A Travellerspoint blog

A Brief Trip Through the Philippines

Manila and the West Visayas

all seasons in one day 30 °C

For three years, I lived within arms reach of the Philippines and never made the jump. I am not sure why I avoided the country for so long. Perhaps it was because the flights necessary always seemed like too much of a hassle. Perhaps because I held the impression that Filipino tourism revolved around beach culture, something I have never had any great interest in. Whatever the reason, I visited almost every nation surrounding the Philippines while never even considering a trip through the country itself. With ten days to spare between the end of a contract in Taiwan and the beginning of a family cruise in Mexico, I decided it was finally time to give the Philippines a chance. After all, Manila was only a hop, a skip and a two hour flight from Taipei and, to be honest, I really had no where else left to go in the region.
From the beginning, ten days hardly seemed like enough. I like to take my time when traveling, end up wherever the wind takes me and camp out until I feel ready to move on. I was never in a hurry and, often with months to spare, plans were unnecessary. But with a mere week and a half of travel time in the Philippines, some decisions had to be made before departure. Which sliver of this vast archipelago would provide the best short term travel experience? Having to choose just one area annoyed and frustrated me. I felt as though no matter where I went, I would be missing out. Based on the recommendations of friends, I narrowed the wide array of options down to three. Option number one was the island of Palawan. Known as the Philippines’ final frontier and home to its most breathtaking natural scenery, this island was perhaps best suited to my travel style. However, travel in Palawan was supposedly rugged and rough. Getting from one place to the next could take ages. With little more than a week to spare, I feared spending most of it trapped behind a bus window.
Option two was the Cordillera, a vast range of spiny mountains in the far North of the country. I love hiking and the Cordillera was said to boast some fantastic trails. But venturing into the mountains for a week meant never even setting eyes on the coast. In a country of seven thousand islands, this seemed unacceptable to me. Option three was the Visayas. These island havens, scattered throughout the center of the Philippines, boast a diverse range of adventure opportunities; from trekking, to diving to motor biking. Since they are well connected by ferries and small enough to see in a short period of time, I assumed they would make great short term travel territory. In the end, this was where I chose to go. I settled on three islands, Bohol, Negros and Cebu, all in the same corner of the Visayas. With plenty of sights and activities packed into a small area, I figured it offered the best bang for my buck.
To reach the Visayas, I had to pass through Manila. Most friends advised me to avoid staying a night, citing horrible traffic, widespread dangers and a lack of attractions. But not one to overlook any destination, I decided to give the city at least a couple days. I tend to enjoy giant crazy metropolises anyway. My flight touched down just after three in the morning and I made it to my hostel by five. I was tired and cranky, but the gracious and welcoming hostel staff were quick to lighten my mood. The night manager was a little old lady with beady eyes and a giant smile. “Someone looks like they need a nap.” She said playfully when I entered. “Let’s find you a place to sleep.” She allowed me to postpone the check in and go straight to my bed. I was out in minutes.
At noon the following day, I awoke just in time to join the hostel’s free walking tour of Manila. I usually avoid tours, preferring to wander the streets of a city by myself, but I had zero knowledge of Manila’s sights and the traffic outside my window alone convinced me that the streets were not well suited to wandering. We set out as a group of three just after one.
My first impression of the metropolis was not a good one. Exhaust fumes from large American made automobiles followed us everywhere we went. Beyond the occasional colonial church or university, most buildings were drab, run down, and lacked character. There seemed to be more fast food joints lining the streets than all other businesses combined. Their giant neon signs dominated the pedestrian paths making them difficult to navigate. Furthermore, our walking tour revealed little in the way of interesting attractions. Most were Spanish era relics or recently built monuments. In fact, my favourite part of the whole excursion was riding in a jeepney. Half tuk-tuk, half chicken bus, these privately owned and extravagantly decorated vehicles act as Manila’s primary form of public transportation. Costing no more than a few cents, they are by far the cheapest way to get around. Just don’t expect to get anywhere quickly.
When I visited Jakarta, I thought I had experienced the ultimate in traffic congestion. After all, Indonesia’s capital is a metropolis of thirty million people with hardly any public transportation system to speak of. Since Manila sported a light rail transit network, I assumed it would be at least a little more manageable. But with so many large American vehicles crowding its streets, Manila challenged even Jakarta for the title of ‘Worst Traffic in Asia’. I was made well aware of this while trying to reach Chinatown using public transit.
The journey began with a jeepney ride to the nearest LRT station. It took an hour to travel five kilometres. I probably could have walked faster. The next challenge was actually catching the LRT. Three consecutive trains screeched to a stop but were too crowded to board. Each stood motionless at the platform for several minutes as their doors repeatedly attempted to close themselves on the masses of people shoving their way into the cars. Coming from Taipei, which has perhaps Asia’s most convenient and efficient subway system, my patience was being tested. I had not dealt with the inconvenience of South East Asian travel in quite some time. The fourth train looked promising. Many of its cars were half empty. Unfortunately, the driver overshot the platform making only the last car accessible. It quickly filled up to overcapacity and I was forced to wait again. Forty minutes after arriving at the station, I was finally able to manoeuvre my way into a car. Squished from all sides, I was caged into a corner by trolleys and boxes. Apparently Manila’s LRT also doubles as a package delivery service. It was another thirty minutes before I reached my destination.
As soon as I left the station, dark clouds which had been threatening all day finally released monsoon like rains. Furthermore, I realized that I had disembarked in what appeared to be a rough part of town. Needless to say, I had no desire to stick around and decided to just go back to the hostel. My afternoon excursion had become a lost cause. In the interest of avoiding another two hour transit, I flagged down a cab instead of using the LRT. But in Manila’s traffic it took another hour and a half for even the taxi to make it back to the hostel. I decided never to venture far in Manila again.
When the rain had ceased and the sun had set, I took a short walk to the night market next to the hostel to sample some local food. Having never been to a Filipino restaurant, I was curious about their cuisine but I soon discovered why the Philippines is not known as a culinary heavyweight. Local dishes consisted of chunks of overcooked meat dowsed in bland sauces. Some things were extremely salty and others had no taste at all. A few bites and the overabundance of fast food restaurants in Manila began to make a little more sense. But the real treat of the night market was not the food, it was the entertainment.
In a courtyard between the food stalls were several plastic tables and a small stage where a local band belted out covers of American classic rock and pop songs all night long. They could play anything from Led Zepplin to Lady Gaga. They didn’t always play the best music but they always played it well. I was very impressed by their range and stage presence. Something about their attitude, their nonchalant ness, made them fun to watch. Such episodes would be repeated over and over again during my stay in the Philippines. I came to realize that the Filipinos are truly a musical bunch. It seemed to be very much a part of their culture.
The following morning, I made my move towards the Bohol; one of three islands I would visit in the Visayas. I shared a taxi with a Ugandan businessman from the hostel to the airport. The businessman and the taxi driver bantered back and forth constantly throughout the trip. Both Filipinos and Ugandans learn English in school from a young age but their accents were starkly different. Each had to repeat himself several times before the other understood. When the Ugandan made a pit stop at the gas station, the Filipino complained to me that he can never understand ‘black’ people. When the Ugandan and I exited the cab at the airport, he said the same thing about Filipinos. It was all very comical.
My flight to Bohol arrived in mid afternoon in the pouring rain. I hired a tricycle to take me to Alona Beach, Bohol’s tourist hub. I assumed this would be the best place to get my bearings. Unfortunately, I did not have any accommodation booked and each guesthouse the driver recommended was either full or too expensive. Eventually I was forced to trudge through the heavy rain alone in search of an affordable room. My bag and many of its contents were soaked before I finally stumbled upon ‘Chill Out’, a simple guesthouse ten minutes walk from the beach.
The place was run by a friendly local woman. Her energetic puppy kept all of the guests entertained. The relaxed atmosphere was a welcome contrast from the town itself which, from what I had seen so far, was too developed for my tastes. As a typical tourist beach, Alona had a couple of resorts, lots of reggae bars and a plenty of old white men with young Filipina women. The latter was something I would have to get used to in the Visayas. The typical expat in this area of the world was a tattood wrinkly old man in a muscle shirt with a small Filipina in a short skirt at his side. It was a sad scene which was played out over and over on these beaches. In fact, one of the first things I witnessed upon arriving at Alona was an elderly white man brought to tears as he pledged his love to a girl one quarter his age. She continually tried to shift the topic to the ‘expense account’ he promised her so that they could ‘stay in touch’. This was South East Asia at its worst.
Nevertheless, I had not come to Alona to experience the expat culture. I came to dive, and thirty minutes from the beach lay Balicasag island, one of the Philippines most famous dive spots. It was the reason for my visit. There was a plethora of dive shops all willing to shuttle me there and, with so much competition, one dive in this area of the Philippines was a mere twenty five dollars. But there was a catch. I had not dived in well over a year and most shops stipulated that I undergo an expensive review course before going to Balicasag. This meant paying to demonstrate dive skills in shallow water with an instructor. Confident enough in my abilities, a full review course seemed unnecessary. It felt like a waste of my time and money. After enough digging, I managed to find a dive master who was willing to compromise. On the first dive, he said I could quickly demonstrate only the most important scuba skills (take off and replace mask, buoyancy and recover regulator) before continuing into a coral reef. On the second dive we could explore a marine cliff. Furthermore, it would be just the instructor and I for both the dives. I had an exclusive guide. It was a good deal.
By nine the following morning, we were on a boat heading towards Balicasag Island. With thirty minutes to spare before arrival, I got to know my instructor a little better. His name was Bart and he had led an interesting life. Born in the mountains of Northern Luzon, he spent his childhood far from the coast working high-altitude farms in the remote areas of the Cordillera. When he turned eighteen, a cousin offered him an opportunity to move to the Visayas and learn to be diving instructor. It was an odd offer for someone who had grown up in the mountains. Bart had never even stepped foot in the ocean. But he took the opportunity anyway and has been living on the coast ever since.
To be honest, his story made me a little uncomfortable. Ideally, I would have liked my instructor to be of the ‘I was born on this beach’ variety. My diving instructor was actually a mountain farmer. Once we had assembled our equipment and got under the water, however, I felt much better. He clearly had a lot of experience and knew what he was doing.
We began our first dive on a sandy section of the ocean floor. The water was clear and the visibility good. It only took a few minutes for me to demonstrate the basic skills. Then we moved onto the reef, where colourful coral and strange sea creatures awaited us. A curious sea turtle was our first fascinating find. He was teal green with a large round shell. His sub beak cropped the fields of sea grass on the ocean floor. It reminded me of a farmer tending to rice patties. As we continued into the reef, several more sea turtles appeared, one after another. I couldn’t believe how many there were. On previous dives, I would have been happy to spot one. Now I was surrounded. Some were massive, more than a metre long and weighing far more than me. They occasionally stopped to stare but generally seemed undisturbed by our presence. Most floated about the coral with no evident destination. We followed them everywhere they went, allowing the rest of our surroundings to fade into insignificance. Unlike the turtles, however, our tanks only gave us so much time in the ocean. An hour after we jumped in, we had to head back to the boat.
Our second dive began along a steep marine cliff. At nearly fifty metres in height, the rock face was blanketed in all sorts of colourful coral. It was a spectacular sight. There were plenty of interesting little creatures scurrying about the rocks. Many fish made homes out of the nooks and crannies. Some nervously charged us when we approached. But nothing was big enough to cause any harm. It was a very unique diving experience. In my short diving career, I had never really seen anything else like it. An hour down there passed in a minute. Before I knew it, my tank was nearly empty once again. I emerged from the ocean wishing I had paid for three dives. I even considered staying another night in Alona, but with less than a week left in my trip, it was time to move on.
Still wet with ocean water, I jumped on a tricycle heading back to Tagbilaran, Bohol’s capital city. From there I rented a motorbike and set off towards the jungle. My destination was a small eco tourism project set on Bohol’s biggest river deep in the interior. It was accessible only by means of a long and bumpy dirt path. I arrived at the main gate just after sunset. Above it was a wooden sign which read ‘Nuts Huts’. It was another five minute walk down steep stone steps to reach the front desk.
Nuts Huts was one of the most interesting places I had ever stayed. Cut off from all other island development, the entire complex was built from simple materials using traditional means. The large common area, built on stilts and covered by a straw roof, overlooked the slow moving Loboc river. A set of small huts, hidden amongst the foliage along the riverbank, provided several types of accommodation. Each gave one the feel of being at one with nature. The Belgium couple who owned the place organized a range of eco friendly activities, from Kayaking to jungle treks, and whipped up some tasty meals in their small kitchen. They served me a delicious chicken curry dish soon after I arrived then set me up in their basic riverside dorm room. My only roommates that night were a few shy spiders. I had the dorm all too myself. The sounds of the jungle quickly lulled me into a deep sleep.
I awoke just after sunrise. Save for the family of goats grassing outside the door of my hut, everyone was still asleep. I took advantage of the peaceful atmosphere to paddle up river in a kayak that was tied to the riverbank next to my dorm. The river was so lazy that its surface was flat as a mirror. Only the splash of my paddle and the occasional jumping fish broke the effect. Unlike most other jungle rivers I had encountered, its waters were not stained brown by sediment. It was a dark teal color which faded into a light blue at its banks.
I slowly padded up stream past local families taking part in early morning activities. Some were refurbishing old canoes. Others were preparing fishing supplies. Some were just going for a morning dip. I often received a wave or a smile as I approached.
The currents picked up as I came to a set of small waterfalls cascading over several rocky cliffs. Unable to advance any further, I could only park my kayak on nearby rocks and admire the beautiful scene. When I was ready, I turned back down river.
It was just after eight when I arrived back at the huts, in time for a hearty cheese and vegetable omelette. Their home cooked meals were truly delicious. Then I jumped on my motorbike and set off into the heart of the island by means of its windy cross-island roads. It was cloudy and spitting rain but I didn’t mind. I was just happy to be cruising once again. I really do love motor biking.
Unlike backwater roads in most South East Asian countries, Bohol’s were well paved, well marked and easy to navigate. I passed several villages and towns along the way. Each was full of curious and friendly faces. Adults waved while kids ran along the highway screaming Christmas greetings. Although homes were simple, the locals appeared to be more well off than their counterparts in neighbouring South East Asian countries. Many lived in sturdy shacks and looked to be well fed. Each district had a large public school and local businesses always had customers. The interior was also dotted with some fantastic colonial architecture. Grandiose churches and imposing government buildings, some more than a couple hundred years old, could be found in even the smallest towns. These extravagant buildings were often surrounded by only simple shacks. The juxtaposition was just as confusing as it was interesting.
I soon arrived at my first tourist stop of the day, the Chocolate Hills. These large conical shaped mounds of grassy land are Bohol’s most famous attraction. They stretched from the highway all the way to the horizon, varying in height and width to create all sorts of bizarre shapes. It was a unique sight but, in the cloudy conditions, not as spectacular as expected. As was often the case during my travels, I enjoyed the trip to the destination more than the destination itself.
From the hills I rode through rice patties and over dirt roads to the second tourist stop of the day, Bohol’s Tarsier Sanctuary. Tarsiers are the world’s smallest primates and endemic to just a few islands in the Philippines. The sanctuary was created to promote the well being of this endangered species and educate the public about their precarious position in the animal kingdom.
A local guide met me at the entrance then led me into a walled area of forest. As Tarsiers are nocturnal, the woman knew exactly where to find them sleeping through the day. The first one we spotted was a middle aged female clinging to a branch only a couple meters off the ground. I could have touched her she was so close. It was a bizarre looking creature with the body of monkey, the tail of a rat and the large circular eyes of a lemur. She was so small I could have easily fit her in the palm of one hand. Much to my surprise, the guide began poking her with a small twig so that she would open her giant eyes and face us. It hardly seemed like an action appropriate of a conservationist at a sanctuary. I must admit, however, I was happy to get a good view of the Tarsier’s large brown eyes. They were mesmerizing. The guide poked and prodded the little female to such a point that she began showing us her teeth, after which we quickly moved out of her territory. After all, although docile during the day, these little primates can jump up to five metres and inflict a serious bite.
From the sanctuary, I rode my bike back to Tagbilaran in the hazy light of the late afternoon. Before sunset I found a quaint hostel on the edge of town. I would catch a ferry from the nearby port the following morning, but until then, I had some time to explore. Tagbilaran is a small coastal town with an even smaller infrastructure. The traffic was horrendous. There were so many tricycles crowding the streets that it was often quicker to walk than to drive. But the small island capital had its charms as well. A large beautiful church with an adjoining square sat in the town center. This was where locals relaxed, strolled and listened to busking musicians. Right next door was a tall shopping complex complete with a supermarket, a department store and a Pizza Hut. This was where locals bought cheap clothes, escaped the summer heat and stuffed themselves full of American fast food. I knew I wasn’t the only foreigner who had been through town when I found only travel size bottles of shaving cream at the supermarket. I also had an odd moment in the department store. While searching for a travel hat, I was caught off guard by an intercom announcement. A man who spoke English with a perfect American accent had begun reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I noticed that everyone in the mall had stopped in their place, fallen silent and lowered their heads. Not wanting to draw any attention, I quickly followed suit. The man spoke in a near hypnotic voice for several minutes. As he did, I stood there awkwardly, checking those around me to see if there was something I should or should not be doing. When the prayer finished, everyone continued about there business. I felt like I had just been a part of a flash mob. With no interest in taking part in another religious ceremony, I quickly grabbed a hat, paid for it and returned to my hostel.
Having been up early and on the go almost every day since arriving in Bohol, I decided to give myself a night to relax and hang out. After a quiet dinner, I took a walk through town to find a place to have a drink. I ended up at the town’s only sports bar where a local band was playing covers of Britney Spears. Enjoying neither the atmosphere nor the music, I soon moved on in search of another spot. As one might expect in a Filipino town of only fifty thousand, there was not much to choose from. But I was lucky to stumble upon a small wooden building with a sign which read ‘Martin’s: drinks and new friends’ out front. It looked promising so I decided to check it out. I was stopped at the entrance by a shy hostess.
“Hello sir, I’m very sorry sir, there is a music event and cover charge tonight” she said sheepishly.
“How much?” I asked expecting, by her bashful demeanour, to be asked for an exorbitant amount.
“Thirty pesos” she said, covering her mouth as if she was embarrassed by the price. I quickly did the calculations in my head. It was equivalent to seventy five cents. I smiled and gave her a hundred. She scrambled for change but had much difficulty finding any coins.
“Don’t worry about it” I said at last. “Just give the rest to the organisers. I like to support local music.”
I walked up a set of creaky stairs into a windowless room. The whole building appeared to be made of aged wood. There was a short bar on one side of the room, a small stage opposite and several tables in between. To my surprise, the tables were packed with local youth. I was lucky to get a stool at the bar. The ‘music event’ the hostess had spoken of consisted of performances by various local artists. Most sang covers of western songs but some played their own music as well. Every performer, without exception, was well trained and capable. I found myself once again impressed by the Filipinos musical prowess. They were undoubtedly a musical bunch. Even in this smoky bar on a sparsely inhabited island, the talent was outstanding.
After polishing off a couple beers, I struck up a conversation with the girl sitting at the bar next to me. She was a local student who appeared to be, like me, drinking alone. As it turns out, however, she was one of the event organizers and waiting for a large group of friends to arrive. We chatted about music and life in the Philippines. She was proud of her little town and its small music scene. Well versed in the history of each performer and each local song, she gave me a short insider perspective into each performance. I had certainly sat down next to the right person. Then again, this had become a common trend in Asia. It seemed as though every time I ventured into a bar alone, I ended up sitting down next to the right people. Making friends was never hard. In small towns like Tagbilaran, as one of the few foreigners around, I felt the same warmth I felt from locals all over Asia. But there was one key difference: the absence of communication barriers. Everyone in the Philippines spoke English. I could talk to anyone about nearly anything. It was refreshing.
Soon my new friend’s posse arrived. It was rambunctious group of students. They introduced themselves one at a time. Each seemed friendlier then the last. There were so many I had trouble keeping all of their names and faces straight. When the performances finished, we all moved to a large table. That’s when the real mayhem started. The party was kicked into top gear as everyone began ordering beers three at a time and finishing them within the hour. A bottle of tequila landed on the table after which every glass of beer offered was laced with a shot of Jose Cuervo. Shrimp chips and crackers were the only protection against the onslaught of boos. Needless to say, the entire group was smashed by midnight. As the bar cleared out, we moved tables out of the way to create a small dance floor. Everyone took turns showing off their best moves. When I sat down, each member of the group took a chance to sit down next to me and chat. The guys were all keen to tell me about their escapades with the women. The women were all keen to tell me about their foreign pen pals. At three in the morning the bar finally kicked us out. There were so many long drawn out goodbyes on the street corner, you would’ve thought the group was parting forever.
Makisig, one of the guys I had spend much of the latter half of the night chatting with, insisted on driving me back to my hostel. Even though I had no interest in riding on the back of a drunken Filipino’s moped, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. At any rate, I knew my hostel was only a four blocks away and I convinced him to stop for fast food.
As Makisig and I sat at Tagbilaran’s only MacDonald’s, chowing down on hamburgers, I told him how lucky I felt to meet such an entertaining group of friends. Makisig found this all very amusing even though I was trying to be sincere. “Really, you guys are a great group. Everyone gets along well and you all seem to be so close. I really feel lucky to have met you all.” Perhaps the tequila was doing some of the talking for me at this point.
“Yeah, I am lucky to know them. I think we are friends because we need to be.” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we all have family problems. Without friends, some of us would have no one. In our town, friends are everything.” His tone was a little more serious now. There was a moment of silence while we both took another bite of our hamburgers.
“What kinds of problems?” I finally asked, unsure of whether he wanted to expand on the subject.
“Different problems… Some dads hit. Some dads are gone… Some moms cheat… you know. Just shit like that. Everyone in that group has a different story.” He said this all as a matter of fact as he shoved large handfuls of twister fries into his mouth. “You remember Tommy? The skinny kid with the big hair?” he asked. I did remember him. He had been one of the most rambunctious of the group, laughing and dancing all night, and he indeed had a very unique hairdo.
“A year ago, Tommy watched his father die in front of his eyes. It was some drug thing. He was shot in Tommy’s house and Tommy saw the whole thing. Now He lives with his grandmother cause his mom left a long time ago.” I was immediately taken aback. By the way Tommy was acting, it never would have occurred to me that this poor kid had gone through such recent trauma.
“He seemed so laidback and happy tonight.” I muttered in disbelief.
“I know he smiles a lot. But it’s fake. When were alone, he cries. He cries a lot…” I didn’t even know how to respond. I had no experience in my life to relate to such a heartbreaking story.
“Fucking hell. I can’t imagine.” Is all I could muster. There was another long moment of silence.
“Do you know how old we are?” he asked, looking up from his French fries for the first time in several minutes.
“I assume you are all university students. Early twenties I guess.”
He laughed. “Not quite. Preat (the girl you met first) and her cousin are in university. I think they are twenty one. But most of us are still in high school. Actually, I’m only seventeen.”
“Seventeen!” I was flabbergasted. He certainly did not look nor act like a seventeen year old. I wondered if I had spent too much time in Taiwan, where anyone who looks seventeen is usually twenty seven. Regardless, never in my life had I seen Asian high school kids drink so much. I began feeling somewhat awkward about the whole situation. I quietly shook my head, trying to wrap my head around it.
“Don’t worry. We go out like this every weekend. This is the Philippines.” He said, noticing the distress this new piece of information had caused me.
“I’m just… surprised I guess…” I muttered.
“Haha, Let’s get you home. You look like your going to fall over.”
“Agreed. I can’t drink like you young bucks anymore. I’m about ready to pass out.” I think it was the first time I had ever referred to someone as a young buck. I bid farewell to my underage friend and sheepishly set off towards my hostel, still bewildered by both Tommy’s story and Makisig’s age.
The streets were still busy at four in the morning. There were large groups of people hurriedly walking about. ‘How could such a small town have so many people out partying this late?’ I wondered to myself. It was a strange sight. To add to my confusion, I noticed that these groups included kids as young as four and adults as old as eighty. Everyone was very well dressed and chipper. I realized that these were not partygoers. These were mass goers. It was Christmas time and the most devout of the city were on their way to church for morning prayers. This realization made me feel even guiltier about getting wasted with a group of underage teens.
When I awoke the next morning, I was hit with the type of hangover that many of those kids won’t experience for years to come. I sluggishly made my way to the harbour, bought a ticket for Negros and plopped myself down in the overcrowded waiting room. I had nearly nodded off when I heard my name called from across the room. I turned around to see Preat, the music event organizer, pushing through the crowd towards me. The night before we had discussed a compilation CD she had recently put together. It was a mix of Bohol’s best music. She was doing her best to promote it. Since she had not brought any copies with her to the bar, I promised that if she met me at the pier I would buy one. I had forgotten about the whole affair until I saw her face on the opposite end of the waiting room.
“Wow, you actually found me!” I said, genuinely surprised as she approached.
“Of course, I knew where to look.” She puffed, still out of breath. “Here it is.” She held out a CD case which read Bohol’s Best Music on the cover. I paid three times the marked price. After all, she had gone through lots of trouble to get it to me. I think it meant a lot to her to get her work in the hands of a foreigner. It was her way of promoting Bohol’s music scene to the world. I think we both left the harbour happy.
I was on my way to Negros, an island two hours away by boat. It was a short ride but I sat pinned between two massive men throughout the journey. Their rolls of fat spilled over my armrests, jiggling against my shoulders in the choppy seas. Exhausted and sick to my stomach, this made for a painful ride.
I arrived in Dumaguete, Negros’s capital, at around noon. Upon exiting the port, I was immediately taken aback by the appeal of this happenin’ little town. After passing through Manila and Tagbilaran, I had come to expect the worst from Filipino capitals. Congested and rundown, they were typically far from charming. Dumaguete, however, was different. Its long sea side boardwalk was well manicured and relaxing. Its roads were not terribly congested and its mountainous backdrop made it especially picturesque at sunset. With several universities within a stone’s throw of the town center, there were a fair share of student centered businesses and plenty of cheap meals around. Accommodation was also reasonable. I found a great little hotel with clean single rooms not far from the waterfront for a killer price. To my relief, I was finally able to sleep off the hangover which had been following me around all day.
When I awoke several hours later, it was already after dark. But this was not an issue in Dumaguete. Being a university town, there was plenty of after-hours entertainment to keep one busy, especially on a Saturday night over Christmas break. After devouring some fish tempura on the seaside boulevard, I began searching for a place to hang out. I somehow found myself at a small videoke bar. Videoke is like the poor man’s KTV. In the corner of many run down bars in the Philippines, you often find what looks like an arcade game from the 80s. Instead of playing pac-man, however, it belts out karaoke covers of western songs over images of recent basketball highlights or ocean views. Bar patrons (usually middle aged men) pass around a microphone, taking turns to sing. I often found videoke bars to be somewhat depressing establishments and this one was no exception. I finished my beer quickly and got the hell out of there.
With the goal of finding a livelier crowd, I went straight to Dumaguete’s most famous disco, ‘Why Not?’ It was recommended by many in town and, upon entering, I could see why. The bar catered to all types; there were pool tables, lounge chairs, arcade games, a shot bar, a cocktail bar and a bottom lit dance floor; something for everyone. Patrons included college girls, young professionals, middle aged couples, pool sharks, international students and old expats. I was not crazy about the atmosphere. Although the crowd was eclectic, witnessing old white men (and their prostitutes) sharing the dance floor with young university girls was depressing. I went home early without any great desire to return.
Early the following morning, I woke up to the sound of a ringing phone. I wasn’t even aware my room had a phone and fumbled around in the dark to find it. The front desk was calling to inform me that a man had come to the hotel to rent me a motorbike. I recalled that I had talked to this man the day before about the possibility of renting a motorbike but had made no commitments. He was supposed to wait for my phone call. I guess he was too eager. I agreed to take the motorbike anyways.
The mountains behind Dumaguete were my destination for the day. It was fantastic biking territory. The road twisted and turned its way up steep inclines and past small hill top villages. The vegetation was dense but occasional openings revealed stunning views down the coast of Negros or up into the peaks above. After more than an hour on the trail, it ended at a pair of serene lakes which lay side by side high in the mountains. Their waters were calm and surrounded by drift wood, rounded stones and forested peaks. It was the perfect place to take an afternoon stroll or to just sit on the shore pondering life.
The ride down was a challenge. Thick storm clouds moved in and began to spill grape-size raindrops all over the road. Completely soaked by the time I reached the coast, I stopped at the first roadside restaurant I could find to escape the downpour. It was a small barbeque chicken joint. This brought a smile to my face. Filipino food is certainly not something to write home about, but if there is one thing they do well in the kitchen, it’s barbeque a chicken. Every barbequed chicken I had in the country was succulent and delicious. This roadside restaurant’s offering was no different. In fact, they served me one of the best half chicken meals I had all trip.
Once the rain cleared and the chicken was eaten, I continued up the coastal highway. The road was long, straight and passed through nothing but rice patties. It was painfully boring compared to the mountain roads from which I had come. When the clouds began threatening once again and I decided to just turn back. Dumaguete had a colourful sunset waiting for me anyways.
After a quick shower at the hotel, I went back to the seaside boulevard. Soon I was sitting at a small dive shop/restaurant with a plate of fish and chips in front of me. I was the only customer but the restaurant’s two waitresses, Tammy and Sada, were good company. They seemed to take much pleasure in getting to know the various characters who passed through their place of work. After my meal, I sat sipping beers and chatting with them about local attractions. When they began closing down the joint, I suggested that we continue the conversation somewhere else. They suggested a small disco down the street called Zanzibar.
Zanzibar was loud, overcrowded and hardly a good place for conversation. We were caged into a small corner of the bar with little chance of escape. But it was enough space to order drinks and dance. That was all we really needed. Actually, we were having a blast. I even got the feeling that Sada was a little interested in me. It was shaping up to be a fun night. Then two young Filipino men suddenly joined the group. They turned out to me Tammy and Sada’s boyfriends. I didn’t even know they had boyfriends. The two men both gave me fake smiles which conveyed a subtle hint of annoyance and quickly skirted their girlfriends away from the random foreigner. I was left dumbfounded and standing at the bar alone. I quickly finished my beer, grabbed a late night snack and went back to the hotel, irritated by how the night had ended.
The following morning I packed my bags, walked to the pier and boarded a boat bound for Cebu. This island would be the last stop of my Filipino adventure. As one of the Philippines’ most developed islands, I had no interest in spending a lot of time there. In fact, I really had only two reasons for visiting. First, flights from Cebu City back to Manila were dirt cheap. Second, Cebu was one of the few places in the Philippines where I could swim with whale sharks. Ever since I had heard about the possibility of swimming with these giant fish, I was dying to give it a try. But I first had to reach Oslob, a village on the southern coast of the island, where the whale shark sighting was centered.
On the boat over to the Philippines I met a local driver, Tal, who shuttles people to and from the whale shark viewing area. He seemed friendly enough and offered to help me organize my transportation and accommodation. His price was reasonable and I liked his laidback attitude, so I agreed to make him my guide. Tal set me up in a cheap dorm room and prepared my transportation for the following day. Then, he took me to his favourite videoke bar to drink beer and play pool. He played horribly to begin with, then started sinking every shot with ease. I got the feeling he was a bit of a pool shark. Fortunately we weren’t playing for money.
When we split the bill at the end of the night, I realized that I had a problem. There were only a few notes left in my wallet and no ATM for miles around. It was a silly mistake. I still needed to pay for the hotel, the whale sharks and Tal before leaving. Whether I could squeak by with the money I had left, only time would tell.
I had to wake up at 5:45AM the following morning. Apparently, the earlier the better when it comes to whale sharks. Tal drove me out to the viewing area where I was told to sit and watch a safety demonstration. It was all very serious. The speaker told us to maintain a four metre distance from the sharks at all times, avoid touching them and refrain from wearing sunscreen. Breaking any of these rules would result in a hefty fine. The twenty dollar price of admission included a snorkel and a mask. I also shared the cost of renting an underwater camera with two German sisters who were dying to get some pictures of themselves with the giant fish.
Next thing I knew we were paddling out into the open ocean in an oversized canoe. From the shallow waters we could already see the dorsal fins of several whale sharks a few hundred metres away. I was surprised by how close they were to the shore. It wasn’t long before we spotted one directly underneath us. Its long wide body took the form of a shark while its head resembled that of a whale. Distinctive white spots covered its dark skin. It poked its large nose above the water, directing plankton into its gaping mouth. One was followed by another, then another. Before we knew it, there were at least ten of them, circling the shallows around us. At first, I couldn’t understand why they would congregate in such numbers so close to the shore. But the reason quickly became clear. There were men in kayaks, paddling along side the sharks, throwing chum into the water. The sharks were being fed. They followed to kayaks closely, as if on a leash. It was all very controlled.
I didn’t hesitate to jump in the water. The longer I waited the more daunting it would become. The two German girls and our camera man followed suit. We were immediately in the thick of it. Everywhere we turned, whale sharks were approaching. They were several metres long and intimidating. I knew they were harmless, but setting eyes on the mouth of a giant shark swimming towards me was nerve-racking nonetheless. It was difficult to stay out of their way and impossible to maintain a four metre distance as instructed. I was often caught in the leg by a tail or fin as they passed. Their bodies were hard as wood and clearly held immense strength.
As more swimmers entered the water the whole scene became somewhat ridiculous. The sharks were encircled by tourists, each trying to get a perfect shot of themselves with the world’s biggest fish. But the sharks just kept following the kayaks with complete disregard for what was going on around them. Their only concern was being fed. I sometimes felt trapped between all the sharks, boats and swimmers. It was borderline claustrophobia. Our cameraman only added to the stress. Every time I resurfaced he would yell “SHARK COMING! DOWN! DOWN!” I could barely stay up long enough to get a breath. The scene was a far cry from the serene and magical experience I had concocted in my mind. In fact, I emerged from the water a little disappointed.
Tal was waiting for me on the shore when we returned. He could tell from the look on my face that the experience had been a bit of a let down. I assumed it was a look he had seen a few times before. Furthermore, having spent the few pesos I had left in my wallet on the underwater camera, we would have to go to the next closest town to find an ATM. He had no issues with this. The next town was only forty five minutes away and, of course, he would be paid for the journey.
It was a picturesque drive down the East coast of Cebu to Tamuluege. With time to spare, Tal allowed me to stop at a few scenic stops along the way. Unfortunately, when we finally arrived at the bank, we were met with a line up which stretched around the block. The ATM was out of money and it looked as though it had been that way all day. But the locals weren’t waiting for nothing. An armoured car had arrived on the scene. Two men with large guns guarded the machine while the specialists refilled it. It took them over an hour. Then it was another forty minutes before I made it to the front of the line. All this time, Tal waited patiently. I gave him a nice tip and bought him lunch before he returned to Oslob.
From the small town, I boarded a bus directly to Cebu City where I would spend my last night in the Philippines. It was a short ride to the city. As soon as I arrived, I was ready to leave. Cebu felt like a miniature Manila. The traffic was just as horrendous and the surroundings just as drab. I spent almost an hour desperately searching for a cab in a thick sea of exhaust fumes. After successfully flagging one down, it was another thirty minutes of battling traffic until I reached my guesthouse.
It was a dingy old building with gaudy furniture. The floor was splintered and the walls were falling apart. The bed in my single room smelt of old cheese. But this was still a haven in the middle of Cebu City. Only when my empty stomach was crying for food did I feel an inclination to leave. Fortunately my second excursion into the city was more pleasant than the first. I found myself in the modern downtown center where the pedestrian pathways were relatively spacious and relaxed. A central park also offered a nice area to avoid the exhaust and horns. There were even a few fancy modern buildings.
I had no great desire to experience Cebu’s nightlife, but as my trip came to the end, I felt as though the occasion called for at least a commemorative beer. Not willing to venture far, I found the closest bar to my guesthouse. It was called El Gecko and, upon entering, I quickly realized that it was just another sad establishment where old white men go to pick up young Filipinas. These places seemed to be everywhere in the Philippines. Needless to say, I quickly moved on in search of another watering hole.
A couple blocks down the road, I stumbled upon a small Irish pub. There was a band playing western covers on a make shift stage and a nice selection of beers on tap. It looked much more promising. As I had done several hundred times before during my travels, I walked in and sat down at the bar alone. It occurred to me that this would likely be the last time I would do such a thing for a long time. It was a bit of a sobering realization.
While waiting for my drink, I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me. He was also a foreigner, also alone and appeared to be about my age. He told me he was an English teacher and had been living in Asia for the last three years. With a little time off, he had come to the Philippines for a short vacation. As we drank and chatted about life overseas, we discovered many shared opinions and ideas. We had come to many of the some conclusions about life in Asia. We seemed to agree on everything. It was a little strange. Save for the fact that he had been living in Japan instead of Taiwan, we were like the same person. In the sea of old white men and surfer dudes, it was nice to have found a like minded foreign friend in the Philippines.
He soon left to go meet someone at the airport, but recommended that I check out a club nearby. Now feeling energized by good conversation and beer, I followed his recommendation. The club was a massive place packed full of strobe lights and gaudy décor, but it put me in the mood to party. I went straight from the door to the dance floor. The music sucked but I didn’t care. It was my last night. I just felt like dancing. I stayed on that dance floor all night.
I awoke to the sound of my phone’s alarm early the following morning. My flight would leave in a couple hours. My trip was coming to a close. I dragged myself out of bed and into a cab. As the taxi battled traffic towards the airport, I recounted my experiences of the past ten days. Island hopping, diving, motor biking, jungle kayaking, bizarre animals, night life, whale sharks; I had packed a lot into a week and a half. On paper it was impressive, but it really wasn’t the way I like to travel. I much prefer to take it slow and relax, alternate days of activity with days of lounging about. With so little time and so much to see, I guess I felt the need to keep moving. Every time I heard about something interesting I added it to my itinerary. My list had begun to outweigh the number of days I had left. In the end, I was scrambling to see it all. Perhaps I should have given myself some limits and taken more time in each spot. But I had enjoyed myself anyways. There was no need for regrets.
A world apart from the rest of South East Asia, the Philippines is undoubtedly an interesting country. I found it difficult, however, to put my finger on what exactly makes it unique. Heavily influenced by centuries of Spanish colonialism then decades of American rule, I felt as though the nation had developed a cultural void. Although I saw only a sliver of the archipelago over a short period, there was little in my experience which struck me as inherently Filipino. Most locals ate American fast food and listened to western music. People spent their time in shopping malls or drinking in western style bars. Locals mixed Tagalog (the Filipino language) with so many English and Spanish terms that I was usually able to follow the topic of any conversation. Furthermore, Catholicism seemed to dominate while Eastern religions were strangely absent. In the end, I had such a hard time grasping Filipino culture in the Visayas that I began to wonder if there is much to grasp in the first place.
As the last country I visited in East Asia, the Philippines was in a difficult position to impress. I unconsciously and automatically compared my experiences to those I had in neighbouring countries many of which, to be frank, were better. But I must say I enjoyed my stay and would recommend a visit to nearly any type of traveller. Even if some areas may be lacking in cultural richness and full of creepy old men, the Philippines undoubtedly has its charms. Beautiful white sand beaches are commonplace. Striking colonial architecture can be found just about anywhere. There are plenty of adventure activities to keep a backpacker busy and, most importantly, the people are open, warm and easy to talk to. As is often the case, the people are what ultimately make this country special. They alone are worth a visit.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 00:27 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Climbing Over Clouds

A trip up Jade Mountain

all seasons in one day 6 °C

Have you ever felt like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? I was offered an invitation to climb Jade Mountain (Yushan) in the wee morning hours of a cocktail bar party in Taipei. A few local friends had decided to make the journey and convinced me to tag along. At the time, I didn’t even know what mountain I had agreed to climb. But Taiwan is a small island. I assumed even its highest peaks couldn’t be as demanding as those I mounted in Western China or South East Asia. It was only after doing some investigative work that I realized what I had gotten myself into. Upon typing ‘Jade Mountain’ into the search bar on my computer, the words ‘North East Asia’s highest peak!’ immediately popped up. I thought this must have been a mistake. Japan was home to several giant volcanoes. Eastern China was full of sacred mountains. Even Eastern Russia had a large mountain range. How could the small island of nation of Taiwan hold such a title? But it was true. Rising abruptly from the ocean floor several kilometres below, Yushan’s summit stretched four kilometres above the ground I was standing on.
With that said, the mountain certainly did not seem insurmountable. I read that there are two lodges in the park, one at a rest stop called Tataka just off the road which runs past the base of the mountain and one on the mountain itself six hundred metres from the summit in a settlement aptly named, Paiyun (Line of Clouds). The majority of people hike from Tataka to Paiyun on the first day, then onto the summit and back to Tataka on the second. Apparently, anyone in reasonable good shape can do it. So why was I worried? Well, because we didn’t have two days to finish the hike. We planned to do it in one. In order to obtain a two day permit, a reservation in the Paiyun lodge is required. When my friends applied, the waitlist was two months long. Thus, our group’s only option was to attempt a single day ascent, hiking from Tataka to the summit and back in less than twenty four hours. This undertaking was not to be taken lightly. We had to provide the permit office with photographic evidence of high altitude climbing experience and give assurance that we were physically fit enough to complete the journey. According to travel blogs, the single day hike could take anywhere from eleven to sixteen hours. But these estimates were posted by adventure climbers who clearly had years of climbing experience. How long it would take our ragtag group of city boys to reach the summit, only time would tell. What was clear was that we needed to start training.
We organized three practice hikes to whip our bodies into shape, but they were by no means strenuous. Apparently the Taiwanese method of training for high altitude climbing amounts to strolling up a small peak in the Taipei area and smoking cigarettes at the top for an hour or two. Needless to say, these pleasant day trips were not the rigorous training regimen necessary to prepare us for the difficult climb ahead. But they did give me a chance to get better acquainted with my climbing mates. Two of them I already knew quite well. Yo, the trip organizer, was one of the first friends I made in Taiwan and one of the most amicable people I had met in all of Asia. He was a people magnet to whom others are immediately drawn. Through his events, I had made many other friends. One of those friends was Xiao P, another sociable character who always brought a smile to my face with his cheerful demeanour. Yo and Xiao P owned a graphics design studio together. They were like beacons of positive energy, always making those around them feel at ease. The third member of the group was named Justin. He was much more reserved than Yo and Xiao P but still pleasant company. As a marathon runner and biking enthusiast, he was perhaps the best prepared for the gruelling climb ahead. The last member of the group was George. George had decided not to attempt the climb, but graciously agreed to drive us from Taipei to Tataka. It was a gregarious group of friends. I often had trouble keeping up with their conversation, but I did my best to pick up some local slang and follow the banter.
We began our journey to Yushan at noon on a Sunday. I was full of doubts at the time. Was I in good enough shape? Had I brought everything I needed? Were my climbing mates prepared? What about altitude sickness? I had climbed well above four thousand metres before, but the climbs had always been gradual. Our plan was to go from sea level to four thousand metres in less than twenty four hours. Odds were that at least one of us would be struck with altitude issues. How would we handle such a situation? My climbing mates were surely having similar thoughts. We went through long periods of silence as we sped down the highway. Everyone did their best to keep the doubts at bay, but they lingered above us like dark clouds.
After three hours on the highway, we turned onto a narrow mountain road and began our ascent to Yushan. The road was windy and steep, transporting us up above the clouds to a height of over two thousand five hundred metres in only a couple short hours.
It was dark when we finally arrived at Tataka, the mountainside settlement where we would stay the night. It consisted of only two small buildings; a police station and a hostel. We first stopped at the police station to have our permits checked, then onto the hostel to get settled. The accommodation was basic. There was neither a heating system nor a fire. We had to remain bundled in clothes to battle the near freezing temperatures after dark. There were no beds either, just long wooden planks jam packed full of blankets and pillows. Each individual section was only half a metre wide providing barely enough room for one to sleep on their side.
The hostel was run by a sweet elderly lady. Her chubby little frame was wrapped in so many layers of clothing that she reminded me of the Michelin man. She was kind enough to prepare a large bowl of fried rice and meatball soup when we arrived. It was the hearty meal we needed to warm our bones and relax our minds. After dinner, we quickly prepared our bags and went straight to bed. It wasn’t yet nine o’clock but we had a very early start ahead of us.
Nervous about the long day to come, I didn’t sleep well. I tossed and turned, trying to find a comfortable position. People entering or exiting the dorm often woke me up. I only managed about two solid hours before my alarm clock began to buzz at one in the morning.
Breakfast was simple, just fruit, bread and chocolate. It gave me a nice boost of energy but left my stomach in disarray. I had been dealing with stomach problems for a few days before leaving. The early morning jolt to my system did not help. Unable to relieve myself, I could only hope that there would be outhouses on the trail in the case of an emergency.
We double checked all of our belongings before we left. I had brought several layers of clothing, a poncho, a headlamp, gloves, medical supplies, water and lots of snacks. But I still couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was forgetting something. The doubts continued to linger.
At two on the dot, we set out into the cold dark night with only moonlight, headlamps and a brilliant starry sky to guide the way. The dry mountain air was refreshing. It reminded me of a late autumn evening back in my hometown of Calgary. Small animals stirred in the brush around us as we trudged down the road. They were likely just as uncertain as us as to what they hell we were doing on this mountain in the middle of night.
Three kilometres separated the hostel from the park entrance, most of which was downward sloping. I never enjoy beginning a hike on a descent. I knew every metre we descended was another metre we would ultimately have to climb again. By the time we reached the trailhead, one thousand seven hundred metres separated us from the peak.
We stopped for a moment at the entrance to stretch and take a commemorative photo. Then we set out on the trail proper. The first couple kilometres gently sloped upwards with only a few switchbacks. It was not terribly demanding. In fact, it felt more like a nice morning stroll. Once I got into a rhythm, my stomach settled and mind was put at ease. I finally allowed myself to relax. My climbing mates, however, were not enjoying the same serenity. They were having some serious difficulties with the incline. Every thirty minutes or so, we had to take a five or ten minute break. They huffed and hawed as if we were running a marathon. Perhaps having grown up next to the mountains, I was more accustomed to high altitude climate, but I really couldn’t understand how they could be having such trouble on what was undoubtedly the easiest part of the trek.
With twenty five kilometres of hiking still ahead of us, I tried to keep a steady pace of about two and a half kilometres an hour. This seemed reasonable if we actually wanted any chance of completing the hike before sunset. Every time I tried to pick up the speed, however, I heard cries from my comrades. “Man yidian… Tai kuai!” (slow down a bit… Too fast!). Our first real test of endurance, a series of steep switchbacks up a rocky slant, nearly killed them. I began to worry that there was no way we could complete the hike in time.
Eventually we came upon a patch of steep cliffs with only a narrow path cut from the surface of a sheer rock face. In the dead of night, it was difficult to determine the size of the cliffs. To our left, they stretched high above our heads, to our right was only a deep abyss. Our headlamps revealed nothing in the darkness. It was only later, after returning in the daylight, that I realized how dangerous this patch of trail actually was. Some sections were less than a metre wide and one slip in the wrong direction would have surely spelled disaster. There was nothing to stop us from tumbling several hundred metres down into the ravine below.
As the sun approached the horizon, our surroundings were slowly revealed. It was a truly stunning setting. An immense mountain range stretched out far below the trail. In between its peaks was a thick sea of mist which swirled about the tree line. In a few short moments, the sky turned from black to dark blue to all shades of orange and red. When the sun finally poked over the horizon, it caught the peaks of several mountains in the distance, painting them a golden yellow. We were caught off guard by the beauty of it all.
Unfortunately, we did not have much time to admire the scenery. Our group had fallen far behind schedule. We were averaging one and a half kilometres an hour. At this pace, it would be impossible to finish the hike in time. In fact, if we did not reach Paiyun before ten in the morning, the park rangers would not allow us to climb to the peak.
Furthermore, one member of our group started feeling ill. Xiao P had developed a bad headache and nausea. Although he did not want to admit it, these were clear signs of altitude sickness. It was an unfortunate turn of events, but we all expected at least one of us to come down with symptoms. The odds were not in our favour. Thus, we had brought along the best treatment available: Viagra. The doctors in Taipei had advised us to bring several caps of this wonder drug onto the mountain. In addition to providing a long lasting hard-on, apparently it also treats altitude sickness. Xiao P took a large dose and a long rest. When he felt a bit better, we slowly continued trekking, taking frequent breaks and constantly checking his status.
Unfortunately, the little blue pill did little to relieve his ailments. As we gained altitude, his condition quickly worsened. The look on his face expressed his discomfort. It became clear that it was not safe for him to continue. It was imperative that we turn back and get him to a lower elevation. If his symptoms continued to worsen, he could be in serious trouble.
My heart sank as I realized that this spelt the end of our attempt to climb Yushan. After so much build-up, it was disappointing to say the least. But safety comes first, and no one wanted to see a friend get seriously ill. Yo, Justin and I made the decision to slowly return to Tataka where better treatment was available. But Xiao P did not want to see everyone turn back. Instead, he suggested that we split into pairs. One team could continue climbing and the other could return to Tataka. We all agreed that this was the best way to handle the situation, but who would continue and who would accompany Xiao P back to the hostel? There was a short moment of silence before Yo stepped up and took the responsibility. He was unwavering in his decision. Even when I protested, he would not have it any other way. “This is your only chance to climb Yushan” he said. “I can come back next year.” It was a noble gesture. After all, it was his idea to climb Jade Mountain in the first place. I was only tagging along. But that’s just Yo. He is a truly selfless person.
Our two teams split ways at about half past seven. Justin and I still had a long uphill battle to make it to Paiyun by ten, but we were ready for the challenge. We picked up the pace and started eating up the kilometres. The higher we climbed, the more difficult the trail became. The gentle slope was replaced by several sections of steep switchbacks, narrow bridges and stone steps, but we maintained a good speed. Just after nine, we arrived at Paiyun with enough time to spare for some snacks and a rest.
The lodge was a barebones establishment. There was no food, no bottled water, no garbage cans and no electricity. Nonetheless, with another six hundred metres of climbing and a long journey back to Tataka ahead of us, one night in Paiyun sounded like a dream.
We only took thirty minutes to regain our composure before beginning the final ascent. We could see the summit, but the trail leading there posed a much greater challenge than the one from which we had come. Although only two and a half kilometres long, it was very steep and rugged. It began with a series of steep switchbacks which brought us above the tree line and out into the open sun. The temperature was no higher than ten degrees but the sub tropical rays were intense. I began tearing off layers of clothing to prevent over heating.
After one hour on the peak trail, my legs began to shake and my knees buckle. My head pounded and my stomach turned. Even with frequent breaks, the pain in my calves never subsided. I didn’t know whether these were symptoms of acute altitude sickness or simply the result of ten hours of hiking on two hours a sleep. In reality, it was likely a combination of both. But I was not about to give up only three hundred metres from the summit. I continued to push my flailing body upwards.
The last couple hundred metres were the most difficult of all. The terrain was very steep, rocky and devoid of vegetation. Chains driven into the cliff face were necessary to pull ourselves up steep inclines and over large boulders. Loose stones were a constant danger, for one slip could easily send us tumbling down the face of the mountain. I carefully stepped from one rock to another, gripping the chains for support, slowly gaining metre after metre. My legs were on fire and my mind was running on fumes. I could never seem to catch my breath in the thin atmosphere. But I forced myself to keep moving.
I became so lost in my own zone that the summit actually snuck up on me. I didn’t realize I was even close until I caught sight of Yushan’s commemorative stone a few steps away. Those final steps were the easiest of the entire journey. I knew I had finally made it. It was high noon, ten hours after we had left Tataka, and I was standing on the highest point in North East Asia.
It took me a second to grasp the beauty of my surroundings. A full three hundred a sixty degree turn revealed a dream like landscape. Layers of rocky peaks poked through the mist as far as I could see. Deep green forests filled the ravines between them. Puffy white clouds floated past us like sea creatures in an aquarium. We had climbed up into a little Taiwanese heaven.
We were lucky to arrive when we did. Since very few people attempt to climb Yushan in one day, thus arriving at the peak around noon, there wasn’t another climber in sight. Furthermore, only thirty minutes after reaching the summit, a thick mist enveloped the mountain, after which visibility was reduced to about a hundred metres. Had we taken any more any more time to reach the peak, the breathtaking view would have been completely obscured.
With limited time, we were only allowed a short break at the top before beginning our descent back to Tataka. Mist followed us the entire way, occasionally splashing us with rain. After our final push to the peak, my legs had been turned to jelly. I fought to get one in front of the other. My stomach growled with hunger, sick and tired of its recent diet of snickers bars, nuts and crackers. Having already conquered my lower extremities, pain invaded my back and shoulders. I struggled to stay alert but exhaustion was fast setting in. The lack of sleep was becoming more and more troublesome.
Despite these difficulties, we kept a good pace, reaching the trailhead at about five thirty. Unfortunately, the bus which transports exhausted hikers from the park entrance to Tataka had stopped service at five. As a result, we were forced to walk another three kilometres, most of which was uphill, to reach the settlement.
We arrived at the hostel at seven in the evening, a full seventeen hours after we had left. The hostel owner prepared for us a large delicious meal of rice, beef stew, cabbage, soup and dried fish. It was exactly what the doctor ordered. The food immediately soothed my aching head and growling stomach. After remaining motionless for a few minutes, however, my legs seized up significantly. I could barely get up from the table after the meal, I nearly fell over in the shower, and three attempts were necessary to reach my top bunk bed. The minute my head hit the pillow, I was out. I slept like a rock for eleven hours straight.
The following morning we started a long trip back to Taipei. Two buses were necessary to get out of the mountains to the city of Jiayi. From there, we caught a train north to the capital. The trip took eight hours total, leaving us in Taipei at dinner time. As exhausted as I was, I could not go straight to sleep. I had a Chinese test the following morning for which I was not prepared. Thus, I capped off my Yushan adventure with a long night of memorizing sentence patterns and stroke orders. It was an abrupt return to reality for which I was not fully prepared. Half way through the chapter, I fell into a deep sleep only to wake up ten hours later, still in pain and still exhausted.
Climbing Jade Mountain certainly wasn’t a walk in the park. I dealt with aches and pains for several days after returning. But the scenery and the adventure were worth the trouble. I recommend anyone who plans to visit Taiwan to work this mountain into your itinerary. Just remember to take two days to get to the top, not one.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 04:25 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

Cycling Taiwan

A Short Trip Around the Island

sunny 25 °C

My thighs felt like cinder blocks and my hips were on fire. A burning sensation dug deeper into my flesh with every turn of the pedal. I was soaked with sweat and fighting off dehydration. My stomach was growling with hunger. The sun was intense and, on the highway, there was no escaping it. The thick layer of sun block smothering my face was doing little to prevent my skin from turning a painful red. Instead, it traveled with perspiration down my forehead and into my eyes where it left a lasting sting. I was far from comfortable, however, these aches and pains seemed to slowly drift away in the wake of my surroundings. To my right, layers of immense forested mountains and steep cliffs climbed from the highway to the misty clouds above. To my left, the blue coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean stretched from the shore to the horizon. The windy road was dotted with small towns full of curious weather beaten faces. We often heard “Jiayou!” yelled from the porches of roadside homes or noodle shops as we passed through. It literally meant ‘add oil!’ and was the most common of the many gestures of encouragement we received from locals along the way. The mountain roads were back breaking but the scenery was spectacular and the people were friendly. This was bicycling Taiwan.
The inspiration for this journey came from Zoe, a girl I had met while traveling in Osaka almost a year before. We met again when she returned to her hometown of Taipei to visit family and friends. Over a late night beer at a dingy University pub, we discussed our Chinese New Year plans. She was going snowboarding in Japan. I told her I had two weeks off work but nothing to do. “Take my bike and bike around the island!” She said, half serious and half joking. Perhaps I was a little drunk at the time, but this sounded like a relaxing way to spend my vacation. I accepted her challenge and arranged to pick up her bike the following morning.
The initial idea was to bike all of Taiwan’s one thousand two hundred kilometre coast line. This overly enthusiastic plan was quickly downgraded to a much shorter trip down the East coast from Hualien to Taidung. My time was limited and biking over a thousand kilometres in twelve days meant four to eight hours on the road everyday. Being the turtle like traveler that I am, this was not really my style. I would bike what was heralded as Taiwan’s most beautiful area of coast line and utilize trains for the other legs of the journey.
I soon enlisted a friend to join me for ride. I had known Stephen and his girlfriend Kelsey since first arriving in Taiwan. They were a couple from New York with whom I hung out with quite a bit. With his laidback attitude and unique sense of humour, I was convinced Stephen would be a good travel mate. He only had five days off work but was making the most of it. He would meet me in Hualien, bike to Taidung over three days then return to Taipei.
Given the fact that we would be traveling over Chinese New Year, train tickets and hostels were tricky. Stephen ended up having to book a train leaving Taipei at five in the morning in order to make it work. But with only a couple days to spare before the holiday madness commenced, our plans were solidified and our tickets purchased.
My train left a grey and dreary Taipei at noon the following Tuesday and arrived in sunny Hualien only a couple hours later. It was my second trip to this small coastal city. On the first, I had spent only one night at a guesthouse and seen very little. This time, I gave myself three days to explore the seaside landscape and the nearby Taroko gorge.
My hostel was owned by a friendly brother sister duo. They were a couple of backpackers who had recently opened for business. The place was full of character. Sitting on the porch was a rescued chocolate lab who they had aptly named Kaluha. He waited patiently on the door step for travelers to return from the night markets with scraps of food. The hostel lobby boasted a large library and Japanese style pond. Inside the pond were many colourful carp and one unruly crab who refused to stay put. I remember the first time I met him. I was chatting with another traveler at the bar when I noticed a strange red creature waiting patiently under my bar stool, claws in the air and in attack position. We often found little bugger all over the building, hiding in under couches or scurrying across the bathroom floor.
Behind the bar, the two siblings whipped up drinks from a wide selection of bizarre spirits they had collected on their travels. Upon pouring a drink, they would always ask “Is it strong enough? If it’s not strong enough please tell me and I will add more!” It was always strong enough and they supplemented our drinks with free shots of whatever unique bottle of boos they had recently acquired. My first sample was from a bottle of polish vodka that was no less than 96% alcohol. It set my chest on fire for the remainder of the evening.
Hualien was just as laidback and friendly as the hostel. The people were much more receptive than in Taipei and locals often stopped to chat. The town did not have much to offer in terms of attractions. There were a couple temples and a half decent night market, but Hualien’s main draw was its proximity to Taroko National Park. I had been to the scenic area before but only for an afternoon. My plan was to rent a moto and spend a day exploring the gorge.
I had a friend who lived in Hualien named Jirou. I had met her in Taipei at a couchsurfing meeting a few weeks previous. She was a recent graduate who was preparing to teach Chinese in America. I sent her a message when I arrived and told her of my intentions of visiting Taroko. She told me not to bother with renting a moto as she had a car and could drive me through the gorge herself. I hardly knew her and was surprised by this generous offer. I jumped at the opportunity.
It was once again clear and sunny the following morning. The weather was a welcome relief from the dreariness I had been enduring in Taipei. Jirou arrived at the hostel at around ten in an old Honda accord. We stopped for breakfast at 7-11 before beginning the short drive to the park. From Hualien, the mountains of Taroko loomed large in the distance. They grew in height as we drew closer to the main gate. At the entrance, in between two steep slopes, a clear water river forced its way through the rugged landscape and emptied into the coastal waters. Inside the park, the scenery was spectacular. Layers of rugged peaks swiftly sloped down into the narrow blue rushing river below. Bright green vegetation clung to the mountainsides and sheer cliffs rose vertically in the gorge’s tightest squeezes.
Having a car, we were able to cover quite a bit of ground. Snaking around cliffs and through tunnels reminded me of driving through the Rockies in Canada. Jirou drove so fast it made it nervous. Once in a while, we parked the car to hike a small trail. Growing up in the area, my guide knew all the best spots. She took me to her favourites. The most impressive sight was a large cascading waterfall which tumbled over three steep cliffs before finally meeting with a pool of crystal blue water below. But this was only one of many picturesque areas we visited. We were forced to head back to town before sunset. After Jirou dropped me at my hostel, I spent and hour grazing the night market, grabbed a drink at the bar and got an early night. It had been a nice opening day to my trip.
Stephen arrived early the following morning, dead tired after a painfully early train ride. With a day to spare before we began our biking trip he took a long nap to recover. In the early afternoon, Jirou offered us free tickets to Hualien’s Farglory Ocean Park, a small seaside amusement park. Admission was pricey but she had a friend who worked at the door. It was neither mine nor Stephen’s idea of a fun afternoon but I felt bad refusing after Jirou had spent an entire day showing me around Taroko. Fortunately, the park was not as bad as expected. We watched a seal show, we battled each other in bumper boats and we rode the log ride. It was only when we were lined up for the children’s roller coaster that we realized we had exhausted the park’s opportunities for fun. With a long trip ahead of us, Stephen and I thanked Jirou for her hospitality, grabbed a quick dinner and got some sleep.
In the morning, we packed our bags, loaded up our rented bikes and strapped on our helmets. Stephen pulled on a pair of skin tight padded biking shorts as an added precaution. I didn't have the heart to tell him that they were nearly see-through in the sun.
Soon we were pedaling our way out of the city. The adventure had begun. As we came to our first traffic light, I noticed a broken down car parked on the side of the road. The front tire had exploded and was in strewn across the pavement. “Perhaps that’s a bad omen” I joked to Stephen pointing at bare rim. We both laughed. Little did we know how correct I was.
The sun was intense. I was sweating bullets by the time we reached the city limits. But the first stretch of highway was smooth and flat. We quickly found our rhythm and started eating up the kilometres. I was feeling confident when we reached our first obstacle, a steep climb over a mountain separating Hualien from the rest of the East Coast. We slowed to a snails pace as we winded our way up the hillside. It was far more difficult than I had anticipated. My confidence quickly waned as my thighs began to burn and my stomach turned. At every twist in the road, I expected to reach the summit but was disappointed but yet another incline. It was an hour before we reached the top with aching muscles and sweat drenched clothes. Our reward was a speedy descent back down to the coast. The wind on my face and neck felt great.
The scenery along the coast was spectacular. The mountainside terraces afforded stunning views. Layers of immense mountains hugged every kilometre of the shoreline. The water was bright blue and the vegetation deep green. Every ten kilometres or so we would find ourselves in another small village or town. Since we were traveling during Chinese New Year’s Eve, the shops were all closed but the streets were lined with families eating, drinking and laughing the afternoon away. The sounds of fireworks and firecrackers rang out everywhere. As we pedaled past family homes, we were greeted with waves, thumbs-ups and horns. These gestures of approval were always encouraging. They were a nice distraction from the fire burning in my legs and hips. This fire was spreading fast and showing no signs of letting up. I was doing my best to pedal through it but taken aback by how much difficulty I was having.
A few hours into the journey, while turning a sharp corner, Stephen popped his back tire on a patch of gravel. We had brought with us a spare tube, a pump and some tire irons but I had no idea how to change a flat. As Stephen showed me how to remove the tire and replace the broken tube, I realized how ill prepared I was for a long distance biking trip. I was, after all, originally planning to do it by myself. I was glad at least one of us knew what we were doing. It wasn’t long before we were back on the road. The short pit stop had given my legs time to organize a revolt. They responded to me remounting my bike with staunch stiffness and pain.
I trudged on and ignored the discomfort for as long as I could. Six hours after we had left Hualien, however, with still another hour to our destination, I began to run out of gas. I was gasping for air and struggling to keep pace. I didn’t understand why I was having so much trouble. In Taipei, I had been running and working out three times a week. I rode the fixed bike at the gym quite often and went hiking almost every weekend. Generally, I thought I was in pretty good shape. My bike was a bit too small for me and, since I was on a twelve day trip, I had quite a bit of weight in my backpack. Nonetheless, I felt as though riding a bike just shouldn’t have been so difficult.
Eventually I admitted my issues to Stephen who seemed to be fairing far better than I. He offered to take a look at my bike. He rode it down the street and back, jumped off and examined the wheel. “Your front tire is almost flat…” he said with a look which clearly conveyed what he was thinking: seriously dude? I was embarrassed by my negligence, relieved to know I wasn’t actually such a weakling and worried over what do about the flat.
Our options were limited. We had already used our spare tube on Stephen’s bike and none of the coastal towns had any bikes shops. Even if we did manage to find one, it would surely be closed for Chinese New Year. Luckily we still had a bike pump and our destination was less than twenty kilometres down the road. Our best option was to inflate the wheel and ride for as long as it would last. Once we reached a hotel we could worry about patching it. The pump was tiny. Each inflation required a few minutes of strenuous movement and only lasted only ten kilometres or so. Two pit stops were necessary before we reached Shitiping, a tiny fishing town which would serve as our overnight stop. It was another hour before we found an affordable place to stay. It wasn’t so much of a hotel as a house turned design studio. A mother, her two grown sons and a multitude of cats ran the joint. It was decorated with all sorts of interesting sculptures and paintings produced by the family. Attached was a small café where they whipped up specialty coffees and tasty breakfast. On the top floor were three small but comfortable rooms separated by thick curtains. That is where Stephen and I stayed.
Shitiping was set upon a stunning section of rocky coastline. The tiny town was built around a fishing port with a few guesthouses and family homes scattered along the shore. Since it was Chinese New Year, there was only one restaurant open in the middle of town. Amongst celebrating families sitting on little red stools, Stephen and I devoured fish braised in soy sauce and shared a plate of sashimi. Likely as a result of colonial Japanese influence, Sashimi with wasabi and white radish was a common sight along the East Coast of Taiwan. It was always fresh and delicious.
After dinner, we bought a few giant sparklers, cracked a couple beers and sat on the rocks next to the ocean. Red and white bursts of light could be seen all down the coastline. They were fireworks being set off in nearby towns. The stars were brighter than anywhere else I had been in Taiwan. In fact, I don’t think I had ever even seen a star Taipei. We didn’t last until the midnight countdown. After eight hours of biking underneath the baking sun, we were both pretty tired.
I woke up at six in the morning to watch the first sunrise of the lunar year. The sunburnt skin on face and arms was dry and painful. My legs were frozen stiff. Getting out of bed felt like an acrobatic stunt.
A crowd had already gathered on the rocks by the time I arrived on the seaside. A wall of clouds sat on the horizon. Once the sun managed to climb over it, the coastal vistas were well worth the wait. I sat there for more than an hour. Eventually elderly fishermen began to congregate around me on the shore. I took this as my queue to leave.
I met Stephen back at the guesthouse for a quick breakfast. Then we finally addressed the flat tire we had been ignoring since we arrived. The tube looked to be in pretty good shape when we removed it from the tire. We quickly found the leak, patched it, re-inflated the tire and assumed the problem was solved. Ten minutes later, however, the tire was flat once again. The patch had failed. We repeated the process but used five patches instead of one on the second attempt. If this didn’t work, nothing would. With fingers crossed, we hit the road an hour behind schedule.
The scenery on our second day was even more impressive than the first. The mountains were taller, the vegetation was thicker and the towns more interesting. The ride was much less painful too. A full tire made more of a difference than I could have imagined. We were moving at double the pace and enjoying the breeze of speed. That is until my tube failed again. I could feel the difference immediately. We stopped on the side of the road to assess the damage. I could hear the air spewing from the tube from outside the tire. Patching clearly was not working but we still had no spare tubes. Our only option was to inflate the tire and ride it as long as possible before stopping to inflate it again. It was frustrating and time consuming, but at least it gave me the chance to take more pictures.
We were also afforded a nice opportunity as a result of our troubles. My tire was nearly flat when we rolled into the small town of Daman. As I hopped off my bike and unscrewed the tire cap, I heard whistles and yells coming from a house across the street. A large family was inviting us to join them in their Chinese New Year celebrations. They greeted us on the porch with glasses of beer and Chinese whiskey. There must have been about thirty in the party. The women were dancing and the men were pouring back drinks. Some of them were totally wasted. Strewn across a couple tables was a smorgasbord of random meats and vegetables. They encouraged us to try it all. We chowed down on the sashimi and mountain goat stew. I did my best to communicate with those sitting next to me. Every time I answered a question we were rewarded with another glass of beer. Neither Stephen nor I wanted to get drunk but it was difficult to refuse. When I tried to explain that we still had a long day of biking ahead of us, they told us just to sleep in their house. A kind offer, but we politely refused. Before the next round of Chinese whiskey arrived, we made our exit, thanking them for their hospitality.
A short distance later, we were flagged down by a Taiwanese family who were parked on the side of the road. As we approached, we recognized a friend of ours from Taipei named Yo. He was vacationing with his family for Chinese New Year and was on his way to the same destination as us, a coastal town called Dulan. I thought this highway rendezvous was quite the coincidence. However, I quickly realized that there was only one road along the East Coast and, as two Caucasian bicyclists, Stephen and I stood out like sore thumbs (especially Stephen in those shorts). Anyone traveling down the coast for New Years was bound to see us at some point.
It took us another couple of hours to reach Dulan. It was not far but, in addition to our tire issues, Stephen developed a sharp pain in his ankle which only worsened as we approached the town. By the time we reached our hostel, he could barely walk. This did not bode well for our final leg of the journey the following day. With a warm bowl of noodles and a glass of whiskey, the stiffness in my legs subsided considerably. Stephen’s ankle, however, quickly worsened. We realized that he would not be able to ride the following day. There were plenty of local buses to transport Stephen but getting his bike to the rental shop in Taidung was another issue. Unsure of what to do, we gave our friend Yo a call. Fortunately, he jumped at the opportunity to finish the final leg of the journey with me. We agreed to meet the following morning. With the problem solved, we found a local bar and had a few more drinks.
Dulan was one of the more touristy stops on our journey. The town was small but clearly popular among foreign hippies and surfers. We had been told it was a good place to experience local aboriginal culture. However, most of this experience seemed to consist of paying to watch cultural performances. As it was Chinese New Year, the bars were busy and the streets were alive. Local families drank and set of fireworks from their porches while circles of hippie foreigners played bongos and sang kumbaya. I wasn’t really sure what I thought of this scene. Tired from the biking, I went to bed too early to get involved.
Yo was waiting outside our hotel when we woke up the following morning. He had been patiently waiting for over an hour. We gobbled down some egg pancakes for breakfast before hitting the road. It was a short travel day. Taidung was only twenty kilometres away. Over that distance, however, Yo managed to take enough footage with his iPhone to make an epic little movie which he sent to me a few days later. It highlighted the coastal scenery and holiday traffic.
We arrived in Taidung just after noon. With plenty of time to spare before I had to catch a train, Yo suggested that we drink some 7-11 beers and chill on the sidewalk. I had hung out with Yo quite a few times in Taipei but had never conversed with him one on one. He was an interesting person to talk to. I quite enjoyed our time spent aimlessly walking around town chatting about travel, music and girls.
We made it to the train station mid afternoon. Stephen was already waiting for us when we arrived. As he was on his way back to Taipei, Yo was going to Hualien, and I was continuing my trip south, it was time for us to say goodbye. I thanked Stephen for being an easygoing travel mate and thanked Yo for stepping in for us in a pinch. Then I jumped on a train bound for Kaohsiung. With the biking section of my trip finished, my legs were already in rebellion from what I had put them through.
I arrived in Kaohsiung after dark and took the MRT to my hostel. The place felt more like a fancy penthouse flat than a hostel. There was large flat screen TVs, cushy leather sofas and bowls of free candy in the common room. The bathroom included a rain shower and a stone trough sink. After dropping my bags in the dorm, I went straight to the closest night market to fill my empty stomach. It was packed during Chinese New Year and difficult to navigate but I found a few interesting treats. My favourite was a giant deep fried dumpling about the size of my fist filled with spices, vegetables and meat. Once I had my fill of snacks, it took me more than a half hour to find my way out of the maze of stalls and hoards of people.
Back at the hostel I met an Aussie traveler named Tim who was hanging out in Kaohsiung while his girlfriend was finishing her PhD. Since his girlfriend was out of town doing field work, Tim was alone and invited me to join him at his favourite local watering hole, a late night rocker bar called fusion. It was a fun little joint but I was tired and fading fast. After a couple beers, I had to call it a night.
My head was pounding and my legs were stiff when I woke up the next morning. Instead of drinking two giant beers, I really should have drunk two giant waters the night before. But it was a beautiful sunny day and I felt ridiculous wasting it in doors. Eventually I mustered up the strength the wander around the harbour side. Kaohsiung was far more interesting than I had anticipated. I was expecting a big dirty port city. Instead I found a lively metropolis full of art districts and seaside walkways. Random statues, galleries and street art could be found all over the downtown area. The city was far more laidback, sunny and open than Taipei. In contrast to the capital, I felt like there was plenty of room to breath. I spent most of the afternoon slowly strolling from one place to the next with no apparent destination. When four o’clock rolled around, I went back to the hostel for a nap.
I was awoken from my slumber by a text from a Kaohsiung local who went by the name Tweety. I had posted on the local couchsurfing website earlier that day asking if anyone was interested in going to a night market. I guess Tweety was. We met in the early evening. She was a tiny little woman who taught Chinese in a private Kaohsiung school. She took me first to a local lantern festival and then to her favourite night market. It was called Wufu and was full of Kaohsiung specialities. We gorged ourselves on all sorts of random eats. There were quite a few seafood dishes I had never seen before. Unable to shake the headache that had plagued me all day, however, I returned to the hostel quite early to get some sleep. I guess the bike trip had taken more out of me than I realized.
I felt much better the following day. The aches and pains had subsided and I was no longer fatigued. With a little more power in my step, I decided to venture over to Cijin Island, a long piece of land running parallel to the downtown core. It was far busier than I imagined. The line up for the ferry was nearly a kilometre long. Thousands of Chinese tourists, all brandishing large cameras and colourful hats had the same idea as me. Without the crowds, the island would have been quite relaxing. There was a decent beach, a long street filled with local seafood and a hill top lighthouse. But there were just too many people to really enjoy it.
When I returned to the hostel a large group of thirty something year old locals had congregated in the common area. The owner of the establishment was among them. They were having a reunion. The group had graduated high school together more than ten years previous and held this party once every year to commemorate. I was invited to join the festivities. There was food, beer and wine. They cycled through a list of drinking games they used to play when they were younger. Some were fun, others were strange. I always seemed to loose regardless. They disbanded at around ten as most returned home. Soon after, I received a text from Tweety inviting me to go drink with her and her friend.
I met them at a British pub called “Bottoms Up” for a beer. It was a dingy place with a long wooden bar and posters of classic British rock bands on the wall. From there we proceeded to hop down the street from one bar to the next. Most establishments were small and lacked class. The patrons were mostly weathered-looking old expats. It was not the most exciting atmosphere but we made the most of it. We forced tired bartenders to crank up the tunes so we could dance amongst the tables. We were rewarded with a few free shots for our efforts. It ended up being a surprisingly fun night.
I slept in as late as was possible before catching my eleven o’clock train. I was bound for Tainan, the last stop of my trip. It was only a short ride north of Kaohsiung. I arrived just after noon and waited in the sun amongst the palm trees in front of the station for my couchsurfing host to arrive.
Couchsurfing is a network of travelers and hosts who apply for and/or offer free places to stay around the world. I had decided to give it a try in Tainan. I thought, of all the places I was visiting, it would be the best city to have a host. The former capital was quite small but supposed to have some of the best street food in all of Taiwan. I assumed having a little local knowledge would go a long way. I applied to four or five locals but only one responded. Her name was Acid Lin and she was a twenty year old art student who lived with her family in nearby Madou. With a name like ‘Acid’ I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I be spending my three days in Tainan lost in an inebriated daze? No. Instead Acid kept me in a mind altered state without any mind altering substances.
Upon arriving at the station, she greeted me with a smile and a big hug. I felt like I was meeting an old friend who I hadn’t seen in ages. We quickly delved into a conversation about travel and living abroad. For a girl of only twenty, I was immediately impressed by her many profound insights. When she said “Travel is more about the people you meet than the places you go”, I knew we were going to get along well.
She took me to the flat where I would be staying. It belonged to a friend of hers who had returned to France for the holiday. It was a large space with interesting décor. The guy had red ceiling lights, a mannequin hanging from the roof and an old arcade game from the eighties in the corner. We spent the entire afternoon on the couch listening to music and chatting about life. In those first few hours, I felt a strange connection with this girl. It was like we already knew each other quite well. We were constantly finishing each others sentences. We must have met each other in a past life.
After sunset, she took me to a local night market called Dadong where I had my first taste of Tainan street food. It was just as delicious as expected. Most of the recipes were similar to those in Taipei, but with a twist. The twist typically involved more sugar. Deep fried chicken breasts which would be dry and peppered in Taipei were slathered in a rich sweet dressing in Tainan. Noodles that would be soft and salty Taipei were crunchy and sweet in Tainan. We stayed there for hours sampling all sorts of random bites. As midnight approached, Acid caught the train back home and I returned to the flat to get some rest.
Early the following morning, I strapped on my shoes, grabbed my camera and set out into Tainan to explore. The city was a wanderer’s paradise. Like Kaohsiung it was warm and sunny. There were temples and shrines everywhere. Even little back alleys in remote neighbourhoods seemed to have a small place of worship. I think I saw more temples in Tainan than in all the rest of Taiwan combined. It was difficult to walk more than a few blocks without stumbling upon some market or food street. The selection of restaurants was bewildering.
What I found most intriguing about the city, however, was its vibrant street art. There was beautiful graffiti, murals and random drawings all over the sides of buildings, underground passages and concrete pillars. They were more than just simple tags or names. Some artists had painted entire stories on a wall. Pockets of street art seem to pop up just about anywhere, even around temples where the juxtaposition of traditional against modern art was quite interesting. I remember one hidden courtyard in which I stumbled upon a large yellow submarine on wheels. Someone had built it and left it there as a blank canvas.
I must have walked around for more than eight hours before finally returning to the flat. Acid arrived soon after me. She was hungry and she took me to a local restaurant, well-known among the student crowd, for onion pancakes and local dumplings. Every restaurant, food stall or hole in the wall we visited was delicious. Later in the evening we went to an artsy little pub hidden away in a back alley for a couple beers. We talked about all sorts of things, from photography techniques to reincarnation. There were no awkward silences with Acid. When the bar thinned out, we went back to the flat to share music and continue the conversation.
The following morning she took me to a local market to try coffin bread, one of Tainan’s most famous dishes. It was a thick piece of fried toast filled with a creamy mixture of chicken, squid and vegetables. She explained to me that they call it coffin bread because the fried portion looks like a coffin and the creamy portion looks like rotting flesh. Despite the disturbing mental picture, the meal was excellent. From the restaurant Acid took off to a job interview while I continued wandering the streets. I made an old sea side district named Anping my target for the day but got lost on the way. Somehow I ended up at a naval yard. At least I was allowed to walk around on one of the battleships.
When I finally reached Anping it was late afternoon and my legs were pretty tired from all the walking. The district was far too touristy for me anyways. I just caught a bus back to the flat to take a nap. I met Acid at the train station later in the evening. She had one more night market to show me. It was called The Flower Garden and was Tainan’s most renowned. Many of the stalls were similar to those in Dadong but we managed to try a few new treats. My favourite was a doughy pancake fried with egg, onion and meat. This is a common snack throughout Taiwan but the one in Tainan was a little sweeter and heartier. After one hour of grazing, I was stuffed. We found refuge from the market crowds on the patio of a 7-11 where we drank beers and chatted. Time always seemed to fly with Acid. We missed the last bus home and ended up having to cab it back to the flat. We spent our last night exchanging music and stories on the living room floor.
My train left at about eleven the following day. Acid accompanied me to the station. Like our time together, our goodbye was brief. I gave her a hug and thanked her for showing me her little corner of Tainan. I was sad to be leaving but I had the feeling I would be seeing her again one day.
The train pulled away from Tainan and began rumbling its way north to Taipei. As I peered out the window at all the passing neighbourhoods, I remember feeling like a backpacker again. In the year since I had finished my journey around Asia, I had almost forgotten that feeling. I missed it. There was nothing quite like it. Living in Taipei was one thing, but nothing compared to the freeing experience of pure uninhibited travel. It’s like a drug that takes hold of you and leaves you forever an addict. Nothing is ever really the same again. It haunts your daily routines constantly injecting that little thought into your mind: I could be traveling right now…. I got my fix for now but how long would it last.
I assume another trip around Taiwan lies in the near future. I can’t stay off the road for too long and I am living in the middle of truly fantastic backpacker territory. This island is a hidden gem. The people are very polite, friendly and welcoming. The East coast is stunning, full of adventure activities and still relatively undeveloped. The cities are big enough to keep you entertained but not so big to be frustrating. The island is small but well connected by an efficient yet cheap transportation system. Outside of Taipei, there are few western travelers diluting the local culture. And perhaps most importantly for me, the street food is amazing. What’s not to love?

Posted by bradenelsewhere 20:23 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

Credits

If there is one lesson I learnt while backpacking, it’s that the experience is more about the people you meet than the places you go. Only when traveling can you make a best friend in a week. So a big thanks to all the friendly, funny, kind, caring, honest, warm hearted, open minded, odd, adventurous, dynamic, down to earth, modest, laidback, sarcastic, energetic, brave, passionate, independent, ambitious, outgoing, outrageous, outlandish and downright weird people I made friends with along the way. Here is a random selection of quotes for you all that I collected during my travels. They will probably only make sense to the individual who spoke them but… whatever.
“Donkeyville” – Dana
“What are those groundhogs called? Groundhogs?” – Rachel
“These aren’t even my clothes” – Ben
“If we go to Canada, I think they will put him in the zoo.” – Zul
“This temple is nice because its fat person proof” – Random
“China: The customer is not always right…” – Braden
“Lets go find a stinki schlumpa” – Sascha
“Three million people died today when Singapore was covered in twenty seven feet of snow… all at once.” – Singapore Hippie
“I tell you what, Africa!... What the fuck?” – Sophies
“I think everyone is strange in their own way. And yet some people spend their whole lives trying to hide it… I think this is the most strange part.” – Rains Ng
“Julie, stand down! Minsung, finish him!” – Amanda
“If I got this fat on tofu and vegetables Id be pissed” – Kevin
“I go to bars but only for milk shakes” – Zhuqi
“Before we go to the killing fields, we have to have a snickers pancake.” – Braden
“A little bit of old advice that will get you fucked for sure. Wear those santa hats.” – Bruce Lee
“Lets go down to electric avenue and crotchrub.” – Roger
“I popped a lot of shit when I saw your face man” – Yahia
“Lets all come to work on Monday wearing sandals, short shorts and a tie.” – Jim
“Get your balls on!” – Joanne
“Why you not fat?” – Ling Li Na
“Teacher, may I have a hello kitty?” – Yerin
“Lets just burry them all.” – Spring
“It’s a great feeling to be as uncomfortable as you has ever been in your life and as content as you have ever been in your life at the same time.” – Braden
“Right there man. People are happy, people are sad, people are healthy, people are dying… Fuck… the world man.” – Yahia

Posted by bradenelsewhere 22:52 Archived in Canada Comments (1)

The End... For Now

sunny 20 °C

As I gazed out over the snow capped mountains which hug the west coast of Canada I knew I was almost home. I hadn’t slept in two days and yet I didn’t feel tired. A slideshow of memorable moments from the last two years, both good and bad, raced through my mind taking precedence over my body’s cries for sleep.
I was having mixed feelings about returning home. I was grateful for all the things I had experienced in Asia but perhaps not ready to leave it behind. I was excited to see a family I had not seen in far too long but dreading the thought of returning to the real world. It was all very confusing.
As the plane taxied into the terminal I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some eager Japanese backpacker onboard just beginning his adventure in the west as I was concluding mine in the east. Instead of feeling nostalgic and confused he would be nervous and excited, full of expectations which would soon be thwarted and limits which would soon be tested. If there was such a person onboard, I envied him. I hoped to be in his shoes again one day soon.
I know my stay in Canada will not be long. For the time being, I am hooked on life abroad. If you have followed this blog, I don’t think it should be not hard to understand why. The sights are mind blowing, the culture intriguing and the people extraordinary. It challenged me in ways I never expected. It allowed me the opportunity to connect with some truly inspiring individuals. It altered my perspective on life and forced me to reconsider what is significant and meaningful. It broke me down both physically and mentally then rebuilt me.
It taught me so much about myself and what I am capable of. It taught me how to go slow and enjoy the journey as much as the destination, in life and in travel. It trained me in the art of patience and presence of mind. It showed me how to avoid quick judgements and expectations. Quite simply, the experience is something that has changed me for the better.
I guess every adventure has to come to an end sometime. We all must eventually return to reality. No journey can last forever. But now that this journey is over, the only question left is where to go next…

Posted by bradenelsewhere 22:51 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

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