No rest for the enthusiastic traveler — Time here moves like my parents’ poor car when I learned to drive stick shift – lurchy, equal parts speedy and stopped, and under nobody’s control. Weekends pass at breakneck speed, and then come to a screeching halt on Sunday night when we return to our home/hotel rooms, dirty, bags full of laundry, exhausted, and oh so content. Our group of 14 Global Fellows has determined to see more of this beautiful island nation than most locals try to see in a year, and even when we wish for weekends to recover from our weekends, I couldn’t ask for better use of our short time.
This past weekend, we took advantage of the Dragon Boat Festival holiday (read: day off from work) to take a 3-day journey to Hualien, a town on the north-eastern coast of Taiwan, famed for its proximity to Taroko National Park. The park houses Taroko Gorge, one of the greatest natural wonders I have ever encountered thus far in my life. Taipei has been hailed as the Portland of the East, for its growing cafe, nightlife, and cultural scenes, but I think is so under-appreciated for its proximity to some of the most sublime natural beauty in the world. (Also pinching myself that I can use that phrase – in the world. Feeling blessed.)
Our lil’ group of 14 has taken a masochistic approach to exploration: we want to be as freaking tired at the end of each adventure as humanly possible. It has led to some hangry and unforgettable experiences. They are sometimes one and the same. (if you’re wondering what hangry means, please refer to 2 stanchions of modern culture: Buzzfeed and The New Yorker)
Being in Hualien made me feel we were truly on vacation for the first time – the beach-side town is slow, quiet, and quaint. The locals wore blue rubber flip flops, hung laundry where the passing public could see it, tied their dogs in the front yard, and moved at a slower pace. We, in our American loudness and enthusiasm, were required to slow down in our thinking, if only when strolling past the open-front shops that doubled as homes.
Hualien also made me feel at home for its similarities to smaller towns in India: the smells of exhaust, the dust on the floors and the gritty concrete, the undershirt-wearing men, the oppressive heat, the scooters, the stray animals, the colorful play structures in a local park, paint eroded by humidity. I am constantly struck by the similarities that can be drawn between drastically different countries, and how comforting it is. I’m not alone in this – others in our group are always finding relation to Haiti, El Salvador, Mexico, and more. The world is so much smaller than we make it seem. #trite but also #true
Here is an overview of our weekend. Travel coordinated by fearless trip-leader Jasmine, [some] sights researched by yours truly and provided by many, many faithful bloggers.
Woke up at an ungodly weekend hour (as always) to meet in our lovely little hotel lobby, and set out on a 4 hour journey. Our departures are always very timely because in the words of the group-older-sister “If you’re not in the lobby on time, you can meet us there.” Whipping us all into shape with the best intentions! Early travels call for 7-11 breakfast bread.
We bought a combo bus/train ticket that began at Taipei City Hall station, and cost $209 NTD one way (just under $7 USD) – a bus to Yilan (Luodong stop) and then a connecting train to Hualien. Total travel time: ~ 3 hours. Detailed info at Taiwan Itinerary»
We then made a very tired group trek through the midday heat to our hostel – the Black Bear, at which we were prompted to walk even further to Big Bear, leaving us wondering if at the end of the day we’d end up at Small Cub (thankfully we didn’t)((lame jokes are our specialty, please laugh)).
We checked in and did the unthinkable – actually took a midday break, gearing up for an afternoon out on the town. Our destination was Qixingtan – the pebble beach a 10 min. taxi ride away from the Hualien train station. The pebble shore extended to a horizon broken up by mountains, an incredible vista. The water was clear, bright blue, way too salty, and perfectly cool. Frolicking ensued.
Two ice-cream cones and a few wipe-outs later (the tide was strong), we made our way to the city center for Ziqiuan Night Market – the craziest one I’ve been to in Taiwan. Fruit juice stands were to-die-for, and warranted 100 people lines. Trekked about a mile home for a well-deserved shower and sleepover feelz (all 12 of us were in a room with bunk beds). Hot seat was played. Awkwardness was had. Bonding took place.
Woke up way too early (we can sleep when we’re dead), so we could be picked up to go river tracing. Found the company (River King) through our hostel, and paid $900 NTD for a half-day, one of the most expensive things we’ve done thus far, but so so so worth it.
Our guide introduced himself as ‘Oolong’, with a pound of his chest and a jut of his chin, called us all stupid, and was the best guide we could have asked for. He guided us through 4 hours of gear-donning, river tracing, cliff-jumping (5 meters!), and Oolong-chanting (Who am I? OOLONG, we yelled). He dunked us in the water, lept about the rocks like an oversized monkey, and made sure we were safe.
After 4 exhilarating hours, we mentioned we hoped to see Taroko the next day, and he casually added us on facebook, and told us he would show it to us, saying “Taroko is my home”. Oolong happened to be of the Taroko tribe, one of the Aboriginal groups in Taiwan. We then spent the afternoon at Qixingtan (again. it was that beautiful), biking along the coast on a mostly flat, leisurely trail that felt like heaven after our Sun Moon Lake experience.
A month into eating dumplings on dumplings and feeling homesick for the late-night eats of South LA, we walked 1.3 mi from our hostel in high hopes of the amazing restaurant that would serve us tacos. TACOS. (Dos Tacos), but alas, they were out of food (?!). A tear may have been shed, but thankfully the owner, Jason directed us to Route 193, serving #Amurrican bar food. It didn’t disappoint – I enjoyed a Caesar salad with WHITE MEAT CHICKEN. A tear was yet again shed.
We met with Oolong to take a train into the gorge area and then walked a solid distance from the station through the village into the national park. Along the way, he said hello to at least 10 people in passing (~local celebrity~) and took us to his childhood home. We then made our way to the Shakadang Trail, a crowded tourist attraction, but permit free! Discovered via Taiwan Adventures, it wasn’t our first choice but proved absolutely beautiful nonetheless. At the end of the trail, we casually stepped off the paved trail into the gorge itself, hiked a bit of ways further to find this Eden complete with cobalt water, waterfall, greenery, and a cooling breeze.
A tired bus ride, mad dash to catch the train, and tired train ride back to Hualien, all of a sudden we had to bid farewell to our personal monkey/friend/tour-guide/motivator. It got a little too real, and we felt equally fortunate to have made such a kind friend in a short time, as we felt sad to say goodbye so soon.
Overall, I am absolutely dead, getting more brown by the day (sunscreen be damned, it does nothing), feel closer than ever to our motley group of 14, and so thankful to be living this crazy life. If anyone has more specific questions about the places we saw, or how we got there, please feel free to comment! And if you got to the end of this lengthy post, wow. So much love for you.