Day Trip to Jiofen & Jinguashi

Day Trip to Jiufen & Jinguashi, Taiwan’s Northeast Coast

The daily grind of life here in Taipei has definitely caught up to me. I picked up some extra hours at work, which has helped to fill my empty account at the Hua-Nan Bank of Taipei but has ultimately taken away from my precious free time. I am currently finishing up my second month of Chinese classes at the Taipei Language Institute. These lessons fill my mornings Monday through Friday from 9:30 to 12:30 and have greatly improved my abilities to blend in here. Fewer hand and body gestures are now needed for me to order a glass of juice or a bowl of soup and I feel more confident talking to random locals I meet on the street.

My busy schedule has also made it difficult to get some traveling in, which is one of the main draws for living here in Taiwan for the year. I work every Saturday from 9 in the morning to about 3 PM, which destroys the day and makes weekend getaways fairly difficult. These past couple weekends I was also primarily staying in Taipei to attend the recent Taipei International Film Festival. With most of the screenings on Saturday and Sunday, this too made getting away from life in the big city difficult.

This past Sunday I escaped to the North East part of the Island to the small village, Jioufen, and its sister city Jinguashi. Jiufen is one of those quaint little towns that draw lots of tourists for shopping, scenery, and local eats. The town itself was an old mining base back in the day and Jinguashi, a gold mining village further up in the mountains, also has a great deal of Japanese influence seen in its architecture.

Click the map for a bigger jpg (I hope). Jiufen & Jinguashi are at the top of the Island, Northeast of Taipei.

I left Taipei Main Station by local train to the town of Rueifang, which serves as a hub to both Jiufen and Jinguashi by bus. All three of these towns are technically part of Taipei County, which means public transportation is on the same card system as Taipei City’s MRT, a pleasant surprise that enable me to squander my coin kuai on various street snacks and tea.

It’s easy to forget that a mere twenty minutes outside of Taipei’s busy downtown there are lush green hills, mountain views and picturesque streams and rivers bisecting various suburbs. Further North and East you head towards the Pacific, and then things start to get truly breathtaking.

Sundays are understandably busy tourism days and Jiufen, which lies roughly an hour outside of Taipei, is a popular hotspot for locals and foreigners to escape to for the day. The train was crowded, though not as uncomfortable as my Dragon Boat Fest weekend, which, if you’ll recall, had yours truly crammed into a hot train car like livestock on the way to the slaughter.

Chicago had its cows, Jinguashi has its own version. Bulls on Parade!

My friend and I early on decided to save Jiufen for later in the afternoon to hopefully steer clear of the other hordes of tourists hitting the town for lunch and shopping excursions. We decided to ride the local bus from Rueifang past Jiufen to the far less popular but ultimately more rewarding Jinguashi, which, like Jiufen, was also an old gold mining town in the early 20th century.

Jinguashi is probably best known for its access to the Gold Ecological Park, one of Taiwan’s many national parks. The Gold Ecological Park is noteworthy for its abandoned mine (fully accessible for tourists but a bit too juvenile for this intrepid traveler), and its sought after Golden Waterfall, which I learned was only accessible to by car, scooter, or three hour hike into the mountains.

35 ft tall war God perched high above a temple in Jinguashi

The town itself is nice but it’s the stunning coastal view of the Pacific that is worth the trip and the 45-minute hike down a mountainous path.

In 2002 the town of Jinguashi and its neighboring park was a possible candidate for inclusion to the oh so sacred UNESCO World Heritage Site master list, a trekker’s Holy Grail catalog that has been teasing travelers with the vast exploration opportunities around the globe since its inception.

The main tourists attractions–the old mine, the various colonial Japanese estates that are now museums and the Temple of Gold–are nice for a peek but the true wonders lay off the beaten path towards the sea. A long trail winds around the mountain side, goes through a beautiful old temple and 35ft-high War God shrine, and eventually ends at a scenic overlook at the Pacific and a small fishing port below.

After surveying all there was to see by foot in Jinguashi we headed back to Jiufen to eat and soak in the town. Between Jiufen and Jinguashi there are thousands of small traditional Chinese burial plots in the hills. These ornately decorated ceramic and stone shrines are the resting places for only the richest and most fortunate of deceased because of their quality and the feng shui of facing both the mountains and the sea. If you are somebody of great worth or fame you may very well be fortunate enough to spend the afterlife in these peaceful green hills.

Jiufen is a pleasant enough village built on a steep hill overlooking a misty bay of hills and one pyramid island. The town is famous for its tight, semi-indoor market that is a maze of vendors slinging salted dried meats and seafood, fish ball soup, dense and sugary pineapple cakes, gooey dumplings, various treats on a stick, all the chotchkies one could want. The town’s other major draws are the many teahouses that have sprung up over the years as the crowds started flocking in.

For those who know me well you will remember that I am a bit of a tea enthusiast back in the states. My dear friend with a knack for dry humor and sarcasm, Jake, once said I have nothing more than a love of “dirty water.” In Taipei I have discovered a number of low-key coffee/tea cafes around the local university that serve up delectable pots of various East Asian aromatic teas. Other than that, I have really only scratched the surface on what is available in this part of the world. My trip to Jiufen proved that artisan tea is way beyond my enthusiasm for green and oolong chá.

But before diving into my memorable experience at The City of the Sky Tea House let’s get through the obligatory offering of food porn.

Fish ball soup is exactly what it sounds like, unappetizing white balls of dough and protein that floats in a rich broth with vegetables and the occasional surprise mystery meatball thrown in for kicks. Since Jiufen is fairly famous this dish I felt obligated to try it out. For all the hype fish balls are about as boring as they sound. Perhaps I chose the wrong vendor but a general rule of thumb is go to where the locals are, and this particular hole in the wall was hopping.

Rice with savory minced meat is a common side dish in all of Taiwan. Best not to ask what’s in the grind.

After eating sparingly at the fish ball soup stand, we made are way to another Taiwanese delicacy, Ba-Wan, translated to ‘Meat Circle,’ which are large, gelatinous meat filled dumplings served either in a thick sauce or accompanied with soup.
There were at least seven shops selling these curious culinary wonders, which look very much like the treacherous jellyfish that wash up on beaches around the world. Are particular stand looked decent enough from the outside so we gave it a shot. Later on as we were navigating through the gooey mess of bamboo shoots, mushroom and odd pieces of meat, we noticed that two Buddhist nuns sat down next to us and were also enjoying what we thought were pork filled dumplings but were in reality all vegetarian. Turns out of all the shops in Jiufen serving up Ba-Wan we ended up at the vegan stop. The pieces of red protein were either tofu or some oddly formed piece of gluten.

The red balls of protein do not come from any animal I am familiar with.

Our first hint that we were dining vegetarian.

The dish was actually very tasty and is something that I would like to try in different incarnations some time down the road.

My Lonely Planet guide lists a number of “famous” teahouses in Jiufen, all of which served pretty much similar forms of brew but differed in their interior atmospheres and their views of the sea. Walking down a narrow side street we stumbled upon The City of the Sky Tea House, a charming little three-story café fully furnished with folk art pieces, antique furnishings and a stunning view of the port. Like most of Jiufen the café was perched high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific and in the distance Jinguashi. After settling in on the balcony of the third floor we ordered a rather expensive bag of locally grown and aged Oolong tea.

One thing about Asia that I’ve learned is that even the simplest of things, like tea or as I’ve mentioned chicken, are ultimately a lot more complex than you might think.

This was hardly my first experience with artisan tea however, I was clearly unprepared for the proper (and traditional) preparation and serving of tea of this quality. Whereas most of the world casually throw some tea bags or loose leaves into a pot of boiling water or even the unromantic mug of H2O, the Chinese are very particular about the order and purity of the tea tasting experience.

The shop’s proprietor did not speak English so I had to rely on my limited vocabulary and my friend to interpret the woman’s directions.

First off, the tea set that our tea was served in was a piece of art in itself. We learned that the sets were custom made for the teahouse and were modern interpretations of traditional sets. Basically with tea of this caliber your water is boiled over coals on the floor in a large ceramic teapot. The tea itself will never go near this pot, which is nothing more than a utility vehicle for water at a constant boil.

Instead, the boiling water is slowly poured into one of the two larger white ceramic bowls seen below where it is left to cool to a perfect 85 degrees Celsius, the optimal temperature for steeping tea leaves.

After the water has rested a bit it is poured over the loose tea leaves that are resting on the top of the small teapot, the only piece on the table set that has a top. It is given a couple minutes to steep then is poured off into the second large white boil. From there it is poured into the two smaller drinking cups, which offer only two or three small sips per serving. It seems like a lot of work for nothing more than the aforementioned soiled water, however, there is something quite romantic and beautiful about this system. It’s nice to know that people have been drinking their tea in this manner for thousands of years and that the procedure is still practiced today.

Homemade Oolong tea cheesecake.

Every piece in the set had a purpose. The pot for the tea leaves was specially made to strain the loose tea leaves, the small cylinder on the left side of the tray was made to rest the teapot’s top, the small curved piece in the back (shown in photo above) was for scooping the dried tea leaves from the bag into the pot, and the small aromatic twig hiding in the back was for tidying up any wet tea leaf that stuck to the top of the pot. The large dark ceramic bowl was for the wasted water or cold tea. Only the purest form of the brew is supposed to be taken to the lips. If you let it get too cool or leave it steeping too long, it’s best to just dump it and start over.

Our tea choice was very good. The local specialty was naturally sweet, with a hint of bitterness. It tasted different served in a small sipping cup, rather than a larger Western mug and overall the experience was very refreshing even on a hot day summer afternoon.

The tea that was served ended up lasting at least three hours and we ended up waiting for the sun to set before heading off into the maze of Jiufen again. Please break for a series of scenic photographs that really don’t do justice to just how stunning our view was during the precious twilight hours.

It started to rain right as we boarded the train back to Taipei City. Damn I’m good. Our train ride back was standing room only, which was a bit of a drag but we opted for the faster rail line so the time passed with ease.

I’m hoping to head down South to a famous waterfall in the town of Wulai during my next weekend excursion. I won’t be able to do any serious travel in the far Southern regions of the Island till I have an entire weekend to devote but there is plenty to do up in Northern and Central Taiwan till then.

Till next time, your devoted lover of filthy water and gooey meat circle enthusiast.

What would a day of photography be without the obligatory moment when I ruin a perfectly nice photo.

Jesus. Michael Jackson.

I stumbled upon a Church of Nazarene on my way to work the other day. The dancing, the pink shirts, the electric drum set, it was almost too much to take in. The voice you hear is a recruiter trying to woo to an evening concert. Further down the street was an Episcopal Church.

Michael Jackson’s passing disproved any theories that his popularity had diminished since his goblin transformation and various courtroom battles. I stumbled upon this tiny music vendor in the middle of a nigh market who has been playing this Jackson concert DVD in a loop since his death. I had some time to kill so I watched a version of “Black Or White” (clip from the nostalgic music video starring a young Macaulay Culkin precedes the actual performance), stayed on for the following performance of “Will You Be There” and eventually left during an over the top version of “Beat It” filmed in Bucharest, Romania of all places circa 1991-92.

I was not the only onlooker. Jackson’s passing has been a much needed reminder to how big he was on a global scale.

Scenes from a Taiwanese Classroom Cont.

More Scenes From A Taiwanese English Class
During break time we witness young Alex’s high-pitched shriek, something we as a class experience on a daily basis. Also, the birth of the classroom cockroach scare (to be fair, cockroaches are all over Taipei). Keywords learned during this particular class: COCKROACH, TO HUG and verbs in the Present and Past Continuous Tense using “to be” and “have/has + been.” Normally I wouldn’t condone hitting Teacher Warner but I suppose I deserved this onslaught of fists, feet and a head-butt to the hip from Jimmy (yes, he’s that short, or I’m just that tall). Notice again how the girls are busy doing homework. Amazing work ethic.
My Jumpstart class sits at the other end of my teaching spectrum. The class is made up of six girls ranging from age four to five. In all honesty they’re too young to misbehave. The class requires a lot of memorization on their part, mainly consisting of key vocab words and sentence patterns, delivered via kid-friendly songs that tend to grind into your psyche long after class. At the end of each class period the students are required to line-up at the door and sing the terribly adorable “Goodbye Song.” The players from left to right: Hana, Nina, Mina, Liane, Momo, and the energetic Jessica. Also featured is Teacher Angela, the Chinese Teacher for the class who is around to make sure all is well and to occasionally explain things in Chinese. If this little jingle doesn’t bring a smile to you face, you might need to seek some help. 

Scenes from a Taiwanese Classroom

Anatomy of An Elementary Age English Class

Three days a week I teach my “Treehouse” level class, an intense and higher-priced class offered at my school. I will have these eight students for as long as I am teaching at the school or for however long the student’s parents keep forking out the dough. It’s amazing how much better the Treehouse program is compared to some of my other classes. All eight of these kids are learning English at an extremely fast rate and a handful of them will truly benefit from these lessons should they continue their English studies down the road. 

I have a lot of fun with this class. I get to spend the most amount of time with them, which in the long run makes a difference in terms of my teaching plans. The class is smaller in size, which allows me to focus on individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. To top it off we’re allowed to have a good time via games and amusing activities since the students have a decent grasp at conversational English. The class can be difficult at times and certain students do enjoy making a ruckus during my lessons. Still, when it’s all said and done, they’re all a good group of kids, some more amusing than others. 
But enough rambling, let’s meet the players!
Bottom Row, Left to Right:
Jimmy: Let’s see, what can I say about Jimmy. The kid is the only student who actually needs the most extra help in class, particularly with pronunciation and simple sentence patterns. Much of these issues can be blamed on his attention span, which is on par with that of a new puppy getting his first bath. Some days Jimmy is a delight in class. He’ll participate in class exercises and reading, and if we’re lucky he’ll sit quietly and listen. On other days he’s a tornado of loud Chinese rants, unnecessary games of hide and seek and the occasional high kick to the Teacher Warner’s “tree” legs. Last week during the reading of the storybook, “A Bully on Baker Street” Jimmy, possibly in an act of inspiration from the story’s antagonist, decided to tear his book to shreds and lunge at Alex who was sitting next to him. What’s most striking about Jimmy is that when you are one on one with him he’s a very calm, and rather delightful kid. The other day he came to the school earlier and offered me a piece of candy, while a Chinese teacher helped him with his homework.  He would later throw a small rubber basketball at my head during a game of spelling Basketball after I corrected him on the spelling of “V A C U U M.” 

The Jimmy, The Alex, The Iris & The Joyce

Vicki: Don’t let the pink shorts and occasional pigtail hairdo fool you. Vicki, a promising student with the hindrance of selfishness, can be trouble. For the most part she is a decent, middle of the road student. She loves participating in class and often volunteers to read aloud, but much of this is fueled by a level of greed. Hess Schools print their own hard currency, the Hess Cent, tiny little colorful squares with phrases like “Way to Go!” “You’re #1” and “Superstar,” which when stockpiled can be used to buy goodies like Hello Kitty paraphernalia or pencil erasers (and let me tell you, the Taiwanese love their pencil erasers). You see, Vicki has a brick of cents that she appears to have been hoarding away in her pencil case since she started at Hess three years ago. During one lesson when we were learning about the word “S T E A L” I made the mistake of using the sentence example, “Teacher Warner steals Vicki’s cents,” a risk taken for the sake of teaching. She was not amused and spent the remaining class time sulking in her corner. SIDE NOTE: By “her corner” I literally mean her corner. These kids are territorial little buggers. Any change in seating causes more political strife than is needed and for the most parts it’s best to separate the boys from the girls since it turns out coodies is a global epidemic. 
Freshly minted Hess Cents!

Melody: Melody is a delight to have in class. Not the strongest student in terms of reading and spelling but she always wears a big smile on her face during class and never ceases to participate during class exercises. When I recently mispronounced my Chinese name she was, however, the first student to point out that I had mistakenly introduced myself as Xi (Dead) Hua Na, a minor hiccup in the pronunciation of one tone, but one that cost me the respect of my class for the rest of the period. 

Top Row: Left to Right

Alex: Arguably the most ambitious in the class, Alex, with his high-pitched voice and constant thirst for attention, if the official go-to guy for all sentence or word examples. Case in point: last week during a break Alex let loose an ear-piercing shriek after I jokingly said he was sitting near the (keyword of last unit) COCKROACHES. From then on certain students in class used this incident to spark all kinds of creative sentence examples. During our movie unit Melody created the movie title “Cockroaches Eat Alex” for a (keyword) HORROR movie. Later when we learned the word SCARED Joyce decided to say, “Alex is scared and he scream like girl.” After correcting her grammar I told her that wasn’t very nice. Later on this web of name calling eventually culminated with Lucas (more on him in a second) conjuring up the sentence, “Alex is a girl.” These students are amused by the most primitive of sentences. I only recently was able to weed them off the giggle inducing word, “poop,” as in Teacher Poop (previous unofficial nickname for yours truly). Despite some juvenile name-calling, Alex has a very good sense of humor and laughs along with everyone else. He is a very promising student whose only major flaw is a desire to be the first to finish all his work, resulting in sloppy mistakes on tests and reading exercises. I’m working on this with him. Less dancing and screaming in class, more attention paid to the fine details of English grammar. 

Joyce: Joyce is another of the top students in the class, however, she has a bit of an issue with authority. She loathes the storybook reading exercises in class and very rarely volunteers to read aloud (I of course make her anyway). The tragedy of this is she’s extremely bright and her conversational skills are some of the best in the class.  On the last major test she had a 100% on every section, even the admittedly difficult question and answer part, but bombed the storybook questions. I learned during the movie unit that her favorite movie is “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” a curious departure from her peer’s collective agreement that “Wall-E” was the best film. Side note: Joyce will try to sneak drinks and food into class, a big no-no at Hess. Best to catch her in the act early before she, eh hum, spills a bottle of chocolate milk on Alex and his belongings sitting in front of her. I’ve also come to realize that she will not be wooed into participating in class with the usual incentive of Hess Cents. She does, however, have a vice for Mister Donut donuts.

Apple: Let’s forget the obvious fact that her name is Apple even though she could pass as a Rebecca. Apple is a well-behaved student who struggles in certain areas, mainly spelling and pronunciation, but has a high level of motivation to succeed in the class. During breaks she and Melody will often work on homework or future exercises together while the majority of the class act a fool in the hallway or think of clever ways to sabotage Teacher Warner. Apple does, however, have a bizarre and rather disgusting little tendency to cough on me anytime I am helping her. It’s Almost like she has an allergic tick for Teacher Warner. For example, ME: “Apple, THE STUDENTS “A R E” STUDYING FOR THE TEST, not THE STUDENTS “I S” STUDYING” Apple’s response as she stares up at me with her innocent eyes: “(enter the sound of a kitten working hard a coughing up a hairball)” One day my Chinese teaching aid, Eva, made Apple wear a surgical face mask during class after a fit of chirpy coughs disgusted poor Eva.

While some of the other students run amuck in the halls during break time, 
Apple and Vicki work on their homework. I am always around to answer 
questions but only the girls in the class ask. 

Iris: Iris is not only the best student in class but also the most unassuming. She is terribly bright but never let’s on to her advantages over the rest of the lot. She is always willing to ask for help when its needed and likes to participate, often raising her hand before others even get a chance to compute the question just presented to them. I recently helped to edit her application essay for an English Language Immersion program in Canada for next summer. For her sake, I hope she finds the means to go and pursue the language.

Lucas: (red and orange shirt) Lucas is the classroom’s resident terrorist. Even in the photo above he seems to be disconnected from his peers, and is clearly plotting some elaborate scheme to thwart my lesson plan for the day. He’s intelligent and knows it. He enjoys undermining authority and has a troublesome influence over the classroom’s wild animal, Jimmy, The Joker to Lucas’ Gotham City crime syndicate. Lucas is as bright as Iris and is a wiz when it comes to spelling. I once jokingly pitted the entire class against Lucas in a speed spelling writing game and he surprisingly exceeded my expectations. For the most part we have an understanding in the classroom setting: he behaves himself and doesn’t distract the others during my lessons, and I ignore the fact that for much of the time (especially during reading) he is secretly drawing ninjas and gangsters in his book or adding to a maniacal list of phrases ranging from “TEACHER MARK SO UNFAIR” “TERRIBLE TEACHER TOM” and now, “TEACHER WATER IS MEAN,” scribbled with the same vigor and craziness that made The Shining’s “all work and no play” rant so terrifying. Lucas got a 99% on the last test and I congratulated him and told him that he was doing very well in the class but that he should behave himself. He seemed to agree but as he walked away I noticed a smirk on his face that only someone clearly biding his time would make. SIDE NOTE: In one of the videos below the students were required to come up with fake movie titles, one for each of the eight movie genres we were learning. Lucas’ creativity can be amusing but often interrupts his reasoning when it comes to proper grammar, case in point, the poorly titled ROMANCE film, “WARNER KISS PIG!”

During Unit 9 we learned about the different kinds of movies. 
For one classroom exercise I had the students write about their favorite movies and 
also make up some creative titles for fake movies. Lucas (red and orange shirt) uses this exercise  as yet another chance to give the students another reason to laugh at their faithful teacher. Notice also his puckish grin as he walks over to let me check over his work. 

Random Experiences: Welcome to the Jungle: A Tale of Battle

Random Experiences: War Games in the Jungle

Note: Exaggerations might be sprinkled throughout the following prose to add a bit more tension, excitement, humor and baadassness! Unnecessary adjectives and an overall heightened reality should be embraced. 

Last weekend my buddy Stuart came to visit for a couple days. What do you do when a guest comes to town? Why take them to get shot at of course! 

Some of you might remember my friend Stuart from such Warner Life Chapters as Spain 2005 and NYC Part 1. Stuart is from the Dallas region of Texas and was my housemate in Salamanca at Casa del Oscar y Leticia. Oscar and Leticia were our young host parents who we quickly figured out were only in it solely for the money. Summed up: If you weren’t sure what “poor man’s paella” is, I’ll tell ya, it’s pretty much just hot dogs, rice and ketchup. They had nothing but contempt for Stuart by the end of our time there (long story) and as a result questioned my friendship with him. Spain aside, Stuart is a great friend and a fellow traveler soaking up all there is to experience here in Asia. 

Stuart has been in the Far East since he graduated from college. He lived on a small island in southern Japan then moved to Mainland China for six months and is now living in Hong Kong, teaching English at a Japanese school.

Oink-Oink Flu recently broke out in HK and as a result the majority of the city schools were closed indefinitely. Stuart and I had been planning on meeting up at some point (I figured I would visit him in HK once a free weekend came around) so when he found himself with nothing to do for an extended weekend he jumped a cheap flight and stopped by Taipei. 

I know if I were visiting a friend in a foreign city the opportunity to shoot perfect strangers with skin-bruising paint pellets would be right up my alley. I was able to get Stuart on the list and Sunday morning we headed out of Taipei with my housemate Ant and our friend Jenn. 

Paintball is a messy affair and it doesn’t help that our battle was to be set in a steamy mountain forest arena, after two days of continuous rain. We were told to bring old, ratty clothes and shoes, both of which I don’t have seeing as I’m still fairly new to Taiwan. I found an old pair of sneakers left by the guy who used to rent my room (a small size 11), cut holes in the front to let my finger-toes breathe, and grabbed a white tee-shirt, which I hoped would accentuate some of the fluorescent colored flesh wounds that I, the bulls-eye-tall novice, was sure to endure. 

There were around thirty of us to start but by the end only a handful of brave souls remained. 

Mobilizing a large group such as ours is hard work. We rendezvoused at the closest MRT station at 11:40, shared a series of cabs to the actual park. Arrived at 12:30, went through a brief orientation (primarily in Chinese mind you, however, it was easy to understand certain no-no’s like never take your face mask off and yes, shooting someone at point blank range could do some serious damage) and by 13:30hrs we were dressed in our army fatigues and ready for battle. 

We split into two teams. Ant, Jenn and Stuart were on one, and I found myself on the opposing side. “I’ll see you in hell” I would later tell them. Choosing teams was a bit like the playground politics of softball in elementary school with the “sure thing” players getting picked first and the questionables hugging the bench till the end. I wasn’t the last person picked but I definitely wasn’t in the first round pick either. I suppose being tall doesn’t bode well for war. 

I’m to the far right. My housemate Ant, far left, chose the “Beyond Thunderdome” attire.

14:00 hrs: We make the trek up a steep hill to the first terrain, a timed warm-up course that pits the two teams against each other in a free-for-all, last man standing scenario. 

The course has a number of obstacles, hiding bunkers, and plenty of trees to use for cover. I decide to go all out for the first game and take a front position behind a giant tractor tire. 

I run down the slick hill and take a crouching position behind the yellow and red stained mass facing enemy fire. Little yellow pellets start whizzing by my head. To the right of me one of my teammates takes a fatal shot to the chest, his blue shirt sodden yellow.  

Pellets explode upon impact as they rain down upon my surprisingly feeble cover. My thick and rolling hair (I’m in need of a haircut by this point as the photo above can attest) catches a fair amount of side spray and eventually I catch a direct hit to my facemask, blinding my peripheral vision yellow. 

During orientation we are told that if you receive a “kill shot,” the proper etiquette is to slowly rise with your weapon pointed towards the sky in a surrendering, “I’m dead” position. Once you’re in the shit, however, rules don’t seem to apply. 

I consider trying to wipe the war scars from my facemask to elude those around me but decide to play by the rules. I rise and am immediately struck in the back by one of many faceless soldiers–friend or foe, I may never know who was responsible for my sole body wound of the day. 

Our team ends up taking the first game, despite my unfortunate demise (a loss for the team you see) three-minutes into play. We switch sides and the Taiwanese coaches inform us of a some game changes, the most intriguing of which involves lighting a decently-sized bottle rocket at a mutual, no man’s land halfway point. 

The goal is still kill as many of the opposition as possible with the additional five points rewarded to the brave soul crazy enough to light a flimsy but powerful proper rocket during the mayhem of yellow. The coaches warn both teams that the rocket must remain standing upright so as not to pull a sporadic flight into someone’s exposed neck flesh. 

I take point behind two trees lined with green mesh material indicating a safety zone. I have a direct view of the rocket and set my aim to kill. The first to make it to the rocket, Brian, who was one of the hosts of the day’s festivities and was also enjoying a birthday, is from the opposing team and as he starts to reach for the lighter I unleash a fury of yellow his way. Birthday or not, I don’t give him the satisfaction of mercy. 

It’s hard to say what happened next. I definitely hit him in the arm (merely a flesh wound!) and me thinks I take out his shoulder as well, however, he manages to light the rocket, which of course falls to its side and zips to the right, directly into a tree, a tree which very well could’ve have been an unfortunate Taiwanese girl dragged into the mess of war by her boyfriend. Or worse, yours truly, a tall-ass bloke who’s only experience on the battlefield consists of “Full Metal Jacket,” “The Thin Red Line,” and countless Schwarzenegger vehicles, including the appropriately set jungle guerilla warfare of “Predator.”

15:45 hr: We re-hydrate, wipe the combat juice, a putrid mélange of sweat and yellow chemical paint, from our masks, and make our way to the second course of the day.

If the first two games were merely warm-ups for the real deal, a la paintball basic training, the “trench” obstacle course that followed was the no-holds-barred game that the hardcore players amongst us were dreaming of. 

The course was built on a long and steep hill that was made even more treacherous thanks to the week’s subtropical rainfall. Each end of the course had a flag–one red, one that was at one time or another some sort of blue. The game changes yet again.

Kill shots go from torso and above to strictly the head shot, duration time goes from six minutes to fourteen, and the goal of the game is simple enough: capture the opposition’s flag without catching a yellow stray to the face. 

Our team strategize for a good ten minutes setting up a fierce defense line and sending our smallest and fastest out for the slaughter with hopes of at least one reaching the flag. I take a defensive position behind a fallen tree and some shrubs, which I later discover also, house a colony of Taiwanese ants. Ingenious little fuckers who manage to infiltrate my body suit via the sleeves. We are confident and seemingly prepared for anything that comes are way. The firecracker game starter is lit and we rush into position. It’s not two minutes into the game when my housemate Ant and three other fearless bastards rush our defensive line without a hitch and storm the flag. Damn. One instant I’m keeping my eye out for a curious enemy trying to test my sniper skills and the next, my housemate is literally leaping over my position to the prize. 

We lose the first round mainly due to the fact that head shots are harder than they sound, especially when you’re running at top speed.

The next game we lose five players, one from our team, four from the other, each saying they need to get back to Taipei for work (on a Sunday). For those of us drenched in sweat, mud and yellow, we know these cowards simply don’t have the cajones for war.

The teams are uneven and our team needs volunteers to change sides. I feel no particular attachment to my clan, considering by the second game we were hardly a band of brothers. I end up volunteering with the plan to play alongside Stuart and Ant, maybe even getting a chance to shoot Stuart on friendly turf. What happened next can only be described as one of those, “for real?” moments in the life of Warner. 

While my first team was pretty intense in its preparation (the team captain hinted at a military past during one of his game plan powwows) the other side was more relaxed and it basically seemed like “an every man for themselves” plan. 

I initially stayed in the back on defense but quickly grew tired of the lack of action and decided to make a go for it. 

In an act of pure pyrotechnical wickedness one of the Taiwanese coaches set off a couple smoke bombs filling the dugout trenches with a protective purple haze (“Apocalypse Now” anyone?). I moved quickly into the colored fog, staying low and keeping my air-powered weapon at kill height. 

My vision had become blurred from perspiration and countless wipes from the communal paint towel. Yellow pellets continued to rain down around me but there were also stretches of eerie silence. At one point I look down at my hand shaking to the sound of paintball fire. I’m in the shit.

At one point I didn’t really know where I was in relation to the opposition’s flag but I found myself locked in a heated firefight (or should I say yellow ball fight) with an enemy combatant perched behind some shrubbery on top of a small hill.

I carefully crawl closer to my foe’s position and begin to unleash all hell. Up until this point I had been using my paintball ammo sparingly but with this duel I go ballistic. 

After a while the unfortunate soul in my sight gets up and retreats back up the hill, which of course prompts me to shoot him in the back. Who knew I could be so ruthless? 

I then realize that I am fairly close to the flag, a mere 300 yards down a trench and over a small hill. My vision is obscured and I can’t really tell who’s around me but I decide to make a run for it.

I sprint down the carved mud trench tripping, or should I say, strategically falling, all along the way. Surprisingly nobody is standing guard so I rush over the hill and touch the flag in a fit of glory. Remember that scene at the end of “The Rock” where Nicolas Cage falls to his knees with a white flag in hand behind a wave of fire. That’s me. The Taiwanese female coach, a beast of a woman who clearly considers paintball more of a lifestyle rather merely an amusing Sunday afternoon gala, blows her whistle and the game the remaining live souls on both teams rendezvous at the neutral zone. 

It’s always refreshing to know that the most unassuming of us all can sometimes doing incredible things. My first team seemed stunned and I must say a bit disappointed that I didn’t bring the thunder while I was on their side. My team members were just happy to have won. One Taiwanese girl didn’t even know I was on her team. War, I learn, is all about keeping a low profile then shocking the hell out of those around you. To be fair I probably just got lucky.

17:30 hr: Stuart, Ant and I catch a cab and head back to Taipei. We are soaked with sweat and my hair is a possum’s nest of waves and yellow.

Stuart and I are beat (especially since the paintball excursion followed a night of drinking) but I decide that there might not be a better way to finish off the day than with a dinner at the acclaimed Taipei eatery, Din Tai Fung.

When it’s all said and done, Din Tai Fung is really just an over-hyped dumpling house. Don’t get me wrong it’s a damn fine one but it was hardly the most memorable meal I’ve had in Taipei thus far.

Din Tai Fung specializes in Xiaolongbao or soup dumplings. These tender morsels of steamed dough and meat (usually pork or crab and shrimp) are literally flavor explosions for the mouth as each dumpling is a vessel for a spoonful of hot Au Jous. There is a proper way to eat a Xiaolongbao so as not to burn the roof of your mouth with piping hot broth.

First you lightly dip your dumpling in a soy sauce and rive vinegar sauce. Then carefully place the dumpling on your soupspoon. Once the dumpling is settled it’s a race against the dumplings temperature clock. Carefully puncture a hole in its side with your chopstick spilling its liquid guts into your spoon’s basin. Then slurp up some of the soup and gobble down the dumpling.

Stuart and I go through an order of pork and crab soup dumplings, a bowl of “niurou mian,” a sinfully decadent beef and noodle soup with a dark brown broth and tender chunks of brisket that could easily pass as Vietnamese Pho’s gluttonous wealthy uncle, a side of buttery sautéed pea shoots, and a spicy wonton dish that we learn was just added to the menu. The wontons, with their slightly spicy, slightly sweet flavor ended up being the hit of the meal. We shared a couple bottles of Taiwan beer and reminisced about our time in Spain, Stuart’s many adventures here in Asia and plans for the future.

All in all, it was another memorable day in Taipei, one that will no doubt go down as one of the best. For Stuarts remaining time in Taipei we found a hookah bar near the university, ate a wonderful seafood meal at a local restaurant that one of his Taiwanese friend’s took us to, and explored the Shilin night market. I have an open invitation to Hong Kong, one that I hope to use as soon as I can.