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HOME - an amazingly beautiful wake up wall to what our planet is facing

HOME - an amazingly beautiful wake up wall to what our planet is facing

Monday, February 13, 2012

South Taiwan, Chinese New Year 2012

Sometimes you just have to pick up and go. Otherwise it may never happen.

After a week-long retreat at our Buddhist center, one day of subbing for Rich (who's visiting his fam in Czech), Mara and I just did it. We went south.

Day 1: Tues Jan 31, 2012
Mara works the morning while I catch up on errand-ville, then we meet up for the 1:30pm high-speed rail (HSR) to 高雄 Kaohsiung/Gāoxióng, the industrial city in the south. 1.5 hours later (! well worth the 1500NT if pressed for time), we're stepping off the train into breezy summery weather, quite the welcome change from wet and cold Taipei.
Tara & Madison, who'd I just met on the street last week in Taipei, meet us outside the main station, conveniently just a few stops down the line on the KRT (Kaohsiung Rapid Transit). [My previous HSR experiences in 台中 Taichung/Táizhōng and 新竹 Hsinchu/Xīnzhú involved a ridiculously long trek out to the HSR from downtown. In Taipei, it's all gloriously smack dab in the center, expanding the labyrinthian behemoth of Main Station.]

We catch a late lunch at a Loving Hut, bus to 東港 Dōnggǎng (Eastern Harbor) and lose the light before we board the 18:45 ferry to 小琉球 Xiǎoliúqiú, a tiny 5km area island roughly 30 min away from the mainland. That is, on the reliable new ferries which had already stopped running for the day by the time we arrived. The junker we are on tosses along and while everyone's remarking about large buckets placed at frequent intervals around the cabin, I ponder that it's probably smelling the exhaust that would make me nauseous, strange the smell is getting stronger... then an alarm sounds, the boat lurches, everyone rushes for the outside deck, where we see a little engineer man climb into the hull and I just hope it's not the last time we see him. There's a general sense of low-key panic, while we sway on the waves, motor-less, until the engine starts up again and we're moving along. Besides us four foreign gals, the deck is full of locals, 90% of whom are huffing on cigarettes, to calm the nerves we assume. As we're about to dock, Mara notices a no-smoking sign on the wall. hahaha...

Oh well, all the sweeter the pure, blissfully fresh air on steady land. Even the feeling of it on our skin is so incredibly light... We rent 2 scooters and head off into the starry night, with Tara & Madison showing us the way to Dreamland B&B on the open ocean side of the island. The owners are lovely, dropping the price down to nearly half, knocking on the door several times to drop off drinks and cherry tomatoes, which we eat in picnic-style on our beds, along with artisan bread Tara brought along for the adventure. A starry walk outside and we're in bed by midnight-ish. Swell.

Day 2: Wed Feb 1, 2012
In the light of morn, Mara and I venture down to the water, walking through the tunnel and past creepy long disused rooms that were part of the military coast defense.

On the walls are still maps and signs that my Mandarin-deciphering skills read as motivational lines about a soldier's selfless, brave mindset and such. The B&B's dog follows us down, but loses interest once we park ourselves in a little cove. From a viewing platform above the sea, we stare at a big shape in the surf, at first thinking it must be a scuba-diver, but later realizing it's a huge sea turtle! Yea!!

We munch on greasy-spoon traditional breakfast and scooter off to explore the island. Circumnavigating the whole place by the coastal highway probably only takes half an hour, but we stop to see the famous Vase Rock, a forest walkway, the myriad temples (one with a huge stone incense cauldron in the shape of a lion, smoke coming out of its open mouth), and our first meal of fried rice, which we practically subsist on for the next few days, as one of the few things available in way of veggie fare. But it's all delish.

The fast ferry back flies along in a smooth and windy ride, the first occasional wave nearly soaking an unsuspecting Mara as we opted for the view on the outside deck. ; )

Touching down again in 東港 Dōnggǎng we accept the offer of a 250NT ride to the train station we're headed to, only to find out when the driver strangely allows us to check the price at the bus stop that it's a mere 46NT trip on the bus. A good deal of yelling ensues on his behalf when we don't feel like paying highway-robbery prices, but in the end we send him off with a 100NT note for his troubles of driving us the 5 minutes to the bus stop. Sometimes peace is much more valuable than a few extra dollars.

15:00 We arrive at 林邊 Línbiān station on the line headed east with the perfect amount of time to collect ourselves for what's meant to be a beautiful journey crossing the island.

15:10 On the platform waiting for the train, Mara mentions how on a trip to Italy they boarded a train going the wrong way. I'm anxiously trying to catch the perfect shot of a train pulling in along that patriotic row of flags.

15:14 We're on and seated, happily snacking.

15:18 I look out the window as we pull in at the next stop, panic and rush us off. We've somehow gone north rather than southeast, meaning the wrong direction-blooper just got a rerun. As the train pulls away, the conductor shouts asking where we're headed and when I yell 台東 Táidōng he just stares at us wide-eyed, getting progressively smaller as the train continues on.

15:20 We make a dash for the ticket booth, only to realize there's nothing here except a single platform, a couple benches with a roof and a station sign. Mara takes it all in stride, listening to the birds chatter in the palm trees, while I scan our possibilities with the aid of a smartphone. In fact, it is a really peaceful little place, so we just park it and wait the 40 minutes to return to where we just started.

16:12 Back at 林邊 Línbiān all of 6 minutes down the line, we exchange our tickets for the next trip east, upgrading to an express but unfortunately without seats.

17:31 Take #2, we again lose the light and so have no idea of the scenery, instead nodding off while slumped against the wall on the floor of the train car. Hey, at least it's seats of some kind.

19:09 We've made it to 台東 Táidōng, where we get the next day's return tickets home, immediately sort out a room for the night with the help of the Tourist info (thankfully still open at this hour) and borrow bikes from the guesthouse, riding out into the night map in hand, in search of dinner and a bit of an exploration excursion. Our pedaling takes us past dark fields, then endless betel nut shops, a strip club with a shop selling exclusively Playboy bedding next door, occasional roadside food stands that don't particularly call us and so we continue towards the downtown. Without quite reaching it, I brake at the sight of huge animal masks hanging in a lit shop window.
We poke our heads in, meeting the artist who is actually a dentist, which explains the masks' perfectly aligned and anatomically correct teeth, but decline an invitation to stay for tea as it's nearly 10pm and restaurants are probably winding down. A few blocks later we see a Japanese place, the fried rice options in which, we decide, are good enough. Dinner, bike ride home, a happy drunk insisting on paying for our fruit at a roadside stand, again in bed by midnight. If 台東 Táidōng proper varies greatly in its night life/cuisine/architecture/type of retail shop from what we saw along that long highway, we'll have to find out on another visit.

Day 3: Thurs Feb 2, 2012
Our alarms get us up before dawn, as we're determined to squeeze the most of our morning before the 1:30pm train to Taipei. The earliest bus up the coast leaves at 6:52am. We're packed and ready to leave by 6:30, with one small problem - the guesthouse has a garage-style metal door barring our way to the outside world. Mara's halfway out the tall front window and I'm asking the Thai nun guest who's also up and toasting bread in the kitchen to lock up after us when the owner's wife arrives in her nightgown and with one push of a button the metal door is up and light's streaming in through the front. We sheepishly say our goodbyes and walk the 5 minutes to the train station, lock up most of our stuff in a locker and dash out just in time to catch the first East Coast Line shuttle of the morning.

Our first stop is the Forest Park, which sounded like it should be lovely and there was promise of bike rentals. The rumors turn out to be true on both accounts. We make our way to a pebble beach with a great view (unfortunately strewn with trash... oh, the human race...) and chat over breakfast of leftover fried rice. I quiz Mara on the modern political history of South Africa, as my preferred way of learning has always been through stories rather than dry textbooks. Sounds like a pretty tangled up situation.

We feed the last of our leftovers to some scrawny puppies and bike back on into the Forest Park. Out of a viewing hut at the pond's edge, we spy ducks paddling on crystal-clear water and a white stork or its cousin species picking its way across the reed marshes, hunting.Such a beautiful, elegant bird in quite a pristine setting, though we're minutes away from busy streets and traffic.
We cycle along the paths, finding a much cleaner beach that must be part of the park itself, as well as some modern sculptures and painted Aboriginal longhouses.
The day is simply gorgeous, the sun tickling us with its warmth. We hop back on the shuttle for a further ride up the coast to 都蘭 Dūlán, hoping to take in its famed artists' village at an old sugar factory. The ride itself is pretty enjoyable, azure sea to our right and a super-friendly Ami-tribe bus driver, whose Chinese seems to be only slightly better than mine and mostly chatters to us in his version of English. He's surprised we've heard of the big annual Ami-tribe festival which happens in July and invites us back for the experience.

The nice woman at the café adjoining the Sugar Factory walks outside with us and at the sight of the big driftwood doors still pulled shut against the bright morning comments that the opening time "看心情" which means "depends on their mood." Certainly sounds like artists! ; ) We poke around a craft shop and a wood working studio which are already open and getting our fix of caffeine for the way back, board the next shuttle returning to 台東 Táidōng's train station.

A bit of extra time for souvenir shopping (the offerings are almost exclusively food items, like freshly picked custard apples, sweet potato chips and walnut brown sugar toffee) and we're on the right train, seats reserved for the just-under-6-hours journey on the regular express back to Taipei. I finally finish a chapter I've been chipping away at in the first entirely Chinese-language novel I had chosen for school and mentally prepare myself for one more day of subbing for Rich, which involves cute tiny kids, totally blasé pre-teens and a mixed bag of class personalities in the ages between.

Overall, a really fun few days of pretty relaxed-pace travel, though we sure covered a lot of ground in our quest for getting to know the opposite end of the country. Thanks, Mara for being such an easy-going travel buddy that was up for the adventure!

Click to see the rest of the photos:
South Taiwan with Mara CNY 2012

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