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A Week In Taiwan

We have arrived in Fiji, where I was sort of expecting to bake on the beach, singed by constant sunshine and surrounded by tropical glory. Alas, that has not come to pass, as it has rained since we arrived. I wouldn't call it a deluge or monsoon rain, but it has definitely been a fairly consistent downpour. Just now though, there has been a break in the clouds, a bit of blue sky has peeked through, and most promising, I can see across to another island. There was no sunshine yesterday, but I did shake the hand of the Fijian prime minister in a fruit market, drank some liquor made from crushed cava root with a few locals, and watched some performers do dances from various Polynesian cultures and toss around fiery batons. All in all, not a bad day.

I have been somewhat slow about getting our time in Taiwan written up, not so much because I am lazy or procrastinating, but also because we kept pretty busy and had a very good time. We arrived into the small city of Hualien midday after leaving Taipei, and quickly found our hostel, a little place called Amigos. Perhaps we are getting old (probably,I guess) but it seems as though our bags have become increasingly heavy as this trip goes on. We keep thinking that somehow we are obtaining more things, but our few acquisitions are not enough to account for the perceived increased weight gain. It could just be that we notice our bags more now, even on short walks, as from the train station to Amigos.

This hostel was of the sort that we used extensively on our last long trip, with only rooms filled with bunks. For our two nights there, we always had several people in our room, which is good for meeting folks. For example, we encountered a pair of American girls who were working abroad (one in Australia, the other as an English teacher in Taipei) during our hike our second day in Hualien, and later were surprised to find that they were bunkmates of ours back at Amigos. After arriving at the hostel, though, we set out to explore the city a bit. It was our first chance to see the real appearance of Taiwanese architecture, as Taipei is much like other big cities, with lots of tall buildings, an elevated fast-transit system above the street, and so on. I don't want to sound critical, and granted, we didn't visit any of the cities on the west coast of the island, which is much more heavily populated, but architecture in Taiwan doesn't seem so distinctive. Mostly it is block buildings, utilitarian versus for appearance, and with the individualistic looks of a city built by companies or folks for their own reasons rather than to fit in with a uniform pattern or trend. For the cities and villages of the east coast that we passed through this seemed to be the standard; larger villages and the cities were just a bit more compressed, the alleyways a bit tighter, the buildings a bit higher. I guess what I am trying to get out is that I didn't note anything particularly aesthetically unique or amazing about Taiwan's urban areas, and our afternoon spent wandering around Hualien seemed to substantiate this.

That isn't true for the nature in Taiwan, though, which to me is the gem of Taiwan. I am not alone, either, as the Europeans who first came across Taiwan named it Ilha Formosa, Portugese for the Beautiful Island. For the second and the only full day in the area around Hualien, we headed to the nearby Taroko Gorge, a spectacle of a canyon centered around the Liwu River carving its way through the stunning marble bases of towering cliffs and high hillsides. We had been told that we could hike down a 20km stretch from a town that served as the drop-off point for the bus back to the Taroko National Park headquarters, but we had assumed that there would be trails that comb through the hills above the highway. Well, you know what they say about assumptions, and this one was no exception. Even before we reached the drop-off town, we began to notice that there was little chance that there would be a trail that would follow the road. The sheer cliffs shot straight up from both the river and the highway, and frequently the highway itself would bore into the hillsides in either tunnels or through precariously carved channels that made the highway seem as though it were part of a beehive. When we saw an Asian tour group troop past, complete with its characteristic leader with a flag, we understood that our way down would be along the highway. In yet another confirmation that this is the absolute best time of year to travel anywhere, we were very fortunate that traffic was light on the highway; apparently in the summertime, tour buses stream up and down the highway in a continuous line. Even so, there were a few moments on the highway when we would come across a longer or an unlit tunnel, or a corner so tight it had been made into a single lane, or during the few times one of the huge tour buses would squeeze past us as we stood next the guardrail overlooking a drop into the river, that made us question our decision to walk down. Indeed, we didn't walk even half the distance to the headquarters, opting instead to walk about six or eight kilometers to a trail that led into the hills, then hopping on and off of the local bus system to reach trails further down the road. Besides, the scenery we had on our walk was definitely worth it; in the riverbed below us were huge boulders of white marble, bleached by the water and strewn along in a testament of the mighty capability of the Liwu during the monsoon season. Coming from Italy, where we saw many examples of what could be made from huge blocks of marble, it was fascinating to see it in its raw form. The trails that we found took us high above the highway into the forest, where we walked along paths that had been carved out by Japanese soldiers who had occupied Taiwan for the first fifty years of the 20th century.

Reaching the headquarters, we took another trail that had us walk about 9km through lush subtropical forest, along a smaller tributary to the Liwu that had this rich blue color, from what I assume to be some mineral. It was so colorful and pretty, and we went until a steady rain finally convinced us that our day of hiking was over. As we waited for the bus back to Hualien at the headquarters, we chatted with the aforementioned pair of American girls. They weren't as accustomed to the life of bunkrooms as we are, and once we discovered that we would all be bunked in the same room, they just wanted to know if either Jess or I snored. That totally jinxed their night, because for the first and so far only time in my life, I snored loudly and constantly the entire night. Even worse, I couldn't be roused for anything, even when Jess was slapping me. I still don't believe it happened, but nevertheless, one of the girls ended up sleeping on couch in the common room. So...my apologies.

Also notable of our time in Hualien was our dining experience. We did find a night market in the city, and ate there the first night. It was sort of an average experience, meaning it wasn't as touristy (and therefore safe) as the Shilin market, but it wasn't as dodgy as the other market we had found in Taipei. Even better, there was an inexpensive shuba-shuba restaurant next to Amigos, and the only thing better than a hot-pot restaurant is one that is buffet style. We ate there twice, and I did my best to see that they took a loss for the day. I tried all of the dumplings they offered, I plowed through plates of sliced meats, piles of vegetables, and bowls of rice in true American style, and I had my fill of as much of the seafood as I could stand, from the baby squid to the lumps of unidentified fish. There was so much that was unidentified that I had to develop my current philosophy on eating in the Asian culture: if it tastes good, eat it and don't ask too many questions. This strategy was later simultaneously confirmed and discredited later, when we ate hot-pot with a couple from Singapore who actually knew what we were consuming; more on that later.

Our plan from Hualien was to move on down the coast to the tip and try to get in a city on the west coast, which would have required some disciplined traveling given our time restraint. We did well on our plan by leaving Hualien after two nights, but we ended up staying in the next destination, the small town of Yuli, population 35,000, for four nights, changing our plans for good. It worked out well in our favor, though, because we had a great experience in Yuli, probably the highlight of our time in Taiwan. 

Upon arriving at the train station in Yuli, we didn't really know where we wanted to stay. Usually we use websites to find a hostel, but there are no hostels in towns the size of Yuli. Instead, we broke out the Lonely Planet guide to figure out hotels in the town. There were a couple of cheaper hotels across the street from the train station, and upon inspection, they were decent enough places. However, the guide listed a homestay guesthouse named the Wisdom Garden Guesthouse, and talked it up as being the best guesthouse in all of Taiwan.  I usually don't believe hype, but for less than twice what we would pay for a basic room in a hotel across from the train station, at which no one spoke a lick of English, we could stay out in the countryside and have a homemade breakfast made for us. That sounded more appealing, so we used a pay phone to call the place, and ten minutes later a green van driven by a jolly older man whose face had probably changed little in his decades of life since infancy pulled up. He carted us off to a beautiful little house four kilometers out of the town, leaving our plans for continued travel behind us at the train station.

We never figured out the man's name, nor had anyone else staying there that we talked to, but he and his wife May ran a very nice and apparently very busy business. We had by sheer luck missed the Chinese New Year and its hordes of travelers by just a week, so we only had a handful of fellow travelers at the place at any given time. The front of the house and the yard offered a great view across a valley to green hills in the distance, and a small stream trickled through the yard, passing through a series of small ponds made for it; frogs croaked all night from along it. The inside seems more like a Scandanavian home, with lots of wooden accents and beams, and had been beautifully decorated with large paintings of Chinese characters done by May herself, as she is an gifted artist. Our room served as a haven, the most homey place we'd been in since, well, being at home. The breakfast that May served featured dumplings and other Chinese style foods, and was delicious. Looking back, it is no wonder to me why we ended up staying for four nights.

The guesthouse wasn't the only reason for that, though. After we settled into our room, we had to figure how to get back along four kilometers to the town. The Old Dude, as I'll call him, offered to let us borrow a few old-maid bikes, which although we were thankful for were not very comfortable or practical for any length of a ride. We rode into the center and around town to try to get an idea of the layout, though we had difficulty because we did not have a map of Yuli. There didn't seem to be any tourist information centers even though the well-known Walami Trail of the Yushan National Park is only a short distance away. Within a couple of hours my bum was getting sore, so we stopped in a small teahouse for some refreshment, and from there the excitement began.

Jess tells me that I have a unique appearance, a distinctive face perhaps, in particular after a month of traveling and hence no trimming of my beard, and probably especially in particular in a country like Taiwan where even at my most trim I would stand out like a sore thumb. I certainly got my fair share of attention in Taiwan, and that teahouse was no exception. Perhaps they din't get a lot if nonlocals there, because as we entered, the two ladies and girl behind the bar took on a look that was both stunned and greatly amused. We were able to order a couple of teas without too much difficulty, but when I tried to ask where we might obtain a map, things got complicated. The girl had obviously had some English but still had difficulty understanding us. Before we knew it, we had their laptop out to use Google to translate. All of this brought great hilarity to the ladies, who would bray with laughter at each breakdown in communication. Jess had gone off with her tea, and she would hear some silence that would suddenly be shattered by another round of loud laughing. Curious, she came back to find them taking photos with their phones of me trying to type out a response (that happens more than you'd think; I make an appearance in a number of Asian family photo albums). 

Eventually we collectively found our efforts to be futile, and one of the ladies had the good idea to call up a local English language school. When she handed me the phone, I found myself speaking to a woman in nearly perfect English, who invited me to bike across the center to the school. That sounded better than serving as the comic relief for the teahouse, so Jess and I headed out behind the lady on her moped. At the school, we met with woman I had spoken to, Michelle, as well as her husband, David, a Canadian who taught at the school. They gave us a lot of information about the the town, as well as several things to do to keep us busy for several days, which made me realize we would not likely be heading south. They gave us their phone numbers and went off to teach their classes. On our way out of the school, the Taiwanese owner Robert stopped us and asked if we could come to a class to give the students a chance to speak to native English speakers. We spent more than fifteen minutes sitting in front of a class of shy ten-year olds, answering questions about our favorite colors and having them guess our ages (the answers ranged from 14 to 45). 

That night, May and her husband took us to town for dinner, since our only transportation were the bikes. We went to a noodle shop, surprising me because I figured they'd just have us grab something to go. Even more surprising, they paid for the dinner and ate with us. That in itself made the increased cost of our accommodation seem worth it, for we were getting much more value for our money than any hotel could have offered. 

The next morning, we decided that the bikes were not adequate for our transportation needs, so we went with the Old Dude back to the center, where we rented a moped. Now, this is pretty much out of Jess's comfort zone, as she has spent very little time on any motorized bike, not that I have had much opportunity myself to drive a moped other than a few isolated times. Still, the traffic in Yuli was very light, and almost nonexistent outside the city limits. We had a lot of exploring to do, so it just made good sense. Frayed nerves aside, it really allowed us to have a great time in Yuli, and we were quite sad to return it four days later.

Bucking the general weather pattern of Taiwan at the moment, we had three days of beautiful sunshine, at least in the mornings. That first day with the moped, we took advantage of the weather and headed out in a countryside lined with rice paddies and palms towards the Walami Trail. Getting to the headquarters of the park had us on some nice flat roads, which other than the distance would have been decent biking terrain. Once we entered the hills, though, for the last six kilometers before we reached the trail, the road was considerably steeper, and it was clear to me that I would have turned back long before we would have reached the trailhead. The part of the Walami Trail that was hikeable without a permit was only about 4.5km long, but it was steadily up, starting in thicker woods and climbing up to thinner vegetation and bamboo groves. We crossed over several suspension bridges and passed a number of waterfalls, enjoying a number of beautiful birds along the way. We had gotten a later start, a bit last noon, and while we passed several large groups on their way down, we mostly had the trail to ourselves on our way back. It was a beautiful hike, and had we  gotten the correct permits and perhaps a large dose of motivation, we could have continued on the trail past the highest peak in Taiwan and all of the way to the west coast, if desired. I was satisfied with the hike we had.

Back on the moped, it was later in the afternoon by the time we returned from the hills. We cruised around the countryside for awhile, watching the farmers planting rice (a very interesting process) and enjoying the tranquility of the area before heading back to Yuli. We picked up some dinner and headed back to our guesthouse. There, we Skyped Michelle and David to set up some plans for the next day, then relaxed for the remainder of the evening.

David and Michelle had invited us to go with a group of their friends and coworkers to a lunch at the top of the nearby Sixty Stone Mountain, which in the summer is packed with tourists coming to see the vibrantly colored fields of tiger lilies. While it was out of season to see the lilies, we still had a fun ride up the curvy mountain road that led to the top and offered great views of valley surrounding the mountain. There were monkeys in the trees along the road, and we passed groves of betel nut trees and dragonfruit plants. At the top, we were treated to a lunch of local foods, sitting around for a couple of hours chatting with the friendly group, enjoying their day off from teaching.  David and Michelle then took us on quite a road trip, heading out down the mountain and north from Yuli before turning into another mountainous area. This road passed through even more wild territory, on a road that had no other drivers that few locals on tractors or in small trucks. It wound along a serpentine canyon, following a river as it headed towards the sea. Along this route, the sunshine we'd enjoyed all morning gave way to clouds and then sprinkles. By the time we reached the ocean road, we could see on the southern route that a real rainstorm was brewing. We stopped briefly to see if the clouds were moving on, but it was apparent that the storm was socked in, and so we had to ride into it. 

We didn't have any rain gear besides my jacket, but there are 7-11s all over the island, some so close as to face each other across the street, so we figured we would see one and stop for some cheap parkas. Though we quickly entered the storm, for the first time in Taiwan we actually could not find a 7-11 to save our lives, or more aptly to keep our clothes dry. We began to get soaked, and I can't say that either of us were really comfortable driving our moped in pouring rain. We just had to keep going. At some point, we found a restaurant that was open, and stopped for some tea. They took a look at our dripping clothes and shooed us out the door. We kept moving and just as I was actually starting to get unhappy, as I could feel rivulets of water running down my thighs, the green, red, and white sign of a 7-11 came into view, and we at least didn't get more wet. By that point it was pretty much dark, but there was nothing to do but move on. We reached the road that led into the hills that separated the coast from Yuli and its valley, and starting climbing up the road. As we went higher, the rain stopped, to be replaced by a dense fog. We finally crossed over and found ourselves happy to be at David and Michelle's home, where we had dinner and sat up late chatting before driving back too our guesthouse.

Our plan the next day was to get back out to the coast and see it without having rain blasting our faces. However, we got a late start, and Jess had pretty much maxed out her moped credits in the rain, so she opted to rent a bike. While she rode around the town and its environs, I headed further out into the countryside, exploring the mazes of paths around the rice paddies. We met up later in the afternoon, rode a bit, and relaxed at our guesthouse. David and Michelle had arranged to take us up to a hot springs outside of Yuli, so in the early evening we met them back at the school and we headed to the springs. There we cooked in the waters, sitting around talking until nearly 11 pm, before returning to their home for more chatting. We were sad to bid farewell, for we'd had quite an adventure exploring the area and chatting them up.

We returned the next day to Taipei. Because we got a very late start and didn't get onto the train until 1 pm, we didn't arrive at our hostel until after 7pm. Tired, we wandered around a nearby night market until we realized we were in a more shady one than we had previously encountered, with a few scattered brothels and stands selling porn DVDs for $1. The food stands weren't appetizing enough to make up for the general creepiness of the market,  so we found a hot pot restaurant to eat at before going back to the hostel to take advantage of their washing machine.

Fortuitous luck was with us the next morning, when we encountered the previously mentioned couple from Singapore, Raymond and Regine, on our way out of the hostel. We struck up a conversation immediately, and ended sitting int the hostel talking to the for a couple of hours. Lunchtime came along, so we all left for some Thai food. We managed to talk long enough that we almost missed the one objective we had for this particularly rainy day in Taipei, which was to visit the National Palace Museum, the greatest repository of Chinese art in the world. We did make it and spent several hours getting a nice tour of the museum from Regine. Later, they took us for our final meal in Taiwan to a more upscale hot pot restaurant. This one was a buffet style joint, and it was excellent. Sure , there were surprises: they informed us that the little black squares that were delicious and I had figured were made from rice or soy were actually congealed pig's blood, and Regine cheerfully told us that the blocks of "tofu" in our pot were unfortunately cooked duck's blood. Once we stopped asking questions and got down to eating, it was very nice. I think in Singapore, which is too small to have any proper sports, the national pastime is shopping and fine dining, and our hot pot hosts were properly enthusiastic about their food. Singapore also happens to be a fascinating place, a real crossroads of the world, and we had a late evening with this couple talking about everything. It was great.

The next day we packed up and headed to the airport, for our overnight flight to Fiji. Taiwan was quite an experience, a lot packed into just nine days. We met some really great people, and had our perceptions of this little known nation completely reworked. Taiwan is very safe and easy to travel throughout, and yet is exotic enough to be very exciting, a sort of China-lite. Besides that, its nature is stunning. I wouldn't say it's a stretch to imagine we'll return one day.  

Until next time, be safe.



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