Showing posts with label taizhong. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taizhong. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Taichung: where transport cost more than my hotel

Taichung is now the second-largest city in Taiwan

Quite some time ago, I took a quick weekend jaunt to Taichung, mostly to see friends, but also to give the city a fair chance.

I'll admit, I've never been the biggest fan of Taichung, and I don't really understand why so many foreign residents say it's the best city in Taiwan to live. Sure, the weather is better, but the pollution is unbearable, making it hard to enjoy. Being in central Taiwan, it's equidistant from the attractions of both the north and south, but it's not actually in either of those places (to be fair, the area around Taichung is lovely). It's more laid-back, true, and more affordable - but there's also not a lot to do. The city has tried to improve public transport, but I'd say that has spectacularly failed. It has arguably one of the best night markets in Taiwan, but it's not easy to get to if you don't drive.

Miyahara, near Taichung Train Station

That said, I'd only stayed briefly in the past, usually on the way to somewhere else. So I felt I should at least spend a few days there before being so dismissive. It has also beaten out Kaohsiung to become the 2nd largest city in Taiwan, so it seemed like a good time to give it a chance.

The result? Mixed. Don't get me wrong, the cover photo on this is meant to be cheeky and fun, not a wholesale put-down of Taichung. I had a fun weekend - it's just that it cost me a hell of a lot of money to get around.

From our nighttime walk through central Taichung city

I arrived on a Friday evening and immediately went to a friend's house, where a few other friends had gathered. I drank a bit too much whiskey, ate a few too many fried chicken anuses,  and let's just say I'm pretty sure my friend had to call an exorcist to banish the demons I expelled in his bathroom later on. That was probably my most authentic Taichung experience: whiskey, chicken ass, and horking up that chicken ass a few hours later because why the hell would anyone eat that much chicken ass?

The next morning, I wandered downstairs not feeling great at all, and found a local breakfast shop. This is a small pleasure of Taiwan - little shops that have all sorts of tasty, greasy fare and are open until nearly lunchtime. Most foreigners in Taiwan seem to go for dan bing (a savory pancake-like roll with egg and filling, which is often cheese or bacon), but my go-to breakfast is a hamburger and turnip cake. The food was good and cheap and the atmosphere local. Being an industrial area, most of the other customers were Southeast Asian - Taiwanese factories frequently employ labor from nearby countries. This is one facet of the real Taiwan: not a "pure Han Chinese" "island" which is "historically a part of China" with "Chinese culture" where foreigners are temporary guests used for convenience, but a multicultural nation with a unique identity and strong ties to its Southeast Asian and Austronesian neighbors, where many foreigners of various backgrounds build long-term or permanent lives.

I'm a big fan of these flag guys - we have them in Taipei too

I have to say this for Taiwan: my friend lived in an industrial park. This is not what you'd imagine in the West: there is residential and commercial activity in such places in Taiwan. That said, in the US, in an "industrial" zone on the outskirts of town, I don't know if I'd have felt safe as a woman walking around alone. In my native land, such an area would probably have been a quiet, eerie place on a Saturday morning. Too deserted for a woman to feel comfortable.

In Taiwan, I knew I was perfectly safe.

There's no Curry Orgasmo in Taipei

After saying goodbye to my friend (and reminding him that both of his bathrooms now contained horrors that needed a few power of Christ compels yous for them to be truly clean again, I mean spiritually clean, not just mopped down, and, oh, sorry about that), I came face to face with Taichung's biggest problem: just...not very good public transport at all. I'd stayed quite far from the city center, and faced a not-that-pleasant ten-minute walk to the nearest bus stop to get into town. No idea when the next bus would come - though to be fair that particular route was probably well-serviced - I took a taxi.

The cost of that taxi was about half of what I'd spent on the hotel. It's not that I didn't have the money, I just resented spending that much cash to get around. I like cities that facilitate rather than hinder transit. I can drive: I even hold an international driver's permit. I won't drive in cities, though, because I value my life and my sanity. I'm not a comfortable city driver by any means, although I'm quite happy to tool around the mountains in a rental car. For someone like me, who feels deeply uncomfortable with city driving, there is no easy way to get around Taichung.

An evening walk in Taichung - if you have nothing else to do here, at least get yer teeth did at Hotshot Dental Center (if you are too snobbish for that, there's an Elitist Dentist in Taipei you can visit)

I waited for my husband to show up - he would meet me in Taichung after his Saturday morning private class, and we'd grab a late lunch before checking out Taichung's #1 tourist attraction: Miyahara.

I - and every other tourist in Taichung - enjoyed Miyahara, a gorgeous setting to have tea, coffee or ice cream. I almost feel obligated to write that, though. I'd write more, but Miyahara is well-covered elsewhere. We enjoyed the atmosphere enough that we ended up hanging out there until it was time to go to dinner. Even the view (of the abandoned Qianyue Building) felt very Taiwanese. As Stephanie Huffman noted in Formosa Moon, Taiwan does a good job of not hiding its scars.

Later that evening, it was also pleasant to walk from downtown - most affordable hotels are near the train station - to meet another friend in a restaurant near the Calligraphy Greenway. We avoided the massive Taiwan Boulevard, which didn't run particularly close to our destination, and took quiet backstreets. Again, in Taiwan we knew this was perfectly safe. I don't know that I would have done so after dark in many American cities.

Buses along Taiwan Boulevard were an option, but not particularly convenient to where we were going. Fortunately, we didn't mind the walk. Good thing too, as there was no alternative way to get there.

We met at Curry Orgasmo. If you're wondering whether I chose it for the name...I did. Also, it has perfectly acceptable (but not orgasmic) curries, and there isn't one in Taipei. This part of town is great for nighttime walking - there are parks, shops, restaurants, places to grab a drink. It's lively, without the unending crowds of Taipei. If I were planning to return to Taichung I'd look into staying in this neighborhood instead. The area around the train station is crowded and bustling, and the hotels are cheaper (some of them don't give you condoms and lube on the nightstand, even) but there's not quite as much to do.

After curry, beer and chat, we were meant to head out to meet yet another friend for drinks and dessert at Delys&Sens - a bar and cafe that had real French desserts and well-made drinks by an expert...what are the kids calling it these days, "mixologist"? Count me in!

A drink from Delys&Sens


Desserts at Delys&Sens

Inviting our dinner companion along, we realized that the walk from Curry Orgasmo to Delys&Sens would be just a bit too far, so we hopped in another taxi. Despite friends insisting that Taichung does have a working bus-based public transit network, there was no clear way to get between the two without a wait and walk that was long enough to not justify trying.

Delys&Sens was absolutely fantastic - I enjoyed hearing about how the bartender refused to work with Aperol but was willing to use Campari, despite being a fan of Aperol myself (too many grad school-based summers in Europe) - and the desserts, well, I wish I could easily find desserts that good in Taipei at reasonable prices. In Taipei, I feel like I usually end up with a $200NT slice of defrosted chocolate cake purchased from the same factory that every other cafe orders from.

This was a level above. Just good Western desserts. Just good. With good drinks. Just...good. I cannot recommend it highly enough. We were also able to sit on an outdoor terrace - a rare treat coming from Taipei, where there is hardly ever outdoor seating (it's not only too crowded, the weather just doesn't cooperate most of the time). It was one of those laid-back evenings in a different city with friends that you can enjoy when you actually live in a country, rather than trying to pack in must-see tourist destinations from dawn-till-bedtime.

No chicken asses to be found, but I'd had enough of those. This was another Taiwan urban experience.

Scenes of Hell at the City God Temple

The next day, we started with coffee and a browse of the books for sale at Fleet Street. Then we set out to find some of Taichung's older points of interest - the City God Temple (城隍廟), which is to the south of Taichung train station and in the area where the Qing were building what was to be the capital of Taiwan ("Taiwan City"). Nothing remains: the temple is still there, but the rest was torn down by the Japanese. But, it's an interesting old part of the city to poke around in and get a cheap lunch.

The temple itself is also interesting, with - as City Gods aren't always the nicest or kindest dudes - lots of scenes of Hell, as in, that's where you'll go if the City God judges you at your death to deserve it.

Fleet Street Cafe

Then we tried to take a look at the old Imperial Examination Hall - a wooden structure, one of the oldest and best-preserved Qing-era buildings in Taiwan - but it was closed for renovation. We tried to sneak in, but it just wasn't happening (and perhaps was not entirely safe).

A peek through the bars at the Qing Imperial Examination Hall

A zoomed-in look at the Examination Hall

As - again - there was no public transport between these two stops, we were downright flushed from walking given the heat of the day. We'd also stopped in a Filipino supermarket we'd passed to load up on things that can be hard to find in regular shops - beef bouillon, adobo seasoning, that sort of thing.

Fortunately, near the examination hall, one can find Taichung's old City Hall, a gorgeous Japanese-era building that is still in use as a government office. You're allowed to take a look as long as you sign in, at least on Sundays (I can't speak for whether that's possible on weekdays, as it seems to hold functioning office space). This sort of building just feels like Taiwan: Chinese on the signage, a Japanese colonial-style building, all bricks, concrete and plaster, colonnades. Balmy tropical heat, palm trees in the courtyard. Peeling paint. A laid-back, chilled-out vibe. A friendly security guard lounging out front, drinking from his glass thermos of Chinese-style tea, who doesn't mind if you walk around unsupervised. Staircases with worn-out red carpeting, the mechanical sound of a big metal fan churning the air. A few families with kids playing in the courtyard because why not?

At the City God Temple

International tourists might not find these things of interest, but as a domestic tourist, to me it's quite heartening. Yup, this is Taiwan. This is my home.

This is so Taiwan. I look at this scene and can only really think of this beautiful country. 

Inside the Old City Hall

Cat shaved ice

Feeling a bit too overheated to do much more, we took a brief walk - basically just across the street - to another old government building. To find it, just look for the other colonial-era structure near the old City Hall. With dinner plans looming, we didn't have a lot of time to walk around the building, but you can find vintage-vibe Cafe 1911 on the ground floor. We had some iced milk tea and a small shaved ice dessert decorated to look like an adorable little cat, and relaxed until it was time to pick up our bags from storage and head to the other side of town.

This, too, is just so Taiwan

It should have been a 30-minute drive, but it took closer to an hour and cost about $400NT. There was no public transit option, and certainly no MRT to avoid the snarled traffic. We were late for the soft opening of Texas Roadhouse Taichung, where we'd been invited to join some other friends. The food was hearty, American and yes, good - I may travel the world but I'll tell you, American mid-range restaurant chains are very good at comfort food and I won't pretend a hipster distaste for them that I don't have - and the atmosphere reminded me of the country of my birth.

Certainly there was no more chicken ass.

From there, we had to taxi to the HSR station as well - again, no convenient public transport that could get us there in a reasonable time frame (I'm not sure there was any transit available at all in that part of town) - for another chunk of cash.

Some of the books available (no real English selection) at Fleet Street

And that's the story of how I had a very enjoyable weekend in Taichung with friends, and spent more money on taxis than on a hotel, because if you don't drive, there is no reasonable, quick way to get around the city.

That's the only reason I hesitate to recommend it as a weekend for readers who live in Taiwan but don't drive. You can have a lot of fun, especially if you have friends there or like searching for old or vintage things. I could have spent more time there, heading up to Dakeng, wandering Taichung Park, or another evening in the neighborhood around Curry Orgasmo, trying a new restaurant. I would have loved to have taken Brendan to Fengchia Night Market, but it's a bit far out and the last time I went, I spent more on the taxi there and back than I spent in the market itself. Or I would happy wander in any of these areas.

Taichung isn't that pretty on a large scale - cities in Taiwan usually aren't - but you can find lots of pleasant little nooks and crannies, and unexpected things if you walk around, that might surprise and delight you. If you skirt all the construction, that is.

Just a random old thing on the street in Taichung

But if you don't drive, it will be a more expensive weekend than you might like. Few things are near each other, taxis often need to be called, and while there is a bus network, it's just not that usable or convenient if you don't know your way around already (which I didn't).

By all means, visit. But budget accordingly, become comfortable with city driving (something I will never do), or stick only to activities along the major bus routes. As a city to spend a weekend in, Taichung gets an A- (it would get an A if not for the pollution). As a city I had to navigate without a car, it gets a D at best, and that's only because the desserts at Delys&Sens made me feel generous.

Doughnut-like baked goods vendor on the way to the City God Temple (her products were delicious, and her dog adorably scruffy)

Monday, August 5, 2013

Sun Moon Mainlanders

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OK, so, I figure mostly what people want to see are photos.

By the way, I am really sick of only being able to post small photos while about 2/3 of the browser window are taken up by green nothingness.

I can't change the widths on this template, and don't want to move to Wordpress just yet. Any suggestions for good templates that will allow me to have a far wider text-and-photo section without all the empty space on the sides, so I can post much larger pictures? I'm really, really not tech savvy at all (I can haz computator!) which is why I stick to pre-designed templates and don't have my own.

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Fengchia Night Market in Taichung

Anyway, people always say getting to Sun Moon Lake is tough: it's not really. You can take a bus directly from HSR Taichung Station. Or take a bus to Taichung City - make sure to get one with a Taichung Railway Station destination, not Chaoma Terminal, which is halfway across the world from downtown Taichung and basically sucks. I don't know whose idea it was to build that thing out in the middle of nowhere, but there ya go. The bus will let you off in an area that is an easy walking distance from tons of other buses that go to Sun Moon Lake: if you're let off on Shuangshi (雙十) Boulevard, just pick any given one and ask about buses to Sun Moon Lake, or to Puli with a transfer. If you're let off in front of the actual train station, ask at information about the Sun Moon Lake buses, or just hop any bus to Puli and change.

There is, according to the guidebook, a bus straight to Sun Moon Lake from Taipei, but I have never seen nor heard of this theoretical bus in real life.

Once in Puli, either bus station should have buses to the lake. Or just show the characters to the driver, who will tell you where to get off.

"I, for one, welcome our new fedora overlords." photo 182944_10151806263671202_1825991549_n.jpg
Fengchia Night Market, Taichung

I got to Taichung before Brendan, who had to work late due to postponements from Typhoon Soulik the week before. So rather than hang around the random hotel I grabbed, I hopped a cab to Fengchia Night Market on the outskirts of town (because I'll be damned if I'm going to tolerate Taichung's craptacular "public transportation" joke of a system). What a great place to spend an evening eating and shopping - recommended for anyone with any time in Taichung after dark. Probably the best part of that whole godforsaken city.

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We hit up Sun Moon Lake the next day after arranging a fairly inexpensive homestay, given the summer weekend rates (NT$2500 - okaaaay).

As I said in my previous post, it's really amazing that I've managed to spend 7 years in Taiwan and only now visit Sun Moon Lake for the first time. Generally speaking, I enjoyed myself more than I thought I would, and while touristy it wasn't as horrific as I imagined it might be. I would even go back, although it's not at the top of my list.

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There really weren't quite as many tourists as we thought there'd be, but that doesn't mean there weren't any. As you can see here, the ferries were straight-up packed, mostly with Mainlanders, but some domestic tourists as well.

All in all my favorite parts of Taiwan are the parts that aren't saturated with tourists (I guess this might cause you to think I like very non-touristy Taichung: you would be wrong). I liked Kending OK, but I liked Cow Mountain Beach more. Taroko Gorge is beautiful but I left my heart on Hehuanshan. Jiaoxi is fine but my soul really sings in the East Rift Valley. I've never been to Alishan, but dollars to doughnuts I'd pick Lishan over it any day. The Museum of Contemporary Art is by far my favorite - preferable to the tourist-packed National Palace Museum (which I've never really gotten into, although I don't deny it's packed with priceless treasures).

Even in terms of domestic tourists, I don't really like places full of 'em (although I don't begrudge them enjoying their own country, of course). I'll take a quiet Dihua Street over a packed Sanxia Old Street, a puppet show in a night market to some big traditional production that requires lining up, Yuemeikeng over Wufengchi, the Xiaotzukeng Old Trail over Jiufen (although I do like Jiufen), Donggang over Yilan, Fushoushan Farm over Cingjing Farm.

So I wasn't really expecting to love Sun Moon Lake.

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I wasn't wrong, per se. I didn't adore it. I liked it well enough. Years of exploring the less touristed nooks and crannies of Taiwan, and being able to explore Taipei on relatively quiet weekdays, have meant that I've become acquainted with what it's like to live here without the tourists, be they Taiwanese or Chinese, or from any other country. What it's like to partake in activities that locals themselves are partaking in, or even talk to locals who aren't trying to sell me something (the good thing about Taiwan is that even the locals that are selling you things are generally honest, friendly people. Unlike, say, most of China).

So many Mainland tourists. photo 1014029_10151806268216202_1309692207_n.jpg

My main complaints?

First of all, the Shao aborigines are getting fucking shafted. We didn't poke around to see if most of this tiny tribe still live in shoddy temporary housing since the 9/21 earthquake, but most do seem to live a working class life - anywhere from outright poverty to middle class just-getting-by.

With all the money that gets poured into Sun Moon Lake from the tourist hordes of Asia, who stay in lakefront hotels and by bags of tourist crap to take home, who drink Starbucks (and buy the mug!) and eat subpar food in banquet-hall like tour group restaurants, who stay at the Lalu, go to spas and have afternoon tea, charter boats, rent cars and cycle around, you'd think the Shao would be doing pretty well seeing as this is their land and all.

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But nope.

Many own shops (I think I could tell which were the aborigine owned shops and which were owned by Hoklo or otherwise Chinese-descended people dressed like aborigines) or restaurants, but most seem to be completely passed by by all the money that runs through this area.

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Certainly, you'd think we could do better by the aborigines - whose land this actually is - than to build the Lalu and then exhort richie-rich types to come stay here and then take pictures of locals in traditional clothing with beads and headdresses and such for a pittance.

You'd think, rather than even build the Lalu, that they could make sure all of the Shao have non-temporary, secure and livable housing - something they lacked (and may still lack, I'm not sure) since the turn of the millenium.

You'd think.

Kind of sickening, really.

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Next up? Falun Gong.

I may be an atheist, but I am one that is all about religious freedom (after all, religious freedom also means freedom to not practice a religion), and as such, although I don't believe in the doctrines of Falun Gong, I do support them having the freedom to practice as they wish.

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Every tourist site popular with Chinese across Taiwan is chock full o' Falun Gong, espousing their views and quietly protesting-through-meditation right in view of passing Mainlanders. It's almost like a symbiotic relationship at this point (except not): Falun Gong need Mainlanders for an excuse to give themselves exposure, and Mainlanders wouldn't lend the changes to the local areas they visit that they do without Falun Gong protesters nearby.

So I gave 'em a 加油 just to piss off any Chinese tourists who might believe the government propaganda (not everyone does).

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The peaceful view from the upper Xuanzang Temple

The worst of the tourist crowds was at the famous Grandma's Tea Eggs at the pier below the two famous temples to Xuanzang: the old Japanese one, and the newer, bigger, fancier one which currently holds a piece of his skull. I have no reason to believe it's not really what it purports to be. I'm more skeptical of the little white nuggets said to be relics of the Buddha. The first temple was overrun with Mainlanders, and while picturesque, we didn't stay long. There was no peace and quiet anywhere.

This is one point at which I really felt the tourist development hindered a local experience most of all. Of course, I too am a tourist: I'm a part of that crowd, not apart from it. But fewer tourists generally could be had with fewer Mainland tour groups more easily than with fewer Westerners (of whom there were a fair number, but not really that many).

This is where I really felt a cultural difference, too: the Chinese tourists moved in huge groups, masses really. Human amoebas. They were loud. They didn't respect lines or waiting. They hogged space. They weren't unfriendly, but weren't a positive addition to the atmosphere. You could almost see the annoyance on the faces of Taiwanese and Japanese tourists who wanted to quietly enjoy the temple (I know a few people will respond to that with "What? Taiwanese tourists? Quiet??! No!" but trust me on this one).

Instead, we took the Qinglong Trail to the upper Xuanzang Temple.

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The trail was beautiful and quiet, and quite easy, with only a few spots where the recent typhoon downed some trees and a few steep sections (both up and down), but only a kilometer in total and nothing any normal person couldn't do. The only downside? The mosquitos that infested each resting point. They were the little black kind whose bites are super itchy: not even White Flower Oil can stop the itch, which penetrates deep into the skin.

At the top I was so desperate for something to alleviate the itching that I bought some cream on the recommendation of a shop owner below the temple, which worked (the cream is called "White Flower Snow" and is more potent than White Flower oil. It won't kill the itch permanently but you'll get a few hours of relief).

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The only other hikers were a few independent tourists, all of them polite and friendly. Xuanzang Temple, the one at the top, was one of my favorite stops on the trip. The famous Ci En Pagoda above it is closed for repairs (damaged both in the recent earthquake and Typhoon Soulik) and so the tour buses aren't all stopping at Xuanzang Temple - it's just not worth it to them, I guess, without the pagoda to visit further on.

This meant that the upper temple was blissfully quiet. It reminded me of visiting Nikko, in Japan, except Chinese style (duh) and in the summer, not the winter (duh). But the whole feeling of quiet temples on a hill with tall trees was very reminiscent of that trip.

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The best part? You could get a drink - hot tea, water, whatever - and donate what you wanted (we donated NT100) to the temple for it. Then you could take it to the verandah overlooking the lake and just drink your tea quietly and enjoy the view, with some other Taiwanese daytrippers and their families generally being lively, but not overly noisy. What a relief after the crush of people and noise at the lower temple!

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These guys (first shop as you exit the Qinglong Trail), sell 白花雪 cream, which kills mosquito bite itches and other skin irritations.

Decisions, decisions... photo 581445_10151806267331202_335393531_n.jpg
So many choices! What's a girl to do?

We had to walk back down the way we came, as the bus wasn't coming for another hour and we couldn't be bothered to wait for it, and Ci En Pagoda was closed.

The way back was not quite so lucky for us: a few Mainlanders were loitering around the base of the trail (I could tell by the accents), dropping the plastic baggies that their tea eggs had come in along the sides. I wouldn't have minded the crowd there, but the littering was really not OK.

So, rudeness be damned, I walked in front of one of the offenders, reached down, looking her right in the eye, picked up her tea egg baggy that she'd just thrown onto the forest floor, went "ㄔ!" (cchh! - the Taiwanese way of expressing wordless irritation) and threw it away all within sight of the group.

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On the Qinglong Trail you'll pass a betelnut farm.

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After that we took a ferry to Itashao, where we had pigeon and mountain pig for lunch, cooked up by a local Shao woman. It was goooooood, but very meaty and we did miss the addition of some sort of vegetable. Otherwise, Itashao kind of depressed me: Shao (and possibly other) aborigines in their traditional garb, seemingly not because they wanted to be, but because it was good for business. Wear what you want because you want to, not because it'll get more curious tourists to buy tchotchkes (on the other hand, tourists buying tchotchkes is what keeps many locals gainfully employed).

Again, I felt that tons of money runs through Sun Moon Lake, and the aborigines whose land this actually is and should continue to be get very little of it. They live pretty normal, even impoverished, lives, allowing people to take pictures, dress up in Shao clothing and get their own pictures taken, and buy keychains and such...and then the big developers behind the fancy hotels that obscure the view from Shuishe rake in the most profits.

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I asked this kid, "what's the best country in Asia?" photo 1000197_10151806266556202_1311455646_n.jpg
I asked this kid which part of Journey to the West he liked the most, and he pointed to Taiwan. I'm pretty sure Journey to the West never went through Taiwan!

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I also wasn't big on all the big hotels in Shuishe hogging waterfront view space. It's all advertised as "come see this beautiful lake" but unless you walk out of town, you can't actually see it unless you get an expensive hotel room overlooking it. Ridiculous.

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No tourist trip would be complete without a selfie!

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If you walk out of town towards Wenwu Temple (which we didn't get to stop at - I'd come back for that) you can see more of the lake's actual beauty. Too bad so little of it is visible from Shuishe itself.

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My favorite stop was pausing to watch dog trainers teach German Shepherds how to swim! Dogs can swim in Sun Moon Lake, but humans aren't allowed to except once a year in a race.

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Our cute homestay had really, just too many bears. photo 544467_10151806264141202_407286678_n.jpg

Our homestay was cute and, well, homey with free breakfast and a balcony overlooking a 7-11 and car park. A few too many bears for my liking, but it was affordable and accessible.

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Some tour group taking a group photo - otherwise Shuishe, while touristy, wasn't totally crawling with tour groups.

They're more Taiwanese than I am. photo 969345_10151806263856202_1944399518_n.jpg
These guys are more Taiwanese than me, with the cameras and the cycling and the athletic performance gear and the group meal.