Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dodging Falling Rocks in Taiwan

So I just got back from a much needed four week vacation.  The cold of Korea was settling in to my bones and the middle school students were making me want to break bones.  As soon as I could I was on a plane going south.  The first part of the trip was to Taiwan to see our very good friend Ms. Kerri Davidson.  Taiwan could also be called China 2.0.  It looks a lot like China except without the yellow air, black rivers, and blatant propaganda.  Hey, where's Mao Zedong?  Taiwan also has a nice dose of democracy, civil rights, and open press.  To loosely quote Kerri, "It's like China but without all the bad stuff."  It's no wonder the Chinese are only able to visit in tour groups.  They stay on the bus, get off to take as many pictures as possible of a landmark, and get back on the bus to go back to the hotel.  The Chinese Communist Party doesn't want its people to take notice that essentially the same people are thriving in a free country.  Who knows what they tell them on the tour?  I'm sure it's something like, "The Taiwanese hate voting and everyday pray to the Communist Party to save them."  Or, "Look at what China has done for Taiwan.  Yeah this is all China baby!"
"Sure, it's your country Taiwan."
It's all a little confusing to say where Taiwan's place is in the world.  They are controlled by the Republic of China.  Mainland China is controlled by the People's Republic of China.  So Taiwan is part of China but it's not.  Taiwan was populated by Chinese people escaping the Communist Party's takeover in the late 1940's.  So Taiwan's identity is Chinese, but they are separate from the other Chinese.  Chinese People + Island + Freedom - Mainland China + Political Tension - Delicious Chinese Food - Environmental Disaster + Friends With Benefits For The USA = Taiwan.
Enough of that nonsense, let's talk about traveling.  The first thing you do when you get to Taiwan is rent a scooter.  The country has a hardcore scooter culture.  It's only about twelve dollars to rent a scooter for a day and it seems like the gas tank never loses any fuel.  I spent half my time in Taiwan sitting on a scooter seat and it was great!
Ms. Davidson acted as our tour guide for the duration of the trip and the best thing she took us to was Taroko Gorge.  It was one of the most dramatic and beautiful places I have ever seen.  It was unexpected because I had never heard of Taroko Gorge before a couple months ago.  I believe it is one of Asia's best kept secrets.  And I'm going to shamelessly blow the lid off it!  Taroko Gorge was formed as many gorges are formed; by erosion from rain water and a river over millions of years.  However, the mountains in the area are marble and marble is hard and resistant to erosion.  So this particular gorge is narrow with very steep sides.  The area is also prone to seismac activity and this has warped the marble in some of the cliffs.

The Explorer Look

The real attraction is the road that cuts through the gorge.  It is an engineering feat.  It is mostly hangs off of cliffs, cuts in to the cliffs, or tunnels through the mountains.  450 workers were killed in its construction and they are represented by the Eternal Springs Shrine at the start of the road.  It is on many people's lists as one of the most dangerous roads in the world.  I couldn't wait to drive up it.  There are warnings everywhere for falling rocks and with good reason.  Scattered on the road are freshly fallen small or medium sized rocks.  But the real danger is the tour buses.  I can't believe they are allowed on this road.  Some parts of the road are so narrow an SUV could barely make it through.  These tour bus drivers have no fear and miss rock ledges and scooters by centimeters.  However, with my expert scooter skills I was able to survive the twists, turns, sheer drop offs, falling rocks, and insane bus drivers to make it to the end of the gorge.  It was totally worth it.

The Eternal Springs Shrine
Besides Taroko Gorge there isn't really much else to go in to great detail about.  It was sad that with such a huge Chinese influence, food in Taiwan is very below average.  We ate at a Chinese restaurant on maybe our second day and it was horrible.  Kerri explained that Taiwanese are so hard working that cuisine is often overlooked and fast food is preferred.  They have places called "Lunch Boxes" that serve rice with some vegetables and a piece of meat thrown on top.  This is the meal of choice for them.  So we found ourselves eating a lot of western food.  However,  we did find a one Michelin star dumpling restaurant that was delectable.  Also, it was surprisingly expensive to go out to have some drinks, but that never stopped us.
Mmm, one Michelin star dumplings.
Overall, Taiwan was a great experience.  I'm glad I had a friend there or else I might have missed it.  When the Portuguese landed in Taiwan they named it Formosa, which is Portuguese for beautiful island.  After seeing the gorge, the forests, the beaches, and the people, I would say I agree with Portugal.  I think that's the first time I've ever said that.

Enjoy some random pictures from Taiwan:
Taipei 101 - Second Tallest Building in the World

This market is too crowded.

Kite Flying

Random Outdoor Choir

Inside a pagoda.  Trippy.

A windy day at the beach in Kenting, Taiwan.

Taken from an abandoned amusement park/active bar.

From the abandoned amusement park.

Watch out for killer centipedes, killer bees, and killer snakes in Taiwan.

At the top of a jungle.