There are times when I question if moving abroad was the best decision I could have made.  If leaving behind friends, family, career, the  chance to buy a house and the eventual possibility of settling down was really worth giving up just to live abroad.

Then I go on a trip like I did this weekend and those doubts melt away without a trace.

I have to backtrack a bit and explain that I’ve been wanting to bike down the coast of Taiwan for some time. That was my initial intention for this trip which didn’t end up working out.  The logistics proved impossible to put together in such a short span of time.  Nevertheless, I was determined to do something. I had a rare four-day weekend and it would have been a shame to stay and mold away in rainy dreary Taipei.

It turned out that no one I knew could go with me.  Though, honestly, I asked probably one person.  Whatever. It’s been dawning on me lately that I can’t let my expectations, wants, and needs be limited to what I can do in the cozy and safe environment of family or friends.  I faced that once already when I realized I was never going to find someone to move abroad with me, and it is something that has come up time and again ever since.  Nearly every new experience, especially since I’ve moved to Taiwan, has ruthlessly forced me (sometimes kicking and screaming) outside of my comfort zone. It’s an exhilarating experience to tell you the truth. Those zings of terror and insecurity do nothing but add to the overall thrill.

What finally made me realize that this was something I, too, could do on my own was a seed planted by a friend nearly a month ago. We’d been talking about the possibility of my doing a South East Asia trip and he told me by far the best way to travel would be on my own.  That when you travel on your own you can do exactly what you want, when you want. Your  trip is never dictated by the needs or wants of others, not to mention bad moods and temper tantrums, and when you’re traveling on your own you’re never alone anyway.  A lone traveler is much more likely to meet people anywhere and everywhere.

And so it proved.

I took the train from Taipei to Hualien early Saturday morning. There were no seats available for any trip that day, so I stood the whole way.  At the train station in Hualien I braced myself  as I tried to figure out how the hell I was gonna figure out which bus to take to get the 26 kilometers to my hostel near Taroko Gorge.  There was a gigantic map of the county on the wall near the entrance to the station that showed the general bus routes. I couldn’t have been looking at it for longer than a minute when, like a guardian angel descending from on high, a young Taiwanese man swooped in to ask me if I needed help.  Since I did, he and his girlfriend walked me to the bus station, helped me buy a ticket and even arranged for the ticket lady to show me exactly which bus I needed to get on before they left. I learned they lived in Taipei but were from Hualien originally, home to visit for the holidays.

I moved on to the Visitor’s Center where I picked up several maps in English, got further directions and information, and where the ladies at the counter also wrote down my hostel address in Chinese for me so I could give it to the bus driver. The ticket lady tracked me down right before my bus came and personally walked me out and flagged down the appropriate bus.  All this with barely a word of English. In fact, she even recruited another random young Taiwanese guy to stand with me when it got busy at the ticket  counter. He told me he was from Taipei and going to go to George Madison College in the States next year.  When he learned I’m an English teacher he hurriedly apologized for his poor English. Poor kid. I told him judging his English was the last thing on my mind and I was happy it was more than good enough for us to be able to talk.

On the bus, an older lady welcomed me to Taiwan (after eyeing me for several minutes out of the corner of her eye).  The bus driver took my ticket, ripped off a corner and indicated he would let me know where to get off. We drove around for a while, and when it came time to get off, naturally I couldn’t find where I had crammed my ticket and the bus driver wanted to see it again. It’s a peculiar thing here in Taiwan. I’ve learned this about the train already, but didn’t know it applied to  buses too. In Taipei I just use my Easy Card so I never have this problem.  For trains, you have to have your ticket scanned to get on the platform, present the ticket to the conductor when they stop by, and then you have to scan it again when you get off at your destination. I have no idea why three ticket checks are necessary.  It seems a bit redundant. My friend Zona thinks its asinine as well and she’s a local so I guess I’m not missing anything due to the language barrier.  After going back and forth about it for a while he ended up waving me off the  bus.

Checking into the hostel was no big deal, and I walked in to the Visitor’s Center in the Gorge only a couple of hours after I arrived. There, I picked up another map, had an informative discussion about trail closures (basically the ones with the best views) with the staff and headed off on my first hike to Shakadang Trail.  Round trip the trail is about 5.3 miles, and with the hike to it and back to the hostel I’d say the trip was about 8 miles in total. Not bad for a first day.

Shakadang Trail, while quite nice and certainly very pretty, was a bit of a disappointment. It just wasn’t as beautiful as I expected considering how much people rave about the Gorge. I had read a review on-line before I came claiming that the Gorge was no Grand Canyon,  but I had held on to hope that it was just a mean-spirited review by a spoiled American. I mean, come on. Nothing is “like” the Grand Canyon except for the Grand Canyon.

Back at the hostel I arranged to rent a bike for the next day. The idea was the driver would drive me and the bike up to Tianxiang about 19 kilometers in, and I would bike my way back to the bike rental place, stopping to hike some of the smaller trails along the way. All together a ride of about 23 km (14 miles). Then I met some fellow travelers in the living room of our section of the hostel. There were five of them, students learning Chinese and, of course, they were from Taipei. We ended up playing Uno and watching Harry Potter all evening before I  turned in.

The next day dawned cold, rainy and dreary. No surprises there. After eating a not so delicious meal at 7/11, my go to food stop all weekend,  I was picked up by a gentleman from Rihang’s Hostel who rented me my bike. We chatted all the way into the Gorge and he pointed out all the scenic areas where I could take side trails to avoid blind tunnels on the highway and which trails I wanted to take to hike.  I followed all of his advice.

My first stop was a temple near Tianxiang and it was while I was standing at the top of a tower, out of  breath and with adrenaline pumping in my veins and my pulse still thundering in my ears that I came to the conclusion that every sacrifice was worth it.  Staring down into the Gorge, listening to the water pound away at the stones far below, and seeing the Temple and statues loom out of the mist and rain was absolutely breathtaking.  It was worth it. Completely and utterly worth it. Every last little bit.

I explored the Temple grounds for a bit listening to a beautiful recording of prayer chants they had playing in the background, and then headed on my way down the long highway of the Gorge.  Along the way I stopped and hiked the short Lushui-Heliu trail for another mile, and managed to take some stunning pictures along the way. On the trail I walked through a brief tunnel. It was blacker than sin and for a second or two I thought I might have to turn back because I didn’t have a flashlight. I forged on ahead with one arm in front of me praying I wouldn’t brush up against some gigantic spider or cockroach in the dark. This was a more terrifying idea then stumbling over a rock or running smack into the tunnel wall. The very idea still makes me shudder.

After the trail, I hiked back to my bike, took a detour by the restroom and nearly had a catastrophic accident when I slipped down the stairway coming back out. I was able to grab the railing after sliding four steps and right before I cracked my head open so nothing happened.  Nobody saw me thank god. I had to laugh though.  Here I was climbing all sorts of trails slicked with rain and moss turned slime, scrambling over rocks and up and down stone stairs, roaming blind through tunnels, and  biking down a busy, winding and very wet highway often only a railing away from a long long drop to the bottom, and where did I meet the most danger?  Doing the most normal every day thing I could possibly be doing of  course.  Where else?

I won’t bore you too much with the rest of the day. I saw tons of things, walked on a few rain slicked suspension bridges, took hundreds of pictures. The rest of the day consisted of trying not to freeze to death as I got increasingly soaked and became colder and colder despite the raincoat and precautions I had taken.

The Swallow Gorge trail was probably the most stunning area I had a chance to see.  I’m not gonna lie, by the time I got to the Swallow Gorge trail I was cold, soaking wet and miserable, but I couldn’t just give up and pedal back to the bike rental place. Every few yards I had to stop and take another picture. Seeing the marble and granite walls of the Gorge especially in the mist was truly remarkable and I’m sad to say my pictures don’t do it justice.

Right after finishing the Swallow Trail I stopped at little tourist trap that was thankfully serving hot food. I ordered some dumplings and tea, and the lady was kind enough not to charge me for the tea. When she brought my food out, I saw that she had even thrown in a free banana.  I must have looked pretty pathetic to have earned that much sympathy.

The following day, I hiked Changchun Trail to the Shrine of Eternal Springs which was absolutely beautiful (3 miles altogether) and caught the train home, managing to snap some photos of the countryside along the way.

Altogether it was a great trip. As exhausted as I was, I returned feeling exhilarated and re-energized. I can’t wait to take another trip like this again. Hopefully when I do, it won’t be in the rain, but that might be asking a little much for Taiwan.

I learned a lot on this trip.  Mainly, that I can manage a lot  better than I thought I could and that I thoroughly enjoyed traveling on my own. It was exhilarating, exciting, and like a surprise gift.  Really, the whole trip was a major rush. Something I would never have found if I didn’t push myself to go out there and try something new.  It’s a really liberating feeling to know I can successfully navigate and get around completely on my own in a foreign country.  Because, seriously. Take my word on this: traveling in a foreign country is nothing at all like living in one.

As usual, you’ll find the pics below. I posted a ton of them so I’m not gonna narrate.  Feel free to skip them if you’ve seen the ones on Facebook. Sorry!

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