Overdoing it in Hua Lien

As usual, I sat opposite Jo wondering, “How the hell did we get ourselves into this mess?”

The only word I could come up with was “Bao” (包 or “bun”), specifically “Xiao Long Bao” (小笼包 literally “little caged buns”).

Back home, “小笼包” were cute little dumplings the size of a ping pong ball and filled with hot soup and steamed pork… in other words, a pint sized piece of heaven.

True Story: In Singapore, Jo and I once went to a buffet and finished 50 of these monsters between the two of us.

It’s not pretty, but we do love our Xiao Long Baos.

That’s probably why Jo decided to give me a Xiao Long Bao treat after making me cycle up and down the Beibin Seashore Park (北濱公園) and Nanbin Seashore Park (南濱公園) in Hualien (花蓮) when I was already dead tired from the previous day’s strenuous exercise.

I present Exhibit A:

Jo forged on ahead but had to turn back to find me “taking a short break” from the cycling. In my defense, I was probably still knackered from Taroko Gorge-ing

Long story short, we saw the words “小笼包” on the wall in the restaurant and immediately placed our order for 12 of them, along with a bowl of soup, a bowl of noodles, a bowl of rice and two HUGE ASS glasses of milk tea.

We figured we could still order more “小笼包”s if we were still hungry after.

Very obviously, the Hua Lien-ites have a very different concept of Xiao Long Bao from us Singaporeans.

In other news, Beibin Seashore Park (北濱公園) and Nanbin Seashore Park (南濱公園) are great places to spend an afternoon cycling through if you are in Hua Lien… at least that’s what Jo told me.

Our five hours of cycling saw us cruising through beach side roads and almost endless plains of grass

We even saw the Hua Lien volunteer civil defence force living out their dreams of being the Amazing Spiderman… pretty darn impressive

I’m pretty sure I sleep-cycled through some parts of the 40km route.

Also, I am proud to announce that with regard to the Xiao Long Baos…. Mission Accomplished! *Point at Jo*: Glutton

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Taroko!

Allegedly, that’s the phrase a tribesman from the indigenous Truku tribe exclaimed when he first saw the Gorge.

And since Taroko (太魯閣) means “beautiful and magnificent” in the language of the Truku, some (possibly lazy) tourism official decided to name the Gorge as such.

From our last destination of Green Island, we needed to transit back to Taipei to catch our flight out of Taiwan.

Hualien (花蓮) was along the road back to Taipei, so we decided (why not?) to stop over for a few days to visit the Taroko Gorge (promoted as one of the biggest and baddest attraction you can see in Taiwan).

We took a tourist bus from Hua Lien (the bus stop is just outside the train station), and as we reached the top of the Taroko Gorge, we couldn’t help but help but release an exclamation of our own…

“Meh!”

(For us) The Gorge just could not live up to the hype. The heavy downpour we experienced at the start of our walk definitely did not help matters.

Note to other professional men… PROBABLY not on the list of approved/endearing nicknames – Condom Head

The upside about the rain is that it gave the place a wispy, dreamy veneer

We had taken the tourist bus to the end of the trail and had hoped to hike all the way to the front gates.

There are many “bus stops” scattered about 5 – 10km apart throughout the Gorge. With one fee, the tourist bus will pick up/drop off anyone between the various bus stops. We estimated we should be able to just catch the last bus back to Hua Lien.

To be fair, there were some really nice stretches of “off road” trekking that saw us walking along dirt paths. On these stretches, we had the imposing mountain ranges surrounding us and dainty little streams flowing along beside us. Probably because of the rain, there was almost no other hikers going along our route, so we had the trails all to ourselves.

The parts of the Gorge that are beautiful are really beautiful

However, many parts of the Gorge require special permits or a local guide so we were not able to access them. Certain parts were also closed off due to the potential risk of landslides. This means that for the most part, we were walking along the highway with cars roaring by us.

A LOT of our time was spent on the road. It does help that some stretches were still pretty scenic, though

I swear… this photo was taken inside a vehicle tunnel.

We spent a lot of time walking through vehicular tunnels. REALLY REALLY help that some of them have great views

At some points of the walk, we had to entertain ourselves. Jo’s impression of Peaceful Gary from Running Men

It got to a point where a passing van stopped beside us and the lady driver asked us what the hell did we think we were doing.

Once she was able to stop rolling her eyes at our idiotic plan, she offered to give us a ride to one of the bus stops closer to the main gate where we could catch the bus back to Hua Lien. She explained that there really isn’t that much to see between stations anyway.

Also, at the speed we were walking, she estimated we would only make it out of the Gorge the next morning.

Without asking any more questions, we scrambled onto her van.

To us, she was Taroko in her generosity.

Men in Black (and White)

Things you do not want to know about your vacation spot: That it is on an island (a 2-hour boat ride away from ANYWHERE else) which also happens to have a prison that houses some of Taiwan’s most dangerous criminals and gangsters.

To me, it sounds like it is one blackout away from being the setting of a Agatha Christie novel…. or maybe even a Stephen King one.

But the isolation of Green Island (綠島) is precisely what makes it perfect for penal colonies and as a place of exile. Traces of past prisons can be seen throughout the island, most notably Green Island “Lodge” in Oasis Village which was once used to hold political prisoners during the martial law period (White Terror) (白色恐怖事件) under Chiang Kai Shek.

Today, Green Island Lodge has been reopened as a museum that showcases the inhumane conditions the prisoners live in. They were often detained for an unspecified amount of time without trial (some were in the prisons for more than 30 years) and forced to do manual labor for long hours building roads and irrigating farmlands to develop the rest of Green Island to what it is today.

Wax figures in a mock up of a jail cell sans the smell… I swear. Jo screamed when she walked into the first cell

There are video interviews in the museum with the prisoners about their time on Kasho-to (火燒島) (literally “Fire Burn Island”), and it is heartbreaking hearing stories about how some of them were not able to watch their children grow up and about family members lying to them about the deaths of fathers and mothers just so that they would not lose their will to live.

In the museum, there were also poetry, sheet music and other creative pursuits the prisoners did to pass the time

The museum is DEFINITELY worth a visit, even though most of the displays and videos are in Mandarin.

On a lighter note, the modern residents of Lu Dao thoroughly embrace the island’s reputation as a gathering ground for prisoners and baddies.

Who’s the baddest of them all??

Prison themed restaurants and souvenir stalls can be seen throughout the island, and there are numerous tongue-in-cheek pokes at the tourists who willingly pay (good) money to be “imprisoned” on the island.

A typical restaurant on Lu Dao

Jo had waaaay too much fun at the souvenir stores

Ok… I had a bit of fun too…

Maybe I had a bit too much fun also…

It’s part of the Taiwanese charm to not take some things too seriously that we love so much.

Lunch as prison food. For the benefit of those that cannot read Chinese, you have to trust me, the menu is pretty witty to someone who can decipher the puns

Riding and Diving in Taiwan

21 days.

I think it’s the longest stretch we’ve ever spent in a single city while travelling. We’re normally not big fans of cities because we’ve stayed in one for the past 30 years of our lives. Yet, somehow, we found ourselves falling in love with the cities in Taiwan. There’s just a buzz about them! It doesn’t hurt that there is good food to be found around almost every corner.

However, we started to realize that we were getting stuck in a lull, so we decided to get out of the city and head for the island of Lu Dao (绿岛) that was just off the coast of Taidong (台东).

Right off the train, we did something we would not normally have done. We went to a travel agency.

Actually, the travel agent came to us at the train station. He told us that the last ferry to Lu Dao for the day had already departed. (This is becoming a bit of a worrying trend). They offered to put us up at a hotel in Taidong for the night at a discounted rate if we took one of their Lu Dao packages.

Jo… with the noisiest kid in the world. With their powers combined, they managed to incur the wrath and dirty looks of a trainful of normally polite Taiwanese. This was taken literally minutes before we were told that we’ve missed our connecting ferry ride

The package would include transfer service from our hotel to the pier, ferry tickets to Lu Dao, accommodation in Lu Dao, unlimited use of the hotel’s motorcycle and free passes for snorkeling as well as access to the natural hot springs on Lu Dao.

At $100 each, it sounded like quite a good deal, so we took it!

At the end of the day, we were really grateful for the motorcycle.

After a few embarrassing minutes of “Ey, how to start up a motorcycle ah?” in front of the horrified hotel owner, we got to cruise around the island with the wind in our very wet hair.

Yeah. True to our luck, it was pouring almost the whole time we were on Lu Dao.

This included the three hours we spent in the saltwater hotspring. (Allegedly, it is one of only three in the world)

Of course, said hotspring was located outdoors. We arrived just as the storm clouds started rolling in

Regardless, it was really great fun riding on the road in Lu Dao. There is only one road that stretches around the island, so even for us, there was no risk of getting lost. The best part was the long stretches where we were the only vehicle on the road.

Just us and our motorbike…. and some rainclouds, and slippery roads and… ermmm… a red car (not ours)

We had the sea beside us and the rain and heavy winds threatening to blow us into the sea. It was good to be alive.

We could hop off anytime we want and have our own stretch of private… ermm… beach…

I wish we had half that kind of fun snorkeling. Don’t get me wrong, there were TONNES of sea creatures to be seen when we snorkeled in.

Tonnes of fishes

It’s just that the snorkel operators, for fear of their customers drifting away, used the very primitive method of stringing everyone together during the snorkeling. I swear. There were even lessons conducted at the water edge on how to keep afloat…. with the float.

Strung along like a row of balloons

The snorkeling experience was enough to convince us that we NEEDED to dive in Lu Dao. There are many dive operators on the island, but as far as we know, there was only one that was “officially recognised” by PADI. It’s situated at Nanliao Village (南寮村).

Besides being relatively cheap (2500TWD for 3 dives), the diving was CRAZY. We managed to see many different species of fish and corals, but the biggest highlight has to be the Big Mushroom – a living coral head that is about 4 meters tall.

All in all, not a bad way to recharge our outdoorsy battery before we head up to Hualien and finally Taipei again.

Fly me to the Moon

I know… When the best thing you can do at a place is to sit under a tree and read a book, it is probably a good time to consider moving on to the next destination.

And that’s precisely what we were going to do in Tainan.

Yet, on our way to the bus terminal, we found a charming boutique hotel available at a seriously good price, so we decided to stay on just to check it out.

Tucked away in an unlikely corner near the bus station…

is the exquisite Corner Hotel. We simply love the retro-esque accessories strewn randomly all over the hotel. The hotel had recently been used for the filming of a Taiwanese serial.

According to the owner, the furniture sets in the hotel were sourced from all over Taiwan and then restored at quite a price before they are put up for use in the hotel

It does help that the rooms have some of the softest pillows and the most comfortable beddings ever!

Also, Jo found an obscure tourism pamphlet that was promoting a place called “Moon World” (草山月世界) that boasts “eerie moonscapes” and comes with some blurry/pixelated pictures of what it described as the “best sunrises in the world”.

Having seen dozens of over-promising tourism pamphlets before, I was understandably skeptical, but since we had a place for the night, nothing more to do for the day AND friends who were willing to share a cab, I thought “what the hell, we’ll go investigate this obscure attraction” (we couldn’t find any information about it on Wikitravel).

Our unlikely partners in crime – Yee Ling and Pieter

What’s the worst that could happen, right?

It turns out we had to leave at 3am in the morning in order to catch the sunrise at Moon World.

And that’s not even remotely close to the worst thing that did happen.

We booked a taxi driver for five hours through the night so that he could bring us there and back. The first thing that he asked when we got onto the cab was, “What the hell are you guys planning to do in that god-forsaken place???” or something to that effect.

Not a good start.

And so, we were driven for an hour until we reached a reeaaaaaally foggy road with thick vegetation on both sides at 4am in the morning. I kid you not, it looked like the set of a horror movie. I was half expecting a pontianak to burst out of the treeline at any moment.

By now, Jo was progressively getting grumpier because the cabbie kept insisting that “This is all there is to it! There are only chicken farms (that are not open at 4am) in 月世界”.

She had seen a pamphlet and she was not going to be convinced otherwise.

Eventually, we reached the end of the road and there it was…. more foggy road with vegetation and chicken farms on both sides!

At this point in time, we managed to pique the cab driver’s curiosity enough that he started radio-ing all his fellow drivers to ask about this mysterious “Moon World” with the crazy-beautiful sunrises.

He managed to get one positive reply. Apparently, there are two “月世界”s in Tainan, and of COURSE we were at the wrong one. The one we were looking for was in the village of Er Liao (二寮), which was two hours drive away.

It should have been warning sign #1000000000000000 when only one driver out of the entire network heard about it.

Even though two hours meant we would miss the start of the sunrise, we decided to push on anyway. Strangely enough, we had the cabbie with us this time round. He had been driving for two hours and damn if he was going to miss getting us to where we want to go.

He sped through the highway and after four u-turns and stopping five times to ask for directions, we managed to reach our destination at 7am, just before the sunrise.

There we have it:

Fog.