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Published: March 10th 2013
After acclimatising in Taipei for a few days, we are very much looking forward to get out of it. Not that we don't like Taipei, but the hustle and bustle and substantial air pollution is something we can tolerate only in relatively small doses. It takes us about four hours on a local train to get to Hualien. A town of roughly 100,000 inhabitants, Hualien is pretty much synonymous with Taroko Gorge, one of Taiwan's must-see tourist sites. As Chinese New Year is drawing closer and closer, we are more than keen on getting Taroko out of the way before the holiday crowds descend, and then moving on to somewhere less conspicuous.
Hualien greets us with a torrential downpour that continues into the night. At the tourist information, we meet a Chinese Malaysian couple, who recommend to us a cheap hotel just around the corner of the train station. We decide to check it out and are surprised to find a pretty decent place for small money. Not far away we discover the previously mentioned life-saving 'vegetarian' character on the front of an eatery. As it turns out, this is our first incident of a restaurant prominently displaying 'su' but
not being completely vegetarian. In fact, they are merely able to whip up a rather disappointing fried rice and fried noodles.
In the morning, luck is back on our side. I go out to find a baozi shop but happen to pass a streetfood stall offering a fantastic-looking type of rice ball, not unlike Japanese onigiri. The seller dishes some sticky rice onto cling wrap, flattens it and proceeds to fill it chock-a-bloc with delicious ingredients: dried turnip, pickled mustard, braised egg, nori seaweed and crispy yo tiao (deepfried bread stick), holy hell! He then rolls it into a ball and wraps it up. Needless to say, J. is quite happy when she sees what I brought for brekkie. The black tea I got from the same man makes it go down even better.
Thusly invigorated, we tackle Taroko Gorge. There's a hop-on, hop-off tourist bus, which seems to cater to our needs the most, so we buy two day-tickets, and off we are, or on, so to speak. The bus takes about 40 minutes to get to the visitor centre, the starting point of most hikes in the area. Before we
Yummy chòu dòufu (臭豆腐)
So chòu, but so very yummy and satisfying (+really tasty pickles)
lay eyes on the Gorge for the first time, we have to walk through a tunnel that's very busy with cars. It takes us 15 minutes to pass through it, all the while wondering what the long-term consequences of breathing in all the exhaust fumes could be.
As we step out of the dark, we behold the impressive vastness of Shakadang River Valley, which forms part of Taroko Gorge. The poetic name alone conjures up images of breathtaking scenery, and we are not disappointed: a river bifurcating sharply soaring cliffs, which are covered in lush, green vegetation, with the tops shrouded in mist, living up to the valley's name - Shakadang means 'mysterious' in the local Atayal language. Equally striking are the patterned rock folds and marble stones, reminiscent of elegant brush strokes in classical Chinese painting. We hike the trail along the river cliff. A relatively easy 4.4km-hike, Shakadang trail was built during Japanese occupation for the construction of a power plant. These days the local aboriginal population is still busy working, if only to carry out repairs and improvements on the trail.
We make our way onwards to Tianxiang, where we eat a very typical Taiwanese
100% unmodified picture, this is what it looked like in real life
outdoor lunch: sticky rice steamed inside bamboo tubes. There are a few food stalls next to the info centre, and I find one that serves turnip cake, which makes for a delicious snack. After a little rest we cross Pudu Bridge and walk up the steep stairs towards Xiangde Temple and its impressive giant statue of the Goddess of Mercy. When we come back down we donate a little bit of money to a sad-looking Buddhist nun, whose face lights up immeasurably upon my putting the coins into the donation box. In return, she gives us two little laminated red Buddha talismans for good luck.
A few bus stops later, we come across an abandoned section of the Central Cross-Island Highway. While we learn that the reason for its abandoning were several typhoons that hit Taiwan in the late 1950s, it's a memorial and another info panel that really strikes our interest: the memorial was built for the 225 men that lost their lives during the construction of the highway. The former director of the Highway Bureau Lin Ze-Bin paints a gruesome picture of the circumstances of their deaths:
"There was a
high risk of disaster for the men who built the highway and the chance of escape when an accident happened was minimal. The dead were buried by rocks, fell over cliffs to places where rescue was impossible, they were in vehicles that rolled over until they disintegrated or were killed by flying rocks. The brains and innards of the dead were scattered across mountain ridges and their torsos and limbs fell into deep ravines. The sight of the bloodstained mountains was so horrific it scared even the birds and the monkeys. We are deeply saddened that these heroic men didn't come back, and we grieve the loss of the professional technicians."
Exiting the abandoned highway tunnel, our gaze falls on the splendid Changchun Shrine, also a commemoration of the dead highway workers. Climbing up A LOT of stairs into the surrounding mountains, we come across a few smaller shrines, a bell tower with a great view of Taroko Gorge and finally, after traversing a rickety suspension bridge, the majestic Changuang Temple with its imposing reclining Buddha.
Back at the parking lot of Changchun Shrine, crunch time starts. Dozens of tour buses unleash mayhem, i.e. mainland Chinese, who waste
little time in smoking, spitting, pushing and STARING. Fucking hell, did I not miss this. They just stand there staring at the funny laowei, i.e. me. As we sit there waiting for the bus back to Hualien, a group of four middle-aged Chinese, two chicks and two blokes, stare at me and analyse my outward appearance so persistently that I take out my camera and start taking pictures of them. I doubt they got the message, though, it looked like they couldn't care less.
Back in Hualien, we walk around, looking for a place to eat, when suddenly we hear a big crash. We turn to see a chick in shorts and a guy lying on the street next to their toppled scooter. Looks like they got hit by an overzealous car trying to overtake when it was a little too narrow. Anyway, we run to help them get up, collect their take-away containers and get some tissues and wet wipes for their wounds. The girl's elbow and left leg are badly scratched and bleeding, and she appears to be in shock. Her boyfriend seems to be ok, he's already arguing with the
driver of the car, and when we realise we're more in the way than anything else, we make our exit.
A few blocks from the crash scene we find a restaurant that serves vegetarian hotpots and chòu dòufu. What better way to forget the accident! The stinky tofu is seriously putrid and the sourness of the pickles fits it perfectly. The hotpots are not only hot, but spicy as hell, and absolutely delicious. And what better way to wrap up a short, but sweet stay in Hualien and Taroko!
Today marks five years of blogging, 80 blogs so far! Quality, not quakokikeriki, I hope.
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