Temples, Tea, and Tigers

~Written April 2020~

I normally plan A LOT for trips, but this trip was different. I didn’t think I needed to plan too much for this trip for a few reasons: 1) Taiwan is extremely safe, even for solo women travelers, 2) this was a fairly last-minute decision so I figured why not stick with the “just go” mentality, and 3) worst case scenario, Taipei is a two hour flight from Seoul and I would cut it short if I needed to (this was brain speaking, heart said no way).

I didn’t know what to expect from Taiwan. This would be the first trip I had taken without a day-by-day agenda. Of course I had a list of things to do/see but this was the first trip I would take without the intention of seeing everything. If I got to each spot, awesome. If not, cool.

My list was as follows:

Day 1-5: Taipei

-Taipei 101

-Yehliu Geopark

-Temple Day

Day 6-9: Kaohsiung

-Dragon and Tiger Pagodas

-Fo Guang Shan

That was it! To say I felt underprepared was an understatement. I hadn’t even looked up how to say “hello” or “thank you” or “where is the toilet” in Mandarin! But sometimes that’s the excitement with travel; the not knowing, or simply knowing that regardless, it will be something new or different. To me, that is completely worthwhile.

There were a lot of unknowns on this trip, but sometimes you have to embrace it, even if you’re a chronic planner like myself.

I arrived in Taipei and had no idea how I would get to my hotel. I ended up taking a charter-style bus that runs between the city center and the airport, and then took the metro to my hotel (at least I planned for a hotel near a station!). I arrived around mid-afternoon and not wanting to waste any time, I did a quick search of nearby restaurants and things to do near Taipei 101, which led me to Xiangshan Trail (or Elephant Mountain). This ended up being a fairly short hike (about 20 minutes), but it was steep, mostly stairs, and because I went around sunset to get the best views of the city, there was a storm (herd?) of mosquitos hanging out at the top so I didn’t last long. However, it really was a beautiful view. Taipei 101 ~literally~ towers over Taipei and it is outlined in a different color each night. I ended up doing this trail again before I left because I enjoyed it so much (my skin did not love the mosquitos) and every night while I was in the city I made sure to find out what color engulfed the tower.

I returned to my hotel that night just in time to figure out my next unknown: How To Get to Yehliu Geopark. Although Taipei’s metro system is pretty simple to use, mostly because all the maps and stops included English translations, it’s not as extensive as Seoul’s (obvious, but Seoul public transportation has spoiled me). I asked the hotel staff and they suggested bus or taxi, and since I was up for whatever and saved an entire day for this geopark, I ended up hiring a driver for the day.

Why a geopark, you wonder? BECAUSE IT IS THE SCHIST AND I LIKE GNEISS THINGS. Geologically, Yehliu is neither of those. Located on the northern coast of Taiwan, it’s a park where spectacular SEDIMENTARY rock formations have been created from the result of wind erosion. I feel like this place is pretty underrated, because not many of my friends who had been to Taiwan had heard of it, but it is one of the coolest collections of natural formations I have ever seen. I won’t go into too much detail, more can be found on the Google, but it is undoubtedly worth a stop. Probably the most mind-bending thought of the day was the diversity of Taiwan’s landscapes; where you can go from jungle to desert in about an hour.

To add to the diversity, the rest of the day was spent checking out the foggy mountain towns of Ruifang, a former gold mining town, and Jioufen, the “old city,” filled with windy, narrow streets, teahouses, and street markets. Turns out they were also extremely Miyazaki-esque and I could hardly contain my excitement. Unfortunately, there were off and on rain showers at this point so my pictures do not do either town justice. My driver (who was super awesome, by the way) told me to go explore the alleys of Jioufen for an hour, but I could have spent all day wandering those streets. If anyone has seen Spirited Away, that’s exactly what Jioufen looks like. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go watch it immediately.

I stumbled into the first teahouse I came across (Jioufen Teahouse seemed legit) and it turned out to be one of the most popular in the area. However, I’m fairly certain any teahouse in Jioufen is just as lovely. Not wanting my driver to get too bored, I quickly chose a tea (Alishan, what??) and pineapple cake set, and figured I’d be out of there in ten minutes. Well, I didn’t know that there is a proper way to have tea, especially when you are at a famous teahouse in a famous region of Taiwan. Basically, you don’t want to rush teatime. I prefer coffee over tea, although I like to ~imagine~ myself as a tea enthusiast. But while coffee is typically “caffeinate engage: let’s get this job done,” tea is more “sit down… turn off your brain… enjoy this moment; maybe a smidge of caffeine.” And really, it’s a bit hard to rush anyway when you seep loose-leaf tea correctly. I ended up spending almost the whole hour in this teahouse, and loved every minute of it.  

The next few days were split between exploring temples (I love that the city is built around them), and visiting the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, and National Palace Museum (home of one of the largest collections of Chinese artifacts in the world). I think what I most loved about these visits was not just all the new history and cultures I was learning about (the history of Taiwan is pretty crazy shit), but simply how I was making my way to each place. Since I didn’t have a set plan, it was nice to mindlessly stroll for once. It’s been four years and I still have details of the stone walkways imprinted in my brain.    

By day six I was ready to make my way down south, to Kaohsiung. I opted for the high-speed rail instead of the regular train (2 hours versus 5) and was in an entirely new environment by early afternoon. As mentioned, my plan was to find the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas, and visit the Buddhist Monastery, Fo Guang Shan. I did not have the details planned, but according to a quick Internet search both seemed fairly easy to get to. However, English is not widely spoken and the sim card I purchased had expired (whoops) so I had to rely much more on my Google-map screenshots to get me to each of these places.

Kaohsiung Adventure One (after finding my hotel) was navigating from hotel, to subway station, to station nearest Lotus Pond where I would find the pagodas. My phone said it would take about 30 minutes to walk… but uh, let’s just say I got a little turned around and it took me almost an hour. Oh and it was pouring rain with high winds so I got soaked. I didn’t really have a specific reason for wanting to see these pagodas, so part of me was tempted to turn around, but the stubborn part of me said, “absolutely not, you came all this way; YOU WILL SEE THE PAGODAS” and that side won the fight. When I finally made it to the pond (more like a lake; it’s huge) not only could I see the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas in the distance, but also a handful of others speckled around the perimeter. At this point, the rain cleared, and I was no longer concerned about the expected blisters from my feet sloshing around in my shoes. I ended up walking the entire perimeter of the pond and tried to take in every detail of each pagoda, pavilion, and temple.

Kaohsiung Adventure Two not only started with much more stress, but also ended with slight panic (I did luck out with good weather all day though). When I asked the hotel staff how to get to Fo Guang Shan, they replied with something along the lines of, “oh, it’s super easy. Take a taxi to the bus station, and then take bus X. It will go right there, and it runs all day so whenever you’re done just take the same bus back. Take the hotel card and give to the taxi from the bus station.” Well. Turns out that the bus station was a giant transit station and there were multiple lines of multiple buses that all had the number the hotel gave me. Some looked like they were in service, some looked like they had not moved in days, and some were a mixture (if that’s hard to imagine, then you understand). NOTHING was in English here, and everyone seemed to be late, so I found a line of people who “looked like they were also going to Fo Guang Shan” (I made that up to make myself feel less lost, they were just people) and stood in this line for about 15 minutes of no movement before deciding that was not the line. My next plan of action was to walk up to each driver who wasn’t asleep and ask, “FO GUANG SHAN???” like a maniac. Can you imagine being a New York bus diver and some rando comes up to you and shouts, “Empire State Building!” ?? I apologize, bus drivers. That didn’t work either. It only took plan of action number three to think to go inside the station and try to find a help desk. The Help Desk Man lived up to his title and WALKED me to the bus I needed. And, you guessed it, it was the same one I was waiting at earlier only this time the line was three times as long and the bus filled up and I had to wait for the next one.

Eventually, I made it to the monastery. For the last portion of my trip, I again did not know what to expect. More than simply a monastery, Fo Guang Shan is an entire complex dedicated to the practice and education of Humanistic Buddhism. Not only is the architecture beautiful, but it is also surrounded by magnificent gardens, and I decided to spend the rest of my day there, even if that meant simply sitting on a bench with my thoughts. What I remember most about this place (not the journey to and from, but actually being there) is the peace I felt. I realize that sounds cliché, after all it is a monastery, but it’s hard not to feel this way when you’re surrounded by so much quiet in such a large area, and reminded at almost every turn of the Three Acts of Kindness: Say Good Words. Do Good Deeds. Think Good Thoughts.

When I was satisfied with exploring and taking photos, I ended my self-guided tour with tea (done the correct way this time!) in a little garden until it got alarmingly close to the point of, “if you don’t leave now you will probably die here.”     

Upon arrival but before taking off and exploring the grounds, I made sure to take a photo of the bus schedule and the stop, assuming the bus would pick up in the same spot to go back to the transit station. I was wrong, and this is when the panic started to settle in. It was getting late, most visitors were gone, according to what I thought was the schedule only 1 or 2 more buses would be heading back that day, and because we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, there were no taxis hanging around. My worst case scenario was that I’d have to get someone from the visitor center to call me a taxi, and I’d end up paying a hefty round-trip fare. I came to terms with that, and turned back towards the visitor center when I heard a family speaking French. I had no idea where they were going, but figured there was a good chance they didn’t drive a personal vehicle there so I followed them. Sure enough, way hidden and way around a corner, was a giant red beacon on wheels. I had no idea where this bus would go but I trusted my host French family and followed them on board. Surely wherever it ended up would be to the hotel than our current location, and if not… there would HAVE to be taxis. Thankfully, I chose the correct family to follow (merci beaucoup!) and we arrived back at the transit station.  

The next morning I made my way back to Taipei, and flew back to Korea, finishing another adventure.

I didn’t know that as beautiful and inspiring of a time I had, I would not have the inspiration to write about it until April 26, 2020. Almost exactly four years later. I didn’t know that I would find the most peaceful and picturesque teahouse, where my tea choices included one called Alishan (I promise I’m not a narcissist, but come on!), within a neighborhood straight out of Spirited Away, that the rain would drive away large crowds and lift as soon as I reached the Dragon-Tiger pagodas that I was determined to find. I didn’t know I would love a certain overlook so much that I would break my subconscious travel rule and visit the same spot twice in one trip. I didn’t know that I would eat and drink my weight in dumplings and pineapple cakes, beer and tea. I didn’t know that after a few hours of temple-hopping, I would walk into teeny noodle restaurant with no English menu or pictures (Ji Yuan Vegetarian, apparently they have one now!) and the sweetest woman would just bring me a sesame noodle bowl deserving of the Best Noodle Bowl award. I didn’t know that a Buddhist Monastery would take my breath away and leave me with a simple phrase that I continually try to live by. Finally, I didn’t know that delving into so many unknowns would bring an odd sense of calm, even when it was unnerving.   

I didn’t know any of this when I decided to explore this sweet-potato-shaped island, but I am sure glad I found out, and I hope others get the chance to experience Taiwan as well.

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