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Getting around

Part 6: Lugang, Taipei

Map of route in Taiwan
24-25.3: Munich -> Beijing -> Taipei
26.3: Taipei -> Hualian
27.3: Hualian -> Taroko gorge -> Hualian
28.3: Hualien -> Ruisui -> Hualien
29.3: Hualian -> Qingshui cliffs -> Kaohsiung
30.3: Kaohsiung -> Tainan
31.3: Tainan
1.4: Tainan -> Guanziling
2.4: Guanziling -> Alishan
3.4: Alishan
4.4: Alishan -> Lugang
5.4: Lugang -> Taipei
6.4: Taipei -> Beijing
7.4: Beijing -> Munich

4.4: Alishan -> Lukang (Lugang)
Lukang Zhida Culture Service Guest House, Lugang. 94 Euro for a room on the 12th floor of a skyscraper. This room is a mixed bag. On the positive side the room has nice furniture and several cupboards where to store things. It also has the feeling of a 3-4 stars place. On the negative side the room is just too small: there is no space for our luggage. We have to put the luggage on the table and in the cupboard.
Otherwise the room has adjustable A/C, an old TV (not LCD), fridge + tea making equipment, a phone, bathroom with shower. Internet access via cable. Overall this is an old hotel with an old infrastructure.

Weather: except for some sunshine in the morning in the Alishan area, it is mostly overcast and it rains a lot today. It seems that we are visiting Taiwan during the rainy season. Heavy rain in the afternoon and in the evening.

We leave the homestay at 11:30am. The idea for today would be to - weather permitting - drive to the Sun-Moon lake and then reach Lugang in the evening. Weather permitting, because it makes no sense to visit the lake if it rains.

A poster in the Lonely Planet Thornthree forum had suggested to use the highway 21 (the one across the mountains) to reach the Sun-Moon lake. I won't do that because from our location in the Alishan area it would take four hours according to Google Maps by car to reach the Sun Moon lake. Four hours of driving on narrow and winding mountain roads.

We'll end up skipping the Sun Moon lake because of the bad weather. But actually we would also have had a time problem, because we are leaving Alishan too late. We are somewhere in the Mingjian area around 1:30pm and would only reach the Sun Moon lake only around 3pm, which would leave us just three hours, i.e. not enough time.

So instead while driving towards Lukang, around 1:30pm we visit a place in Zhushan where they manufacture Chinese lanterns. Then we have a lunch in a Family Mart convenience store (total bill for the four of us: 273 TWD). Zhushan is actually only 40km from the Sun Moon lake, but these 40km take over an hour by car according to Google Maps.

After lunch we drive to Lugang, initially on the highway Nr 3, then on the road Nr 76.

We reach Lugang around 4pm and park the car somewhere in town, not far from the Tianhou temple.

The entire area around this temple and the Zhongshan street are a hive of activity. There are countless stalls and small shops selling food and characteristic/touristic things. Lots of people on the streets.

Today is tomb sweeping day (Ching Ming) in Taiwan, a public holiday. Tomorrow (Friday) is a bridge day, which explains why there are so many people on the streets.

We spend the next few hours in Lukang, visiting temples and exploring the historic centre. Lukang (or let's say the historic centre) makes the impression of a laid-back touristy place with several old buildings.

Around 6pm we start looking for a place where to have some food. We have been eating some snacks here and there but would like to have something warm for dinner. After some search we settle down in a place on Zhongshan road. This meal costs just 90 TWD (two bowls of noodles and one of noodle soup) - cheapest dinner so far.

In the meantime it is raining heavily. We somehow make it to the car, more wet than dry. Then we drive to the hotel.

5.4: Lugang -> Taipei
Regal Executive Suites, Taipei. 3840 TWD (almost 100 Euro at the current exchange rate) for a room with A/C, fridge, two TVs (one LCD, one not), some furniture (table, chair, cupboard for the clothes, attached bath with bathtub shower, breakfast included. Essentially the room is ok, it's just that it feels overpriced.
Very old infrastructure, the room smells old. Internet access not via WLAN, just only through a LAN cable (next time I visit Taiwan I bring a wireless router with me).
Later I notice that the room window is actually useless, because the next building is only a couple of metres away and you can't see the sky. Good shower, breakfast not bad for Taiwanese standards (which unfortunately are quite low if you are not into the Chinese style breakfast).

Weather: rain, rain and more rain. It starts in the morning in Lugang, when it rains until almost 11am, quite heavily. Then it almost stops to rain, but you still get wet when walking on the streets. Then it starts raining again intermittently. Heavy rain on the motorway between Lugang and Taipei. Even Shirley (who comes from a tropical country) is surprised that it rains the whole day. Even in the evening in Taipei it still rains a bit, i.e. you need an umbrella when walking on the streets. Not cold - I can walk around in a T-shirt.

We check out of the hotel at 10:45am, then drive to the Longshan temple. This is located in a side street at the other end of the Zhongshan street and is less impressive than the Tianhou (Matsu) temple we saw yesterday. Essentially it consists of some shrine buildings separated by courts. The temple is active, i.e. people come there for praying. We buy some pineapple cookies in a shop next to the temple.

At 11:40am we start walking towards the Zhongshan street. Once there we welk along it for a while. In the process we pass by a series of shops selling food, drinks, handicrafts and traditional stuff. In fact the entire historic core of Lugang is full of these shops.

What Lugang has is kind of interesting, but is not as well preserved as for instance the historic core of Singapore. In the historic core of Lugang there is every now and then a historic building, but that's it. Each of these historic buildings is surrounded by modern buildings, i.e. there is no uninterrupted historic area. So in fact, Lugang is a bit overrated as a historic place or as a place representing the old Taiwan.

After some walking here and there we finally get back to the car by 1:50pm. Suddenly Shirley spots a noodle restaurant, near to the place where we left the car. So we drop the stuff we bought in Lugang into the car and have a noodle soup in this place (120 TWD for all of us).

By the time we get out of this place and start driving to Taipei it's already 2:30pm. I have the silent hope to make it to the base of the Elephant hill in Taipei by 5pm (that is 2:30 hours of driving, which should be doable given the distance of 199km), in order to be on top of Elephant hill for a sunset view of Taipei at 6pm.

The traffic conditions and also the weather conditions however conspire to make my plan fail. It starts with some traffic jam at the access to the motorway Nr 1 in Changhua. Then due to the traffic conditions the effective speed on the motorway most of the time is below 100km/h. Sometimes there is a peak of 110km/h, but very often the speed is only 80km/h.

It also doesn't help that some dumb drivers block the left lane (the fast one) driving at just 80-90 km/h. These idiots do not understand that if they want to drive slowly, they have to free the fast left lane. As a consequence drivers here have got used to overtake these slow left lane blockers on the right side, which isn't exactly safe and would be fined in a country like Germany.

Basically on Taiwanese motorways people are used to overtake other drivers both on the left and the right side. So, when you want to change lanes you need to watch very carefully the traffic behind you.

As we approach Taipei, once we are past Taoyuan, we get into the mother of all traffic jams. No idea why so many cars are driving towards Taipei. It's almost 5pm, so this could be rush hour traffic. On the other hand Taiwanese are supposed to work hard so should not leave the office by 4pm. Today is also a bridge day, so one would expect a traffic out of Taipei not a traffic into Taipei.

While driving on the motorway we pass one of the toll gates without paying because we are too far to the left (heavy traffic) to be able to reach the cash pay tool booths which are on the far right. There are such tool booths in more or less regular intervals and every time you pay 40 TWD.

Anyway, after a while it becomes clear that I won't make it in time to the base of Elephant hill. And even if I made it in time, it's pointless to be on top of Elephant hill in the rain.

So we simply make a stop in the nearest shopping mall, which turns out to be the Sogo mall in or around Shulin. This is a big and flashy mall, with an interesting food court in the basement. We spend over two hours there between 5:30pm and almost 8pm.

When we continue driving to the hotel, the traffic on the motorway is much more relaxed. We reach the hotel around 8:40pm.

6.4: Taipei -> Beijing
Overnight in the plane
Weather: rain, rain, rain the whole day in Taipei. It is still raining when the plane takes off from Taoyuan international airport. It does not rain heavily the whole day: the rain intensity varies, with periods of light rain alternating with periods of heavy rain. Not cold, but what a f**cking weather.

We manage to check out of the hotel by 10:30am. Before seeing today's weather I had this sort of idea to make it to Elephant hill for the view of Taipei. As soon as I realise that outside it is raining heavily I cancel my plan and decide instead to make it to the Guandu temple, which offers a lot to see and is an indoor place.

So we key in the address of the Guandu temple into the car navigation system. We start driving around 10:45am and reach the temple shortly after 11:20am.

Due to the confusing directions the car navigation system gives we miss the correct road exit one time and have to make a small detour. Adjacent to the temple there is a parking (cost for us: 60 TWD).

The Guandu temple is quite large and one of the more intersting temples we have seen so far in Taiwan. It dates back to the 17th century (but must have been restored recently because it looks so immaculate and new) and is built over several levels on the side of a mountain. The main access is from the riverfront street. This leads through a tunnel carved into the mountain to the higher levels. The tunnels, all the temple walls and more in general all temple surfaces are completely decorated with carvings, statues and frescoes. In fact the entire temple is beautiful and features a n impressive wealth of detail.

The temple is in a great position overlooking the river. If the weather was good, the views from here would be excellent, especially at sunset. But today, with this greyish-milky sky, poor long-distance visibility, there are no views worth recording in a photo.

Despite the weather, quite a few people are visiting the temple today. My guess is that it's inhabitants of Taipei who come here for prayers, although I also spot some tourists as well.

Around 12:30pm we are done visiting the temple. We walk to the food court area near the temple and have some noodle soup for lunch.

Then at 1 something pm, since it is still raining and it is too early to go to the airport anyway, we drive to the Taimall, a large mall not far from the Taoyuan airport.

We reach this place shortly after 2pm, after a small detour, because one of the roads suggested by the navigation system is closed.

We park the car in the parking adjacent to the mall (lots of cars entering the parking today, but there are still 330 free parking slots when we drive in). Lots of activity today on this Saturday afternoon at the Taimall.

The Taimall supposedly is the largest mall in the Taoyuan area. It's large building extending over 6-7 floors, with a department store and many, many shops. Quite an elegant place, lots of high end branded goods.

Since the lunch was a bit small, we buy some food in a bakery on the 5th floor (by the way, delicious raisin bread, and also the other stuff looks good). In another shop we find again the pineapple cookies, this time a box of 10 for 280 TWD.

Around 2:30pm the family transfers to the 6th floor where the kids have spotted a children playing area with lots of game machines. Kids must have a sixth sense for these kind of things because they immediately locate them.

So now starts the almost ritual game area visit. "Ritual" because the kids have been visiting such places almost every day since we are in Taiwan. There are such game & fun areas in all malls in Taiwan. They are much more widespread than in Europe, and the cost to use the games is lower than in Europe.

At 3pm we get back to the car and drive to the car rental. There we return the car. We pay 640 TWD for the extra four hours we have used the car (the 5th day ended at noon and they are charging us 160 TWD for each of the additional hours; it's about 3:30pm when we return the car, i.e. we pay for four additional hours).

It's not a bad deal considering that we are returning the car in a different place than the pick-up one and they are not charging us for the transfer back costs.

We mention the missed toll booth thing (happened yesterday) to the staff. They tell us the fine will be around 600-700 TWD.

Then one of the car rental guys gets into the car and drives us to the airport. It's a bit strange that Hotai Motors, the car rental, have no office at the airport directly. How can they pick up customers arriving by plane if they have no office there? Probably they do not target international customers.

We are at the airport around 4pm. There we check in at the Air China counter (quite a long queue by the way) and proceed to the gate. Everything proceeds quite smoothly, there is just again this quite long queue at the passport-check counters.

It takes quite some time to reach the gate area, because we arrived at the airport around 4pm (ok, add 10 minutes for repackaging the suitcases and changing the clothes) and we only are in the gate area at 5:25pm.

The airport terminal is clean, quite flashy and modern. Lots of shops in the duty-free area.

For some reason we can't access the Internet with the smartphone and when trying to make a call we get the message that all lines are busy. My guess is that there are just too many people at the airport today and as prepaid card users we probably are assigned a low priority, so don't get phone lines or data channels for Internet access.

We proceed to the gate and at 6pm board the plane. The machine is an Airbus A330-300 and leaves with a small 5 minutes delay. The plane is almost completely full. This time the dinner served is not bad.

The flight lands a bit early in Beijing (at 9:45pm). There is the same security and screening procedure as on the outward flight only applied in reverse: first a temperature health scan, then a kind of passport/boarding pass sort of immigration check, then again a passport/boarding pass check with photo shooting, and finally a security check on your hand luggage and the items you carry with you.

The Beijing terminal is quite life-less at this time of the day (around 10pm). The shops are all closed, the restaurants as well, I just notice one open bar. The money changer is closed as well. Either bring some cash or withdraw money at an ATM if you happen to need something in the evening. This terminal is ages away from a terminal such as the DUbai one, which is operating 24h/day.

I proceed to the gate and connect the notebook PC to the charging station (220V AC power sockets provided at all gates) to recharge the batteries.

7.4: Beijing -> Munich
Home, sweet home.
Weather: not raining in Beijing. Cold (+2C) and overcast in Munich.

At 12:40am we board the plane to Munich. The Air China machine is a A330-200 and is almost full. The plane takes off more or less on time at 1:10am, but lands in Munich at 6am local time with half an hour of delay after a long 11-hours flight.

Copyright 2013 Alfred Molon