I am in a town called Changhua. It's about halfway up the island and the point at which the train line splits between mountain and coast. I wanted to continue on the coast line, so figured this'd be a good spot to overnight. What i did not expect was the astronomical hotel prices. Up until now every hotel i have stayed in has been around 20€ on the cheap end and 40€ on the expensive end. This weekend 40€ was the hard floor, and that for a barrel-scraper of a hotel with the clerk behind glass and a parade of ants in the bathroom. But that was just the beginning. There were hotels up to 400€ a night at some of the smaller destinations along the coast line. No fucking joke. If these prices keep up i'm going back to the south and no regrets.
On the other hand, i found a legit bar. It's dark. They only have beer, champagne and rice wine. Everyone is smoking. Taiwanese pop music is on the TV screens. In every way it is like the kind of dive bars i am used to, except for it only opened at 8pm. I got turned back at 7pm so went to a fried chicken joint and ate Kentucky Fried 杏鲍菇 (xìng bào gū) - king oyster mushroom - while i waited. I was still the first customer.
That night got gnarlier the longer it went on. Just when i was thinking i was tired enough to give up, something happened. Fucking karaoke happened. But it was like no karaoke i have ever seen. Instead of having people get up on stage, a wireless mic appeared at one of the tables and they passed it round taking turns singing more Taiwanese pop songs. No one watched. No one clapped. No one paid any attention at all. Even at the same table as the mic they continued their conversation. If you just walked in you might not even notice, because both karaoke and regular video clips had subtitled lyrics. It was just a few drunk kids singing along to the songs they liked on a sound system loud enough that the whole bar could hear their efforts.
So i have to revise my thought that karaoke is about performance. At least the kind of karaoke they have here is about something else.
I found the whole thing so fascinating (and, let's not lie, i was getting drunk) that i stayed till midnight. It wasn't just the karaoke, it was also the video clips themselves. The thing that immediately struck me was that whiteness is still a prized feature even in a country where everyone is a "person of color" by western standards. Although some of the male singers were a little darker, the female idols and love-interests were universally whiter than me. What kind of wack beauty standards.
Another thing i noticed was how Taipei-centric it all was. Most all of the video clips snuck in a gratuitous shot of Taipei 101. I wonder how the kids in the south feel when all they see on TV is the north? Maybe they don't care. Aside from Taipei 101, almost every shot was a generic urban background. On an escalator, under an overpass, in the middle of the street. Not places i would consider beautiful or glamorous. Maybe pop clips have always been like that - it's been 20+ years since i watched any - but it seemed poignant because it's how i am starting to see the country. Even in the "wilderness" of the badlands farmers were eking out a living. Taking the train north all you see is apartments, factories and farms for miles and miles and miles. I guess Europe is largely the same, but it feels bleaker here for some reason. Maybe it's the lack of graffiti.
I'm back in one of the "regular" restaurant/bars tonight. I am mightily sunburnt after a day in a town called Lukang. It was tremendous. There is a famous temple there that draws crowds, but there are several famous temples on the west coast Mazu (goddess) route. What makes Lukang specifically a tourist destination is the history - aside from Tainan it's the oldest town in Taiwan. To me it doesn't look much different to anywhere else, but there are some alleys with historical plaques, so people come to take photos next to those.
I should mention i didn't see any white people, so it is most likely a local tourist destination, but that made it much more interesting to me. I got to be a tourist watching another culture be tourists. The whole town is lined with souvenir shops and people hawking dozens of local speciality snacks and knick-knacks. Everyone has to get a photo of everything. Gotta get a photo in front of the temple, in front of the guy blowing glass, in front of the "half well", in front of the frickin not-Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Oh yes, it's like Taiwanese Niagara. Although i generally hate tourist destinations due to the throngs of people and mediocre food, there is a certain point where it hits peak tackiness and wraps back around to delightfully kitsch. Lukang is that.
I checked in on Facebook when i arrived, as i have been doing in every town i visit. Yes, i am prostituting my privacy for the convenience of being able to tell my family i am not dead. Lucky for me, my expat friend/acquaintance replied with a string of Chinese logograms suggesting i take a taxi or bike there. Facebook is a piece of garbage so i couldn't copy/paste the location, but i opened up Baidu Maps and just scrolled around till i found the logograms and decided to jump on a bike. Yes, folks, i gave up on my "walking only" rule, largely because it was fucking hot and Lukang is surrounded by paddies with no shade and my curiosity was piqued.
At first i decided to bike to the seaside, because since i left Kaohsiung i haven't seen the sea. That was a mistake. It seems like the seaside in Taiwan is primarily seen as a useful place to situate factories. I cycled out to the dyke and climbed up and all i could see was mud, garbage and chimneys. The sea was the color of dishwater. I took a photo of the tiny shrine on top of the dyke and marveled again at this country's similarities to Holland and then got back on my bike to head to the mystery location.
The mystery location turned out to be a temple made of seashells out in the middle of nowhere. The temple had an unusual layout, and an even vaster array of ominous demons and gods and goddesses lining the entrance than normal. Inside the temple was a tiny, rickety staircase heading down with an arrow pointing to it. Well, what was i going to do, not follow the arrow? I followed the arrow, and ended up in a long, winding tunnel also made out of seashells, then came out in a bizarre aquarium. Or was it a pet shop? Tons of fish tanks stood about with small tropical fish inside. The roof was made of translucent green corrugated plastic, and water streamed continuously off it into pools on each side of the building. In the pools were tortoises and carp and all manner of water critters. Baggies of shells and beads and charms lay haphazardly about the place, some with price tags, most not. It was one of the most surreal places i have ever been.
Eventually i found a person - an old man who sat me down on a stool and spent about half an hour showing me photos and talking to me. I literally did not understand a single word he said, but he didn't seem to mind. I went back into the temple and found an old sign in English explaining that this guy had built the temple from scratch with no building experience at all, it took him years, labor of love etc etc. I realized then that this was a Taiwanese version of one of those odd roadside curiosities. The peak of the artist's "fame" probably happened 20 years ago, judging by the yellowed newspaper clippings. Now the place is shabby and deserted, but somehow even more wacky and endearing for it.
After that experience i wasn't sure anything in Lukang could top it, so i resolved to head back to Changhua. When i dropped my bike, a complete stranger came up to me and said i was "hong". I think he said 红 (hóng). This is a very important logogram to learn because if you combine it with bean (豆) you get red bean and if you combine it with tea (茶) you get "red tea", which is actually the Chinese word for black tea. Anyway, the stranger gave me a bottle of water out of his bag and would not take no for an answer, even though we were steps away from a convenience store. Random acts of kindness! After i finished the water i picked up a tea to match my face - 红茶 - with less ice and less sugar - 少冰 (shǎo bīng) and 少糖 (shǎo táng). Slowly i am learning more casual phrases so i don't need to say/mime "5, 5" any more.
On the bus i was quickly joined by someone who asked in English "can you speak Chinese?" It is so unusual to be addressed in English over here that i often find myself flustered and unable to respond properly. Then, after the shock subsides, i start to gush. Turned out she is back in Taiwan to visit her parents and has been living in South Africa and Australia for 30 years. Her home is Adelaide, the city where my mom lives. She asked which suburb and i wasn't able to answer. For someone who flies halfway round the world to visit her mom every year, it probably seemed odd that i haven't visited mine in over 10 years and don't have the slightest idea of her street address.
She said she was happy to be spending 5 weeks up here this time because finally her youngest got her drivers' license so was able to be left at home alone. I should have asked a bit more about that. Why does a kid need a drivers' license to be left alone? I guess because they live in some ass-end exurb with no public transport? I forget those sorts of places exist. Her older kid is almost finished with university and wants to travel. He has his heart set on Montreal for some reason. I had to reassure her that Canada is a relatively safe country, at least as safe as Australia.
Anywho, we chattered on and she talked about how much she loved Australia and how it's so multicultural and bla bla. It was interesting to hear that from someone with visibly Asian features and whose first language is not English. When i arrived in Australia it was a time of openly racist attitudes toward people of East Asian descent. During the 10+ years i lived there, the hatred slowly migrated to people of Middle Eastern descent, culminating in major race riots in 2005. Refugees from all over Asia faced inhumane conditions in notorious prison camps and to this day they still do. I witnessed indigenous friends suffering blatant racism from cops, bartenders and random people on the street. I consider Australia the most racist and obnoxiously intolerant place i have ever lived, and was very happy to leave. And yet, millions of people love it there, my mom and sister have become citizens and people emigrate from all over the world for the lifestyle. And here, on a bus in the middle of nowhere, a Taiwanese-born Australian spoke wistfully of home and worried about her kids leaving for dangerous countries like Canada. I guess a lot comes down to the circles you run in.
This morning i woke up with a hangover, again, so i grabbed a porkalicious bánh mì before taking the train north to Zhunan. I wanted to take the coastal line because of a picture on the Taiwan Railways website that made it look beautiful. It wasn't. I am going to venture a guess that it was a picture of the east coast, which is behind a mountain range and apparently features far more natural beauty than the west coast. This local line was just more factories and rice paddies. The highways are never far from the railroad and snake across the country on stilts all the way, making the whole place look like an endless intersection. I presume it's to avoid flooding. Of course, viaducts are also kinder to local wildlife than ground level roads, but i suspect the wildlife under these highways is limited to mud carp and pop singers shooting videos.
The most interesting sight was the thousands of trainspotters who had lined up to take photos of a steam train that we passed in Qingshui. People rushed onto our train and jumped out at the next station, sprinting to the end of the platform to try secure the optimum spot. Qingshui station was filled to bursting, so i understood their urgency. But as we continued on i noticed the really smart anoraks had driven or biked out to the country and crowded overpasses or jumped fences to sneak their way onto the tracks to get the perfect shot. The most ingenious of the lot was a guy who had set up a tripod on top of his car. I'm not sure where the train was headed, but at Dajia station there was an honor guard of temple musicians standing around, so perhaps it was just doing that short run.
Dajia was one of the places i originally wanted to stop, site of one of the most famous Mazu temples, but alas lacking any hotels that i could find. So i trundled on to Zhunan, past a couple of small villages that actually looked like proper seaside towns, though my standards are now greatly lowered after my Lukang experience. In fact, in Zhunan there is supposed to be a real beach where people go to do beach-y things like kitesurfing. I was going to walk down there, but with this hangover i am not sure i can make it. Also, my hotel room isn't ready, so i have been sitting around awkwardly in a coffee shop typing up these notes. The coffee shop is in a very modern and classy-looking neighborhood. It's all low-rise apartments and yoga studios and hair salons and palm trees. It feels very much like i am sitting in a beachside suburb somewhere in California. If i was in California i'd feel a bit out-of-place somewhere this preppy, but right now i am relishing the soft chair and smooth jazz and locals gossiping as the baristas foam milk and pour lattés. If i can't nurse my hangover in a hotel room, i could do worse than right here.
That simple black ice coffee turned out to be 100元, which is more expensive than any non-alcoholic drink and many meals i have had in this country. I hope it's not another sign of the north. I am so seedy and sunburnt i just want to collapse now my room is ready. I might book another night so tomorrow i can do the sightseeing i should have done today.