Category: Hikes, Bikes and the Great Outdoors

Last week was 10/10 day in Taiwan, which is known as Taiwan’s national holiday. So we all got a day off and were very happy and excited. I decided to go with a couple of friends to Yelio GeoPark on the north coast of Taiwan. It’s not a big park but it has some amazing rock formations dating back…a long time. The link provides a bit of brief history. After grabbing lunch we got to the park and I saw a guy there that I had accidentally bumped into in the restroom earlier that day. He was hanging out with his friends just inside the entrance. As soon as he spotted me, he made a beeline over and asked if he could take a picture with me. I swear. This happens every time I venture outside of Taipei. For as many people who have random pictures of me posted all over face book I should be famous. Why aren’t I? My two girlfriends, Nina and Jersey, looked shocked. I don’t think they understood what was happening or what the guy wanted at first, but at this point I’m pretty used to it. I thought about refusing (it crossed my mind to charge him) but then decided not to be a dick and just take the picture. At least he asked. As soon as I said yes, his entire group of friends leaped up to cram themselves into the shot. I made the girls pose too. If I had to do it then it’s only fair that they should too. They ended up snapping a couple before we extricated ourselves. It gets a little annoying but I have to laugh. I don’t think I’ve ever asked someone to take a picture with me unless they were famous. Not even then come to think of it.

Approaching the promontory.

Yelio is amazing. The rock formations are unique. The hoodoo stones look like gigantic stone bulbs planted on top of long thick stems made of sandstone. We walked around a few of them occasionally stepping near the surf. Nina got yelled at by the park guides for stepping over the red line painted near the edge of the cliffs. I get yelled at for touching one of the stones. Those guys take their job seriously. However, the area I liked the best was the promontory away from the actual formations. Step-by-step, as we walked further and further along the promontory, it began to feel we were entering another world. The sound of people and the city fell away, with only the occasional sounds being carried by the wind. The area was peaceful and quiet. We walked into a small cave that led back out to the promontory, and meandered down the coast for

Nina and Jersey in front of the cave.

probably an hour. It was the cleanest coast I’ve ever seen in Taiwan, and the most exotic. The entire promontory appeared to be made of sandstone. Hundreds of pools littered the stone near the water, constantly pounded by the relentless surf. The wind picked up and the sun was blotted out of the sky, but despite threatening to rain, we only had to endure occasional sprinkles. The sandstone was covered with hundreds of ridges layered one on top of the other. We chanced on a cliff overlooking the coast with a pack of wild dogs lolling around at its top. One stood, king of all he surveyed, and stared down at us curiously for a time. Another made his way down and picked through the sand for something to eat. There were areas completely covered by sandstone, with unique formations in every direction. In many areas water had etched away at the stone leaving behind beautifully carved lines in hues of red, orange, and copper. I could have stayed there for hours.

This doesn’t show the half of it.

Eventually, we made our way back and explored more of the hoodoo stones, but time was running short and we had a bus to catch. While we waited, we walked through the tourist market and picked up fried fish full of roe, and toasted fish flavored with sesame seeds. They are a common snack in Taiwan and I because I’d had them before, I picked up a bag for myself. We couldn’t stay all day, regretfully, but I found this trip to be an enjoyable excursion from Taipei. I definitely recommend an afternoon at Yehlio.

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Taipai 101, Keelung River, riverside park and airport.

Recently, a friend posted on FB asking if anyone wanted to do anything outdoorsy. By coincidence this was one of the rare days that I didn’t already have planned out nor were my legs and back particularly acting up. Why not? I thought. It was the type of day that is a shame to spend indoors.

Because I couldn’t handle a bike ride yet, and I definitely can’t handle carrying it down three flights of stairs, we looked around on-line for a hike that I thought I could handle. Taiwan has numerous trails, many of them in or near Taipei. Unfortunately, because Taipei is in a valley and surrounded by mountains, it’s hard to find hikes that don’t require me to be physically fit but I managed to find a site that advertised urban hikes in Taipei.

We chose Jiantan Trail. Steve, Jeremy, and I met up at Jiantan MRT, and walked the four minutes over to the trailhead. Along the way we discussed (my oh-so-favorite subject) my back herniation and their various past and present back problems. I had to laugh. All three of us were in our early thirties, and all three of us currently have an assortment of back problems. From sciatica and general back pain, to bone spurs and biking accidents and circling back to more sciatica and treatment for all three.

Pathetic. We three, young, active sporty people, who all feel as if we are still in the prime of our lives, walked up several hundred stairs up the mountain discussing the efficacy of acupuncture, cortisone shots, and medication. It’s a sad sorry thing to realize that at the ripe old age of thirty, I currently have the body of a 40+year-old. Laughable really.

We made our way up the mountain, and ran came across some  temple grounds.

There’s always a temple around.

Where the locals were celebrating Moon Festival. Of course, it wouldn’t have been a celebration if someone wasn’t singing KTV, and we feared for their enjoyment. But then we stumbled across this:

It’s all about the KTV.

We continued on past the temple and strolled the temple grounds for a bit, searching for the continuation of the trail when we ran across an old-school swing set seesaw. I haven’t played or seen one of these since I was a kid. What fun to find one in Taiwan, rusting away up in the mountains at some temple? You won’t these types of old school toy sets in the US anymore. No company could get away with making such a “dangerous” product for today’s sheltered children.

What is this doing at a Temple in Taiwan?

While there we were accosted by an old man who insistently encouraged us to get off the hiking path. Although he spoke English, we had a hard time understanding him. The only thing we could figure out was that he seemed to want us to take some overgrown trail straight up the side of the mountain. Jeremy volunteered to climb up there to see what all the fuss was about. Predictably, it was nothing. He walked around for a minute, clawing his way through some bushes only to see a bunch random trash and barbed wire lying all over the place. There was no trail, no scenic view, and no shortcut to the trail we were already on. Nothing at all to see or enjoy. After Jeremy came back down, the old man then smiled and indicated our path would take us to a nice scenic view too.

I’m pretty sure this guy was just fucking with us. I hate it when Taiwanese people do this. I don’t like being stopped in the street or in the mountains or anywhere, in fact, by overly curious people wanting to know every detail of my life. People offering unasked for help in minimal English, particularly when we clearly knew where we were going, is painfully annoying. I know the Taiwanese pride themselves on being particularly friendly and helpful to foreigners, but Jesus Christ. Let’s not go overboard.

We continued walking around the extensive temple grounds. Typically, the facilities are spaced out over a large area. We saw the outdoor gym, bathrooms, gardens, and various meditation spots. Jeremy took a few scenic photos of the city. We had a great vantage point of Taipei 101, the Keelung River, Dajia Riverside Park, and Songshan Airport.

Let’s get our work out on…

Trip anyone?

Every so often the trails would branch off. Sometimes they had signs and we knew where to go, but occasionally a sign was missing. Never did we find the path branches and various trail markers to be congruent with the map at the temple. None of us particularly wanted to backtrack, so we decided to continue to Jainan Road Station on the brown line. I’ve never taken the brown line that far north before and was interested in taking a look.

A lovely Sunday stroll through the city.

Following the “directions” posted ever so often we attempted to find Jainan Rd. MRT. We lost the trail when it turned into a road but figured if we kept going down we would walk back into civilization with no sweat. Then we lost the road near an army facility where several stray dogs were roaming and decided to go down a very steep driveway/road. It was unclear which one it was at that point, but my drive way suspicions were confirmed when we  dead ended at a house. For the first time ever I saw a cactus in Taiwan. I didn’t even know they could grow in such a wet tropical environment.

How is this thing alive?

No one wanted to backtrack up the insanely steep driveway, so Jeremy scouted around and found a very overgrown path that continued further down. We took that, passing by someone’s garden, and an old, presumably private graveyard, and eventually met up with our previous hiking path at the bottom of the mountain. The path continued up over a traffic tunnel but I pointed out that we could just take the tunnel and avoid the climb. We did. It was long and loud, and when we emerged I realized we had turned back west rather than east. Whoops!

We were losing the light, didn’t know where we were, nor how to get to Jainan MRT. Things were beginning to look scary and bleak as we contemplated the long walk back to the hiking trail in the dark and even longer walk to the train station.

Just kidding. We were still in Taipei, so we did the sensible thing and flagged down a cab, got back to the red line in five minutes, and went home.

Awwww, did you really think we had a scary hiking adventure in northern Taipei? Don’t be silly.

All in all it was a beautiful day, a fun easy-going hike, and a positive step toward activity for me. I’d recommend it for anyone wanting a short relaxed hike without having to leave the city.

Scuba diving has long been a dream of mine and one I had pretty much given up on.  So when I heard from a friend last October that he was going through a course, and it was offered in English, I knew this was my chance to finally realize a life long dream.

I completed the course last weekend.

So, did a beam of light shine down from on high and glorious alleluias fill the air when I finally dove?  Please.

I’m ashamed to admit a tiny part of me had expected it to.

The day dawned sunny in Taipei, but when we got to the coast it was raining and continued to rain for nearly the entire day.  The first dive was probably the worst. I got cold, the visibility in the water was poor, I smacked my head against my air tank several times (that hurt), swallowed some disgustingly salty seawater, and in general struggled the whole dive through.  Most annoyingly, my mask consistently fogged up so that I would have to clear it with water once a minute.  Which then made my eyes burn from the salt. I couldn’t see anything and that really pissed me off.  I was happy when the dive ended and wondered why in the world I invested so much of my time, money, and energy into learning this sport.

Even though we did a lot of training exercises on the second dive, it ended up being a lot more fun.  This time I wore a diving hood, which made me look like a douche bag, but kept me warm under the water.

I’m officially cool.

I don’t know if it was the hood or just the lowered expectations from the first dive, but it was a totally different experience. Exhilarating, fun, and full of random fish and wild life.

And trash. Lots and lots of trash littering the ocean floor.  It was depressing to see and even more depressing to know that this litter is in every waterway on this planet.  It makes me want to become a tree hugging environmentalist in the worst way.

I don’t know what this is called.

The second day dawned bright and clear and was a better day by far.  Again, on the first dive I struggled a bit. I got cold again, hungry, and we had to fight the, admittedly mild, current to see not a lot of anything.  Because the waves were high at the standard entry point, we had to walk in from the beach.  We struggled through waves and slippery rocks in our wet suits, lugging a very unwieldy extra 35 pounds before we got far enough in where we could swim.  No matter how much I tried to adjust it the weight belt dug into my hips the whole way.  Then we had to swim along the surface for a while to get to a good diving point.  The visibility was better than the day before, but still not as awesome as it could be. Or at least that’s what Dennis and Nigel, our instructors, told us.  The guys made a strong effort to go out of their way to show us all the cool things that can be seen under the water.

We found Nemo, coral, and tons of other random sea life.  I did not see Sponge Bob, nor any of his friends.  At one point we swam through a school of puffer fish and some other assorted fish I can’t name.  At first I didn’t see them but then some instinct prompted me to look up. Above me I could see hundreds of little fish swimming around, minding their own business, with the fattier, boxier puffer fish serenely swimming among them.  It was pretty cool to see and I think it was at that point that I really started to have fun.  We saw banded shrimp which were a very unusual color, a sea anemone (by far the sweetest thing) and a wide variety of other life.

Banded Shrimp

At the end of each dive we practiced a 3 minute safety stop. This is a stop that takes place about five meters under water and is designed to give your body extra time to dump some of the nitrogen build up that occurs.   While doing the safety stop I spent my time scanning over the rocks in our area, often completely upside down, and finding more and more life in all the crevasses.  It was amazing.    I can’t wait to dive for the first time outside of a training group.  As long as I’m warm enough I could easily spend hours down there.

There is just something so incredible about seeing up front and personal the same creatures I’ve only ever seen in a nature show.  To experience every part of it, from the mask suctioned onto my face, breathing dry tank air, feeling the current pull at my body, to the cold water flow around me, and knowing that I was there.  I was there, it was happening and none of it was a dream.

One of the things that our training book talked about was how not every dive was going to be a fun and enjoyable experience. That when you spend time out in nature, its sure to take a crap on you at one point or another. Conditions won’t always be good, you’ll get cold, hungry, the current will be too strong and on and on.  I’m glad I read that chapter of our book before we went out to do the dives.  If I hadn’t , I might have been too disheartened to try to pursue diving even taking into account the sense of wonder I felt.

Instead, I’m planning to go diving when I go on vacation in June.  With a more realistic view of what I’m doing and the inherent dangers I’m courting, I ready to do some diving for the strict purpose of having pure fun.

I can’t wait.

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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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I went on another hiking expedition to Yingge which is a small town about twenty minutes out of Taipei.  Sunday dawned dreary and rainy, mildly cold and humid, and it took everything I had to drag myself out of bed.

We were all meeting at Taipei Main Station which is the mother of all stations. Not only is it a high traffic transfer point between two major metro lines, but it is also the main bus station in Taipei, the departure point for the high-speed rail station and a stop for the regular train station. You can check out a map of it here. It also connects to a city mall, a metro mall, a bookstore, and the Taipei New World Shopping Center, and apparently there are a few hard to find entrances to the outdoors thrown in.

Naturally since I had never had to use the train station before I ended up wandering around for forty minutes before I started to get pissed.  I was on the verge of giving up and going home but ended up calling one of the leaders of the group and he came and got me.

Yingge is known for its old town streets (two) full of pottery shops and kilns. The area has a rich history of pottery making dating back some 200 years.

Oh, and they also have a famous rock.

we hiked up to the rock to check it out. There wasn’t too much to see but I did get a couple of nice pictures of the town below, and it was nice to hike around even if only for half an hour.

On our way back down we stumbled across another temple with some very cool architecture and a lucky brass (at least I think it was brass) one-horned bull inside. Temples are everywhere in Taiwan. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to avoid them, but I enjoy the sense of peace that comes from them, the heady yet relaxing smell of incense and the cool designs. Also, it had a giant one-horned bull.  Hard to beat that. The idea is to rub the bull all over for various kinds of good luck. Naturally we all got some quality rubbing time in just in case it worked.

While we were there we watched a woman dancing around a gigantic incense burner, apparently in a trance. Whether she was or not, I don’t know. It was kinda weird and I didn’t grasp the significance of what was going on, why she was dancing around or anything else.

Later we went down and walked around the Old Town eating at a little restaurant  called the Police Station. The food there was pretty good and a welcome relief after avoiding some greasy looking noodle places and the reek of stinky tofu floating on the air from nearby vendors.

We went to one of the local pottery stores and watched a demonstration given a young professional. It looked so easy when he showed us what to do.

It wasn’t. I think I destroyed about six or seven lumps of clay before I got too frustrated to continue.  Thankfully the staff were true professionals and helped those of us that needed it along the way. It was an interesting experience.  Molding the clay was at once both startlingly simple and yet deceptively difficult to do.

We finished off by decorating our works of art and choosing our glazes and we pretty much headed home right after. We didn’t spend any time looking at most of the other ceramic stores in the area which is a shame, but I think most of us were just too tired to extend the expedition for longer.

Besides, it will give me a reason to go back sometime in the future.


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