Two days in Taitung
Lizards, giant worms, hot air balloons, and paddy fields…
“I love Taitung”—a welcome sign and a statement of fact. Photo: Zhen-Kang.
Recently, a friend invited me for a quick trip to Taitung on Taiwan’s south-east coast. In contrast to the densely-populated western side of the island (which has 20 million people in the same distance as
Christchurch to Dunedin), Taiwan’s east coast has no large cities.
Taitung City, the administrative center of Taitung County, has 100,000 people. It’d be a relatively large city in New Zealand, but here it feels like a sleepy, peaceful town. Think
Blenheim with scooters, not wine.
So, this past Monday—two foreboding days before Ghost Month—we set off for Taitung.
As with most domestic travel in Taiwan, our journey started at the station. Kaohsiung Main Station is still under construction but the architects’ impressions suggest it’ll be an impressive urban centerpiece when complete. This is a busy station: The board showed 18 departures in 90 minutes (excluding MRT and bus lines). The bullet train only serves the west coast, so we booked tickets east on this regular-speed Tze-Chiang Express. Made by Hitachi in Japan, these trains are less than two years old. In this photo, the speedo at the front of the train car says 105km/h, but the train got as fast as 125km/h. (Taiwan’s bullet trains travel at 300km/h.) We’d pre-ordered Taiwan Railways (TR) Bento for brunch. The boxes were delivered to our seats after departure. Here’s my vegetarian bento, which in Taiwan is more typically called a “lunchbox”. It cost NT$80 (NZ$4), and was a decent hot meal for the price. I finished brunch around 45 minutes into the journey. We arrived at Taitung just before noon. The open-air station features this traditional canoe made by the indigenous Tao people of Orchid Island (蘭嶼)—which you can see on the map above, in the lower-right corner (with ferry connections). Stepping outside, I was struck by the density of insect sounds. (Southern Taiwan—including Kaohsiung and Taitung—has a tropical climate.) We walked 500 meters to the hotel, where Mickey and Minnie were swinging at reception. The sign above them translates to “The rocking chair is for appreciation only”. After dropping our bags, we rented a couple of 125cc scooters (NT$450 / NZ$23 per day), and set out for the Taitung International Hot Air Balloon Festival. It’s an annual month-long event that takes place in the mountains of Taitung County. High above sea level, Google Maps led us on this dubious short-cut—where, on the road, I saw a dead giant-worm-that-was-definitely-not-a-snake: black, around 3cm thick, and 40cm long. We parked next to this picturesque tea plantation and walked the last hundred meters… …To this grassy plateau, where hundreds of people had gathered to watch the hot air balloons inflate at sunset. A period of rapid inflation began at 5pm. Across the field, a DJ was playing English-language pop and dance tracks at high volume. I heard the explicit version of at least three different songs, but the Chinese-speaking audience didn’t seem to notice “fuck”, “fucking”, and “fucker” reverberate through the mountains while their children danced. People clapped as each balloon rose above the ground. The atmosphere was warm, celebratory, and family-friendly (apart from the music). Hello Kitty was a crowd favorite. To the right of the green turtle, people were taking tethered rides for around five minutes at a time. I’m not sure of the price for these quick rides, but a 30-minute flight costs NT$9,000 (NZ$450) per person. One of the few times in Taiwan that prices have shocked me for being high, rather than low. These mini balloons were popular with the crowd. I later saw many of them hanging in shops and restaurants around Taitung City. As dusk fell, the DJ led a countdown to the balloons simultaneously igniting their burners for five seconds. People clapped and cheered in a gentle appreciative manner. Then the balloons began to deflate, and suddenly it was all over. Soon, a multi-kilometer-long traffic jam snaked its way down the mountain and back towards Taitung City. I was thankful to cruise past in the scooter lane, getting back to the hotel around 10pm. The next day, after I remotely attended Chinese class, we rode inland to another mountainous area. We passed a series of hotels at Zhiben Hot Spring (知本溫泉), one of the most famous hot spring towns in Taiwan. Following the road uphill from Zhiben Hot Spring, we reached a carpark where we stopped our scooters… …Next to this lizard on a concrete wall… …And this insect on a fencepost. It was around 8–10cm long (the insect, not the fencepost). I followed my friend up 201 steps to Baiyu Waterfall. Ahead of me, he used his torch to check for hanging spiders. We didn’t see any, but there were millions of ants on the steps. Baiyu Waterfall (白玉瀑布) looked beautiful after recent rain. You can’t see them in this photo, but there were a dozen butterflies flying in front of it. Magic. Riding downhill, we passed this tree in the middle of a narrow road. It was 32ºC so we stopped for cold drinks at Family Mart. Note the indigenous artwork next to the door. Also note the boxes of drinks stored on the pavement: this is common practice in Taiwan, where space is tight and theft is rare. (Our hotel, for example, had an unlocked freezer full of popsicles, and an unlocked cabinet full of souvenirs, in the unmanned lobby.) We sat outside Family Mart enjoying this peaceful scene and cold drinks, before riding another 90 minutes north. I spotted this intriguing bamboo sculpture in the middle of a paddy field. It was about 100 or 200 meters off a narrow road. A reverse Google image search suggests it’s an installation called ‘Incubation’ (孕育) by Taiwanese artist An Jun-Shi (安君實). Further along, we reached Brown Boulevard at Chishang (池上鄉). It’s a narrow road across obscenely-scenic paddy fields, now closed to all vehicles except farm trucks, bicycles, and electrified pedal carts. Here’s the view to the left, from roughly the same spot. This tree was made famous by an EVA Air commercial, in which actor Takeshi Kaneshiro sat here to drink tea and reflect on the beauty of Taiwan (hence the teapot, which you’ll notice hasn’t been stolen). We had parked our petrol-powered scooters and walked one or two kilometers to get here, but we were the only ones on foot. It looks quiet in this photo… …But a steady stream of people were arriving on pedal carts to queue for photos. I didn’t have family to photograph, so I photographed someone else’s. Soon it was paddy-field peddle-power rush hour, and time to go. We rode another 90 minutes across a mountain range, through the 2.7km-long Yuchang Tunnel (玉長隧道), and onwards to the coast. About an hour after our planned sunset arrival, we reached the famous Sanxiantai Arch Bridge (三仙台跨海步橋). It links the mainland to a small island reserve, but is temporarily closed following a recent earthquake. I’m told that despite its gentle appearance, crossing it is a slog. This was my first time standing at the Philippine Sea. Looking northwards, I could see the lights of villages along Taiwan’s eastern coast. I also noticed my camera could see the stars—something I can’t capture in Kaohsiung due to light pollution. Turning around, I could see the Milky Way for the first time since moving to Taiwan. An unexpected cosmic bonus, concluding my two-day trip to Taitung. Postscript: A confession
My two-day trip to Taitung actually concluded when I fell off my scooter—immediately outside the rental shop, while returning it before catching the train.
The only damage was to the phone holder (NT$200 / NZ$10), and—of course—to my pride.
My best guess is my suitcase and camera bag upset the balance as I was getting off, and/or I hadn’t properly extended the kickstand—which retracted as the weight of the scooter hit it. Or a combination of these things.
The rental shop owner said I might’ve been pushed by a ghost.
After all, yesterday was the first day of
I should’ve been more careful when parking with a suitcase aboard: the previous night, a caring friend in Kaohsiung reminded me the ghosts were coming: