I have a Lonely Planet guide to Taiwan. It’s a smallish guidebook, filled with directions to hotspot tourist destinations and editorials from past visitors who have “felt the heartbeat of Taiwan” in just four days.
Well, I’m going on day 42, so I must be beating with Taiwan’s heart by now. Here’s my Not-So-Lonely Planet review of two destinations I touristed in my first month and a half…
If you look at a map of Taiwan, you’ll notice that its oblong-circular shape compares closely to a view of your flattened left hand, palm facing away, thumb tucked along straightened fingers. On your left hand, the island’s capital city, Taipei, is about where your middle finger’s cuticles meet nail, while the site of the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is in the middle of your pointer finger’s nail. On an overcast Saturday, three lay missionaries and I took the train to Pingxi, to look up at the sky.
I empathized with the residents of Pingxi because, having grown up in small-town Reedsport, I know the frustration of being used purely as a rural playground for tourists. Pingxi, like Reedsport, is a very tiny community tucked into an exquisite environment—in this case, the rolling tropical forests of northern Taiwan.
To celebrate the Lunar New Year, people from throughout the world gather along the Pingxi train tracks, artfully decorating paper lanterns with their aspirations for the coming year, before lighting torches inside the lanterns to propel their dreams to the heavens. Among a culture rife with spirituality and proverb, the symbolism of letting my anticipation for the coming year be borne and consumed by the sky was not lost on me.
I joined my missionary friends in scrawling my wish list for God, focusing my camera on the first half of my prayer’s flight, before it probably crashed back down and adorned a shark’s prowling dorsal in the South China Sea. You’ll have to guess for yourself the aspirations I wrote for God and the South China shark, though I have included pictures of the red-papered shark hat that my friends and I lofted. Take note my loyal Lonely-Planeteers, 4.9 stars for exquisite weather, nature, and history. (Yes, of course the sky lanterns are historically more significant than I have shared thus far. Read here.)
In keeping with my visual aid for Taiwan’s map, my second tourist trip in Taiwan took me from my home in Zhongli, the most distal knuckle of your left hand’s ring finger, to Taipei, the edge of your left middle finger’s nail. A trip from one finger to the next across your flat hand might not seem too far, and Zhongli-to-Taipei was brief too. I spent 53 NT$ (about $1.75 USD) for 50 minutes by train. 4 out of 5 stars. My first impression of Taipei: ‘Okay, big city—tall buildings, wide, noisy streets—I’ve seen this before.’ The northern knuckles of Taiwan are all urban to some degree, but Taipei’s skyline sets it uniquely apart as the region’s metropolitan locus.
I found a fun restaurant with kimchi and the view of a busy street, on which I proceeded to a pre-explorer’s espresso stop. 3.2-star restaurant, 4.7-star espresso. Nourished, I happened upon the 228 Peace Memorial Park—16 city blocks of trees, statues, and museums, named for Taiwan’s 1947 rebellion from colonial control. I found my way into the National Taiwan Museum, a grand name for two stories of exhibits featuring the island’s natural legacy of rock formations, marine life, forest animals, and sliced-rock art. I would have loved to geek out for the geology beneath me and the sliced-rock art enchanted me, but there were few English prompts and I struggled to understand what became caption-less pictures. 3.1 stars for good material misapprehended by my lingual deficiency.
Within the same park, I found my way into the Taipei 228 Memorial Museum, where I rented an audio-guide and became enthralled by a bloody revolution and its aftermath. I won’t review history here—see Wikipedia—but I loved my lesson from a remarkable museum: 4.8 stars.
Getting into after-noon time, I thought it time for a beer, so I wandered narrow, lanterned streets until I reached Tipsy Taipei. When I saw the sign, I wished it were a joke—really, is this the alliterate English that exports?—but I found my first dark beer since arriving in Taiwan, a welcome taste, and I made friends with the 20-somethings tending bar. Apparently, Tipsy Taipei is the clever name for a hostel first, bar second; they know young-adult travelers might be enticed to sleep and drink at the same place. I suppose their model makes sense, but I promise, only one beer for this traveler. Tipsy Taipei, 4.2 stars out of 5.
In a conversation this week with a dear friend at home, she was struck by the fact that I was bussing off for another day of tourism alone: “If you don’t speak Chinese, how will you get around?!” I’ve either been incredibly naïve about the success of my 40-some days here, or, as I told her, it just always seems to work out: train schedules are online; transportation is as affordable and interconnected as it is efficient; and there always seems to be someone nearby with some grasp of English. So yes, I am naïve, but people recognize it and are kind enough to help me beat Taiwan’s heart.