Taitung is a great city to explore on a bicycle. It is relatively flat, there are designated bike paths that take you through the city and there are many varied spots to explore that are within easy reach.
We started off at the old sugar factory that has been abandoned and is slowly being transformed into an art space with great potential. We enjoyed speeding down the vast empty spaces and discovered some really quirky cool spots for photos.
We continued along the designated bike path that was once a railway track, and it offered us a glimpse of locals’ backyards. We cycled past thriving vegetable patches and little backyard gardens. It was a very quaint little community with a bit of a Japanese feel to it.
The bike path then takes us through some streets and a park filled with hot air balloon lanterns, the mascot of Taitung (Taitung is famous for its annual hot air balloon festivals, hence the mini hot air balloon mascot).
The path continues onto the shore, and we find ourselves breathing in the salt-laden air of the beach. It was a good place to take a break, and there were several snack shops in the area selling local Taiwanese delicacies. I spotted a dilapidated white house that looked like a drawing from a children’s book and it left me wondering about its inhabitants.
The bike loop finishes in a large park which we spent several hours cycling around on a different day, and like so many other times before, we truly learnt and saw the city in so many ways that a tour bus or car cannot offer.
Hoi An charmed its way into my heart right from the beginning. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this place even with my high expectations shaped from hearing all about this famous town. It is a busy little tailoring town located halfway between North and South Vietnam with bright yellow colonial architecture and colourful lanterns strung all along the narrow streets.The food is delicious as you’d expect in Vietnam, and the eager tailors can whip up a suit or dress for you in a day, or sew a new leather bag or pair of sandals if that’s what you fancied. We could wander the streets freely without worrying about bikes and cars because the streets are cordoned off for pedestrians. At night, the lanterns painted a romantic glow over the town. The river is lit up with candles carrying the wishes and hopes of tourists and locals alike. We spotted a few young couples in traditional garb posing for engagement photos. It was the perfect backdrop for blossoming love and it felt right for the mood we were in.
Waking up before dawn, we groggily made our way by foot to the boat dock. We passed red robed monks doing their usual rounds of alms-begging, rendering the morning an air of tranquility. Our boatman was ready to take us out to the lake and we settled into our hard seats, tucking our legs comfortably under thick blankets. The chilly morning breeze was tangible on our skin but that would soon change with the rising sun.
The lake grew wider as we went deeper, and mist blurred the horizon between lake and sky while mountains painted a faint backdrop and fishermen on boats dotted the foreground. Not just any odd fisherman, but ones that skilfully paddle with their leg while their hands are free to wrestle the interminable fishing nets. Their graceful silhouette was seared into my mind that very morning and I could not take my curious eyes off them. How did they master this skill that fishermen from other parts of the world don’t know of? How is it not more widespread? It seemed like a very clever way to fish.
As the mid-day heat started bearing down on our necks, we slowly approached the floating gardens and villages of Inle lake. We passed young ladies with tanaka-smeared faces maneuvering their boats around lush vegetation. While the men fished, the women harvested and pruned. It was a simple life living off the lake and passed down generation after generation.
Traffic on the lake started picking up as speedboats whirred past, transporting locals to other parts of the lake. But the fishermen were still hard at work using nets, cages and primal tools that have served mankind for centuries. We slowly made our way back to the boat dock, taking cover under our umbrella. We will soon be back in town, walking amongst other tourists back to our hotel rooms with precious pictures in our camera to remind us of our day out at the lake.
The most fascinating aspect of travel is the people. Being able to observe the locals in their element is what sustains our interest in long term travel, as opposed to the big sights and wonders which wear thin after a while. If I had to pick one culture of people that stood out to us it would have to be the Tibetans.
Tibetan faces were some of the most exotic we had ever come across. The men were rugged, flamboyant, well built and embodied the ‘Eastern Cowboy’ persona which took us by surprise. We had imagined pious and meek stereotypes which were not untrue, but we hadn’t expect to see a lot more diversity in this race. The women were beautiful with their rosy cheeks and exuded elegance in their traditional garment and cowboy hat. And then there were the monks, who stood out in their red robes in contrast to their humbled posture and demeanor. It was hard not to be captivated by this race of people.
While we were drawn to their faces at first sight, we were held amazed by their deep devotion to their religion. It was not an uncommon sight to see Tibetans repeatedly prostrate themselves in prayer at holy sites or circumambulate in meditation around temples, some interspersing with full body prostrations every 3rd step along the way. It certainly taught me a thing or two about devotion despite our vastly different faiths.
Tibetans are not without their flaws, as I found them to have a lower standard of hygiene which could be a result of the tough environment, conflicting history and slow development especially outside the capital city. Nonetheless their resilience in surviving such harsh living conditions particularly the farmers and nomadic tribes is something many other cultures can learn from.