Late on Friday evening I was waiting in the beach house for Nick and Maxine to return, and after a week in pretty much pure isolation, was surprised to see someone appear in the doorway of the house.
On the weekends, most of the english teachers from Jungli travel out to the coast for weekend BBQs, surfing and beach time, and with them come a total of 10 dogs. So in addition to Nick and Maxine’s
‘Coffee’, there was Chris’ ‘Lunar’, two golden retrievers, two more daschunds, a tugo (native Taiwanese breed) puppy ‘Tequila’, a husky called ‘Geisha’, a black and white border collie and another one I couldn’t identify called ‘Caeser’. It was pretty crowded in the beach house living room.
Needless to say there was beer, sand, hats and a late night.
Despite this, we had to be up early in the morning and had been feverishly hoping for good weather. Alas no. Nick, Maxine and I took a four hour road trip down to Taroko Gorge – a massive mountainous region further south east. It’s a national park, and usually packed, but we ended up with the place to ourselves – the rain was torrential and the closer we got the the park, less and less of coastal road was left standing.
Trying to describe the toll typhoon rains take on roads is hard, but if you can imagine a single lane road that winds it’s way around the headland, directly above the Pacific Ocean – that was our route. The rain swells the existing waterfalls that naturally form in the steep gullies at each bend in the road, and these often overshoot their normal path under the strain of the flow, so that pretty much a fifth of the time you are on the road, you are driving under pounding water from the streams above falling onto the road itself. The water then runs down the road, and as it flows off into the ocean below, it wears away at the edges of the tarmac and takes off great chunks of the surface with it – including crash barriers, houses and trees.
As the remainder of the water passes down the road like a river, it erodes the soft earth from under the surface, and the pressure of the flow underneath punches holes up through it, through which hundreds of gushing springs appear across the entire width of the thoroughfare.
It’s pretty spectacular, and that’s even before you contemplate the landslides which pepper the road every few kilometres – piles of rock washed down the steep faces of the mountains that litter the road and often limit passage to a single lane. Rock sizes vary from the size of your fist, the the size of three or four cars – thankfully we were on the receiving end of none of these dangerous hailstones.
By the time we made it to the hostel where we were staying, visibility was very low, and the road immediately past our stopping point was closed. We heard there had been a massive landslide around the corner and it had been sealed off completely. The inclement weather didn’t stop it still being a pretty spectacular spot – perched high up in valley that rises higher than the Grand Canyon in places, our accommodation was a simple hostel with a roofed but open eating area that doubled up as a car park overlooking the surrounding mountains.
We’d planned a BBQ, and Maxine prepared traditional Taiwanese skewers – bundles of spring onion wrapped in pork which we had alongside torn chicken breast and a healthy three bottles of red. Next door to our building, a large hotel was being renovated, and the only other people staying at our hostel were a group of Taiwanese plumbers who plied us with fruit (like a grapefruit, but less sour), beer, horsenuts, unshelled peanuts and a type of local and sweet Red Bull and coke (though it includes neither) that they knock back as though it wasn’t incredibly alcoholic.
As I speak no Mandarin (or for that matter, native Taiwanese) we decided cards would be a good option and played out until the early hours. We finished the evening solving matchstick riddles (like the ones you get in crackers at Christmas) but of course this is a general pastime in China, not some novelty plastic trick.
The next morning was no better weather wise, and Nick and I couldn’t find anywhere open serving breakfast, so we took a wander up past the sealed road block to have a look at the landslide. You could hear and see it still going even though it had started two or three days earlier – and we stood and watched from about 200 yards as huge chunks of rock cracked and smashed their way down the rock face into a shale pile that ran into the river below. It was incredible. All the trees around were stacked high and drooping under the weight of the rock dust which looked like thick ash – and on the road the rain water had congealed it into a thick clay-like paste several centimetres thick. You could taste the minerals in the air; it did choke and cloud up at each new rush of the rock fall, despite the persistent rain.
The road had been completely cut off by the rock pile – it had consumed the one end of a tunnel that started not very far ahead of us, and the failing rock face above was several hundred feet high – about half of which was unstable and still breaking away sporadically. With each audible ‘crack’ came a flurry of more large rocks which thudded down the cliff face then into the shale pile below with a puff of dust – then this was followed by a stream of loose grit and gravel for fifteen seconds to a minute after. This in turn would set off another rock fall and so it would continue.
We quickly discovered we were trapped in the valley as the road on which we had come was also now closed some miles behind us – so we drove to the train station in the nearest town, abandoned the car and took to the tracks. They are a bit funny about animals on public transport, so Coffee was consigned to a shoulder bag for the journey.
By the time we had arrived back in Jungli the rain had subsided, but it remained overcast. Being Sunday, Nick had Kung Fu in Taipei again, so until he returned for another jamming session with the band, I had a few beers with Rick who lives in the house opposite and had arrived here just a matter of weeks after I first visited Taiwan just over five years ago.
The practice room this week was much bigger, and there was a bigger audience this week too. Rob and Bear’s girlfriends came by, and Maxine also stayed. Afterwards we headed back to the same ‘breakfast shop’ we had been to last week for more hot sauce and savoury pastries. It really is fantastic food there.
Monday morning usually means work for all, but after breakfast (we have the same thing every day – a thin egg pastry cooked with onions and pork, washed down with orange juice and green tea – pretty goddamn tasty) Rick and Marcus came over and suggested as I had nothing better to do (which I didn’t) that we should take the motorbikes out to the next city to watch some baseball at TGI Fridays. So perhaps not the most cultural thing, but after persuading the barman to make happy hour start a couple of hours early and getting in a platter lunch; it turned out that didn’t matter too much anyway!
We got back to Jungli and met Nick at a bar not too far from home, and deciding to leave Marcus and Rick to their own fate there, Nick and I went and got teppenyaki. If you were wondering – yes, it was great.
And that brings us to today – my penultimate day in Taiwan on this trip. Finally the clouds parted and Nick, Coffee and I took the motorbike up into the mountains to a secluded watering hole tucked away and off the main routes. If you’ve ever seen The Beach, it’s a bit like that – a circular pool of clear water with a waterfall that plunges down ten meters on the one side. You can then float down a small outlet into the lower pool where the water is much more still and lagoon like. The water wasn’t too cold, but the river had clearly been swelled by the rain and trying to swim against the flow of the waterfall ahead was almost impossible. Even Coffee couldn’t resist joining us in the water, but it completely tired him out after a few minutes and he just sat on Nick’s back while we swam to shore.
One of the things I remember vividly about my first visit here was bin lan, or betal nut. It’s a type of nut the size of a grape, wrapped in it’s own leaf and chewed like a chewing tobacco. It quickly bleeds to produce a fiborous husk which you chew, and a bright red liquid which you have to graciously spit out at fairly regular intervals. This can be amusing when done badly – or from the back of a bike – but the net effect of chewing this stuff is a warming like natural high – and the locals can’t get enough of the stuff – partially because it’s quite addictive. You pick up the small bags from scantily clad bin lan girls, who sit in small glass and neon kiosks every few hundred metres down all major roads. It’s surreal and the whole experience is very much one that defines Taiwan to me. Anyway, getting back on the bikes allowed for more than my fair share of betal nut chewing.
So tomorrow evening I fly – another 16 hour adventure or so. I think we go for food again tonight. Looking forward to it already…