Dear friends of mine had invited me to visit them in Taiwan where they have been living for a few years. I spent a few happy days with them, delighting in family life, making day trips, picking strawberries in the field, and then I set out to discover the rest of the country.
Taiwan is famous for its scenic beauty and I got to experience this first-hand in the wonderful Taroko Gorge. Set on the east coast of Taiwan it is a must visit if you are ever on the island. But don’t take my word for it and convince yourself.
It was interesting to me that the gorge is undergoing merciless change. My guide book would tell me that this or that region would be inaccessible, the map available at the tourist center marked out different spots that would be dangerous to enter while others had been reopened, and the guides at the same center would have to update the maps by hand to account for recent landslides. Even in the secure areas stones came falling down now and then. This is why tourists are handed helmets on the tour bus before entering the deeper areas.
Currently, only the first ten kilometers of the gorge are open all-day. This part is fun but the most interesting sights are found higher up in the mountains. At kilometer ten there is a checkpoint that is only opened three times per day for one hour each. At noon only one bus goes through the checkpoint and of course I missed it. I was traveling with a guy from Hawaii on that day and we were considering crossing the checkpoint by foot but were turned back. Seemingly it’s too far, too steep, too narrow, too many stones coming down to walk on the road beyond the checkpoint. So we were feeling rather foolish as we walked back down, being passed by private cars and taxis that savvy people had rented for the whole day. Their happy faces were barely visible behind the typical tinted windows but still they seemed to mock us. We tried holding out our fingers and get somebody to pick us up. Cars raced by us by the dozen, but nobody stopped.
I was getting pretty irritated with myself and the situation, when a blonde guy on a scooter came racing up the street. Out of habit we held out our finger, and he stopped. He apologized that he would only be able to take one of us. My Hawaiian friend encouraged me to take that offer, as he would certainly find another ride and if not, he would be coming back to the gorge the next day anyway. I didn’t really believe that he would find someone to pick him up but I really wanted to go all the way up, so I hopped on the scooter, arms around my new friend and off we went.
I was a little bit timid to say the least, racing on a tiny scooter with another fully grown man, being passed by huge tour busses, evading stones that had fallen onto the pavement and only wearing a flimsy plastic helmet. But I was too interested in seeing what else the gorge had to offer. We zoomed through the checkpoint, exhilarated by the fresh air and the view. I was taking pictures with one hand while trying to hold onto my pilot with the other. A few minutes later a car honked and overtook us. My Hawaiian friend was hanging out of the open window like a happy dog and waved at us. I could not believe that he had actually found someone to take him along that quickly, but I was relieved that it had worked out for him. During the day we ran into him a few times, him usually shouting and waving at us from the car.
We took a short break to get noodles for lunch. He told me that he was from Sweden and I told him that I am from Switzerland. This made us laugh because our countries are always confused by people and in a way we were therefore fellow citizens. We ran into the Hawaiian again. He asked my Swedish friend were he was from, and upon hearing the answer, he exclaimed, so you two are from the same country! We roared with laughter.
When I had started my journey in the morning, I did not realize that the street leading through the gorge was actually a cross country highway in the truest sense, in that it was possible to go over mountain passes all the way to the other side of the island. As we went higher and higher the tourists subsided. It was only us and the occasional truck transporting goods. As we climbed further, temperatures started to drop. Not expecting such an extensive trip I had only brought a t-shirt and shorts, and soon I began to shiver. We had entered thick fog. At 2500 m we came upon a rest stop and decided that this was to be the highest point of our journey. It was not the highest point of the highway but we were still satisfied. We could have gone up to more than 3000 m but then the temperatures would have dropped below zero (Celsius).
My new friend told me that there were natural hot springs at the bottom of the gorge. Officially they were off limits right now due to a high risk of landslides but that locals were using them nonetheless. I was frightened and did not want to enter the area at risk, but eventually I followed him all the way down. The path down to the springs was well-developed from a time when the area was still safe, before the landslide.
It was pretty apparent that the springs had at one point been fully developed. The path leading into the gorge was in perfect condition, in part wooden steps leading through tropical forest, in part suspension bridges crossing the gorge, in part steps hewn into stone or poured concrete. At the bottom, remainders of concrete pools were still visible, even though they had been crushed by stone at one point. Nevertheless, somebody had cleared the area and made makeshift pools with gravel from the riverbed. People were idly sitting in the steaming hot water, and when it became too much to bear, held their feet into the river itself.
Having survived the journey to the hot springs, we packed our things and rode off with the scooter. We still had a little bit of time before the checkpoint would be opened for the last time of the day, so we glided along the highway and took in the views. We reached the checkpoint and, having arrived a little too early, I got us coffee.
Eventually, the checkpoint was opened. We found our place in the caravan of cars and buses proceeding down the mountain. One last time, the Hawaiian pulled up beside us. His face was lit up with glee, telling us that he had actually made it all the way to the top. He shouted, see you later, and zoomed off. I half-expected to run into him again, after so many random encounters over the course of the day, but that is the last I saw of him.