When? July 2014, A Steppe too Far, coming from Ulan Bator, Mongolia, going on to Seoul
I thought I would finally get a full night’s sleep. No late outings, no drinking in the bar, no train noises. I was so tired I got into bed at 8.30. Only to be woken by a full scale rally at three in the morning. Motivating speeches, cheering. Much too loud to ignore. I looked outside and couldn’t see anything, so I tried the usual remedies, earplugs and the quilt over my head. All to no avail. Albino eyes when I eventually got dressed at 5.30. Still nothing to see. I’m beginning to wonder if the rally is being held in the next door bedroom.
In many ways Mongolia is very efficient. Though only one boarding gate at the airport and four international flights departing within minutes of each other isn’t wildly helpful. Taiwan ( or the Republic of China) is the total antithesis of Mongolia, a modern, really densely populated affluent island. It is heaving with traffic, queues of motor bikes waiting at traffic lights, neon signs winking behind them. My hotel is on the main street, lined with trees and designer shops. Now this really could compete with Bond Street. I have a view of the two famous towers, 101 and The Station from my room, where I’m sitting eating scrummily tangy Asian pears, that look like apples. And I’m obviously going to have to get used to these Japanese toilets. I experimented with the buttons on this one. I was fascinated by the little rod that whirred out into the centre of the bowl, but only just got my face out of the way in time. Fortunately, the wall got soaked instead of me.
My Taipei hotel is so plush I am behaving like Ross in Friends. I’ve been swimming in the roof top pool and had a shower and a bath. In the process I have used every towel in the room and all the bath salts, tested all the toiletries and plundered four bottles of water. Breakfast looks like a similar challenge with a huge array of food. However, on closer inspection there is very little fruit to go in my yogurt. Lots of noodles and pickles. There is also a sign respectfully reminding guests not to eat too much cold food as it is bad for your health. I try pickled plums in the yogurt. It definitely doesn’t work. Perhaps they’re right.
The water in the pool is not very deep. The guide books say the Taiwanese are very superstitious about deep water as spirits live there and they avoid it when they can. The guide books also accurately report that the Taiwanese are very friendly. So far. I’ve been practising my ni hao and xie xie, which is the limit of my Mandarin.
My balding guide is called Sam and my younger driver Mr Chao. (His tongue doesn’t look black). We have a nifty Mercedes that contains more gadgets. Everyone here has a little camera recording the scene to the rear of their car in case there is an accident. I wonder how long it will be before they are a must have in the UK?
Sam tells me that males in Taiwan prove themselves through three manly pursuits. They climb the highest mountain (4000 metres), swim Sun Moon Lake ( which I will visit later) and cycle the 1200 kilometres round the island. Well, I’m driving round it.
The island mainly consists of limestone mountains, jutting sharply out of the sea on this part of the trip. Amazingly engineered highways, mostly begun by the Japanese, either roller-coaster on the edge, hundreds of metres up, or pour through ribbons of tunnels. It makes for interesting viewing, punctuated by concentrations of high rise apartments and industrialisation wherever the land flattens out. Cement factories are a frequent occurrence, juxtaposed with beautiful powdery beaches. It’s hot, nearly 40 degrees and very steamy. The camera fogs up instantly and my hair goes into a frazzle.
There’s a 7-11 store on every high street with ATM, cafe and toilet. Sam tells me that they are open 24 hours. He seems astonished to hear that they usually open from 7-11 in England. There is one adjacent to the Chinese service station where we stop for lunch. The food costs just over a pound in Taiwanese dollars and is served in round wooden boxes. I order using the pictures and am relieved I can remember how to use chop sticks or I would starve.
In the afternoon we follow another cross island Japanese highway, blasted out of the rock to tour a spectacular gorge gouged out of marble cliffs. A very pretty contrast with the bright scarlet bridges and temples. It is mandatory to wear helmets because of rock falls and there are crocodiles of blue hatted Chinese, guides relaying orders through loud hailers, weaving on paths through the tunnels in front of us. Swallow Grotto is a big attraction; here the gorge rises very steeply and swallows used to nest in the caves. Unfortunately, most of the birds have been scared away by the tourists.
My hotel teeters on the edge of the gorge. I am on a sunbed next to another roof top swimming pool gazing up at a charming pagoda at the tip of the mountain.
Sam is fussing around me like an old mother hen. My every move is anticipated or interrogated. He so wants to get it right, but he is frenetic, does everything at full speed, so it’s a little stressful. The idea of lingering to take in the view or sitting still for a moment to relax is totally foreign. He also insists on taking photos of me everywhere on his new iPad. So every time, I do get to pause to look at something he pops up going ‘Cheese, cheese’. He’s turning me into a Japanese tourist.
Mr Chao is a little more laid back and I have to admit, quite easy on the eye. Sadly, he doesn’t speak any English. Or pretends not to. He spends most of his time drinking very sweet cold bottled tea with milk and listening to tinkling music of the sort you get in musical boxes. After the third repetition I get the Bluetooth working and introduce them to Adele instead. Mr Chao is intrigued, he didn’t know his car could do that. Though I’m not sure he’s very keen on my audio offering.
We take the east coast scenic highway past caves and rock formations. As we motor south we pass a column marking the Tropic of Cancer and the scenery correspondingly becomes more tropical, palm trees and ever more velvety mountains. Less traffic too. It’s good surfing country, turquoise waves foam over dark coral. The sight of the day is the ornate eight arch bridge built to link the mainland to the Isle of the Three Immortals ( large coral outcrops). The highlight of the day is lunch at a fish market. The catch is all laid out on the stone slabs – many colourful reef fish as well as larger tuna, barracuda and swordfish. We squat on small plastic stools and feast on a variety of ultra fresh sashimi and fragrant fish soup. Mr Chao then buys us dessert – a local delicacy of tiny sweet potato balls floating in too sweet juice that we drink through fat straws.
Tonight’s hotel is situated on one of the numerous hot springs. There is a raucous outdoor area with chutes and funnels and very loud music. However, I can avoid that as I have my own little spa bath in my room, complete with scoop and thermometer. I accidentally over fill it, so when I sit down I create a veritable Niagara. Luckily, the designer has anticipated such stupidity and there are drainage channels that deal effectively with the situation. And there must be something of benefit in the water, it’s left my skin feeling incredibly soft.
It’s been a zoological study day. Heading first to Kenting National Park, through more lush forested mountains interspersed with a few pointy volcanic peaks to the southern most tip of the island. Past paddy fields (three crops a year) and exotic wax apples and Buddhas heads as well as more familiar fruit like bananas and pineapples.
I have been very lucky with the weather so far but it is monsoon season, a typhoon is battering the Philippines, to the south, and we are catching squalls of driving rain today. When we arrive we take shelter in a tourist arcade replete with swallows nests and more smiling stall holders. One has a huge pet pig snoring noisily – it takes up almost half his shop. We tiptoe round it and he strokes it gently with a broom. As the rain eases we emerge onto the car park to find a snake (a poisonous viper I think) squirming across the concrete and causing consternation amongst the visitors. One of the groundsmen eventually picks it up with his litter pickers and tosses it over the wall into the undergrowth. After that excitement we view a lighthouse constructed in fortress style by an English engineer and more coral formations and mangrove swamps.
We pass beaches packed with umbrellas, the sea a mass of twisting water scooters. Then we turn north again on the freeway, towards Kaiosioung, the second largest Taiwan city. The towns we motor through are festooned with signs and vividly colourful, verging on garish. We have not escaped the typhoon and as we enter the city there is a massive thunderstorm, rather more than ‘cat and dog’ as Sam describes it. A flying visit between showers to the white shuttered colonial building that was the old British consulate before the capital moved to Taipei.
Today’s star turn is the night market where there are stalls selling every food you could imagine (and some you probably couldn’t). Battered whole squid and flying fish seem palatable next to assorted fried intestines, cow’s stomach and lungs and ducks’ beaks. The speciality restaurant at the far end serves only snake. I settle for a skewer of large grilled prawns sprinkled liberally with sea salt. Sam berates me for leaving the heads and makes short work of these himself.
My hotel tonight is again worth a mention. It’s located in a very solid looking tower next to the harbour. With 85 floors it’s the second highest building in Taiwan, having been superseded by Taipei’s 101, which was the highest building in the world until the Burj Khalifa came along (more of that in a few weeks time). I’m on floor 46.
Sam made the mistake of showing me some photos of the mysterious mountains and giant trees in Alishan Scenic Park today. I looked it up on the Internet and the reviews were favourable. I also worked out that it was possible to drive there on the way to our last port of call. So I made a supplication and after much debate we have changed our itinerary. The large temple complex is out and a long drive over the mountains is in. I hope it all works out ok.
Good decision on the whole. The giant trees are worth seeing and there are temples and ponds with little tea houses. It’s increasingly foggy. That doesn’t necessarily detract from the visit as the mist adds to the atmosphere while we are walking in the forest. However, it does mean that there isn’t much of a panorama to take in whilst careering along the cross mountain freeway. The journey becomes more perilous as the monsoon kicks in again and the freeway is stuffed full of tottering tourist buses. My driver is not very patient and overtakes as soon as there is the smallest opportunity. We have several near misses. Mr Chao is either a very skilful driver or a very lucky one.
The lofty mountains I have glimpsed are girded with straight palm trees with small leaves – betel nut. The nuts are sold in roadside booths by glamorous girls known as betel nut queens. Much of the population chew them for relaxation and there’s a correspondingly high rate of mouth cancer. I haven’t noticed any spitting or red marks on the pavements like in India.
My last night in Taiwan is at Sun Moon Lake. The hotel is fabulous and I have a huge room that looks out over the lake. Its even got a gas log fire, which I have on, because it’s cosy, even though it’s still warm in the rain. I haven’t eaten much this week. I was still recovering from Russian train excesses and it was too hot here to eat much. My most filling meals were lunch boxes with the driver and guide. My blow out in the hotel brasserie, together with a margarita, has just cost me twice my food bill for the whole of the week so far. It was worth it. Just off to soak in my hot tub…
It turns out that my accommodation is in one of the numerous villas constructed as holiday homes in various scenic spots by Chiang Kai-Shek which have been converted into hotels. (The main street of every town is named after him – Jiang Zhongzheng in Chinese). A swim in the 50 metre infinity pool. The view is classic Chinese painting with mist over the mountains. But paradise always has a flaw. The mosquitoes have been feasting on me overnight.
Today could either be described as leisurely or an ill planned damp squib. We circumnavigate the lake visiting a tall pagoda built by Chiang and two fairly recent temples. The star turn today is given by a muster of peacocks (great collective noun – you can choose ostentation if you prefer) who were busy displaying to their potential mates. Four or five of them were pirouetting with tails extended at any one time. In the centre twirled a pure white feathered soloist. Just like the London Palladium.
Taipei Airport is extremely quiet and smart. An arcade of designer outlets. What has happened to airports? Why don’t they sell useful things any more? I would like some water and a bar of chocolate. No chance. I hope the aeroplane can do better. I’ve been very impressed with Korean Airlines so far. Very polite and efficient. Nice planes that show individual choice movies even on short flights. I’m early for check in (!) and whilst I wait the staff are having a motivational meeting in a circle. Exactly on the advertised time they all move to their appointed desks, a bell rings, they bow and service commences.