Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Taipei: A Sleeping Giant.

Bangkok, Jakarta, Singapore, Bali, Viang Veng and ……..Taipei. The list of Asian big hitters when it comes to nightlife is growing every year. Undoubtedly a hidden gem of the region, fist pumping, alcohol flowing, hard to recall nights can proudly be added to the familiar ‘made in Taiwan’ tag.

2012 has been a breakthrough year for a country overlooked in the past as a poor relation to main land China. Developing at break neck speed - bars, clubs and the unearthly popular KTV’s (Karaoke Television) are popping up all over the place and pushing the nightlife, especially in Taipei, to the forefront of Asian party venues.

Where does the night begin?
Food is cheap in Taiwan and most nights start with a few local brews over a social bowl of noodle soup or fried rice – take your pick, the choices are endless and mouth-watering. Upwards of 1000 7/11 convenience stores mark the pavements of Taipei – cheap and rowdy is the scene when drinking in the street is legal, and at £1 a pop a lot of young party go-ers find a lively social corner. Think friendly street party, not under age annoyance.

Fancy something different?
You haven’t experienced karaoke until you’ve been in a room with a group of anything between 3 and 30 people, blaring our songs you wouldn’t even sing in the shower, completely enthralled, passionately loving it!
Fairly pricey at between 300 and 500NT (£7-£11) per person, it usually includes a drink and you’ll want multiple until you get your confidence flowing as freely as the drink. My memory of KTV’s is fairly blurry – so I’ve never left sober.

Time to hit the dance floor
If it’s clubs you’re after then take your pick. From foreigner friendly pick up joints to Taiwanese packed super clubs, Taipei provides for all. Luxi is a favourite – an enormous club on multiple floors that often boasts international DJ’s, bands and live entertainment on stage. Expect to pay a steep cover charge (300 – 700NT, girls get reduced or free entry) but be supplied with free drinks, sometimes all night.

Taipei is one of the friendliest capitals in Asia. Although not advised, walking through a park on route home post night out has more chance of ending in the viewing of a martial arts or yoga class, not a nervous and speedy jog. Glaring looks are usually that of interest, approaches on the dance floor are a regular occurrence and striking up conversation with the locals is harder to avoid than start.

Other clubs to note are: Babe18 – all you can drink for 300NT on a Wednesday night, Roxy99 – a place where smiles and small talk won’t have you going home alone, Wall – Taipei’s best option for live music.
Taiwan as a country is blossoming and the nightlife is beginning to play a big part in the attraction. Packed with diversity, excitement, beauty and unique locations – the party scene mirrors the bigger picture of this intriguing nation. 

Spontaneity is the Spice of Travel.

Skimp all you want - stay in horrible hostels, eat strange street food and take every night bus you can but the blunt of the matter is that travelling is an expensive game. Decisions though, are free. Spontaneity is the spice of backpacking life on a whim you can change the course of your travels, open yourself up to experiences you’d never imagined and create bonds with friends you’ll keep for life.

Most people travel to discover the unknown, the weird, the wonderful and in my experience even the challenging parts of travel hold happy memories after all is said and done.

Freezing on a bus in Bolivia - its 10pm, I’m covered head to toe in warm alpaca and heading to the highest City on earth. It was a rash decision to venture into Chile that’s bought me to this chapter of my South American tour.

This morning I slept on a bus floor for 5 hours, broke down twice in the Atacama Desert and spent three hours at what must be the most desolate border crossing on the continent. Maybe I’m lucky, or a bit delusional, but when I finally get to throw live sticks of dynamite down silver mines in Potosi, this tough, spontaneous journey will have made it even more memorable for me.

Natalie Cihaks – now a friend for life, travelled with me in Colombia after a bold, spontaneous and slightly hungover move to change her flight itinerary, staying on the Caribbean coast with people she had known for less than 24 hours. Her story shows how having flexible, if any, plans allows you to drift into the most memorable experiences possible. No ties, no commitments, no disappointments!

‘Cheeks’ speaks so positively on the subject of her unplanned 10 days in Colombia, it's easy to see her decision has moulded her view on future travel exploits; solo travel and the importance of having changeable plans…

“My travelling companions of 6 months gone, I found myself on hold to the airline changing my flights. I was about to enter a whirlwind adventure with 4 boys I had known only a few hours.
10 days of Colombian carnage awaited but was it the rum, their alluring personalities, or just plain craziness that had me going with my instincts? Either way, the following 10 days gave me experiences I won’t be able to repeat any time soon – how often can you bathe in a mud volcano or sleep in hammocks at a surf camp on the Caribbean coast?! 

I truly feel we had a bond that should take so much longer to form - travelling is intense and the boys taught me I was confident and happy as a solo traveller, something I’d always feared.

Being spontaneous and changing my flights on instincts taught me so much. The opportunity to change plans cost nothing but the enjoyment, memories, friends and stories I gained were priceless. Thank you boys, and thank you me!”

Cheeks x x x x

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ll agree that travelling in any form is, or will be, the most invigorating, exciting, adventurous ingredient you can add to your life. When a decision comes your way, don’t think too much about it. It always works out.
P.S. – The dynamite was worth every minute of that dusty bus floor!

Summer 2012: Beautiful, BOOMING, Bolivia.

Give your South American adventure a real sting with a visit to one of the most fun loving countries on the continent. Hospitable, action packed and CHEAP, live dynamite, unearthly scenery, World topping statistics and a love for most things frowned upon by the Western World. BOOM – welcome to Bolivia!

Here are four experiences that stand out as unique, chilling and memorable not only from my time in Bolivia, nor just South America, but from anywhere I’ve travelled before.

No1 – La Paz and its Nightlife
The locals claim it’s the best, the travellers love it and in this vibrant, party pumping City it’s easy to see why. Join the games in the lively hostels before the draw of the City offers multiple clubs playing any and all music you want – everyone is here to dance. The dorm beds are usually pretty empty until around the 5am mark.
Best Bit – Not always advised but accept an invite to a Bolivian after party and see how the residents of La Paz really let themselves go.

No2 – Surviving Death Road
Hordes of companies offer the opportunity to downhill mountain bike ‘the World’s most dangerous road’. The more you pay, the better the bike. Since being built in the 1930s it’s claimed 200-300 lives a year. With vertical drops of 2500feet, the environment is as intimidating as it is beautiful. Starting at 4,700 metres above sea level, you finish in sub-tropical climates at a lowly 1000m. The narrow road, twisty hair pins and spine tingling views are unlike most leisurely bike rides you’ll have taken before!

Best Bit -  Strictly speaking ‘El Camino de la Muerte’ is mainly traffic free now a days but, be last to leave for La Paz at the end of the day, have a chat with your guide and let your driver scare the pants off you with a drive back up Death Road in the dark.

No3 – Play with Dynamite
Discover the labyrinth of mines that once made Potosi the World’s richest City. Being underground in a claustrophobic, dusty, hot space has never been more fun. No longer the wealthiest but still the highest the traditional way of mining silver - from a mountain experts said should have collapsed 8 years ago - is still in full swing. Take in the tails of the mining gods and devils whilst sharing 96% alcohol. Squeeze up rickety ladders and buy silver straight from the hands of the miners.

Best Bit – Again, it isn’t strictly allowed but play your cards right and you could have live dynamite in your mouth moments before your guide buries it, completes 10 press ups on it, and lets it blow smithereens out of the ground – unforgettable!

No4 – See a different World
Wrap up warm and head south to 10,000sq kilometres of….salt – it’s far more special than it sounds. The largest of their kind on earth, the Salt Flats of Uyuni are breath taking. Get creative with your photography, experience the sub-zero temperatures at night and sleep in a salt hotel, the 3 day tour takes in landscapes you could, without pictures, only create with an over active imagination.

Best Bit – Staring in disbelief at where you are. Always wanting ‘5 more minutes’ to get the perfect optical illusion with your camera and seeing who can last the longest at 50mph on the roof of your 4x4 in winds of uncomfortably large minus figures.

Summer 2012: A PERUse through Ecuador.

After three weeks in Colombia and a massive underestimate of finances, we had to reign in both time and money as we raced our way through Ecuador and into Peru.

Although we only spent six nights there, Ecuador started something in our South American tour that has stuck right until the end – spontaneity. Having spent the night in the quaint but not too lively Quito, we were heading to Banos (a six hour bus journey north) when we first ‘flipped our coin’.

Having been told a venture to “one of the most beautiful sights in the country” was an impossibility on our time scale, we became intrigued to try. Sat on the floor of a bus terminal in central Ecuador, we tossed the coin and the rest was history. Heads would have had us boarded a bus directly to our destination, but as it was, tails had us riding in the back of a local truck to a Crater Lake more than two hours off course. The snow-capped mountains surrounding the lake added to its natural beauty and the adventure getting there and back itself was worth adding to the travel bucket list.

Banos was a backpacking playground of rental buggies and motorbikes. We spent two days playing dot-to-dot with waterfalls along the winding countryside roads. Ecuador was flying by but we were doing it in style.
I’d hazard a guess that out time in Ecuador was spent 33% on transport, and that includes sleep. Our crossing into Peru being the most dangerous, lucky and ridiculous of those journeys. Travelling to the border at 11pm, we weren’t sure if we had time to cross that night. Dumped in a town that straight away we all felt unease with, we had to trust instincts and jump into a taxi with an Ecuadorian that said he could get us across the border that night – we had little other choice.

Even the local looked on edge as we swept the town for a sign of a Peruvian bound bus but, true to his word, he had us on a coach heading south that night. The entire experience probably summed up our time in Ecuador – frantic but after all was said and done, lots of stories to tell and a great deal of fun.

Deserving of some rest the three of us travelling together decided that a few days at a beach town was a great way to introduce ourselves to Peru.

Mancora is a place that parties 23 hours a day. Not at all a bad thing for three young lads but the batteries were anything but charged when we tore ourselves away from the fun of this surprising beach town. If you have a stereotypical view of what a South American party house might be like you aren’t too far away from the scenes of Mancora. We spent the days wallowing on the sun drenched sand before our tight timescale had us moving on again three days later. (You really appreciate the size of countries when you know that a 16 hour bus journey will only get you two thirds of the way to your next destination!)

A trait that resurfaces a lot in South America is arriving off a bus to completely contrasting natural surroundings to the ones you left 10 or more hours previously  - it’s the beauty and fascinating aspect of it being such a diverse continent. We got to Huaraz, a mountaineering and climbing hot bed, freezing cold and in countryside littered with the snow peeked mountains of the Andes, it felt like we should have been in a new country compared to the heat and ethos of Mancora.

Without the experience or days to spare to do a climb, we were still keen to get high into the Andes and see the mountain range from above - that ended up as a downhill mountain bike experience with a descent from 5200m to 2000m. At the beginning the cold froze my hands to the bike, the rough road (which is apparently used as an ‘A’ road by drug smugglers) rattled and shook my entire body – it was tough work. 45 minutes later and 2000m lower, the layers were off and the sweat began to be the produce of the hard work we were putting in – somehow the scenes of glaciers, sky blue lagoons and knife edge mountains make it all bearable.

After Huaraz, just a simple 8 hour ride to Lima followed immediately by a 21 hour bus had us  at the start point for one of the main reasons many tourists visit the South American continent – Machu Picchu.
From the colonial town of Cusco, Machu Picchu is a 4 day trek. Zip lining through canyons, walking along Inca trails, rafting down rivers and staying with indigenous families of the Inca region got us to the foot of our temporary Mecca.

We rose at 4am to be at the front of the queue, but that isn’t the front door. 1700 steps later let you into Machu Picchu - the physical exertion seemed part of the satisfaction though when we sat at sunrise inside the famously preserved archaeological site.

Glutens for punishment we conquered a further 1600 steps in scaling Machu Picchu mountain – the highest peak surrounding the great City. For three hours we looked down upon one of the Wonders of the World – smiling to the point of laughter at how lucky we were to be in our position. I’m still struggling to think of a better view I’ve ever had on my travels.

It’s often the case that truly heart stopping moments on your travels are memories that can only be dug out from inside yourself; the pictures from a piece of technology rarely do it justice. South America is quickly filling up my brains capacity – keep it coming, bring on Bolivia!