Have you ever considered sleeping in a stranger’s house to save money while you travel? Well, that’s what I thought Couchsurfing was like until we tried it out in Taipei, Taiwan. Instead, thanks to our amazing host Jackie, we found out that Couchsurfing can be a great way to learn about a place from a local perspective, make new friends and exchange experiences.
Our First Couchsurfing Experience
Taiwan was the last stop on our initial 15-month trip and by the time we arrived there our energy levels were as low as our depleted bank balance. Unfortunately, we hadn’t chosen the cheapest country to end our trip in either; accommodation costs in Taiwan are comparatively more expensive than the rest of South-East Asia so to save money we decided to stay in hostel dorm rooms as much as possible and give Couchsurfing a go.
Although Couchsurfing is free, it can be time consuming searching the website for hosts you think you’d be compatible with and composing personalised messages to them. Luckily we had help with this as Steph from 20 Years Hence, who we’d previously met up with in Vietnam, was able to recommend us to a host she knew in Taipei called Jackie – and we’re so glad she did!
From the moment Jackie picked us up at the bus station we knew he was going to be an amazing host. As well as taking us out for a meal on the first evening, traditional breakfast the next day and introducing us to Bubble Tea, he shared lots of information with us about Taiwan, helped us plan the rest of our trip in the country and taught us some key Chinese phrases.
We were so humbled by Jackie’s hospitality; he made our first Couchsurfing experience an amazing one. The only problem that we had was feeling guilty that Jackie was putting us up for free and spending so much of his time helping us. Although we bought Jackie a thank you card and took him out for dinner at the end of our trip before flying back to the UK, we didn’t feel like we’d adequately repaid him for his kindness.
Taipei turned out to be our favourite place in Taiwan, partly because we were staying with Jackie but also because we really liked its general feel. In stark contrast to other Asian cities we’ve visited, Taipei is clean, modern and hi-tech with reliable and cheap public transport; you can hop on the bus or metro for just a few pence. There are tourist friendly maps and information points everywhere, clear street signs and plenty of spotlessly clean public toilets, it felt more like we were back in New Zealand than Asia.
We were particularly impressed with how polite and helpful the Taiwanese people were, one man even followed us from the 7-11 to a bakery to present us with some sweets and welcome us to Taiwan while another woman massaged tiger balm into my neck when I felt unwell and had to stop for a rest in a café. Few people take queuing as seriously as the British but the Taiwanese go one step further and actually have queuing lanes marked out on metro platforms – there’s definitely no pushing and shoving in this country!
Although exhaustion definitely caught up with us in Taiwan, we still made the most of our time in Taipei by taking in the following sites.
After a year in Asia we’d seen our fair share of temples but we hadn’t seen anything like the temples in Taiwan before, which are decorated in bright colours rather than glittering gold mosaics and hundreds of ornately carved figurines and dragon statues. We spent some time at the Baoan and Confucius temples watching people come to drop off offerings, light incense and pray.
Food was also more of an expense in Taiwan so we ended up eating from 7-11s, bakeries and markets a lot to save money. We found the best markets in Taipei and Shilin was probably our favourite; there we enjoyed green onion pies, corn on the cob, vegetables on sticks, fried milk balls, passionfruit ice lollies and delicious shaved ice. For our last dinner in Taiwan we went to ShiDa market with Jackie and picked our own ingredients from a stall which were then cooked up for us in a big cauldron. We followed this with a final helping of mango shaved ice, our favourite food discovery in Taiwan!
Yangmingshan National Park
Taipei is a bustling metropolis surrounded by hills and geothermal landscape. We took a 30-minute bus ride out to Yangmingshan National Park one day to climb up Mount Qixing and take in the views of the city nestled below us while we were battered by the wind. Like New Zealand, Taiwan has plenty of dormant volcanoes and geothermal activity; while we were in the national park we saw plumes of sulphuric steam rising from the ground and rested our feet in the warm, healing water pools.
There were more geothermal delights to be found in Beitou, which was just a twenty-minute metro ride from the centre of Taipei. Here we spent an amusing hour soaking at the local geothermal baths watching shower-capped Taiwanese women gossip while pot-bellied men performed a variety of strange exercises around the pools, from lunges and pull-ups to inexplicably throwing their backs against a wall.
You can also get some great views of the city by scaling Taipei 101, but we didn’t want to pay the £10 entrance fee for the privilege. Fortunately Jackie told us about the ‘secret Starbucks’ on the 35th floor where you can take in the view for the price of a drink, bargain!
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Have you ever Couchsurfed before? If so, was your experience as good as ours?