So I’d just passed the halfway point; both geographically and in terms of trip duration. Today I waved farewell to the sunny shores of Kenting and fist bumped the east coast city of Taitung.
The day started with a local breakfast in the company of my dorm mate Esther and hostel chief Ian. He recommended a well respected family eatery where we were fortunate enough to sample a delicious cold noodle dish called Ma Jiang Mian (麻醬麵). Incorporating the aforementioned cold noodles and a combination of peanut, sesame and soy sauce along with sesame seeds, it is entirely unpretentious and – along with one of my favourites lu rou fan (滷肉飯) – a great inexpensive dish for backpackers, or indeed anyone on a budget. After this scrumptious start, we headed back to the centre of Hengchun to find a huge bandstand in the town square with several people focusing their attention intently on the performer. Curious to see what the fuss was about, I wandered over and gradually started to hear what sounded like a rock band performing live, then was taken aback after seeing just one drummer on stage. To make things more bizarre, he could barely see over the bass drum or reach the pedal as he looked, in my eyes, no more than 10 years old. He knew how to hit the bloody things though, to be fair to him. From what I’d witnessed, his only competition was a girl of about 8 on a unicycle, and she was absolutely shit. Sorry little girl. Practice harder for next year.
It took about 20 minutes to get packed up and strapped down onto the motorbike before I was ready to set off on the day’s journey. My plan was to take the 200 road (AKA Bee-sting Boulevard) then opt for the only possible route along the east coast to Taitung. One of the cons of having boundless mountain terrain is that it can limit your choice of road at times. The main drawback about this isn’t that I can’t choose the route that I want to take; more that I’ll have to share the road with infinite amounts of cars, tourist buses, 12 ton lorries, and last but definitely not least, huge construction vehicles. Taitung and beyond to the north along the east coast of Taiwan suffer immensely from constant landslides, which dictate the frequent need for maintaining and rebuilding of infrastructure, just to add to the inconvenience. Consequently, if you ride from Kenting to Taitung or vice-versa, be prepared to share the road with every other driver going in the same direction. One recommendation aside from the obvious safety bikewear is a facemask or scarf to tie around your mouth and nose, otherwise expect to be wiping exhaust dust and road grit off of your face for the next few days. Heed this warning. HEED IT. Anyway, that’s exactly what happened, but more on that later.
I was more than happy to take the same road again as yesterday, actually it felt like a real treat as my first road of the day. My planned route all the way up to Taitung would be a little different to what I’ve become accustomed to so far, as aside from the obvious surrounding beauty, the area boasts a high population density of aboriginal Taiwanese, in fact, the second highest percentage in the country. The indigenous group here are known as the Paiwan people, and their legend is typically fascinating – their ancestors lived on the nearby Dawu mountain (on the border of Taitung and Pingtung counties) in an area called Paiwan, where heaven was said to exist. Since then, the population has spread out, but their identity has always retained that name. Good eh? Also, back in the 19th century they had several tit-for-tat minor rucks with the good ol’ US of A, most notably the Rover incident and the Formosa Expedition, the latter being the retaliation for the former; the killing of American sailors after their ship sank off the coast of Taiwan (then Formosa), but only because they started it by killing natives first. Apparently. For such a small island, Taiwan’s history certainly is rich and captivating.
On my drive through I certainly understood one of the reasons that humans settled here thousands of years ago, it’s bloody magnificent to look at. As altitude increases the scenery seamlessly transforms from clear blue sea to jungle canopies along a spine of rugged mountain peaks. This was probably one of the best photos I took on the whole trip, complete with Jesus rays and everything. Check it yo.
Almost every minute of the journey once I’d reached the 9 road was stuck behind a large, and hence slow vehicle, repeatedly kicking dirt and dust into my face like a wronged cowboy. Luckily the weather was better than expected, if a little uncertain at times, with oceans of dark grey clouds manifesting directly above and in front of me, while blue skies over the sea mocked me. I had to play a bit of a strategic game by choosing my breaks and petrol refills wisely to avoid the wrath of the rain gods. When planning routes during this trip, I could generally suss out whether or not a certain road on the map was interesting. Presumably the road would to be busy as previously mentioned, but I expected – at the least – something visually pleasing while driving along the coast. Disappointingly, it wasn’t enough to make the day’s journey a memorable one, considering the other negative factors. Also, the perpetual construction work was unmistakably evident, detracting massively from the area’s natural beauty.
By about 5pm I’d reached Taitung. Having only been here once before on a rainy morning I didn’t remember much about the place, but it looked far smaller than I expected (that’s not a bad thing though, before any Taitungians jump down my throat). Soon enough after pulling over and consulting the internets I found a joint with an interesting name. “Why Not Hostel”. Why not indeed? Great marketing strategy. It took under ten minutes to reach the spot I assumed it would be, however, it’s not uncommon for GPS locations to be wrong so I pulled over at the junction for another look at my map when a voice popped out of a window.
“Hey. Are you looking for the hostel?”
Where is he? What kind of sorcery be this? I look around for an answer, and the human that made the noise, but no luck. Suddenly, he appeared in view, sitting on a stool outside while calmly smoking a cigarette. I must have missed him on first glance, but this encounter unsettled my brain for a few moments. Before long, I was parked up and shown the accommodation to check it was to Sir’s liking (I am Sir).
After setting my bags down upstairs and being offered the grand tour of the hostel, I notice that the place has a lot of personality, just like the owner. After I compliment some suspended lightbulbs in the bathroom and the use of steel pipe to make shelves, tables and ladders, he tells me that he is quite a keen handyman, and completed almost all of the work here himself. Not just the decoration either, we’re talking electrics, the lot. As my football team were due to play later on that evening (Tottenham Hotspur if you’re curious) I made the usual enquiry to check if there were any sports bars in town that might show it. The answer was a regrettable no, yet he proudly directed my attention to the large projector that was set up in the communal area and hooked up to the hostel computer. Game on! All I had to do was find a stream that was showing it and I’d be in footy heaven. For some inexplicable reason – it doesn’t happen often – but it wouldn’t work and I failed to get any kind of a live feed. Thus, I was limited to drinking a couple of Taiwan’s finest tinned beers and constantly refreshing the BBC sports page to see the live scores. It turns out I missed a belter of a game. We won 5-0.
In a bittersweet beer induced light headedness, I decided to hit the sack. I had a few plans for the next day, involving a few abandoned building visits, one of them a cinema. Surprise, surprise…