Monday, June 29, 2015

童年的紙飛機現在終於飛回我手裡 / a very, very long post

Last Sunday, I returned from my 12-day trip to Taiwan with my friend, Angie (if you are reading this, hiiiii!!). It was my first time going there without my family, and my final taste of motherland before I leave for the windy and exciting city of Chicago in September.

Our first stop was Tainan, 台灣的美食之都 (Taiwan's culinary capital) and also my hometown. Two days there were enough for me to realize how much had stayed the same - and all that had changed. 孔廟(Confucius Temple) still has its place in the center of the city, although the surrounding walls have now come down. The 國立台灣文學館(Museum of Taiwanese Literature) remains a welcome shelter for people to 避暑 (avoid the heat) and read about Taiwan's literary past, although the former seems to be the preferred option these days. Most surprisingly of all, the newly-revamped 奇美博物館 now looks like Versailles/The White House/something you'd find in Rome. My family friends tell me that it is the largest art museum in Asia, and I feel a surge of pride.

Here was the sunset we saw on Day 1.

Day 2 was a whirlwind tour around the city via 台灣好行, a travel-bus-package that lets you take any bus in the city (including the 台灣好行 tourism bus) and stop at various destinations throughout the day for just 88 NTD. We first took a nearly-90-minute bus ride to 七股, where we climbed the famous 鹽山 (the salt mountain; a blindingly white spectacle in the middle of nowhere) and began to feel the palpable heat that would pursue us throughout the day - indeed, throughout the entire trip. From there, we travelled back to the heart of Tainan, stopping at the 安平樹屋 (Anping treehouse; we didn't go in, though) and then to the desolate-looking 安平老街 that had been bustling the last time I visited during high season. We ate chocolate and vanilla ice cream from a U-shaped cone (you guessed it, one flavour per tip), the legendary 臭豆腐 (stinky tofu; ah, the smell of home) but saved space for 渡小月, where the most authentic 擔仔麵 (danzai noodles) of Taiwan is served. We went to both the flagship and the original restaurants, experiencing yet again a sense of the new and old in the same city. Time stretched that day as we hopped on and off a number of buses and strolled countless streets. I have never explored my hometown without my family, but I realize at the end of the day - with an almost childish sense of fulfilment - that I have what it takes to do it!

We left 台南 on day 3, catching an early train to 台東, where our biking expedition (the gold star of our itinerary) would begin. I was so nervous about missing the train that when we finally boarded and put our bags down, I didn't even fully realize I was speeding away from family friends I have known for more than a decade, the hospital where I was born, my 故鄉. Not knowing when I'd next return, I left it all behind at 300km/h. (We'd later be biking at around 1/15th that speed).

When we sped past 屏東, however, I was fully (and guiltily) aware. This was probably the first time I had returned to Taiwan and not stopped by 屏東, my parents' hometown. To be truthful, there is nothing left for me there anymore, apart from a childhood-defining meal of 涼麵 (cold noodles with sesame sauce and cucumber), my uncle's family, my mother's cousins and memories that I've recorded in my diaries and poems. Ah, I must admit: 屏東 will always be the one place in 台灣 that has the greatest bearing on me. Nonetheless, I remain seated on the train that flies past it.

Biking began that afternoon. Never have I ever felt so emotionally attached to a vehicle (I mean, even my name is on it!). 

I am my bike, my bike is me. We biked with Giant, for which I will be singing praises forever.

Biking began steadily and the stubborn heat seemed to bike with us. I fell off my bike at the pitstop, of all places, and would have to take care of my boo-boo for the remaining days of the trip. Yet whenever I injure myself, I always think of what Cormac McCarthy wrote in All the Pretty Horses: "'Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real." I suppose that makes things better.

After 40~ km, we stopped here for 肉包子 and 豆漿:
By the time we got to our hotel in 成功 at 6pm, 55 km (we suspect more) had been conquered. We had biked up unexpected hills, admired breathtaking sea views and begun to earn the beginnings of what would later become full-fledged bike-short-tans. Mine have yet to fade completely, reminding me that - yes - the past is real. We went to bed at ~11, full on a seafood dinner, and crawled out of bed at 5 am for this:

Day 4 was Day 2 of biking. We tackled a hill by biking uphill for 7 km and then, as a reward, cruising downhill to our hearts' desire for another 7 km. Here's where we stopped before the hill, with a perfect view of the famous 三仙台跨海步橋 (san xian tai Bridge). I have no photos chronicling the uphill journey struggle, but can tell you that I have never been so elated to see a tunnel (the endpoint of our climb) in my life. Angie pointed out during the trip that we can now discuss our college admissions process so nonchalantly. Alas, the same can be said about biking this 7 km stretch; draining as it may have been, it seemed hours away by the time I had sped downhill (going at nearly 40km/h). I had a madeleine moment-ish at lunch when 黑豆 (black soybeans) was served on a plate with something else that was completely overshadowed by its beady companions. The last time I ate sweet black soybeans was yeaaarsss ago, in 屏東, and my tastebuds have missed it.
At the end of the day, we ended up at an aboriginal hostel at 瑞穗, having biked 66 km (we suspect more).
Bless this tunnel

The last day of biking was the best, difficulty-wise. There were some mild hills here and there, but also plenty of time allocated for sightseeing. I had a taro ice lolly that I hope to someday eat again, and later stood on both sides of the split that divides the Philippine and Eurasian Sea Plates, the frequent collision of which is the reason why Hualien is infamous for its earthquakes. The wind that blew at our backs was fierce beyond compare. 

We biked past 稻香, miles of green pastures that reminded me of 周杰倫's song of the same name. A moment in my life that I shall never, ever forget is when we paused by more scenery to eat huge slices of watermelon while that song blared on speakers, filling the space between us. 稻香 has always been my favourite Jay Chou song, and now - even more so.

The last greens we saw before entering 花蓮市, central Hualien, were cabbage patches: green skies dotted with orbed yellow stars. We pulled up next to the Hualien train station at six-ish, having cycled around 72 km.

And thus ended our biking trip - 193 km is the official number, but everyone is sure we did around 200. I'd seen mountains with vegetation as varied as the patterns of a patchwork jacket, and stretches of water as subtly contoured as fine silk. I'd used up a small tube of sunscreen and experienced 3-days worth of heat that I may feel nostalgic for once I experience Chicago's winters. Biking in Taiwan adheres to three main rules: you stay on the right side of the road, respect the traffic lights, and remember to adjust your gears when going uphill. Yet our tour leader would consistently remind us of our motto: 努力騎車,用心看風景. Riding from 台東 to 花蓮 while admiring the view was the best way for me to know the east coast of my 故鄉.

We told ourselves that activities hereon would be non-physically-draining, but we would go on to break that rule for nearly all of the next 7 days.

Day 6 was a full-on 花蓮 experience, and we decided to go rafting. The funny thing is that the starting point of our rafting took us all the way back to where we'd stopped for milk and 包子 on day 2 of biking. I have zero photos of my 3-hour rafting experience (cameras were not allowed on the boat, for good measure) but experienced none of the thrill/risk of capsizing promised by the brochure we'd seen. It hadn't rained, so there was simply not enough water to push our inflatable rafts along. Perhaps going to 太魯閣 would have been the better way to spend the day.

Nonetheless, the bus stopped in front of this spectacular view on the ride back to our hostel:

And to atone for our 3-hour boat ride (and 3 hour bus ride), we spent the evening exploring the culinary delights of 花蓮市. A very handy map pinpointed all the notable eating-spots in the area. We first ate set meals at 王記茶舖, then bought taro treats at 洄瀾薯道. bought nougats, ate 五霸無糖包心粉圓 (dessert!), tried a bunch of tasters along the way, and I made sure I drank a tall cup of my beloved 木瓜牛奶 at a nearby stall. 花蓮的小吃 could rival those from 台南. We left Hualien the next morning, although I vow to return for more food and a tour of 太魯閣。All of a sudden,  biking seemed very far away.

Our next immediate stop was somewhere I'd been 2 years ago: 九份, a town/major tourist attraction on a mountain that we could only reach via taking a bus up a long, winding path. It is one of the most memorable places I have ever been in my life. But before we got there, we had plans to first 放天燈 (fly paper lanterns) at 十分 and, of course, have lunch. For the latter, we went to 瑞芳美食節: the food court at Ruifang. There, I ate 蚵仔煎 (an absolute classic), an oyster omelette, which is what I always eat when I go there. Don't judge it until you've tried it!

Although we first boarded the train to 平溪, we quickly returned to the famous train tracks at 十分, where friends and lovers alike send their wishes/dreams/hopes/aspirations into the sky via large, colored paper lanterns. 那些年,我們一起追的女孩 (You Are the Apple of My Eye) by 九把刀 has successfully boosted the tourism here to unprecedented heights. We'd see different lanterns rise into the dimming light, bearing words ranging from 減肥 (lose weight) to the typical 平安快樂 (peaceful and happy). We wrote "down with inequality" on ours, and it's nice to see that the US took a huge step in that direction this week with the legalization of gay marriage. Where the lanterns go is the question on everyone's minds, and we would later have our answer as we walked past rivers strewn with their papery bodies, the inked wishes on their skins smeared by water.

Nonetheless, there's nothing like writing down all (we filled every corner) of your wishes onto four sheets of paper to make you remember what you find important in life.

We spent Day 8 in 福隆 and 九份 proper. 福隆 is a seaside district at the foot of the mountains, down the road from 九份 itself. In roughly 35 degrees weather, we somehow ended up on bikes again, cycling 23 km in total (I know: why?!?!) from 福隆火車站 (Fulong train station), through a 3km-long tunnel (草嶺隧道, a respite from the heat), then back to the scorching highway towards 三貂角燈塔 (Cape San Diego lighthouse, the easternmost tip of Taiwan).

南雅奇岩 / Rock formations at Nanya

The top of the stairs leading to the lighthouse

The last time I was on this highway, I was in a fully air-conditioned car; I couldn't help but remind myself of this fact every 100 meters as I biked onwards, feeling my tan deepen every minute. Of course it was worth it, though. 

So we dedicated our whole night to roaming 九份, which is truly the time at which one should explore it anyway; safe from the heat and surrounded by warmly lit lanterns. 悲情城市 (City of Sadness) was filmed here, and I can't look at this place the same way anymore after having watched that movie (the soundtrack plays itself in my head as I walk through 九份老街, the old street.) The story of 悲情城市 is set in the context of the infamous 二二八事件 (the 228 incident) of 1947, during which up to 30,000 Taiwanese civilians were massacred by the then-newly-established and corrupt KMT government. Something about this gorgeous view is infused with tragedy:

One of the many 茶樓 (~Teahouses) in 九份 is pictured at left, with 基隆山 (Keelong Mountain) in the background. The former, lined with classic red lanterns, is the best place to see the sunset in 九份 and the latter is the best place to watch it rise. 

The very welcoming and hospitable host of our 民宿 (homestay) encouraged us to take a less-travelled path of which most tourists are not aware. Said-path led us past local houses to a narrow tunnel, which looked stunning when illuminated at night. We watched a couple of motorbikes zoom through it, their red taillights a fleeting yet striking presence in the yellow glow of the tunnel.

Day 9: we woke up for yet another 5:10 am sunrise, which we admired from 茶壺山 (Teapot Mountain). The morning passed slowly. We also stopped by the 黃金瀑布 (Golden waterfall) before leaving 九份. Its bronze color is caused by the chemical reactions of the copper and iron deposits that the river picks up. It was the last main scenic attraction we admired before heading down the winding road again, leaving behind the tragic, romantic and beautiful 九份, 

Days 10, 11 and 12 were spent in none other than 台北 - Taipei - a return to the modernization/globalization that we had escaped for the past week. Now, biking really seemed very far away.

台北火車站 / Taipei train station (geometrically satisfying design)
Day 11 was a public-transport-intensive day that echoed how we spent Day 2 in Taiwan (see how things in life can come full circle). We had already decided where we wanted to go, so I spent the early morning connecting the destination dots via GoogleMaps. I was ecstatic to browse Librairie Le Pigeonnier, the only French bookstore in Taipei. It reminded me of Hong Kong's very own Paranthèses. Next, we went to 華山文化園區, mainly to see the 幾米-themed cafe there. Then, we stopped by 女書店, Taiwan's one and only feminist bookstore - every book there is either written by a female author, about feminism, or both. Leaflets advertising equality in Taiwan (including cards for LGBT events and gender equality seminars) reminded me, with another sense of pride, how advanced  and socially aware Taiwan has become. One such bookstore captures, in a small space, the importance of democracy - in political and social terms - to 台灣人.  

信鴿法國書店 / Librairie Le Pigeonnier 
女書店 / Fembooks

We then had tea at 好丘 (Good Cho's), which serves bagels, before walking to 101, which now seems more opulent than ever. There, we spent over an hour in Page One, which was on a shocking 50%-off sale for all its English books - a great sign for buyers, a terrible sign for the print industry. Alas, this massive sale is not Page One being kind; it is Page One about to shut down. Finally, we headed off to our last bookstore of the day - 誠品, Eslite, Taiwan's beloved bookstore, an always populated reading space, a comfortable hub in which one could spend a week.
幾米 artwork on the wall
好丘 / Good Cho's

Despite the comforts of the city, day 11 presented a welcome return to the mountains (and more physical exertion), as we went to 陽明山. My uncle, who had a three-day vacation because of 端午節, kindly took us around for the day. I last visited 陽明山 when I was very young, and couldn't recall what I'd seen back then. I'm glad I went back: it reminded me immediately of the Shire. Once you walk up the stairs of the trail leading to 擎天崗大草原, molehill-esque slopes and ox so still you'd think they were great black statues will greet you. 
陽明山國家公園 / Yangmingshan National Park
After leaving the mountain and eating 粽子 for lunch (obligatory meal on Dragon Boat Festival), our last stop was 淡水, one of the best places to watch the sun set near 台北市. While the picture below conveys a sense of tranquility, it was around 35 degrees when I took it - majorheatwave isn't one's go-to synonym for "calmness."
淡水 / Tamsui 
But the temperature soon dropped with the setting sun. Here is our last sunset on Day 11 (once again, life comes full circle). 

I am always besieged by complex emotions when I return to Taiwan. That claim in itself may even be thrown into question: do I return to Taiwan, or do I simply travel, like every other tourist? I meet waitresses/bus drivers/people in the elevator of hotels who will wonder where I'm from and frame their questions by asking, "你是從大陸來玩的嗎?" (Given the political scuffle over 台獨/Taiwanese independance, I can't help but feel deeply grieved every time I hear this). When I'm with my mom, who is conspicuously Taiwanese back there, they'll ask me, "你是在外國唸書的嗎?" This makes more sense, but still stings. In Taiwan, I am not often regarded as a Taiwanese.

But the moment I am back, I am different, like an adult fish adapting to the waters of the stream in which it was born. As if I were doing impersonations, I'll subconsciously start adding more “喔s" to the end of my sentences and begin them with “欸s”, crossing the threshold to a territory of colloquialism whose contours I can somewhat outline. My accent will begin to sound more Taiwanese - but I fool no one, regardless of the intonations of my speech. Does it matter in the end, though? The distinct sounds of 台語 (Taiwanese) strike me as a melody from childhood would; they carry the crotchet notes of hometown, the tune of family.

Back in Taiwan, I feel like a tourist, an actress, but also - most importantly and blessedly of all - at home.

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