Saturday, February 20, 2010
Day 1 (Saturday)--It didn’t start raining until we were up in the mountains, past the right turn we would have made had we been going to the jungle town of Wulai again. We stopped at an intersection somewhere near Pinglin to put on all our rain gear. In all of our warmest things we got North America-cold in our toes and fingers as we looped up the hills. Max says at some point he had to remind himself that he was just cold and that he used to spend months and months that way. We left early in the morning, before seven, with the hope we might see daylight flood clear skies but the light stayed dim all the way to Ilan and through most of the afternoon. It was just that kind of thick day.
In Ilan we made our first stop. Long before we rode on it we saw the flat land like a spread quilt, not unlike American suburbia from the sky, only the patches were rice paddies instead of yards.
We walked around Ilan looking for breakfast. The town was slung in red and gold signs, red lanterns and carcasses. Inside stands, women ripped apart chunks of flesh with their hands while chatting neighborly with customers. Picture raw hearts pierced through shiskabobs, pig heads with still-hairy snouts resting on tables, and young girls and boys hunched over buckets tearing out chicken feathers. These market streets smelled like rain and blood. The main street, which smelled less bloody, was very busy, which sort of surprised me because it was New Year's Eve. The electronic stores blinked, the jewelry stands twinkled. Whole families sat together around fold-out tables on the street, filling their mouths with dumplings.
We found a breakfast place down a market street and ordered san ge dan bin and warm nai cha. The boys ordered Taiwanese-style breakfast sandwiches too. It was a good place to warm up a little bit. When we asked about bathrooms, the cook asked a little boy lead us to the door of the family home, right through the living room and kitchen, past a grunting grandmother, to the family bathroom. "Happy New Year," the boy said in Chinese as we walked out of the house, before picking up a toy gun again and pretending shooting his didi.
Back on scooters, all three of us sporting ponchos now, we picked up an escort. His name was Eddie and he was intrigued by our foreign faces and the bundles attached to our scooters. To get to Hualien, and, before that, the Taroko Gorge, we had only to go straight on route 9, but he insisted on guiding us. We chatted with Eddie at red lights and learned that he is from South Ilan and was on his way home from Taipei to celebrate the New Year with his family, like everyone else on the island. We told him we were on the lookout for waterproof foot coverings and he took us to the right kind of shop, talked to the woman working the shop, and waited while we put the waterproof gear on. He even waited for Max and Sam to purchase some beetlenut, crack off the top of a couple of nuts with their teeth and begin to spit. He thought it was pretty funny that the wai guo ren liked bing lan, laughed and declined when they offered him some beetlenut. He turned off 9 at one point and I looked down the little road her drove down, hoping to get a sense of where he grew up.
Silly pictures in ponchos:
The rain cleared as we got closer to Taroko and Hualien. 9 crept nearer to the coast and finally we were right alongside it, reveling in epic views. We hollered through tunnels and blazed through town after town, past rows of banana trees with their clumps of fruit bursting through the burlap bags farmers had wrapped around them. People sold these bananas and other fruits at road-side stands. Whole families sat beneath umbrellas and shacks. The little kids ran around barefoot, the older men and women sucked their teeth and sat back, but more often than not the young women looked meticulous, as they do so often in Taipei, with perfectly combed and pinned hair, the same trendy sweatshirts, shiny leggings and neon sneakers.
By the time we got to Hualien the sky was sunny. We drove deeper into the gorge and set up camp beside a collection of cheerful Taiwanese families before it got too dark.
See a little bit of color in the trees? That's where we camped.
For dinner we headed into the mountain town of Tienhsiang, and, for about 10 USD, devoured delicious food at a New Year's buffet hosted by a Catholic Hostel. Full and exhausted, we went to bed soon after returning to the campsite.
Day 2 (Sunday)--In the morning we saw more of the gorge in daylight. We visited a temple and took a walk along the edge of a mountain. These pictures do better than words--look!
Around lunchtime we left Taroko to continue south. We stopped in Hualien, which was quite busy and bright and beautiful, tucked between smoky mountains and the Pacific. We ate omelets and vegetable pasta at a bakery on the main strip. (So yummy! Coffee/tea, fresh baked bread, omletes, orange juice, soup/salad… all for 200NT!) By then I felt strange. Before getting back on the scooter I took medicine and fell in and out of sleep all the way to the campsite on the water we’d read about in the Lonely Planet Guide. Most of the official campsites had been snagged so we set up our tents in “rest pagodas” close to the water and planned on playing dumb if we got in trouble. It was so beautiful there, with that quenched green color in all the grasses and shrubs and up into the mountains on the other side of the road, by then the “scenic highway” 11.
Night fell fast, just as we finished setting up the tents, and I fell asleep with it. Max and Sam went somewhere nearby for a Taiwanese-style fish dinner, then made a long trip to the nearest 7/11 for water. They woke me up and fed me medicine and then set off fireworks with kids hanging around the camp site. (Throughout the whole trip we heard sporadic cracks and pops, whistles, and saw carnations burst open in the night, leaving the smell of gunpowder in the air.) Sometime in the early morning hours after my fever broke the wind picked up and brought rain with it. The rain-cover began to beat on the tent like a broom on a rug. The wind sunk the walls of our tent and jammed into one side of the pagoda. At one point Max had to get up and tie it down with bungee chords.
Day 3 (Monday)--When we woke up for the last time the rain had stopped but the wind was still unforgiving. We laughed at it and packed our things quickly like all of the other campers eager to be done with the weather. We were smack between Hualien and Taitong by then, and only 5KM from the “marker” of the Tropic of Cancer, which excited Sam, who is a self-confessed sucker for cartographical landmarks.
Throughout that gray afternoon we passed through fishing villages with Catholic churches and graveyards instead of 7/11s. We saw hundreds of rice paddies protected by floppy scarecrows hung up on poles and sometimes crosses (which is sort of strange when you think about it). Though the road was flat and straight, mountains loomed over our right shoulders. The tangled tropical growth wove into a matted blanket of green color, up into mountains that became paler blue as they faded into the distance. To our left it was always the water, also extending in layers of blues toward the horizon.
In one town we passed a dead dog on the side of the road and a little boy’s firecracker hit the back wheel of our scooter. A couple of towns later Sam’s scooter stalled. It started back up ten minutes or so later at the touch of a confused mechanic, and because we were in a fishing town with an aquarium significant enough to make an appearance in the guide book we stopped in to look at lots of clown fish, two reef sharks, and an incredibly rotund bottom-feeder looking as depressed as any living thing possibly could. We also saw lobsters with bolts of neon through their bodies and feelers as long as yard-sticks. After the aquarium we walked through the fish market--another smelly and wet market--and watched fishermen mercilessly take knives to fish bellies. Women brush barbeque sauce on the whole squids sizzling on grills. Sam tried some fish soup with big hunks of meat and a gingery broth and then it was back on the road.
The next big city we came upon was Taitong. We had planned to stop by the train station for information about tickets back to Taipei and room on the back of a truck bed for the scooters. We purchased tickets for Friday and received confirmation that there were such services available for moving scooters around the island. We only saw the outskirts of Taitong, the city where Max and I stayed with Vivian before shipping out to Green Island. We had a place called Taimali in mind for our next campsite. There was no designated camping area in this town but the guide book said it was fine to sleep along the beach. Worried about the falling light we took a turn toward the beach as soon as we hit town and traveled down empty roads leading past eerie factories sectioned off with wire fences. We found an entrance to the beach but saw a nearby sign saying “No Camping” so we decided to get back on the road and look for a place on the beach closer to town. We set up camp next to big rock puzzle pieces. Ancient looking raft-like boats, made of what looked like tree trunks and pieced together with thick ropes, rested in the sand near the entrance to the beach. From a perch over the wall a spotlight scanned the shore. The spotlight did not hit our tents but we watched it a little nervously while we ate our 7/11 dinners and wondered about the four wheeler stopping and starting along the beach. Eventually it passed us by. Max and Sam made a fire and roasted pumpkin seeds on driftwood branches.
Day 4 (Tuesday)--We woke up early the next morning, before seven, to the puttering of scooters and the heave-hos of men pulling the strange boats into the still water.
At the next town we joined a long line at a popular breakfast place and ordered vegetable sao bin, dan bin, milk teas. For a while the road to Kenting was flat and the salty breeze was just a little bit warm, enough to tease us. We took a little detour to check out some of the hot springs we had read about in the guide but south of Taitong, we found sad evidence of the tsunami in leveled ground and pock-marked towns littered with driftwood, rocks, trash, splintered wood from houses, sheets of painted metal and tiles. We were bumping along a rocky road toward a hot spring when a police officer stopped us. He told us that the hot spring was no longer in operation in brief Chinese and did a tsunami impression that involved a lot of flailing. Another police officer in that same town offered Sam a water bottle and wished us a Happy New Year, as did so many of the people we saw.
We found another hot spring a little ways down a different road. It was a small operation at the foot of some hills. Families had set up camp in the parking lot and in the covered pools and patios a hundred or so people swam or sat or ate. We felt many stares but everyone was friendly. The pools stank of sulfur, a smell that reminds me of the well water we used to drink at 46 Lakeside Drive. My stiff body melted a little into the warmth and realigned.
By this time we’d taken to smaller roads. One road on the map led nowhere but a real busted town, with piles of driftwood like dug-up dinosaur graves. We ended up at a modest country house guarded by tied-up dogs. Their shirtless owner motioned for us to turn off our engines, bowed in gratitude when we did, and returned to pulling weeds out of his garden without any explanation as to why a marked road led to his house. He didn’t even seem surprised to see us there. I won’t forget the bemused look on his face, a peaceful and kind face like the face I imagine on Rin Poche.
We turned around and Sam hooked us back up with more major roads. Throughout the entire trip Sam did most of the research and navigating, and I am so grateful for that. These last roads took us up into more mountains. They were packed with travelers in cars and on bikes, which amazed me because some edges were without rails and caused my stomach to leap up into my throat. I never got tired of looking at the mountains folding into each other and the strip of ocean in the triangles of their meeting places. Toward the top of the hills the trees hid these views but it was nice to ride through dense forest, too. Back at sea level, fleeing farther and farther south, the plants began to look dried out, the grass shot out in browns and cream colors like grasses on Green Island and Maine. Once again, we saw the black rocky hills standing at the edge of the ocean. The water ate away the base of these bold hills but along the grassy tops of the crags kids ran up and down. The wind exhausted us. We stopped so that I could take a picture.
Cars started piling up closer to Kenting. When we saw “Smokey Joe’s Tex-Mex and Steakhouse” we knew we’d made it to the cheesy tip of Taiwan. It started to rain so we put our ponchos back on and weaved around the cars and pedestrians. We rode almost to the next town before we realized that we’d missed the turn for the campgrounds on the west side of Kenting. We rode back toward the water and came upon a rest stop, where other people had decided to camp, before we found the official campground. Though we weren’t on the beach, from that rest stop we could enjoy a view of the water and the company of playful kids. By the light made from our neighbors' generators we set up our tents between a big rock and a tree and hopped back on the scooters to look for some food. We made an accidental detour and drove down some completely black roads, which reminded me of country roads around home. We passed a few towns and gawdy hotels and finally we were back on the main strip of Kenting, which was even more disturbing by night than by day. Along the sidewalks we followed the herd past the food stands, keeping an eye out for an affordable restaurant. We found a place not too far down the road. We ate on the porch outside and felt a little like zoo animals sipping our beer and eating our fried rice and Thai chicken while kids pointed and tugged their parents’ shirts. Their obvious fascination surprised me, because there seemed to be as many foreigners in Kenting as in Taipei.
After another long and dark trip back to the rest stop we fell asleep fast. The trip had felt like ours alone for such a long time, it unsettled me to bump up against people again, to see such ugly, in-your-face (albeit sometimes fun) commercialism. How much better it is to share a beach with nothing but a spotlight, rafts, fishnets and even a four-wheeler. We’d heard about a festival in Kenting where lots of foreigners from Taipei and elsewhere had gathered but we decided to stay clear of that.
Day 5 (Wednesday)--
Day 6 (Thursday)--
Day 7 (Friday)--Home!