Friday, November 15, 2013

Taiwan: The Best Gifts Arrive in Smaller Packages!

View of Taipei at Sunset!
It’s incredible to see two countries with the same history, heritage and culture act so differently. If anything is a true reflection of the terrible effects of Chinese-style communism, it’s the vast difference between China and Taiwan. The “Beautiful Island” has kept in touch with the classic food, conservative, chivalrous values and enterprising, if bureaucratic, nature of the Chinese – while becoming an open, advanced, and civilized society, unlike much of its overflowing, polluted, backward mother-land. Whether it’s the influence of western culture or its smaller size, visitors to Taiwan will find a much more livable place to thrive than across the Strait.

Look at that HUGE space left for
peds to walk in!
I witnessed this difference everywhere. On the streets of Taipei, cars and even motorbikes (!) stopped BEFORE pedestrian walkways. In China – it’s a miracle anyone even obeys traffic lights! The Taiwanese are by and large a very friendly people – plus most speak at least some English (compared with my tea-scaming Chinese thieves). Every time I had a problem or a question, all were friendly, smiling and open to showing me the way. The clubs were thriving with smiling, engaged and excited people – as opposed to many shy conservative guys in China (although, don’t get me wrong Taiwanese are plenty shy!).

For all these reasons, Taiwan served to be my favorite destination overall in Asia.  Thailand was more inexpensive for the same value with amazing beaches and better food (my next favorite) and Hong Kong was a well-dressed yet gritty metropolis, still Taiwan wrapped things up in the best way from reliable services to the most fun clubs – with lots of natural beauty to boot!

My arrival!
Fast friends!  My Taipei concierge
and bus seat-mate Michi

I arrived from Shanghai via China Southern and took a bus to the central train station. Excited to talk to people, I took up the opportunity when someone left their phone in the seat I choose on the bus! I tried calling numbers – finally – I gave it to someone who sat down next to me, thinking he could at least speak with the phone owner! False! He was Japanese and also didn’t understand – but we managed to suss-out a plan to meet the poor girl’s friend at the info desk in the Taipei main train station to return it.

This Japanese guy and I then made the cute Taiwanese girl at that info desk our own personal concierge for the city! Charge my phone? Sure! Help me navigate the city? Of course! No where else in the world can you find such effective help at a train station.

My new bestie at InnTouch Hostel
Finally, I set out to what I heard was a gay hostel recommended on the very useful Along the way, I saw a theater troupe doing a routine in the street to promote their show and purchased some kind of street-meat in a breaded doughy roll. At the hostel, there was no one to greet me, but with luck, one of the (gay) tenants who lived there long-term stopped by. Just having broken up with his boyfriend, "Jungle" was overjoyed to meet me and help check me in!

The Gay Scene – Part 1

I explored the Ximen area around Taipei's Red House - the central gay district - but it was a little difficult to meet or find people (being a Wednesday night after all).  I did some online networking – really the best (if not ideal) way to meet people in Asia:  Jack’d (they pronounce it Jack-dee) and Grindr (typically for expats & Asians who like Caucasians!). But given my mid-week arrival, and my short time in the city, I decided to explore one other aspect of gay Taipei:  saunas. A quick read of online guides and social-media recommendations led me to Aniki – though it wasn't too easy to find!

Fish for your food!?
Gay saunas are obviously shady, dirty places – but they do offer a central meeting place for gays – sometimes lacking in a relatively conservative culture. Also, as a tourist, they can be useful places to make new friends. Either way, this trip was successful for me in meeting some nice local guys. Aniki proved to be a clean, safe place to meet new people and relax – and even provided free HIV testing! While there continue to be challenges to LGBT people in Taiwan - the open society adequately deals with HIV and infection rates are much lower than most places.

When I left, I had a surprise, it was 3am and next door a restaurant still open offered the opportunity to fish for your own food. Now that’s farm to table!

Traditional breakfast (with Jungle & WeChat)
Local Excursions, by Mistake!

In the morning, with the rainy season in full affect, I decided against heading out to recommended Hualien and the Taroko Gorge - I bet that the long train ride wouldn't be worth the cloudy views. But my new friend suggested a closer natural view, so we set out after a little traditional breakfast and dealing with exchanging some bills: Apparently, old money is less valuable in TWD! 7-Elevens and even banks refused to trade in my older currency, which I acquired from my friend in Shanghai for some Yen. In the end, a snack shop at the train station finally accepted my bills and we set out on the train down the (less mountainous) west side of Taiwan.

Yet, Jungle’s ex-boyfriend incessantly called and called him. I insisted he hit “Decline” – but eventually he decided to speak with him in the train car entryway. He was gone for a while, and as I lost myself in the beautiful landscapes outside. But, suddenly the train stopped. Wait, I thought, it had been 45 minutes but I had forgotten the name of the stop – perhaps this was the station!

I looked for him in the train – the next car up. No Jungle. I looked outside on the platform – no-where to be seen. He had vanished! I had to make a decision (in 10 seconds) to stay on or get off the train. In my mind - I thought he would not leave me in the train. I stayed and as we started moving again I walked the entire length of the train – nearly 3 times! – before I accepted my incorrect judgement. Later I learned he left the train and looked for me in the station!

With only 5 days to meet people and explore Taiwan, I found myself alone on a train headed south (and I could reach no Taiwan phone network - so no data) – thankfully I also found myself in Asia where everyone is friendly!
Fast friends at "Laking" & cute shirts - Taichung, Taiwan

Predictably, I found a smiling young guy traveling alone. Naturally, he shared wi-fi from his phone, and explained that Taichung would be the final stop, where I had an American friend teaching English and new friends I met the night before! My new (straight) friend said I should go to the market and find wi-fi when I arrived in Taichung (where I had to hop the turnstile, not holding the correct ticket!). He even waited to get me on the correct bus! I wandered the market, and then dropped in at a hip clothing store, just to ask about wi-fi. A young sales guy (without hesitation) grabbed my phone and entered the password to his store’s wi-fi network – and I went to work trying to track down friends and make new ones online!

Three hours later, me and Eason had become fast friends – he told me about his plans to work in Australia, I purchased a couple of shirts (and tried on many more) and together we found an adequate power source for my iphone. I talked to his girlfriend on the phone (and told her he was so cute) – smiling and laughing he said, “I no gay, noooo” repeatedly. Finally, a friend organized a location to pick me up. I left my "Laking" friend and then realized, I had to get his info – I had spent more time with him in this country than anyone! I returned and got his “Line” (the Asian version of What's App) and Facebook.

I eventually found my American friend at – yet another – night market! Shopping is vital in Asia - and the key element to buy: clothing. Thankfully low labor costs mean everyone wears cute, designer clothes!

View back towards Taichung from the Metropolitan Park.
Relieved to be with a friend from DC, I got a yummy pork snack – we went to his home nearby to rest. He taught English in Taiwan – a typical way to make good cash and experience another culture. That night torrential rain fell - in one of the loudest downpours I've ever experienced - thankfully just at night!

My first Hitchhike!
I couldn't really talk to this guy!
In the morning we had the traditional breakfast dumpling – and I hopped into a cab and went to the Taichung Metropolitan Park, high above the city. Determined to at least see some natural beauty, I ran into guys playing baseball and friendly locals who wanted a picture, but the cool vantage points were few. Returning to the city, I hitchhiked for the first time in my life! With no buses or cabs for my return, I stuck out my thumb and some kind of delivery guy picked me up in his very filthy truck. With hand motions I pointed back towards the city - there I found a taxi to return to the train station – and quickly returned to get back to Taipei for Friday night!

Showing off my moves on
stage - see the G*?
The Gay Scene – Part 2

G-Star, the same K-pop club I've visited in Thailand and Korea, also is here – but the Taiwanese take dancing to a whole new level. K-pop aficionados spend hours every week preparing their dance moves for the club – are they paid? – No! this is a hobby. Learning complex moves to all the latest K-pop hits (like...), they put them on display all night.  This makes the club atmosphere one of community and smiles and fun!

The club isn't so big - but everyone is watching the stage and dancing - I joined a group celebrating a birthday - and pulled the bday-boy on stage to have a dance off!

Funky Club also had a fun atmosphere and I didn't get to Jump (but reviews say good things) – but for me G-Star Taipei remains my favorite club in Asia!

View of Taipei 101 from Elephant Mountain
Before going out to the clubs though, friends join together at the Red House, at one of the many small bar/cafes to drink with friends, make new ones and listen for the familiar -"brrrdarah" - on Grindr.  Or if you want to mix with straight friends or girls you might attend Abrazo – sometimes overly packed with 20-somethings chatting away. Personally, I started with food and drinks near Red House (I choose Cafe Dalida), moved out to bars, like Park, then on to the clubs, like G-Star & Funky.

As for other things to do in Taipei, you can’t miss either looking out of – or even better - looking down upon Taipei 101 – one of few skyscrapers and formerly the tallest building in the world (now dwarfed by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). The lights and architecture of 101 are magical – I walked up what's called Elephant Mountain for an incredible sunset view of Taipei with a new friend - much more interesting to see the building, but if you also want that bird's eye view of Taipei you can go up and avoid the ~$16 fee by visiting Starbucks!

Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall
Also visit the large shrines and public buildings honoring Taiwan's major historical figures (Sun Yat-Sen & Chiang Kai-shek) - public space there is used for any number of activities from rap-dancing to martial arts to ballroom!  If you want to see Chinese historical artifacts, the National Palace Museum is highly recommended – although I breezed through in 40 minutes before my flight! And of course, you must visit many of the Buddhist temples.

Buy in bulk to get the best
blessings & karma!
Taiwan might be a haven for American English teachers – and enough tourists – but (let's hope) it remains a less-frequented, undiscovered gem for most travelers, with exciting and diverse (but challenging) China next door. Taiwan is definitely off the beaten track – and that’s just another reason you will enjoy visiting.

For a great time in Asia, with all the trappings of a foreign, unique culture with friendly, smiling people and unspoiled natural beauty, come to Taiwan!
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