Halfway through our program, after a truly exhausting midterm, we left on a Friday morning for a three-day trip to Taipei. This turned out to be one of the highlights of my program. Here are a few unique points that came up along the way.
Major Taiwanese roads are not highways, but “high speed public roads,” and true to their name, they are quite high speed. As someone whose home in the US is near a major metropolitan area, it feels strange to not be engulfed in slow traffic while on a highway. Rest stops are fairly frequent and are very well equipped: all have (very clean) public bathrooms, some vending machines, and one or two small stores that provide everything from local candies to full meals and anything else travelers might want. Some larger rest stops are tourist attractions themselves – one hosts the oldest tree in Taiwan.
That evening in Taipei, a few friends and I climbed Elephant Mountain – so named because from its peak, an arm of the hill sprawls out into the city like an elephant’s trunk. The weather was clear, but the air under the canopy was saturated with moisture and full of mosquitoes, and the steps perpetually wet. Taipei is in a valley where moisture collects and can’t be blown away, so it is often very humid. From the top of Elephant Mountain, there is a stunning view of Taipei 101, protruding from a sea of lights, and the heavy silhouette of Yangmingshan behind it illuminated by a dusky sunset the color of red-hot iron.
The second day, we left for a daytrip to Shifen and Jiufen, on the northeast coast of Taiwan. Both are remote coal, copper, and gold mining towns, remnants from Taiwan’s era of industrialization. To get there, first, a subway ride, connecting to a main rail line, connecting to a mountain rail line, which passes right up Shifen’s main street and deposits one right at the end. Shifen is built on both sides of a rugged canyon, spanned by a long footbridge. Roughly a mile downstream is a large waterfall, but to me, the rough, natural terrain was more beautiful. The side of the canyon with the rail line is the main tourist attraction, but across the river is where many ordinary citizens still live. After being immersed in the exhaust, concrete, traffic, and noise of Tainan and Taipei, it feels amazing to be out in a more natural environment, under a cloudless sky and burning sun.
Jiufen is much better known and is a major tourist attraction. Nestled on sheer cliffs above a natural harbor, its houses are crammed together and on top of one another; some are built directly into the mountainside. Traversing a block requires wading through thick crowds of tourists while climbing narrow, winding, nearly vertical stairs. After exploring a little, we ate dinner on a roof and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains.
I compare my memories with what I’ve written, and I find the words don’t do it justice. The summer air in Taiwan seems to sparkle; the sky seems bluer than anywhere else, and the world under my shoes more solid. As I’m planning to stay here for a while, I hope this feeling stays with me and is not just the excitement of being in a new country.
By: Gregory Laslo
Program: Taiwan Intensive Summer Language Program, Tainan, Taiwan
Term: Summer 2019