First Impressions of…?

I know I wrote in a post a couple months ago that I would be returning to Nepal to do the Annapurna Circuit Trek this month, but I changed my mind. When you’re single with no children and essentially retired you can do that. Until plane tickets are purchased and hotels are booked you can change your mind. In both everyday life and travel, time stretches out in front of you like a vast open savanna of possibilities. Your days, weeks, months and years are yours to spend as you like.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we drift through the world directionless, like a fallen autumn leaf blown this way and that by the wind. That’s definitely not my style. Candidly, I think it’s much easier to make the case that I’m structured and disciplined to a fault than that I’m carefree and aimless. Major life priorities and goals would change only with a significant amount of reflection but I think individual plans should be made but kept flexible.

I’m living in Bangkok on a tourist visa which gives me the opportunity to travel internationally every three months. Nepal in April and the US and Iceland in July meant another journey at the end of October. As I started thinking more concretely about travel plans for this month my feeling was that the trips so far this year were both trek centered and I wanted to do something different this month.

So here I am zipping along at 300 kmh (186 mph) down the west coast of Taiwan on one of that country’s Japan level awesome high speed rail trains. Having spent a week in Taipei, I’m now heading to Chiayi, where I’ll take a bus  to Alishan National Scenic Area, one of the most beautiful natural areas in the country, and almost certainly the subject of at least one future post.

Taipei was so rich in beautiful parks and other nature areas, vibrant markets, a world class zoo with possibly the world’s cleverest panda and other great memories (including a park full of chess playing homeless men!) that I’ll probably do at least one more post just from that city but because of the large number of photos I decided to do a “first impressions” post with my best images from just the first full day in the city. I think I first did this sort of “just the first day” post last year in Mumbai and at that time I thought of it as a way to convey just how much beauty and wonder there is in the world, if we can just travel through it with curiosity and open-minded awareness.

As I walked the streets of Mumbai that first day I don’t think that theme for the post had formed in my mind yet. Now though, having done that sort of post several times since, I’ll sometimes wake up on the first full day in a new destination and have that sort of post as a fun challenge to start out the trip – “Can I get enough good photos to share with readers in just a single day?”

For much of the first day in Taipei I didn’t think I would be able to meet the challenge, not because I wasn’t enjoying the city, but because it was raining and I visited two nature areas (Daan Forest Park near my hotel for a morning walk after waking up and then the Botanical Garden after breakfast), and the nature photos didn’t feel emblematic enough of the city for a “first day in Taipei” post.

The lack of enough photos for the post in the morning and afternoon created just the right sort of challenge for the evening. I met a friend from Thailand who was in Taipei last week and we went to Shilin Night Market, a vibrant center of youth culture with carnival style games and great street food. Night photos of people are really challenging because there’s little light and they are easy to blur but the market was full of interesting people, delicious Taiwanese food and atmospheric street scenes and it was easy to find enough good photos from just that first full day in Taipei.


Daan Forest Park

I didn’t learn this until I took another walk here the next day when it was sunny, but riders on the stationary bike in the photo (and other machines out of the frame) pump water from the pond through the pipes and out again through creatively placed nozzles, providing power for a piece of modern art/fountain – the greater the effort, the more water comes out. I think this woman deserves a gold star for exercising in the cold rain that morning and this was the very first photo I took in Taipei that I was happy enough with to share.

Taipei had so much green space, including a huge national park and almost 13 km of biking paths in parks beside the river that you could spend 1-2 weeks doing nothing but hiking there. In these natural areas you’ll encounter perhaps the world’s least shy animals, including the bird in this photo and a squirrel that came so close I was sure he was about to leap into my bag of nuts before I gave him a few.


The Botanical Garden

Lunch at a small family run noodle and rice shop just outside the Botanical Garden. Taiwanese food is fabulous but after living in Thailand and Vietnam I’m addicted to spice. While Taiwanese food isn’t spicy at all, happily a number of condiments are always available, and these generally include chillies. I piled on a big spoonful after taking this photo.
I can’t be sure but my impression at the time was that the couple were an actor and actress doing a photo shoot, not an actual couple (though it could have been an actor and actress who were also a couple doing a photo shoot). For example, note the two person camera team and professional equipment. Also, the couple had way too much charisma to be ordinary visitors to the Botanical Garden.


Shilin Night Market

(Above two photos) The people running the many carnival games at the night market had a sort of upper-part-of-the-underworld feel to them – while not actually dangerous, the game area (which included Chinese style games like Mah Jong) had a touch of delightful and very photogenic seediness to it.
That’s a huge bag of “carbon” in front of this grilled corn on the cob vendor
A temple in the middle of the night market

(Above two photos) A BBQ mushroom vendor. I call this variety “Enoki” because that’s the name for them in Japan. I don’t get why they don’t slice them before cooking, the way they do in Thailand. That way they would cook a lot faster. (My friend got an order of these and I found them raw, though she liked them.)
I love these large Buddhist medallions, which I sometimes see in Thailand as well. The Thai friend I met at the market confirmed that it’s generally only working class men who would wear chains and medallions this large.
“Honey I killed a pig.” A roast pork vendor. I’m almost certain this type of meat can only be sold the day it is cooked, which gives me the impression that this tiny street vendor sells an entire pig every single day.

(Above three photos) Five young Taiwanese men were running this grilled steak shop, which was busy and seemed really successful. The men were all affable and super fit and I wasn’t surprised at all that this shop seemed more successful than the handful of other shops I passed in the market that were selling the same thing. I chatted with one of them for a while (hence the *totally unsolicited* strip tease in the second photo) and got answers to the two questions foremost on my mind when I saw this type of food being prepared by such fit and healthy men: 1) do you eat this food yourself? and 2) are your muscles from this job or do you work out? The answers were the ones I surmised: A 1) Only rarely, A 2) We all go to the gym together.

I stumbled on this great girls-with-guns scene as my friend and I were leaving the market



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