Because company was busy, I spent my first night in Taiwan alone, floating on the sonic groove of Mura Masa, orbiting among the shops and stalls of the Tonghua Street Night Market.
In the Yonghe district, in this massive antique house turned backpacker hostel where I stayed on arrival were six busy students studying Mandarin on scholarships at the local university. All heads down, MacBooks to the grindstone. I met a woman from Nazareth with no plans to go back. A guy from Wisconsin lamenting the local language has not one thing in common with English. Similarly puzzled EU nationals treading water in an ocean of linguistic confusion. A Chinese guy who says hi and doesn’t speak for three days. Germans who quit their jobs. A kindred symbolism shows itself, in the “Do Nothing Club” shirts sported by a fifth of the city’s youth and the phrase “I quit my job”. I hear it so many times this week I now understand any and all global unemployment crises. The phrase was really epitomized by one guy who quit, fled to southeast Asia for four months, returned to work in Canada a single shift, only to have a second (this time bigger) revelation, leave his career field entirely, and now he’s slumped across the common room of a hostel in Taipei, buzzing from the Kaoliang vodka.
“I wasn’t prepped for this”, Gadira mentions. “It’s been 38° for two weeks now. Since I moved here, I’ve been sweating in places I didn’t know I could sweat.” This girl grew up in the desert. As she says this I watch the beads of sweat swell on her forehead. I can feel the stick of the humidity seeping inside, remembering making my way through cold sunlight to Seoul’s airport and I really thought, three weeks ago I’d felt summer’s last microwave blast of heat.
Here we are.
Steamy days and sticky nights thread themselves together through placid rides on the MRT, all the while learning about the country from an improbable cast of characters. From summiting Elephant Mountain to watching the ripples on the Yin Yang sea, I’m blown away by every crevice of every neighborhood, everything on the surface and everything hidden. Taipei is home to some of the same anarchic charm as Saigon or Hanoi, but business is far more modern; no one is trying to pick your pockets and no one has to sell you some shit you don’t need in order to feed their family.
The food is from another universe. We eat wanton soup before turning up and wanton soup before turning in. The aroma of dumplings wafts out of open faced shops at all odd hours of the night. I’ve seen the light, eating these dumplings and actually taste the oracle of why freezerburnt Emart mandu has become a staple of my diet in Korea. Palmer shows me a restaurant featured on No Reservations but to be honest every sit down dumpling shop here is this good.
My Yonghe preface to Taipei involves slow walks to the Rainbow Bridge, paperbacks and powerful shots of espresso. Up in the clouds in a gondola, towards the peak of Maokong, I make conversation with a woman from Shanghai.
Me: “So……… what brings you to Taiwan?”
HK: “… Airplane.”
I drink a lot of beer and eat shit cruising through the oak-infested living room on the hostel hoverboard. Besides one British guy who lost his passport and who, unable to board a plane – marooned by his embassy’s lack of giving a shit he existed – proceeded to party solo for three months strait, I’m the last ever backpacker to stay in the library-vibes of Two Half Floors.
My last day in Zhongzheng I watch moody skies pass over the distant Wanhua district. It’s like only a few skyscrapers took a shower with the whole moon framed at the end of the vista.
I’m up at six am leaving. The air of Dingxi station is currently marred by lemon bleach and the sanitized fragrance of citrus chlorine transports me to another place in time.
I’m not sure where.
As I’d been warned, the Taroko Express was booked strait through until 2018, so I hop on a bus to Luodong and shoot down the coast on an ancient railway to Hualien, the Arcadia of the eastern edge. This morning was one of those hangovers where I tumbled out of bed more dead than alive, but it became a sexy day nonetheless. Out the window of the bus, rapidly transforming topography flashes by, leaving passing travelers mesmerized by the drawn out planetary processes that have taken place. Endless rolling hills with insane vegetation remain in view as we go, like something out of a Jurrassic Park movie. It looks CGI’d. At a certain point the surface of a mountain never shows itself – just a million shapes and shades of green that shoot up into the sky and drop down to subterranean depths in the span of a heartbeat. This is what I imagined New Zealand might look like. Unfortunately film photography doesn’t lend itself to high speed trains.
At a certain point we can no longer see the ground on a railway floating through trees. Only elevated bridges and highways ribbon the endless tufts of green. These are some singularly cinematic views. We come down, gliding past plains carpeted in tea plantations and houses on stilts surrounded by rectangular river terraces. Birds fly over the floodplains. Long, winding travels, short bursts of joy.
And then I’m there.
“Tonight. Won person, won vejetbr. You bring!!” – is what’s on the menu in the sunburnt little city of Hualien, according the owner. I assume this means potluck. Hostel potlucks are some of the most interesting dinners in the world. When people from five to ten countries you know nothing about cook a signature meal from their homeland, how could it be anything other than fire?
The next three days we spend burning through Taroko Gorge on motorbikes, weaving in and out of busfulls of Chinese tourists. On the way out of town, you can feel the soft blow of a gasoline breeze. Valley peaks begin to shield the sun. Cloud interludes in the distance. Where water meets the coast, sinuous boardwalks meander over hills and little chasms in the earth where rivers flow into the mouth of the ocean and as we ride, paragliders drift peacefully over the mountain face.
If it can be said Tamsui’s old street takes us back a few hundred years to the Portuguese Formosan rule, Taroko leaves us awash back somewhere in the immensity of time. Suspension bridges carved over smiling creases in the earth give the impression of something like a terraformed landscape. Waterfalls spit foam obliquely through mountains, dribbling down into sweeping waterways. You can feel the millions of years this was made, disintegrated and infinitely recycled. As John Mcphee writes, the history of earth is written in rock.
Towards the center of the country stand houses from a century airplanes and cars didn’t exist. Exiting Taroko down the coast towards Taitung, air is salted heavily by the tides. In carefree evenings everything is calm and covered in mountain dew (not the drink). Great bays wedge out from the east coast and in the sprawling peace and seclusion, beach dogs lounge under the jagged shade of palm trees.