04. The Deep South

  1. 01. A Breath of Fresh Air
  2. 02. Traincatching
  3. 03. Dutch Retreat
  4. 04. The Deep South
  5. 05. Dust in Time
  6. 06. Fire in the Sky
  7. 07. Kaboom with a View
  8. 08. A Free Country
  9. 09. Recycled

It is a pleasure to wake up on Boxing Day in a place where nobody has ever heard of Boxing Day, as one need not fear a conversation might turn to the dreary subject of cricket. We enjoyed a rare morning of relative silence, so our conversations didn’t turn to anything, dreary or otherwise, as we didn’t have any.

There was a bit of an altercation with the wait staff at breakfast. After handing over our breakfast vouchers to the woman at a reception podium, a host escorted us to a table at the very rear of the restaurant. It was adjacent to the toilets and next to a table piled high with dirty dishes, not just the previous dinners’ dishes, mind you, but three or four teetering piles of ten or twelve plates and bowls, a trough of half-eaten food at one side, soiled flatware scattered about.

I looked across at a restaurant full of empty tables, all set tidily and offering views of the sea. The table she was seating us at was so plainly the most horrible in the place, and it was so plainly unnecessary to seat us there, I had to stifle I laugh.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked.

“Yes, sir.” she replied, motioning for us to sit down. We ignored her, wandering towards the window-side tables. She chased after us, all but pushing us back to the first spot.

“You sit here!” she commanded.

“If that is the only place we can eat here, we are not eating here. Give me our vouchers back, please.” There were two other restaurants in the resort to get breakfast, after all. We started for the door, asking again, this time the receptionist, “Give us our vouchers back, please.”

Clearly this course of action was unprecedented in the annals of Taiwanese dining. The host scampered off into the kitchen in tears. The receptionist started making frantic phone calls, although pretty much anything the Taiwanese say sounds frantic. We waited.

Moments later a bulky businesslike woman approached with a scowl. “What’s da problem?” she asked, betraying a bit of a Brooklyn accent. I motioned for her to follow me, and she did, back to the suggested table.

“We are NOT going to eat here…” I said, a flourish of the arm emphasizing the rubbish to the left and the latrine to the right.

She was startled, almost speechless. “No…no…” She shot an “Are you nuts?” look at the receptionist — rather unjustly I thought, as the receptionist was fixing a problem she had not caused. Anyway, we were offered a windowed table, asked “This okay?”  This okay, we nodded.

I still haven’t figured out what went on there. Maybe they assumed two men wouldn’t care where they were seated. It could have been just an inexperienced host. Or a seat allocation program using a whacky algorithm. I can’t rule out discrimination against westerners, or gays. Very strange. Whatever the cause, the following morning we got the best seats in the house.

Otherwise, the Chateau Beach Resort was relaxing and unremarkable. Frank partook in a game of pool volleyball, played in knee-deep water, until he came down a little too hard for his liking.

park-entranceWe wandered into the nearby town, hiked a bit into the national park and walked the beach.  It was reminiscent of Florida,mcdonalds-mapthe natural beauty of the place somewhat besmirched by litter and unattractive businesses catering to tourists.  Also, there were lots of white folks around, with more than a few Americans. The Taiwanese are unambiguous about their fondness for Americans and the USA, which is something of an oddity these days.chateau-beach-resort

I remembered that tomorrow’s train had us riding seat-less and standing for two hours, something I was not confident I could actually do. Inquiring about the possibility of getting a taxi the whole way instead, the front desk staff seemed capable but hesitant to speak English. That is, until I started using my Mandarin, which is, um, limited. I have taken a couple short courses over the years, but not recently. Google Translate helped, too – in that it made the front desk staff happy to give English a try.

I was appalled to find the three-hour one-way taxi to the Taitung train station (from whence we had a train seat going onward) would cost NT$3,500. Then I calculated that came to about A$150, roughly what we pay for a round-trip to the airport in Melbourne. I booked it.

I am not a fan of car touring, but the taxi ride was a highlight of the trip. After back-tracking up Taiwan’s western shore for twenty kilometers, we turned inland, into the mountains, spectacularly green and lush, with dozens of mind-blowing vistas. Bridges from the sky had us plunge down to Taiwan’s eastern shore where black sand beaches are pounded by ocean swells making landfall for the first time since they left California.

As we drove northward, we came across several land reclamation projects, huge in scale, filling the ocean with rubble so the highway could be widened, or a grimy industrial town of ramshackle buildings expanded. These projects struck me as short-sighted in this age of rising sea-levels, but I have to assume they know what they are doing. One thing was certain: the small towns were destined for some big changes.

At Taitung Station we arrived exactly one minute too late to get a refund for the seat-less tickets we hadn’t used, or so I was told by the lady at the ticket counter. Honestly, I hadn’t expected to get a refund – it was only twenty bucks – but we had ninety minutes to kill, so I pressed my case. I explained that, two days earlier, since we were nowhere near a ticket office, I submitted a request on the train line’s “contact us” web page to cancel the specific ticket numbers, but received no response. Then, I went on, I had the hotel concierge call to the train company, the concierge reporting back to me that all was arranged for a refund at Taitung Station. Shaking her head, with a series of hand gestures the ticket woman blamed the computer.

She motioned for me to follow her to another counter, this one primarily dedicated to the stacking of forgotten water bottles and lost umbrellas. A more senior railroad official gave a variety of nonsensical and contradictory reasons why I was not entitled to a refund and/or I was a fool. She was, in every respect, difficult to argue with.

As I turned away in resignation, a middle-aged gentleman sensed my frustration, volunteering his teenage son to take up our cause. The son did so with vigor, speaking impeccable English to me, and using requisitely forceful Mandarin to speak with the ticketeers. Soon another railroad official joined in behind the counter, then a security guard entered the fray.img_4758Now the debate had four advocates barking on each side, with me, Frank, dad and son taking up the pro-refund side. Simultaneous conversations ensued, each following a unique line of reasoning, interrupted only by the need for translation and documentation.  Arms flailed, papers waved, wristwatches were tapped, eyebrows arched, fingers pointed, jaws clenched.

The final answer given by the “con” side was that I couldn’t get refund because the “big boss” was at lunch. I was more entertained than disappointed – but dad was incensed. He made me promise to take it up again when we got to Taipei, where a travelers’ aid foundation would carry on with a vengeance. It was touching.

Hey, if you are ever at Taitung Station, the box lunches aren’t bad.

Our train, far more than one minute late, I note, plied its way northward along the coast.img_4788Each passing town stood near an almost waterless river delta of perhaps a dozen branches with a billion fist-sized, rounded grey stones. The ocean winds picked up as the afternoon wore on, blowing up vast clouds of grey dust from the river beds.  Where the sun could peak through it created a post-apocalyptic haze visible for miles around these already gritty working class communities. img_4799

In between, mountain ridges diminished into the sea, relegating the train line and the lone highway parallel to ingenious bridge structures flying around, or even more ingenious but less visible tunnel structures plumbing beneath. Three hours later we reached this day’s destination Xincheng, adjacent to Taroko National Park.

Taroko National Park is a major tourist attraction, yet we had searched long and hard to find suitable accommodation. There is a fancy resort deep in the park, well out of our price range. The city of Hualien has a number of hotels, but it is more than twenty kilometers to the south, with little of interest other than beds. There are a couple low-end motels and hostels just outside the park, but their offerings seemed geared to the backpacker party-and-sex scene. (In principle, there’s no problem with that, except that at our age we no longer get invited to the parties, never mind the sex.) And there was one AirBnB property available in town, by all appearances a plywood shed isolated on a wind-swept plain of rubbish.

It was with gritted teeth, then, we had booked the Likko Hotel, without any reliable reviews, not cheap for this remote part of the world at A$160/night, but attractively only 600 meters from the Xincheng train station. Google Street View also revealed it was the only building in town more than three stories tall, which made it quite easy to find. On this day, the trip’s longest day of travel, it was a relief to find it right where they said it would be.img_4813

The Likko Xincheng Hotel was one of those too rare but very pleasant surprizes that reminds me why I love to travel. The hotel was brand new, sparkling clean, and our room was as big as a house. img_4793img_4797It had commanding views of the river mouth, the park entrance and the foreshore.  A gecko scampered about the mini-bar of our eighth-floor abode, inciting the panicked bellman to call in muscular maintenance workers who surrounded and captured the critter, only to release it on the roof, one floor above. He’ll be back, I thought.

img_4805Everything about the place was strange and exotic, yet comfortable and familiar. The Japanese-style toilet greeted anyone entering the bath by automatically opening its toilet seat lid, then making eager whimpering noises, swirling warm water about the bowl, encouragingly. It was like having a pet. I took to calling ours Donald. “Down, Donald, I am just going to brush my teeth. There’s a good boy.”

By the time we went in search of dinner, darkness had fallen, the wind was howling, and the streets drenched from a downpour. The hotel had no restaurant, despite having an attractive and sprawling dining area, inside and out, apparently dedicated to breakfast service. The staff explained our dining options: “China restaurant there [pointing down the road], Japan restaurant there! [pointing with emphasis in the same direction]” We walked in the indicated direction, finding the Chinese restaurant without a soul in the place – never a good sign. We could find no Japanese restaurant, but came across two others, both closed. Google maps unhelpfully informed me they were “Good for Lunch!”

Out of the dark an unmistakably Australian voice beckoned. “Pardon me, would you know where we could get something to eat?” A young wet couple stood shivering.

Frank replied “I was about to ask you the same thing! Australian?”

“Yes, mate. You?” the bloke asked.

“Australian.” Frank responded.

The bloke’s brow furrowed. “You don’t sound Australian.”

“No, I don’t.” Frank said, leaving it at that. The four of us exchanged what Xincheng restaurant reconnaissance we possessed, which took about ten seconds. Then we each headed in the direction the other couple had come from, ignoring the others advice.

Before long we were back at the hotel, still hungry. As we stood outside, pondering our next steps, the bellman exited the hotel. Going in the other direction, he entered a shack-like storefront next door. As he opened the door, the glow of fluorescent light and the smell of Formica filled the street. Aha! Before we could follow him in, he came out again, carrying bags of hot, cooked meals. Obviously, this was where the hotel employees ate.

1482838455603As we entered, the noisy conversation of a half-dozen diners came to an abrupt halt. The proprietor, a young woman, came out of the open kitchen, somewhat shocked but delighted to see us. She handed us the menu, all in Chinese characters, motioning for us to wait with one hand while the other fiddled with her phone. Her phone had an app that translated the Chinese to English when you focused the camera on the characters. I was amazed, never having seen such a thing.

The translations left something to be desired, but it was enough to identify rice and soup. We enjoyed “Pig Scalp Soup” and “Convoluted Rice”, with a couple beers. The perfect end to the day.