Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Taipei weekend

I spent this past weekend (November 26 and 27th) in Taipei. It seems a bit strange to me that I have been in Taiwan for almost three months now and this was my first trip to the capitol, but since I have to spend the next two weekends there as well, I guess it's good that I've already seen most of the rest of the island already.

Originally I had a meeting scheduled with an expert on Taiwan-Japan relations at the Taiwan Think Tank in Taipei on Monday, but he had to reschedule because of a previous engagement. I did have the chance to meet with my professor from Missouri State University (Dr. Hickey), however, so it was still a fruitful trip. Since my next two trips to Taipei are more or less “business trips” (I'm attending a conference on Japan-Taiwan relations next weekend and have my meeting the week after) I wanted to get most of my sight-seeing and tourist side-trips out of the way this weekend, a goal that I think I accomplished.

I boarded the overnight bus from Kaohsiung to Taipei at about 3:00 a.m. Saturday morning after only about an hour and a half of sleep. I thought this would be a great way for me to save time. The bus ride is about five hours, so I thought I could just get five hours of sleep in transit and wake up in Taipei in the morning so I could have the whole day to tour the city. This turned out to be mere wishful thinking. The bus was freezing cold and the driver didn't turn off the TVs that played Taiwanese news all night. I don't know why, but even though it's not hot anymore, the intercity busses still all have the AC pumping on their overnight routes. Bizarre…

I arrived exhausted in Taipei at about 8:30 in the morning. I threw my suitcase into a coin locker and headed off for a greasy breakfast at McDonald's. I was set on seeing Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world, so I consulted my Lonely Planet guidebook to see what other sights were in that neighborhood. I decided to go to the “Discovery Center” at Taipei City Hall, across the street from the 101 building. They have some interesting displays about the city's history and have a free English audio tour recording you can borrow to lead you through the exhibits. I thought the displays on Taipei's early history were interesting, but the “city today” section was way too touristy.

I then crossed the street and headed for the elevator to the observation floors at Taipei 101. You pay about six dollars to ride the world's fastest elevator to the 89th floor observatory of the world's tallest building (a fact which they make sure is not lost on visitors) to get a bird's eye view of a smoggy urban view. I'm sure there are days when the smog isn't too bad, but it was very thick on Saturday. I also shelled out the extra few dollars to climb the two flights of stairs to the outdoor observation area on the 91st floor, which gives you basically the same view, but with a little fresher air than you might get at street level. Unfortunately, the smog was so bad that many of the sights the audio tour pointed out where shrouded in a gray haze.

For lunch, I stopped by Ruby Tuesday's for a salad bar and buffalo wings. How exotic! Yes, it's a cop-out, but I think I deserve to eat crappy American food every now and then! All I'm going to say about that overpriced meal is that they had bleu cheese dressing, so I was very pleased.

After lunch I walked to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. This memorial hall and park are easily seen from the top of Taipei 101, as they occupy one large city block. The hall itself is a large traditional Chinese building that enshrines a big statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party that eventually fled to Taiwan to establish the Republic of China (the official name of the government of Taiwan). There are some exhibition rooms in the back with interesting historical tidbits, but English translations are few and far between. One hallway that did have English translations housed an exhibit of photographs of the Sino-Japanese conflict throughout Sun Yat-sen's leadership. As I was looking at some of the exhibits, one of the employees asked me if I wanted to watch the changing of the guards ceremony (the last one of the day). I said yes and stood for what seemed like a very long and unnecessarily long, but very well-executed, ceremony. I took a lot of pictures, but only a few turned out well. If you're ever make it to this memorial, be sure to check out this hourly show.

The park outside seems to be very popular as a weekend getaway spot among the locals. There were groups of old men playing Chinese checkers, groups of young people practicing their dance moves, kids and old people flying kites, families playing ball, and at least one kung-fu class. It was really nice to see all these people having a good time together on a beautiful November day in Taipei (which feels like a June day in Missouri!).

After wandering the city just a wee bit longer and stopping by the Internet café, I went to my friend's house to get some sleep. Katannya, a Canadian English teacher, lives in a really nice apartment on the outskirts of the city with three or four other roommates. They are all foreign English teachers and they seem to have a pretty good set-up here. Thanks to all of them for putting me up this weekend!

I got a much-needed full night's sleep and went to meet Dr. Hickey for lunch on Sunday. We ate at a restaurant called “Skylark”, which at first I thought was a Japanese chain restaurant of the same name. Thankfully, it wasn't. The Taiwanese Skylark is a Taiwanese version of western food. The Japanese Skylark is a Japanese version of an American diner with Japanese and Western food, but the Taiwanese chain is much better. You order from a set menu that includes a salad, an appetizer, a main course, a dessert, and coffee or tea at the end. It was a very satisfying meal.

It was really good to see Dr. Hickey here in Taiwan. He has been instrumental in helping me pursue my study of East Asian politics while at Missouri State University. He is an expert in Taiwan-U.S. relations and is responsible for setting up the exchange program that I am currently participating in. He is on sabbatical this semester and has been in Taiwan for about three weeks researching a book he is writing on Taiwan's foreign policy. I got to hear his thoughts on many issues in Taiwanese politics and I particularly enjoyed his stories about his recent interview with Lee Teng-hui, the former president of Taiwan. We chatted for over an hour, then decided to head over to the former residence of Chiang Kai Shek, the former dictator of Taiwan.

Chiang's house is closed to the public, but his massive garden is open and is apparently a popular spot for a Sunday stroll. We chatted some more about politics, international relations, and the joys and travails of travel as we soaked in the warm weather and beautiful scenery.

We parted ways at about 3:00 and I decided to go see the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. It is larger and more impressive than the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, but the quirky smile Chiang bears seems very out-of-place. I guess if you're going to build a memorial to a dictator, you should at least make him a happy dictator!

The museum here is much more interesting and has many more English translations than at the other memorial. Two of the generalissimo's bullet-proof Cadillacs are on display, as are many of his personal items, medals, awards, clothes, calligraphy, and furniture. Lighted signs explain in Chinese and English various episode's in his life. All of these are written with a (brace yourself!) slight pro-Chiang slant. I don't know if any of you are aware of this, but sometimes people who build memorials to dictators aren't exactly the most unbiased people in the world. Apparently, even though Taiwan didn't become a democratic country until the early to mid 1990s, Chiang was responsible for Taiwan's democratization (he died in 1975). Yes, those Chinese ghosts are very powerful.

After another dinner of American food, I went to the infamous Snake Alley. This is actually just one street of a massive night market in Taipei. The economy of this area was once based on the world's oldest profession, but the police have apparently pushed prostitution out of the area so they could turn it into a tourist and family friendly night market. Odd remnants of the old raunchy atmosphere remain in the form of booths and stores that specialize in adult toys, which seem oddly out of place in the midst of noodle stands, tea shops, and knock-off brand name clothing merchants.

The big draw in Snake Alley is, of course, the snakes. I only saw about three or four shops that still kept live snakes, which they will kill, cut, clean, and cook right there for you if you are so inclined. Snake handlers wear microphone headsets and yell out the crowd as any good side-show worker would to entice the curious to join the dark side. You aren't allowed to take pictures, but I managed to snap a few before they yelled at me.

I have a pet snake at home and I am probably a little biased, but the shows were a little frustrating to watch. I have no objection to people eating whatever animal they want, as long as it isn't endangered and it isn't going to start another SARS scare. It was the “entertainment” part of the show that was really disheartening. One guy tried to feed a mouse to some small non-poisonous snakes in front of a huge crowd, but they didn't take any interest in the food. Another guy kept smacking his cobras on the head after they tried to bite him. If I had that guy yelling in my face and waking me up all day long, I think I would try to bite him, too.

Well, this was a long post and I don't think I had much of a chance to reflect on these experiences, but I'm going to end it here. It's been a long time since I last posted, so I really wanted to get this up while it's still fresh in my mind. I'll try to post again before I get through a whole weekend next time!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Seven-hour layover...

My Italian vacation is at an end and it's time for me to get back to the grind of life as an international student. It's a LONG trip from my hotel in Milan to my dorm room in Kaohsiung - probably about 36 hours. I've already finished one taxi ride, one subway trip (carrying my luggage and transfering once), one bus ride, and one plane ride. I'm almost done with my seven hour layover in Amsterdam, but I still have a 10 and a half hour flight (Amsterdam to Bangkok), a one-hour layover, a 3 and a half hour flight (Bangkok to Taipei), a five-hour bus ride (Taipei to Kaohsiung), and a twenty minute cab ride to go. Wee!!!

My mom really made my day about a week and a half ago when she told me that I can only make these long trips while I'm "still young" - but after a little more than a week of touring northern Italy, I don't feel all that young anymore.

Italy was amazing and Maiko and I took a ton of pictures! I will try to post some of the good ones on flickr this week, but (as I mentioned before) I probably won't write about my travels until sometime between Christmas and New Years. I only have one month left in Taiwan and it's STUDY TIME!!! I have an interview to do in Taipei on Monday with a former DPP (Democratic People's Party - the current ruling party in Taiwan) official who works at a foreign policy think tank and is an expert in Japan-Taiwan relations, so I will probably use that as an excuse to spend a few days in Taipei this weekend. Other than that, I don't plan on making too many more trips around the "renegade province" because I have too much work to do. We have a nice monkey-infested mountain on campus that I have yet to climb, so the mountain and the beach will be my avenues of escape when I need a study break.

Nothing else really to report right now. I have some Chinese homework to do on the plane, but I think we're going to have some mildly entertaining movies to watch, so I might not get much done until I get on the intercity bus in Taiwan.

Sorry for rambling so much, but I'm a little sleep-deprived and tired from hanging out in the airport for so long. I will try to post something insightful this week, but no promises!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Viva Italia!!!

I don't think I'm not going to get into any details yet, but just to let you know, I am in Italy safe and having a great time! I have only been here four days but already have a ton of pictures, so I will try to load everything and update when I get back to Taiwan...

Until then, ciao!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Italy, here I come!!!

Well, I didn't post anything about the last day of our East Coast trip, but we basically just had a long drive back along another twisting road of doom, blah, blah, blah...

The big news is: I'M GOING TO ITALY!!!

Yep, someone is coming to my dorm room in about 30 minutes to take me to the Kaohsiung Airport. Then I fly to Taipei, take a bus from one airport to another in Taipei, fly from Taipei to Bangkok, then from Bangkok to Amsterdam, then Amsterdam to Rome. Then, I have to take a train from the Rome airport to the main train station, change trains, and take another train to the main train station in Florence, where I will meet Maiko and we will go to our hotel. All told, it should take just over 36 hours to get from here to there, but it's my first time to Europe, so I think the excitement will make the traveling part a little easier. Maybe... It's the coming back part that will be really hard...

Well, what can I say?!? WOO-HOO just doesn't seem to capture it. I'm really excited to be going to Italy, seeing famous sites, eating delicious Italian food, and of course, seeing my wonderful girlfriend whom I haven't seen in more than two months! I'll try to post and put up some pictures on flickr from Italy, but I doubt I'll have time to write too much. Keep watching anyway, though. Ciao!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

East Coast Road Trip - Day Three (The Scenic Route, Take Two)

My theory that every good day starts off with a greasy breakfast was further proved on Sunday. We felt like taking it a little slower after having such a long day on Saturday, so we slept until almost 9:00 and went to McDonald's for breakfast. Unfortunately, we arrived as they were changing from the breakfast menu to the burger menu, so some of our group couldn't get breakfast. Being the first one in (I practically sprinted in the door), though, I was safe.

After breakfast we noticed a community group giving massages across the street. They had many massage chairs set up under a tent and urged us to come over. This group turned out to be a local community group of blind people who were giving out free massages to all that came by. I wound up getting two massages that felt good at first, but I think our visually impaired friends didn't know their own strength. They REALLY dug in! Ouch! It was painful at the time, but I think it did help loosen me up because my stiff neck felt better afterwards.

After our greasy breakfast, free massages, and a few cups of coffee, we hit the road. It was a little chilly and raining lightly, but we weren't planning on doing any long hikes today, so we were fine with the weather. We decided to go down the East Coast highway and stop at a few sights listed in the guidebooks to see if any of them were any good. Our first stop was a scenic overlook where we managed to get this group photo.

We stopped at some little fishing town where you are supposed to be able to take whale-watching tours. Adi really had his heart set on waking up the next morning to see some whales, but they informed us the season was over. Too bad!

Our next stop was the Tropic of Cancer monument. I loaded a picture of this on flickr, but it's hardly worth mentioning. Needless to say, we were extremely disappointed when we crossed to the tropics and the weather didn't warm up.

Next, we stopped at the Basian caves. There are eight or nine of these "caves", which are very shallow. Some of them could probably just be called "overhangs", but the scenery from the top of the walkway to the higher caves was quite impressive. There are temples in each of the caves, but the caves themselves are not that big, so it was a bit of a let-down.

We stopped for a bite to eat in the town of Chenggong. We then backtracked a mile or two to visit the Sansiantai Bridge. This wave-shaped bridge was built in 1987, but has already become a popular tourist attraction. The small island it connects with the mainland hosts three large rock formations that are said to resemble three Taoist immortals who visited the are long ago (although I didn't see any resemblance).

I had seen some beautiful pictures of the bridge and the island in sunlight, but it was much more challenging to take photos in near hurricane conditions. Although it wasn't raining hard, the wind was blowing so strongly that the raindrops pelted you in the face like little bb's. It was especially bad on the bridge, which was a shame because the views of waves crashing into rocks and the different colors of the ocean at different depths were really dramatic. I managed to snap a few pictures that weren't blurry and kept my camera sheltered enough from the weather that it didn't malfunction, which I thought was a stroke of luck.

It was getting dark as we left the bridge area. Once again, I had the brilliant idea of taking “the scenic route”, which AGAIN turned out to be less than a highway, as the map indicated. ONCE AGAIN, we found ourselves on a “winding narrow path of doom”. Yes, I take full responsibility for the poor navigation, but hey, if you looked at a road map of Taiwan, I think you would agree that highway 23 looked like a shortcut. Anyway, Adi was brave enough to take us on an even more winding “road” at night and managed to keep us all in one piece. I put “road” in quotation marks because at least half of 23 is still under construction.

When we made it to the inland highway (a proper highway, by the way) the going was much smoother. We called the lady at a travel agency and asked her to contact our innkeeper in Ruishuei to come meet us at the train station and guide us to our lodgings. The Ruishuei Hot Springs hotel was a very pleasant spot. This inn was built by the Japanese about one hundred years ago. The rooms are Japanese style, with tatami mats and futons you lay on the floor. There are hot and cold spring water pools near the front desk for free use by the guests. Not too shabby at about $10 U.S. a night per person!

We went to town for dinner and soaked in the hot water for a while before dinner. The Europeans seemed pretty happy spending about half their time in the cold water, but I could only enter for about 10 or 20 seconds at a time before I had to jump in the warm water. I think it felt even better because it was a little chilly and drizzling outside as we sat and soaked.

We all slept well and the girls had a hard time waking us up in the morning. They probably slept more soundly than we did, though, because there were only the two of them in one room, while us guys were five in the other room. There was also some REALLY crazy animal fight right outside our window at 4 or 5 in the morning, but we were all too tired to go see what was going on. Whatever it was, it was all cleaned up by morning, and the big golden lab who sits chained out front wasn't hurt.

Well, I have procrastinated on my schoolwork today long enough. It's 11:00 at night and I need to try to finish one of my presentations tonight. I only have one more day of our road trip to post on, but I'll wait until at least tomorrow to write it. It wasn't too eventful, so it shouldn't take too long.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

East Coast Road Trip - Day Two (Back to Nature)

On Saturday, we were up early and on the road by about 9:00. Although I had a serious craving for McDonald's breakfast, we decided to put that off a day and save time by eating at the corner outdoor diner near our hotel. The lively little lady (nice alliteration, huh?) who worked there served us a Taiwanese breakfast, which for me consisted of sweet sausages with a hint of soy sauce and some crepe/egg wrap, which wasn't bad. I am a firm believer that all good days start off with a greasy breakfast and lots of coffee, and this day turned out to be no exception. The food wasn't great, but the lady who worked there was very entertaining. She spoke a few words of English that she mixed with Chinese into her own pidgin. The cook's cheerful disposition and the perfect weather really put me in a good mood. It was a great start!

We decided to stop by the visitor center at the entrance to Taroko National Park. This is the beginning of the gorge if you are entering from the East, so you can still see the Pacific Ocean, but you are surrounded on all sides by steep mountains. There is an outdoor theater set up on the lawn adjacent to the visitor center. We all felt for a moment that we had just entered the Alps because they were having a concert there that morning. They had an orchestra and an opera singer playing classical music. I am no aficionado, but this really helped set the mood. I wish we could have stayed for a while, but with no daylight savings time in Taiwan, we needed to get on the trails ASAP.

I think we were all impressed from the beginning. It was an eerie feeling to know that we had just been on this road the night before, but had no idea what was around us. Some of us began snapping pictures from the car window. We pulled over a couple of times on our way to the first trail to snap more pictures. I think between the seven of us we must have taken nearly 1,000 pictures that day.

The first trail – the Tunnel of Nine Turns Trail – was impressive. This trail used to be part of the highway. The government carved a tunnel and moved the highway so tourists can come enjoy the scenery. It was carved along the side of the bluff overlooking the Liwu River and gorgeous marble cliffs. It's a short trail (about 1.9 km or 1.2 miles), so it didn't take us too long to finish and head for the next spot.

We stopped by the Hsiangte Temple in Tiansiang next. There is a hotel and some small tourist shops and restaurants here, so we thought it would be an ideal place for a break. Adi bought a sausage on a stick from the vendor next to the hotel, but decided he didn't like it about halfway through so he gave it to a stray dog that was hanging out next to the stand (hmm… how convenient!). This dog didn't look nearly as malnourished or neglected as the one at the 7-11 the night before. This one also seemed to have a more sociable attitude. After receiving payment, the dog decided to be our guide to the temple, following us over two bridges and up numerous stairs. She even waited for Steve, Ronny, and me as we climbed to the top of the pagoda!

The Hsiangte Temple holds the world record for having the highest statue of the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, whatever that means. The were proud enough of the fact to display it prominently on a sign, so we thought it might mean something to someone. Anyway, after climbing to the top of the pagoda, Ronny, Steve, and I joined the others on the main grounds of the temple. The temple and Buddha statue were nice, but the surroundings were what really made this a memorable spot. We took lots of pictures and had a short rest before heading back down the way we came.

On the way down, a female monk shouted out to us and waved us over to her. Although we couldn't understand what she was saying, we figured out from her gestures that she wanted us to grab some bags of dry cement and haul them downhill to a spot where they were doing some kind of construction. A strange request, we thought, but how can you pass up a chance for some good karma? We each grabbed two bags and proceeded to march down the hill singing workers’ chants. I sang a poor rendition of “Sixteen Tons” followed by our whole group singing “Day Oh”. I think Stephanie got some video of this, which I am curious to see.

We then drove to our next trail – the Baiyang Waterfalls Trail. This trail has also been well-developed and is easily conquered, but unfortunately the last 400 meters or so is still closed from last month's typhoon. This trail offers more spectacular scenery and, at the end of the section that is still open, a good view of several tall waterfalls. Once again, many pictures were taken.

We were all pretty famished by this point, so we stopped again in Tiansiang for a bite to eat. The food here is very bland, overpriced Chinese food – but at least overpriced Chinese food translates to just over $2 U.S. for a meal. We then piled into the car again for our final hike – the Lyushui-Heliu Trail. This trail is very narrow in places and is pretty popular, so it can be a bit aggravating to have to pass people coming the other way when you barely have enough room to get by yourself. Fortunately, there are guard rails in the narrow spots and it isn't too long. Of course there was more great scenery from this trail and a small suspension bridge that some of our group really seemed to enjoy jumping up and down on. Ahh… The maturity of college students studying abroad…

The trail ends on the Cross Island Highway. Steve, Ronny, and I walked along the highway downhill while Stephanie, Marjorie, Neils, and Adi went up to get the car. We met up at the Yuehwang Pavilion a little ways down the road. This pavilion sits near the entrance to a very long suspension bridge that spans a deep canyon over the river. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones crossing this one, though there were no poison-tip arrows flying towards me. Another trail starts on the other side of this bridge, which we decided to try at least part of the way. This trail was very different from any we had been on so far. It was steep, narrow, very rugged, and didn’t look like it had much traffic on it. After a few minutes most of our group decided to go back to the car, but Neils, Ronny, and I decided to push on a little farther. It was very narrow and steep – this is not a place you would want to slip. I thought about giving in, but a group of older people had passed us on their way down, so I knew it couldn't be completely impossible. We probably got about two-thirds up the mountain before we decided to stop. I think all of would have loved to go farther, but it was getting close to sunset and this is definitely not a trail you should try at night. I had been hiking all day, but this was the first time I had broken into a sweat, so it was kind of refreshing.

Marjorie took the wheel on the way back with Stephanie sitting in the front passenger seat. All of us guys in the back dozed off for a few minutes, something the girls seemed to find really amusing. Stephanie took pictures of each one of us sleeping. Yes, they were kind of funny, but I don't know how I feel about having a picture of me napping in a sweat-stained shirt. Slightly embarrassed, I guess…

We showered and relaxed at the hotel for an hour or two before heading off to Pizza Hut for dinner. I know this doesn't sound very interesting, but trust me – after as much Chinese food as we've had, some greasy pizza really hits the spot!

We went to a pub after dinner. We stopped in one that was playing the blues on CD quite loud, but nobody (except me) seemed to like the music, so we went across the street to a place with a live band. There were a decent number of young Taiwanese there, so we figured it would be an interesting place to hang out. We met some travelers from Spain, but they left very early. We were sitting behind the stage, so all of our ears were ringing after about 20 minutes, but we stayed for a while anyway.

About the time we decided we should go back to the hotel, some Taiwanese who were celebrating one of their friend's birthday came over to our table and drag us (literally!) out on the floor to dance with them. We played along for a while, but the covered music the band was playing was pretty lame (I mean, who plays a cover of Ricky Martin's “Living La Vida Loca” at a pub???), so we danced for a while, then returned to our seats.

The band seemed amused by the participation of the foreigners, so they joined the crowd in insisting we participate. This started to get annoying until everyone got in a circle and one of the Taiwanese guys told me we had to join in the next dance because it was “special”.

I only understood the word “friend” from the lead singer's introduction, but the music definitely caught my attention. It didn't sound too much like pop and it reminded me of Hawaiian music. Everyone lined up in a circle and held hands with the person two people away from them and started to dance in a circle. We had a hard time following, so we just watched the three or four guys who really looked like they knew what they were doing. As we were doing this, it hit us – we were right in the middle of a traditional Taiwanese aboriginal dance!

Taiwan has many aboriginal Polynesian tribes, but today they are few in number. Most of them live on the East Coast. We all really wanted to visit an aboriginal village to learn a little about them, but all we could find on the map and in our guidebooks seemed like extremely cheesy craft shows put on for tourists. We started to smile big because how better can you experience a culture than to be thrown directly into it on the spot? It was quite an experience. I don't remember how to do it and don't know much about what this dance is supposed to symbolize, but it was really fun. The lead singer later told me it was a dance of the Ami tribe and he said something about the ocean, but that's about all the information I could gather.

Well, I think this sets the record for my longest post ever. Thanks to all of you who made it this far (if anybody did). It was a long eventful day and I wanted to recall it in as much detail as possible while it's still reasonably fresh in my memory. I still have another day and a half of traveling to recount, but I might take a day or two off before I write those posts. I have been in the computer lab working on this for almost two hours now and I have a quiz in Chinese tomorrow that I need to study for. I hoped you enjoyed reading this and looking at the pictures more than I enjoyed sitting here for so long!

Until next time, take care!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

East Coast Road Trip - Day One (The Scenic Route)

I had a wonderful long weekend, but unfortunately my busy study schedule over the next week and a half won’t allow me to sit down and write about it all in one shot. I will try to recall the events of the past four or five days in as much detail as I can, but it might be another four or five days before I can fill you in on all of it.

We went to the East Coast of Taiwan this weekend. This is the most rural area of Taiwan. It is full of beautiful mountains, valleys, rivers, and rugged coastline that are definite must-sees for any visitor to the “renegade province”.

On Friday, the car rental agency we used for our trip to Kenting came to the university to pick us up. Instead of taking us back to their office on the other side of Kaohsiung, they brought the forms with them and let us take the car straight from school. This saved us at least an hour, so I felt it would be better for us to take the central “Cross Island Highway” that the Lonely Planet guidebook for Taiwan has listed as an extremely scenic route.

The “scenic route” turned out to be quite interesting, but it's not very scenic at night. Unfortunately for my reputation as a travel planner, it turned out to be a much longer drive than the map indicated. Taiwan is a relatively small place, and the distance between Kaohsiung and our destination city of Hualien seemed to be about the same as the distance between Kaohsiung and Taipei. The Kaohsiung to Taipei trip only takes about five hours by bus, so it seemed logical (to me anyway) that it would take only a little longer to go via this highway. It took us approximately 12 hours in the car to get from school to our hotel… As much as I like road trips, this was a bit too much.

I thought we could make it to Sun Moon Lake in time to enjoy some of the sights before getting to the Cross Island "Highway". It started to get dark about the time we arrived, however, so we just passed by the lake and headed for the highway. We drove for probably an hour straight uphill when we saw some locals stopped on the road. We decided to take a break and Ronny, our German friend with the best Chinese ability among us, asked them how much farther Hualien was from where we were. Their answer – “If you want to go to Hualien from here, you have to walk!”

This was not the most encouraging news. These locals turned out to be very friendly and offered to help us get turned in the right direction. During our descent they stopped and one of the guys asked if he could ride with us part of the way so he could explain how to get there. From what little Chinese I can understand, however, I think his real motivation was curiosity. He asked Ronny a lot of questions about where we were from, what we were doing in Taiwan, and whether we liked it or not. He advised us to get gas before getting on the “highway”. We told him we still had just filled up two hours earlier and were still fine, but we took his advice anyway and got ready for what turned out to be a VERY long journey.

You may be asking yourself why I keep putting the word “highway” in quotation marks. Perhaps I am a little biased in my opinion as to what a highway ought to be, but I don't think this stretch of road deserves the title. “Winding narrow path of doom” might be a better name. Two-way traffic is allowed on this road, but in most places you have to pull over (if there is a place to do so) or pull to the edge of the road to let the other car squeeze by. There was not much traffic at all, but the traffic we did run into consisted almost entirely large trucks hauling construction equipment to stretches of road that were being worked on. We had to stop and get out of the way of some of the vehicles as their crews worked at night a few times as we made our way to Hualien. There is no lighting on the road, so you have to go slow because the turns are sharp and the drop off VERY steep. Many of the tunnels look like they had just been blasted recently, so it looked like you were driving through a natural cave. I suppose this was appropriate, considering it was Halloween weekend…

We learned later that some of the stretches of road we had been on were over 3,000 meters above sea level. That's almost two miles! We passed very few buildings and saw no towns for more than an hour! All of us were starving, but there really were no gas stations, restaurants, or convenience stores on the way. It seemed like we were on a very scenic road, but with no light, it was impossible to tell. The best we got was one scenic outlook on the top of one of the mountains where we stopped before we were too far from civilization. It could see the faint glow of light from a small town in the valley below. It was especially faint because we were higher than the thin clouds that blew in over the town! It was amazing to see so many stars, especially after living in Kaohsiung, where the humidity and pollution block out most sunsets, even on otherwise clear days. We saw a few shooting stars and breathed our first breaths of really cold air since coming to Taiwan. It was about 7 or 8 degrees outside (in the mid 40s for those using Fahrenheit) and we were wearing our normal attire for Taiwan – shorts or jeans, sneakers or flip-flops, and t-shirts! Brrr!!!

We finally made it to Hualien sometime after midnight. Famished, we stopped at the 7-11 to grab something to eat. We sat outside and gorged ourselves on reheated prepackaged Chinese food and enjoyed the warmer air of the lower elevation and the relief from being out of the car. A mangy stray dog watched us eat with pathetic eyes, so I couldn't help but toss her some of my friend rice. Adi seemed really touch by the poor condition of the mutt, so he went in and bought it a can of dog food. Hopefully it found more empathetic foreigners to beg from after we left.

Our hotel was pretty roomy and we were ready to sleep by the time we got there. All of us were exhausted and we had a big day of hiking planed for Saturday. When I get time tomorrow or the next day, I will tell you of our adventures in the Taroko Gorge – probably the most beautiful natural spot in Taiwan. If you can't wait, go ahead and check out the many, many pictures I have already loaded on my photo gallery. Until then!