Growing up, I remember my grandparents always mentioning Taiwan. I’d be playing away on their beige carpet and my grandmother would point to two large porcelain figurines perched beside their fireplace. They were shaped like young women, features painted delicately in navy, and she’d say semi-concerned but mostly with pride to be cautious playing around them, they came all the way from Taiwan.
There were the silver teaspoons that lived in a small latched wooden case — Each spoon perfectly fitted into its own nook within the velvet interior. On the refrigerator, magnets with Taiwanese characters held up pictures of the grandchildren. These treasures were dotted throughout the household. All gifts from my grandfather’s Taiwanese business partner, whom he always spoke of in the most glowing terms. And so it was that growing up, some of the most exotic words were Taipei and Taiwan, always said with that wistful look that speaks to a time and a place so perfect in memory that as a child I could only dream of the wonders the skyscrapers in Taipei held.
Decades after learning about the country from these two, my new husband and I travel 26 hours to Taipei to begin our honeymoon. Our first few days in the city we spent drinking tea, eating in night markets and visiting sites ranging from the expansive and recognizable Chiang-Kai-Shek Memorial to the off-beat yet adorable Miniatures Museum. We immediately fell in love with the city but couldn’t resist researching quick getaways and places easily accessible via Taipei’s rail system.
To the North are hot springs that were hard to turn down. But it was Taroko National Park to the Southeast, just outside the city of Hualien that we landed on, lured by images of impossibly blue waters cutting through walls of white granite.
We booked a day-tour from EyeTravelTaiwan from 8am to 5pm where we’ll be picked up bright and early from our Hualien lodging and dropped off at the train station to catch a ride back into Taipei. Overall we’ll be outside of the city for just over 24 hours. Enough time to miss Taipei but see a whole new side of the Pacific.
As soon as we arrive in Hualien we understand this city is different from Taipei — Mopeds whizz around corners so fast you need to be constantly listening for approaching bike murmurs. Bikes are parked all over the sidewalk making pedestrians weave between the street and the sidewalk tiles while the sidewalks themselves are littered with betel nut husks.
A common stimulant in Asia, betel nuts are wrapped in the betel leaf and chewed, producing a warming sensation and heightened alertness. I’d heard about betel nuts in Taipei through subway announcements mentioning that chewing it is prohibited on metro cars, along with drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. While Taipei’s streets are clean, Hualien’s are littered with dried husks that have been chewed and spit out. It’s everywhere. A single sidewalk square may be covered with a dozen discarded, gnawed up betel leaves.
I quickly realize Hualien is scrappier than Taipei. The city has its own identity that’s easy to be drawn into. The main road we walk along is lit by red lanterns hanging low across the street. There are saturated neon signs in all directions. The city buzzes. Cosmopolitan yes, but more immediate, more intimate given its size. These lights bring us right to the cities jewel, it’s night market, where we eat Taiwanese mainstays like bao burgers and oyster pancakes and items we’ve seen nowhere else, like rice served in a bamboo reed which requires a good thwack to break open and clotted blood rice dipped in peanut powder and served on a stick.
We’re here during the Chinese New Year so we have the joy of stumbling onto a light show involving a massive acorn-clutching chipmunk that rotates and shoots lasers from its eyes. Understanding that this chipmunk is our new god we walk to our hotel and go to bed awaiting our am pickup from our tour guide.
8:21am and twenty-something Jeff wanders into our hotel lobby, sign in hand announcing the tour group — I’m always a bit unsettled following a stranger into a white van, especially in a foreign country, but I really want to see this gorge. We make another stop to pick up two Belgian college students then begin our drive North.
Half-way between Hualien and Taroko Gorge Jeff pulls off the highway, inviting us to look at the Pacific ocean just ahead. I’m not one to spend a week at the beach, but until this moment I’d only seen the Pacific from America’s West Coast. There’s something about seeing the ocean from a new place that makes me understand and accept my size in the world. This feeling is only enhanced when standing on the empty shore of a small island.
I dip my fingers into the water and get a chill so sharp I run behind me to Carl, grab his hand, and take him to the tide too. I argue that he needs to touch the ocean in Taiwan. We came all this way to stand where we are so we may as well experience where we are. The Belgians snap a pic of this moment unprompted, for which I’m eternally grateful.
When we make it to Taroko we’re deposited at the Shakadang Trailhead and are told we’re off leash for 90 minutes. We’re free to take our time, but not too much time, and that if we do decide to stop off at the aboriginal booths along the way, the boar sausage is a must. The walk is lovely, bringing us our first views of the sapphire gorge waters, but what I remember most about my first hour in Taroko gorge is the sausage. As we’re making our way back on the trail we find Jeff hanging out with the locals and when we order our sausage he says a few words in Taiwanese and we’re given a fern shoot to eat it with. It grows right next to the booth the sausage is sold from and we roll the meat in it, eat it up, and it bursts with a brightness that balances the peppercorns in the sausage perfectly. The flavor combination is new and wonderful and it’s less than a buck.
A short drive later we arrive at the Jiuqudong Trail (otherwise known as the Tunnel of Nine Turns) where helmets are required in case of falling rocks. Our path is cut into the gorge rockwall and winds along the bluest river cutting through the marble mountainside. As the trail progresses the gorge walls become closer and closer until they almost meet, resulting in a scene that mirrors itself. A Rorschach test brought to technicolor life.
The color palette of robins egg blue, marble grey and moss green looks unnaturally pure. I want to drink this water so badly, imagining it will taste like sprite. When the landscape is positively mythical why wouldn’t the water emanate from a soda fountain?
Zoom zoom – we plop back into the van and drive into the fog rolling in through the mountains, ending at the mountain top Taroko Gorge Lodge. Together the five of us proceed to have the now incredibly dated and very beginning-of-February-2020 conversation of this newfound coronavirus and how we think it’ll shake out. This is discussed between cups of smoked plum juice and steaming aboriginal scallion black tea in the most peaceful of settings. The calm before the biggest storm.
For now, we’re surrounded by a tranquil beauty. Nestled above a waterfall is the Changchun Shrine, whose waters trickle gently into the rocks below. A short distance away the bell of the Changuang Temple Bell Tower tolls into the fog.
Outside of the park we make one final stop before heading back into Hualien, the Qingshui Cliff ocean lookout. It’s here I fully understand just how blue the water is. It doesn’t just appear so vibrant because it’s in contrast to marble. It’s because the ocean actually matches the sky. The gentle waves are almost turquoise and cause photos to look heavily retouched when no edits have been made. In short, it’s gorgeous.
In town Jeff takes our small group to a yellow food truck that has one item on its menu: Scallion pancakes. I fell in love with radish pancakes in Taipei and the scallion pancakes are just as pupil-dilating. Fried dough stuffed with spring onions encases a runny egg, whose yolk pops in your mouth and spills through your fingers. You’ll get messy and regret nothing. The spot aptly translates to “Yellow Car Fried Spring Onion Pancake” and boasts a whopping 6500+ Google reviews, averaging 4 stars. Even more impressive when you consider that it’s rival, the next door “Blue Car Fried Spring Onion Pancake” has only 1,800.
Our satisfied bellies are dropped off at Hualien station where we await our train back to Taipei, which we left just over 24 hours ago. As far as city excursions go, Taroko Gorge is an easy one. Take a metro from anywhere in Taipei and you can easily hop onto a train that’s Hualien-bound. We did have a co-worker that adores travelling in Taiwan suggesting we rent mopeds and bike our way through the gorge, but being a bit less adventurous than he, we opted for a small day tour and that made transit a cinch. I would not suggest attempting a day-trip, unless a private driver is hired. Nor would I suggest a bus tour, as those are more “hop on / hop off for photos / hop back on again” and our tour allowed us time to venture off on our own a few times.
Months after our return home (and after a strict COVID-quarantine) we visit my grandmother in her retirement community. My grandmother set out an album for us to look through of she and my grandfather visiting Taiwan in the 80’s. My grandfather passed recently, but in those pages he and my grandmother are chic and middle-aged. I never knew them at that age.
There they were attending a wedding, a snapshot of them giggly and drinking plum wine. In another their chop stick wielding hands clutch dim sum. I turn a page and they’re in Taroko Gorge. The two of them sitting on a granite rock together. They match beautifully with navy on top and perfectly pressed pants, red twill on grandma and plaid on grandpa. My grandmother has those large rimmed glasses that any hipster would yearn for today. My grandfather’s arm is around her. They beam together.
I feel closer to them both staring at the photo. To my grandmother sitting beside us now, looking at the album with us, while the porcelain dolls sit on the bookshelf right behind her, relics that made the journey from their home together to this community. And to my grandfather, who I miss. The closeness I feel to them comes from knowing that my husband and I just experienced in our youth the same places the two of them did together. They packed their bags just as we did, boarded a plane bound for the same destination and looked about with new eyes at the same city lights, at the same pristine waters and agreed, I like it here.