Taiwan by Train

Leaving Taipei:  Tropical trees mingle with dense brush growing through giant, ancient boulders; gentle curving rivers meander below the green landscape in a quiet rhythm of eternity. This is Formosa. This is a busy land of high-speed rail, modern technology and independence. This is Chiang Kai Shek’s land. This is a place made for train travel. Going fast or slow, you will enjoy the old temples peeking out from ledges and the endless, endless green.

White herons slowly cut over the rice fields, rain clouds hang over the left side of the train, and a bright afternoon sun shines on the right. The ocean appears like the boundless mystery it is as we emerge from the dark, quiet tunnel with small lapping waves crashing and splashing into the jagged rocks of the cliff-lined coast. Heavy, puffy clouds sag above the horizon. The dragon-laced buildings protect its inhabitants from the dangers of the angry, somewhat vengeful sea. The rain comes quickly. It spreads in an angular velocity against the vacant streets and tall pines. The rain stops soon after starting, bringing the fresh smell through our cabin when the doors open at the next stop.

Leaving Hualien:  The construction workers wave hello to us asking if we’re going to Taipei, they speak wonderful conversational English. My friend Tim and I eat a nice toast sandwich, and laugh about the night before and the know-it-all lifetime traveler we met. It’s funny how some people who travel become more humble, more accessible, understanding their tiny role in this expansive world; and others become the self-proclaimed smartest ones in the room (as well as the most annoying).

My train leaves in 12 minutes, I’m 3 minutes’ walk away from the train station, a slight anxiety sets in. I find my seat as the train idles, tension passes, and the strange smells of Taiwanese train food simmer though the half-filled car. A woman who resembles an Asian version of Mac’s mom (from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) sits near me coughing a hacking, phlegmy cough. I feel both pity and disgust for her.

New rice fields open upon the plain and the ever-present mountains stand guard above them like watchful first time parents loitering over a crib. The clouds are still thick and grey, backlit by what appears to be a very powerful presence of sun. Many silty, cloudy rivers, only slightly larger than creeks, surge under the bridges, flush with the recent rainfall. The buildings, some dilapidated, some smooth stucco, some beautifully tiled, some vinyl covered, but all having odd, mismatched color patterns and all weather beaten pass along my line of vision.

We seem to be past the land of 7-11’s and fast food. This is local’s only territory. The thin mountain waterfalls still scatter the mountains. Their motion is soothing even from a distance. An immense hill, with a staggering amount of small intimate temples, all colored pink and white, rises out of nowhere with only rice paddies nearby, begging the question of who is frequenting these numerous, colorful shrines?

Leaving Fang Liao:  I rode a motorbike in a cool drizzle with a nice man who took me to the bus stop, found a ticket south, and met Alex, my new Mandarin-speaking travel buddy. We talked all the way to Kenting. He is a walking, talking motivational poster. He is interested in life, interesting to hear and a good listener. He speaks of entrepreneurism without the normal haughty air of business majors who have only ever worked as interns. We ate that night in a little Thai place and had drinks playing the Chinese version of yahtzee, flirting with two Taiwanese bartenders.

The next day we were riding through the whole southern tip of Taiwan. We walked on hard, old corals; stood atop tall cliffs of pure flowing, breathing green; watched water buffalo resting beneath small trees 100 meters straight below; and tramped through the pervasive deer poo all along the beaten path. We rode along the coast, met a Chinese family living in The Netherlands and took family photos together. We walked across a rickety bridge, shaking it and scaring the cute girls in front of us. We ate a great lunch of fried rice and pork. We eventually made it to the destination hot springs, backs aching terribly.

The mineral water springs gave a mild respite from the surprisingly hard motorbike ride. After all, a mangy dog in an alley had attacked us during a wrong turn and we rode behind a black soot coughing pick-up truck for way too long. The peaceful waters were interrupted by rain sprinkles, so we left. The ride back was painful, but we made it home, backs aching again, showered, got a massage, ate dinner of Kung Pao chicken, and then hung with four young girls: Cindy, Kelly, Luffy, Sally.

We laughed a long time and had fun at the show of ladyboys stripping and generally embarrassing the young men in the audience. We sat outside 7-11 singing to iPods, laughing, eavesdropping on the annoying foreigners playing “never have I ever” at the table beside us. Do you ever wonder when you are that group of goofballs? They are those people who are having such a good time and have no idea how ridiculous they sound discussing personal, political or sexual opinions at maximum volume.

Then, a mere two seconds after standing up to leave, our umbrella flew into the air under a large gust of typhoon winds, flipped and knocked over the chairs and lamps where we had just been sitting. Glass shattered and everything was precarious. The typhoon had arrived, winds blowing torn, tattered, frantically flapping flags, trash circling the air, people’s hats blowing off into the sky like cartoons. We said goodbye and pushed against the wind in acute angles heading home. The following morning, the previously tranquil blue water had an air of danger in it as the waves whipped toward land.

Leaving Kaohsiung:  An unplanned stop due to the typhoon creates the opportunity to meet two new awesome people. After arriving, we set out on a hike to see monkeys on the hill above the hostel immediately after a quick dinner. The walk was filled with jokes and large slimy snails and at dusk, we caught the tiny monkeys in the few minutes before they headed to the canopy for bedtime. Their small eyes, but loving attitudes and such curiosity toward us was amazingly cute. It seemed like they all were carrying a baby.

We all went out that night and ate stinky tofu, which is a very boring delicacy, overrated, and lives up to its name. The other food was delicious and later we sat at 7-11 drinking with new people. Did you ever notice that the delicacies of foreign lands are usually strange and confusing? Snails in France; chewy, hard ham in Spain; random bugs in Thailand; even in the food Eden of Korea, they think boiled silkworm larvae is a good thing to eat, despite the obviousness to anyone capable of smell that it reeks of stale baby doo-doo.

I sat with another new friend late into the night discussing our world-view and spirituality in a random and sometimes hurtful world. We also talked about relationships, of course. She eventually decided to give me a healing through the touchless Reiki, a somewhat vague idea of therapy through your own cosmic energy and chi. I was surprised how quickly she found all my trouble areas without touching me at all. “Let go,” she told me. And I found myself listening and trying very hard to release. It was another in a long path of recovery moments in this past year.

The sun was up, birds were chirping and I put my bandanna over my eyes and went to bed, delighted to be in the present, if only for the present.

Some Observances or Things You Notice When in a Strange Land:  The world is a miraculous place. I was watching a man feed a squirrel in a tree with his bare hands beside a glorious, fully decorated Buddhist temple; the smells of the imminent night wafting over the timeworn walls when a giant jet-liner flew overhead roaring its modern call of human invention.

At the outdoor baths in Taipei, right smack in the middle of the city, there are fragrant flowers and palm fronds fluttering above me. The rotted buildings are visible but seem less obtrusive in this placid environment of nearly naked bathers and waterfalls. The sun is out for the first time in days and it feels amazing.

Old Asian men can resemble Gollum sometimes, with the baldheaded, thin, hunched body and long, conspicuous chin hairs.

Asia is definitely the land of high heels and nice legs.

Scooters are so ubiquitous here as to become a concern when you don’t hear them whizzing past you. Where are you? Somewhere no scooter would go?

I got a foot massage my last night that was 30 minutes of terrible, incessant pain. It was beyond hyperbole, it was serious pain, and he hurt me every minute of it. Everyone around me was laughing, but I thought either they’re not getting it as hard, or they have no stress residing in their foot chasms. I thought to ask him to go lighter, but kept thinking this was how they massage and it must be good for you. Who digs finger knuckles into the sensitive areas of your feet? I like rubbing and relaxing foot massages, am I wrong?

Thinking about a massage at the airport before I fly home, and I stumbled into a blind and cross-eyed sanctum. One large man lay snoring on one of the many empty massage tables; another walking slowly, reaching forward in the lurching manner of the newly blind coming right at me, and the last man was exceedingly cross-eyed where one looked up and the other down. I asked how much, just to be polite, then did the disapproving sound of “too expensive,” shaking my head and made my way out of there. My back will have to wait.

There is an inordinate amount of chopping going on in Taiwan. It seems all food needs to be taken care of with a cleaver. There are so many hearts and livers and organs for sale, sitting under bright lights, illuminating my revulsion, alongside full chicken necks, that resemble exactly the rubber chickens of poor prop comedy. It’s hard to imagine how much meat is consumed throughout the world everyday. One little city contains this much street meat; it’s obvious we owe animals a big thank you for being our biggest form of protein and sustenance.

Back in Korea, seeing the comfortable vista of modest mountains before me, I’m reminded of the ruggedness of the Koreans. Although Taiwan has just as many mountains, they are covered by the lush palms and fed by tropical heat, as are the locals. People wear flip-flops all year long and never deal with snow. Korea has dealt with much in the valleys of those wooded mountains and it shows in their national spirit.