Kaohsiung Part I
News of Tan Mei Typhoon approaching Taiwan was all over the headlines in August of 2013. Yet, after a brief planning session during an afternoon date at a coffee shop with my best friend, we still hitched on our backpacks, hopped onto the High Speed Rail train the next day and hurtled ourselves to Kaohsiung at around 300 miles per hour.
Within 18 hours, I was in Kaohsiung. Tan Mei Typhoon had just swept into northern Taiwan. Our plan was to backpack in Kaohsiung and Peng-Hu. We stayed in both Kaoshiung and Peng-Hu for two and a half days, making it a trip of five days in total.
Once we stepped out of Zuoying Station, we found that Kaohsiung was disgustingly sunny, compared to the dreary rain-filled clouds that loomed over Taipei skies that morning and during the past weeks of horrible, sticky weather. (Typical Taipei summer weather, really) But still, I felt free. Months of conflicting emotions that simmered right under my skin began to evaporate under Kaohsiung’s famous summer sun. I grinned like a free person out of prison for the first time in many months.
Such an impulsive, no prior planning trip is totally not my style. I may not be as meticulous as an A type personality, but I do twitch whenever plans don’t go the way they are supposed to go.
So, why break a perfectly, normal routine?
Flashback a month ago, I had just ended a two-year relationship with my ex-boyfriend, and most honestly, I wanted a way out. I felt suffocated in a city filled with memories at every corner. Taipei City is infamous for its horrible air pollution, but I felt a different kind of burden upon my lungs and heart. Heartbreak, I suppose. So, I took the most clichéd advice to heart for people experiencing breakups: “Love yourself more”.
By loving yourself more, I guess my best friend and I translated that into “Burn money and travel”.
Prior a month before the trip and after my breakup, my best friend, affectionately dubbed as K who accompanied me on this trip, handed this backpacking idea to me on a silver platter whilst my sad sobbing and lots of snot in a coffee shop. While the reasons that gave birth to my first (half-individual) backpacking trip were not all that stellar, stepping out of my comfort zone was enough to make it worthwhile.
Fast forward a month later, here I am, backpacking in a typhoon.
Anyway, the sunny weather didn’t really last. Once we shipped ourselves off to Backpacker 41, a hostel for backpackers, by Kaohsiung’s metro and dropped off our stuff, the weather had turned cloudy. Though, upon stepping out of Backpacker 41, this is where our trip really began.
Skipping ahead of Kaohsiung’s history, let me introduce several things I found awesome about this southern Taiwan city, though due to the typhoon, we were really limited on what we could do and see. So, we planned a schedule on our high-speed railway ride (yes, we were really that spontaneous) that embraced Kaohsiung’s indoor sightseeing diversity.
We took the High Speed Railway to Kaohsiung, with the entire ride lasting around two hours or so. I rarely take the HSR, since it’s currently the most expensive land transportation in Taiwan. During vacation season, they usually have special price packages. We took advantage of a half-price discount by buying tickets for specific time slots. The downside is that those time slots sell out quickly and you can’t book tickets in advance, but we still managed to snag a 10am ride by arriving early to Taipei Main Station.
In Kaohsiung, despite the risk of standing out like a sore thumb, since I found out mostly tourists used Kaohsiung’s bicycle renting service, bikes were still our main mode of commuting. For those who are traveling on a budget or slightly horrified of getting around by walking, bicycling is a great choice. The first 30 minutes of renting a bike is free of charge, and almost all of the metro stations in Kaohsiung have a bicycle renting station, which means as soon as you leave a metro station, you can go rent a bike within walking distance. We saved up a lot of money this way, and got to work out as well.
One word of advice: choose your bike wisely. Some bikes have glaringly, obvious problems, like a missing bell, but other bikes might hide subtle problems, like a loose seat or bad brakes. I experienced four different problems during four rentals. I’m still not sure if it’s coincidental or just plain bad luck.
At the risk of sounding like I’m doing promotion for Backpacker 41, I struggled between writing this part and leaving it out, but really, I’m just sharing what I really liked about this hostel.
We stayed at Backpacker 41, a hostel for backpackers with no curfew. The hostel is located near R8 Station, and you can get there by a 3-minute walk. To add another bonus point to the convenience factor, Backpacker 41 also rents bikes for residents to use.
Our stay was NT400 a night, a total of NT800, so I feel it’s quite a bargain, especially for us poor students. It’s a no-shoe environment, meaning we have to wear slippers or go bare-footed, but it’s up to your personal preference.
What I really liked about this hostel was the whole environment. There’s a really homey feeling to the interior decoration, but it’s still very much like a hotel at the same time. There are around 5 to 6 floors, with rooms varying in size and bunk beds and restrooms on every floor. The top floor is a space to hang up your clothes to dry, complete with a washing machine.
On the ground floor, there’s a kitchen, community room where residents hang out and/or use the Internet on public laptops, a living room and a dining room. In the living room, there is a bookshelf brimming with travel books and maps for Kaohsiung area. K and I made several adjustments to our schedule based on some of the books.
Another startling observation happened in the community room, where I heard residents talking in different languages and English. I later found out some were also backpacking in Taiwan on their own, and they were trading stories of their time in Kaohsiung or in other places they’ve traveled to.
Also, Backpacker 41’s major brownie point is that they’ve banned food from the living quarters, and all residents must eat only in the dining room in order to keep a clean sleeping environment.
We stayed in a room with 4 bunk beds, and I took the top bunk. It was my first experience living in a room with complete strangers, and I will admit feeling a bit apprehensive about my belongings. But since the entire concept of backpacker’s hostel was to use the room as a place only to sleep, my nervousness was dispelled the next morning by stuffing all my costly belongings and money into the backpack I was going to take. Many of my roommates were probably from Hong Kong, judging from their dialect, and they were here in Kaohsiung to study. One of the regrets on this trip was that I didn’t strike up a conversation then with my roommates, but again, they looked a bit standoffish, seemingly quite content with being alone. (I could be projecting…so oh well.)
For those who care about hygiene, you might feel a bit queasy in Backpacker 41. While rooms are gender-segregated, you can still run into men on the same floor, and they’re either drying their hair with the public hair dryer, brushing their teeth or hogging the restroom or shower.
In addition to the homely feeling, since K and I were new in the area, the manager, who’s an elderly woman, happily introduced us to several must-see/eat places. It was like talking to your favorite aunt again, who chatted happily and could strike up a conversation with almost everyone.
Oh, did I mention how heavenly the bed sheets smelt? I sank into my bed during the first night there, and I didn’t want to wake up and leave the bed the next morning.
To be continued in Kaohsiung Part II: Culture and Food
(A shelf in Backpacker 41’s living room)