Deena and I both believe that people everywhere are basically good and friendly. The Taiwanese so greatly exceeded our expectations that we were amazed and touched.
From our cruise, we had a one-day stop at the port outside of Taipei.1 We wanted to visit a couple of places in the mountains. One was a former gold mine turned into a nice little shopping street, called Jiufen.
The real challenge was finding the right bus when neither of us could read or speak Chinese. Our on-board Taiwanese friend, Lucy, gave us the bus map with the route highlighted, brought us to the station outside the port and made sure we knew the bus number to take. When we tried to buy the ticket, though, the clerk mimed for us to go outside to “7-8-8!” Apparently, the bus company and bus number for Jiufen had been changed. Oops!
After wandering all around, we ducked into the train station and inquired at the information booth. The man, who spoke no English, knew exactly what we were asking. He hunted all over his crowded office until he found the little piece of paper where someone had written in English the new directions to find the #788 bus. “Up the stairs over the road, turn right, turn left, down the stairs, wait in front of the medical clinic for bus 788.” That unbelievable helpfulness was a mere foreshadowing of what we were about to experience in Taiwan.
Arriving at the group of bus-waiting Chinese, we tried to confirm whether we were in the right place. One young fellow who spoke English responded with “We are going there too. Why don’t you sit near us and we can make sure that you exit at the right bus stop. We will also show you how to find the correct bus for the way back to the port.”
Joe and his girlfriend, Alice (who didn’t speak any English), adopted us at that bus stop. We walked around Jiufen with them. They introduced us to sweet taro ball soup.2
After our walkabout in Jiufen, they suggested we continue with them because it would be more fun than where we had planned. We enthusiastically agreed. No tour, no guide book, no Internet page can ever replace experiencing a place through the eyes of its own inhabitants.
On the way there, we stopped in Ruifang to change from a bus to a train. We enjoyed some street food with Joe and Alice, including an odd fried sandwich peculiar to Ruifang. It was a ham, tomato and egg sandwich on a long, deep-fried donut. Odd? Yes. Good? Um, the magic eight ball says “ask me later”.
We accompanied them by train to Houtong, famous for its cat population. Apparently, a woman who has since died started rescuing cats there. The cats continue to be fed and cared for by the few, remaining inhabitants. The feral cat population seems to own the village, and it’s become a tourist spot for cat lovers, complete with a few shops that sell everything cat-related.
Houtong itself is an otherwise defunct coal-mining town with a colored history. It was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. There are food shops, a park, an information center about the mine, hiking trails and a tourist center.3 Not much is in English and to be honest, we were the only caucasions there.
In the afternoon, we had to start back toward the ship, and the young couple were going on to another city. To make sure we didn’t get lost, they accompanied us to buy the train tickets, took us to the correct platform and carefully explained where to exit and find the bus outside the Ruifang train station. We were sad to part company with our new Taiwanese friends.
We stopped for a coffee in a mom-and-pop storefront called Grind Coffee between the train station and bus stop. They didn’t speak English but understood “iced lattes”. Indeed, the lattes were excellent and refreshing, but what was even more amazing was the experience. The other customers in the shop kept stealing furtive glances at us, probably wondering what we were doing there since we were (a) white and (b) not with one of the many tour buses that passed through on the way to somewhere else. Finally, one who introduced himself as Tom, asked us where we were from.
We chatted with everyone and took pictures in the coffee shop. Awen offered to drive us back to the port in his car. He dropped us off and then surprised us with a gift of Taiwanese tea in a beautiful red gift box and bag. This act of welcoming to his country was beyond our wildest expectation!
If you ask us which country impressed us most so far, we both firmly answer Taiwan. The mountainous landscape is beautiful and the people are the warmest and friendliest we’ve ever met. When we taste the delicious gifted tea, it warms us and our hearts. A return to Taiwan is definitely on our bucket list.