At 5.30 a.m., the Saturday before last, I was nursing an incipient cold as a passenger on a bus chugging round all five terminals at Charles de Gaulle airport in the snow, desperately trying to acquire a boarding card for the last leg of my trip home from Taipei. It was an ignominious end to what had been a very successful and hugely interesting visit – mainly a business trip, but with some useful gaps in my itinerary which could be used to explore.
I’d hired a driver for the free day intervening between my arrival and the start of my business appointments, something which I frequently do in S.E. Asia, because it is a safe, efficient and affordable way of seeing a great deal in a short time. On this occasion, I was accompanied by two colleagues and it was great to have some company, as on similar jaunts I’ve almost always been on my own. It was a slight handicap that the driver spoke almost no English – of the places I’ve visited in Asia, Taiwan has fewer English speakers than any; but we managed with a mixture of sign language, pictures on mobile phones and a very desultory stab at ‘Google translates’.
I’d already received, from an ex-pat, some tips about things to do. One of his suggestions was that we should visit a waterfall about eleven miles from the city. We managed to convey this to the driver, who indeed took us to a very picturesque waterfall –
it wasn’t unique, as I subsequently discovered, for there are several – in an area which was also home to some of the indigenous Taiwanese. My companions and I realised as soon as we got out of the car that these people and their artefacts were not of Chinese origin – the people themselves looked more like South Seas islanders – but I wasn’t to find out more about them until three days later. On this first day, we very much enjoyed strolling past the waterfall, drinking coffee in what looked like a 1950s retro jukebox bar and wandering through the street of small shops, eateries and bazaars.
A temple on the hillside seemed to be devoted to the Buddha, so we went for a look.
My meetings were at the National Taiwan Normal University. I won’t dwell on them too much, except to say that this university has a fabulous library – similar to the one at the London School of Economics, but with twice as many floors! Dinner on the second day was at the Shinyeh Dining Room, a famous restaurant serving typical Taiwanese food (delicious!). On the third day, after work had finished, we headed to a night market – a feature of Taiwan. The shops and stalls were, as the name suggests, opened only after dark.
They mostly sold street food and clothes: the atmosphere is the main reason why a Westerner enjoys a visit. The smells were indescribable – a mixture of two-stroke, coffee, fish and spices – and the ambience was festive. Whole families were out, laughing and joking and moving in large groups. That it was the week before the Chinese New Year (2019 is the Year of the Pig) contributed to the holiday feel.
On my last day in Taipei, a Taiwanese librarian and her American husband very kindly took two other colleagues and me to a New Year market in the old town.
The old town is not very old – a settlement was established at Taipei about 200 years ago and the ‘old’ town itself dates from, I’d guess, the turn of the twentieth century: the architecture of the shops and market halls is reminiscent of the parades of shops that were built in British
suburbs at the same time, though the Taiwanese ones are more decorative. The New Year markets open for twenty-four hours a day, just for the two weeks preceding the Chinese New Year. They provide a rich treasure trove of beautifully-crafted artefacts and scrumptious things to eat – there are many special foods and house decorations associated with the Chinese New Year, but because I was beginning my journey home in the evening of that same day, I was able only to photograph the foods, not buy them. We also visited a coffee shop devoted to raising money for the indigenous people – a map on
the wall showed there are twelve indigenous tribes living outside Taipei, each with its own designated reservation (similar to those of native Americans). They sell the little pots I’d seen during my visit to the waterfall; it is one of their main sources of income. The shop ensures that a fair price is paid for the goods they make (twenty years ago, I visited a similar shop in Sydney which performed the same service for Australian aborigines). A visit to a museum further down the street told us more about these people and the other races who inhabit Taiwan. Chinese influence is on the ascendant now, but in the past Taiwan was ‘owned’ by the Japanese and the impact of that culture is also strong.
And so to the airport, where the Cathay Pacific desk receptionist (having a noble stab at English) told me that she could check my luggage through to Manchester – though, worryingly, she kept saying ‘train station or plane?’ and, although I kept saying ‘plane’, her parting shot was that it had been sent to the ‘train station’ – but couldn’t give me a boarding card from Charles de Gaulle to Manchester, the final stage of the journey, because Cathay Pacific has no arrangement with Flybe. In the meantime, my cold kicked in. I spent the whole thirteen hours of the flight to Paris trying not to splutter on my fellow travellers and worrying about my lack of a boarding card – a fear I knew would be well-founded because I’ve ‘enjoyed’ the service at CDG before. Sure enough, my qualms about the boarding card were met with Gallic indifference until finally, after another tour of the terminals, I persuaded a very cross desk clerk to print one out for me. My reward was a complimentary cup of coffee and snack on the plane when I finally boarded, but, to be honest, by that stage I would gladly have travelled in the hold!
Miraculous to relate, my suitcase was waiting for me at Manchester. So was my husband. I collapsed into the car, but managed to enjoy the snowy drive across the Pennines – rather different from the twenty-degrees-plus temperatures in Taipei! It was all more than worth it, though – Taiwan is a magical, multi-layered country; as with India, I feel I have not even scratched the surface of all it has to offer. I hope I shall be able to return one day.