Taiwan – Hualien and “Taroko”

Our trip to Hong Kong last summer wasn’t exactly our favorite mostly because of Chinese tourists and its proximity to China. So it’s surprising that we decided to to go Taiwan – a place that is basically China and also filled with Chinese tourists. We had been planning to go to Mongolia. However Mongolia is the size of western Europe so it didn’t make sense to try to force that kind of landmass into 10 days.

We picked Taiwan because of two things: food and hiking. And we didn’t get to hike because of Typhoon Soudelor. Still we had a nice time and made our own fun.

We started in Hualien and the Taroko Gorge area. We picked out a bed and breakfast that was highly rated and ended up being a small disaster. There were bugs crawling on and even in the walls, the owners didn’t speak English. It was certainly an adventure – but one we were excited to be finished with.

We arrived in Hualien, the only city near the rural area where we would be staying. We asked a help desk how to get to the lodge and they bent over backwards to try to help us. We soon learned that most Taiwanese people (outside of Taipei) are some of the most friendly and helpful people we’ve ever met. The woman helping us worked for nearly 15 minutes to call the lodge, get taxi quotes and look at the address online. We finally made it. It was very awkward, the bed and breakfast was basically their house. It felt intrusive and it felt a lot like Kaeti’s time in Ghana – nice, but not that nice.

The owner decided we would go to dinner and drove us to a restaurant. Outside of the restaurant was a glass display case full of organs, entrails, still moving sea creatures, and a preserved chicken head. If that didn’t suit your fancy there was also dried meat with bone ends sticking out of either end that looked like some kind of demonic rolling pin -I have no guess as to what it was. As I stared at a clam attempting to get out of the bowl it was in – I didn’t even know they could move like that – the owner/driver gestured proudly at the case.

“What do you like?”

“Ummmmm… Err…..”

Thinking fast, Chris pointed quickly at some overboiled tea-eggs “Eggs!”

I also chose the eggs and so we headed inside to find there were other guests at our B&B that had been left to drink at the restaurant while they waited for us to arrive. We met a Dutch couple – both pilots- who were spending 2 nights in Taiwan before flying (working) back home. There was also a Scottish couple who were retired BBC reporters who had sold everything and – get this- became English teachers (in Spain).

They hadn’t had anything to eat yet, since Chris and I picked the tea eggs (just hard boiled eggs stained with tea) they soon brought out a plate of the eggs for the 6 of us to share. Then they came out what the Scottish couple had picked out of the display case- frogs. But not frog legs, like most of the frog. It had been fried in a sticky soy sauce and was actually very similar to eating chicken wings at a bar. Except the texture was more like a weird fish. The Dutch couple had picked out collard greens as they were vegetarian. They were unrecognizable greens and the restaurant owners were very proud to tell us “special Taiwanese vegetable!” It was slimy like seaweed but tasted like a hardcore spinach. I’m not a food-blogger so just try to figure that one out.

Talking with everyone was great but when we went back to the B&B we were reminded of how, well, shitty it was. I was eaten alive by mosquitoes and woken up very frequently by the sounds of crawling and tapping. Something big was crawling in or on the walls around me. I like camping- but when I’m paying to be indoors I don’t want it to be like camping. And as tropical as the climate was, I had no idea what kind of bugs or creepy crawlies were around us.

The next morning I wanted to leave – we hadn’t gotten any sleep in Korea before we left because of a loud hotel room there. Chris reassured me “We’ll get ourselves so exhausted that we’ll sleep great for the next 4 nights.” 4 nights. God what had we gotten ourselves into?

Hiking. That’s why we had come to Taiwan. That, and food. But the owner told us: “Typhoon will come tonight -midnight. No hike today. Not safe. You hike tomorrow.”

I will pause to say how much I regret not telling him how illogical that was. The day was perfect – blue skies and sunshine. A light wind. How on earth could the day after a typhoon be less dangerous? Because of his poor judgement call we never got to hike – the whole reason we had even come to his shitty B&B.

What’s worse is that he basically wanted us out of his house for the day  – or was desperate to entertain us- so he decided to send us and the Scottish couple to Hualien. We were sent away with the promise that he would pick us up at 5:30. Ugh. Chris and I like to travel freely. Some people surely find that convenient – that there’s a schedule and a driver so you don’t have to worry about taxis. We found it stifling and over-controlled. Again, there was the feeling of what have we gotten ourselves into.

There’s nothing to do in Hualien but go to night markets (it was 10 am). So we walked around aimlessly. Enjoying the gorgeous weather and wondering why we weren’t hiking.

DSC03349But we were here, so  we headed to the sea just to see it. We’re landlubbers, any chance to see the sea is interesting. Since the typhoon was coming the sea was even more interesting than normal because it was an absolutely churning, smashing misting mess of ocean. The pictures don’t do any justice but we tried – the waves were easily 5-10 feet but we were kept at a safe distance by the military. Just that day a mom and her twins had been swept out to sea in the area north of us.

 

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The weather started changing later in the day – the wind kicked up and it started to rain just a little. The cooling rain made us realize that we were very, very sunburned. We forgot that we work inside, and even if we’re outside Korea is usually too smoggy to have sun.

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We decided to walk back to the lodge – we didn’t want to wait around until 5:30 to be picked up. It was a gorgeous walk with so many trees and flowers I’ve never even seen or heard of. We saw rice paddies, bananas, a dragon fruit farm, guavas, and so many other things that we don’t know what they were. The rain kicked up and felt so good on our sunburns. It was nice to be just marching home in the middle of nowhere completely soaked.

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That night the typhoon hit around 3 am. The winds shook the house and windows. The power went out briefly. At one point the wind kicked up for a solid minute that shook the walls and floors so much that the bed was vibrating around. It was honestly terrifying, we didn’t know how safe the house was and with the many, many trees around us it often felt like any minute a tree or branch could come crashing into the bedroom. We looked it up and there had been108 mph winds for a sustained 1 minute. There’s videos of a Boeing 747 being lifted up and down and a motorbike being picked up into the air and spun around.

You may be familiar with this typhoon (depending on your news) -Typhoon (Hurricane) Soudelor. It was the strongest storm in the area for over 30 years and the worst storm of the world so far in 2015. The aftermath involved a loss of drinking water and telephone lines and nearly 5 million people were without power for a few days. We only lost the internet.

The next morning we had nothing to do – our promised hike was obviously cancelled indefinitely. We set out with our Scottish friends to go to a 7/11 and get a beer and see all the damage.

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All the beautiful trees and things we had admired yesterday were either listing at a 45 degree angle or were on the ground.

The agricultural damage has been quoted at nearly 94.8 million dollars (USD) worth – mostly in bananas. And boy did we see bananas. They’re too heavy to stay up. Also a lot of coconuts which had broken open on impact. Locals had already collected unbroken ones. We grabbed one that was open and munched on it a little – why not? – as we observed all the destruction.

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We made it to the coast and saw 10- 15+ foot  waves. Again, the coast guard and police were there to make sure we didn’t get to close after that family had been swept out to sea.

 

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There were some structural damage to some buildings – panelling and tiles ripped off the walls. The worst was some kind of apartment complex shack had been blown off the top, breaking a lot of windows and scattering a rooftop garden all over the street.

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Hiking was definitely cancelled permanently. Also the Scottish couple wanted to head out and continue their trip around Taiwan. We didn’t want to be left as the only guests and English speakers in the sad little lodge so we planned to leave 2 days early. Anywhere – we didn’t care where.

Unfortunately the trains were stopped – the owner of the lodge said maybe they would start running at 6 pm so we all went to Hualien to see. Cancelled, cancelled and cancelled. We were clever and found a hostel – not to stay in the dorms with 20 other people like our time in Europe, but to get private rooms. This hostel was nicer than some hotels we’ve been in. We went out drinking together that night and had a really wonderful time.

We spent the next two days in Hualien relaxing and sleeping. Then headed up north to Keelung…

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