Taiwan Number 8

At J's fave cafe in Taipei

Perhaps it has nothing to do with any intrinsic qualities of the city, the land, the people or the culture that we keep returning to this place. Maybe it has to do instead with the time we lavish walking through its streets and alleys, the quiet we give to ourselves in its hills and valleys, the curiosity we award to its conversations, and our willingness to receive.

And so our 8th trip together to Taiwan (a 9th trip was with me/Y with my mom in 2010) yields little in terms of new discoveries. Our typical itinerary is to spend a week in wider Taipei, day trips and all, and another 2-3 days in another part of the island.

Part 1: Hualien: the Pacific, the gorge and the ferns
Image by J: on the road to the gorge 

It was a 3 day/2 night trip with our base in Hualien city (the Hualien county is on the East Coast of Taiwan, between Yilan and Taitung), chiefly to check out the famed Taroko Gorge. We opted for a private tour so there isn't much advice we can give on being adventurous! But with permits and a guide you could do overnight treks; or if you can ride a scooter or moped, you could explore less popular trails.

Image by YL - bike path on the way to Qixing, encountering concrete breakwater structures and dark clouds

Our first day at Hualien city we attempted to cycle on rented bikes from the city's Nanbin coast to 七星潭 (Seven stars bay), a black pebble beach. There is a well-marked bike trail that will take some 2-4 hours to and from the city, depending on how many stops you take to wow at the scenery along the way! [We didn't get there in the end as it was threatening to storm and our bikes didn't have any lights.]

The trail is broken at one point by an unpleasant stretch of construction and a massive cement factory that mines rocks from the taroko mountains. The landscape changes from the beautiful ocean views to this apocalyptic monster of pipes, towers, dust and rust.

Cafe that looks like it's closed down, Hualien City 

We understand from the guide that it was long promised by the government that the factory would go, but this year, the factory's lease was extended again, leading to protests. I don't understand much of Taiwanese politics, but there is always a suggestion of corruption. Walking around the city, many of shops were shut. While it could be because this is not quite peak tourist season for the gorge, but beyond tourism, there was also a sense that the standoff with China was affecting the rest of the Taiwanese economy. Of course, as a tourist, I do not miss the hordes of Chinese tourists we experienced during our 2010 and 2013 trips.

The Taroko tribe still owns much of the land in and around the gorge. We were reminded of this by a sign at the start of a popular tourist trail that it was in fact the road into the aboriginal 部落 (village). At one point, an aboriginal auntie zipped past us on the scooter, with a white puppy chasing.

The gorge is lovely. Its sights are made accessible by multiple tunnels carved into the rocky sides. Our guide took us on foot through one of the tunnels still in use and showed us another abandoned path or road, far narrower and snaking along the cliff. That used to be the only road that came through  the gorge. Either cars were a whole lot smaller then or people were more foolhardy.

Because we did not take the path less travelled, the best part of our Hualien trip was our morning drive that finally brought us to 七星潭 (Seven stars bay). It's not the kind of beach you swim in. It is the sort of beach that gives meaning to "roar" and "crash'. Yet it is immensely peaceful standing before an undisturbed stretch of coast with the Pacific Ocean before you. There are barely any ships in sight and definitely to hint of land in the horizon. Instead, the waves are magnetic to the gaze; their percussion is both fierce and meditative.

Image by the Guide, but "art directed" by J from a distance!   

P/S We didn't hunt down any food, but one thing we will recommend eating at hualien is... bird's nest fern! It is supposedly an aboriginal dish. They cook only the very young leaves of the fern. We had it fried and flavoured with salted black bean and garlic. I think it's called 山蔬. The leaves are sweet and crunchy. At the hotel's breakfast, another fern was served. But this is a more common vegetable fern that you'll also come across as the 山菜 that is eaten with Japanese soba .

Part 2: Revisiting mountain friends
Image by J: Waiting for ZhuMaMa's rice balls...

Back in Taipei, we were warned that Yangmingshan will be covered in a thick mist that day, so we decided on a fuss free trek up the Elephant Mountain. Armed with giant rice balls from street vendor ZhuMaMa (imagine: fish floss, salted radish, braised egg and crunchy dough fritters wrapped in red rice!), we trooped up Elephant Mountain.  It's not our first time up Elephant Mountain (click here for our past trip & more practical tips), so we got up to the top pretty quick.  Much of Taipei from the top was cloud country as well. At that point, we thought we'll venture to the next peak - 姆指山 (Thumb Mountain), and figure what next from there.

Image by J: A glimpse of Taipei 101 from Elephant Mountain

The older we get the less adventurous we are. Because we didn't plan for this extension of the walk, we were tentative in our steps all the way, even though the trails are all very well marked out with maps, signs, and stone paths. We would have chickened out and headed back if not for our trusty mountain friends again.

This time, it was Mr. Singapore-is-boring and Ms. Are-you-going-there-too.

He made it clear from the start of our conversation that he didn't think too much of our tropical island. He belonged to a section of the Taiwanese people who disdain the order and predictability of our island state (some say they are just jealous). But it wasn't an uncomfortable conversation as he was pretty matter-a-fact. More importantly, he encouraged us along the way! And he got us to venture even further up to the 九五峰 (9-5 Peak)where the air was even more crisp and the peak was more exposed.

Joining us intermittently along the way was a middle aged lady walking alone. As it was a cold drizzly day, the trail was mostly deserted along the way. Like us, she was hesitant where the trail forked or seemed to take an unexpected upward trajectory. Seemingly unprepared in her pale pink jacket, blue jeans, Skechers shoes and foldable umbrella, I wonder what made her take this walk alone that day.

As we went along, she felt comfortable enough to eventually ask - "Are you going up there?" - pointing to a large boulder outcrop whose top was covered in a thick mist, and along the edge was what I would certainly call "a treacherous path". We said no, she eyed the path, we said "too dangerous", she eyed the path again, "I was thinking whether to go, and if you'll go..", we said no. And that was that. Singapore is boring that way.

Once past the this peak, we joined the 虎山Tiger Mountain trail. From there, it was another 30-40 min down to the start of the trail. Along the way, we walked by a shed where an old lady and uncle offered massage services, and another shed before a small grassy field with a sign that announced its status as the Taichi Association.  Tiger Mountain must be where the martial arts pugilists of old go to get a massage before they go attack their enemies, or to learn some secret Taichi moves from the invisible Master in that nondescript rundown hut.

Images by J. The sign reads: "Everybody together practise Taichi"

Altogether the walk was a fairly leisurely 3 hours.
[For other mountain friends at YangMingShan, click here, and for the Seven Stars trail at YangMingShan, click here.]

Part 3: Taipei Stories
Image by J - in search of supper

Just when it felt like we could spend most of our days in Taipei revisiting cafes, bookstores and spots already known to us, we found two stores whose shopkeepers seem to be both displaying yet hiding their stories. Their charm is in creating these seemingly personal libraries or museums that can never be completely consumed, if at all.

溫事 (Zhongshan North Road, Lane 33) is a corner two-storey shop with ceramic works mostly from Japan and a second storey or loft-like space displaying the owner's collection of Japanese chawans set within a tea ceremony space. The very modest and soft-spoken owner set behind his counter most of the time reading most of the time we were there, although he offered to take us up to see his collection after a while.  Time stood very still in that space. It was exactly as the owner wrote: 期待一期一會  (awaiting each moment of meeting).

How did this middle-aged man in an outdoor vest and bedroom slippers come to fall in love with tea? How did he create this space, this shell and armour into which he slips and waits? Why?

Of course the Singaporean in me also wonders - how on earth does he survive - can make money like this meh? He must have been some crazy stockbroker in his past life who smoked 2 packs a day, and while that lifestyle is over, he still relishes wearing a vest. Maybe?

Then there is a second storey bar in a small alley 茴香. I had hesitated to share its name, because it feels like it cherishes  anonymity - or else I am just being selfish. The owner Mei is a woman who looks like she had just walked out of an Amano comic, and the space sits up to a maximum 15 people. There is nothing that exceptional about the space except that every painting and piece of furniture seems to be at home there. It was unpretentious, comfortable and, even when almost packed, quiet.

Among the regulars (we were there 3 nights in a row) were an artist, another looked like an engineer who seemed to fancy the owner, an old man was some TV academic or businessman or minor celebrity who has a lot of opinions and money, and a good looking couple brought their suppers there. We were the odd tourist who had stumbled in and decided to sit in a corner with our funny accents.

Did she always own this bar? What was she doing travelling this much to Japan? Was she ever bored with the folks who sat at the counter - are they her old classmates, devoted admirers, neighbours upstairs? How on earth did she keep such nice skin staying up late every day?!?

So friends, when you ask "Aren't you guys bored of Taiwan yet??", you can re-read this post for the answer.

For past itineraries and recommendations > click here or the "Taiwan" label on the left bar.


SuperSt*r said…
thanks for penning all the beautiful observations and memories from the trip!
ampulets said…
you're welcome SuperSt*r

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