Thursday, April 7, 2011

你好' Nǐ hǎo - Welcome to Taiwan

Recently I took a three-date jaunt to Taiwan, making it the fifteenth country I've visited since I left home back in November of 2009. Well, according to the United Nations, Taiwan technically isn't considered a country as China continues to claim control over it. But if you subscribe to the Traveler's Century Club (TCC), an organization which defines countries more loosely than the UN, it counts. According to the TCC's official list - which includes places such as territories, colonies, and islands - there are a total of 320 countries (there are 192 UN member states, in case you're wondering).

Geopolitics aside, Taiwan is a significant destination.

I visited mainland China last summer and wasn't too fond of my travels there, but after visiting Taiwan for three days, I can honestly say that my experience in Taiwan exceeded all my expectations despite Taiwan's proximity to China.

Off the top, here are a few things I enjoyed about Taiwan: it was clean, had great food, had exceptionally friendly people, and was technologically advanced with one of the best subway systems in the world, making it easy to commute. And because of Taiwan's economic success, it's included as one of the "Four Asian Dragons" - the others being Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong.

The country is a bit more expensive than Southeast Asian countries (excluding Singapore), but cheaper than, say, South Korea. Overall, it's definitely affordable - even if you're on a backpacker budget like yours truly.

Like I mentioned, the people of Taiwan were exceptionally friendly, to the point where - on more than one occasion, I might add - Sheila and I were approached by locals who attempted to help us even if we looked lost. Really helpful and accommodating people.

Speaking of accommodating. Our second night in Taiwan, we stayed with a Taiwanese woman who I contacted via - a hospitality exchange program which connects travelers with locals who graciously offer a place to sleep in their home. This may include a bed, a futon, the floor, or a couch. Hence, CouchSurfing. It's a cross-cultural exchange, and a great way to meet people from around the world. I highly recommend it. I've done it before, and will continue to do so.

The first night we arrived in Taiwan, however, Sheila and I slept on a bench inside a train station in Taipei. We arrived in the capital in the middle of the night and couldn't justify spending any money on accommodation as we would be taking the first train out of the city in the morning to Shifen, home of our CouchSurfing host, Jiivanii.

The purpose of our visit to Taiwan, other than the fact that neither of us had ever been there, was to witness and participate in Taiwan's Lantern Festival. It's held every year on the 15th day of the first lunar month in the Chinese calendar, and where hundreds, if not thousands, of sky lanterns are lit and flown into the dark skies. Many people write wishes on the lanterns before releasing them, and hope that their wishes eventually come true. The Lantern Festival festivities last a few weeks.

Our CouchSurfing host, Jiiavani, conveniently lives in the rural town of Shifen located within the Pingxi District where the annual Taiwan Lantern Festival is held. And it couldn't have been any easier to reach, as the train literally dropped us off in front of her home. She lives in a charming two-story home with her two dogs, who loved to play and gnaw around my ankles. Little rascals.

And during the day, her home transforms into a quaint boutique shop where she sells anything and everything related to Buddhism, as well as clothing and accessories, and tea. Ah yes, Jiiavani is a practicing, gentle Buddhist who can make the most delicious cup of tea. The way she prepared and served our tea truly was an art.

Instead of sleeping upstairs with Jiiavani, where there were available mattresses on the floor, she offered her simple guesthouse located behind her home.

The experience truly resembled something out of a Chinese motion picture, filmed in a traditional setting. I relished every moment.