The trip began this morning at BaiCheng gate on campus, where I met some of my travel companions to catch the bus to the ferry station. I am going with five other people: Carlos, from Spain; Diederik, from the Netherlands; Aleid, from the Netherlands; Alice, from Austria; and Keiko, from Japan.
At the ferry station, we were taken care of by a very helpful travel agent. She speaks some English and seems to understand that we don’t really know what’s going on. This trip involves handing your passport over to random people for varying lengths of time, but we trust her and always get them back, so it’s okay I guess. After getting our tickets, we went through “security” (consisting of a metal detector that may or may not have been watched) and got on the ferry.
The ferry was very spacious, with ridiculously wide aisles and no overhead bins (because all the luggage just goes in a pile in the front). I was in the middle of the boat so, with no option of looking outside, I went to sleep. I think I like the gentle rocking of a boat even more than airplane turbulence!
Our destination was Jinmen, which is an island very close to Xiamen (visible from Gulangyu) that is owned by the Taiwan. I had never crossed international lines on a boat before! We got our passports stamped (and stapled?!) there and were officially in Taiwan! Funny, it still looks a lot like China . . .
One of the most noticeable differences between China and Taiwan is, of all things, the language. In my continued saga of how ridiculous the Chinese language is: the aspect of Chinese that most people find so fascinating is that almost all of China’s many dialects, which are mutually unintelligible when spoken, all use the same written language. A Cantonese-speaker and a Mandarin-speaker can only communicate by writing things down. HOWEVER. This was before Mainland China introduced simplified characters and Hanyu Pinyin (a standard for romanization of the Chinese language) in the 50’s. Other Chinese-speaking countries continued using traditional characters and random attempts to phoneticize the language, and those differences persist until today. So as soon as we crossed the border, we were in Kinmen or 金門 instead of Jinmen or 金门. I studied the traditional characters in America, so that was actually less annoying to me than the horrible spelling.
A shuttle bus took us to the airport, which had one too many camouflaged towers for me to believe that they aren’t always conscious of their large and not-always-friendly neighbor on the mainland. The check-in process was easy, although I noticed that I was checked for swine flu much more thoroughly than for, say, grenades.
After a one-hour flight, we landed in Taibei/Taipei and accomplished our main immediate goals: bathroom, ATM, and EasyCard for the metro system (MRT). We took the MRT to our very centrally-located hostel and checked in there. The four of us (Aleid and Diederik came later) are in a room with 2 bunk beds and approximately 4 square feet of floor space. We’re only paying 300NTD ($10) per person per night, though, and they have 2 bathrooms, 2 showers, and a common room with computers, so we’re pleased.
The name of the place is Hostel TaiwanMex, because one of the owners, Raul, is Mexican. He and Carlos did most of the dealing in Spanish, which was a little weird. When I hear Spanish in China, my thought process goes like this: “okay, 300 dollars each . . . cool! I understood that! . . . Wait, it wasn’t in Chinese . . . what’s that other language I understand? . . . oh, yeah, Spanish!” Unfortunately, I sound like a stuttering 3-year-old when I attempt to speak Spanish because the easiest words to produce right now are Chinese, but at least I can still comprehend.
After dropping off our things, we went in search of food. Our first choice – Italian – was closed, so we went to a quasi-Mexican place. We all got fajitas, which were NQR (Not Quite Right) at best. The tortillas were good, and they are the most important part, but the cheese was sliced American singles, the meat was seasoned and cooked like normal Chinese stir-fry, and I’ve had better sour cream even in China (because Anna is a cooking ninja!).
We returned to the hostel to meet up with Diederik, a latecomer, and then went out on a quest to get cell phones. For some reason, they’re ridiculously regulated in Taiwan – we needed to provide two forms of photo ID which, like Henry Ford famously said, could be anything as long as they were a passport and a driver’s license. We eventually found an even better deal, though – a government-sponsored program that lends cell phones to traveling students with only a photo ID as collateral. After much badgering, we got her to accept the International Student ID card (which is touted by study abroad officials but is, in my opinion, almost totally worthless). It was a pretty sweet deal – free use of a phone and charger for 15 days – and was made even sweeter by the fact that the SIM card had leftover money on it so it ended up being totally free!
After this success, we went out for food again, this time at one of Taibei’s famous night markets. We got some snacks, but were pretty disappointed in the famed ShiLin Night Market, which seemed pretty small. (Turns out we only saw about 5% of the night market. Oops!)
Back at the hostel, we perused some Taiwan guide books and tried to find about the typhoon heading our way. And with those clouds looming over our trip, we went to bed. (Our beds in the hostel, by the way, are ridiculously soft compared to our beds in Xiamen. I slept on my side without regretting it later for the first time since leaving home!)