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!

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