Try to learn something about everything

Great, Greater, Greater China!

By now it’s quite standard that my posts lack behind my travels… This update is no exception, it’s about our travels from end of June to end of July.

The topic: Greater China, or more precisely Shanghai, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

But let’s start from the beginning. In Cali (Colombia) we figured it’s about time to figure out how we’d get from the Americas to Asia. It was pretty clear that we’d have to go through the US, and since A. and V. were not in San Francisco at the dates we were looking at, we decided to visit C. in Los Angeles. After a bit of searching I found a great flight from LAX to Taipei with a 20h layover in Shanghai. P. had never considered going to Taiwan before, but to her credit it didn’t take much convincing and we booked the flight that same evening. Considering that in a past life (or so it seems) I studied Sinology, I did find this quite exciting, after all I studied Taiwan academically but had never set foot in the country. I also dreaded using my rusty Mandarin again.

Not looking forward to spending 20h at the airport, I did a little online search and found out that Beijing and Shanghai now have free 72h transit visas on arrival. Jackpot, especially since I studied in Shanghai and was quite stoked to see the city again. So after a couple of awesome and eventful days in LA (thanks again C., especially for taking us to the Bradbury building of Blade Runner fame!) we boarded our flight and arrived in China 14h later. We were quite jetlagged and tired, but we still bothered to go into the city, where we found a nice little hotel off Nanjing Lu close to the Bund. Before we collapsed we managed to have a nice dinner and a bit of a walk and I remembered why I originally fell in love with this city that I called home for a year. I definitely want to go back for a longer stay at one point…

The next day we arrived in Taipei where we had booked accommodation via AirBnB and a new love affair started almost immediately (yes, I’m a bit of a place whore, deal with it). Over the years I’ve heard many great things about the city, but yet it still somehow managed to exceed my expectations. It’s cool (teenagers have a pretty Japanese style), it’s modern, it’s quirky, and the food is awesome. If you need a break, places like Beitou (very cool public library) or Tamsui are an easy MRT ride away, or you just go to a park and watch old people practice Qi Gong or Tai Chi. Coincidentally one of P.’s friends was in Taipei at the same time as us and we explored the Confucius temple and some other parts together. After a couple of days my friend Ph. arrived from Vienna and kept us company for the next two weeks.

With him we explored more of Taipei, before heading off to Keelong. Which would be transcribed as Jilong in the official Chinese Hanyu Pinyin system, but the Taiwanese seem to use about 5 different systems at the same time, of which at least 2 appear to have been made up solely for the purpose of confusing foreigners. For the rest of this mail I will just go with the transcriptions most commonly found in travel guides, but I digress… Anyway, Keelong was fun. Not the prettiest of towns, but some nice things to see and an awesome night food market. We spent the afternoon with a friendly but slightly insane taxi driver, and at night we found a group of breakdancers to watch. What more can you reasonably expect from a day trip?

The next day we went on to Hualien, where once again we stuffed our faces at a night market. Or several, since we first ended up at the wrong one, where 2 young employees at a food stall were so relieved that they managed to deal with 3 foreigners, that they actually high-fived when we walked away with our food. After we finished our meal they got daring and ventured a “Good food happy?” at us. “my friends, “happy happy!” indeed. The next day was reserved for the famous Taroko Gorge, but a shitty bus service, bad weather and the unfriendliest bus driver of the country made it a rather disappointing experience. You win some, you lose some…

Our next stop was Lukang, where we spent a couple of very pleasant days eating (do you see a pattern here?) and exploring old temples. We then headed down to Tainan, where we basically did the same. More food, more temples. Then maybe a snack. How about another temple? My favorite part of Tainan was Anping, which is definitely worth checking out if you ever make it there.

We now were approaching the end of Ph.’s time with us, and I’m glad he managed to at least get a glimpse of Kaohsiung, one of my favorite new places. I can’t even tell you why exactly, I just really liked it there. Sure, food’s awesome, but that’s basically a given in Taiwan. The people are amazingly friendly, but that’s pretty much standard too. I guess what I like is the overall feel of the place, which is rather relaxed. And artsy. Kaohsiung used to be an industrial town, but most of that industry disappeared. Thanks to a former mayor the old factories and warehouses on the docks now serve as amazingcontemporary art spaces. We came for 3 days, we stayed for a week, andwho knows, without the flight to Vietnam we had already booked at thattime, I might still be there…

Our last stop before returning to Taipei for 3 more awesome days wasTaitung, or rather the countryside around it. Taiwan’s east coast isfar less developed than other parts of the country, but reallybeautiful. Since our hostel had free bikes we managed to explore thearea a bit, alas a second taifun was about to hit (the first onecaught Ph. in Taipei) and so the weather wasn’t exactly great. Atleast we had a great hostel to return to, run by a lovely family,which made us drink way more tea than I thought a human bladder canhold.

If it wasn’t obvious enough yet, Taiwan was one of my favoritedestinations on this trip. The people are just amazingly friendly!Sure, not everybody will speak English, but even then they will stilltry to help you. Or at least smile at you. The food is excellent. Yes,I write about food a lot. Food matters! There’s plenty of old templesaround, actually more than in most parts of China that I visited. Andalongside the old there’s the new. Taiwan has many art and culturespaces, and a vibrant youth culture that borrows liberally from “thewest” as well as from Japan. In a way, our stay there made merediscover my love for the Chinese world, which had died down a bitafter university. I even got back into speaking Mandarin, and while itwas far from perfect, it usually was good enough (or the Taiwanese arejust amazing at reading body language in combination with nonsensicalphrases.) If you are looking for an intro to the Chinese culturalsphere that’s easier than the mainland, I can wholeheartedly recommend Taiwan!

After the weeks of relative tranquillity, Hong Kong (one of myfavorite places ever) was quite the change. It’s louder, busier, andmore stressful. On a superficial look it’s all modern and businesslike, but if you dig deeper, you’ll still find bits and pieces of oldworking-class Hong Kong. And if you want a break, you can always justflee up Hong Kong hill or head out to Lantau to visit the peacefulfishing village of Tai O. We stayed in Chungking Mansions(, which despite therecent renovations is still a rather unique place. After all thisplace had a book written about it, the aptly named “Ghetto at theCenter of the World”. Another nerd dream came true when we visited theonly Studio Ghibli store outside Japan, where we took pictures withTotoro and in the Catbus. Yes, I was inside the Catbus, how cool isthat? Unfortunately the weather was really bad during most of ourstay, so P. didn’t get to fully enjoy HK, which is a bit of a shame.Oh well, guess that means I will have to take her back at one point…

Photos I hear you say? Here you go:
Hong Kong

Confucius say “Be good and travel more!”