Keelung is a port city in northeastern Taiwan, but it feels like a small town compared to Taipei. We’re here as part of a transit route from Taipei to Jiufen, a tourist town just to the south. But an impending heavy rainstorm has stalled us, and given our limited amount of time here we’ve opted just to stay here in Keelung.



The strangest part of Keelung is the subtle Japanese influence that pervades and surfaces seemingly at random. At the tourism center, which is staffed by mostly elderly volunteers, I find a man who speaks fluent Japanese. He learned it in school, under the Japanese occupation (which lasted until the end of World War II). The old man helps us find an affordable hotel room, and tells us about how the Japanese occupied the island and treated the native Taiwanese people well. They built the rail system we used to travel here from Taipei. They modernized the economy. And to this day you can take a two-day ferry from here to Okinawa, at the southern tip of Japan. The weirdest thing is to listen to this man remember the fifty years of Japanese occupation with warmth; nearly anywhere else in East Asia, they’re reviled for the wartime atrocities committed during occupation.


Like Taipei, the city lives more at night than during the day. In the daytime, the city loses thousands of people who commute into Taipei to work. Their motorbikes stand, neatly lined up together, behind the city’s train terminal. Few people walk the streets, and most are visitors that have just arrived on cruise ships for the day. In the evening, the situation reverses. The cruise-ship visitors return to their floating hotels and depart, while the people of the city return to enjoy Keelung’s night market. Stalls offer dumplings, fried scallion pancakes, and fresh seafood. Locals walk between the stalls, carrying food or the now internationally-famous Taiwanese invention, bubble tea.

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After all of the food at the night markets, we set out one morning to try and walk off some calories, heading north along the coastline to see what we find. We walk roads meant primarily for cars and keep a nervous eye out for careless drivers, though there’s little traffic for a weekday. The roadside scenery on the landside alternates between dense hillside forests and dense apartment buildings, both a chaotic mess of angles and lines.



On the sea-side, we see nothing but port and shipping equipment. We pass rows of cranes for shipping containers, standing stock-still like iron horses silhouetted against the sky. There are no people in sight, but there is evidence of them everywhere. We see a crane moving in the distance and trying to center itself over a shipping crate, like a giant, million-dollar stakes version of a claw catcher game. We find empty chairs in front of guardhouses, and trucks left with the engine idling. But we encounter no human souls on our side of the port’s wall.



After a few hours, we find our first destination, a Buddhist temple hidden in a cave. I realize with embarrassment that I’m not wearing anything to cover my shoulders and pull our travel towel over me like a makeshift shawl. But the Buddhist monks here don’t seem to care, or at least they ignore us politely as we enter. We make our way in to the main altar and bow like my father taught me to when in the presence of a temple.



To the left of the altar is a crevice, and I’ve heard rumors that there’s another altar past it where you can hear the ocean through the cave’s walls. At nearly 2 meters, Stoytcho is hesitant but follows, and we walk, then crouch, then crawl our way through the crevice, scraping the walls with our backpack and shoulders. It’s not something I would recommend for anyone with claustrophobia, but on the other side a small room with an altar stretches before us, the walls decorated with thousands of Chinese characters scratched into the sandstone walls. I make out a character here and there, but can’t put any meaning to them. We also stop to listen for the sound of the ocean, but can hear nothing. IMG_2877


Back at the temple entrance, we continue north in search of our final destination of the day, Baimiweng Fortress. It’s near sunset when we arrive at the fort’s base, and we find our way through the maze of apartment-lined suburban streets to our destination with the help of locals, who tolerate with patience my attempts at pronouncing Baimiweng. At the top, we find that the local government has converted the fort into a grassy field for sports and recreation, with richly-painted pagodas for picnics and lounging about.

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We rush to explore the fort in the dying light, up to the top of the lookout hill and then back down and across the grassy fields to the concrete bunkers installed during Japanese occupation. While the fort location has been an important military base since the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese government was the one who updated it for modern warfare and installed concrete structures, now overgrown with weeds and showing cracks from disrepair. But this area was once a strategic place protecting Taiwan, then vital to the Japanese Empire as a supply line to their former colonies. It’s strange how alliances and governance have shifted and changed since then, and it all seems like far away history. But just yesterday, we met the old man at the tourism office who lived through it.


Cartagena’s Castillo San Felipe de Barajs

Note: We’re back from our trek on the Salkantay! During the next few days we’re resting in Cusco, so I’ll put together a map and day-by-day of our hike and post it here. Until then, more backlogged posts.

The Castillo viewed from the city-side

On the hill just outside of Cartagena’s walled city sits the hulking lithic form of the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. Begun in the year 1536 and expanded several times, this fortress stands as a tribute to the value Spain placed on Cartagena as a strategic location and trading port. The Spanish constructed the Castillo in seven independent sections, whose range of cannonfire overlapped. Any enemy who managed to take one section of the fortress found themselves under fire from at least another two sections, making capture of the whole fortress nearly impossible. The design was so effective that in 1741 a garrison of only 3,600 Spanish soldiers stationed at the fortress were able to repel a British force more than 7 times their number (27,000 soldiers and 186 boats). The soldiers at Castillo San Felipe sank 70 boats before the British gave up.

A plaque dedicated to the expansion of the Castillo

Visiting is a must if you’re in the city for two reasons: the Castillo’s preservation is impressive (it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and it offers great views of Cartagena. You can find hours and prices here, but there are also discounts for students and Colombian citizens. Depending on your walking speed and interest, you could spend anywhere between 1 and 3 hours at the Castillo.

The Colombian flag flies over Cartagena at the top of the fortress


Prep and getting there:

Holy blazing tropical suns, it’s hot at the Castillo during the day and the only shade is in the network of tunnels within the fortress. To prepare, we’d recommend bringing the following things to deal with the tropical sun: at least 1 liter of water for two people, a hat, sunscreen, and a light long-sleeved shirt to block the sun.

Don’t worry if you forget your hat–there are always vendors willing to sell you one…at a price

In terms of getting there, try to arrive when it opens and avoid noon-2 pm, which are the hottest parts of the day. To get there, walk 5-10 minutes out of the Walled City along Calle 30—this area of the city is safe during the day, and even in the evening we had no problems traveling as a pair. You can also take a taxi, but try not to pay more than 8,000 pesos (as of 2016) from the Walled City to the Castillo.

Things to see while there:

In the morning start with the outside of the castle, from the turrets to the massive Colombian flag over the city.

The top of the Castillo, with the ramparts and chapel

Visit the ramparts where the cannons still stand, the small bastions in the Castillo’s corners now full of graffiti, and the chapel-and-snack-shop to get a feel for how insanely huge the fortress is. The higher ramparts offer great views of Cartagena on a clear day.

The chapel bell, the highest point on the Castillo.


Then as the sun heats up, dive down into the tunnels within the fortress for some relief.

One of the many poorly-lit tunnels beneath the Castillo.

Many of the short ones (for the storage areas) will look similar, but there’s a set of tunnels that will take you around the perimeter, then out to near the entrance. We’d also recommend the barracks tunnels because they dive deep into the fortress before meeting a fairly eerie dead end.

A dimly-lit bulb shines in the tunnels beneath the Castillo.

This section of the tour is of course not recommended for claustrophobic people, or for the matter very tall people; at tallest, the tunnels accommodate someone roughly 5’8”, and some places the tunnels shrink to as short as 5’. But it’s amazing to imagine that soldiers moved, worked, slept, and lived within these tunnels hundreds of years ago.

A chute that provided air and ventilation to the soldiers’ barracks in the fortress.

Eats nearby:

It’s not street food, but once you’re done at the Castillo you can head to the nearby mall Plaza El Castillo (complete with air conditioning and all you can tolerate shopping) for a bite to eat. The food court there has all the grilled meats your heart can desire, as well as vegetarian options and our beloved Don Jediondo. The restaurant chain Crepes and Waffles also offers vegetarian options and a beautiful range of decadent desserts and ice cream, as well as lovely views of the city.

Men fish at dusk in the saltwater channel that separates the Walled City and the rest of Cartagena.