What a turn of events in Taiwan!
Bright and early Tuesday morning, I woke up at 5 am eager for my travels. For the first time since I had gotten to South Korea, almost 5 months ago, we had a break from school for the Chinese New Year. (Personal days and vacation time is unheard of here.) The plan was to fly to Taipei, Taiwan and visit my friend Shae. On the way back, I would take a quick 1 day stop in Beijing to hike the Great Wall of China, see the Ming Tombs, and go to a traditional Chinese Tea Ceremony and medicine shop. When I left Tuesday morning the deadly virus in China was just starting to make the news, and in my eyes was, “Just China being China.” Unfortunately, “Just China being China” caused me quite a headache and change of events, though.
Tuesday morning, although having an early start, was a smooth check in process at the airport. With in being the start of break and knowing Chinese New Year is the busiest time of the year for traveling, I was worried the airport would be a mess. To my surprise I was the only 1 to check into my flight, go through customs, and sat in the waiting area, alone, for at least an hour before anyone else made their way. The calm before the storm. After a quick 2 hour flight to Taipei, I met Shae at the airport. Shae and I met 2 1/2 years ago when we were both summer school teachers at a boarding school in Connecticut. With the culture of boarding school, we spent about 20 of the 24 hours each day together. In just those 6 weeks we got close. The following summer we were both intern captions which meant even more great stories and memories were shared. (Shaelyn Cavanaugh👏🏼👏🏼 Shaelyn Cavanaugh👏🏼👏🏼) She is currently teaching at a boarding school in Taipei as a Fullbright Scholar. With South Korea so close to Taiwan, and it being over a year since we had seen 1 another, I was hoping there would be a time we could meet up. To my luck, her school break started the same time so it worked perfectly!
After landing in Taiwan and grabbing some food, I had a little tour of Taipei. Shae showed me around her school, we rode bikes around the lake, and made our way downtown to check into our hostel. Our hostel was much more like a hotel, than a hostel! We had our own private room, as well as bathroom. There was a cute lounge area where everyone was socializing, snacking, or working on their laptops. We were both pleasantly surprised! After dropping off our bags, we took the train to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. The Memorial is dedicated to the man who first opposed the communism happening in China, and moved to Taiwan. I’m not the best with Asian history, but from the little I know he’s a controversial man. Now I don’t know what I was expecting, but what I saw was way better than I could have ever dreamt! We arrived right as the sun was going down which I think added even more of the beautiful factor. At the 4 edges of the memorial, there stood a large palace, with the furthest end being a statue of him in a memorial, very similar to the Lincoln Memorial. The whole memorial park had beautiful flower gardens all around, as well fountains and ponds. It was such a peaceful place to walk and explore. We ended the night by grabbing a drink and some dumplings, and looked forward to our next day going to the beach town, Hualien.
The next day was another early 1 with us being to the train station by 7. With it being Chinese New Year, the train was packed, with some people even standing for the 3 hour ride. Although a 3 hour train trip sounds long, it actually went quite quick with napping and sightseeing. The train drove along the coast of Taiwan, so to one side you could see the ocean and beach, while the other was thick forest covered mountains. Once in Hualien, we made our way to once again an impressive hostel. (Shae really outdid herself!) We then grabbed ourselves some dumplings and suited up to go to boating on a lake. Before I arrived in Taiwan, I had been asking Shae what I should pack in terms of clothing. Looking at the weather it tended to stay around the 70s, but rain was always in the forecast. She shared that layers were needed and to pack a little bit of everything. She was right. When we left Hualien, we were all sweating in our short-sleeves and shorts, but when we got to the lake, we all threw on our jackets due to the cool wind and lack of sun. After floating around on a boat with a loon on the front for an hour, we took a taxi to a night market. There we ate our way through the endless stalls and drank our body weight in bubble tea. With it being Chinese New Year there was a light festival as well with lanterns, fireworks, and automatronic squirrels. Perfect photo backdrop. Weaving our way home through the narrow streets and endless crazy bikes, we called it an early night and played games while cuddled up in our beds.
Thursday was another busy day filled with hiking around Toroko Park. We saw waterfalls, even walked through one!, ran into some wild monkeys, went swimming in the crystal blue waters, and ate mochi. It made me miss Shayna and our endless hiking adventures together back in Australia. The bus ride home was something else, though! Going down narrow roads on the edge of cliffs, our bus driver was passing cars left and right, as well as going far over the speed limit. Needless to say we were all happy to put our feet on the ground.
Friday was our last day in Hualien and it was spent getting some sun. We stood out as the tourists being the only ones in our swimsuits, while everyone else was wearing coats and pants. Due to the Taiwanese being weak swimmers, swimming was prohibited. We played the ignorant foreign card, though, and pretended we didn’t know that as we all cooled off in the water. Once satisfied with our sunburns, we changed out of our swimsuits and made our way to the train for our journey back to Taipei. That night was Chinese New Year so looking for some culture, Shae and I walked around the city looking for the night market that was suppose to be celebrating it. Unfortunately we weren’t able to find it, but did get more dumplings for dinner. That night was the start of my trip troubles. Right before we went to sleep, I got an email saying that my tour in Beijing was canceled due to the Great Wall and all other tourist destinations being closed.
Saturday was a headache trying to decide if I still wanted to go to Beijing, but essentially just stay at my hotel and the airport for the 24 hours, or fly straight to Korea and pay the extra $$ for a same day ticket. With knowing how nervous my mom was about the virus, and knowing I’d be disappointed if I made it all the way to China and couldn’t do anything while there, I decided to cancel my flights and book a new 1 to Korea. Since it was so last minute, they could only be canceled by phone. While I’m abroad I don’t have a phone plan and am living solely off of WiFi. Works fine 99% of the time, but making an international phone call wasn’t 1 of those times. Thankfully I have an amazing mom who spent hours on the phone late at night trying to get them canceled. Luckily I got them canceled, but unfortunately I only got them 50% reimbursed. If Beijing gets lockdown from the virus I will get a full refund. Kinda hope that happens, also don’t because that means the virus will likely be an even bigger problem in Korea. After hearing they were canceled, I booked a last minute ticket to Korea. With it being within 24 hours of taking off, it was a pretty penny. All seemed to be okay at this point, and although I wasn’t looking forward to just sitting around Korea for a couple days before school began again on Wednesday, I didn’t have any other options.
With thinking everything was all figured out, Shae and I made the most of our final afternoon together now that I would be leaving a day early, while grabbing an American brunch, biking around a park, going to Taipei 101, and having a dinner and game night with other Fulbright Scholars Shae teaches with. But, since Asia and I haven’t been getting along all that well, of course there was another hiccup in the system. With me booking my flight last minute, they needed me to confirm my credit card information. Once again, having no phone service proved to be annoying. There I was calling my mom in the early morning hours of her Saturday asking to see if she’d be able to call the airline and figure it out.
She deserves a bottle of wine, or 10, for the mess I gave her to figure out this whole fiasco. Luckily she was able to get me the last ticket on the plane, but off course it came with yet another cost.
So, here I am, back in Korea, waiting at the airport for my 3 hour bus ride to come since the trains are all down for the holiday, feeling sorry for myself, mad at China, and beyond thankful for my mom. Did this break go how I expected it to go? Absolutely not. Am I making the most of it? Trying to at least. While originally I was planning on hiking the Great Wall and crossing off country #10 on my list tomorrow, I’ll instead be stuck at home, since everything is closed, eating the only 2 things in my house, ramen noodles and Snickers.
Hoping your Chinese New Year break was less of a mess than mine,