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Peter Needham gets himself lost in Taitung

September 14, 2017 Headline News 1 Comment Email Email

It’s easy to become lost on your travels – but to do it properly you have to set out alone without any map, without the address of your hotel, without any kind of guidance, no mobile phone or apps, and to do it at night in a city where very few people speak English.

In Taitung, a city on the East Coast of Taiwan, I managed all of these. It’s not the sort of story a travel or tourism writer should revel in, but these things can happen to anyone. As there’s a Taiwan travel roadshow on in Sydney tonight, now is the time to tell the tale.

The evening I got lost started out in my Taitung hotel, when I thought I had accidentally locked my key in my suitcase. Not being able to get into the suitcase led to a little internal tension, but after a thorough search I found the key where it had fallen, in one of my shoes.

At that point, feeling relieved, I decided I needed a beer, so I set off on foot into town, just a few blocks away from the hotel, initially to withdraw some cash from an ATM. I got the money, and bought two or three large cans of cold beer and walked back to the hotel, just a few blocks.

Somehow I got lost.

Where’s Wally? Downtown Taitung City

To be lost in a Chinese-speaking city at night is no joke, though Taitung is a very friendly place. I had a walking stick as my leg was playing up (Taiwan sells excellent walking sticks) and I had my cold beers in a plastic bag if I became thirsty. The night was very hot and humid. I walked a long way indeed. Kilometres.

I came across a petrol station and somebody gave me a takeaway map, in Chinese. A young man offered me a ride on his motorbike, presumably to take me back to the hotel, but I declined because I wasn’t sure where he might go and thought I might become even more lost than I was already.

I should have taken a map from the hotel reception, of course. Somehow I had forgotten to do so. I asked a few people the way and showed them the map I had, the one I had got from the petrol station, and they gave me directions in Chinese, with much pointing, and I set off to follow their instructions and got lost again. There were neon lights and lots of dark alleys and it was raining.

Garbage trucks passed, which in Taitung play odd tinkly theme music, like Mr Whippy ice cream vans. I passed a road accident scene, where medics were loading the victim (or body) onto a stretcher and putting him (or her) in an ambulance, all lit up with eerie neon flickering. It was 10.30pm and I felt as if I had wandered into some sort of surreal Fellini movie.

I asked directions again. By this time I was getting a little worried. It was Saturday and as the night drew on, things were beginning to shut down. I had my room key but it was in Chinese and didn’t seem to include the name of the hotel. At least I knew that if I ever reached the hotel, I could open the door of my room. The cabs which passed were full and much of the traffic consisted of motor scooters. Fortunately, I still had two beer cans in my bag, should sustenance be needed.

Then I passed a 7-Eleven store (there are lots of those in Taiwan) and saw a European couple in there, in their 20s. I went in and asked if they spoke English. Yes, they said, and I explained my predicament. The young woman was from Melbourne and her husband worked in Taipei, both Australians who knew Taiwan very well. They quickly figured out my hotel and said it wasn’t that far away at all. It was just a couple of blocks around the corner and they would walk me back there. I was extremely grateful!

Close to the hotel we passed an outside bar and saw some others in my group. So we all linked up, the story was told and we all sat down and had a beer and all was well.

I was lucky to get lost in a friendly, safe place. Taiwan offers all sorts of things. If you want to eat an egg boiled in a vat full of tea and served by a grandmother, Taiwan is the place to go. If you’d like to hit 300kph on the airport train, or attend the world’s greatest lantern festival, it has that too.

It’s easier to find English speakers in cosmopolitan Taipei, part of a metropolitan area with a population of about 7 million


Getting around Taiwan is easy, but it helps if you have a map or a mobile phone. The island (about 400km long and 145km wide) is about half the size of Tasmania and you can see a lot in a week. Roads are excellent (eight major motorways) plus a high-speed train.

The town of Jiji, more or less in the centre of the island and full of bicycles, banana sellers and betel nut shops, is a picturesque place to start. Jiji Temple, knocked sideways by an earthquake a few years ago, has been left as it ended up, a sort of monument to earth tremors.

Not far away, you’ll get your first glimpse of Sun Moon Lake. Swimming is permitted in the lake just once a year – when about 25,000 people leap in simultaneously and swim 3km together.

From near the lake, an Austrian-built cableway can whisk you up to the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village, devoted to the culture of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes. At the top, indigenous culture involves witches, skulls, dances, warriors, smoke ceremonies and betel nuts – even a display frame for enemy heads, “based on an original structure from about 1850”. Research indicates that the ancestors of New Zealand’s Maori people left Taiwan about 5000 years ago, taking the haka with them.

The Taiwan Roadshow, hosted by Taiwan Tourism Bureau, is currently touring Australia and will be at The Westin Sydney tonight, Thursday 14 September 2017, from 5pm.

Written by Peter Needham

Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. Mr. Needham,

    Lost in Taitung eh? Well I must say that’s one of the more captivating headlines written since the Headless Man in a Boot garnered international attention all those years ago…. Great to see you hard at it leaving no stone unturned in your relentless efforts to bring the world to the desks of our industry brethren. On, On and damm the torpedoes dear chap. Will keep you afoot of any such needs here at Discover the World (Thailand) Co. Ltd as we begin to hit our straps with an expanding portfolio of brands and ambitions.
    Toodle pip.


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