March 2011 | Hualien, Taiwan
We got comfortable, and then wanderlust kicked in. So we hiked Taroko Gorge.
It was two weeks after we’d arrived, and we’d since settled into somewhat of a routine. The third floor boys we quickly dubbed aristocrats for their ability to maintain healthy sleeping hours, and Yinghui and I grew comfortable with the receding stages of modesty that came with sharing a room.
Then came the first long weekend in the academic calendar. After having spent a rainy overnighter in Taipei the week before, we eschewed plans for the city and headed instead to Hualien, on the less developed eastern coast on Taiwan.
Last-minute planning saw us do a panicky shuffle at the train station as we were almost left stranded without tickets, but eventually we wound up on a six-hour-long train ride that meandered it’s way through mountain ranges and agricultural land. The views were pristine and unspoiled, the snaking grip of industrialisation yet to descend upon it’s people.
Being noobs at this train-travel business, nobody had thought to buy food before we boarded, which left us enviously eyeing the bento boxes of other commuters before dozing off in an attempt to ignore our gnawing hunger, which grew more insistent by the hour. So it was a ravenous crew that disembarked into a misty hualien night, and trooped into the drizzle in search of food.
And what glorious food we found. I don’t think I have ever tasted a better xiao long bao then I did that night. I’m sure it was due in no small part to my hunger, but oh, what delicious buns. Unlike their Singaporean, Din Tai Fung/Crystal Jade counterparts, these mini parcels of airy, fluffy bread arrived warm and moist from the steamer, a parcel of juicy, unctuous meat steeping inside pork broth so rich it flowed across the tongue and lit up every crevice of one’s mouth with joy.
Sated, we wandered languidly through the deserted streets. I vividly recall stopping at a roadside stall for barbecued meat on skewers, a common Taiwanese snack. While we waited for our food, the boys pored over the map of Taroko Gorge, the main reason we had come to Hualien. Excitedly they discussed the 18km hike – intimidating as it sounded – pointing out attractions we could see along the way, and picturesque, photo-worthy spots.
Determined not be left out of the adventure, Yinghui and I agreed to go along, deciding that if we failed to keep up, at least we would have each other for company. Minds made up, we trooped resolutely back to the hostel, anticipating an early night and the next day’s undertaking.
Daylight had not broken when we roused from our slumber on day two of our Hualien trip. In less than an hour we would set off, guns ablaze, to make the long trek down Taroko Gorge.
The bus ride to the starting point of our hiking trail was an adventure in itself. Roughly the size of a minivan, it careened dangerously around each corner of the serpentine roads that wound their way steeply up the gorge. A thin metal barrier lining the cusp of the road seemed more like a cursory afterthought than a safety precaution. I wasn’t sure if it was the magnificent view or the steep drop below that took my breath away.
Somehow we found ourselves at top without incident, and as the driver sped down to pick up more hapless tourists, we embarked on our hike just as the sun reached it’s peak in the sky. It’s warmth was obscured by the blustery winds at such altitude, but the brisk pace we proceeded at rendered jackets obsolete.
I never considered myself a nature person but Taroko Gorge something else. For miles, as far as the eye could see, it was just rock and foliage – majestic, towering rocks that loomed into the distance and gave way to the rushing streams below. Suddenly I wished I had paid more attention during physical geography classes so I might actually know the characteristics of all these rockforms.
Wind in hair, sunlight caressing our flushed cheeks, we trooped our way, single file, along the side of the road. I don’t remember what it was exactly that first hinted at the fact that we might not be on the correct path. Perhaps it was the first time a row of pimped-out motorbikes swept past, the fumes from their collective exhaust pipes leaving us in a cloud of dust. Or it could have been the first tour bus roared past our ears, and how we were forced to edge perilously close to that precarious metal railing, trying to ignore the precipitous cliff drop below. I think nobody wanted to say it at first, but soon, it became clear that we were not on the tourist trail. We had come to Hualien to escape the proverbial beaten track. Now, it seemed like we had got what we wanted.
What else to do but make the most out of it? Being, at that point, too deep into the trail to turn back, we decided to keep going. I can’t say I minded terribly; at least roads, rather than the sandy trails of forests, made for easy terrain. (Later we would meander through one of these foresty trails, which I found decidedly unspectacular.) So we walked on, each lost in their own thoughts, which was really not an unpleasant place to be amidst all that mountainous air.
It is such a picturesque scene I paint; I say all this with the luxury of hindsight. At that time, it wasn’t such a picnic. So I think it was with some relief that we eventually stopped for a water break, and the boys disappeared exploring a flight of steps that seemed to lead down the side of the gorge to the valley below. When they finally reemerged, waving and beckoning us down, they were at the water’s edge.
Nobody intended to be left behind, so the rest of us trod, step after solicitous step, until there were none left and we had to clamber across and down boulders until we could descend no further. The water was rapid and icy cold, the bed of smaller rocks along it’s bank expansive and welcome. I think that was the highlight of the trek, for me. We skipped stones and took endless photographs, laughed into the wind and let our voices carry.
Spirits sated, we huffed and puffed up the flight of stairs and carried on our journey. There were so many tunnels to traverse that we lost count of them – dank, moist caverns that were so dark in portions that we relied on the light of passing cars to guide our way, as we teetered along a narrow ledge that jutted out from the rocky wall. Lunch was a brief affair comprising a couple of onigiris that barely filled our stomachs, and inwardly I cursed my lack of foresight for not buying more. Five kilometres became eight, and then ten, as conversation dwindled and eventually ceased. Still we walked in single file, looking back every few hundred metres to make sure our group remained intact.
Finally it was close to sundown. We’d covered about 12km at that point, and decided to call it a day. Perhaps my newfound appreciation of Singapore’s public transport system stems from little incidents like this one – waiting along a sliver of road under a fast-darkening sky, sandwiched between a passing tour bus and a portion of the cliff missing a protective rail, waiting for a bus that was past it’s scheduled arrival time, all while nursing a growing urge to pee – it makes you grateful for what you have.
The bus did come, eventually. It’s plush reclining seats were a godsend to my aching legs and blistered feet. We had earned our beer, and a good night’s sleep – both of which made for a satisfying end to a long, long day.