I’M greedily guzzling down water from a large ceramic fountain but as the sweet, cool liquid touches my lips the searing thirst grows to a rasping roar.
With a choking cough I’m jerked rudely back out of a restless slumber full of torturous dreams into a reality that involves a cramped plane seat and a very real thirst that’s left me more parched than a fish out of water.
I ease my neck out of a painful spasm and begin slowly waking up my dead left foot while gazing blearily at the clock that reads 3am. That suffocating hum of the plane fills my ears and a quick look around reveals there’s more than a few blood-shot, die-hard passengers riding out the red-eye flight from Brisbane to Taipei which is due to land at a heartbreaking 5.30am.
In fact there’s only one thing worse than facing the day on two hours sleep and that’s the knowledge that you’ve got 18 hours in a layover city before your next (and even longer) red-eye flight. But that’s the precise dilemma Scott and I face after booking a “cheap as chips” flight to Paris.
Three hours later we’re stumbling off the plane to enter the assault of 80s salmon decor that is Taipei airport. There’s just a handful of people around at this hour and despite the temptation to book a hotel and sleep the day away we reluctantly realise we’ve been handed a rare opportunity to check out a country we know bugger all about and may not visit again for a very long time.
Within metres a sign reveals a half day Taiwan tour for transit passengers and just a few metres after that a friendly guard wanders over after seeing the confused looks on our faces and explains that transferring visitors are exempt from needing a visa and could wander around the nation before their connecting flight.
The sheer sight of a smiling airport security guard is enough to shock us out of our red-eye hangover and pretty soon we’re discovering just what this sub-tropical nation that calls itself the “heart of Asia” is all about.
Two coffees, a pastry and a couple of free tour stickers later we hit just about the only negative we can find in Taiwan head on – a suffocating wall of humidity that leaves you breathing extra deep in a sad attempt to siphon more oxygen out of the sluggish air.
An overcast day coupled with thick grey smog also gives a view reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and the only slice of sunshine to be found is our over-cheerful guide David.
The slightly balding character seems to have his own inbuilt laugh cue thanks to a charming habit of chuckling and nodding encouragingly for us to do the same about every 3o seconds.
He’s proud as punch of his island nation and quickly doles out a spiel on Taiwan’s virtues in broken English that include its “juicy fruits” through to its “delicious selection of teas.
The motley crew of visitors (including three German boy, an Indonesian couple and a bubbly girl from the Czech Republic) struggle to smother their laughs at David’s patriotic description which happens to accompany some bleak scenery of grey utilitarian buildings and a depressing juxtaposition of poverty and excessive wealth that seems to infect so many Asian nations.
But the comical contradiction is short lived when we come across our first series of attractions and our first real taste of the typical Taiwan resident.
Stunning Asian architecture is displayed at its very best when the bus pulls up at Taiwan’s oldest street and one of its beloved temples that legend says was once home to a heroic monk.
It’s here that we forgive the stifling humidity to suck down rich lime juices and marvel at century old traditions while discovering the strong Buddhist undercurrent of the nation.
We’re then piled back into the bus to check out a ceramic museum (the only flip side here is a squat toilet that leaves me swearing off the for life) before wondering around a quaint set of stalls and markets selling everything from quail eggs to vinegar vegetables (the Taiwanese are big on these).
Despite the effects of a sleepless red-eye flight wreaking havoc on the group a couple of us decide to go solo after the “official” tour and explore Taipei on its own.
The bustling city is home to $3 million people and lies just an hour from the airport while offering a gorgeous tropical Asian landscape interspersed with modern architecture, mega malls and shops galore.
It’s also Cantonese sign boards galore and within minutes we’re putting on our best shameless tourist act with a huge map spread out between us with three sets of hands randomly jabbing at certain points. Within a matter of seconds a sharply dressed man drags his family across a bustling street towards us to ask us if he can please help us.
“Are you lost? Can I help?”
We all nod our heads emphatically and thrust the map into his hands while waving about vaguely that we’re on the hunt for a couple of top attractions and an electrical store.
He points in the right direction and sends us happily on our way to discover lush parks, public concerts and gleaming department stores.
The sense of direction is short lived however and soon the big map is unceremoniously unfolded with three heat-flushed tourists scratching their heads behind it. This time a woman runs up and quickly offers her words of wisdom leading us to discover the world’s best dumplings (I kid you not, I nearly wept) and some seriously impressive coffee from a quirky local roasting house.
Finally the humidity and lack of sleep wins us over and we begin plodding around in circles on the hunt for an airport-bound bus top.
This time a group of young uni students run over from across the road, insist on leading us personally to the bus stop and even speaking to the driver to ensure we get taken the right spot. It’s with this final act of kindness that our hearts are well and truly won over – Taiwan is not just one hell of a pretty country, but a bloody polite one too.
Add that to the fact that bus tickets cost a couple of Aussie dollars, food’s cheap and tasty and you’ve got yourself a traditional layover city that’s severely underrated.
At 6pm we’re finally back in the airport and after one awesome, sweat-removing shower we settle in for the five hour wait until our Paris flight leaves but rather than being grumpy, sullen and hung out to dry we’re thanking our lucky stars an 18 hour layover let us catch a glimpse of a nation we’ll be sure to come back to.