The Taroko region is famous for its marble mountain, its deep river gorges, and the highway that runs along the edge of the gorge. Our first tour stop is at the outlet of the gorge, at a bridge 60m above the riverbed. The river is just a trickle compared to its potential during typhoon season but even now it’s running at a fast clip, and it’s silty. It’s a hot day today (upper 80s F) and we’ll be dodging big tour buses the entire route (yesterday’s tour avoided the mobs for much of the course). So we take our photos, cross the bridge walking, and re-board our tiny tour bus and begin the ascent into the gorge.
Our tour is out-and-back along the highway for so many kilometers, I don’t recall how many. We make a few stops along the way, one notably at Swallow Gorge where Melinda and I walk along a trail parallel to the road while the driver brings the van ahead to meet us. The gorge is a near-vertical drop from the highway to the river, and up to the top of the mountain – it’s like we’re half-way along the edge of the hill. The highway is cut impossibly out of the side of the marble mountain – from any distance it looks like someone just scooped out the stone and laid in a road. But in fact, thousands of workers in the mid-20th century used hand and modest power tools to carve the road (and some 200+ perished in the process). Aboriginal tribes lived in these hills – called the people of the high mountains – and had their own trails along the sides of the mountain. Those trails aren’t any more passable than the highway, and much less passable in many places (some parts are only narrow ledges in the rock). We didn’t walk along that trail, fortunately, but adventurous souls could apply for a permit to do so.
Looking down at the river as we walk and drive along we see boulders bigger than buses and made of solid marble. So many steps, statues, and countertops just waiting to be formed. It surely must be a site to see one of these boulders roll down the mountain during the heavy rains.
We drive back to Hualien and the driver leaves us at the train station. We finally do learn the driver’s name – “Douglas” – and he gives us a business card, for the next time we or our friends are in Hualien and need a tour guide (sure, I’d recommend him). We have an hour before our train, we find the bathrooms and some kibble at the 7-Eleven, and wait for time to pass. We board the train about 30 minutes early, because it’s already there and I didn’t want to rush, Melinda worries me for a moment when she read the sign as saying the train was going to Tainan (it is, but only after it stops in Taipei and continues around the island), but it’s all good. The train is full as we pull out of the station; we’re on our three hour trip to Taipei.
I bought a guidebook to Taiwan, the Lonely Planet guide, before we left the States and I figured I should read up on Taipei’s sites finally. I’ve been disappointed in this guidebook: it mentions only a few restaurants per city (I’m used to something more complete), its maps are difficult to navigate (eg, finding the map that would show Taipei 101 was hard – find Taipei 101 in the index, read about the structure, note the map reference, then visually scan the map looking for the marker), and not all points of interest mentioned in the book are shown on a map. There’s no suggested itineraries or suggested “you should (not) visit this site” for the people who don’t have time or interest in first learning everything about the city and then making that choice. I’ve liked Frommers guide book in the past, I guess I should stick with them. I think I bought the Lonely Planet edition because it was 2+ years more recent, or maybe Frommers simply didn’t have one for Taiwan. In any event I would _not_ recommend this book to anyone.
So I pass about half the train ride with reading about Taipei in the travel guide and the rest of the time is window staring. Half-way up the island we pick up a ton of passengers – there’s a celebration going on at Langfu(?) or somewhere and it seems thousands of people from Taipei visited there for the day – and are going home now. The train ends up with standing room only – you must not be guaranteed a seat when you buy a ticket in a certain class or after a certain time. I’m glad we had reserved seats, and that we could put our luggage (all 60+ pounds of it) in the racks above the seats, not in the aisle way. Everyone exits at Taipei, which also means we don’t need to push our way through a crowd to get out.
We hit a minor snag after leaving the train when trying to meet up with Martha. We don’t have her number, we don’t know where we’d meet her, and the pre-paid SIM doesn’t include voice minutes. I swap SIMs and become a US based phone again, we call Melinda’s mom for the number, and some fussing later we have a phone number and address and are in a taxi heading there. Martha’s and Paul’s place is less than 3km from the train station ($100NT for the taxi fare) and Paul’s home when we ring the door. Hurray! Martha’s in China today checking in on a factory making clothes for her but she’ll be back tomorrow. We head out with Paul to dinner, at Ding Tai Fung, Taipei’s famous dumpling place. We have dumplings and a few other things – this is one of Paul’s favorite restaurants and he knows what to order without looking at the menu. The food is superb and we’re also very hungry so we eat up. Also also, the tea is smooth, aromatic, and plentiful. Tea in Chinese restaurants in the US always seems to be too bitter; not so with any of the tea I’ve had on this trip, tonight included.
After dinner we walk back to the apartment, this time on the street (on the way over we walked through the East Metro Mall, underground), and stopped at a clothing store (Bossini) where I bought a couple of shirts (I packed only so much clothing for this trip, expecting I’d wash some, which’s happened, and that I’d buy some, which I did this evening). We drop off our goods at the apartment and Melinda and I head out again for more adventuring. We end up just walking along the same road again but taking our time (Paul’s a fast walker) and going in to the Sogo department store. Melinda’s looking for another top for the trip, for the same reason as I was. We miss that in the store but Melinda does find a nice set of purple unmentionables she’s happy with. We retreat to the second basement to find the Starbucks (looking if they have Taiwan-specific stored-value cards – nope, just a Starbucks Visa card) and a Hello Kitty bakery (it’s as scary as you’d expect it would be – so much cute baked goods…). We move back to the surface and walk along the roads and Melinda spots a nice top in a store. It’s a decent fit and price so she, too, now has enough clothes for the rest of the trip. And, we have some souvenirs.
I receive an SMS this evening giving me 90 minutes notice before my internet expires. That’s fine – it’s run about 24 hours longer than I’d expected, anyway, so that’s already a bonus. And fortunately there’s a FarEasTone store just a few addresses down from where we’re staying, so we duck in there and attempt to recharge the card. The attendant understands and speaks some English but most of the communication is by way of Melinda again. Some phone calls and $500NT later I’m back on the internet, and this time, I think I can make voice calls (until my $150NT runs out). Also, anytime before November I return to Taiwan I think I can re-recharge the card and once again have internet. Not that I have those plans just yet.
Melinda and I check one more Starbucks down the road, take a few pictures of the street at night, and buy some water at a 7-Eleven for tomorrow. Back at Martha’s and Paul’s we settle in for the evening. This accommodation will be our final room for the trip, and, more importantly, the final time we’ll unpack and repack the bags. I’ve gotten tired of playing Towers of Hanoi when looking for this or that in the bags so I’m happy with having this one final stop. We make plans for the morning: we’ll meet “Chloe” (daughter of the woman who cut Yulin’s and Melinda’s hair in Tainan) at the National Palace Museum tomorrow at 10a, tour the museum for the day, then return by evening to meet Martha (returned from China) for dinner. Probably then Tuesday we’ll visit Tittot glass factory and museum, Taipei 101, and pick up my suit and other articles ferried to Taipei after the reception. Not sure about that – still trying to figure how we’ll hook up with everyone.
The room here has an air conditioner but it’s not very effective. The fan in the room works just as well for keeping us feeling cool. It was 29C in the early evening and by night it was raining off and on. Not too badly, though.