Taitung, Taiwan: Wherein Nearly Everything Goes Wrong (or: How I Learned to Never Stop Worrying and Love Itineraries)

ACROSS THE STREET from the Taitung County airport, in a rural patch of southeast Taiwan, sits a gift shop-slash-restaurant that is in no way discernibly Taiwanese. On its walls hang aboriginal-style handbags of primary colours, generic landscape paintings, kitschy bamboo scrolls and an inexplicable amount of Snoopy paraphernalia. My notes on the contents of this gift-shop-slash-restaurant are extensive, because I sat there for two hours, attempting to calm my nerves with a cool Taiwan Beer as I waited for a plane to cannonball me into Taipei as soon as fiscally possible.

My week-long vacation began as a simple self-assigned challenge. Normally, I’m an anxious traveler. I’m the guy who prints out bordering passes the day before and still gets to the airport embarrassingly early. So I dared myself to make Taiwan different: I would travel, for the first time, without agenda, itinerary or plan, in an attempt to shed my everyday apprehensions and, as the wizened travelers advise, “Live a little.”

I left in mid-January for one week, armed exclusively with flights booked to and from Taoyuan International and NT$11,900 (roughly US$400). Questions would be answered by chance convenience; bridges crossed when reached. I would be a different kind of traveler.

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The trouble began upon leaving Hualien City on January 18. I’d already seen the aggressively beautiful Taroko Gorge (sometimes called “Asia’s Grand Canyon”, which is apt as it’s a day’s worth of hiking not to be missed) and made the deliberately spontaneous decision to go south at the advice of my hostel manager, Fong—a trim and handsome man with a clean-shaven smile who is overwhelmingly eager to sit his guests down and explain, with rapid gesticulations for up to a half-hour even though you’re exhausted from 10 hours of travel and just want to shower and sleep, everything you could possibly do for three months in Hualien County.

The slow train travels as far as Taitung, but I got off a little less than halfway, at Ruisui (“Ray-Shway”), a rural township of 13,000 wedged between the hefty mountain ranges of Chungyang to the west and Haian to the east. Ruisui is known for its hot springs and cycling paths that snake down along the Xiuguluan River, and is rarely visited by tourists, which, at the risk of sounding a bit too bitchy, I think can be explain by how fundamentally little there is to see and do in Ruisui.

Ruisui is known for its hot springs and cycling paths that snake down along the Xiuguluan River, and is rarely visited by tourists, which, at the risk of sounding a bit too bitchy, I think can be explain by how fundamentally little there is to see and do in Ruisui.

Which isn’t to say it’s a bad place. I spent two hours riding a sturdy but ironically named Giant rental bike up along the river, coasting northbound between train tracks and thickly forested mountains. it’s totally beautiful and painfully rural.

But afternoons in Hualien County are marked by a heavy afternoon fog during their version of winter, and it kicked in halfway through my trip. Grey clouds draped low over the mountains, cutting them off so they resembled the bottoms of icebergs under an ocean of colourless muck. Thin pools of water, in which the farmers grow their rice crops, no longer reflected a blue sky, but instead the unsettlingly dense clouds above. A bizarro Taiwan.

6749285867_bf6eed9a83_bBecause it looked as a storm could approach at any moment, I swiftly pedaled back to the station and, on another purposeful whim (I’m so adventurous! I convinced myself), bought a ticket further south, to Taitung City, which I knew virtually nothing about, and, for a brief and spontaneously adventurous moment, felt absolutely invigorated by.

The feeling would not last. Taitung is, at best, a difficult city. Stepping out of the train station, one is greeted with an all-encompassing view of nothingness; a few lonesome trees stand on a wide field of yellowing grass, packed between wide and empty streets. The whole thing’s about 7 km away from anything conventionally interesting. The sun was setting, so I grabbed a map from the vacant tourist information centre and taxied downtown.

Taitung is, at best, a difficult city. Stepping out of the train station, one is greeted with an all-encompassing view of nothingness; a few lonesome trees stand on a wide field of yellowing grass, packed between wide and empty streets.

Exhausted from hours of biking and restless from sitting on a train for an hour and a half, I hurriedly checked into the first hotel I saw, the Fuh Yuan Hotel, which looked and felt like a David Lynch film: behind the counter, painfully decorated in kitschy oriental red and yellow patterns, stood an expressionless middle-aged woman wearing a beige turtleneck.  “Do—you—speak—Chinese?” she asked, robotically slowly.

“No, sorry,” I replied, eyeing the fat orange cat which lay sleepily curled up on the counter beside a few wicker bowls of colourful Taiwanese candies.

6749297131_5ef8123715_b“Do—you—speak—English?” she asked in the same toneless voice, and I thought the answer obvious, confirming that I did. She began to explain that one night was NT$1,200 for a double room, and NT$800 for a single, breakfast included. I sincerely told her that it was a bit expensive and began to walk out when she called me back, stating, “You—no—eat—breakfast—six—hundred.”

If I had done any sort of planning at all, I regret, I might not have had to stay in the Fuh Yuan Hotel, which, I learned the next morning, roomed several dozen bed bugs. I woke up so furious and depressed, so angry with the hotel and myself, so disenchanted with Taitung and Taiwan and this whole ridiculous thing they call “adventure traveling” that, with my left arm covered in pink spots, I ripped my pen out from my bag and vandalized the wall by writing “BED BUGS” right above the mattress and drew, for the non-Anglos, a totally inartistic self-portrait of my unhappy self, with arrows pointing to my bumpy arms.

In one last fit of adventurous spirit, I decided to do something I could tick off my bucket list: hail a cab, jump in and cry out, “To the airport!” My driver nodded confidently, and drove me to the train station. When we arrived at the airport a half-hour later, I discovered that my spontaneous escape was to be delayed by a particularly dense fog approaching Taitung from, obviously, Hualien County. (It was that time of day.)

So I found the gift shop-slash-restaurant and settled down, recollecting my thoughts. My Taiwan trip was only half over, I reasoned. During those last trapped moments in Taitung, I began to think about my next three days in the island’s capital, where the first thing I did upon stepping off the plane was grab a map, mark my destinations, sketch a schedule and not waste any more time being the carefree traveller I so obviously am not.

———-

If this article somehow didn’t convince you to hop a plane to Taiwan right now, check out my photo essay from that week, which is much more positive in tone, namely because Taipei is terrific.  

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