At the southern end of Taiwan sits the Erluanbi lighthouse warning ships entering the South China Sea of the island. Through the travel agent, Melinda’s mom arranged for us to visit Erluanbi this morning before we continued up the east side of the island. So Melinda and I started the morning off right (two tea lattes and two pastries from Starbucks – the green tea latte was *very* green) and took the arranged car at 10:30. We’re pretty sure the hotel was pre-paid, as the proprietor didn’t ask for money as we left, but we never asked outright.
Erlaunbi is only a few kilometers down the road from the hotel and we’re soon there. It’s a neat site – a fortified lighthouse, in fact (although the canons have been removed) and a neat seashore area to walk along. There are paved paths and boardwalks, and the shoreline formerly was coral reefs – now it’s just very jagged rocks. We wander the site, say hi (from a distance) to some local dogs (feral dogs are about as common as squirrels are in the States), and visit the local stores. Our driver was just some young guy with a car – not a taxi – and he didn’t (want to) stick around the light as we walked around. He knew one of the gift store proprietors and asked if we could leave our luggage with her while we walked around. (We really did not want to drag 40+ pounds of luggage as we strolled the stone-paved paths.) It worked out just fine – bags were safe and we bought a mobile of sea shells from her.
Okay, now the excitement starts. The itinerary has us being at the lighthouse “10:30 – 11:30” and catching a bus at 11:45, but claims that we could stay later because (a) the bus ride takes only one hour and (b) that the buses come every 20-30 minutes. But also, it’s unclear if the itinerary thought the driver would stay at the lighthouse until 11:30 and drive us back to Kenting. In any event, Melinda and I found the bus stop at 11:50 and began our 10-15 minutes expected wait time. We watched several tour buses drive by, and we did see a local service bus, but going the other way (and just sitting at the station there, too). Around 12:15 it pulls out and disappears. A few minutes later Melinda crosses the street to find where it may have gone (we expected it may be in a parking lot turning around but we can’t see it). About a minute after Melinda disappears, the bus pulls out of the parking lot and heads my way. Seconds later I see Melinda running behind it. Okay, I thought, I guess this must be the bus we want; I can stall it long enough for Melinda to show up. No need, it turns out – a gaggle of girls boards, too, and that’s long enough for Melinda to catch up. We work out the fare and board the bus. 12:20 – should still put in at Fangliao plenty early for our 13:49 train. And it’s a train we don’t want to miss – it’s a four hour ride, prepaid about $1150NT, and we don’t know when, or if, there’s another train later today. But, fine, let’s see how this goes.
Well, it doesn’t go well. The gaggle disembarks in Kenting and more people board here and there. The bus sort of pokes along, and it *feels* like we’re going slowly. It takes us 15 minutes to reach Kenting, and I remember, from yesterday, the bus passed Fangliao actually more than an hour before it reached Kenting. I start to do math, and even ask Google Maps for its guess, and it’s not good – we’re going to miss the train by 5-10 minutes. Melinda and I start mulling our options: taxi ride for a small fortune; later train, if there is one; not a lot of other options. I try to find the schedule for the train and Google fails me big-time; I’ll deal with that issue when I’m back at work. Also, as we ride along, other buses pass us – so-called express buses, and, heck, buses that just _drive faster_ than our bus is driving. I’ve been in this spot before, back when commuting to the UW. I’m on a 74 local to downtown when the 73 express, 72 express, and another local, all pass me – and I just want to make the last 150 southbound for the night. Arg.
Minutes and kilometers pass by, the former more quickly than the later. I’m watching our progress on Maps. When it’s 1:30 I can see both us and the train station on one screen, close enough to read the names for everything. At 1:40 we’re at the outskirts of Fangliao. We *might* make it, actually, if we run, I think. Let’s see. We wait a long time to make a left turn at a light – any decent Taiwanese driver would have turned seconds before but oh, no, not Mr. Safe. We amble through Fangliao, streets go by the window and Maps. I see we’re about a block from the train station and it’s 1:45. We’re at the nearest bus stop – still a block from the station, and we have only three minutes to board the train. We exit the bus, grab the luggage, thrust the bus fare back to the driver (as you’re supposed to – he collects the tickets, apparently – a surprise the first time we board, but good to know that you shouldn’t, you know, eat the ticket after boarding, or something), and run toward the station. I can see the train through the station – it’s a small station, fortunately – and I use all the tricks I know about traveling. First, that the scooter driving toward us while we’re running in the road will not hit us. Second, that two foreigners running toward the train station will more likely hold the train than make it leave faster. Third, that there’s probably only one train leaving at 13:49 so checking only the time to find the platform is enough. Fourth, that I know all the info on the tickets that I need – eg, which car we need – so I don’t need to pause to fish it out. Fifth, that I don’t need to wait for Melinda, that if I assume she’s right behind me that she is. And so, with maybe 75 seconds to spare, both Melinda and I board the train, evict the people in our seats, and sit down, just as the train starts to move. We can’t believe our luck, and for at least 45 minutes I’m sort of buzzing between the adrenaline rush of just making it and the relief of not needing to replan this leg of our journey. Whew!
The train ride is about four hours but maybe half the riders exit at a station half-way in. For those first two hours, though, some people didn’t have seats. I can’t imagine, say, flying from San Francisco to Seattle and standing the entire time; it’s odd to get a train ticket but not seat. But, I guess it happens. Melinda and I pass on buying food from the food cart and instead nosh on pineapple cakes gifted at the banquet two days ago. I watch the scenery fly by: hills, then mountains. Rice paddies. Little towns. The towns are rural but don’t look run down as the shacks did on mainland China. Nearly all the land we saw was cultivated, mostly by rice paddies but some corn, some fruit, some palm trees, but very little left native. Unlike the Midwest US, which is big and flat, the land along the train route isn’t convenient to plant and harvest, either. So it’s all the more impressive that so much of it is cultivated.
Our train finally pulls in to Hualien station, end of the line, and we head out of the station. We’re met by a driver from the hotel (“excuse me, are you ‘Melinda’?” I guess he just looked for the lost-looking foreigners) who takes us to our accommodation for the next two days. He speaks a little English – more than I speak Mandarin – but we don’t chat on the drive. The hotel is nice – sort of plain but classy – and the most Western room we’ve stayed in on this trip yet. The itinerary described our room has “colorful and decorated” but it really isn’t – it’s just a room. The description had been a point of amusement for us for a few days so it was a little let-down that it wasn’t anything special.
We head out for dinner to a place, Duo Sang, that the guidebook recommended. It’s about 2.6km away so we take a taxi – costs $135NT. The restaurant is in an old Japanese trade house and it looks like it’s been around for 100+ years. Pretty awesome. There’s only one other table occupied when we arrive, the waiter helps us order (recommends some good dishes), and we wait for the food. We order: rice with pork sauce; cold chicken; sizzling tofu; fried squid. It’s all fantastic. The tofu dish isn’t like tofu in the States – it’s just an entrée substance, not a synonym for vegetarian. What makes this tofu so tasty? Pork, it turns out. And, it’s a sizzling plate – it sort of sprays the entire table when it’s brought out, it’s still cooking. Mm. We eat everything we bought, linger a little, then head out. We have a little more trouble finding a taxi for the return than for the outbound (we found a line of them in front of the department store next to our hotel) but soon we’re back at the hotel.
We finish the evening with some shopping – we walk past a store selling LED signs, and you can imagine what their storefront must look like – and buying at a department store (we’re short a few days of clothes but we find some things that should fit). We turn in (sort of) early because tomorrow we have an early morning for an all-day tour. As I’m writing this blog entry Melinda is watching TV – a travel show (“such a big world,” I think) where a Taiwanese woman is exploring Turkey. It’s sort of crazy.
So, transit day complete, tour tomorrow, tour and transit Sunday, and Taipei for the rest of the stay. Should be fun.