A trip worth more than I bargained for to Taiwan
Updated: 2012-01-18 10:00
By Lisa Carducci (China Daily)
Canadian visitors don't even need a visa to visit Taiwan, so when I discovered several travel agencies in Beijing offered for 5,000 yuan ($786), I thought it was a good opportunity for my first visit across the Straits, and decided to join the mainland tourists.
The Air China flight was direct in both directions and at a price I could not find online as an individual traveler.
We would have a large air-conditioned bus, which would save us time, and such a service would allow us to visit seven cities within eight days.
The program was detailed: There were cultural and historical sites, including the Taipei Palace Museum and Chiang Kai-shek Mausoleum; natural landscapes and sceneries, such as Ali Mountain in the center of the island, reaching more than 3,000 meters above sea level; and Taiwan's southernmost point, Eluanbi.
There were some religious sites, including the marble and bronze Zhongtai Chan (Zen) Monastery, and visits to a tea processing plant and a marble factory.
I was really satisfied to be able to see all that and more in one week, let alone that all the admission tickets, seven hotel nights and three meals a day were included in the price.
When we arrived at Taipei's airport, our guide explained to us that the best way to exchange RMB into Taiwan dollars was grouping our amounts to lower the exchange service fees.
One person changed 10,000 yuan. A couple changed 40,000. A young woman converted 3,000 "for daily necessities" and said she would use her Visa card for "real purchases". I joined the group with 300 yuan. I don't buy snacks or souvenirs, so it would certainly be enough.
What I didn't know at that time was that mainlanders go to Taiwan with the purpose of buying, and visiting while buying, while my purpose was visiting first.
Every stop we made, there was something to buy: luxury cosmetics, famous brand handbags, shoes, suitcases and clothes, extremely expensive tea, and gold and silver jewelry.
I observed the others buying. It was interesting. I also appreciated seeing beautiful high-quality products of all kinds.
We didn't visit any fine arts museum or exhibitions. We didn't attend any concerts. We didn't enter the ethnic group villages. We passed three but they were not even mentioned.
I understand that in eight days one can't see everything, but what I understood, after some days, was that our tour was mainly a shopping tour.
The coral museum exhibited some gorgeous natural creations in its entry hall, which naturally led us into a huge store featuring all kinds of ornaments, with diamonds, pearls and precious stones.
Prices were not a problem: "Still much lower than in the mainland!" the buyers said.
A woman purchased three handbags for between 5,000 and 9,000 yuan apiece, because she couldn't decide which she preferred.
"In Beijing, it would be 2- 3,000 yuan more because of the taxes," she said.
Ali Mountain - beautifully lost in a sea of clouds - was the place for tea. A young couple spent thousands of yuan on tea, although they don't drink any. "It's for gifts to friends and colleagues," they said.
The marble museum was another place with products made of jade, onyx and semiprecious stones.
"All duty free!" some compulsive buyers claimed.
How could I spend my 300 yuan?
I had planned to give a party for a score of guests.
On the menu would be only a dozen salads and as many desserts. But especially - I mentioned - an assortment of Taiwan sweets, cakes and all kinds of delicacies.
I bought them all in the last two days, to avoid carrying my purchases along for the week, and I came back with NT$47, which I gave to a coin collector back in Beijing.