We had a lot of adventure and some misadventure in Taiwan. The misadventure involved nearly running out of cash (because we barely brought any, Duh!) and eventually not being able to access any more. Not only did we waste 2+ hours trying to get cash at the American Express international office on Fuxing North Road, but it got down to us counting dim sum dumplings at Din Tai Fung to see how many we could order. This kind of limits the Din Tai Fung experience when you are trying to figure out if you can afford 5 or 10 dumplings, but we decided to just spend our dwindling wad. We left enough cash in our wallet for mango snowflake ice and return tickets back on the MRT train. It just went along with the theme of nearly missing our plane to get here.
Starting from the beginning… I hired a driver named Roger to pick John, Avalon and me up from the airport. The next day, Thursday, March 15, he drove the three of us around Taiwan. Roger was awesome though he barely spoke any English. His wife spoke English though, so if we got into any tough communication binds then he called her up and we talked to her. At the top of my priority list was going to the National Palace Museum. The history of this museum is dramatic and absolutely fascinating but I can’t write all of the details here.
In short summary, back in the early 30’s General Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government saw the writing on the wall and had China’s most valuable imperial art pieces rounded up (from the then, Beijing Palace Museum and other places) in order to protect them from falling into the hands of the Japanese Army who were advancing on China. The art was moved around China and finally settled into storage in Nanking. In 1948, with the escalation of the Chinese Civil War between the Communist and Nationalist parties, Chiang Kai-shek made the decision to evacuate the most valuable art treasures to Taiwan. Some of the crates began a journey to Taiwan.
According to Wikipedia, “By the time the items arrived in Taiwan, the Communist army had already seized control of the National Beiping (Beijing) Palace Museum collection so not all of the collection could be sent to Taiwan. A total of 2,972 crates of artifacts from the Forbidden City moved to Taiwan (but this) only accounted for 22% of the crates originally (moved out), although the pieces represented some of the very best of the collection.”
Another website, theculturetrip.com says that since then, “… the collection has rarely been moved out of the Museum, let alone out of Taiwan for fear that many of the relics would be seized and returned to China.” As a result of this action, one of the largest collections of Chinese artifacts and artworks can be found, not in China, but in Taiwan. And nowadays, a lot of Chinese tourists go there to see their art history. It is a gorgeous collection! I think Avalon even enjoyed it.Looking at priceless treasures works up an appetite so after the museum we went to the next item on my to do list. We ate lunch at cha For Tea. cha For Tea is a chain of tea house eateries that my college friend David helped launch in Taipei. We went to his original location on Fuxing North Road. It was large, Western style, and beautifully decorated.
The menu includes several vegetarian choices, a lot of different teas and sweets. Avalon ordered beef noodles but she didn’t like the green tea noodles so she ate my vegetarian lunch instead. We ordered custom boba tea drinks with a little sugar and ice. Avalon’s verdict was: not sweet enough. She wanted more sugar. John and I thought they were perfect.
After lunch Roger drove us out to the Golden Waterfall on the north end of Taiwan. The area near the Golden Waterfall is known as Jinguashi and was an important area for gold mining during the Japanese occupation. Most websites say that the water is highly toxic and the golden hue of the waterfall is due to pollution and the product of mining and its runoff. A few sites say that research shows it was always this way, even long before the mining began. Perhaps it is due to heavy metal elements in the earth. Either way, mother nature and perhaps people together created a beautiful sight, but I wouldn’t drink, let alone even touch, the water.
Next on our tour was the town of JiuFen, an important place of inspiration for Sprited Away creator Hayao Miyazaki. As such there are a lot of Studio Ghibli trinkets to buy here. If you are a Miyazaki fan it’s a must see place in Taiwan. But even better, JiuFen is a place of traditional and special sweets, beautiful seaside scenery, steep alleys with endless steps, temples and teahouses. JiuFen Old Street is like an awesome street market.
This is one of JiuFen’s specialty treats. On the right is a bowl of taro root balls (purple) and sweet potato balls (orange) in a sweet syrup. On the left is a bowl of shaved snowflake ice with sweet red beans on top. You can mix them together. Taro balls are very popular and they are said to be the best in JiuFen. It was yummy but Avalon preferred her mango mochi ice cream instead.At the end of our day Roger drove us to an old railroad town called Shifen to light a Sky Lantern into the night sky. We paid for a lantern with sides of 4 different colors (you can choose between 2-8 colors I think). Each color is supposed to represent something, like happiness, prosperity, health, and so on. We got to decorate our lantern with pictures and wishes. Below is a photo of someone else’s lantern going up in the sky because I wasn’t quick enough to get a shot of ours. It went up pretty fast. Some flammable material is lit under the lantern and the hot air fills it and carries it up into the sky. If you are lucky it will keep on rising until you can’t see it anymore. It is said that the lantern carries your wishes up to the gods!To conclude our day we needed to pay Roger. Cash only. I had used up most of my New Taiwan dollars (NTD) so I needed to get more from an ATM. Roger took us to a 7-11 convenience store. Oops. I forgot my US ATM bank card at home. I discovered at this time that our Japanese bank puts on several restrictions for withdrawing money overseas so that wasn’t working either. I didn’t have the correct PIN for my Visa card. We had no idea the PIN for John’s AmEx either. Uh-oh. Well we had some Japanese yen so if only we could find a currency exchange place. But it was already 8:30pm. What would be open at that hour? Roger drove us to Taipei 101 which is a huge Taipei landmark with a mall inside and on the basement floor they had a currency exchange counter. Phew! By now it was 9pm. We stood in line and handed over our Japanese yen. Everything I had in my wallet and John’s wallet. But, what? We needed our passports to exchange our currency! Yes, of course. Any international traveler knows that. And we had left them in the apartment. Oh what to do.
Surprisingly, as we debated our situation, the currency man behind the counter suggested that we ask the young couple next in line to exchange our money for us. An end run around the system and a very good suggestion indeed. Not only did this young couple in their 20’s speak excellent English, they were from Osaka! The girl was wearing an Alabama sweatshirt and she said she had studied there for a year. And they lived about 45 minutes away from us in Japan. Incredible. They were able to change our JPY into NTD. The good news was that now we had enough to pay Roger. The bad news was that since he was with us for TWELVE HOURS (9am to 9pm) we had to pay him overtime and it was almost all of the cash that we had just exchanged. It was totally worth it though!
Next up: Day two in Taiwan Google maps led us astray, a few young men told John he was very handsome, and we nearly ran out of cash without any way to get more.