To The Land Of The Rising Sun

Tl;dr – 3am start, rain-soaked walk, 4am bus, everything opens at 6am in Taoyuan airport, 6am boarding, decent uneventful flight, Japanese trains are confusing, hostel is super close to the subway

3am is much more frequently an end of a day than a start, but for some reason we found ourselves waking up at this horrible hour once more. But unlike the last one, where I got to chill out for a few hours in bed, we were up and out the door by 3:20 to walk to the bus station, in the pouring rain. When we got there the bus station was shut, but there was a queue outside the front (of course, it was under an awning) which we joined not really knowing if it was for our bus. At around 3:50 a small, old, bald man opened up the doors and we rushed to the front of the new queue at the gate for the bus. We had purchased Easycards for the metro and they were accepted on the bus so we didn’t need to buy tickets, so this meant we could be right at the front of the bus queue. 4am came and went and no bus. The small, old, bald man informed us (I think) that the bus would be 5 minutes, and lo and behold he was right. We got straight on and sat at the front because we are super cool and watched as some small puddles formed around our soggy shoes. 10 minutes later we were off.

The bus journey was much quicker than the previous journey in the opposite direction and so, in about half an hour, we were at the terminal ready to check-in. Taoyuan Airport has a good little addition at check-in where you go and stand at a screen and watch your bag make it through the X-ray machine. So if you’ve packed some explosives or hard drugs then you know whether or not they make them on the plane. As we had neither, we watched Kate’s bag plop out the other end of the X-ray machine and we headed off through security.

Once out the other end we both started to feel a bit peckish. They have a lot of vending machines in Taipei and it came in handy when you got thirsty knowing you weren’t far from some sugary hydration. Unfortunately, solid nutrition is not found in vending machines so after finding our gate I set off on a solo mission to find some nosh. I went up and down the terminal and found nothing. Obviously the important shops were there, the Hello Kitty emporium and duty free, but the other shops seemed to be unavailable at this time in the morning. At 5:58 our boarding call went out and I headed back to the gate, watching curtain after curtain fall to reveal a variety of shopping options. It seems 6am is the golden hour. So my only remaining option was to put all my remaining coins in a vending machine and so I bought 4 cans of pop. A lady asked if I had change for 100 NT$ for the vending machine. I said no but I had some spare coins if she wanted a drink. She asked for a water, which I felt was reasonable so I got one for her. I was thanked multiple times and was told that I had saved her life. I hope she doesn’t tell Jeremy Hunt I’m now paying people to save their lives or he might get ideas…

We boarded our flight, on the plane next to the Hello Kitty plane. Ours was much more boring so I didn’t photograph that one.

Our plane was quite nice inside however. It was the same model as our Norwegian plane to Bangkok so was kitted out nicely and was a pleasant flight which we both slept through most of. At one point I leant on the light button on the armrest and turned my neighbours reading light on. I said sorry. That was about as exciting as it got.

Getting off the plane it became apparent how big Narita airport is when it took us 15 minutes to get to baggage claim walking on travellators.

The view from the start of the travellators

Once through security a sniffer puppy in training smelt our bags and was satisfied it didn’t contain any tasty treats so we continued on. Then we had a customs official ask us where we were going in Japan. We had seen this happen many times on border control programmes on the lesser watched TV channels. We didn’t really have a solid plan but I named some cities and that seemed to satisfy him and we were let loose.

After getting our metro pass and some yen we got some food and coffee and attempted to work out how to get to the hostel. It seemed pretty straightforward in principle but to get to Tokyo we had at least 5 options, probably a good amount more. 1 was the bus and 4 were various trains. There were 2 main companies, JR (Japan Rail) and Keisei. JR was well over ¥2000, as was the fastest Keisei (the Skyliner). There were however 2 other Keisei trains: the Access Express and the Limited Express. The access one was more inconvenient for our hostel so we plumped for the limited one on the nice Keisei man’s recommendation. The limited express was neither quick, nor did it skip many or any stops. In fact it was the second slowest after the bus. It was however less than half the price of the faster trains and got us to Ueno station where we only had a short metro ride to the hostel.

The instructions for how to get to the hostel from Hatchabori station read “Take exit A1 and walk for 1 minute”. I hoped this would suffice and it would be really easy but it turned out it wasn’t very accurate after all. We walked out of exit A1 and thankfully had the sense to stop after 20 seconds because we had already arrived.

Konnichiwa Tokyo.

The stats

03:20 (GMT +8) walk from Taipei Family Hostel to Taipei West Terminal Bus Station: 20 minutes

04:20 bus to Taiwan Taoyuan Airport: 30 minutes, 250 NT$ (£10.82)

07:02 (22 minute delay) Scoot flight  to Tokyo Narita: 2 hours 55 minutes (12 minute delay), 4152 NT$ (£98.39)

13:10 (GMT +9) Kensei Limited Express train : 1 hour 18 minutes,  ¥2060 (£15.47)

14:38 subway to Hatchobori: 10 minutes, ¥340 (£2.55)

14:48 walk to Wise Owls Hostel: 1 minute (if that)

Arrived 14:49 GMT +9

Total time in transit: 5 hours 14 minutes

Total travel time: 10 hours 28 minutes

Total cost: £127.23 (£63.62 each)

Taipei Positive

Overview

Population: 2,704,974

Currency:New Taiwan Dollar (NT$)

1 NT$ = 2.4p. £1 = 41.21 NT$

Time Zone: GMT +8 (7 hours ahead of UK summer time)

Taiwan facts from the 5th floor of Taipei 101

Music video for Taipei by 65daysofstatic

14th – 18th September

Our first impressions of Taipei were not the best. Our journey from the airport could’ve been a lot worse but the delays, the extra walk and the weather didn’t help. That evening we dumped our stuff in our room and, on the recommendation of Tom (the hostel owner), headed out for food at the Ningxia night market. It was a relatively short walk and by then the weather had calmed down a bit. I had read about the traditional Taiwanese night markets and was quite excited to delve into the experience. I was not disappointed but navigating the street carts and vendors was tricky with our lack of knowledge of written Mandarin. We found one vendor with both pictures and English text. I had the braised beef tendon ramen, which was far tastier than it sounds. Kate (a vegetarian that only recently began to dabble with a limited selection of fish) ended up with something similar after ordering a shrimp dish. I did my very best pointing and waving and the waitress took the dish away, picked the beef out and gave it back. Kate, very sportingly, began to eat her largely plain noodle broth, picking out the small bits of beef left behind, but then a short while later some shrimp won-tons were brought out in a bowl to plop into the soup.

After our noodles we stopped by a juice stall and had a cup of pure mango smoothie between us. This also gave us our first experience of the ubiquitous plastic cup topping machine. The cup goes in the machine and with one swift pull of the lever, out pops a sealed plastic film lid ready for popping your straw through. I have absolutely no need for it but I want one.

The next day we somehow managed to sleep in and only get going at 3pm. Nonetheless we had a productive day. There were a couple of bits and bobs we needed to find so we headed to Taipei Main Station (where we had walked from the previous day) to pick them up and find some lunch. We ended up wandering the Taipei City Mall, a vast line of clothes, bags, electronics and food stalls under one of the main roads from the station. We found a small food court with no English menu but a picture of what looked like (and turned out to be) mushroom spaghetti for Kate amongst the many meaty options for me. Also included with our meals (around £3 each) was unlimited sweet tea and miso soup. From the mall we headed through Ximending district towards Longshan temple. We ended up entering the temple during prayer time, which was a wonderful piece of luck as we really got to experience it in full swing with incense sticks everywhere and endless chanting. The building itself, as with Bangkok’s temples, is beautiful with an unbelievable amount of intricate detailed features from floor to ceiling.

From there we caught the metro to the Chiang Kei Shek memorial. When you come out of the metro station the first thing you see is a huge arched gateway, the national theatre and the national museum flanking a paved area on three sides. The fourth side borders a walkway through landscape gardens to the CKS memorial itself.

Up 89 steps (1 for every year he lived) is a grand building housing a huge statue of the man himself sat down, not unlike the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC. From my brief Wikipedia session and from what Lonely Planet tells me, he sounds like a bit of a badass.

It was getting late so we decided to venture towards Taipei 101 to see if we could catch the sunset from the top. Unfortunately this was a smidge optimistic as it was dark when we climbed out of the metro station. But Taipei at night was something that seemed like a good thing to see from what was once the world’s tallest building.

We first went to get some food from the food court within Taipei 102, found in the basement of the shopping mall that sits on the first 5 of its 101 floors. There was quite a selection and we ended up with a stir fry and some filled Belgian waffles each, the classic combo. Once full of food we made our way to the 5th floor where the observation deck experience begins. We joined the ticket queue that looked to be rather large but manageable. After about ten minutes a security guard asked us if we had booked tickets online. We said we hadn’t and we were informed we had been in the wrong queue. We were ushered to the back of a different queue and ten minutes later we ended up in this…

It may look like a large crowd but this is actually two different, very well organised queues. So after our incorrect queue we queued for over an hour to get our tickets. After this queue we queued to join yet another queue to get in the lift. The total queueing experience took around 2 hours. We were informed during queue number 2 that visibility at the top was 100% and considering the rain previous to and after our visit, plus the fact it was a national holiday, I see now why it was so busy.

The way to climb to the observation deck is by lift. Like the building itself this broke a world record when it opened. Unlike the building itself it retains the title of fastest lift in the world. It scales 84 floors in 37 seconds, reaching speeds of 37.7 mph. Once at the observation deck on floor 89 we realised very quickly what the fuss was about.

We enjoyed views like this from all 4 sides of the building before heading up the final 2 floors on foot to floor 91 at 390m. The final ten floors and spire, making up the other 118m are inaccessible to the public, but 390m was enough. On the way down we saw Taipei 101’s other remaining world record. Spanning the 87th to 91st floor, in the centre of the building, there is the worlds largest damper, weighing in at 660 tonnes. It’s purpose is to take the brunt of the incredible winds Taipei is used to during typhoon season.

After our 37 second elevator ride back down and a short metro ride it was back to the hostel to get ready for another busy day, that we hoped would start a little earlier.

Day 3 began at 10:30. The plan was to wake up at 9:30 however Kate’s phone had failed to update our time zone and we were very content in our unconscious state to carry on sleeping. We went back once more to the main station to peruse their many food options and after Kate grabbed a croissant straight away, after strolling round and round looking for a hint of the roman alphabet I ended up settling for what I thought looked a bit like a quiche but ended up being some kind of mushroom flavoured egg custard tart. It was maybe a little bit nicer than it sounds.

Our first attraction of the day was Taipei Zoo, famous for its pandas Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan that were gifted to Taiwan by China as a diplomatic gesture of goodwill.

Tuan Tuan or Yuan Yuan enjoying his or her lunch

We turned up on a scorcher of a day and it was something I was not particularly excited about. Kate had read it was 600 NT$ (£14.20) and I thought that there were better things we could do with our money. It turned out it was 60 NT$ and suddenly I was very excited! We saw bears, lions, tigers, giraffes, elephants, hippos and this little guy!

Because we live in a Western society we do not use umbrellas on sunny days. Despite all my praise for awnings everywhere, the zoo was severely lacking in them. This meant a lot of hiding behind trees and in gift shops. The penguin house was a highlight. About halfway through we got some orangey slushy stuff and it probably saved our lives.

Once our zoo experience was complete we headed to the top of the zoo to get the shuttle bus (read road train) to the south zoo gondola station. This was to catch a gondola to the top of a hill in the south of Taipei to reach Maokong.

Maokong is a hilltop region famous for its tea and it was once the biggest producer of tea in Taipei. It is now more of a tourist hotspot for the art of tea drinking and the fantastic views across the hills to the big city. We walked up the winding streets to a small collection of cafes and stopped at one on the hillside for a delicious pot of High Mountain Oo Long (mine) and Jin-Xuan (Kate’s) served in traditional Taiwanese tea ware.

After our tea we headed back to the station via some sausages on sticks (for me) to get back down nearer to sea level. At the Gondola station we noticed there were two queues: Regular and Crystal. I asked Kate what she thought the difference and an American chap informed us that Crystal cabins had glass floors, so we went for it.

Spot the bites

Another slice of fortune, we ended up descending the hill as the sun descended beyond the horizon, giving us fantastic panoramic views of sunset over Taipei.

Although we had really enjoyed our culinary experiences thus far in Taipei, it was certainly not as straightforward to get vegetarian cuisine as it had been in Bangkok, and each mealtime had been preceded by a long battle with pictures of meat in bowls and pretty writing we couldn’t read. So that night we headed for the top result on Google for “veggie burger Taipei” – a New Zealand owned burger restaurant called KGB (Kiwi Gourmet Burgers) selling New Zealand craft beers and South African ciders. I had myself a beast of a chicken, bacon and avocado burger with an egg on top for good measure and a beer I’d never had before. Kate had a walnut and lentil burger with a cider and she was a happy lady. But I think I might have pipped her on that one.

After dinner we popped round the corner to a bar called Something Ales, a Taiwan owned ode to craft beers from around the world. I tried a couple of Taiwan beers, and Kate had the only non-beer option; a cappuccino. From there we ventured along the metro to a bar called BeerGeek MicroPub Taipei. This one felt a lot more like an expat bar, with a huge choice of English and American beers as well as a whole shelf dedicated to Tiny Rebel beers (from Wales of course). I had a Taiwanese craft beer, Kate got herself another cider and a super drunk yank. He informed us he was celebrating his birthday by enraging Israelis about his opinions on the West Bank. He also told us all about how he hates Japanese people because they’re racist. He left on his own shortly after, to our great relief. We needed to make a swift exit in order to make the last metro back anyway, but he certainly didn’t slow our departure.

Day 4 was an odd one. We spent the majority of the day strolling through the many underground malls around the main station, including the large one we had been to on our second day. After some clothes shopping, filling out a survey about tourism for college student and a few unsuccessful goes on the crane machines we decided to venture outside into the daylight. We had been warned of another typhoon approaching Taipei that day and at the top of the escalator we were greeted by blankets of rain. We stopped off for a coffee under a good sturdy awning and during this time I decided it would be a fantastic idea to venture in search of a Taiwan staple called stinky tofu. There is a street renowned for being the place to get it in the neighbouring New Taipei called Shen Keng Old Street, a short bus ride from the end of metro line 4. The half hour journey there was generally problem free, bar the horrendous rain. When we got to Shen Keng we quickly realised that stinky tofu was unavailable during typhoons. The street is about 400m long and is supposedly usually packed from end to end with vendors and punters. We walked the whole length (under some very nice old brick awnings thankfully) without the faintest whiff of the stinky stuff.

The top of Shen Keng Old Street

At the end of it we decided to cut our losses and get a bus back to somewhere a little bit more open. We saw a bus pull up just along the road so we headed in that direction to the bus stop. I knew there were about 5 different buses we could catch so it was just a case of waiting for the next one of those to turn up. 10 minutes went, 20 minutes, 30 minutes and no bus. Then, in the distance, I saw the yellow glow of mandarin. I couldn’t quite make out the number but our odds were good, seeing as there were only 1 or 2 that headed off away from the metro station. As it got nearer, the display changed to English and read “Out Of Service”. It was another 20 minutes before a bus (and 2 more, of course) turned up and took us back towards Taipei. We ended up eating in our favourite foodie hotspot, the train station.

After dinner it was straight back to the hostel in order to try our best to be fresh for our 3am start the following day for our journey to Japan.

The Hostel

Taipei family hostel was again a hostel close to transport, cheap for a private double room and highly rated on the old Hostelworld. It was an unusual hostel, basically a large converted flat close to an intersection of two main roads, with a small living room/common room and an area out the back containing the showers, sinks, water dispenser, toilet and urinal. The owner, Tom, would be there 9-5 and any problems outwith these hours needed to be solved by email, which was fine until we came back one night to a blocked toilet (the only available toilet for females). But our room was nice, with good air conditioning and our own personal flip-flops to use around the hostel. The location was fantastic and overall was a nice place to spend the night but we really didn’t spend much time there at all in the day (when we were awake).

Thailand to Taiwan: A Thairing Journey

Tl;dr – early taxi with man who laughed at everything, steamed buns are amazing, delayed flight to Taipei, long bus ride where we missed our stop, walk in the rain to the hostel, I have strong views on the mathematics of buildings

The day started somewhere between 3 and 4am for me. Due to inconsistent sleeping I had not been able to shake the jet lag so, as much as I was dreading the early start for our 7am taxi, it didn’t really matter in the end.

One day you will be able to get a Skytrain to Don Mueang Airport like you can to Suvarnabhumi but unfortunately it is still being built at present. So we needed to get a taxi all the way to the airport and, when we asked the hostel guy, he said our options were: a) a 5-10 minute walk along the canal, with our heavy bags, to the main road to try and flag down a taxi, then hope they would put their meter on which should end up costing around 400 baht but could be much more if they refused to use the meter and we were running out of time or b) pay 500 baht for a no hassle door-to-door service. The hostel guy seemed to think this was a 50-50 call but I think we made the right choice with option b. If people will pay £10 to board a flight a couple of minutes before everyone else I thought we could justify £2 (or nothing, or a mighty saving) between us to avoid all that.

The taxi was there waiting when we got downstairs at 6:50 so we chucked our bags into a boot that got closed with some bungee rope and hopped into our hot pink cab. We went to buckle our seatbelts but the driver said “no, no, no. Hahahaha” and set off, after buckling himself in. His driving was typical for Bangkok in that it was terrifying. Every now and then he would say something like “Don Mueang, hahahaha” or, point to his watch and then say “Hahahaha” and I would laugh too whilst, at the same time, feel certain it was all going to end in a fiery pile of glass and metal as he weaved in and out of lanes like he was playing Frogger.

At 7:40 we arrived at Don Mueang Airport without incident. Our driver laughed, we laughed and we went our seperate ways. We got to the check-in desk and prepared ourselves for the stress of the weigh-in. Kate only had a 15kg check-in allowance for this flight and so I had offered to take a thing or two because even though I knew my bag was over the 10kg limit, no-one ever weighs hand luggage. Kate put her bag down… 15.2kg. A few tense moments but it was accepted! All was well! But then, I was asked to weigh my hand luggage bag. Why now? Why me? I plonked it down… 12.4kg. All was not well. Kate’s hand luggage was 5kg so we were advised to swap some bits from mine to hers (which was visibly bursting at the seems). The Lonely Planet book came out – 11.5kg, toiletries out 11.2kg. As I contemplated which was heavier, 4 t-shirts or 9 pairs of pants, they gave up their pointless charade and said it was fine and we were free to go.

As it was breakfast time Kate went for the ever popular McDonalds breakfast item of Filet-O-Fish. I held out for something a little more authentic. What I got was pretty much an oriental Sausage & Egg McMuffin – a steamed bun stuffed with minced pork and egg. It was awesome, I highly recommend it! I had it alongside my equally authentic oreo cookies and cream frappé. We waited around watching the planes take off until ours turned up. We were flying with a Taiwanese budget airline called V Air. They will cease to operate come October 2016, which is a shame because it was a good airline and it’s mascot is a super cute bear that does a little dance when anything loads on their website.

Adopting the V Bear attitude

We had been warned via email by the owner of our Taipei hostel that there was a chance of a typhoon. Luckily it remained largely in the south of Taiwan (Taipei being in the north) but we were nonetheless delayed as our flight path was altered.

After take off we were both able to catch up on lost sleep. As we approached Taipei we were then informed that there was lots of traffic waiting to land and it would be another 20-30 minutes. We started circling for a bit which allowed us to see great views over Taiwan.

Once we finally landed it was evident the weather was not being kind in the north, although apparently nothing compared with how it was in the south. We headed through the airport to the bus terminal to get us to Taipei. The 1819 bus was empty when we got on but it filled up within minutes. Once on our way it was a long, slow journey through heavy rush hour traffic and high winds to reach our destination. However, despite this, travelling over and between the mountains before catching a glimpse of Taipei City sprawling out before us was a spectacular sight.

I knew we needed to get off at the Ambassador Hotel and this was stop number 4, according to the boards at the airport, and the penultimate stop before the terminus at the city’s main train station. I watched and took note as the bus announced each stop in a number of languages, including English, before a loud buzzer went off and the bus would stop and let some passengers off. We came up to stop #3 (Taini (pronounced Tiny) Building – pretty memorable, which was good), but there was no buzzer before the bus stopped and no-one got off. This assured me that we would stop at every stop. Ambassador Hotel was announced so we stood up and walked to the front. Again, no buzzer went and the bus seemed to carry on for much longer than previously. I asked the driver if we had passed it and she apologized and said she didn’t know we wanted to stop, despite us standing right behind her. We sat back down and I looked for the source of the buzzer. Eventually I found a tiny red button with a bell on hidden overhead next to the much larger reading light buttons.

Thankfully the station was only marginally further than the intended stop so we set off on foot. Unhelpfully it was raining quite heavily. But, like in Thailand, Taiwan fully accept that it rains occasionally and put awnings everywhere (UK take note) so it wasn’t too bad. After 15 minutes or so we arrived at our intended street for the Taipei Family Hostel. I knew there was a squirrel drawn on the wall nearby, which we found, but we needed flat 2F. We searched the vicinity for signs of 2F, we even pressed some buttons, but to no avail. A few minutes later a man walked up and we asked him where we could find the hostel. He informed us it was on the second floor and he was going into the same building. We followed him up to the first floor and he went in the only door there. We continued but were confronted by a locked gate as we tried to continue up the stairs. I went to press the buzzer on the gate but we were greeted by the hostel owner, standing in the doorway the other guy had just strolled through. It was then that it dawned on me that 2F stood for 2nd floor and, in Taiwan (and all sensible nations), the ground floor does not exist (UK take note). A lot of people would disagree I’m sure and, in some instances, it makes sense to start counting from 0 (e.g with time) but if the top level of a 2 storey building is number 1, your system is flawed (pardon the pun).

I digress, we made it to hostel number 2 and we were soggy but relieved.

The stats

06:50 (GMT +7) Taxi from Baan Nampetch Hostel to Don Mueang Airport: 50 minutes, 500 baht (£10.82)

10:57 (22 minute delay) V Air flight  to Taiwan Taoyuan (Taipei): 4 hours 18 minutes (38 minute delay), 7,420 baht (£160.52)

17:11 (GMT +8) bus from Taoyuan Airport to Taipei Main Station: 1 hour 25 minutes, 250 NT$ (£5.96)

18:36 walk to Taipei Family Hostel: 15 minutes

Arrived 18:51 GMT +8

Total time in transit: 6 hours 48 minutes

Total travel time: 11 hours 1 minute

Total cost: £177.30 (£88.65 each)