Friday, February 24, 2017

a Chinese New Year Market in Neiwan

Neiwan was the place to be over Chinese New Year break. Of course, we didn't know that when we hopped on a slow train there. Having been to the small village of Neiwan once before to see fireflies, I warned Sean that it was not going to be a happening place. I thought it would be sleepy and deserted on the random Tuesday afternoon we chose to venture there. 

I couldn't have been more wrong! 

I started to suspect I was once the (adorable) train we were on was standing room only with people crammed into every carriage (with poor Sean crammed against the door). However, nothing prepared me for the madness of Neiwan's holiday market. 

A friend put it well though: "there's a lot of us and not a lot of places to go"-- meaning, Taiwan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and all of that population lives on a pretty small island. I mean, five Taiwan's fit in Washington State, my home state, alone. Plus, Chinese New Year is a holiday practically everyone has off. 

Suffice it to say, Neiwan was a happening place. 

Neiwan's main road is called Neiwan Old Street. It is one of many old street's in Taiwan that is well known. The majority of goods sold at the market are Hakka goods (the Hakka are a group of Chinese). 

Truthfully, nothing really struck our fancy at the market. The smell of stinky tofu was overwhelming, and so was the immense crowd of people. That said, we did have fun wandering through the market, over the bridge, and towards the mountains. 

While I don't think I will be going to Neiwan again except on the back of my scooter to see the fireflies, it was still a fun misadventure on a random Tuesday afternoon! 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

the missed bus to Taipei

I am starting to think we are cursed when it comes to Longdong, a northern cape of Taiwan that my husband is obsessed with because, well, look at all those rocks he can climb!

Longdong is literally in the middle of nowhere.

If you did not know it existed, there is no way you could accidentally stumble across it. We never would have known about it unless our friends told us about it because they knew how much Sean loves rock climbing.

Longdong is hands down the best place in all of Taiwan to climb.

Last year, for my husband's birthday, I planned our first trip to Longdong so he could tackle those rock cliffs.

Let me tell you: planning our adventure to Longdong was no piece of cake.

What little information about Longdong that exists online all says the same exact thing: getting here is really difficult unless you go with someone who knows the place well.

In the end, we decided that our best bet was to take a cab from Taipei to Longdong. When we got in the cab and showed the driver where we wanted to go, he had never heard of it before and had no clue which direction to drive in. He had to stop and ask multiple people how to get where we were going.

And we still drove by it twice. 

When we finally arrived at the hidden Mordor-esque entrance to Longdong, the cab driver tried to convince us to just hire him for the day. Because we live in Taiwan, that would have been super cheap (like $50 USD for 8 hours cheap), but we were sure we saw a bus stop nearby, and we were sure we could figure out how to get back to Taipei on our own.

I think when the cab driver left us standing on the side of the road, he was genuinely concerned about leaving us on some rocks down a hardly used road on the northern tip of Taiwan.

I think you can see where this story is going.

We spent hours climbing and hiking and then decided we wanted cheeseburgers in Taipei. We walked 20 or so minutes down the road until we came across the bus stop we spotted from the cab. And then we waited and waited and waited and waited and no bus came, so then my husband went to a nearby dive shop and discovered that only three buses run that direction, and they are 3 hours apart.

Luckily, we only had to wait for 1 hour before the last bus arrived.

We hopped on grateful that we were indeed able to catch a bus back to the city. Who knows what we would have done if we waited longer. In the end, we kinda chuckled.

Mishap averted, mostly. 

The second time we went to Longdong was over summer when my friend visited. We thought: this time we will take a bus to and from Longdong because we know exactly what to do! We checked the bus schedule and found the right bus and times. We arrived in Taipei only to find that we could not find the literal bus station itself. Taipei has a huge bus station at its main railway station, and we just kinda assumed that's where the bus would be.

But it wasn't. 

We wandered around the city trying to find this mythical bus station. We asked multiple people for directions. Finally, we happened upon it just in time to learn we had missed the last bus out to Longdong by 10 minutes.

So then we hopped in a cab and hired the driver for the whole day. 

This time, over our winter break, we wanted things to be different. We would leave early. We would make sure we knew where the bus station was. We would get to and from Longdong without having to hire a cab to make the 40 minute journey.

Surprisingly enough, we actually did make the bus out to Longdong. When we arrived, we were thorough in our research and made sure we knew exactly when the bus would rumble by to take us back to Taipei.

Feeling confident, we climbed big rocks. We hiked to the top of the cape for magnificent views. We picnicked while dangling our legs off a cliff face.

Longdong is so worth any headache involved in getting there.

At the right time (we even left a little early), we made the 20 minute trek back to the bus stop. After five minutes of waiting, we saw the bus turn the corner.

And then we watched it drive right by us without stopping.
I even made eye contact with the driver!

Incredulous, we wondered if we would really have to wait another three hours for the last bus back to Taipei to hopefully pick us up, you know, if it decided it wanted to. 

In the end, we flagged down another bus, hopped on it, and ended up in Keelung, which definitely is not Taipei. We ended up taking a slow train from Keelung to Taipei. I think we got back to the city at the same time we would have if we waited for the last bus back to Taipei to pick us up. 

I am definitely thinking that we will never be able to make that blasted bus to and from Longdong, but that certainly won't stop us from making the trek. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

a Taiwanese cat village

I've posted before about Taiwan's (and Asia's) obsession with cat cafes, but Houtong, a small village wedged in between the mountains of northern Taiwan, takes it one step further. 

It is an entire town devoted to cats! 

Being the animal fanatic I am, I have no idea why it took me nearly five years to finally make it to this whimsical place, but make it I finally did. 

A friend and I hopped on a slow train out of Taipei headed for Yilan. The ride to Houtong took about 45 minutes and cost us less than $2 USD. 

We had a lot of fun exploring the village, shops, and river front. 

Houtong was a hit for a few reasons, first and foremost because of the adorable creatures: 
The cats of Houtong are stray cats. However, they are pretty well taken care of by the locals who have come to depend on them for tourism. From what I understand, vets do check in on the cats, and overall, visitors seemed pretty respectful of them. While there are signs posted all over telling visitors not to pet the cats, some cats seemed to genuinely enjoy attention from people. Hissing made it pretty obvious which cats were down for petting and which were not. Visitors are advised not to give food to the cats unless they buy it from a designated area in town, and cat houses are set up all over the village so the felines can have shelter and privacy. 

From what I understand, some people actually come to Houtong to dump their unwanted cats, which is exactly how Houtong became a sanctuary for them. A kind local started tending to them, and it just snowballed until Houtong became known as the cat village

Another reason Houtong was such a hit? The locals embraced this new label with great gusto:
All over Houtong, there are adorable pieces of cat-related artwork adorning homes, walls, walkways, businesses, and, of course, the train station. 

The artwork ranges from murals to statues to signs. 

It was so much fun wandering the alleyways of Houtong and stumbling across painting after painting or stature after statue. 

All of that said, Houtong is more than just a cat village. It is a classic Taiwanese small town. Homes in different stages of disrepair amble up the hillside. Narrow alleys form walkways in between them. Mountains poke up in the distance, and the blue-green Keelung river snakes through the town. 

It is a beautiful and photogenic place worthy of exploration with or without the cute cats that have made it famous in Taiwan.