Monday 23 January–Friday 27 January
I hadn’t seen the ocean since landing in Taipei. My initial desire had been to train to a beach on the east coast with friends in the early hours of the Gregorian new year to see the first sunrise of 2023 emerge from the ocean, the same sun shining on and ocean surrounding Selle, family, and home thousands of kilometres away. I read online that before the pandemic, a train left from Taipei Station each year on 1 January for Fulong, a resort town on the east coast with a stunning beach. Unfortunately, this early service is yet to resume, so Charlie and I instead visited the flag-raising ceremony at the Presidential Office Building, whose climax takes place at sunrise.
Nonetheless, I was keen to visit at least one Taiwanese beach while in the country. After lobbying the whole group, I convinced Amelia, Bonnie and Rachel to come with me. We walked from the Airbnb to Taipei Station, where we operated a delightfully dated machine to get our tickets. The journey was about an hour-long train journey from Taipei to Fulong. As we looked out the window onto the pretty scenery passing us by, it was clear that our wishful thinking hadn’t succeeded in improving the nasty weather. We were in for some beach day!
After the train arrived at Fulong, we quickly left the station and headed straight to 7-Eleven for snacks and ponchos. Looking slightly cultish, we then set off for Fulong Beach. As we crossed a lagoon-traversing bridge, it quickly became clear that the beach was not perhaps what we had imagined it to be. It was wretchedly polluted with plastic waste, and a sign stated in prominent red characters that the severity of the waves and swell meant no swimming was allowed. Perhaps locals clean up the beach in time for summer when the weather is more pleasant for swimming. For the moment, it looked as if the ocean was grieving the environmental damage surrounding us. After taking in this tragic scene, the four of us returned to the village for lunch and then, tired and reflective, hopped on the train back to Taipei
I’d long been keen to see pandas. So, when I heard that two lived at Taipei Zoo, I knew I had to visit. I took the subway. Laura and Rachel caught up in time to see many of the animals, including the two-toed sloths, which I loved especially. Selle and I feel a spiritual affinity with the humble and unhurried sloth. The three of us then discovered the Malayan tapir, a mammal species belonging to the tapir family we’d never heard of before. It is a curious-looking large herbivorous mammal that seemed to have a body somewhat like a pig, a snout halfway between that of a pig and an elephant and body markings not unlike those of a panda. The macaques, butterflies, koalas, fish, elephants, camels and otters were all charming. But a lurking crocodile was positively nightmarish. Most exciting of all, we see pandas! You can see this individual patrolling his stomping ground. They are truly majestic animals.
After leaving the zoo, Laura, Rachel and I went to experience Taipei’s gondola, which operates between Taipei Zoo and Maokong, a mountainous tea-growing area in western Taipei. We enjoyed stunning views outside the windows at eye level and from the glass floor through which we could see Taipei’s lush rainforest pass below our feet. However, it was one of the coldest days of the trip, so we didn’t manage to stay up at Maokong long!
Lunch at Kura
On our last full day in Taiwan, Emilia and Laura introduced me to Kura, a charming sushi train restaurant with a great variety of delicious options. Everything was delicious, including the crunchy roll and my banana waffle sundae. The restaurant has a gimmick where you place your used plates into a slot on the wall. After returning five plates, a screen above the table displays a cartoon character attempting to pull off some feat, like surfing or finding treasure. If the character succeeds, a machine above the table dispenses a prize. Laura and I had no luck, but Emilia won a miniature sushi keyring to hang off her bag.
Admiring the sunset at 象山 (Elephant Mountain)
I wanted to admire my final sunset in Taiwan, and 象山 seemed like the perfect place to do so. Around an hour before sunset, I took the metro, which I’ve come to love and respect, from Taipei Station to 象山 station. Then the steep 15-minute climb to the summit began. As I ascended, the people climbing became almost as thickly crowded as the trees surrounding us. Finally reaching the top, Taipei’s stunning cityscape inspired me. I sat down and took in the marvellous sunset, so quotidian, yet on that day, it had a sense of finality to it.
Taipei — Seoul — Auckland
The next day, we left a bit after 9 am to catch the metro to Taoyuan International Airport. We arrived by 10 am and got through check-in and security by 11 am, so we had four hours to spare before our flight in the end! I had a lovely call with Mum and reminisced about the trip with my friends. Before we knew it, our EVA Airways flight to Seoul was boarding. Not much later, our time in Taiwan ended as our plane took off, leaving our home of the past seven weeks behind. We passed through the thick cloud to witness breathtaking beams of sunlight burst through clouds. I know Selle would’ve thought it was so beautiful. The meal was decent, featuring prawn pasta, crab salad and fresh fruit. I spent most of the flight writing my blog before we descended into Seoul.
I enjoyed admiring Seoul’s lights out the window. As we approached the airport, I noticed that the spaces between the tarmac, which at other airports I’d visited were usually filled with grass, appeared to be filled with sand. In fact, as we got closer, it became clear that these gaps were covered in snow. The temperature outside was below freezing, so I was grateful that the airport had an airbridge to get us inside rather than requiring us to walk across the tarmac.
I’d never visited Korea before, and I would have loved to have spent some time exploring if we’d had the chance. However, our flight to Auckland was scheduled for take-off only two hours after our arrival, so there was no possibility of that. Instead, we filtered through security as fast as possible and got to our gate with about an hour to spare. Selle and I had a wonderful catch-up on the phone together, and we remarked on how connecting throughout the trip had brought us closer together. Then it was time to board our Air New Zealand flight. Arriving at my seat, I read “Kia ora Henry” on my in-flight display and instantly felt closer to home. I’d aimed to sleep for most of the flight but frustratingly managed to get barely any sleep. At least that meant I got to see the beginnings of my first sunrise outside of Taiwan for seven weeks. After what seemed like far more than 12 hours, we finally arrived in Auckland.
It felt great to be surrounded by the familiarity of home once again. We got through customs without any trouble and managed to find our bags quickly, but getting through biosecurity checks took an aeon. We would sometimes pass each other in the twisting line and say 好久不見 (long time no see) because it would have been 10 minutes since the last time we saw each other. Sadly because the airport was so busy, the 12 of us could not get together for a goodbye hug. So once I was through biosecurity, I headed outside to make my way home. Once I finally got outside, Auckland greeted me with a proper deluge. In fact, we happened to return on the rainiest day in Auckland’s recorded history. If our plane had arrived just a few hours later, Auckland Airport might have had to divert us elsewhere because it flooded not long after we left. So my reunion with the family was all the sweeter for very nearly having been postponed by flooding
This trip reinforced how central people are to happiness for me. Making friends with my 14 fellow travellers as well as people in Taiwan was so much fun. Sky was such an incredible friend to me in Taiwan. And the staff at NCKU looked after me so well. But an essential balance to this excitement and novelty was the love and safety of my family and Selle. I’m grateful to them for being there for me when I needed support and listening to all my stories.
I also gained a greater appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the Chinese language and Taiwanese culture. Struggling to communicate even trivial ideas with locals was a humbling experience and forced me to listen more than I was used to. But I was always amazed by the kindness and hospitality of the people I met.Thank you for reading my final blog post! Thank you to Education New Zealand, the PMSA programme, the University of Auckland, 360 International and NCKU for making this incredible experience possible.