But in the age of the iPhone, we don’t really know how it feels to truly eat alone any more. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, e-readers and Instagram, most of us will be eating lunch, holding in our hot, mayonnaise-y fingers access to more reading matter than the entire Library of Congress and more people than the UN General Assembly. It’s become an act of discipline to sit and observe your food and the people around you rather than slipping back into the comforting company of constantly scrolling avatars and news sites updating in real time. But like most things involving a modicum of willpower, it’s probably one worth savoring.
Pretty much ever since I was born (maybe a little bit after), I’ve always wanted to go to China. I had books about China as a kid; Mulan is one of my favorite Disney movies. I’ve already planned to go to China when my contract here is up, but I reasoned that it has to be for a long time to justify the hassle and cost of getting the visa, and in order to see everything. I’d been hearing lots of good things about Taiwan, and I had a Taiwanese friend in my Korean class at Yonsei this summer. For Chuseok vacation, a historically long vacation in early October, I decided to go to Taiwan. (The only other place that remains on my list for this continent is Thailand, but I promised to go there with my younger brother when he graduates from uni.)
I had a very ambitious plan for getting there, attempting to knock out two of my goal-trips in one fell swoop. The plan was to take the bus down to Wando, on the southern coast, to visit a café whose owner followed me on Instagram all the way back when I was in America and I’d always intended to visit. From there, I would take the ferry to Jeju Island, check into a hostel, find a beach to chill on and dinner. The next morning, I would climb Hallasan, shower, ship out, and somehow fly out of Busan Airport the next morning at 8am. Busan and Wando are not close. Busan does not have a ferry to Jeju. There are already flaws in this plan, as you can see.
There was a second plan to try to salvage this weekend. I would take an early morning bus (or midnight bus) to Seoraksan so that I could reattempt the mountain, and then bus home that very day.
Neither of these plans were followed out. In actuality, the weekend was filled by Netflix and getting my house cleaned before leaving. I also started Inktober, which is a illustration challenge where the goal is to draw one new ink drawing each day for the month of October. I’d done it for the previous two years, and it just so happened that the first week of this Inktober fell during the time when I was in Taiwan. That night at 10pm, I headed for the Dong Seoul bus terminal. I had to bus still to Busan, because the plane ticket was booked from Busan. From the midnight bus, I hopped right into a taxi because it was pouring buckets. It was an expensive-ass taxi. The airport wasn’t even open yet, so a relatively big crowd of people were waiting outside for the airport to open up at 5am. The check-in counters opened a half-hour later, and soon after that I was sitting in a Holly’s coffee listening to One Direction (a good omen) and charging my phone. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to non-American airlines actually treating you right on a flight; even if it’s only a few hours, they feed you a full meal and have the option to watch movies.
I landed in Taipei Monday, October 2nd and procured my transportation card to get into town with relative ease. On the way, I saw an advert of Kris Wu that kind of derailed my whole day, but continued on. I dropped my stuff at the hostel and took a wander around my “neighborhood” Ximen. I was starving, so I stopped in at the first café that caught my interest, a bear café which had those 3D lattes. I didn’t succeed in ordering one of those lattes, but I did get a Gudetama lemon tart and some milk tea. It didn’t do much to keep me from starving to death, though, so I kept wandering, eventually stumbling on a cool café in an old wheelhouse, Belle Epoch (it reminded me of a café in Sydney called The Grounds of Alexandria), where I had eggs benedict and a rose latte. I saw lots of street art, perhaps from the yearly Pow-Wow Taiwan street art festival. I wandered through cinema street too, gawking at the huge standalone cinemas (movie theaters in Korea are often located in shopping malls).
The nearby historical district Bopilao was closed that day, so I eventually found myself at Longshan Temple, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in the area. Temples in Taiwan (and I’m sure, by extension, China) are much more ornate than in Korea. Whereas most of the decorations in Korea are rough-hewn from wood, perhaps constructed more quickly, the temples in Taiwan are extremely detailed, finely carved and painted elements on every possible surface. Longshan Temple is huge and I’m sure I could have spent ages there. As it is, I always get nervous taking photos near temples (the same goes for churches, by the way) and never know what is acceptable to buy or offer for gifts to the altar, especially not being able to speak Chinese at all.
I trekked back, still trying to orient myself within my neighborhood and the city at large. After I checked in and napped, I had intended to go roughly north to a night market for dinner; however, I accidentally went south, thinking it was north, ending up right back down next to Longshan again, in the night market on Guangzhou street instead. Nothing looked appetizing, it was darker and scarier than the night markets in Hong Kong, and I was sick with a cold and also really lonely, full of despair and regret for taking the trip by myself. In defeat, I finally settled on a banh mi, picked up some toiletries at a Daiso-like store, and walked home to eat dinner. It was so spicy that in my sick state I could barely eat half of it. I was not optimistic for this trip, seeing as it had such a disappointing start.
I was partially able to be more optimistic about Tuesday, October 3rd, the next day, because I planned to fill it by going to the National Palace Museum. I ate the other half of the banh mi for breakfast, heading to Shilin station. At Shilin, I dallied in Starbucks while I pondered the bus situation to get to the museum. From the bus, we waited in a huge block-like formation of a line to get tickets. This is what confused me the most about Taiwan: there are so many things which require lines, and there are never the rope dividers. Everyone somehow wraps themselves into orderly folding lines and somehow there is minimal line-cutting. If that were in Korea or the United States, utter chaos would ensue. It was heartwarming to hear Korean people in that line who were somehow following that system without starting any fistfights.
Once in the museum, touted artwork to see was a small jade cabbage. We had to wait for even longer to get into the room to see it and other jade masterpieces. I concluded that the cabbage isn’t the most impressive thing in the museum, or even the most impressive jade work in that gallery; but I did my time so that I could see it. It was cool and everything, but me being 5’2”, I can’t see much when there’s a huge crowd around this tiny detailed object. So, no pictures were taken by me of the jade cabbage.
Other exhibits proved infinitely more interesting: a gallery detailing the history of ceramics, especially the different glazes and firing techniques favored in different eras, an exhibit showing not only the different Chinese scripts but also the evolution of the Chinese characters from their ancient pictograms to modern characters, landscape paintings, bronzes, and even two full living room/study furniture sets from one of the kings of ancient times. I was hoping for a museum least rivaling the size of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, but it was not nearly as big. Perhaps the other buildings of the complex might have added more, but overall it was not a massive museum. It was disproportionately crowded, though, and I had to force myself to calm down when people took ages to take fingerprint-covered-glass pictures of the artworks instead of, you know, buying the museum collection book. (No picture you take will be better than the museum’s own photos of the artwork.)
After finishing the indoor collection, I strolled through the museum garden, one of those well-manicured gardens with ponds, trees, and pavilions. The pavilions were important because it was threatening to rain the whole time I was in the garden. There were the most remarkable solid-wood stools and chairs; I could picture them in Korea with a bunch of old ahjusshis sat around and sharing makgeolli.
The museum café was on the way out, but when I went in to investigate everything I asked after they had run out of for the day. Beef noodles? Sold out. Coffee bubble tea? Sold out? Iced Americano? (Literally if you have water and espresso beans you can make this drink) Sold out. I headed back to Shilin with my stomach grumbling but generally satisfied with my museum adventure. I was well and truly starving by this time, and I found a pork wonton noodles place where I got a huge bowl of noodles which saved my life. (Not that I was able to read that, but rather I saw somebody with them through the window and it looked delicious). I also got some lotus seed paste mooncakes for dessert, a matcha coffee (this drink combination will always speak to my soul, it seems), and headed back to the hostel, feeling a little too smug.
Opening up my prize in the hostel kitchen/lounge area, I discovered that the mooncakes were not lotus seed paste after all (these ones, in my experience, are usually marked with sesame seeds on top), but pork floss instead. Abominable. I was pondering my dilemma (not wanting to eat the dreadful salty cakes anymore), when some lady began loudly chewing on something or other, making the decision crystal-clear for me. I went back into Ximending and found a bubble tea place. The Korean beauty products store next door was playing EXO and I remarked that this second day was infinitely better than the first. What changed? Maybe more planning, more sleep, and a better attitude going into it.
I woke up late on Wednesday, October 4th. I had scouted some places the night before in Ximending, and I found a rather popular noodle place (it’s apparently very famous among Hong Kong tourists) where you slurp up the noodles right there on the street. They were hot, salty, and delightful. Next door was a very aesthetically-pleasing ombre juice place. I never managed to get a good picture of the juice, but it was still satisfying to see and drink it.
I walked up Dihua Street, which was a traditional shopping street for lots of traditional medicine and crafts, and while it retains the air of the traditional markets, there are also lots of cool little single-product shops, (like one store solely dedicated to rice harvested in Taiwan??), new cafes, and boutiques. I was particularly taken by the basket and wood kitchenware shops. I thought about buying a mooncake mold, but I thought it would be far too heavy and too silly to buy it now. I’d rather buy something practical which I can use immediately, like some wooden plates, cups, or bowls. I thought about buying those little unfurling flower teas for my brother, but chickened out that day. I bought taro pastries and pineapple cakes for my co-teacher and stopped in a café called “Mimosa” (very on-brand for me) for a brown sugar latte and an “American cookie” (that’s a chocolate chip cookie, apparently). I’d read that coffee is a big deal in Taiwan, and that there were many cool little cafes to visit. While I thought it unlikely that there were more cool cafes than in Korea, I still dutifully went in any café that caught my fancy while in Taipei.
Also on Dihua Street was a museum called the Ama Museum, after the colloquial Chinese name for “mother.” I only went into the building because the entrance was through a café, and the café looked really cool. I “came for the coffee, stayed for the museum.” It was a museum dedicated to finding justice for Taiwanese women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II. It was a soberingly thought-provoking place, but remarkably well-done. According to the museum, the Japanese still have not apologized to the survivors of these atrocities, even though all of them constantly carry the heavy weight of what they were forced to endure. This also happened to many Korean women at that time; Japan hasn’t apologized to them, either.
From Dihua street, I headed to Dadaocheng Wharf, which was promised to be a scenic place. There were no inspiring vistas to be found, honestly not a beautiful river (I’m perhaps very biased by our own Han River), but I also did not have the benefit of visiting on a sunny day. Perhaps, in the right sun, it could be a nice place to take a run through and enjoy the breeze.
I stopped at a tiny shrine temple to draw some flowers and then walked on, eventually crossing a giant overpass to get to the other side of the wall. I found the Confucius temple and the Baoan temple, a buddhist temple, two neighboring temples with vastly different purposes. The Confucius temple was an auspicious place to visit at certain life events, like before starting a new job or graduations, but not necessarily a place of religion. Traditionally, it was more like a philosophical school. The Baoan Temple was a beautiful complex, with hundreds of offerings placed on the red tables, people burning prayers and incense, and praying to huge illuminated pillars studded with name placards that looked like dragon scales. After the temples, I took a breather in a café called Norma Café and got a delightful panini and an iced coffee and waited out the rain.
I ventured over to the Expo Park, which was first made for the Taipei International Flora Exposition. I didn’t know that at the time, of course, but there was a nice food court and some boutiques, and it seemed like a good place for music festivals these days.
I headed down the line to Daan Park, which ultimately turned out not to be a wonderful place to visit on a rainy night. However, it was peaceful, so I wasn’t resentful that there wasn’t much to see. Nearby was the Taipei 101 Tower. As I entered the basement to investigate going to the observatory, the crush of people immediately overwhelmed me. Walking through the overly swanky mall, I mused that for NT$50 I could get 5 coffees or bowls of noodles instead, and that I’d rather get a view of the tower than from the tower. I decided against staying in the food court and shipped back to Ximen where it was less crowded and I knew the area better. I planned my Thursday adventures on the train back. I finally got the promised beef noodles, as well as chowing down on the taro cakes and bubble tea back at the hostel. These taro pastries were what I was hoping for from the horrific pork floss mooncakes the day before. In the small illuminated cube of my hostel bed, I listened to youtube and caught up on social media as I let sleep hit me.
On Thursday, October 5th, I woke up early because one of the roommates in the hostel had an annoying case of the sniffles and seemed to refuse to blow his nose under any circumstances. I ate some taro cakes for breakfast and proceeded to look for coffee. For whatever reason, all that I found was Starbucks because I’m an incorrigible American.
I took the train to Jiantan station and then proceeded to wait ages for a bus. The plan was to go to hike to the top of a mountain for a nice view and then go to the Yangmingshan hot springs, which were apparently free to whoever was willing to trek up there. Taiwan is also apparently famous for hot springs. I met two girls, an American and a German, Fiona and Susanna, on the bus, and we all somehow convinced each other that we should get off too early by mistake. We waited for the next bus, and from there took another shuttle up the mountain. From the shuttle bus, it’s still a bit of a walk to actually get to the hot springs. It’s always nice to have somebody to talk to. The craziest thing was that both of the friends had also come from Korea. Fiona, from Los Angeles, was not much of a hiker, so she continued straight onto the hot springs, while Susanna and I got a bit turned around but made it to the small waterfall that we wanted to see. I stopped for a water and ice cream (the Taiwanese strawberry shortcake ice cream is better than American, and that’s saying a lot).
After the hike, we felt like we really “earned” going to the hot springs. I had expected the hot springs to be similar to Japan (I didn’t go to any hot springs in Japan, but I’ve seen plenty of pictures), big ponds with pearly mineral water and mists floating all around. In reality, they were just very small indoor nude baths with coppery-colored water. It wasn’t even worth getting undressed for. Disappointed, I resolved to go to the famed hot spring area Beitou a few days later.
After another series of busses, we found ourselves back in Shilin, where there is apparently the most famous night market in Taipei. I finally got my xiaolongbao soup dumplings, along with lots of other food, like lamb skewers which Fiona swore by, a mysterious (but apparently famous) “cake within a cake”, popsicles, and iced tea. I intended to get the iconic Taiwanese roll ice cream, but none of the stands were open when I passed by. I took a snack run back at the hostel after my shower. The Doritos were so salty, but welcome after eating a year’s worth of Korea’s sweet Doritos. I was pleasantly surprised by those and the green tea yogurt drink that I picked up. Good snacks all around.
The next day, Friday, October 6th, I woke up much later because Sniffles had checked out. Getting ready quickly, I headed to that Ximen noodle place, got another rose latte, and met with Susanna from the day before. We had planned to meet and go to Maokong, where there were apparently lots of tea houses in the area. Fiona was uninterested and had a very dogmatic list of aesthetic cafes and food-blogger-recommended restaurants she needed to check off. I personally find that kind of travel exhausting.
We took the train to the Taipei Zoo area, then the gondola from there. I was expecting the kind of soul-crushing long lines that we found at the Hong Kong gondola, so being able to get on the gondola within even a half hour of arriving was an unexpected blessing. I was expecting it to be far harder than it was.
Halfway up, there’s the impressive Zhinan Temple, so we stopped there. I “bought” a wish that you can write on a little gold tag with a red tassle. You’re supposed to hang it on one of the trees or bushes around the temple. I stopped to sketch a particularly scenic pavilion and take a rubbing (Taiwan has old-school kinds of souvenirs), then got back on the gondola. There was this delightful ubiquitous black tea and green tea ice cream swirl, and finally my curiosity got the better of me and I bought it. It was delicious! Susanna got a grass jelly tea, which doesn’t taste terrible, but would never be something I would select from a menu.
The goal was to find a cool teahouse with a good view. It was hard to find one that had both a decent view but wasn’t backbreakingly expensive. I could tell Susanna was getting frustrated with me, but I wasn’t looking to spend $300 on a hot tea ceremony on a hot day. Finally we found a place that seemed to be kind of famous and had a great view, but more importantly had iced tea and dishes that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. We got tea fried rice, tea fried egg, something called “nest fern” salad, and iced tea. I made the mistake of assuming that Susanna was with me for the day, but when I wanted to stop at some little shed of a café on the way back, she continued back to Taipei without me. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but she had no reason to stick with me after that.
I returned to the hostel for a nap, Doritos, and more tea, briefly emerged for beef noodles and bubble tea, then went back to do laundry and read. It’s worth noting that, while the caffeine in tea usually doesn’t have any effect on me, on that day I drank enough tea to keep me up and buzzing late into the night.
Saturday, October 7th was my last full day in Taiwan. I had those HK-famous noodles and juice mix for breakfast and got the train to Xinbeitou. The Beitou area is warm and misty, as if the ground itself is beckoning you into the hot springs. The trees themselves bend and sway down to the ground like melted candles and the water in the stream seems to have an otherworldly color. My goal was the Longnaitang hot springs, which were the cheapest but also the oldest. Many hot springs are in more upscale hotels located in the area, but I was going for authenticity. Longnaitan hotsprings were actually so inconspicuous that I initially walked right past them. It was a nude bath and I forgot to bring soap to wash up before, and I spent all the time in the “cold” (45C) tub, never actually succeeding in getting into the hotter tub. It was relaxing, but not all that exciting. The tubs weren’t very big, and there’s not much place to go, unlike in the Korean jjimjilbang, where you can wander among the rooms for hours.
I had Taiwanese McDonald’s for lunch, too starving to find any place else, then headed back to the city proper. I “hiked” up Xiangshan, “Elephant Mountain,” to get a good view of the city and the nearby Taipei 101 Tower. I was glad I expended a little sweat for the much better view from there. The walk was only about 20 minutes straight up a series of stairs.
I finally visited Bopilao district after that. At one point it was a school, and the better part of the building seemed to tell about the history of Taiwan’s school system. It was a really cool area architecturally and aesthetically speaking, which is why I’d wanted to go inside originally. I went a little “stamp crazy” on this day. stopped at a café called Dante Café on the way back. I took a nap in the hostel and then went to that café that I’d been intending to go to all week, which turned out to be called “Now Coffee.” (The name of the café on the outside was only written in Chinese, but it looked like some hipster aesthetic kind of café that would serve a good coffee. I was not wrong). I got beef noodle-flavored ramen from the corner store, read, and chilled. The awesome ramen just further underscored how shitty ramen is in the United States and how wonderful it is, well, everywhere else.
Sunday, October 8th was my last day in Taiwan. There was apparently a beef noodles and jaozi dumplings place directly under my hostel, that I never went to for one reason or another, so I went there for breakfast. I got too ambitious and ordered too much, but it was all delicious. At the end, I told the ahjumma running the store 감사합니다, or thank you in Korean, as if that was my brain trying to tell me, “It’s time to go home.” I walked back up to Dihua Street for gifts, buying wooden cups, dried mango, tea accoutrements, and Gudetama mooncakes. I returned to my hostel for the last time to rearrange myself and then headed to the airport.
Lots of bad things happened on my way out of the Taipei airport: I went to the wrong terminal. I didn’t pay attention to which airline was at which terminal, so I had to take the long route to the other, costing me precious minutes when I was on a tight enough schedule to begin with. At check-in, they demanded to see my full itinerary, so even though I had everything written down nicely: flight numbers, airlines, times, and all—and they should’ve be able to look this up with my passport—they demanded to see the actual email, which was buried deep under months of other emails. I couldn’t get my phone to connect to the airport wifi no matter what I tried, and nearly had a crying breakdown over it, finally resulting in my opening up my data in order to download the email so I could show them. I believe that 5 or so minutes on data from another country might have cost me up to $40 USD but I’m not sure. It was not pretty, and not worth it.
I ran to the gate, thinking I had less than 10 minutes to get there until the gate closed. I arrived to a long line which didn’t move for more than 30 minutes. I needn’t have run, and standing in the line was exhausting. At least they fed us on this flight, because I didn’t eat at all in Nanjing.
The third shitty part of this returning-home saga was at Nanjing. I had originally planned to stay in the city, even booked a hostel if I could manage it. My layover was 12 hours, so it was technically possible. But I was warned by my friend that the hassle in procuring the visa and using the transport would make even getting in and out of the airport not worth it. That being said, since I didn’t ever leave the confines of the airport, logic dictates that the “visa” process should be easy, right? Nope. I was shuttled to various desks by scary-looking Chinese TSA/police-like guys for about half an hour, just to receive a scary-looking giant stamp in my passport saying that I was indeed allowed to stay the night in the airport. But hey, at least this visa was free.
I stayed up reading, first just on the floor next to a wall outlet so that I could charge my phone (until the lights turned off), and then in the seeming waiting-area as more and more of the airport shut down. At around 2am, new flights stopped arriving, so at that point it became clear that everyone there at that time was there until morning. At around 3am, I got too sleepy to keep my eyes open, and curled up in a massage chair to catch some Zs. This was hard with the angry little massage fixtures digging into my spine and every 15 minutes the chair yelling at the sleeping people in Chinese to put more money into the chair if they wanted to operate it. It wasn’t a comfortable night, but I felt very backpacker-y. Maybe it was foreshadowing to my China trip this year. That night, I finished reading Slaughterhouse 5 and also counted, inaccurately, how many times Vonnegut uses the words “so it goes” in that story.
The airport opened up again a few hours later, Monday, October 9th, maybe around 5 or 6. It was strange that on this trip I witnessed two different instances of closed airports starting up for the day in two different countries. I may be happy if I never have to again, but as they say, “It was a moment.”
I think I benefited so much from that trip. I learned to be more okay spending time on my own, more okay to look like an idiot, and became even better at asking help when I need it or following others’ leads. I also learned how to read small phrases in Chinese so that I wouldn’t starve to death, things like “noodles,” “meat,” “coffee,” or “dumplings.” Knowing those, as well as memorizing the Chinese characters for my destinations each day proved to be invaluable. I think it was good preparation for the China trip, which I’m starting to prepare for now that we’ve reached the new year. It’s scary to think that this trip I’ve been looking forward to for almost my whole life is approaching in only a few months. I hope I can make the most of it, as RuPaul says, “and don’t fuck it up.”