Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Hualien and Taroko Gorge


I was glad to finally get to Hualien around 4pm on Saturday afternoon. I had originally tried to get the train from Taoyuan - which is the closest train station to me - but had no luck and had to get a trio of taxi, bus and MRT to get to Taipei Main Station in good time. I was glad to be leaving Nankan for a few days because life there runs at a pretty fast pace. Everybody is busy and trying to rush through traffic and it really feels quite choked. Hualien was a refreshing change. Free from high rise apartment blocks and endless streams of idiots on scooters running lights, speeding trucks and cars parked across crossings. There were still goons on the road but way less than I'm used to! The air also felt fresher and I needed something refreshing after Friday. Friday was a fairly typical day at work but because I was going on holiday I'd had a fair bit of paperwork to get through before the end of the day; alongside an interview to check the English-level of a potential new TA and a couple of sets of exams to mark. On the way to work that day, a group of kids that usually say hello to me decided to try their luck with me. They had a friend this time who is markedly braver than the rest of them and unfamiliar to me. They usually say hello and run away but as I was just far enough past them so that they could run away comfortably this new kid shouted: "fuck your mother!"... Not a really pleasant thought, I shouldn't really have bothered but I turned around and asked him what he said in broken Chinese. He replied that he didn't understand what it meant so I told him that he did and that saying things like that was no good. I actually thought it was pretty funny and as I walked away - again they waited until I was a safe distance away - they sang a modified version of a famous Queen song: "We will, we will, fuck you..." That followed me down the street until I had turned the corner but I guess the singing was an improvement from insulting my mother!... Although a very peculiar sentiment to inadvertently elicit from a group of schoolboys :(

The next day - after a night in a hostel with the guy above me snoring like Pumba from the Lion King - I made my way to Taroko Gorge. I chose the Shakadang trail as my first choice of destination because it has a cool name. The trail was beautiful with a really deep and vibrant blue colour present in the river for large parts of the walk. I saw plenty of butterflies and there were a few cool little frogs and insects that I managed to snap... despite the odd group of local tourists passing by and shouting at each other in Chinese. They weren't really shouting at each other but they were shouting and that makes it fairly difficult to take a photo of something evasive like a butterfly. The only equivalent level of annoyance I can think of would be studying for an exam with The Anorak from the old CBBC show shouting "I know!!!!" every time you read a question aloud to test yourself. Once I had finished the trail I figured that I would walk along the road towards the next trail on the map. I figured it wouldn't take more than an hour or so but it ended up taking about two. It was hot as well. Eventually I arrived at the trail head that I was looking for but not before passing a stall that said "free helmet borrowing place" or something similar... I decided to borrow a helmet for the hell of it and carried it along on my merry way. I hiked the next trail and arrived at the visitor's centre from where I could catch a bus; although apparently I was an hour early but a driver picked me up anyway and led me around the gorge to the correct bus stop on the other side. The trails were pleasantly quiet - despite the odd hoard of idiots shouting here and there - the latter of the two trails was deserted. The visitor centre however, was not. It was rammed but they did have cold water so after about six or seven hours of hiking I was appeased nonetheless. I don't really understand the obsession with visitors' centres here but they are useful so I'm not going to dig into them too much except to say that I'm surprised that more locals are interested in them than the actual natural attractions that they visit. I met a few friendly people along the way and a couple that did me some favours. I had no idea how to give the helmet I'd borrowed back to the people I'd borrowed it from but the bus driver dropped me off and waited for me on the way back to Hualien. Once I had arrived back in Hualien that night I was starving so I decided to head to a street that was recommended as having plenty of choice. I swore to myself that I couldn't get lost, but I did. Apparently I walked all the way to the Pacific Ocean... sounds a bit out of the way I suppose but it wasn't that far. I managed to find an old lady who could speak English to redirect be back to where I needed to be. I had to sit down and have the obligatory cup of green tea - it was pretty good, considering I'm more of a black tea man - and we had a quick chat and right as I was taking my last sip of tea she let a massive guff rip. It was good though and fortunately it must have been the breeze coming in from the Pacific taking the stench away but surprisingly, it didn't stink! Luckily, I managed to politely relieve myself from the conversation before she curled a fat one. I found the restaurant and an internet cafe and all was right with the world for another day until I returned to the hostel to embrace the snores of Pumba...

I slept soundly during my second night and when I woke up in the morning Pumba had gone. Things were looking up. I found the bus stop really easily this time and got on the next bus. I decided that I wanted to head into the forest and chose the Dekalun Trail as my destination for the day. The trail ends at an aboriginal village of the Truku people called Dali. I didn't happen to make it as far as Dali and had to turn back in fear of missing the last bus back to Hualien. Sleeping on the mountain was not an exciting prospect and I had already finished my water, so I didn't really have another option plus dehydration is also not something I particularly enjoy. I managed to find my way back in time with a few moments to spare and also eventually retraced my way back to the bus stop which to be fair, should have been really easy to find! One thing I did find easily was a leech attached to my ankle. It had bitten through the fibers in my sock and managed to attach itself! I took my shoe off and quickly dispatched of it. I was an hour early for the last bus but seeing as I was soaked and covered in mud from scrambling up rocks on the trail I wasn't really bothered. Eventually a taxi driver showed up offering lifts back to Hualien for the same price as the bus home, which was lucky because it was much quicker, and convinced by his genuine demeanor  I took him up on his offer, a more attractive prospect than continuing to wait in the rain. He delivered and I was back in Hualien in about 35-40 minutes as opposed to the 2 hour convoluted route the bus takes. Despite not making it to the village I did meet some of the Truku people on the way back and they were friendly enough, although it's impossible for me to converse with them. I got some cool photos, particularly of a really big frog that appeared on the trail in front of me. Back in Hualien, I happened across a woman that sells beef and milk soup so I had a bowl and it wasn't too bad. Although there wasn't much meat in it and I'm pretty sure there was a testicle of some kind in there. I've eaten a chicken testicle to be polite once before at Chinese New Year, it wasn't so bad but the texture is weird. As a side-note the thought of cockerill spunk is a little off-putting... 

Hualien is really a much fresher part of the country than the north where I live and work. The people seem slightly friendlier and every time I needed help there was somebody around trying to help me. Be it bus drivers guiding me in the right direction or locals farting to entertain me, a lot of people here had smiles on their faces. I've also been forced to try and use a bit of Chinese to order food and the lady selling milky beef soup seemed particularly impressed, almost grateful. I can't really say the same for my fellow tourists however. A lot, probably the majority, of tourists to the Gorge visit on package coach tours and zip through without much interaction with the natural beauty surrounding them. This may well explain their obsession with visitors' centres as it is simply where they are dropped off with ample facilities to empty their bladders, consume food and buy souvenirs. Plenty of these package tourists seemed particularly aware of my presence and happy to gawp often gormlessly. Taiwan is a country with a majority of 98% Han Chinese people so I can deal with a bit of the "o0oo0o hello Johnny foreigner" mentality but sometimes I dislike it when people stare without saying anything even when you respond with a hello to try and cut through the odd silences. Sometimes people walk past you and you would swear that they have the neck of an owl with the ability to fixate without changing their bodily direction yet all the time maintaining focus. One old man was particularly intrigued with me, when I was at the bus stop covered in mud after hiking in the forest. I almost did the cliche thing of asking him if he wanted to take a picture because it would last longer. Luckily I managed to restrain myself and it would have been a wasted comment anyway; he eventually took a photo. He didn't smile, acknowledge my existence other than by staring or say a word he just stared for what felt like two minutes and snapped a single photo in an awkward silence. This is the most difficult thing I find about living in Taiwan. You are seemingly a perpetual outsider to most people and this felt apparent on my train journey south. Two guys in their twenties got on the train and stood opposite me for a while before I found a seat. They naturally assumed that I couldn't speak a word of their language - they're not that far wrong - and started to "mock me". I understand the word for foreigner and being the only white man in the carriage it is probably safe to assume that they were talking about me. I let them know I was onto them and pointed at myself repeating "waiguoren"... they then looked to the floor in shame and moved carriage. I'm not really sure exactly what happened in this 'cultural exchange' but due to face culture, of which I'm not entirely versed, I'd embarrassed them by acknowledging their rudeness, I think. People don't tend to banter with each other as that might offend somebody, apparently embarrassment is social suicide, so instead of including you in the joke they do it behind your back, or quite openly if they think you can't understand. Another lady, once I'd eventually found a seat, moved to the adjacent isle as soon as a seat was freed-up there. What was funny though was that the girl she sat next to had a chronic case of bogies or something as she was picking her nose profusely... The lady returned next to Mr. Whitey and sat back next to me.  Perhaps sitting next to a white person is more preferable than sitting next to a nosepicker! People here also seem to have an affinity for flobbing in the street which isn't particularly pleasant but that is an entirely unrelated matter and so I'll stop warbling and return to talking about my trip =)

My final day in Hualien resulted in me sticking to the immediate area within the city limits. I got up early with the intention of catching a bus to Xincheng Station and renting a bike to visit the Qingshui Cliffs. This was not on the cards however as it was absolutely pissing it down and I didn't fancy a 4 hour return bike ride in torrential rain, especially after the beating my new camera had taken the day before. I still fancied a trip to see the beach though, especially considering my only experience of the beach in Taiwan until this point was a visit to Jhuwei which isn't really worth mentioning except that it has good restaurants. Eventually the rain let up for a couple of hours so I walked to the train station and caught a bus to the local beach at Qixingtan. It's a shingle beach and was actually quite interesting. There were, what I think were washed up blow-fish, discarded fish heads, fishing nets, boats and plenty of small birds. It was also really quiet and thoroughly pleasant but not as picturesque as I imagine it might be without all the fog or indeed as perhaps the Qingshui cliffs are. Later that day I headed back to Hualien with a really funny taxi driver who kept making "choo choo" noises to reconfirm that it was the train station that I needed to go to. I didn't actually need to go there but it was in Hualien and I could find my way around from there. Considering it was raining and Subway was really close I decided to pop in and have a sandwich. Not adventurous I know but it was an enticing alternative to rain. 

Overall it was a pretty cool trip. I saw plenty of wildlife and the gorge was fantastic. There is still plenty of fauna in Taiwan that still alludes me. I am yet to see the Formosan Macaque despite already hiking on three trails where troupes of them are apparently present. I have very little chance of seeing a bear. They do have them in Taroko National Park but I'm pretty sure that they are to be found a long way from the well-laid, accessible trails around the gorge. I would also probably shit myself if I saw a bear and hope that it was big enough to confuse the bear in thinking it was some kind of a tasty snack. So far I've had some really nice hikes in Taiwan. Mostly around the Taipei area in Wulai and Yang Ming Shan but also in Sun Moon Lake and this time here in Taroko. The one thing I do long for is a trail a little further out where most tourists wouldn't think of going but that still provides plenty of opportunities to see some cool stuff. As I've said, hiking here is great but the weather can be a pain in the arse and because the infrastructure in the national parks is so impressive, it means that paths are usually really well maintained. I'm not complaining but it takes the element of – for want of a better word – 'danger' or perhaps thrill away from what are truly stunning natural environments. In reality I'm just a greedy numpty who wants the trails all to himself!...

On a lighter not a rather porky little girl had a pretty awkward case of camel toe which also helped gear me towards the holiday spirit. It caused quite an uproar in class on Friday afternoon for a few minutes but I managed to calm the class down with a bit of grammar related banter. “Jeff kissed Candy” is apparently way worse than camel toe. Oh yeah, and a shout out to an eight year old I teach called Benjamin. He can pick his nose until it bleeds and wipe it on the white painted walls at school, it's really quite impressive, like a contemporary answer to cave paintings or something - how I wish I was that age again ;) ...


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