Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Hualien and Taroko Gorge

While waiting for the train to Hualien, I got the feeling that this toothless man was following me around. He finally approached me and began to speak in broken English. He was quite pleased that I was quite pleased with Taiwan. Speaking positively about a country and its people is always my fallback conversation topic. A big smile and a genuinely stated compliment, “X people- very nice. X- beautiful country,” is generally satisfying even to the most basic of English speakers. The man told me about the special local fruit and pointed out the different specialties at one of the food stands. He bought me the most delicious fresh pressed lemon/limeade I’ve ever had and escorted me to my train.

The train ride was pleasant; I saw rice paddies, fields crowded with slender bamboo, a pheasant, flat roofed shacks and three cows munching on plants in the middle of a dried riverbed.

I quickly checked into my hostel and got directions for a decent café. I needed relief from the hot heavy air and the common room of the hostel was open to the street and its oppressive heat. With the equivalent of 30 US dollars in Taiwanese dollars left in my wallet, I stopped at a local bank to take out money. My debit card didn’t work. I went to another bank. My debit card didn’t work. With fifteen minutes till closing time, the bank employees were courteous and generously called another bank to see if my card would work there. They returned with bad news. I’ve never had a problem using this card in any number of countries and couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t work in Taiwan. I imagined spending three days in Taiwan on thirty dollars and started to feel the panic creep into my throat as I thanked them and left. I realized I also had about US $50 worth of Korean Won that I could probably change once I got to Taipei. I figured it would be doable to survive on that much for my last few days but I nonetheless felt helpless and annoyed. I wanted to go to Taipei to shop and have a good time, not to count pennies! I reluctantly went to Starbucks, figuring it would be the one place where I could charge a $4 coffee. I hate going to Starbucks (or any sort of American chain) while traveling and got even more annoyed at my situation. I made the quick decision to leave Hualien the next night after my trip to the Taroko Gorge National Park. The sooner I got to Taipei, and out of this uncomfortable city, the better. I left Starbucks, anxious but with resolve, and came across another bank. I withdrew money without a problem.

Even with a wallet full of cash, I had little desire to explore the city. I went back to the hostel and made the necessary arrangements to go to Taipei a night earlier. I spent the evening reading “Life of Pi", an excellent book by Yann Martel, and writing comprehension questions for my Advanced 2 reading class.

I took a trip to Taroko Gorge on Thursday. The one other foreigner on the tour was Latifah, a lovely Tunisian German woman, who was visiting her Taiwanese friend for a couple of weeks. I spent most of the time tagging along with them, pleased that I could still manage a conversation auf Deutsch without recourse to any English. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, none of my pictures do any justice to the size and majesty of the gorge. The picture below is of a shrine that was built to honor the 212 workers that died during the construction of the roads and tunnels that go through the gorge. A stream runs behind the shrine and people crowded into the shallows to enjoy the ice-cold water.


The train ride to Taipei was uneventful. I sat next to a teenage boy who devoured a giant bag of Doritos while reading the new Harry Potter.

My hostel was dingy and the air conditioning was only on between 11pm and 9am, giving little incentive to hang out. I went to the Snake Alley night market but was disappointed to find little to support the market’s infamous reputation. Perhaps I was just there on a slow night. Taipei’s night markets are famous for their street food, but I was so hot that I was repulsed by the thought of eating anything. I went to the elegant and bustling Longshan Temple but left after a few minutes. The incense mingled with the humid air and made it difficult to breathe.

Despite my insistence that I would not let heat or humidity deter me, I quickly realized that I was not fit for tropical heat and had to devise ways of making my days in Taipei bearable. Taipei’s subway is incredible- modern, clean, efficient- but I always had difficulty finding my from the station to where I wanted to go or back to the station when I was finished wandering. Around midnight on Friday, when I was having particular difficulty finding a station, I glanced at a huge building with a flashing temperature/time sign. 85 F at midnight. I was frustrated at not being able to find the subway station despite consulting two maps (and I can read maps!) and was tired of feeling hot, sweaty and disheveled all the time. I finally made it to the station only to find that the last train had just left. This almost reduced me to tears. It reached 100 F in Taipei on Saturday and I felt justified in going to the movies- twice.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Shopping in Asia

To save myself from hassle and embarrassment, I don’t shop for shoes or clothes in Korea. I don’t have particularly large feet, but I’ve had Korean shop attendants laugh when I want to try on shoes. Some of the cute boutiques only have one size- you either fit into the shoe on display or you’re out of luck. I’ll always be out of luck in Korea and won’t even bother trying anymore. It was particularly nice to shop in Taipei where larger sizes are readily available. I bought four pairs.

Korean shop attendants also hover; they stand next to your elbow and match your steps one for one. This makes me anxious. It also heightens my embarrassment when it’s clear that nothing will fit. Despite not being able to speak English or to help in any practical way, they are able to do a number on morale. I was happy to be left alone while shopping in Taipei.

Why is Korea so expensive and lacking in foreign goods? I bought a pair of Reebok running shoes in Taipei for about $50; they would have cost almost $100 in Korea. The $3 face wash costs $10 in Korea. I also bought muesli, Dutch cookies, Australian granola bars and Ritter Sport and Kinder chocolates- items I can’t get in Cheongju and wouldn’t know where to find in Seoul. So much for whimsical gifts and handicrafts! I strategically spent my money on practical items so I’d be ready to weather another few shopping free months in Korea before my next trip.


The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial is huge and is in the same square as the National Theater, a stunning example of traditional Chinese architecture. Many people had congregated under the shaded eaves of the Theater. Three groups practiced dance routines using the reflections of the windows to coordinate their movements. A group of 12 girls and a separate group of 3 boys danced to hip-hop. To their left, a group of ten well dressed middle aged women moved slowly to the sounds of traditional music. The grace of the women’s fluid motions juxtaposed sharply with the jerky and erotic movements of the adolescents, and yet no one seemed out of place.

The National Palace Museum is rightfully listed as a "must see" in all the tourist guides for Taipei. The collection of Chinese artifacts is impressive and the museum itself is a nice space. The fifth floor had a traditional tea house and I treated myself to some jasmine tea and yogurt custard with mango sauce.

I went to the weekend flower and jade market on Sunday morning before I had to leave for the airport. Lots of jade, lots of junk, and lots of flowers. No big surprises. I bought some earrings and went back to the hostel to collect my luggage.

This was the first trip I've taken where I was conscious of the fact that it would likely be my only trip. I'm satisfied with what I saw and don't see any pressing reason to go back. I enjoyed my time in Taiwan and would recommend it as a destination for anyone traveling in the area.


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