Cycling tour of Taiwan

Lovely readers, I’m back. I’ve got a few new bruises but no scars. Rain was forecast through the end of our trip, and we learned how much we really don’t like riding in the cold rain, so we piled into a train in Taitung and came home a few days early. It’s nice to be home and dry.

I’m going to list out our daily trip data so any other bikers in Taiwan can giggle at our amateurness. Also, I learned a lot reading about Swanky Frankie’s trip around Taiwan, and any information I can add to the blogosphere, I’m glad to contribute.

Day One, Feb. 8

Yonghe City, Taipei County to Daxi, Tauyuan County via Provincial Hwy 3
Departure time: 11:40   Arrival time: 5ish
Riding time: 3:04   Average speed: 14.4 kph

Distance: 43.3 km   Odometer: 84 km (including bringing the bikes back the night before)

The first day of our trip got off to a late start after we stayed up until 3 a.m. packing the night before. Not the best idea. We finally got out the door and into the streets of Taipei, not really knowing where we would end up that night but headed south-west.

Riding through Taipei is seriously unpleasant, but soon enough we were on the highway and into Taoyuan, where the traffic thinned out. Shannon got nicked by the mirror of a passing BMW but suffered no damage. Otherwise the ride was a nice start. We did encounter one hill that had us huffing and puffing, but that was certainly only the beginning.

Daxi is listed in the guidebooks for its old streets with ornate Chinese baroque architecture. We cruised into town around dinner time and ended up staying the night at a budget hotel recommended by someone in the restaurant. Colin expressed concern about making it around the island going only 40 km per day, but Shannon and I maintained that we’d really only had half a day of riding.

Heping Road in Daxi

Heping Road in Daxi

Day Two, Feb. 9

Daxi, Taoyuan County to Sanwan, Miaoli County via Prov. Hwy 4 to Prov. Hwy 3 to Country Road 41 to County Road 142 to Prov. Hwy 3
Departure time: 8:15   Arrival time 6ish
Riding time 4:46   Average speed: 15.8 kph

Distance: 75.95 km   Odometer: 160 km

Hearty breakfast in Daxi, then a hilly ride along Prov. Hwys 4 and 3 to get to Lion’s Head Mountain Scenic Area. Before that, we stopped in Beipu for a big snack of lei cha (a filling tea made from a paste of different seeds) and moon cakes (flaky pastries filled with red beans, taro root, sweet potato, and green bean). Colin started to feel sick but couldn’t pin it on any one thing. We pushed on to Lion’s Head anyway, literally pushing our bikes up some of the mean hills (with very pretty scenery).

Shannon with our moon cake snacks

Rice fields just south of Beipu

Of course it's blurry because I was shaking from exhaustion...

We were all relieved when we made it to the visitors’ center and could sit, but the longer Colin rested, the worse he felt. We sat there for about two hours, and with the rest and a bit of water and food, Colin said he wanted to try to make it to a closer campsite the friendly guide had suggested.

A few more hills carried us out of the park—I topped out at 48 kph coming down the final slope—and landed us in Miaoli farmland. We had only an hour of daylight left and weren’t even going to make it to the closer campsite. Instead, the clerks at a 7-11 directed us to the local junior high, and Shannon and I stocked up on tuna and chips for dinner.

The guard was a bit unsure, but finally let us into a classroom set up with ping pong tables. Shannon and I set up “camp” while Colin crawled into his sleeping bag. A few confused people stumbled upon Shannon and I having dinner, but I’ve heard from multiple sources that sleeping at schools is actually pretty normal.

We set up the tent to ward off any mosquitoes, and you can see a sick Colin already curled up in his sleeping bag

Day Three, Feb. 10

Sanwan, Miaoli County to Sanyi, Miaoli County via Country Road 5 to Country Road 17 to Country Road 14 to Prov. Hwy 13. Sanyi, Miaoli County to Taichung, Taichung County via train
Departure time: 10ish   Arrival time: 5:50
Riding time: 3:36   Average speed: 13.6 kph

Distance: 49 km   Odometer: 208 km

By this time, we’ve heard a few times that most people start down the east coast and go up the west. That would make days like today a lot more bearable. We started out climbing some rough hills, and then even after the hills stopped, we struggled against slight but steady incline into Sanyi. Even freeway overpasses became great obstacles to overcome. Also, foolishly, I wore a tank top and suffered a sunburn. You’re all surprised.

One of countless Taiwanese people on our trip

Pretty bridges along Prov. Hwy 13

We each had one of those things around Colin's mouth and nose--very functional as headbands and ear warmers

We were famished by the time we rolled into Sanyi, and Colin had worn out all the energy he’d accumulated from our night on the school floor. Shannon and I scouted out some fried chicken, noodles, and delicious passion fruit teas. When the hour break didn’t revive Colin, he suggested training the remaining distance to Taichung. Not eager to continue the climb, Shannon and I immediately agreed, and we were in Taichung in time for dinner.

Day Four, Feb. 11

Taichung, Taichung County to Ershui, Zhanghua County via a road following the HSR to Prov. Hwy 1 to County Road 137 to County Road 146 to Prov. Hwy 1 to County Road 141. Ershui, Zhanghua County to Sun Moon Lake via trains and buses
Departure time: 9ish   Arrival time: 4:30
Riding time: 3:14   Average speed: 17.7 kph

Distance: 57.57 km   Odometer: 266 km

We skirted the Tiger Mountain Scenic Area on the bikes, fearful of the hill-climbing it would require. As a result, the ride to Ershui was pleasant and fairly quick.

While Colin popped in to get us tickets up to Sun Moon Lake at Ershui’s train station, a gal from the visitor’s center came out and told Shannon and I that she’d seen us biking when she was driving to work. Her name was Ling and she was hospitable to no end, helping us find a place to store our bikes overnight and grabbing us snacks and drinks to take on the train.

It was about an hour’s ride up to Shuili, where we hopped on a bus to Shuishe Village on the lake’s edge. We then took a boat across the lake—the largest in Taiwan, made by the Japanese to generate hydroelectric power, never mind the people living in the area where the lake now sits—to Itashao Village, where we camped for the night. Camping in Taiwan is so much fun—it’s really rowdy and not at all the escape to nature that most camping in America is.

We're on a boat

Sun Moon Lake, with Cih En Pagoda, which Chiang Kai-shek built for his mother, in the distance on the left

By the time we set up camp and showered (hot showers!), it was already dark. We dined on cheap noodles in Itashao and made it an early night so we could get back to Ershui at a reasonable hour.

Day Five, Feb. 12

Sun Moon Lake to Ershui, Zhanghua County via buses and trains. Ershui, Zhanghua County to Chiayi, Chiayi County via County Road 141 to Prov. Hwy 3 to Prov. Hwy 1 (with squiggle) to Prov. Hwy 1
Departure time: 11:21   Arrival time: 4:45
Riding time: 3:07   Average speed: 18.3 kph

Distance: 57.42 km   Odometer: 323 km

Rain woke us around 4 a.m. and Colin scrambled out of the tent to fix the ground tarp—or something, I was pretty out of it. We watched the sky turn from black to gray over Sun Moon Lake, then shared a bus back to Shuili with a bunch of Taiwanese grandmothers. The next train wasn’t for an hour, so Shannon and I hunted out breakfast at the morning market.

Daybreak. The floating flower beds attract bugs, which attract fish, which attract fishermen

Itashao dock

Ling met us in Ershui with information on getting Shannon+bike back to Taipei in a few days. Again, she came with snacks and all sorts of helpfulness. Unfortunately, she had no power over the weather, which started pouring down as soon as we had our bikes loaded back up. We scrambled into our color-coordinated rain gear and wore it the rest of the ride, though more for the splatters since the rain didn’t last too long.

Our goal was the hot springs at Guanziling, but we didn’t quite make it. The bus schedule out of Chiayi would have only allowed us about an hour to explore the area and soak before we’d have to return. Instead, we found a budget hotel near the train station and a hot pot place (cook your own food in a pot of boiling both) for dinner.

Day Six, Feb. 13, day before Chinese New Year

Chiayi, Chiayi County to Tainan, Tainan County via Prov. Hwy 1 to Country Road 174 to Prov. Hwy 17
Departure time: 9ish   Arrival time: 6ish
Riding time: 5:32   Average speed: 19.2 kph

Distance: 106.58 km   Odometer: 430 km

Early in the ride we crossed the Tropic of Cancer, though you could hardly tell by the sky, which was thick with gray clouds all day. The ride, at least, was flat and easy, taking us through small towns and lots of farmland and bird farms (when it didn’t smell of burning pulp paper, it smelled like a chicken coop), and we had little traffic and a bike path just for us along the 1.

Tropic of Cancer! After passing under this archway the sky instantly turned blue and the water in our bottles turned into daiquiris

Pineapple hats!

Shannon got a flat tire, and luckily she and I were riding together since I had all the tools in my bag. She had it patched in less than 30 minutes and we were back on the road, but not before a few curious townspeople came by to see what was going on.

Our bike rental guy would be so proud

Just before reaching Tainan, we detoured to see the Salt Hills on Country Road 137. They are awesomely strange.

Almost 2,000 tons of salt left over from when Taiwan used to produce their own salt. Note the kids sliding down as though in snow

What lives on Salt Mountain? Salt tigers, duh

Santa's Village at the base of the mountain and pony rides in the top left

We cruised into Tainan just before dark and arranged for a super-cheap room at Asia Hotel. They were setting up for a Chinese New Year banquet and didn’t have time to show us the room, so we didn’t learn it had only one bed until after it was paid for. Shannon offered to take the floor, and we set up a nice nest of spare comforters and blankets.

We thought tonight was supposed to be the big night—we were hoping for a parade or at least fireworks. We got nothing but empty streets and closed shops (though we did manage to find a restaurant serving both danzi mian and coffin bread—specialties of the town). Even most of the temples were closed.

From the locked gates into Chihkan Tower

We figured we’d at least swing by the Altar of Heaven to see if we could improve some of the luck we’d been having so far on our journey. It was packed. A line stretched for blocks leading up to the temple, making us think at first that we didn’t stand a chance of going in. However, the line wasn’t actually moving and we soon figured that those in line were waiting to get the luck as soon as the new year began. We strolled inside and it was like the post office at Christmas time, with people scurrying about and temple workers standing in front of boxes filled with, I can only guess, pulp money for different families to collect and then offer to their ancestors. We didn’t actually ask anyone—we felt out of place enough as it was.

Day Seven, Feb. 14, Chinese New Year

Tainan, Tainan County to Kaohsiung, Kaohsiung County via a boardwalk along the Strait to Prov. Hwy 17. Kaohsiung, Kaohsiung County to Maolin National Scenic Area, Kaohsiung County via train and bus.
Departure time: 9:30ish   Arrival time: 7ish
Riding time: 3:08   Average speed: 17 kph

Distance: 57 km   Odometer: 487 km

We grabbed breakfast from a morning market, including a delicious fluffy red bean cake, then opted for the coastal route out of Tainan. It was wonderful to see even the slightly littered and almost completely abandoned beach. We rode through a lively wharf area, then peddled quickly to Kaohsiung.

That's China over our shoulders

We planned to go from there to Maolin, where there are supposed to be butterflies and hot springs. At the Kaohsiung visitor’s center, we were told rain was forecast for the evening and that there wasn’t actually a very direct way of getting to Maolin. After a lot of discussion, we decided to go ahead anyway.

A train took us to Pingdong, where we caught a bus to Daxi, and then finally a taxi to our campsite. Our driver told us that the hot springs had been wiped out by Typhoon Morakot last summer and that they were 16 km away anyway. Foiled again.

The campsite was really nice at least, with a friendly owner who led a night tour through the nearby area. Colin made friends with a Taiwanese family who invited us to join them for karaoke, and after a few rounds of the owner’s 58 whiskey, the three of us got up and butchered “The Banana Song” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Yikes.

Day Eight, Feb. 15

Maolin National Scenic Area to Kaohsiung, Kaohsiung County via private car, bus, train
Departure time: 8ish    Arrival time: 1ish
Riding time: about 20 minutes

Distance: 5 km    Odometer: 492 km

We woke early because the best butterfly-viewing time is supposed to be daybreak. The owner’s son drove us to the place, pointing out typhoon damage that had been invisible the night before. We blearily staggered to a butterfly-viewing pavilion, but no one told the butterflies where we were. Somehow they’re all attracted to the area at the entrance to the valley, so on our way out we got some good pictures.

Waiting for the butterflies to wake up

We hitched a ride with a nice guy who showed us even more Morakot destruction before taking us to the bus stop.

Back in Kaohsiung, we said goodbye to Shannon, who had to cut her part of the trip short so she could return to America. Since it was already mid-afternoon, Colin tried to get us train tickets to Kenting but was told that was impossible. We heard that from the train people a lot, actually. The two of us debated getting as far as possible with what daylight we had left, but instead agreed to stay in Kaohsiung. I’m happy we did, because finally we saw some Chinese New Year festivities along Love River.

Running through this kind of felt like making the jump to hyper-speed

It's now the Year of the Tiger, and half of Colin's Chinese name is "tiger." Oh yes, there will be many forced tiger poses this year

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“Spare me!” yuk yuk yuk

During our field trip to Leofoo Village, Xiong-ji proposed we go bowling the following weekend. Always up for a night on the town, I spoke for the absent Colin and agreed we’d go.

Friday night Pascal, Colin and I met Xiong-ji and Ting-hua at the Shilin night market. We found the bowling alley in the basement of a three-story arcade, and Colin conducted the transaction for the lot of us in halting Chinese. We whiled away our hour-long wait with a round of beers, mediocre chili fries, and a pudding-milk (milk + tapioca balls + pudding).

It was just like being at home! A little bit of black light, top-40 videos projected on the walls (Lady Gaga, anyone?), high-fives for strikes, and plenty of “一點點” for the barely missed pins.

I came in a respectable third place in our group of seven (Andy and Ting-hua’s friend joined), reaching a top score of 110. Colin was the high-scorer—that’s how I know he’s a keeper.

We’d just missed the last MRT home after our third game, so the group wandered through the market as it rolled up its blankets of leggings and scarves and funneled the frying oil into its container to re-use tomorrow. Finding no snacks or anything that I really wanted, I gave up on the night and piled into a taxi behind Colin.

Always with the shaky starts

The hotel shuttle returned us to the airport the next morning at 8:30 so we could stash our stuff for the day and take a bus into the city. We were looking for, of all things, an Au Bon Pain in Sukhumvit. The plan was to meet Nicki, who worked at the Nexus and lived in the dorms with me, at the bagel chain between 9:30 and 10. It turns out an hour and a half isn’t enough time to do all that.

When we finally got to the bagel shop at 10:40, there was no Nicki in sight. Luckily, there were bagels, so at least we got breakfast.

From there we went to the weekend market on the Sky Train. We spent four hours wandering through the stalls; Colin was having limited luck hunting for a knife, but I had more success and picked up a new sun hat, a T-shirt, and a pair of sandals. Families from England and northern Europe surged around us, sticky with sweat and varying in their tans.

Cooling off with a sweet Thai basil and pineapple smoothy and a lime and mint smoothy.

Around 5, we were back on the Sky Train to get back to the airport. Our flight to Phuket went smoothly, and when we landed, my bag was one of the first off.

After that went… not so smooth. Colin’s friend Brian lives in a small town on Phuket island, and we were to meet him at Tesco Lotus. Colin, thinking it was a specific town, directed our taxi to Tesco Lotus, and the cab driver took us to a giant, empty parking lot 40 minutes away from the airport. Tesco Lotus is a store, and we were, not surprisingly, at the wrong one. Tensions running high, we circled the creepy parking lot one and a half times before deciding to cross the highway to the Phuket Brewery in hopes of finding a pay phone.

The staff at the brewery had an average age of 17, probably, but they were extremely friendly. One kid went to get his phone, and we figured out the problem with Brian’s help. We’d gone in the completely wrong direction. Damn.

The last couple in the brewery offered to drive us to Patong, a town a little closer to Brian’s town, and with a great many more taxis than were on the extremely empty highway we were looking at. In the bustling town of Patong, the Thai wife haggled a taxi driver down for us, and within minutes we were zooming along the quiet ocean.

Finally, we saw Brian sitting out in front of another Tesco Lotus. The taxi followed him on his scooter through his quiet neighborhood to a green bungalow.

Brian and his girlfriend Summer fed us pad thai and we chatted for about an hour. Then around 2 a.m., we gratefully crawled into bed, and it didn’t matter that it felt like the mattress was stuffed with sawdust.

A much-improved night’s sleep

After the mosquito-squashing spree a couple days ago, I decided we couldn’t go another night without a net over our bed. I spend four hours of Sunday getting one and doing other holiday-related shopping. Exhausting.

Christmas isn’t a big deal over here, but there are still decorations and hilarious misinterpretations galore. My favorite is a pop-up style Christmas card with a bunch of Santas at a Japanese-style sushi train restaurant. Love it.

The Taiwanese probably analyzed the reality of one Santa visiting the homes of all the little children in one night and, even after factoring in different time zones, decided it couldn’t be done by one man alone. There obviously must be dozens of Santas delivering gifts. And where do the Santas go to relax after a long night of gift-giving? They wrap up with Hawaii and head straight for the sushi trains in Japan. They probably hit the KTVs right after.

小吃Small bites

After Shida night market’s Taiwan fajita, I thought I’d found my burrito substitute. Sure, there are no beans, cheese, or sour cream, but the cabbage and crushed peanuts rolled up in a rice flour wrap make my tummy happy. Then I finally re-found the Indian food stall in our night market that we’d been too busy to stop at months ago.

Chicken tikka roti = little wrap of heaven. It’s honestly enough to bump Indian up several spots on my list of vacation destinations.

Thick, unidentifiable seafood soup < fabulous. I wanted to try a new stall; I wanted soup; Colin wanted to throw up and I wasn’t feeling too hot myself.

And a few nights ago, Andy and Pascal invited us over for a dinner of pasta with clams. I got to watch the clams open up over the heat of the hot plate and everything. Andy was a great chef with Pascal’s tutelage, and I think I’m going to have to give the meal a shot one night when I’m feeling courageous.

Ending on a good note

We had one final evening in Malaysia, and it fell on our 2 ½ year anniversary, so after the five-hour-long bus ride back to Kuala Lumpur, Colin and I strolled around the Chinatown night market (Why did we stay in Chinatown? It was a more-commercial version of our night markets in Taipei!) and looked for dinner.

Chinatown night market, Kuala Lumpur. Colin Cam

“Every single person on that patio is foreign.” (Mostly Swedish from the looks of things.) And they were charging RM$17 for a plate of fried rice—only about US$5, but highway robbery when they’re selling it for RM$5 around the corner. Maybe night-market robbery.

So we went around the corner, literally, and ate on the sidewalk. That makes it a sidewalk café, right? It was so good, Colin wanted another plate, but with it pushing 10 p.m. and our having an alarm set for 5:45 to get us to the airport in time, we called it a night and pushed our way back through the throngs to the Chinatown Hotel II. Yeah, we’re staying in the particle-board cubicle again.

We couldn't believe it either. Colin Cam

Seven hours later

The bus driven by a man who only slows against red lights barreled through the darkness during our last few hours in Malaysia. Though it hadn’t been as easy or idyllic, and certainly not as sunny, as I would have hoped, I wasn’t at all dissatisfied with our trip. I felt no ill will toward Malaysia because of its cloudy weather or long-distance buses, only a desire to come back and do things a little differently.

I’m most excited about the style guide. Maybe the wraps

The following Wednesday Colin and I hung around in the Shida Night Market with Andy and Pascal after class. Colin had a haircut appointment right near there and a networking meeting directly afterward, and I had another night at the China Post.

Colin went almost immediately to the salon, but I wandered with Andy and Pascal, munching on yummy wraps filled with cabbage, crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, tofu and spices. We settled on cheese potatoes for the main course, which lead to an entertaining discussion about exactly what kind of cheese our baked potatoes were swimming in, and how this compared to fondue in Switzerland. (No contest, of course.)

Then I made my solitary way to the China Post. As I walked in, Koji was getting off the phone with Hilton, who was telling him I’d be coming in that night.

He gave me a list of stories to read: page 5, international business. That’s dry stuff.

Hilton showed up at 8, and the stories came in waves. I was handed stories and skimmed them to makesurenoneofthewords looked like that. Then I would finish and look expectantly to Koji, sitting on my left, and he would shake his head. Nothing else now.

The office looks about 40 years old, with decades of grudge and ink pushed into the back corners of broken desks supporting computers just barely younger than Jake. If I go into work on a Tuesday night, I have to use the DOS computer to copy edit. Yeah, DOS, with the black screen and the orange text and the pressing buttons during the start-up, DOS. I think that’s actually older than Jake. There is nary a pen to be found in the vicinity of the copy desks, but at least they have a Merriam-Webster Dictionary and the 2009 edition of the Associated Press Style Guide. (It had “touchscreen” in it: two words as a noun; one word as an adjective.)

The office buzzes until late in the night with editors and even writers hanging around until past 11. Around that time, Koji gets into I’m-not-going-to-hand-you-anything mode because I’m apparently too slow. Hilton throws me a bone every once in awhile, but Koji actually takes things out of my hand—in the nicest way imaginable, of course.

(I do really like Koji, he’s a funky guy from New York who lived in a monastery in Temecula. He used to be in law, but now he’s just a guy who used to be the drummer in a band and has worked at the China Post since April. He still carries the drumsticks around.)

(Hilton should probably get a parenthetical statement too. He hails from Trinidad but attended university in the third-largest school in Canada. He speaks barely above a whisper and quite slowly as well, giving everything he says the air of being well thought out. He’s been at the Post for about a year and says he’s sick of it without having to actually say it.)

On that particular Wednesday, I got bored of having pages taken out of my hand and begged out around 10 p.m. on account of an early-morning trip to the Immigration Agency. I was actually just scheduled at LiveABC, but that’s an even earlier morning.

The cow went over the mountain

I haven’t been on a class fieldtrip in several years, but I remember them having a certain sense of order to them. Our class trip to Yangmingshan Monday Oct. 19 was not so. We didn’t leave school until over an hour after we were all supposed to have arrived, and I couldn’t really tell you why. Then we missed our stop on the MRT because no one but Laoshi knew which one we were supposed to get off at. A few hours later, I found myself walking the hallways of a women’s dormitory trying to get a peak in one of the rooms, and then several hours after that I came dangerously close to losing a card game on a grassy slope that cows were munching on.

But really, let’s look at some photos.

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A foggy day in Taipei town. The birds' eye view from the main campus of our school.

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The gang at Wenhua Daxue (my language school). Laoshi is talking with Pascal and Colin in front, the blue jacket in the rear is Ting Hua, and he's with Ji Ro.

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"Send this one to Mama!"

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We left Wenhua Daxue to see the main event of the mountain: sulfur.

Mmm, smells good.

Mmm, smells good. Except I was actually telling him to get off the non-trail before he falls through the earth into the scalding sulfur pit below.

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Same park, different mountain.

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I know I said the sulfur was the main event, but let's be serious, these gals stole the show.

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I still don't understand the rules of the game, but at least I didn't have to sing.

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After a stomach-turning bus ride down the mountain, the group headed to the Shilin Night Market. Pascal edged out Laoshi on the hoops game, but I think that's just because he has longer arms.

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Awe-struck by the collection under the roof of the Shilin Night Market.

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Shaved milk ice! Yummm.

A little rough around the edges

Colin and I have been late to just about every appointment we’ve made since we got here, and move-in day was no different. I’m sure being 15 minutes late to meet the landlord wouldn’t be a huge deal…

I suppose that tardiness wouldn’t have changed our final leg of the journey: schlepping everything we brought with us—almost 100 lbs for me (a large chunk on wheels) and well over 100 lbs for Colin (much of which had been on wheels to start, but no longer was at this point)—three-quarters of a mile to get to our new apartment from the MRT station in 90-degree F heat.

I’ll do the math for you: it equals miserable.

But of course we made it, and Anders helped us drag our belongings up six flights of stairs, so Colin could turn around and help him drag his stuff down.

The first red flag had been when Anders sent Colin a text message asking us to come at 1, an hour later than planned, so they could clean. This happened a mere 3 hours before that fateful 1 o’clock hour, when we were to meet the landlord, hand over NT$35,000 (~US$1,000 for first month’s rent, a two-month security deposit, and furniture from the old tenants) and sign a lease.

A second red flag should have been Melissa’s harping on Anders to get our money for the furniture, even when they didn’t have all of their money for last month’s Internet.

The biggest flag of them all should have been what Anders said to Colin: “We’re dropping the price of the couch because of a… cat mess. But that should all be dry by now.”

Cat mess?

There had been too many sweaty bodies breezing in and out of the apartment to notice any cat mess aroma. Anders and Melissa were almost moved out, but there were still boxes in the hallway, food in the fridge, and bottles of shampoo, etc., in the bathroom.

The landlord appeared (after we did, thankfully) and we began going over the contract, Melissa doing all of the translating. He asked her to reconfirm that we were fine with the walls painted as they are—pineapple yellow and green-tea green—and then he listed all of the improvements he’ll be doing on the place—fixing the cheap armoire, replacing the screen door to the balcony, fixing the door panel that Anders slid through one day as he was getting out of the shower.

By the middle of the afternoon it was just the two of us in our empty, yellow and green, sixth-floor apartment. Time to fill it—time for shopping.

We walked about 15 minutes to the closest night market, Lehua, where we figured we’d be able to find some furnishings for cheap. Colin immediately spotted the Taiwanese version of a Wal-Mart—not in the corporation sense, but in that it had just a little bit of everything (and most of it made in China). We found two more of these stores amid the two blocks of food and clothing stalls, bedding shops, and mini arcades.

Lehua is nicer than Shilin because there are more families and fewer trendy teenagers.

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Hours later we returned home with hangers, incorrectly sized sheets, and various other home bits that have been forgotten among the many, many trips back to those stores.

The Tour:

The living room came with all that you see--cat-mess couch (and disguising blanket), bookshelf, TV, and boy. Oh no, I brought him.

The living room came with all that you see--cat-mess couch (and disguising blanket), bookshelf, TV, and boy. Oh no, I brought him.

A chest-height frigde, a single burner, and a drain in the floor so we can just hose everything off.

A chest-height frigde, a single burner, and a drain in the floor so we can just hose everything off.

Pretty much everything you see is mine, what you can't see is the load of rubbish they left in the headboard storage--purses, jewelry, and an Herbalife jersey and visor (all gifts from students).

Pretty much everything you see is mine, what you can't see is the load of rubbish they left in the headboard storage--purses, jewelry, and an Herbalife jersey and visor (all gifts from students).

It's a wet bathroom, so you can shower, use the toilet, and brush your teeth all at once. I haven't yet.

It's a wet bathroom, so you can shower, use the toilet, and brush your teeth all at once. I haven't yet.

Living on the sixth floor comes with some benefits.

Living on the sixth floor comes with some benefits.

A Night at the Museum… Too obvious?

First off, Colin is typing away as furiously as I am for his blog, and he writes much more interestingly than I do, so you should check it out. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Further developing our characters of the poor tourists, Colin and I left Saturday afternoon for the free extended hours at the National Palace Museum, which would be followed with a trip to the nearby Shilin Night Market.

We got off the MRT (after missing our stop initially—no matter) and jumped right on a crowded bus that wound through the traffic to a quieter, more lush area of Taipei (County). Plopped in the middle of a hill of leafy green, with a number of large marble staircases leading up to it, ­was nestled a beautiful palace.

The National Palace Museum

The National Palace Museum

The grounds were lovely.

The grounds were lovely.

We couldn't take pictures inside, so this is all you get.

We couldn't take pictures inside, so this is all you get.

The National Palace Museum houses much of the art that was taken from mainland China when Chiang Kai-Shek and his nationalist party retreated to Taiwan in the late 1940s after several years of civil war with the Communist Party. On four floors, the art that they rescued and more tells the history of the region from almost before the time history was recorded.

We hit only the first two, wandering among gold Buddhas, watercolor scrolls, Ming Dynasty porcelain vases discretely tied to their stands for damage control during an earthquake, and poorly lit Qing Dynasty curios boxes that were intricate and interesting nonetheless. Hands down most interesting were the delicately carved pieces of ivory from the Qing Dynasty that had to be viewed under a magnifying glass to be fully appreciated: nine lattice boxes and chains, carved out of ivory, that could all fit inside one another and still be no bigger than my pinky finger; a ship about the size of a fist with people interacting inside of it; a hanging decoration whose main attraction was an ornate orb, which had started out as a solid block of ivory, that had concentric spheres inside of it that could move freely (kind of like this).

Colin admired the calligraphy while I rested on the cushioned bench and tried to memorize a few new phrases in Mandarin (Duōshăo qián? [How much?] Wŏ bùchī zhūròu. [I don’t eat pork.])

You read about getting chills and colds in Taiwan because of the air conditioned buildings. You’re moving around outside and sweat, then you go inside an air conditioned building in your wet clothes and catch a cold if you stay too long. Though I didn’t quite feel a cold coming on, I certainly was getting chilled sitting in the quiet, dark calligraphy room. Chilled and tired and hungry, I was all-around ready to leave the museum. Colin agreed we could leave the other two floors for another night, and we caught the bus back 30 minutes before closing time.

We hopped off at the MRT station and walked the three or so blocks to the Shilin Night Market. It was impossible to miss—the narrow street (at least it felt narrow) burst with young Taiwanese couples and friends with the occasional foreign face dotting the throng. We joined a line for steamed buns filled with green onion, mushrooms, and cabbage or pork (for Colin only, wŏ bùchī zhūròu).

Confession: this is actually from a different market. Shilin is much more crowded.

Confession: this is actually from a different market. Shilin is much more crowded.

I can’t pretend the experience went as smoothly as that. We studied the words for vegetable and pork in my phrase book while waiting in line, and when we got to the front, the woman (who didn’t have a lot of time for fumbling tourists with a huge line behind them) greeted me with a “Nĭhăo!” that totally threw me off balance. “Um, um…” My mind was as empty as the Nexus on a Friday night.

“‘Um, um’ Hello! What do you want?” Drat, English. Failure.

Our buns were too hot to handle, so we walked through the neon maze of carts and stalls for awhile before pulling off to a less-hectic alley to eat. Colin was in hot-mouthed heaven with his; I gave myself a bit more time to get used to the taste and had only three of my five.

The foods and their smells fascinate me. My eyes could never look long enough on some of these dishes—platters with whole fishes, with piles of gray or white or fried-golden balls, with black and yellowish gelatinous blocks the size of collegiate dictionaries, with vegetables I know I’ve seen but couldn’t name and fruits I’ve never seen before now.

Some stands pass out tiny cups of juice—deep pink cranberry limeade with bits of the tart skins floating about—or toothpicks with pieces of barbecued meat or peanut powder-coated mochi (rice paste) on the end.

There are stalls with nothing but person-sized bags of dried tea leaves. Some carts sell baked goods that call to my sweet tooth every time we pass. Carts that are usually attached to more permanent shops have a cold treat that seems like a sno-cone to the extreme. All I can really see is the fruit or beans (they’re sweet here) or smaller cubes of aforementioned gelatinous bricks, but we think they’re covering shaved ice. Did I already call this stuff fascinating?

They look so yum.

They look so yum.

Just ahead of the number of food stands—or perhaps just behind—were stalls for clothing and shoes, with easily 90 percent of them being for women. The women here are trendy. They never underdress for anything, and they go full out with the hair and make up and shiny accessories whenever they can. Never have I ever felt so outclassed so frequently.

We staggered back to the MRT station, drunk with cranberry limeade and weary from pushing through crowds for the last three hours or so, and returned to our hostel for our final night there.