All pictures are here.
You better not cry, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is comin’ to Taiwan
They say “windows of opportunity tend to slam shut quickly”, so I acted immediately when I saw a 4-day window of opportunity to climb Mount Yushan (Snow Mountain) in Taiwan during Christmas 2011. I was going to do this with Vivien Ringuede – an avid hiker friend who also believes in celebrating Christmas 4000m above sea-level. Besides, this would give us closer access to Santa Claus, as he flies down from heaven on his reindeer-driven sleigh. In fact, Santa wouldn’t even have to bother doing his usual US-Navy-Seal style HALO jump into a chimney (I hear that the US military is reducing budget for these kind of jumps anyway). Instead, he can simply come visit us on top of Jade Mountain bearing all his gifts. (Dear Santa: please can you bring a BMW motorbike with ABS control for me? Don’t ride it though. I need it to be 1st hand)
Smile for the mountains :)
The groundwork was straightforward. I contacted Richard Foster of Barking Deer and he said he would arrange the permits for us. All he wanted was our names and -get this- a “picture of us taken on top of a high mountain”. No, he wasn’t interested in how cool we look; instead, he explained that this was required by the Taiwanese authorities as solid proof of our hiking abilities. Huh?! In this day and age where Photoshop, Photosynth, Picasa, etc, rule our lives, I could have very easily produced a photo of mine supposedly taken on the summit of Mt. Everest!
Flyin’ ain’t for kitties!
The flights were easy. We booked Eva Air through Zuji.com at a cost of HKD 2,500 to Taipei and back. However, once the flights were booked, I got a big scare from my colleague when I told him the name of the airline I was going to fly. He gave me a startling piece of information about Eva Air which made me highly nervous about flying them. No, this wasn’t anything to do with their safety record, it was EVEN WORSE! In fact, what he told me had the potential of permanently scarring me for life! There was even the chance that I could end up losing my manhood! He told me (my voice is shaking out of embarrassment, fear and anger even as I type this) that ALL their flights are newly decorated in a HELLO KITTY theme!!! He then painted a pretty disgusting picture in my mind: “flight attendants would be wearing Hello Kitty uniforms, the body of the plane would have the Hello Kitty logo painted all over it, even napkins, toilets, and all sundry items would have Hello Kitty stickers stuck all over them!”
My second colleague, who evidently has no consideration for my well being, partook in the conversation by rubbing more salt into my already deep wound: “Hey Vince, maybe when you are seated in the airplane, the Hello Kitty ears will stick out from the headrest!” she commented with a big smirk on her face. (I had to go puke just after hearing that).
A quick Google search revealed that they even have a name for this ugly eyesore – they call it the “Eva Kitty Jet!“. (God, please help!) As I grimly heard all this information, I felt like someone had just sent a 10,000 volt shock down my body! I was lamenting to myself that the cost of the ticket may have only been HKD 2,500 but the “hidden charges” were insurmountable! Who can put a price on mental anguish, loss of manhood, loss of ego and loss of self-esteem? How would I ever be able to explain to all my friends that a macho man like me once flew a Hello Kitty plane? Just thinking about it sent shivers down my spine.
Anyway, after visiting a psychiatrist and attending several stress-busting classes, I recovered from this Hello Kitty-induced trauma and continued to make arrangements to reach the top of Jade mountain.
The gist was this:
2011-12-24: Fly to Taipei and hope against hopes that Eva Air has planes other than that friggin’ Kitty plane (Mr. Eva Air CEO, if you are reading this, please note that you have alienated roughly 50% of the world’s population -i.e. males- with this stupid Kitty idea).
Once in Taipei international airport, get to Taipei High Speed Railway Station and take the next train to Chiayi. Spend the night there.
2011-12-25: Take a bus to Alishan followed by a cab or a hitchhike to Tatajia (aka Tataka). Check in into Shangdong Pu hostel and do some hiking during the day.
2011-12-26: Climb Yu Shan and see Santa Claus! (I am excited! BMW – here I come!)
2011-12-27: More hiking and trail running or simply chilling in Tatajia(woohoo!) followed by a return trip to Taipei
2011-12-28: Back to Hong Kong on Eva Air :(
And.. the execution
2011-12-24, Hong Kong to Chiayi
I got a ticket to ride but they don’t care
Christmas Eve celebrations started with a notice from the Hong Kong cops aka Hong Kong’s “finest” as they posted a huge traffic blockage notice by the area where my motorbike was parked. Hong Kong’s “finest” beat Santa Claus hands down in their generosity. No question about that. They are known for their charitable nature in handing out white tickets whether you want it or not! In fact, just yesterday, I received another one of their Christmas presents! It was a very thoughtful and specially wrapped white ticket just for me. It was also strategically placed right on top my motorbike’s handlebar to doubly ensure that it wouldn’t be missed. The white ticket demanded that I pay HKD 320 for parking my motorbike about 0.000000000000001mm shy of the actual parking zone. (Thanks guys! :) You’re the best!) The notice in front of my motorbike today demanded that I move it because of a road closure or else “it would be towed away!” (Guys, your gifts just keep getting better and better! What would I do without you?)
I figured it was Christmas so I would return the favor to my “finest” friends by honoring their move-your-bike-or-else request. I then decided to ride my bike straight to the airport. During the ride, I was contemplating two different contrasting scenes. Scene 1: Me, the macho man riding my motorbike to the airport. Scene 2: Me, (the macho man?) flying a HELLO KITTY aircraft!!! (Thank you Eva Air).
I got to the airport in heroic fashion, completed the usual check-in formalities and proceeded straight to Gate 60 to board. I breathed my biggest sigh of relief to date when I saw a normal looking plane parked at Gate 60. There was no cat-like monstrosity anywhere. This alone became my first Christmas present from Santa.
I boarded the aircraft and took a quick look around. Thankfully, it appeared to be neat and trendy looking. The flight attendants seemed to be very strategically chosen (know what I mean?) and there was even a first class entertainment system installed on all seats. I was going to say “keep it that way Mr. CEO, no need for feline features in the plane” until I opened their inflight magazine. This is when I realized that my first Christmas present from Santa was short-lived!
WARNING: the passage below may upset men of all races and ethnicities.
Here’s the opening page of their inflight magazine which is bound to set any real man running for the barf bag.
This is what an “experienced” reader has said about the Kitty jet – “Since my last flight on the Hello Kitty jet three years ago, I have been wanting to travel with the Hello Kitty characters again. Now my dream has finally come true. The magical journey on the Hello Kitty Jet relieves stress and brings out the child in me. What a wonderful journey in the air”.
(Oh pleeeeeeeeese!!! That ain’t a dream lady, that’s a nightmare!)
And, here’s a lesson for all you boys and girls about Eva Air’s strategically chosen flight attendants. (courtesy: page 138 of their inflight magazine).
“Zoe, the deputy purser is a generous soul and passionate about her work. Reliable and attentive to details, she is the team’s No. 2 and is responsible for service procedures and schedules. She enthusiastically helps passengers solve their problems.”
(Hey Zoe, can you please solve my problem? I can’t take this torture anymore!)
“Known for her beautiful smile, Abby is an assistant purser and is responsible for making sure that everything goes smoothly during meal time. During the flight, she ensures that each and every passenger is satisfied with their delicious inflight cuisine.”
(Looks like Abby will make a good wife!)
“Young and graceful, cabin attendant Nicole assists passengers in purchasing duty free goods and helps out in many other ways around the cabin. She treats passengers as if they were family, bringing warmth and happiness to all around her.”
(Yup, always good to be kind to the one who pays ya!)
“Tall, beautiful and full of energy, chief purser Liz keeps a close eye on everything that goes on in the cabins to ensure that all passengers are safe and enjoy the flight. Liz has a clear, soothing voice and is responsible for making inflight announcements.”
(Looks like Liz is being sold on her sexy voice.)
And, ladies and gentlemen, here’s the biggest scare of them all. Here’s Eva Air’s very own teddy bear pilot!!
“Eva Bear-Pilot dress up as a outstanding captain, he leads the crew fly to safety and amenity journey with the friendly professional services.”
(A pilot dressed up as a bear offering professional services???)
I couldn’t wait to get to Taipei!!
Upon reaching Taipei airport, we took a shuttle bus to the High Speed Railway station and boarded a super fast train to Chiayi. The train’s average speed was 250kmh! In less than an hour, we reached Chiayi and took our first breath of cold Chiayi air!
Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it’s a friendly Taiwanese guy!
How often do you come across someone who volunteers to help tourists and be their guide? Yes, I mean for free! Imagine two backpackers land in Hong Kong with their big bags and cameras. They ask you for directions. Would you (a) give them directions and continue with your own business (b) volunteer to help them find hotels, take them to dinner and then go home after they are well settled (c) tell them to bugger off. If you choose (c), you are no longer my friend.
Well, we met a guy in Chiayi who chose (b). His name was Allan. We asked him how we could get to Chiayi main station from Chiayi High Speed Station and he not only gave us directions but volunteered to be our tour guide! He took us on a free shuttle bus to the main station and then the three of us roamed the streets of Chiayi trying to find a hotel for the two of us! We did see plenty of hotels but what we also saw were huge buses parked near every hotel we went to. It looked like the entire tourist population of the world had descended upon Chiayi. This also meant that we couldn’t get a room anywhere except in one place which offered us the only room they had – a “VIP” room! Initially, I thought that the term “VIP” in Taiwan was used in the same way that Hong Kong uses the word “mansion”. (In Hong Kong, every dilapidated, stinky, rickety old shanty building is called a mansion – like Chung King “mansion” in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui). However, we were in for a surprise. This VIP room which came at a cost of NT$4000 per night (the only available room in the city) was the most luxury we had ever seen in the longest time! My “luxury” usually means finding a proper toilet on a hiking trail. This one took it a world apart. 3000 square foot of decorated living area, sofas, multiple televisions, jacuzzi, saunas, king sized beds – it had it all!
Here, take a look:
After the feeling of luxury sank in, we reluctantly left the room and took Allan out to dinner to thank him for all his help. Our plan for the following day was to take a bus to Alishan but, as riding motorbikes has always been a passion for me, I managed to convince Vivien that hiring a scooter was the way to go! (there were no motorbike rentals, only scooters). So, we ended up renting a scooter at a cost of NT$ 1500 for 3 days. After a sumptuous dinner filled with Taiwanese favorites, we bid good bye to Allan and returned to our luxurious room. Coming from Hong Kong, we still couldn’t get over the fact that we had so much of living space in a hotel room! We got delirious and even shot a video. Here it is.
Video of the VIP room at Yoyo hotel, Chiayi, Taiwan
2011-11-25: Merry Christmas and time to go to Alishan
Luxury meant laziness. Laziness meant a late start! We left our palace at about 10am in the morning after making full of use their “complimentary” breakfast. Then came the task of fitting me, Vivien, his bags and my bag in a 150cc scooter. We didn’t exactly look like the best advertisement for that scooter but it worked. The scooter sputtered to a start and off we went.
Off scooters, a mountain road climb and freezing butts
Reaching Alishan involved a 2500m climb on a mountain road. The scooter surprisingly behaved well despite all the load, but nature didn’t quite seem to like the idea of two dudes riding on a scooter loaded with all their bags.
As I learnt in my geography class back in the day: as the altitude increases, the temperature decreases. Well, it decreased and it decreased big time. The oncoming wind brought the temperature down even further. And, before I knew it, my hands had trouble hitting the brakes because my fingers went numb from the cold. Soon, I discovered, as I was attempting to speak to Vivien, that my mouth was partially frozen as well. I then remembered my ill-advised sales pitch to Vivien the previous day. “We will be able to return the scooter whenever we want to and it is way more convenient”, I pitched to him the previous day and threw in more punchlines as well to make my case for the scooter hire. Today, I was thinking to myself: “convenient? My ass. My butt is freezing, my fingers are numb and all I can say is gibberish”. Vivien was equally cold. He was trying everything in his capacity to stay warm. Soon, we made an emergency pit stop and wore all items of clothing we had brought with us. We looked like we had just come from Antarctica BUT we still felt cold!
In our desperate attempt to reach our final destination (Tatajia), we somehow bypassed Alishan! That meant shaving some time off and freezing a little less but it also meant that we had no food on us for the climb to Yushan as we were supposed to do our food shopping at Alishan.
We eventually arrived at a small place which seemed to only have three buildings – a visitor’s center, a police station and a hostel. Further inspection revealed this place to be Tatajia and the hostel (quite contrasting to Yoyo hotel the previous night) was our very own Shandang Pu Hostel. We “checked in” (involved telling an old lady that we were gonna crash at her place for two nights) and immediately gobbled up several packets of instant noodles in a last resort attempt at heating our internal organs which were on the verge of shutting down from the cold bike ride.
After we were sort of warmed up, we headed over to the visitor’s center to register our names for the climb up to Mt. Yushan the following day. For the remainder of the afternoon, we decided to go trail running on nearby hiking trails. Vivien, the better navigator of the two us, led us to Mt. Lulin and a couple of other trails. The views were, let’s just say, white! All we saw were clouds cluttering up the sky and our views. The trails were fantastic though.
As they say, “man has no greater fury, then his stomach scorned” (ok, I say that) but after feasting on three packets on instant noodles when we arrived in the afternoon, I wanted anything else BUT instant noodles for dinner(even grass would have done). Luckily, the lady-in-charge of this fine hostel, agreed to cook us something special. With proper food entering the stomach once again, we were revitalized and energized to make plans for the next day. The plan called for waking up at 2.30am, leaving by 3am and making it to the summit of Yu Shan in time for the sunrise. The trail to the summit is 10.8km long with about 1500m of elevation gain. I boasted to a Belgian family that was also staying in Shangdong Pu hostel that given our past experience and superior hiking skills, we could easily cover the whole distance in less than three hours. After I said that, I did feel butterflies in my stomach (probably caused by the undeserved boasting) but I did the right thing and chose to ignore it (evil always triumphs).
We then hit the sack at about 8pm in order to get up very early in the morning on the following day for the summit climb.
2011-12-26: Yushan summit
The blind leading the blind in darkness
We got up nice and early at 2.30am and left the hostel by 3.10am. We started off with a gentle jog to an intersection where it looked like we had two choices. The first choice had something in Chinese written on it and seemed to be a continuation of the road we were on. The second choice read “Mt. Linglun” (or something like that). My sense of direction isn’t quite the best so we followed Vivien’s decision to go with Choice 1. His explanation was that it couldn’t have been Choice 2 as it was in a different direction, so it had to be Choice 1. WRONG. We ran for about 15-20 minutes when Vivien murmured “this can’t be right”. He pointed out that we were losing elevation quite rapidly while we were supposed to be climbing instead. Following this startling discovery, we retraced our steps back to the junction and took the second choice. The map was confusing. It looked like the same mountain had different names. All in all, Choice 1 cost us about 8km and 40 minutes.
Choice 2 took us to an elevation of about 2800m when we saw another startling sign. The sign indicated that the way to Yu Shan was actually back at the junction. We were confused for a moment. Vivien brought out his secret weapon – a 3rd map which was given to us at the visitor’s center while I decided to turn off my headlamp and look skywards for an explanation. We were in pitch darkness in every direction other than skywards. The sky was beautifully decorated with more stars than I had ever seen in my life. It felt as though as I was in a Hong Kong indoor planetarium gazing at a man-made roof illuminated with artificial stars. This was real. As I was admiring the stars, Vivien made the decision to return to the junction hoping to find what seemed to be an invisible Choice C. Apparently, the new map he referred to had indicated that the trail to Yushan was marked with stones.
We returned to the junction losing about 1 hour in the process. Then we really saw a Choice C! Under the darkness, it looked like a dead end earlier but upon careful examination, there actually was a stone marker with something in Chinese written on it. We took this trail and verification that this indeed was the right trail came immediately as we began to climb quite rapidly.
After all these navigation errors, we were sure to miss the sunrise. But that didn’t dampen our spirits one bit. We were proud that we had actually climbed an appetizer mountain during the early hours of the day. (Or that’s what we told ourselves to feel better).
Viven explains our mistakes!
The higher you go the harder it gets (corporate ladder AND hiking)
The trail wasn’t particularly hard but we were like injured soldiers on a battlefield. We had little food (thanks to bypassing Alishan), we hadn’t slept well the previous night and we had just spent our energy and time doing a needlessly extra 12km or so. We were both fine until we reached Panyu lodge (3300m, 8km from the junction) but subsequently, both of us felt the effect of high altitude. Each step was followed by heavy breathing and the wind was quite strong as we were nearing the summit.
On the way to the summit
It took us a strenuous 1 hour to reach the summit from the lodge but when we did, all the pain of climbing about 2000m in elevation and 20km in distance sunk away in the beauty of what we witnessed. A crystal clear azure sky and a strong sun revealed the majestic beauty of nature’s creations. It was a picture perfect scene: rolling mountain ranges with unique features, a sea of clouds dangling beautifully above the valley, boulders carved by the forces of nature over several million years and a dense green forest in the backdrop. It looked like nature had her masterpiece registered in Taiwan.
Views from the summit
Chicks come and go but memories remain
We had the summit to ourselves until a lady friend flew by and took special interest in us (yes, we can’t help our charming looks). She was particularly interested in our food. They say that “the best way to enter a man’s heart is through his stomach”. It looked like this friend was practising reverse psychology. She played around with us for some time and then flew away, never to be seen again. (Don’t they all?)
Toilet is a man’s best friend
Vivien and I were particularly sleepy from the high altitude and lack of food so we decided to head down. After a couple of hours we returned to our beloved hostel where the lady-in-charge had some special food for us. I took a much needed hot shower and gobbled up whatever she had made for us. This is when Vivien pointed out that in life, one just needs three things to live comfortably: a shower, a clean bed and good food. I concurred but being the greedy bloke that I am, I’d say that one also needs a clean, western toilet and that’s priority my friend. This hostel had one of those squat toilets which is a cheap way of practising hardcore yoga executed in strict military fashion where there is absolutely no room for error. (And there literally is little room in a typical squat toilet but maybe more room than you’d find in a Hong Kong apartment). Anyway, so after doing one’s business, standing up again on one’s own two legs requires massive effort and several thousand calories. So, I say that each and every mountain hut and hostel in this world has to have toilets that aren’t just there to satisfy urgent human needs but also go one step further in actually MAKING you want to go! They say that great ideas that change the world are conceived in toilets, so imagine the kind of ideas that the world could benefit from by combining the ease and comfort of good toilets with the peace and creativity of nature. (In fact, this very idea was conceived in one such fashion – more details only for those who really want it).
The rest of the evening was spent partially sleeping and recovering from the Yushan hike. I had a productive section as well. You can very easily guess what it was from that little blurb on toilets above. (Nope, there is nothing like ‘Too Much Information’).
We decided over dinner to return to worldly pleasures the following day. Meaning returning to Taipei sooner and having a beer or two in the main city.
2011-12-27, return to city life
We had close to 9 hours of sleep and got up at a leisurely 8am. We bid goodbye to the lady-in-charge at about 9am and set for Alishan on our mighty scooter. Getting back on the scooter definitely brought back very cold memories from before. So, this time we were prepared – or so we thought. I was wearing so many layers of clothing that even a high speed bullet couldn’t have penetrated me. BUT, I was still freezing. The outside temperature was about 6 degrees centigrade but the wind effect on the scooter felt like it was minus something. Luckily, the sun was shining quite brightly so when we reached Alishan, we decided to have breakfast there and warm up in the sun. As I was rubbing my hands vigorously to revive them from the numbness, I saw several busload of mainland tourists sluggishly getting out of their Volvo buses and attempting to follow their flag wielding tour leader. It was an amusing sight. Old tourists were slouched forward under the weight of heavy cameras hanging around their necks and seemed to struggle to get out of the bus. They seemed to be taking photos of everything under the sun – rocks and stones and concrete platforms and stairs. They needed a break every couple of seconds. The tour leader seemed to have an impossible job. She was carrying a megaphone around and coaxing these slow moving sightseers to form a straight line. It reminded me of a mountain herdsman grazing his herd of cattle. It made me realize that health and fitness is the most important thing in life!
We left Alishan after breakfast and made the trip back to Chiayi where we returned our beloved scooter. We then took the high speed rail back to Taipei. It was then time to indulge in the pleasures of the city. We went to a hotel called Shabu Shabu in Taipei where I discovered the hidden Gordon Ramsey in me. It was a hot pot restaurant and they had the best collection of food that I had ever seen in my life. I concocted my own special soup base which pretty much involved monkeying around with all options available. I added ginger paste, spicy sauce, peanut paste, onions, red chili and a secret ingredient to my soup base (you have to watch the movie Kung Fu Panda to know what the secret ingredient is). As they say, “serendipity is the mother of all inventions” and today, I think I accidentally came up with the most perfect vegetarian soup base. I was eating like a madman until the lady asked us to vacate the premises. The cost of the buffet was only NT$ 450 but I am sure I had eaten food worth at least two times that!
After that sumptuous dinner, we hunted for a bar with live rock music but couldn’t find one! (our navigation skills seemed to be equally bad on city roads). We eventually settled for 7-11 beers to celebrate a successful end to the trip!
It was time to get up early again. We got up at 4.30am to make it to the airport in time for our 7am flight. I was back on my motorbike at 9am and rode straight to work to begin the start of a productive work day. Thankfully, Hong Kong’s “finest” had no more Christmas presents waiting for me.
Yet another fantastic mountain climb in Taiwan. Taiwan is topping my list as my most favorite place for travel. It gets my top vote for being the most friendly place for tourists and a paradise for hiking and biking.