Taipei and Taroko Gorge with an old college friend
12.01.2009 - 16.01.2009
I did not expect Taiwan. As I hiked along Taroko Gorge towards the Pacific Ocean, again and again I was struck by how beautiful it was, especially when compared to the earlier stops on my trip. Hong Kong and Singapore have their own aesthetic, one that I can appreciate – I’ve got a thing for urban cityscapes – and Malacca and rural China had their own charms, but this was something else entirely. After I got back from Chaoshan, I had contacted a Taiwanese friend from university, Yun Ping, who had moved back to Taipei after graduation. I wasn’t too interested in the usual sights and sounds of Taiwan, though, whatever they might be. With friends from overseas, like Yun Ping, and Nicole in Singapore, I long had the feeling that what I knew of them from their time in Canada was only a part of who they were, and I saw this as an opportunity to share in Yun Ping's idea of home.
We spent the first couple of days in and around Taipei, criss-crossing the city in all manner of transportation – the subway, buses of all different colours, taxis, and our own two feet. Yun Ping had a number of places that he had in mind – Taipei 101, the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, the National Palace Museum – but all else paled in comparison to Taipei’s famous night markets. It is here that I made one of the all-time rookie mistakes, one that has informed my eating strategy in all subsequent night market escapades. Yun Ping had taken me to the Shilin Night Market to baptize me into the world of Taiwanese street food, and I was pumped. My mind was filled with images of endless food stalls filled to the brim with heart-stopping, oil-dripping, taste-bud-overwhelming edibles. As we approached the market, we saw a line stretching out in front of a blue and white stall. Intrigued, I asked Yun Ping about it, and he pointed at a woman walking away with what appeared to be a giant piece of fried, flattened chicken – like a chicken finger made out of the entire bird. You’re damn right I lined up, and I ate the whole thing too. This was my downfall – my eyes were bigger than my stomach that night, and I never recovered. I force-fed myself whenever Yun Ping recommended something to me, but at a certain point there just wasn’t any more room. That’s when I learned that one must pace oneself at a Taiwanese night market, or know the intestinal discomfort of regret.
On the morning of the third day, we woke up early to catch the train from Taipei to Hualien, a town on the Pacific coast of Taiwan, about halfway down the island. One of Yun Ping’s uncles had generously arranged for us to spend a couple days hiking in Taroko Gorge, a national park located among Taiwan’s central mountain range, but getting there would take two hours by train and another hour by bus. A few years later, in the spring of 2013, I would take that same train from Taipei to Hualien as part of a 300-km charity bike-a-thon team, and I can remember feeling some nostalgia as I took in the public square outside of the train station again. My first time around, in 2008, I was a jobless, directionless, and oftentimes lonely recent graduate, with less than a handful of friends scattered around Asia, loitering in a small provincial town halfway around the world from everything that I would consider home. By 2013, I had been working in Hong Kong for four years, was about to get engaged (to a woman born and raised in Taiwan!), and had a vibrant, loving, supportive community of friends that had, in almost all respects, made Hong Kong into the home I had been longing for. But before any of that, it was just me and Yun Ping, waiting for a bus.
The road into Taroko starts at sea level, and then slowly climbs as it snakes around mountains, skirts precarious cliff-sides, and, all else fails, plunges through tunnels blasted into the sides of the surrounding hills. Miniscule railings provide the bare minimum of security around tight corners that fall off into the valley below, and numerous blind spots seem to encourage drivers to take unnecessarily wide turns at uncomfortably high speeds. Of course, Yun Ping would turn to me and point out that parts of our hike over the next two days would be on that very same road. After an hour of hairpin turns and near misses, we pulled into a village located on a plateau at the convergence of several smaller valleys. We quickly checked into our hostel, and after getting our bearings, we headed out to do some hiking before sunset. We chose a trail that started with a long tunnel through a mountain – the other end was a small pinprick of light, and a metal railing had been installed along one of the walls so that hikers could feel their way through to the other side. Yun Ping joked about two people using the railing from opposite sides and walking into each other in the dark, and then he actually walked into somebody in the dark. When we emerged on the other side, we found ourselves on a small plateau that looked out over a massive forested valley. The surrounding hills stretched out into the distance, and we could see the trail winding its way along a narrow ledge, disappearing around corners and fading into forest. Behind us, the tunnel seemed to close off all outside intrusions – our world was this valley, and the trail was our guide.
We hiked for at least a couple of hours that day, stopping only when the trail ended in an abrupt manner – a section of the ledge had fallen away. Just before the trail ended though, we had to walk through a tunnel section that housed a hidden waterfall, soaking us to the bone. On our way back, we passed other hikers going in the opposite direction, looking at our wet clothes in alarm, and we laughed about what their expectations might be of what lay ahead of them. When we got back to the village and had settled into our hostel, Yun Ping went downstairs to grab dinner first, as I was in the mood to lie down for a while. Our room looked out onto a small range of hills that towered above us, and, with the sun just beginning to set over the forested peaks and the cool breeze coming in from the open balcony door, I was content to lie on my bed and allow my body to sink in. Not surprisingly, I fell asleep – I woke up early the next morning, feeling fantastic, and after we packed up our things and grabbed a quick breakfast, we were off.
Our route for the day would roughly follow the road that we had driven up the day before, but there were several trails that forked off into adjacent valleys and hills, little detours that took a more scenic path before joining up with the main road farther down the gorge. Our first trail started not too far off from the village, the Tunnel of Nine Turns. It followed the river as it carved its way through steep canyons and cliff-sides dotted with vegetation, the sheer marble walls tinged with beautiful blues, greys, tans, and oranges. The trail itself, as evident by its name, was a series of tunnels that twisted and turned as it cut through the base of a cliff, according to the whims of the river. We emerged from the trail about an hour later, briefly considered hitching a ride with one of the giant tour buses picking up the uniformed tour groups, hesitated, and then watched as the bus drove off without us. For the next hour or so, we walked along the edge of the road, taking in the view of the river rushing through the rocky canyons above and below us, and mindful of the occasional vehicle speeding down towards the coast, mere inches from where we stood. We chatted for a bit initially, but we soon settled into a quiet rhythm, conserving our energy for the afternoon. I don’t think we minded the silence – it was enough to just be present, and I can appreciate companionship without words. Within a month or two of the hike, Yun Ping would begin his twelve months of mandatory military service, and I wouldn’t see him again until a year-and-a-half later, when he came to Hong Kong with his church for a conference. Another university friend, Justin, who had moved to teach in Beijing the same summer I had moved to Hong Kong, was also in town that weekend, and the three of us had a late night reunion in the lobby of the airport hotel before parting ways again.
By late morning, we were about halfway down the gorge, and we had found a trail that one of the hostel workers had recommended to us earlier that day. She had assured us that it would be a twenty minute hike, at most, but when we got there we realized that it was twenty minutes straight uphill. It took us a lot longer than twenty minutes, and it wasn’t so much a trail as it was a massive set of stairs. The end of the trail, somewhat unexpectedly, opened out onto a vast, grassy plateau, with a hill that rose gently in the back, crested by a set of low-lying buildings. We headed towards the buildings, hoping to grab a quick snack before moving on, as we needed to catch the right bus back to Hualien at the bottom of the gorge. This was quickly forgotten when the hill-top structure was revealed to be an indigenous Taiwanese restaurant. A silent agreement was made, and we had a fantastic meal together, made more satisfying by the appetite worked up during the morning’s hike. We spent close to two hours there, eating and resting, putting us slightly behind schedule, but we were too full to be bothered.
As we continued to hike down the gorge, there was a noticeable change in the vegetation and climate. The air became heavy with moisture, and the lush plant life glistened in the humidity. There was more traffic on the road as well, and at one point, our waiter from the restaurant on the hill sped by us on his scooter. A few minutes later, he came back up in the opposite direction and offered us both a ride. Reason and common sense won out in the end as we, somewhat reluctantly, declined his offer. We also finally caught up to a young couple and their baby that we had seen hiking in front of us, on and off, throughout the day. Yun Ping and I introduced ourselves when we all took a break underneath a bridge, and we found out that they were a family of Quebecois acrobats performing with Cirque du Soleil in Macau. I had grown up learning Quebecois French in school, and Yun Ping had attended high school in Quebec, but neither of us were able to communicate very well, so after exchanging some pleasantries, we emerged from under the bridge to complete the last few kilometres of our hike. About an hour later, we were on the bus back to Hualien to catch the evening train to Taipei – I slept the whole way through.
We took it easy on my last day in Taiwan. Honestly, I don’t remember much about what we did that day, but I do remember having dinner with Yun Ping and his mom. They took me to a restaurant that had been one of his favourites when he was younger, and there was one dish that he really wanted me to try. He took a while trying to explain the dish to the waitress, before they both realized that he was talking about a dish from another restaurant. Incredibly, the waitress went out, bought the dish, and plated it for him anyway – I’ve never seen that level of service before. At night, after we got back to his family home in the southern suburbs of Taipei, he took me down a nearby alley to buy fried chicken out of a window. I saw a man in pajamas ride in on a scooter and hang multiple bags of fried chicken from his handlebars before driving back into the night. Obviously the chicken was amazing. Yun Ping had one final thing he wanted me to try though, but there was a slight hitch – it had gone missing. He had kept a bottle of his favourite drink chilling in his fridge since before I arrived in Taiwan, but when he went to retrieve it, it was nowhere to be found. After asking his mom about it – she didn’t know anything – he began calling his relatives, and this was close to one in the morning. He eventually found out that an aunt had come by during the day to see if they had any empty bottles for her son’s science project. She saw the bottle in the fridge and, thinking that the drink had gone bad, emptied it down the drain and brought it home. I seem to recall that the cousin didn’t even end up using it. From his anguished reactions during the phone call, Yun Ping was taking the news quite hard. His mom then very sensibly suggested that we go down to the neighbourhood 7-Eleven to pick up another bottle, which we did. I get it now though, why Yun Ping was so upset. I’ve gone back to Taiwan five times since this trip, and each time I’ve made sure to get the same drink whenever possible. You don’t just pour Apple Sidra down the sink.