I played it off as best I could, but it got old pretty quick.

As we approach the counter I notice  a room off to the side with glass walls where food is being prepared by a small platoon of women . Dough is being stretched, cut, sprinkled with sesame seeds, rolled into long buns and tossed into a circular kiln looking device where it sticks to the the outer walls and and begins to cook. My mouth starts to water. I have my Nikon on me, but I decide to simply snap a couple photos with my iphone as I didn’t want to tinker with camera settings and loose my spot in line.

Making  Shao Bing at Fu Hang Dou.

Making Shao Bing at Fu Hang Dou.

Just about everyone is ordering the same thing: A bowl of hot milk-like liquid, the aforementioned  hoagie roll split open and stuffed with what looks like an omelette and a churro, and a some type of tortilla folded together with egg and drizzled with…cheese?

Behind the counter is another platoon of women (I think I saw one male stocking to-go containers in the back) working with assembly line precision taking and preparing orders. We hand our little paper over and make a sign that we would like two of everything.
“Hot or cold,” she asks.
“Uh….hot.”
“Okay. Wait.”

Within moments we have two bowls of the same frothy milk-like substance that everyone else has, but nothing more.
“Is that it?” Kay looks at me as if I know what’s written on our small order slip. We move along to the register with our bowls and proceed to pay. “One six-ta-hee!,” says one woman.
“One fifty?”
“No, no, no. One six-ta-heee!” A second woman joins her and they it together: “One six-ta-ta-ta-heee!”  They both let out a loud chuckle while patting each other on the back. I chuckle as well and hand over $160 Taiwanese dollars.

“That can’t be all we ordered.” Kay is now convinced that, despite having no idea what the lady at the hostel wrote on our little slip , that more food is coming.

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I insist that we have all that we ordered and we find seats along a along a counter in the cafeteria. I take a few sips of the hot liquid. It’s semi sweet, and taste similar to the the Cream-of-Wheat my grandmother used to make. Seconds later the “one six-ta-hee” lady appears and hands us the rest of our order: two hoagie-like breakfast sandwiches. Kay was right. We should’ve waited.

I would later discover (thanks to my homie Google) that our breakfast consisted of  “shao bing” stuffed with a Chinese style doughnut and green omelette. The steamy white liquid turned out to be soy milk.

We gobble down our food and head out down the back stairwell. By now the line has quadrupled in length and its almost noon. I’m stuffed and hoping that Kay won’t mind coming back to the same place tomorrow.

Peace,

Jay

*Author’s Note: If you’re in Taipei and looking to enjoy the same breakfast head to:
Fu Hang Dou Jiang (阜杭豆漿) inside the Hua Shan Market building, 2nd floor.
Take the Blue line MRT to Shandao Temple Exit 5. The Hua Shan building will be on your right.
Breakfast runs from 5:30-1230. Expect to wait in line.

Fu Hang Dao

Fu Hang Dao

Are We There yet?

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Remember the Titans is a good movie. It’s a film showing how, with hard work and perseverance, we can overcome adverse situations to achieve a desired outcome. A fitting movie to watch during a delayed 4-hour flight from Tokyo to Taipei. I liken myself to the film’s main character, Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) after sitting for 45 minutes on the tarmac waiting to be cleared for departure  No, I’m not coaching a racially torn football team to a state championship, but I am hungry, suffering from severe gas and sitting in the middle seat of the center row of a packed, hot airplane. As far I’m was concerned our fate’s are linked. Boone needs to find a way to bypass a town’s racial prejudices and pull his team together in preparation for the upcoming season, and I need to survive this last 4 hours without having a panic attack and realeasing a foul stench from the depth of my bowels–both are challenges of great magnitude.

Luckily this is the last leg of a long journey that will drop me back in Asia, on the island nation of Taiwan. I just about cheer when the Japanese flight attendant announces that we have begun our final descent, not unlike the fist pump I wanted to throw in the air after Rev Harris executes a perfect reverse to score the winning touchdown towards the end of the movie. It’s magnificently epic.

We file off the plane and shuffle through customs faster than I anticipated and quickly find our way to the bus station. There’s several companies offering a ride into the city center and as Kay and I stare dreary eyed at the different booths, two men approach us asking where we’re headed. They both appear a bit ragged and I immediately assume they’re taxi drivers looking to make a quick buck on unsuspecting foreigners. I turn around prepared to ignore them, but Kay enlists their help and we’re suddenly standing in line waiting for the bus to arrive. The two would-be taxi drivers are from Taiwan and have just returned from a trip in the states. They not only help us find the right gate to stand at for the bus, but also write down the directions to our hostel in Mandarin for us to give to a taxi driver upon arrival in Taipei. And I, feel like a supreme asshole. I remind myself that Taiwan is a different country with different people than the lot that I sometimes dealt with while bouncing around SE Asia. We haven’t been in country for more than an hour and I’m already thinking people are trying to get over on us. Lesson learned.

It’s after midnight and raining when we finally arrive in. I have just enough energy to lug my pack and other belongings from the taxi and into the tiny elevator, up to the 6th floor Taipei hostel. We have no plans for the next day, except to maybe do some exploring and contact a few Couchsurfing hosts. I’m wet, cold and tired, but I’ve made it. I don’t have a football to hold above my head signaling victory over my opponent, but I am grinning as pull the blanket to my chin in our tiny closet of a hotel room. Denzel would be proud.

Peace,

Jay