Dragon Boat Festival Day 2: Day Trip to the Caoling Historic Trail
Packed Like Sardines in a Tin Can – It’s Hot – Climb to the Top – A Flora and Fauna Report – A Fellow Traveler – An All Girl Taiwanese Punk Band and The Shit Disco
After a successful adventure in Danshui the day before, I decided to take another day-trip outside of Taipei proper, this time heading to Taiwan’s stunning Northeast Coast. I left the house on the early side with the intent of catching a morning train to the town of Daxi (spelled on signs as Dasi, but more on the various forms of Chinese Romanization another time). Sure enough I arrive at Taipei Main Station ten minutes after the 8:40 train departed, with the next one arriving two-hours later. Way to go.
My original plan to skip a weekend trip to the Toroko Gorge National Park was fueled by the notion that the park would be flooded with tourists and that all accommodations–hostels, trains, buses etc.–would also be hindered from the holiday travel rush. Of course this logic should have worked for every remote destination in Taiwan and my two-hour train ride to the East coast was proof of how unbearable crowded travel in Taiwan can be.
Let’s begin: This trip was my first experiment with the Taiwanese Rail system. Taipei has its MRT metro, a foolproof system that connects the entire city and more remote destinations like Danshui. The rest of the island relies on brand new Japanese engineered high-speed trains, middle-grade passenger trains and bottom of the barrel antique city commuter trains that somehow have been converted to accommodate long-distance travel, think an “L” train car running from Chicago to Springfield.
My guidebook tells me that the Taipei-Daxi train takes 90 minutes and costs NT$104. I use this information to find what I assume is the only train to the small coastal town. The train turns out to be an aforementioned old city train, a la the pre-MRT era in Taipei. There are seats but the majority of the train is standing room only. Since the cars don’t have reserved seats of any kind this also means that there is no limit to how many suntan lotion soaked passengers can be squeezed in.
I get on along with a hundred other eager passengers running to the sliding doors to ensure a spot. The air-conditioner is working but cannot keep up with the volume. I am sandwiched between a group of university age students, two couples, a family and a young child who immediately starts gorging on a pastry of sorts filled with warm chocolate goo. Not ten minutes into the trip and the train already smells like sweaty ass and Nutella. Later an older gentleman in one of the seats cracks open a tea egg, which only adds to the array of unpleasant odors circulating in the stale train car air.
The 90-minute trip is extended to a little over two-hours since we stop at every station on the line and are idle for five to ten minutes at a time while station platform hopefuls attempt to squeeze in the already overstuffed cars. At one stop there must have been at least 200 people waiting and maybe only 20 got on. Damn.
I am the only foreigner in my particular throng and most definitely stand out. I attempt to grab my camera to shoot the inside of the car, which is a wall-to-wall mess of people, but I am unable to get into my bag without sending a bony elbow or knee into my neighbor. Taipei MRT cars can get crowded but I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Five stops before Daxi (an hour and half later) two-thirds of the passengers get off at a popular beach destination allowing for a bit of stretching. As we approach smaller village stops, old ladies wait on the station platforms with pre-made lunch boxes.
On the few chances to look out at the passing scenery I see aqua blue rivers and streams with locals fishing and basking in the sun. We pass through mountain tunnels, happen upon lush green forests and eventually catch a glimpse of the Pacific. Taiwan’s West coast is fairly industrial and is home to the island’s three most populous cities. The East coast however is where the Taiwanese escape to for the serene, natural beauty, the half of the island that epitomizes the Portuguese’s coined phrase, Ilha Formosa, or “beautiful island.”
The trip was worth the temporary unpleasantness. Looking back on the trip I figure it was only a matter of time before this sort of transportation fiasco would happen (I suppose it’ll be even worse in parts of Southeast Asia and on the mainland, where buses ignore occupancy warnings).
The Caoling trail is a 16KM hike connecting the sleepy surfing village of Daxi with the town of Fulong, home to a popular public beach. The trail is the last remaining stretch of a longer early 19th century trade route that spanned from Taiwan’s Northeast coast to Danshui. The actual Caoling Historic Trail runs 9KM along a mountaintop valley overlooking the Pacific to the East and the Central Mountain Range to the West. Trail extensions have been added over the years bringing the full trail to around 16KM.
It’s hot and right away I realize that the one coat of suntan lotion that I applied earlier in the morning will probably leave my skin its usual summer coat–lobster red splotches with a 75% chance of peeling.
I’m not five minutes into my ascent up the steep stairs leading to the top of the mountain when my refillable Taiwanese brand Nalgene water bottle falls from my camera bag and cracks. Strike-two Warner.
I keep climbing. I learn quickly from the amount of people I see coming down the mountain that most people start their journey from Fulong and end up in Daxi. Others only do small stretches leaving the 16K hike for soon-to-be-dehydrated Americans.
The first hour of the hike is all dense forest. While I’m shaded from the sun, the forest ceiling creates a saunaesque effect. It’s hot. I greet some of the locals coming down. Halfway to the top I bump into an American who is just finishing the full 16km hike and tells me that I’m doing the hardest part now. He also tells me that once I hit the mountaintop valley I will be blown away. Promises like these keep you going.
Just shy of the first “rest stop,” a picnic table and a chart documenting local plant species, I surprise a large snake bathing on a rock off the trail. We don’t have snakes in Chicago, save for zoos or in the terrariums of pre-pubescent Middle School boys. When I startle this particular serpent, the kind that could guzzle down rabbits or small lap dogs with the ease of someone slurping up broad noodles, I keep my distance and wait till it’s slithered its way back in the deep brush before continuing.
The American from earlier wasn’t lying about the mountain valley stretch on the trail. The climb to the top was arduous but the pay-off was oh so worth it.
Vast grassy hills, a strong and cool breeze, and the Pacific are in full sight. The sky is clear, and the ocean, especially the areas hugging the coast, is a light, aqua blue. In the distance I can see c two small islands, both of which I learn later, can be visited by ferry from Fulong.
A third of the way into the valley stretch (about 7KM of ascents and descents) I begin to see more people, a lot more, and as I approach I stumble upon about a hundred grazing water buffalo, famous to this region but a bit surprising considering we’re in the mountains. The buffalo are apparently a nuisance for hikers as they block trails and litter overlook rest areas with their dung. Save for some stray cats outside Fulong, this wraps up the Caoling Flora Fauna Report.
At one particular overlook I meet another solo walker, Ricky, from Taipei. I ask him to take a picture with my camera (as seen below) and offer the same service. We begin chatting in English and end up walking the remaining three and a half hours together.
Ricky, a 29-year-old computer programmer from the Yongan neighborhood in Taipei, tells me he is always looking for ways to escape the busy city and get into the mountains. He studied English and Computer Sciences at University and took a job that he tolerates but does not love, a norm with people his age he tells me. His English is surprisingly good and when I tell him this he always responds with a, “no way! I only know little bit.” When I tell him towards the end of the trail, “Listen Ricky, we just spent nearly four hours talking about a wide range of advanced topics in English, and I understood everything you had to say,” his humbleness quickly changes to pride.
Along the way I ask him about life in Taipei, his travels around the island and Northeast Asia. We discuss the cuisine of Taiwan. He tells me where his favorite hole-in-the-wall haunts and night markets are. We discuss America, President Obama, Chicago style deep-dish pizza, which he can’t seem to comprehend (“Chicago pizza is how big??” making hand motions) and baseball (I of course realize that not only does he know more about modern American baseball than I do but he is also more familiar with the Cubs and White Sox’s current lineup). Strike three.
Ricky tells me that he would love to do exactly what I am doing, that is take off for a year to travel and explore different cultures, but he said that it is very hard to leave family for long periods of time. If I haven’t mentioned already, family is very important to the Taiwanese. Most of the young people in this country live with their parents till they’re into their late twenties, often later. Sundays are often reserved for meals or an outing with relatives, and it is frowned upon to leave home for extended period of times (students studying abroad in the U.S. or Europe are exemptions, especially for those seeking two-year master degrees abroad). He tells me that when he is older he would very much like to see more of the world and I tell him that he is welcome in Chicago any time. The deep dish will be on me.
By the time we reach Fulong (it should be noted that while the last hour was all downhill, the steep descent, mainly on jagged stone steps, reeks havoc on the knees) we are both pretty exhausted but proud of our accomplishment. Ricky tells me that he’s only done this trail twice before but never all the way through.
We grab some drinks and a snack at Fulong, which by 7PM is a bustling mess of sunburned beachgoers and locals all waiting for the train home. It turns out Ricky was on the same train earlier in the day and tells me that the government should run more trains on holidays but sadly do not leaving travel a constant hassle. He ends up setting us up on a better, faster train home (with fewer stops and reserved seats!) for the same price as the earlier train. When I ask him why he didn’t take the nicer train earlier from Taipei to Daxi, he rather oddly replies, “Oh, it doesn’t work like that.” I will get to the bottom of the train system on this island soon enough.
On the relaxing ride back we continue talking about Taiwanese culture and its history. He gives me a brief but thorough cram course in the island’s geopolitics over the years, starting with the Portuguese and Dutch explorers/settlers, carrying on through China and Japan’s occupation up until Taiwan’s current status as a breakaway republic of the mainland. We discuss the various islands off the coast of Taiwan, some off-the beaten path havens for indigenous Taiwanese tribes, others military bases. He also makes it a point to go through my guide book and correct a number of key vocab words that Lonely Planet managed to fudge up, mainly pertaining to traditional Taiwanese cuisine.
At Taipei Main Station we exchange cell numbers and plan on meeting at some point for dinner. He tells me that there are all kinds of local dishes that most foreigners never find but are very popular with locals. Perfect.
Ricky is yet another example of the kindness found with the Taiwanese. I am constantly approached by locals of all ages wondering where I’m from or what I’m doing here in Taiwan. All are legitimately interested and everyone is welcoming to their country’s guests.
I get back to my apartment completely spent. On the way I grab some dumplings and have every intention to relax and eventually pass out. My housemate Ant has other plans for me.
Ever since arriving in Taiwan I have been keen on finding good live music venues and up until this evening I had my doubts that such a place existed. Enter The Wall, Taipei’s gritty underground punk and drum & bass hall.
I meet up with Ant, a fellow Kiwi named Steven (who shares similar tastes in music and runs his own Taipei live music blog, Gig Guide), and two Chinese-American girls from Northern California. Jenn has been here for at least four years, Lisa for three and both are thrilled to show me, “the newbie,” the ropes.
The Wall is officially my new favorite nightlife destination. The subterranean bar has the feel of Chicago’s Metro theater–small, intimate setting with a decent crowd of music enthusiasts. We arrive for the final set of a local DJ, who in ten minutes manages to trump all the previous DJ’s I’ve seen at local nightclubs, the majority of whom play nothing but recycled 90s hip-hop and the occasional Kylie Minogue record. Next up, an all female electro punk ensemble, Go Chic.
The next group, an ensemble from Glasgow, Scotland called Shit Disco play a four-hour DJ set. The Carlsberg was flowing, the bass was loud enough to make your nostrils itch, and everyone was dancing. All in all, a perfect end to one of the better days here in Taiwan.
Up next, The Dragon Boat Race, A Day in the Life, Tales From Beginner’s Chinese Vol. 1, Culinary Adventures #2: The Lunch Box, and Singing the Ghostbuster’s Theme Song at a Giant Karaoke Bar with two Indonesian girls, a Handful of Taiwanese, a Guatemalan, and a Cheap Bottle of Taiwanese “Whisky.” Who ya gonna call.