Southern Taiwan – The Diary of a Journey


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

We were tired in the morning, too excited to sleep the night before, although the 6.3 Richter earthquake at midnight didn’t help with things either.
Gathering in front of the Banqiao rain station, the magnitude of what we were about to do hadn’t settled in yet. “John! Am i dreaming?!” H would ask. “Yes, you are.” I would reply, followed with a wink and a smile. This would be the first time either of us had toured Taiwan, and we couldn’t wait.

Taiwan is relatively small, and most people in Taiwan could think of a thousand other things to do rather than take a trip around Formosa.

The three hour train trip to Changhua gave us a good chance to rest. And rest we did, because in three hours time, we were expecting wonders.

The sun greeted us warmly as we stepped off the train and left our luggage in a paid compartment. This was the beginning of our adventure, and also the beginning of our own episode of “Lost”.

Hopelessly, we sweated our way around Changhua, cursing and laughing at the map we’d drawn for ourselves the night before, determined that it was the very map that would lead us to the promise land. H asked postman Pat where we could find the nearest and best local food, after which we asked the store owner where we could find a store that specialised in iced products, because that’s what we were really here for. Changhua’s shaved ice. Absolute bliss.
Back to the station. Tainan here we come!

As we, the infamous trio, take to the tracks for the second time today, we find ourselves in a comfortable locomotive with a purple interior. The adrenaline from this morning has long been worn off by the scorching southern sun, and miraculously, I am once again reminded of what we have paid for: air conditioning and soft, lavish seats.
A well deserved rest, I think to myself; time to give our already swelling feet a break.
We’ve only been through half a day! How on earth are we going to make it three more? we sit there sighing, but then think to ourselves, “Who cares? We’re on holiday! We’ll spend it however we bloody-well want! Be it rest or play, at least we’ll be comfortable with it!”

As we pass the vast and seemingly endless country-side of Tainan province, we stare out the large windows adjacent to our seats, too busy trying to get a glimpse of what others can see, instead of holding onto the one-in-a-million scenery that was racing past us. We clambered onto the window on one side of the train, staring in awe at the mountain range lying before our eyes,certain that nothing in the world could eclipse the beauty of these green giants. Just then, my vision seems to blur…only when I refocus my eyes do I notice the droplets streaming down the window. It fogs up, and as the backdrop of our picturesque day begins to fade, we sight a thick cumulonimbus approaching, in and between the mountain pass. I chuckle, ‘Well, that’s that.’
My friend, K, an artistic man of sorts, picks up his Sony Cybershot and presses it against the window. H, an enthusiast of art and all beautiful things that go with it, follows suit, grabbing my camera. The two of them try their best to snap anything that moves, which on a train, is everything.
I call H over to my side of window, wanting to showcase the scenery on this side of the carriage. The same cloud we saw hovering above the mountain range was now showering it with what can only be described as a giant garden hose. A perfect tower of precipitation lands onto and behind the mountains, giving the Taipei Basin its nourishment for the day. H hands me the camera, urging me to take a shot of this common, but so rarely appreciated phenomenon. I shake my head at first but take the camera anyway. After taking a dozen photos of the same scene, H finally realises the reason behind my initial hesitance. Besides the reflection of the opposite window being caught in almost every single picture, not one picture could accurately portray what we felt while looking at it through the window of the carriage, which by now was patterned with horizontal impressions — raindrops, reshaped by the passing wind. Natural force, along with man-made wonders, once again was creating spectacular images. The unstoppable force was once again meeting the immovable object. No one’s giving way, no one’s budging. So they match and they mingle, creating this, oh, so special feat.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, I couldn’t get a suitable picture, so I guess I’ll just have to replace it with 1,000 words instead.
Peering out the window as we leave another station before our destination, visibility is zero. The garden hose seems to be right over our heads. “Well,” I joke to H, “Looks like that moment of bliss was for our eyes only.”

An hour from Tainan Station. Seat back, feet up, Hinder through the earphones of my iPod. I motion towards the curtains, preparing to pull them shut. I stop short. How can I resist falling asleep with this marvelous view? I kept the curtains open.

“Ladies and Gentlemen. Next station: Tainan”
It was starting to get cold on the train; we had the air-conditioning to thank for that. When we arrived at Tainan station, I thought it might’ve been nice to get out of the air-conditioned carriage and walk around a bit — I was wrong. The climate that welcomed us was unbearable. If we thought Changhua was hot, we hadn’t seen anything yet. Tainan, a whopping 36 degrees Celsius, burnt us the second we stepped out, and this was after an afternoon of convectional rainfall!
Into the steam cooker we stepped, and immediately we were overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu. A young man came up to us and asked if we wanted to rent a car, then I remembered that that was common here; you arrive in Tainan, rent a moped and woohoo!
Walking towards the B&B we were supposed to be staying at, this seemed more like Taipei than Tainan. Modern streets, modern structures, 7/11, McDonald’s, KFC. Tainan was more developed than I thought, and my word was it beautiful. As hot as it was, we sort of got the sense that it was all worth it in the end.

After another 15 minutes of walking, we were already 20 minutes off our estimated check-in time, but on top of that, we were also lost. Oh my gosh…not now…not here, please…we kept going and kept going, until I was panting like my beagle, but we still kept going. Until I did something no man should ever have to do. I asked for directions.
“Excuse me, do you know where Dongmen road is?”
“Yeah! It’s right around the corner. Over there.”
Overjoyed, we rounded the corner, only to find Dongmen road longer than a bloody air-port runway.
Along the pen-straight road we went, with beads of sweat pouring down our faces, looking like we’d just taken a shower. Eventually we arrived at the B&B, and my, my, my, was it a sight for sore eyes! We rushed up-stairs and I called Alex. He was on his way here to meet us and take us around town. At least we didn’t have to risk being lost, again.

Day one ended with some tasty local food from the famous night market, and a couple of Coronas while we were perched against the wall in our room.
“What time are we waking up tomorrow, guys?”
“Who cares? We’re on holiday, man.”
H lets out a sigh of relief. “Yeah. Goodnight.”
Who says going on holiday means that we have to wake up at 5 a.m. and go sight-seeing until we drop? Why can’t we wake up when we’ve had enough sleep, then decide what we want to do? This was our own holiday. And we decided to spend it the way we wanted to: spontaneously.

The following morning, another sweat-filled ‘hike’ up the road to the train station left us hot and bothered. Once on the train, I caught part of a conversation happening behind me between an elderly man and a mother of two, travelling with her husband. The old man had boarded the wrong train. Although he was heading in the same direction as we were, he was without a seat.
“Where are you traveling to?”
“Kaohsiung,” he said.
I offered him my seat, acknowledging the fact that Kaohsiung was only 45 minutes away. That might’ve been okay for me, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to stand for that long. Being Taiwanese he immediately refused to take up my offer. But I being Taiwanese, too, knew that this was just a customary procedure before he could accept anything from anyone. Sigh, tradition.
He took the seat in the end.

Arriving at Kaohsiung station after a 45 minute train ride, we decided to take a rest at McDonald’s. Great holiday destination huh? We sat down. I saw an expression on K’s face that I couldn’t really make out.
“What’s up? What’s on your mind?”
“I’m just tired. All the walking. I’m just afraid of getting lost again I guess.”
In the end we decided to eat somewhere close. No regrets, no fear of a sight not seen or a temple left undiscovered, because this was what we wanted.

K’s mom called. A typhoon was coming in from the Philippines towards our next destination. I kept quiet after hearing the news, but we refused to feel down-hearted.
K spoke up first.
“I like rain.”
“Me too,” H and I both said, almost in unison.
“I like a rainy day. There’s an almost vagabond feel to it. Freedom!” K was right. He’s quite the optimist, and never lets go of a chance to see some magnificent natural phenomenon — no matter how dangerous.

In McDonald’s we talked about whatever. H spoke of her childhood pets and K his DIY slingshots of old. I enjoyed talks like this, because behind every person we see now is a past life that every biographer would be fond of writing about. Especially the few of us that have gathered in Taiwan from overseas. I guarantee, every story, every relived moment of their life is a head-turning experiencing like no other. Hearing things that left me flabbergasted, I saw the excitement in K’s eyes as he retold his stories of old about BB gun battles with the kids from the other side of town, or when he stole goldfish from his neighbour’s pond. I could tell straight away that this was what a holiday was about. Sharing life, sharing laughs and sharing sighs. Sharing the bad parts and sharing the good parts. Priceless.

The train ride to Fangliao was a short one, not much to see, not much to do. It was closing in on 6 p.m. and we still had a one hour coach trip to our hotel. As we waited for the bus, we discussed our next destination with excitement. Although we never openly admitted it, I’m sure Kenting was and always will be our favorite destination. I’d never been to any of Taiwan’s beaches, so Kenting, Taiwan’s most famous beach resort, was the perfect place to start.
Speaking of things I’ve never done. The coach we boarded was truly one of a kind. It was huge! Red leather seats, resembling something that belonged in the business class of a Boeing 747. I slouched in and made myself comfortable, only to find out that we were being driven by Evil Knievel. I should have realised that I wasn’t in Taipei anymore. We ended up unwilling actors in a scene of “Speed”. we were being raced down the duel-carriage country road at 60km/h and overtaking cars left, right and center. Our driver even overtook another coach on its way to the same destination. I tried to get up and ask him where the fire was, but every time I got up, I was shaken right back down. Well, I thought to myself, at least we’ll arrive earlier than expected.

As we sped down the interstate towards the most southern tip of Taiwan, we were captivated by the scenery around us. H was snapping photos of Kenting national park out the left side of the bus while K took photos of the ocean to our right. The mountain range seemed to extend forever, hill after hill, crest after crest, our line of sight was endless.
The enormous body of water to our right was shimmering and glittering under the remaining sunlight. We drove at sea level along the horizon. The scenery was breath-taking, and the best of both worlds were flashing before our eyes. Taiwan’s bountiful mountains accompanied with the vast southern coastline. The closer we got to our destination, the bolder the scenery around us became. The mountains grew in size, revealing cliffs and peaks. The ocean became more visible, connecting with white sandy beaches and smooth waves that seemed to be tripping over one another. The Pacific was screaming for attention, summoning its waves, crashing, roaring onto the beach front, creating a white foam canopy covering the sand, and before the sea retracts its waters it has another go.
On the mountain, the howling winds force the forest to bow in a synchronised Mexican wave, the sight is awe-inspiring. All this, however, is put to rest the second clouds start rolling in overhead. Blocking out the sun, the luscious green of the mountain is reduced to a dark, dormant form of itself. The ocean ceases to glitter and wink for attention. It, too, becomes an aspect of black. Our attention is diverted now, to the sky above the sea, where a “Transformers” cloud slowly turns itself into a long, dark and flat disc-like object, reminding me of the ship from the film “Independence Day”. The sun was trying to fight its way through the thickness; I could see patches of orange light struggling to peek through.
We drove alongside the storm cloud, eventually passing it, allowing, once again, for the ocean to show itself.
This time Apollo’s called it a day, and the sun begins his descent behind the horizon. He leaves a parting gift, dying the entire ocean orange. I find it quite difficult to describe the view, and so it is best understood by K’s response to it: “It’s beautiful. It’s fucking beautiful” he utters.
As the sun prepares for its final flourish, it dives beneath the horizon, letting out a stinging final ray of light. Off it goes to wake up some unfortunate people in another part of the world. The stunning finale left me breathless. If the Pacific Ocean was a woman, I’d be all over her in a heartbeat.
As if an Olympic Torch handover, the local residents on land immediately took over. The street lamps on our road lit up in a straight line, along with every other light, billboard and shop. We might be in different parts of Taiwan, but the nightlife stays the same regardless of where we are.

That night, after arriving at the hotel, we dropped our things and headed out for some chow. It is a known fact that in Taiwan, food largely reflects the area in which you are staying. The road was lined-up with Thai restaurants and seafood stands. Crab, shrimp, lobster, oyster and clam. In contrast to Changhua or Tainan, this was a sign that we had now found ourselves by the sea. Just like there’s always an Ocean Basket by the Waterfront in Cape Town, from the look of the restaurants, the smell of the air, the attire of the residents and the slow pace with which everyone walks, you know. You’re here.
After a splendid dinner at the hands of the seafood chefs, we packed in for the day. We were satisfied.
Even though the day ended as quickly as it had begun, we’d done enough today. Enough, at least, to say that we were tired and should probably take a break.

My alarm clock broke the silence as day three began. We wanted to wake up earlier so we would have enough time to go to the beach. So, after breakfast, the three of us made our way to the nearest beach around, which was a very convenient 10 minutes away. All prior thoughts of bad weather and disrupting storms were cast aside as soon as we set our eyes upon the striking beach front. Immaculately lit by the sunlight, it was just as we had envisioned it, only better — it was empty, and that meant we had it all to ourselves.
We ran towards the sea screaming, taking off our sandals and slippers, we couldn’t wait to feel the Pacific. I made contact with an incoming wave, feeling it chill me front head to toe. Well, more like from toe to head. K and H both ran in after me, jumping and dodging as the higher waves wet their shorts.
The waves roared as they clashed with one another.
We stood there basking in the sun, with the cool south Westerlies running through our hair.
We did what most people would do when arriving at the beach, we went searching for seashells. K wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and reached right into the water for whatever shiny object he saw. He found himself a few shells and a hosepipe richer when H was complaining about not being able find anything worthwhile.
In the sand on the beach H had written a message for our friend Anna, who wasn’t able to come with us. We missed her dearly and wanted her to know that nothing was ever done without the thought of her passing through our minds. “We love you, 媛.” it read in the sand as I took a picture and sent it to her through MMS.
I’d gone and sat down next to our shoes, where we were sure no water would ever reach. K and H just could not control their urge for adventure. K took off his shirt and waved it around in the air like Mel Gibson did with his sword in “Braveheart”. “Freedom!” he shouted, throwing his shirt and hat on shore. He dove right into the waves with only his quarter-cut jeans on. I had never seen him so happy. H left her bag on the beach and followed K into the water, screeching with joy as she felt the water chill her. As I was sitting there on the sand, I started to think about what I was going to write in my daily memo. When I regained focus, I found myself making a small mound with the sand between my legs, distinctively remembering I made a promise to myself to never do such a childish thing.
I was enjoying bathing in the sunlight with the cool wind brushing against me when K came running up to me, “Oh, my God,” he said, taking his Motorola out of his pocket, “I forgot to take it out of my pocket!”
Moments later H came up to us sheepishly, laughing as she took out two NT$1,000 notes from her left pocket. It’s like they were comparing who had gone into the sea with the most expensive stuff in their pockets. H went back to play just as K gave a huge gasp, pulling out from his back pocket a NT$500 note and a NT$200 note, shortly followed by his whole wallet. We burst into laughter as we lay out all the objects one by one to dry on the sand. H’s money, K’s phone, his money, his wallet, his ID, his PR, his student ID and his iCash. All neatly line-up like a yard sale. Suddenly, K bolts and runs towards the sea, chasing after a piece of paper. The blue color and the governmental insignia suggested that it was probably H’s NT$1,000 about to be engulfed by the sea. She wouldn’t want to lose that meal ticket.

I stepped back into the onrushing waves of Kenting for a final time as we prepared to depart. It was a brilliant view staring into the limitless sea, following the curvature of the earth, scanning the horizon. I didn’t want to leave, neither of us did. “Damn It,” I said, “I really should’ve applied for that ‘Best job in the world’ nonsense in Australia.” But as my good friend Annie once told me, “Sometimes, you’ve got to let the old go in order to welcome the new.” So, with that we went back to the hotel to wash up and pack our things.

The coach that was supposed to take us to the train station arrived 15 minutes late, which threw off our entire schedule. The original plan was to arrive at the train station 15 minutes before the train was to set off, but now it was late and I’d be biting my nails the whole way until we actually got there. I tried looking at things from a different perspective. OK, so the bus is late, but if we have a maniac driving the bus like the first time, then all our problems would be solved! Well, we didn’t. Instead, what we had was a driving-miss-daisy middle-aged man who likes sticking his hand out the window to signal every turn. Why on earth were indicators invented then?! As I stared at my watch minute after minute, I had a sick feeling that we probably weren’t going to make it in time for the train at all, which also meant we wouldn’t make it in time for our connecting train after that. The thought of it got me dabbing sweat off my brow. H read my mind and asked the driver if we were nearly there, he responded with a well received yes. H tells me it’s bad luck to ask the driver of a bus what time we’d be arriving. Can anyone tell me why? I’m extremely curious.
In the end, we arrived five minutes before the train left the station. We said our thank yous and bolted toward platform one.

The journey to Hualien would be the longest we’d undergone during our trip, lasting five hours in total. It really gave us a swell opportunity to catch up on some sleep. K did his leisure reading for a while, while my iPod and H kept me company on some empty seats at the back of the train. H and I would stare at each other sometimes, trying to guess what the other person was thinking; but we’d just smile and continue what we were doing before, me with my iPod, she with her beauty sleep. Life was good.

Arriving in Hualien that night, we went first to the beach behind the house we were staying in. As I walked over with H, who, by the way, was determined to go for another dip, there was something rather distinctly different about this beach head compared to the one we’d left behind in Kenting. Kenting’s sea had endless layers of blue, blue and more blue. The beach was full of golden sand and seashells; it looked like something out of the Travel Magazine.
Hualien’s beach, on the other hand, was littered with pebbles of all different shapes and sizes. It had something quite unique about it. The water was dark and the sand was grey. We would later learn that this is a distinct geographical feature belonging to Taiwan – four different directions, north, south, east, west, four different land and sea formations. H and I stood there listening to the tide rise, wondering when it would be slack water again so we could go in and fish for shells. The sound that the beach, the water and those pebbles made was a symphony like no other. When the waves crashed onto the beach, it was strong and forceful, but when the water died back down, it dragged pebbles, which knocked together with other pebbles, creating this magnificent swishing sound that would give me goose bumps every time. I could stand there listening to it all day.

We went to the night market for dinner and took a stroll while H spoke of her childhood crush and K and I piped in with stories of our own. After that we returned to the house for a few games of poker and turned in early for the night. The morning was promising, another event in this trip that we were very much looking forward to: sunrise.

Located on the west coast of Taiwan, Hualien is the perfect destination for people like us who want to see the dawn of a new day.

The forecasted Typhoon eventually caught up with us during the very last day. At 4:30 a.m. we woke up to a serene and unlit Hualien. Preparing our kit to go outside, we could hear the waves outside our door. It was high tide, and boy, did we know it. The sound of the waves rocking against the wave-breakers was a mighty thunderclap. The peaceful, rolling sea we saw yesterday afternoon was a mere shadow of its true self. The calm waves we once knew were now rattling the railings of the observation outpost, threatening to encroach onto land. All this was made even more frightening because of the darkness of the sky. Turning on the torch, we slowly made our way towards ‘our spot’ — the place we had chosen to watch the sunrise.
As we sat silently, listening, the sea slowly began to show itself. The brightening of the sky this morning was accompanied with drizzle. It was a nuisance, but not enough of one to make us turn back. It was an incredible sight, watching the sky light up.
Come 5:15 a.m., the sky was filled with storm clouds. Although the sun was up, we couldn’t get even the slightest glimpse of it. The mountains behind us were high enough to acquire some sunlight. The mountain tops were beginning to turn gold with the new day, but we three; we sat there with nothing. Between some cloud partings, the sun tried to squeeze its light through. As much as we pleaded for the sun to show itself, the fact of the matter was that it was 6:00 a.m., and that meant the sun was already well up into the sky. We just couldn’t see it.
We returned semi-disappointed, but still pretty chuffed at ourselves for making it up so early anyways. So, back to the house we went, with the gigantic waves now fully visible, they weren’t really as intimidating as first imagined. We took a couple of photos and threw our fatigue-stricken bodies back into bed.

Today, we went to Taroko National Park. We were now amongst all the huge mountain ranges we were looking at during our trip to Hualien. The larger-than-life marble cliffs had us slack-jawed as we drove in and around them. News of another 5 Richter earthquake that occurred during the night reached our ears, and thus revealing the reason for all the road closures within the park. We all heard the story about the Chinese tourist who got his skull cracked open by a falling rock the size of a peach, and even those are considered smaller ones. We stayed in our vehicle for most of the visit, stopping only to take pictures and gaze at structures built during Japan’s occupation of Taiwan, a good 50-odd years ago. For structures built so long ago, they’re holding up quite well in Hualien, which is probably the most typhoon-stricken area in Taiwan.

The rain started to pour as we drove home from Toroko. Only when we got out of the car did we truly feel the force of the winds outside. The raindrops stung me as I ran back into the house, H and K close behind. I had invited my cousin who works in town to come and grab a bite with us, but the arrangement was going to have to be rescheduled due to the ruthless storm now coming down hard on our location.
Not wanting to waste any time here, we braved the weather with our small umbrellas and went in search of an ice-cream store. To be honest, this was the first time I’d used my umbrella, I bought it only a few days before we set off from 7/11. We thought we could challenge the wrath of Taiwan’s deadliest natural disaster. All I can say is we got our day’s worth. The gale force winds upended our umbrellas and the rain finished us off. We drastically underestimated the ‘light afternoon shower’ and my NT$350 umbrella was as useful was one of those papers one you find in margaritas. I cursed at myself, what a piece of shit. The only reason you bought this 350 dollar metal stick was because it had Heineken written on it and had a cover in the shape of a beer bottle. Malakies…
We were soaked. But we made it to the store, dodging the rain. We sat down and ordered, getting ready to do that all over again.

Returning to the house, H and K fell limp on the floor, immediately falling asleep wherever they had landed. I sat on a chair in front of a fan thinking of what to write in my memo. It was quiet, apart from the non-stop slapping of waves outside.

The train ride back to Banciao was…difficult. We were all filled with mixed emotions. I wanted to go home, but only so I could get more clothes and come out for another go! H didn’t have to tell me what she was feeling for me to know. I was actually afraid that if she spoke of it, she might’ve burst into tears, and I would’ve done the same. K had always been spontaneous, and he liked whatever was coming his way. At the end of the day, we all knew it was about time we calmed down and started preparing for lessons in two-days time. No matter what emotions we felt while we were on our way back, be it joy, sorrow, unwillingness or even dissatisfaction. One thing was certain, and that was that if we had the chance to do it all over again, we wouldn’t think twice.

The Pacific Ocean greets us one last time as we prepare to round the northern tip of Taiwan. It adequately summed up what we were feeling inside: up and down, forward and backward. I definitely know I want to do this again. No, I have to do this again.

H shed a few tears stepping off the train. Only she could know what she was feeling inside; but K and I both knew that we were probably feeling the same way; we were just too proud to admit it. Damn Scorpios. JSF.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Absent but not forgotten.

3 thoughts on “Southern Taiwan – The Diary of a Journey

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