From one island to another in Taiwan
By Miriam Chacko
WHEN I WAS IN UNIVERSITY, each room in the halls bore a citizen from a different country and each of us had left home to take on a higher study. The common kitchen often turned into an international convention of granola, masala, miso, cheese and soupy noodles.
I met Vicki on the day I moved into the halls and we have been friends ever since. In the beginning everything I knew about Taiwan was from her stories and memories of home.
She spoke of mountains, waterfalls, hot springs, politics, work, food and more. I imagined a busy city with people, taking off to nature parks on weekends to break away from the mundanity of work and home.
It was only six years later that I got to see this magical island for myself.
I arrived in Taipei with fair warning and met Vicki, my unofficial tour guide at the Main Station. The city seemed strangely familiar, as I remembered Vicki’s stories of living and working in Taipei. While we moved through stations, we caught up on our milestones and laughed at how little we had changed in six years.
1. Hsing Tian Kong Temple in Zhongshan District
Our first stop was Hsing Tian Kong Temple in Zhongshan District. When we entered the compound I noticed the dragons immediately. They were everywhere, on the roof, around the pillars by the entrance and by the doors. The brochure described the dragons on the roof to be guardians warding off evil and preventing fires.
The sculptures by the door which I mistook for dragons were actually qilin, mythological creatures of good omen that symbolise peace. And the dragons coiled around the pillars by the entrance, again symbolise peace but the coiling meant the dragons had not yet ascended into heaven. Thank goodness for the brochure or I would have walked away thinking these sculptures were purely for aesthetics.
In the temple quadrangle, disciples also known as Xiaolaosheng, were performing Shoujing (which literally means ‘to take away fright’) for the visitors. The disciples, clad in sky blue robes stood beside each visitor, praying over them to help restrain their soul and to settle their heart and mind.
Hsing Tian Kong discourages food offerings and burning incense to reduce wastage and pollution within the premises. I thought it was amazing how the temple along with the rest of the city promote a strong environmental ethic. From recycling, segregating, minimising household waste to ‘bring your own chopsticks’ (BYOC) campaigns, the people of Taipei seem very conscious of the environment.
2. Exploring Beitou
The next day we drove to Beitou to the northern tip of Taipei City. Beitou is a charming part of Taipei that often featured in Taiwanese movies in the 1950s and at the time was known as the Hollywood of Taiwan.
In the 1890s the Japanese brought their tradition of communal hot baths to Beitou. They built hot-spring hotels and made Beitou a popular spa destination. One such spa was abandoned after World War II and was later converted into a museum. The museum showcases the milestones in Beitou history from the 1600s. The milestones include 1905 when Okamoto Yohachiro discovered Hakutolite, 1967 when Beitou’s town status was upgraded to be part of Taipei City and 1998, the year Beitou Hot Spring Museum officially opened.
Of all the buildings in Beitou, I was sold on the Beitou Public Library, the least historical of the lot. It is a two-storey wooden structure that was built in 2006. The building optimises natural light and charm, creating several ideal spots for reading and learning, and the wooden interiors give it a homely feel.
I caught myself thinking, ‘Just for this library, I could live here.’
3. Ruifang District of New Taipei City
It was raining heavily throughout the drive up to Ruifang, an eastern suburb of New Taipei City. However, when we parked the car to walk up further, the rain reduced to a drizzle and soon to a drop stop. We walked through the market area in Jiufen (the touristy part of Ruifang) and nibbled on local treats, of which mochi was my favourite.
The houses here are built close together and cascade down the hillside facing the sea. Vicki found us a table at a café with a fabulous view. To our left was the silhouette of hills, undulating yet symmetric and to our right was Keelung port parading by the coast.
I had watched ‘City of Sadness’ a couple of years ago when I was following Tony Leung’s onscreen career. The movie captures Ruifang’s beauty in drawn out stills that single out the landscape from the bloodshed and chaos brought on by Koumintang in the 40s.
Sitting in the café, I recognised the scenery in front of me from the movie and as I witnessed the sun set, like a mood ring, I went from feeling grey to blue to hopeful till the last hint of pink left the sky.
4. Taipei 101
A popular ‘thing to do’ in Taipei is to reserve a table at Starbucks on the 35th floor of Taipei 101 to enjoy the view of the city. However, I was keen not to spend time in a mall and, as a rule while travelling, I avoid Starbucks.
Instead, we headed to the top of Elephant hill for a sweeping view of Taipei with Taipei 101 in it.
Elephant hill is a forested trail in the city, the lungs of the city as it were, that reaches up to a height of 183 meters. It was a slow climb for us, and when we finally reached the lookout point, we took a minute (maybe 10) on the bench – elbows on knees, hunched over and looking at our feet. We were clearly unfit and if we were in denial before, we weren’t anymore.
The view at 183 meters captures the city’s highs and lows, from Taipei 101 piercing into the sky to the lower surrounding frenzy of urban density. Except for 101 and possibly the stadium, Taipei from up there suggested a homogeneity that is urban, dense and Asian.
5. Riding through Taroko National Park in Hualien District
The next day, I woke up to a whole new world. Vicki was riding a scooter, and I was sitting behind her. We were going further up towards the island sky while skirting magnificent rock-face on either side. The landscape of Taroko was outlandish.
The road we took meandered along Liwu River, which ran below and out of sight, for most of the ride. As pillion, I looked in all possible directions, trying not to miss a shade of blue, nor a stir of green. We vroomed ahead in complete abandon, whisking through the wind, hardly sinking into the reality of this unreal place.
However, the reality would be that landslides are not uncommon in the area and the original people of Taroko in the 1930s went through hell. Unlike Ruifang, the atrocities brought on to the locals here – the Truku, Toda and Seediq Tkdaya tribes – were in the 1930s and by the Japanese.
Back on the scooter we were gaining height and speed. We were heading towards the Water Curtain tunnel on the Baiyan Waterfall Trail which cuts the rock at 480m above sea level. Two kilometres into the trail, we reached the water curtain. Cold water pierced down from the ceiling into thin sheets of water that sliced across the breadth of the tunnel. The plastic ponchos saved us from getting drenched but not from getting wet. We stood behind the curtain, close enough to feel the spray of cold mountain water on our face and hands.
Early that morning, we had cycled to Chishingtan beach bordering the town of Xincheng in Haulien. We were told it was unsafe to swim in the water and so we sat on the edge of the beach, getting wet by each wave that foamed at our feet.
It was the first pebble beach I had been to. The crisp heat of the sun and the cold water of the Pacific Ocean were unmistakeably made for each other. It was a great start to an equally great finish as we rode down the hills of Taroko with the sun setting behind us.
6. Everything else
In the days that followed we cycled, trekked and strolled through and towards various points of interest including Yehliu National GeoPark, Yangmingshan National Park, Tamsui and the Lin Family Mansion. All of which I would recommend, but for me, nothing came close to Taroko.
I used to think travelling by myself was the best way to explore a new place. Now, I look forward to traveling with friends and especially with friends who bring the holiday with them.
Thanks, Vicki for bringing the holiday to me. Can’t wait for you to come to Borneo!
Miriam Chacko is essentially an environmentalist. After completing her postgraduate degree in Environment and International Development from the University of East Anglia, she got involved in projects promoting environmental awareness. Drawing on her experience, she has written articles on climate change and conservation.
A keen traveller, she has visited many countries in and around Asia and her love of the outdoors and interest in different cultures comes through in her writing.
Miriam has been writing for The Borneo Post SEEDS since 2013.