Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Dec 22 2009

Hualian and Jiaoxi

Over the past week, Chenbl has been showing a group of his friends, three from Malaysia and one from France, around Taiwan. Bored with their continual hot weather, the Malaysians were eager to experience low-temperature traveling, and they tossed aside Chenbl’s warnings about going to Hualian in the winter. For some reason, I decided to tag along as well.

We set off at noon on Saturday aboard the Ziqiang Express. Not as fast or modern as the Taroko Express, but at least seats were available. Although I usually spend such days cooped up at home with the heater on listening to Renaissance tunes, it was nice to get out of Taipei and see the countryside and ocean of the east coast. I’ve always liked Hualian better than the other east-coast cities of Taidong and Yilan; Yilan is too spread out and incohesive, while Taidong seems like an afterthought to the hot springs. Hualian, in my eyes, is the only “comfortably sized” city of the three. It’s been a few years since I was there, but it’s gotten a little more arty and bohemian than it was during my last visit. B&B’s have popped up here and there, and more tourism-related shops have opened.

It wasn’t raining when we arrived at the train station, but it was cold and gray, passengers huddled on the seats in the waiting room. Chenbl seemed to want to drive home his views on the advisability of a trip in this weather, so we ended up renting scooters at one of the places by the station and rode to our hotel, the Mango, a nine-story affair downtown with a nice lobby and so-so rooms with smallish windows.

After putting our luggage away, we got back on the scooters and rode out to Qixingtan, a beach north of the city, by the airport. It was quite cold, and to avoid letting anyone get lost we rode in a line. The blue-gray sky was just the right color to contrast with the containers of a shipyard, but I couldn’t stop to take pictures. I could feel the Invincible Rabbit straining to jump out of its bag as we rode past statues framed by the ocean and sky, but again I couldn’t stop. I compensated by swearing loudly instead. I hate traveling in groups, and this is one of the main reasons why. If it’s just one or two other people, you get more leeway, but with a larger group, you’re basically forced to do whatever they are doing. But I’d signed on; I knew what I was getting into. The foreigners only have this one week here, but I can come back to Hualian any time I want.

So I rode on. We eventually came to a goat restaurant/cafe on the nearly deserted coast, and as we were parking, a long line of people came walking up the beach. At first we thought it was a funeral procession and prepared to leave quickly, but it turned out to be a political march sponsored by the DPP.

The goat place serves goat milk-based drinks, including coffees, teas and just plain hot goat milk. It’s an acquired taste, but it wasn’t too bad, just strange. As we drank, me still stewing over the lost photographic opportunities of the trip out, the sun set, plunging the area into darkness. Outside, the owner was feeding the excited goats in a small hut.

We rode on past the airport runway to another oceanfront park, largely deserted in the cold except for a couple of guys setting up chairs for a concert the next day. Then it was back downtown for a multi-course dinner at a restaurant dedicated to a particular kind of fish; every dish utilized a part of the fish, and the waiter explained each one as they came. I’d never realized that fish were that complicated. There were even fish parts in the ice cream.

After dinner, it was off to a night market. There’s not much I can say about the night market; once you’ve seen one, you pretty much know what you’re in for, i.e. the usual mixture of games and boiled food. I bought another aborigine hat to replenish my stores. Outside, an old man was making money plucking a badly tuned wire on the bridge that lead to the beach. Nobody was interested in the darkness beyond.

Having exhausted wonders of the night market, we rode over to the stone art complex, which is composed of an L-shaped line of huts around the old railway hospital, a wooden building built during the Japanese occupation that’s been converted into display spaces for stone carvings. Several young, bare-chested aborigine men were dancing on the stage. Their skin was a most un-Aboriginal shade of white, and I wondered if it was make-up or just the cold.

I was walking around the veranda of the old building, feeling I’d seen enough stone carvings, when the ground began to vibrate. At first I thought we must be nearby a railroad track and a particularly large train was approaching, but it quickly outgrew such a possibility, and as the ground began to sway and buck, I realized what was going on; it was an earthquake. I’m usually inside for earthquakes; the only one I’ve been on the ground for was the 3/31 temblor a few years ago when the cranes were tossed off the as-yet-unfinished Taipei 101.

This one was much bigger. Alarmingly big. I abandoned all guesswork and suddenly became very agile, hopping off the swaying veranda and running to the center of the lawn, between another building and a water tower, both of which I hoped would remain standing. Other people came running out of the building, and I could hear the crashing of hundreds of stone carvings coming from the complex as the aborigine dancing music stopped.

Gradually, the shaking died down into a slow, almost gentle wave-like motion that could have just been my legs. The music started up again. I walked back around the building to see the show continuing as shopkeepers began sweeping up the shards of the stone carvings from the floors of their establishment. Chenbl appeared, having been on the toilet inside the old railway hospital during the quake. Needless to say, he didn’t enjoy the experience. A group of mainland Chinese tourists was still huddled in the middle of the lawn.

The Malaysians, however, were ecstatic. It was their first big quake, and even Marcel, the Frenchman, admitted it was his first as well. They seemed to think they could check that attraction off their list of Things to See in Taiwan. I’d assumed that it was just a local quake, as none of the locals seemed the least bit bothered about it, but when I checked Facebook I saw a dozen proclamations of panic from people all around the island. Apparently it was one of the largest in a while, almost 7 on the Richter Scale, but fairly deep down. The epicenter was just southeast of Hualian.

We rode slowly back downtown, as there were likely to be aftershocks, and walked around browsing tourist-product shops, in which I am not even remotely interested. I sat outside reading about the quake on my phone, everyone asking if everyone else was ok, what the scene was like in Hualian, etc. All around me, nothing seemed amiss. Back at the hotel, all the news stations were fixated on webcam footage of swaying chandeliers and choppy videos of people exiting shops.

We were planning to ride out to Taroko Gorge on Sunday. I was not looking forward to the prospect as I’d already seen it, and the weather was even worse, colder and wetter than the day before. But everyone else was going, so I pulled on a bright yellow plastic 7-Eleven raincoat and followed the line of scooters out of the city.

Then it began to rain. My pitiful helmet had no visor, and soon I was squinting into a barrage of stinging, freezing drops as gravel trucks barreled past, inches away. This was not fun. When we eventually stopped off at the Tzu-chi complex, I wandered off on my own, seeking to distract myself among the quiet fields and busy monks. It worked, more or less; the complex is a haven of industriousness, fields of food the monks grow and eat, quiet dormitories and rooms of old women making plastic flower arrangements. Out back, a monk was shaving his head. Chenbl, anticipating my reaction, told me it would be disrespectful to take a picture.

The combination of the sound of running water, the high cliffs covered in clouds behind the complex, and the occasional passing train put me in a somewhat better mood for the rest of the ride out to Taroko. When we got there, however, we were told that it was closed due to the possibility of landslides after the earthquake. I was glad to hear this news, as I wasn’t looking forward to navigating those narrow roads and dodging tour buses in this weather.

We poked around the information center and had some very welcome, steaming-hot lunch dishes before heading back to Hualian, again through the rain and next to long convoys of gravel trucks that we passed over and over again between traffic lights. The rain followed us into the city, to the hotel to get our stuff, and all the way to the train station. Tired of following the line of scooters, I blasted ahead once I knew where I was, as I wasn’t wearing my raincoat and didn’t relish the idea of a wet train ride. After turning in our mounts to the rental shop, I wandered around the old train cars they have on display in front of the station. The old cars had wooden beds inside, as the journey from Taipei to Taidong took the better part of a day.

Our next destination was Jiaoxi (I refuse to spell it “Jiaosi” as it is written on the tourist maps), a small city based around the hot springs in the area. We munched on oyster cakes as we walked to our hotel, located a couple of blocks from the train station, next to the empty concrete shell that was once a luxurious Holiday Inn. I always find such structures depressing, little blots of sadness amidst the bustle.

The rest of the town seemed to be thriving, however, I found as we shuffled past the other hot springs resorts. Alas, the group found another tourist products shop and spent the better part of an hour inside browsing the various varieties of cakes and teas while I sat outside watching people walking up and down the street. Later, we found what looked like a hot-stream river running through the center of town, lined with stands selling all kinds of foods. Public bathhouses dating from the Japanese occupation lined the river, wooden structures with high roofs, foot masseurs calling out from under the eaves.

I was in the mood for a good dinner in a nice, warm indoor setting, and wasn’t ecstatic to see the group choose one of the outdoor tent places. After the food came, however, I was surprised to find that it was delicious fare all around, and the red-and-blue tent kept the wind out well enough.

The foreigners decided to go back to one of the riverside hot springs, while Chenbl and I went to another place, along the railroad tracks, where you pay them to let fish nibble at the dead flesh of your feet in a small pool. The fish, which look like goldfish, are Turkish, apparently, or at least they’re so named in Chinese. Getting in only involves passing a NT$100 note to a bored desk clerk, and only a few other people were sitting on the sides of the pool with their pants legs hiked up to their knees, schools of the orange fish surrounding their feet. When I put my feet in, the fish went to form a sock-like covering as they went to work; I had to rub my hands together to distract myself, the feeling was so strange. Eventually, however, I got used to it and began to even enjoy the sensation. Occasionally a train would roar past on the tracks just beyond the pool as I sat and wondered what would happen if I jumped in the pool. My feet felt pretty good afterwards, but I’m not sure how healthy the whole thing is.

We went back to the hotel and soaked in the hot springs there before retiring for the night. Ironically, the showers took forever to warm up, and the hotel forgot to include amenities. Even the hairdryer had been ripped off. However, there’s nothing like hot springs for a good night’s sleep, I’ve found, and the springs of Jiaoxi don’t stink like those in Beitou. I should make another trip sometime.

The next morning, the hotel gave us breakfast coupons for McDonald’s, which was on the other side of town, a long bicycle trip away. I have no idea why they do this as it’s not at all convenient. Personally I’d rather pay for a nicer breakfast, but I suppose many people like what they see as “free” things. Afterwards, we caught the train back to Taipei. Chenbl was taking the foreigners to Taipei 101. Me, I had to get to work.

I like the east coast, and I really should get there more often, especially now that the Taroko Express has cut down on travel times. I’ve also heard that flights are going to start up between Hualian and Japan’s Ishigaki Island, just a short flight, in January. Having gotten a glimpse, albeit a brief and cold one restricted by group travel, I should go back by myself sometime and do a proper weekend excursion there. In better weather, of course.

posted by Poagao at 2:08 pm  


  1. I promise not to be a pain if I get to Taipei… Bloody Foreigners!!

    Comment by Hadi — January 28, 2010 @ 11:46 am

  2. I’d love to show you around, just let me know.

    Comment by Poagao — January 28, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

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