Wow. Just wow. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but not even pictures can describe just how beautiful Hualien, Taiwan and Toroko National Park are. I’ll do my best, but if you get nothing else from my post, know this: Eastern Taiwan is an underrated, must-see landscape for nature lovers and adventurers.
Michael, the other student here from OU this semester, told me several weeks ago that some of the exchange students would be going to Hualien, Taiwan in March. I wanted to travel and hadn’t booked any flights yet, so I asked if I could join. He said yes, I booked my flight and left it at that. I had no real expectations for Hualien. All I knew was that it was much smaller than Taipei, and one of the highlights would be a nearby national park. I let others do the planning; I was just along for the ride.
Six of our ten left Hong Kong on Thursday morning, and I was one of the four who left Friday evening. Hualien’s airport is the second smallest I’ve been to, only larger than Key West’s. We were aboard the last incoming flight of the day, so when we arrived in Taiwan, the airport was dead. The airport’s exchange was closed, the ATM was malfunctioning, and there was nothing the barebones staff could do. None of us exchanged money before we left Hong Kong, so we couldn’t pay for transport to our hostel, and it was too far away to walk in the dark. So, we found a 7-Eleven about 15 minutes away and walked there. We took out some money from an ATM there and hailed a taxi. The driver spoke no English aside from basic greetings, but we showed him our hostel’s Google listing, and he was able to call the number for directions. $6 USD and about 20 minutes later, we were at the cozy Sleeping Boot Hostel.
The hostel stocked tea and instant coffee downstairs, and the communal space was adorned with postcards and messages from travelers who passed through over the years. Upstairs, four of us shared a dorm-style room with our own bathroom. The entire hostel was nearly spotless, and the beds were way more comfortable than my mattress here at HKBU. Having never stayed at a hostel before, my biggest worry was that I would be in a large room where people would file in at all hours of the night and wake me up, but since it was just four of us with the same schedule in the room, it worked out perfectly.
We dropped off our bags and headed to the nearby night market, one of the town’s attractions. It felt like a county fair, complete with various food vendors, carnival games and performers. Some aspects reminded me where I was, like the rows of red Chinese lanterns and a giant dog statue to celebrate the Year of the Dog. I recently learned that bubble tea originated in Taiwan, so I bought one from a vendor as soon as I could. If you’ve never had bubble tea, it’s basically sweet iced tea (usually with cream) with marble-sized tapioca balls at the bottom. It’s fun to drink, and the one I had in Taiwan was definitely the best. I also bought a Taiwanese burger, which contained soy stewed meat, a honey mustard sauce, noodles and veggies between a steamed bun. Steamed buns have the airy consistency of partially cooked bread, feel a bit spongy to the touch, and are light, fluffy and delicious. Combined, the tea and burger were about $3 USD, a low price that remained the norm for the rest of the trip.
The next morning, we got up early for the highlight of the trip: hiking Zhuilu Old Trail. Just north of Hualien is Taroko Gorge National Park, open for free to the public with countless hiking trails and beautiful scenery. Zhuilu Old Trail is one of the park’s most elusive and rewarding experiences. Hiking the trail requires hikers to apply and obtain a permit several days before the hike, present the permit to the police station in the park before hiking, pay a small fee at the trailhead and hit the trail before 10 a.m. A maximum of roughly 100 permits are given per day, and the hike itself is one of the park’s most difficult.
Its long history came to a head in the early and mid-1900s when Taiwan was under Japanese rule. The Japanese conscripted Taiwanese locals to build the treacherous trail for transporting artillery. Now, very few signs of colonial rule or warfare remain aside from some village ruins along the path. The trail is a top hiking spot for several reasons, namely the view of the gorge from the cliff three kilometers into the trail (which currently marks the trail end because of damage past that point).
The first 2.5 kilometers of the trail snake back and forth, climbing up at a constant, steep grade. In some spots, there are stairs made of lumber and metal rods. In other portions, hikers must traverse suspension bridges over the gorge, clamber along rocks or tiptoe along segments barely wide enough for one person at a time, all while being cautious of falling rocks (one about the size of a softball nearly hit me near the beginning of the trail, but was luckily the only rogue rock we encountered). The last 500 meters of the trail are simply surreal: The trail narrows to 2-5 feet wide and winds along the cliffside 550 meters above the gorge with nearly no protective railing.
For perspective, that’s higher than any building in the U.S., including being over 300 feet higher than the tip of the Sears/Willis Tower antennae. If you’ve ever been dizzy looking down at Chicago from the tower’s skybox, imagine being hundreds of feet higher than that.
The experience was breathtaking, both literally and figuratively. Not only did the hike leave me huffing and puffing on the way up, but the combination of the sheer height and beauty of the cliffside at the top had me yearning to look down out of morbid curiosity. I’m terrified of heights when I don’t feel secure. Skyscrapers are cool, since I feel safe in them, but I don’t feel safe in roller coasters. I had intensely mixed emotions as I held fast onto the rope along the rock wall knowing in the back of my mind that I would die if a gust of wind or loose rock would cause me to slip and let go. Combined with having to cross suspensions that reminded me of the castle entrance in Shrek, suffice it to say that I felt like Donkey as he panicked about looking down.
Back to reality, the mountains of the gorge are made of marble. Marble. The white rock faces contrasted beautifully with the subtropical trees, ferns and various plants that covered the mountains like a thick green blanket. Running between it all was a lone highway and a river with water that appeared silver as it flowed, probably due to the minerals in it and the rocks it passes over, if I had to guess. The whole scene looked like it was plucked straight from a movie. Unreal.
After a quick lunch at the end of the cliffside segment, we headed back the way we came. The trek up took about three hours, but the trip down took about one. Since I wasn’t consistently out of breath on the way down, I was able to take in more of the sights I didn’t notice the first time. Even still, I feel I didn’t have the time to appreciate it all, especially since we were instructed to pass along the cliffside quickly without stopping for pictures for our own safety. I would love to go back and do it again.
After the hike, we drove our scooters (the most effective way to travel around Hualien) through the park, stopped at a few other sights and visited a nearby beach. To get there, we had to take a downhill path, clamber off it and around warning signs (don’t tell anyone), then climb down a broken set of stairs to get there. As I write, I realize the trail may have been in ruins at the bottom due to the magnitude 6.4 earthquake that rocked Hualien last month.
The beach was unlike any other I had visited because it was a relatively narrow strip against a marble mountainside. With that in mind, the sand was somewhat coarse, and seashells were replaced by fallen rocks, large and small, rounded smooth by the intense waves that crest tall enough and crash hard enough to make going in the water rather pointless. The cerulean blue water was stunning against the dark sand, and it was totally worth the stop.
That evening, we went to a delicious restaurant well-known in the area for its barbecued fish. We reserved the last two fish and feasted as the server brought out dish after dish, including plates of veggies, omelets, soups, cooked mushrooms, sliced meats, desserts and some foods I couldn’t identify. We ate more than our fill, unable to finish everything brought to the table. The bill came out to about $11 USD per person, which was remarkable considering how tasty and large the portions were. As for the main dish, I’m not one for seafood, especially not when it consists of an entire grilled fish slapped on the plate, but it turned out to be fantastic.
After a good night’s sleep, some of us drove to nearby Liyu Lake the next day to check out the nearby sculptures and go kayaking. I love kayaking and don’t get to do it often enough, so I thoroughly enjoyed the hour on the water. The views were, once again, to die for. On the way back, we stopped at a roadside stand for some stuffed steamed buns. My burrito-sized bun was filled with red bean paste and really hit the spot for about $0.35. I could retire at the age of 40 if I just move to Taiwan.
We drove back to the hostel and met up with the rest of the crew to head to another beach to the south, which ended up not being very interesting. We quickly left the beach and lazily explored the surrounding area until about 5 p.m. We had to return the scooters by 6 p.m. and had about a 45-minute drive to get to the shop, so we headed north with our 15-minute buffer.
That’s when things went south.
We rented five scooters and had two people on each. On the way back from the beach, Michael and I took the lead. I periodically looked back to make sure everyone was keeping up, and during one glance, I saw the bike behind us abruptly pull off to the shoulder, and both passengers quickly hopped off. The driver, familiar with motorcycles, realized that his scooter was acting oddly and managed to pull off right before the whole thing seized up. The wheels locked and wouldn’t move.
Picture the scene: 10 people, four functional scooters, two cellphones with international data, only one of which can make calls, a huge languge barrier and not enough time to ferry people back and forth before the scooter shop would close. Worse, our plane the next day was scheduled to take off well before the scooter shop would open, which would create quite the fiasco.
We quickly devised a plan: one tandem would go drive back t0 a gas station we passed and have the workers call the scooter shop to explain the situation, since we don’t speak Mandarin and the scooter folks don’t speak English. Two tandems would try to get to the shop before it closed, and two tandems would stay with the broken scooter. I stayed with the scooter, and we could do nothing but wait on the roadside as the sun set, hoping we’d be able to get some help.
Luckily, the duo that went back to make a phone call was able to do so before the shop closed, the two duos that went ahead made it there in time, and the scooter shop said they’d send someone to come pick us up. At this point, I volunteered to stay at the roadside with a buddy so the other duo could return their bike; no point in all of us staying stranded and accruing potential overages. Everyone agreed, and two of us stayed with the bike. At least another 30 minutes passed, the sky went pitch black, and the only lights we had were our own phones and the occasional passing car. It was oddly peaceful, with the crickets chirping and frogs croaking, a sound I hadn’t heard in months. Finally, our pickup arrived and we headed back to town.
Upon arrival, we learned that the scooter shop wanted to charge us $7000 Taiwanese dollars (about $235 USD) for the scooter repair. We were appalled since the failure wasn’t our fault. Because of the language barrier, we had to argue our case through Google Translate, and because of Taiwan not quite functioning like America, it’s not like we could rely on any paperwork or insurance to bail us out. The shop owners said they would wait until their mechanic called back with an update. 15 minutes later, he called to say the gearbox was shot, and the shop owner relayed that we owed $6000. Since the scooters are automatic, this obviously wasn’t an issue of our driver shifting improperly, so we again said this couldn’t be our fault. After a lot of back and forth bickering between those at the shop who really wanted the money and those who seemed to just want us gone, they finally dropped the price to $3000 ($100 USD), which we agreed on, split among the ten of us, paid, and went on our merry way.
By this point, it had been four-and-a-half hours since we left the beach, and we were all tired and hungry. We grabbed dinner at a buffet where we piled food onto our plates, showed them to a worker who eyeballed our portions and gave us a price. I managed to get a bowl of rice, a portion of meat, some kind of sausage and an omelet for about $2.35 USD. After that, we stopped by the night market to play a few games, where I threw some baseballs, shot some airsoft pistols and a toy bow, played a couple claw games, and walked away with a couple decks of cards. I didn’t stay long, though, and was asleep at the hostel in no time.
Monday morning, we woke up, hailed some cabs, headed to the airport and flew home with no hassle whatsoever. As soon as we landed, one other student and I made a beeline for the bus to HKBU since we both had classes in a couple hours. I was able to make it and drop off my bag before class, so everything worked out perfectly in the end.
This has been my longest article yet, and still I feel I haven’t scratched the surface of everything worth talking about in Taiwan. I experienced so many little things that I will surely write about in the coming weeks. But as I publish this, it’s after midnight going into Thursday, and in less than 16 hours, I’ll be on a plane to Seoul, South Korea, so I don’t exactly have the time to write another article. I can’t wait to share it all with you soon!