Puli 002 – Scootering in the Mountains
July 25, 2010
The next morning, I hopped on my scooter to drive up into the mountains along Highway 14. I knew that Highway 14 eventually linked up with Highway 8 that goes down through Taroko Gorge, but I hadn’t stopped to consider what that would mean for a leisurely Saturday drive in the summer. What it meant, of course, was heavy traffic as only Taiwan can produce it.
Had I been mentally prepared for it, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But I was still thinking along the lines of my scooter journeys around Fenqihu, Alishan, Chiayi, Taitung, Lanyu and the coast near Taitung. I wasn’t anticipating the heavy traffic that was waiting for me. I almost didn’t make it. A few kilometers outside of Puli, and I was ready to pack it in and turn back. It was out of control. I thought about it later, and it made sense. Taichung is the third-largest city in Taiwan with well over a million people, probably a couple million when you consider the suburbs and satellite towns. And on the weekend, these people are going to want to head to sun Moon Lake and into the mountains. It would be equivalent of the traffic pouring out of Toronto on 8-line highways heading out to cottage country for the weekend. Now take all that traffic on those huge modern highways, and condense it onto one narrow winding mountain road that barely has two lanes – and that was the traffic on highway 14. It doesn’t even deserve the name traffic. It was more like a parking lot – a long skinny parking lot where everyone drove as fast as they could winging wide on blind corners, passing and racing, stopping and going, total chaos. The flow of vehicles never stopped either. They just kept coming and coming and coming. It ended up not being the most relaxing drive through the mountains I’ve ever gone on.
Luckily, I have the habit of turning off onto side roads. In this case, there was a turn-off leading to a town called Lushan. I had never heard of Lushan before, but taking that turn-off was the best thing I could possibly have done. In one fell swoop, the traffic disappeared, and the mountain scenery got even more dramatic.
For that was one great thing about this drive even with the heavy traffic – the scenery. It took a while to get out of Puli, but once I left the town behind, the scenerly got better and better. And the road to Lushan took me directly into the mountains. It turns out there are two Lushans. There is the Lushan Hot Spring area. This is simply a collection of hot spring hotels and restaurants and that sort of thing. The setting was spectactular, though the buildings were fairly typical of Taiwan – clunky and unattractive. This place reminded me of Wulai near Taipei, except less interesting and funky. The setting was more dramatic, though.
The town of Lushan was an aboriginal town, though I don’t know what kind aboriginal people lived there. It was high above the hot spring area and getting there required twisting and turning and climbing up into the mountains. Above Lushan, the terrain got wilder and wilder and more beautiful, and though it wasn’t marked on any my maps, the road kept going and going. It went from asphalt to cement and then to dirt and rock, but it kept climbing higher and higher. I wanted to see where the road ended, but eventually even I had to admit defeat. The road was far too rough and steep to warrant going any further on my less than trustworthy scooter. If I got a flat tire or the scooter broken down up there, I’d have been in real trouble. I don’t think when Teri rented me the scooter she imagined that I would be taking it into the mountains to Lushan let along into the wild mountain roads above it. If I had to call her from there (assuming there was cell phone reception…) for a tow truck, I don’t think she’d have been too happy.
On most of these trips, I keep wondering if I’d have been better off taking a tent and camping out. It seems like a good way to save money and also a good way to be able to go anywhere you want witout worrying about accommodation. However, I never see any flat land anywhere. The mountain roads are carved into the mountain with a steep cliff above and below. As I drove above Lushan, I played a game with myself and imagined having a tent. Where would I put it? And other than the road itself, there was no flat land anywhere on which to pitch one. I hoped to see a macaque or other wild animal up there, but the only thing I saw was a single white kitten. It was obviously feral, but it stayed at the side of the road and watched me intently as I chirruped at it. When I made a motion to get off the scooter and approach it, it turned and ran into the jungle.
When I turned around, I turned off the scooter and coasted for many kilometers all the way down to the hot springs. I reflected that it would have been nice to stay there instead of in Puli, but the cheapest rooms I found there were NT$2,000. If I were having a vacation weekend, that wouldn’t be to too much to pay. But I’m just out exploring and roaming around, and I don’t want to pay that much if I don’t have to.
Traffic hadn’t lessened in the slightest when I returned to the main road a good four hours after leaving it. It also started to rain again, so my drive back to Puli seemed like a very long one. I thought I might go out exploring in Puli that evening or the next morning, but the scooter trips had left me pretty tired. Sunday morning broke much clearer than either Friday or Saturday, but it was too late to head into the mountains again. Looking back, I can see that I should have skipped Puli when I realized that it was just a nondescript city and driven into the mountains and taken a chance on finding a place to stay, but it was still a pretty good trip. I didn’t manage to get the amazing pictures of the mountains, but I’ll know they were there behind the mist and the clouds.
I spent Sunday morning in Puli simply hanging out, drinking coffee, walking around, and reading. I thought about visiting some famous temples, but going to them seemed like too much work. And I had to worry about checkout time. Hotels really should have an automatic late checkout time for the weekend.
I generally dislike backtracking, but lately I’ve found that backtracking on mountain roads is not so bad on a scooter. I drive really slowly and take lots of pictures and stop often to admire views, but even so, I seem to miss a lot of things. Driving back along the same road allows me to see the terrain anew. In this case, it seemed like a brand new road. I found I was driving along a river and toward a low mountain range that was between Puli and Taichung. I hadn’t really seen it before because it was behind me most of the time while I was driving to Puli. In any event, I found the drive back to Taichung much more scenic than the drive to Puli. Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention on my way out.
As always, it was a very disappointing thing to be out of the mountains and back in the city. All that concrete and traffic and the endless red lights. It’s a poor trade for the beauty of the mountains. The heat of Taichung for the cool of the mountains is also a poor trade. Puli wasn’t exactly cold, but it was much cooler than Taichung.
Leaving Taichung was a straight shot on Leye Road turning into highway 136. Returning was a simple matter of the reverse – following 136 until it turned into Leye Road, which ended right behind the train station on Fuxing. From there, it was easy to continue past the back of the train station, turn right and right again and drive past the front of the train station to Teri’s scooter rental shop. She came out to meet me, worried that I wouldn’t know where to go or what to do in Taichung. She asked me a few questions to see if she could help me in any way, but I told her that I was meeting a friend – my friend Jenny, who now lives in Taichung – and that I was fine. My original plan was to drive my scooter to our meeting place at a museum near her apartment, but I decided it was better to just get rid of the scooter first. Then I could shoulder my pack and walk to the museum. Doing so was no problem, but the backpack, which was carried with ease on the scooter, was a bit heavier on my back with its two liters of water and heavy rain gear, and I was soon drenched in sweat. I’ve never been much of a walker, and, fond as I am of Taiwan, it’s a tough call to say that the cities here are a pleasure to walk in. Interesting, yes. Pleasurable, not so much. I’ve often thought that it would be nice to move to a city like Taichung. I thought that it would have a small-town feeling and offer more options for mountain exploration than Taipei. And those two ideas might hold true, but not so much as to make it a big deal. The streets in Taichung are a bit quieter and less crazy than Taipei’s but they look much the same on first glance. On the map, it also looks like Taichung is closer to the mountains, but from the city itself you don’t get a sense of the mountains. There are lots of mountains close to Taipei. They are in fact visible, when they aren’t as visible from Taichung.
I met Jenny outside the art museum, and we popped inside to take a look around. Being a Sunday, it was quite busy, but it wasn’t overwhelming. The museum in Taichung has no entrance fee, and they gladly took my backpack at the information desk and stored it there for me as we wandered around chatting. The art and photography on display was neither here nor there for me, but I enjoyed strolling around and talking and watching people. Both Jenny and I couldn’t help but remark on the number of digital cameras in evidence and the huge number of pictures being taken.
After the museum, we strolled over to Jenny’s new apartment. It’s a unique place with a sheltered front area. It’s like all the car garages you see except that there is no wall or retractible barrier at the front. It gives the apartment a nice friendly face instead of the usual blank wall. The apartment is also unique in that it has several levels. There is an entryway, a long livingroom, a kitchen and a full bathroom on the first floor. A set of stone steps lead to the second floor where this is a second bathroom, two bedrooms, and a Japanese-style tatami room with sliding wooden doors. A second set of stairs leads to a small covered rootop area.
Dinner was at a local Hakka restaurant. Until quite recently, I thought the Hakka were an aboriginal group. I know now that they came over from China in a big migration quite a long time ago. Jenny asked me if I liked Hakka food and I had to confess that I had no idea what Hakka food was.
The restaurant was quite ordinary in appearance. It was a neighborhood place that, though it served good food, did not waste time or energy on décor or style. If the food was the first attraction, the owner, a rather loud and boisterous man, was the second. He held court at the cash register taking orders and shouting to the customers at the tables. Shouting may not be the best word. He didn’t shout so much as boom. He just had a loud voice. I’m not sure that he has a lower volume.
Jenny speaks enough Chinese to communicate easily, and she ordered a range of dishes. I’m very easygoing when it comes to food. I can eat simple fare without a complaint, and I can eat whatever comes to the table. So I’m always happy when someone has the initiative and desire to have lots of different dishes. I’d had all the dishes that arrived at our table before, but I just didn’t know what any of them were called, and I couldn’t have ordered them myself even by describing them.
The next part of my journey was a complicated one and involved leaving Taichung on Monday morning by HSR and heading straight to work. That’s all well and good, but there is the problem of getting to the HSR station. Jenny had information about a free shuttle bus that went past her neighborhood, and we strolled around after dinner to look for the bus stops. We found them, but the information all seemed rather vague and I wasn’t feeling very confident that the bus would show up when it was supposed to. I’d done my own investigating when I’d arrived in Taichung, and I’d tracked down train times for local trains that went out to Xinwuri – essentially the reverse of the journey I’d made to get to Taichung. My HSR train was at 7:12, and there was a local train at 6:26 and another at 6:45. The train only took ten minutes to make the journey, so both trains were an option.
Generally speaking, I don’t like to cut travel plans too close. I like to leave lots of time for every stage. I’d much rather have to hang out in a train station for an hour than rush to get there. My trip Monday morning was a good demonstration of why I operated that way. Cutting it close is too stressful, and, in Taiwan too hote and sweaty.
The problem wasn’t the train to the HSR station. That was easy. The problem was just getting from Jenny’s apartment to the train station downtown. My plan was to take a taxi there, but I also left early enough to walk the whole distance if necessary. I’d noticed that taxis were thin on the ground in Taichung. In Taipei, taxis are everywhere. You don’t even have to look for them. They find you. In Taichung, there didn’t seem to be nearly as many, and Jenny mentioned that they don’t always stop when you wave them down.
I left Jenny’s apartment at exactly 5:55 in the morning and started walking. I thought that left me plenty of time. However, I misjudged my chances of getting a taxi – which turned out to be zero – and the distance to the train station – which was very far. I saw a few taxis and they were empty, but none of them would stop for me. I’m not sure why. So I walked the entire distance, and I arrived at the train station at 6:35 drenched in sweat and with trembling limbs. I’d had to really move to get there that fast. I’d already missed the 6:26 train, but I had just enough time, assuming everything went well, to get the 6:45. Things did go well, and I got my ticket (for NT$15) and found out that the train left from platform 2. A long-distance train came in at 6:40, then my train was listed, and it arrived at 6:46. Ten minutes later, I was at Xinwuri and making my way through the long set of stairs and tunnels to get to the HSR. A quick stop in the bathroom and then a stop at the 7-11 for a carton of milk, a run up the long stairs to my train that was there and waiting, and I got onboard and dropped into my seat at 7;11 exactly. At 7;12, the train started to move. I’d made it with one minute to spare.
I was very pleased to find that the train was nearly empty. I had seat 5E, a window seat, and none of the other seats in my row were occupied. I thought about getting some dry clothes out of my backpack, but I’d been changing into and out of dry clothes and wet clothes so many times on this weekend that I was tired of it. I decided to just sit there in my wet t-shirt and let my body heat dry it out. I was worried that I’d annoy my seatmates with my sweaty presence – I’d heard earlier that bus drivers in Taipei will sometimes not allow sweaty hikers onto their bus because they will annoy other passengers – but I didn’t have any seatmates. A young woman came by with a food cart, and to my joy, she had hot coffee available.
My journey still wasn’t over, however, and arriving at the train station in Taipei wasn’t the end. From there, I still had to get to work. I had “work clothes” in my backpack, so I could go straight to the office. However, my apartment was only one MRT stop away from the train station, so it was possible to go home and, moving very fast, dump my backpack, take a shower, and drive my scooter to work.
I hesitated briefly, but the momentum for going home was there, and I went straight from the HSR train to the MRT train. My apartment is only a minute or two from the MRT station, and I walked there quickly, dumped my backpack, took a shower, got dressed in dry clothes and hopped on my scooter to go to work. I got there in plenty of time to grab a coffee and clock in for 9:00. It worked out really well, and I can see doing something similar in the future. It adds one more night to a weekend trip, and makes it that much more enjoyable.