Leaving from Heathrow always means more hassle than you actually ever imagine there possibly could be. Where you say things like “I’ll travel down and catch the plane,” what you actually mean is “I’ll prepare to leave a full day early, carry unwieldy luggage across London and back, Kip on someone’s sofa, take public transport an ungodly hour to ensure being at the airport in time, and then hang around aimlessly looking at expensive goods and lamenting the lack of wi-fi until boarding time”
It sort of takes the magic out of flying.
Thankfully the destination nearly always makes up for this.
I arrived at Taipei despite the incoming monsoon, and quickly bumped into two Canadian friends of my cousin who were on the same flight. It turns out they were the people in front of me at the ATM cursing at it blindly in the same way that I was soon to do also.
Nick’s wedding was to be the following day, and I’d furiously tried to avoid jet lag, but any idea of catching up on sleep was quickly scuppered by the first activity after lunch – golf.
It’s been a while since I last picked up a club, but I played surprisingly well considering. That said, you do reach a point where you can’t tell if the alcohol is making your game better, or if you have simply lost the ability to correctly judge your own performance.
The whole experience was made even more bizarre by our caddies; a squad of bright pink tracksuit-clad ladies, all of pensionable age, and not a word of English between them. What they lacked in communication, they made up in eyesight, and could seemingly spot balls that seemed like they had been irrevocably lost. Hawkeye style.
These pink beekeepers (on account of their huge sunshade hats) kept us chauffeured around the course at high speed until all the beer had gone.
The next day was the wedding, and as we were staying at the golf club hotel, it was a pretty laid back morning. A key thing to understand about this event was that it was a case of east meets west – Maxine is half Chinese, half Taiwanese, and Nick is Cannuk. There were likely to be some interesting twists.
This resulted in a colourful mix of clothing and styles, as well as what may well have been the briefest marriage ceremony in the history of weddings (conducted by my aunt, as far as I could work out). I kid you not, the whole thing was over in about one minute thirty seconds, just before the combined paparazzi descended upon the newly weds for the best part of half an hour.
It quickly became apparent that main focus of oriental weddings is the meal. A twelve course affair, we were plied with a huge range of cuisines, that in some cases managed to bemuse both Westerners and Asians at exactly the same time.
Of note, jellyfish – much like the tentacle of an octopus in shape, but with a gelatinous translucent brown colour, and a delightful crunch inside – it was probably was my favourite new experience. Less so what became known on our table as “burnt bird soup”, but on the whole it was a great feast.
The whole event was well-lubricated with the local Taiwan Beer (aka Taiwaneken, due to certain brand similarities to a well known European beer). It wasn’t until significantly far into the meal that it was noted that some of the girls might like a drink too, and a small quota of wine appeared, but by this stage most of them had resorted to the hoppy stuff anyway.
The after-party was in a room upstairs, and this is something of a novelty for Taiwanese weddings as the meal usually marks the end of the affair. The bar was very well stocked, however for a period when fellow English-expat Marcus got behind it, I found that with alarming regularity that the drinks I were ordering were being consumed by him before they got anywhere near my hands. After six attempts I finally got my order, but Marcus was a little worse for wear, as were a few others once all the tequila had gone.
I met many of my cousin’s friends on visits across The Pond when I was younger, but this was the opportunity to get to know the entire contingent of Canadians who had made it over, as well as one or two of the locals. During the evening there was music, and dancing, and one stage even some golf lessons – all in all a very enjoyable night.
Once the shattered glass had been swept away from the pool area in the morning, and the hangovers had been sedated to a bearable level, we boarded the karaoke bus for a six hour exodus.
This luxurious coach was oddly devoid of karaoke (on account of the PA being broken I think) and took us directly downwards to the resort town of Kenting, which resides very closely to the most southerly point of Taiwan.
This was my first trip to this part of the island, and I was once again thoroughly impressed. This isn’t some over developed westerners’ haven (like the rest of of Taiwan also, there is practically zero western tourism), but instead an unspoilt beachside view on to the Pacific.
The highlight of this place is the night market, a shining example of one even by Chinese and Korean standards apparently. On several of the evenings we ended up here trying out the local delicacies: “cho doe-fu”, accurately translated as stinky tofu; “frying milk” – cubes of milk (don’t ask me how) on a spike and fried in milk and batter that taste like marshmallow fritters, and “Ni Hao on a stick”, a phrase which means nothing to anyone else, but essentially a whole squid, BBQ’d until the tentacles are crisp and mounted like a lollipop on a wooden skewer. Remarkably tasty if not a little strange to look at.
The string village is packed with trinket shops, neon lights and little seafood eateries. Aside from spending time here, we also took a while at the beach bars soaking up the 30 degree sun, riding scooters and exploring the area.
One trip we made was out to the hot springs not too far up the road. The sulphur-infused waters are kept in pools of varying temperatures from bloody boiling to fricking freezing. However, the star attraction split opinion down the middle; why spend your time with your feet dipped in a pool of ordinary water when you can fill that pond with goldfish-sized, skin-eating fish that swarm at your extremities and chew off any detritus they can get their mouths onto? It’s a bit of a funny feeling at first, and one that freaked out a few people initially, but after a while you become quite accustomed to their nibbling, and its actually oddly pleasant.
On one day we took some time to snorkel around the large space-odyssey style rock directly opposite our sea-facing hotel. The water was a bit choppy, but there was some colourful sealife around, and it was really quite pleasant to get a chance to swim in mild waters, albeit in fairly close proximity to the nuclear plant round the corner (a seaside tradition in Taiwan, I have discovered – Feng Shuei or something?).
We also had the opportunity to swim at a sandy beach; one that hurled up huge waves that could upend even the sturdiest of American football players. There is nothing more amusing than watching a six foot Canadian being flipped head-over-heals in a spectacular bicycle kick, then being dragged 10 metres out to sea against his will. We all emerged scraped and bruised (turns out these big waves throw up quite a bit of rock too), but I haven’t laughed harder all holiday.
If exposing ourselves to waterborne hazards wasn’t enough, the trip to the “breezy coast” was a way to ensure that any open wounds would pale to insignificance to the almighty sand-blasting we endured at this popular cliff top spot.
Driving scooters in the wind was interesting enough, but it became apparent quite quickly that the “breezy” bit in the area name had been thought up by some marketing department and a more apt word they might have appropriated would have be “typhonic”.
For some bizarre reason, a TV company had decided to film an advert up here, and I watched with much glee as they attempted to lash down a tarpaulin roof to their set in the force twelve gale.
Less windy was the southern-most tip of the island, where Jeff spotted a giant millipede but which I unfortunately missed. If you are not aware, these beasts can kill a small child with their bite, which is something to bear in mind before you pick one up.
After a week of beer, whisky and beach life, we finally made our way back up to Taipei. There had been significant deliberation on where we would spend our final night, but we were eventually dropped at the door of a rather downbeat looking brick building in the middle of a rather downbeat looking street.
It turns out that looks are deceptive. The rooms here cost a mere £30 a night, but take heed Travelodge, they were nothing short of palatial. My room was probably 5 metres square, with a stone-clad bathroom two thirds that size again. In here was a hot tub, a wall that turned into a waterfall, a second TV, a full-on wooden sauna and a wet room style shower. And that included breakfast too.
Between us we had hired out at least six rooms, and each was individually designed and styled. Dutch, next door to me, had a full on swimming pool of a tub resplendent with disco lighting, and the whole place left me smiling from ear to ear.
By 8am everyone had departed except me, my uncle and aunt (we were to head on to Shanghai together) and unfortunately in the mad scramble to wake up, try and locate both the light switch and some clothing, I managed to miss saying farewell to the other travellers. Needless to say though, the whole week was thoroughly enjoyable and great respite. Taiwan fails to disappoint once more.
Next up, Shanghai.