Taipei, Penghu and Taroko Gorge: Transglobal journey … Over Siberia … Guandu … Yeliu … Keelung night market … Xinyi nights … Rainy night in Taipei … Penghu … Wai’an war relics … Tianxiang … Zhuilu Old Trail … Longshan Temple … Arctic night … A day in Amsterdam
I hadn't been to Asia since going to China in 2007, so I was excited to get the chance to go back when I found out there was a conference being held in Taiwan, all about the cosmic dust I do research into.
The only problem with the whole thing was that Taipei is almost exactly on the opposite side of the planet from Santiago where I live. So, the journey was going to be long. And it was made even longer by the travel agent I have to book work trips through having a fetish for Air France. No matter where I want to go in the world, they manage to find me flights that go via Paris, and this one was the same even if it meant taking the long way around the world.
So I set off on a journey that was 2,000 miles longer than it needed to be. But, well, I like plane journeys, and the thought of 28 hours in planes is not completely horrific to me. So I boarded the 14 hour flight to Paris in a pretty good mood. We crossed the Andes which is always amazing, we saw epic thunderstorms over Brazil, and as we approached Europe in the morning, the sun lit up the vapour trail which was pouring off the wing.
I had 8 hours between flights in Paris. I'd been thinking of buying a cheap flight to London to go and see my friends there to fill the gap, and at the very least I thought I'd go out into the city. But I hadn't booked any flights, and when I got through security I found a part of Charles de Gaulle airport that was filled with large, comfortable beds. I was tired, obviously, after a 14 hour flight, so I thought I would lie down for a bit. Just a little bit, and then I'd go out and explore Paris.
5 hours later I woke up, to find this bit of the airport completely deserted. I had about enough time to find my way through the labyrinths to where my next flight, to Amsterdam, would go from. Then from Amsterdam it was just another 12 hours to get to Taipei.
Back in 2001, on my way back from Australia, I'd flown over Siberia. It had been one of the most amazing flights I'd been on, with incredible views of the empty vastness covered in snow and ice. So I was looking forward to flying over it again. Flying east, it got light pretty soon after we'd left Amsterdam at midnight, and I wanted to look out of the window but I didn't want to disturb everyone else on the plane. So I covered myself with my blanket and tried to cover the window too whenever I opened it to look out. I am not sure it worked. I think probably all the other passengers just wondered why there was a guy with a blanket on his head which was illuminated from the inside. But, whatever they thought, I liked the views.
I got to Taiwan in darkness, having taken off from Amsterdam in darkness. This was all very confusing. In a jetlagged haze I found my way across the city to where I was staying, struggling all the way to stay awake. By the time I got to the campus of the Academia Sinica, I could hardly even talk. I thought I would sleep for at least two days.
Four hours later I was wide awake. I'd arranged to meet my friend Dave at 10am. He'd come from Canada for the conference and was just as jetlagged as I was. We were both awake stupidly early so we arranged to meet up at 9am. I headed out at 8.30 and bumped into Dave heading down Academia Road to where I was staying. We headed into the city to explore.
I liked Taipei straight away. It had a lot in common with Beijing, but where Beijing is just unfathomably massive, intimidating and confusing, Taipei was approachable and friendly and easy to get around. We had a wander round the city centre and then randomly got the metro to Guandu, where we found a temple, a huge sprawling temple that included tunnels under the hills. It was the first of many, many temples that I saw during the trip.
Astronomy conferences have a very standard form. Five days in length, half day on Wednesday with a tour to some nearby attraction offered in the afternoon, conference dinner on Thursday, half day on Friday with another excursion then or over the following weekend. This time the tour was to Yeliu, and from what I saw before I went, it looked like it would be pretty awesome. But actually it was mostly lame. There are some quite cool rock formations there, but it was so incredibly overrun with tourists that it was impossible to enjoy it. Paths followed a strict one way system, there were long queues to see the most famous formations, and there were wardens wandering about the place whistling at anyone who didn't comply with the system.
Luckily, one of the features of Taiwanese tourism is that people go in great numbers to places that are recognised as being worth visiting, but something equally cool nearby that's not in the guide books will be deserted. With a few other astronomers, I went for a walk out to a peninsula that had some high cliffs and some nice views over the East China Sea.
From Yeliu we went to Keelung. Keelung is famous for its night market, and so the streets were thronging with people out to sample the goods. We all piled in and bought as many unusual foods as we could find. I don't eat meat so this meant that about 95% of the market had nothing for me. I do eat meat if it's some interesting animal that I haven't tried before, but I've already eaten squid, octopus, frog, and all of the other unfortunate animals I could see at Keelung.
There were not many foreigners in the market, and we attracted attention. A guy who spoke some english stopped us and asked us where we were from and why we were here. We had a chat about astronomy and Taiwan, and he and his friend told us which food stalls we should go to for the best of Taiwanese street food.
After Keelung we went out for a drink in a random bar in a random tall building in Xinyi. All astronomy conferences end up being an exercise in how to deal with sleep deprivation, as you catch up with old friends, meet new ones, explore the place you're in and then get up in time for the start of the next day's talks. Last night we'd been to a really cool bar but I'd hit a wall of jetlag at about 1am and actually started to fall asleep in the bar. Tonight I was a little bit less jetlagged and survived until closing time.
All week it had been the most beautiful weather, cool and fresh but clear blue skies and lots of sunshine, but at the weekend it took a turn for the worse. I'd got a cable car to Maokong, which was a pretty cool place for night views of the city, but then when I went back to the cable car station to go down, it turned out to be closed because of high winds. They were handing out large numbers of chairs to the people queueing, and we didn't understand at all what was going on but we took chairs and joined the queue in sitting down. The winds got stronger and stronger and eventually we were all sat in a gale which blasted us with dust and debris. Occasionally the queue moved forward suddenly, but only when we got very close to the front did we work out that they were putting on replacement buses.
The next day, we went up Taipei 101. I always like going up tall buildings in cities at night, and even though this tall building was no longer the tallest one in the world I was still looking forward to going to the top. But, it's a popular place, the queues were long, and although there was blue sky overhead when we went in, by the time we got to the top it was in cloud. We could see almost nothing.
Back down at the bottom, it was raining. I took a scenic route back to Taipei Main Station via some sculptures.
I spent a week in Taiwan after the conference. I went to the Penghu archipelago, out in the straits between Taiwan and China. It sounded like it was quite off the beaten track and so I decided to go and have a look.
And off the beaten track it was. At least on the first day that I was there, I'm pretty sure I was the only foreigner on the islands. Later a German and an Indian turned up in Magong, the main city, and I felt like my territory was being invaded and my status as the outsider undermined. But at first I had the sights to myself. I wandered around Magong and ended up by a bay where waves were crashing against the shore as the sun set.
I got a bus from Magong, randomly picking the town of Wai'an as my destination. I love getting buses in places like this - nothing but Chinese characters anywhere in the bus station so it made working out the timetable a bit of a challenge. Then finding the right platform was the next challenge, and finally getting on the right bus at that platform. It all makes the simple act of getting on a bus into some kind of minor triumph, and I was in a great mood as we headed out.
It took about an hour to get to Wai'an. There was supposed to be a lighthouse nearby, which sounded like it might have good ocean views, so I went looking for it. And pretty soon I could see it, but it turned out that there was an inconvenient military base in the way. The gate was open, and possibly you can just walk through if you want to go to the lighthouse, but I didn't think just strolling into a military base in the middle of the Taiwan Strait was very wise.
So I went to see what else was in the area. I found a sign saying "Fake gun" on the way back into town, and I thought I had to follow it. Wondering what kind of Chinglish mistranslation this was, and what I might find down the path, I was surprised when I arrived at a fake gun. It was a decoy, built by the Japanese towards the end of World War II, to try to dupe US forces into bombing this corner of occupied Penghu instead of their actual anti-aircraft guns.
I liked Penghu before it went mainstream. With the arrival of two other tourists I felt it was no longer cool to be there. So I headed back to Taipei and got a train to Hualien. The target here was to visit Taroko Gorge, definitely a much more mainstream destination but from what I'd heard, worth braving the crowds to see.
It had been hot and sunny when I arrived but the next morning when I got a bus to Tianxiang it was cloudy and spotting with rain. The bus was full when I got on it but there were only about five people on it by the time we arrived at Tianxiang, the last stop way up in the gorge.
The tiny village was quiet and damp. Nearby there was a temple on a hillside, so I walked up to that. Tianxiang was definitely not the most beautiful part of the gorge, but it looked pretty atmospheric under the heavy skies.
There were buses every hour or so down the gorge, and I made my way downstream. At the first couple of stops there weren't many people, but lower down it got busier. At Swallow Gorge it was quiet for a few minutes when I arrived, but then a bunch of tour buses arrived, and suddenly the trail along the Liwu River was swarming. A suspension bridge led to the other side, the start of the Zhuilu Old Trail which is supposed to be vertiginous and spectacular, but if you want to hike it you need a permit. Apparently you need to apply for them a week in advance, and planning things a week in advance is not really my travel style. I think the only way I'll ever hike the Zhuilu Old Trail is if I move to Taiwan so that I can apply for a permit at my leisure.
I walked to the end of the Swallow Gorge trail and back, and apart from the bits where I had to push through crowds of tourists, it was pretty amazing. But it was starting to rain heavily. I headed back to Hualien in a downpour.
I had one final day in Taipei. I went to the Longshan Temple, the last of the many, many temples I'd seen in Taiwan. I read that there are 15,000 temples, up from 5,000 only a couple of decades ago. All the ones I saw were incredibly intricate, and very beautiful. Even the Longshan Temple, which was very touristy and crowded, had an atmosphere to it. It seemed to serve as a gathering place for Taipei's homeless - the sad and dirty crowds of them near the temple were the first real sign of serious poverty that I'd seen in Taiwan. Inside the temple I left some offerings at some shrines and hoped that the monks would make use of them to look after some homeless people.
As I left the temple, a van drove by flying a Chinese flag and shouting something from a loudspeaker. It had confused me at first here that the international news in the China Post was about places like Honduras and Swaziland, until I realised that these are among the few countries which recognise Taiwan instead of the mainland as the "real" China. And while I was there, the big news was that the Gambia had switched allegiance, making the score 170-22 to the mainland.
Later on, I went to Ximen, and there was a big separatist demonstration going on. People were marching around a traffic intersection, crossing each side as the lights changed. I happened to be crossing at the same time and one of the demonstrators spoke to me. He first of all asked me why I was only wearing a t-shirt when it was so cold - the headline in that morning's China Post had been about a fierce winter taking a grip of Taiwan, with temperatures "plummeting" in places to just 13°C. And then he asked me if I agreed that Taiwan should be independent. I think that self-determination is the only thing that matters, and that if the majority of the people of whatever territory want to be independent, no-one from any other territory has any valid say in the matter. But I also have a tendency to be contrary and I couldn't help suggesting that the two nations used to be one and was it really OK for a right-wing general who'd lost a civil war to flee to an offshore island and take it over for himself? He was adamant that Taiwan had never been part of China, even if it had spent a few hundred years being ruled from China. We discussed it a bit, I said I agreed that if there was a majority in the island who wanted independence, then that was all that mattered, and with that, we shook hands and the demonstration crossed the next road.
After two weeks, just as I was really getting over my epic jetlag, it was time to head back to the other side of the planet. Once more over Siberia, but this time at night, so I wasn't expecting to see too much. And the flight started badly when KLM didn't have a vegetarian meal for me. They'd done exactly the same on the way out, so I was pretty disgusted at their incompetence when they screwed up a second time. I won't be flying with KLM again.
So I slept angrily for a few hours, then woke up somewhere south of Novaya Zemlya. I looked out the window, and I thought I could see the very first light of dawn - the whole sky to the north looked bright. But sunrise was still hours away. As I looked, I realised that it was the northern lights.
The display filled the northern horizon and got brighter. I could see green curtains and red clouds drifting around the skies. It was a long way to the north and not as bright as the epic aurorae that I'd seen from the ground in Iceland in 2010, but it was still incredible. I felt like waking up the people near me - if I'd have been sleeping while this was going on outside I'd have wanted someone to tell me. But then again they might just think I was crazy. And if they were asleep they only had themselves to blame. So I watched the show by myself.
I had 12 hours between flights in the Netherlands. It was still dark when we landed at Schiphol at 7am, so I hung around in the airport until it was daylight and then got a train into Amsterdam.
I like getting out into a city for a few hours between flights. It feels a bit risky, leaving your bags behind somewhere in the bowels of the airport, and trusting that you can get back in time for the next flight. And I always have the temptation of leaving everything behind anyway, ditching my luggage and my plans and starting a new life as a permanent traveller.
But I just went to Amsterdam. It was a cold grey December Sunday and everything was quiet at first, but later on the town centre filled up with Christmas shoppers. I wandered randomly, stopping for lots of coffees. At some point I passed a monument to the murdered Jews of the city. I thought back to the fake guns of Wai'an, 6,000 miles away, and thought about the unbelievably horrific scale of the second world war.
After a long wander through the grey streets, I headed back to the airport and flew to Paris. There I had a few more hours to kill but I've seen Paris enough times not to need to go there for a couple of hours on a dark winter's evening, so I just waited for my Chile flight. 48 hours after I'd left Taipei, I was crossing the Andes and descending into Santiago.