Encounters Along Taiwan's East Coast
A passage to Hualien, Dulan and Donghe
16 July 2015
Taipei: rite of passage
In our opinion, Taiwan is a country that most people venture to quite happily. No need for arm twisting or cajoling or pleading. It is an island of beauty, splendour and culture. And its size means that one should take their time soaking it all in. We chose to begin the first of, we hope, our many trips to Taiwan with the East Coast. To get there, we went through the lights, sounds and food streets of Taipei.
Taipei is sleepy. Where we come from, people practically bounce off the walls, so Taipei to us was practically horizontal and laid-back. But, connectedly so; there was wifi in every cafe, shopping mall and restaurant, tourists (like us) found their way to back-alley bars, and the food truly is phenomenal. In addition to the night markets that are an absolute pilgrimage stop, there are little eateries that offer honest-to-goodness Taiwanese fare. Some like James Kitchen have even been graced by celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain.
All trains lead to Taipei and all trains to everywhere else leave from Taipei.
Armed with our travel cards (悠游卡) - good for travel on the MRT (subway), trains and buses across Taiwan - we gamely took the Puyuma Express to Hualien.
Quite apart from feeling a slight tremor while standing in our hotel room - there was apparently an earthquake on 12 May 2015 - we found Hualien a pleasant city. We found little streets lined with shops, art spaces and a Mexican restaurant that served more than decent tacos and even better margaritas.
The city works as a convenient base for travels through the Taiwan East Coast. It’s the main pitstop between Taipei and Taroko Gorge and it’s where we were able to change some money without too much trouble. We didn’t see any foreign exchange outlets - the good ol’ “cambio” - and too few ATMs were equipped to take foreign cards. One typically changes money at a bank.
Taroko Gorge and the art of selfie
There’s no denying the sheer splendour of Taroko Gorge, which forms the Taroko National Park (太鲁阁). Getting there wasn’t a problem at all. Have YouYou Card will travel. We just had to check bus schedules in Hualien before we decided on a time to head out.
And the art of selfie? Well, it’s hard enough resisting the temptation even with boring daily happenings like waiting for the bus or a cutie-pie shot with your BFF. What more when one has the Taroko Gorge for a backdrop?! Proof of passage.
Dulan 都兰: one-street town
Akin to a labyrinth that one might utilise for meditation purposes, there is one main road in and out of Dulan. Perhaps more accurately rather, the road runs along the East Coast of Taiwan and Dulan seems to have built itself on either side of it.
It was a challenge to stay interested in the everyday rhythm of Dulan. Day trip, lunch at the much-touted Vietnamese restaurant, check email, a very scrumptious okonomiyaki dinner at the Sugar Factory and social media surfing at the hotel while chilling with the resident dogs.
Another much-touted attraction in Dulan is the Moonlight Inn (月光小栈). It is a recreational spot of sorts, presumably with some accommodation, a cafe/bar and an art gallery. We can’t be sure because when we trekked uphill for over 2km, the place was shut. It was a Sunday and just about 6pm. The Taitung tourism website states exhibition opening hours as 10.30am to 5.30pm. Perhaps we should have checked first. Upon finding the place shut, it seemed appropriate to yell, “Doooo Laaaaaaan”, with emphasis on the ‘D’ and the ‘ah’. In Hokkien, “du lan” loosely translates to a feeling of intense irritation and frustration, primarily as a result of someone yanking on one’s nether regions (’lan’ refers to the penis). Of course, the residents of Dulan know this. They speak Hokkien, after all. Like water off a duck’s back.
Irritation aside, it turned out to be an extremely invigorating walk. And beneficial because we passed padi fields that whistled in the light breeze, residents and their animals winding down from the day, and a most magnificent sight of geese flying in formation to their evening roost.
Taiwan’s East Coast is a surfers’ destination, and its waves are clearly big enough to create and sustain tourism. The coast is fairly accessible from the main Dulan road. The beaches of volcanic sand are a delight to walk on a low tide and stones and pebbles of myriad colours makes one feel like a child in a bubble gum store.
The next major town from Dulan is Donghe. We were lured by the promise of delicious steamed buns (包子) from a particular shop. But, we don’t suffer queues; few things are worth standing in line for. Tickets to see Dave Matthews are a fine example. So, we walked to another bun shop not 100m away and had those instead. They were very good and we even sat at a table and had soya bean milk to wash the buns down with. More important, the buns were served to us on plates. The supposedly famous bun shop doesn’t do plates; only rolls and rolls of plastic bags.
"Will you take two hitch-hikers?"
The day trip to Donghe would have been pretty uneventful had we not decided to hitch-hike our way from Dulan. We were exploring travel options - not many to choose from - and it was, in fact, our hotel proprietress who suggested we hitch a ride there and back.
It wasn’t as easy as we thought it might be. Stick a thumb out and a car stops, right? Not really. Several drivers stopped their vehicles by the side of the road to size us up. Too hairy; not Sailor Moon pretty enough; too cheapskate. One driver quoted NT500 (approximately SGD22) for the 15-minute drive. Paying wouldn’t count as hitch-hiking, surely.
We persisted and eventually someone stopped their SUV. The two gentlemen were of the A-Mei tribe (阿美族) and they were on their way to Taitung City. But, not before a quick stopover for dumplings (饺子) at a friend’s shop. Some of the best conversations are had with people with whom you might never see again. Unless, of course, you exchange email addresses; in which case, the conversation was, presumably, that good.
There and back, we rode in the cars of gentlemen who were Taiwanese aborigines. Several Han Chinese stopped to quiz us about where we were going and to assess if we were foreign enough to ride in their cars, but none offered us a lift. It was an observation that our kindly chauffeur on the way back himself made. Our return ride was with a postman from Taitung City who had just been surfing. He shoved his board aside in the back seat of his beat-up sedan so that one of us could climb in. He looked like he was enjoying his Sunday; chewing on his betel leaves, chatting with us and taking an unharried drive home. He was of the Paiwan tribe (排湾族).
East Coast Art
The Dulan Sugar Factory (都兰糖厂) doesn’t process sugar cane these days. But, it does house a few random shops, cafes and art galleries, and we saw signs of an office of sorts, complete with drum kit and instruments. Painfully hip.
Whilst the intention to convert the factory into an art space might have been clever, the execution didn’t seem to us to be too elegant. Most of the place was rundown and vacant, which was a shame because we saw plenty of potential in that space. Even the shops and galleries that were there seemed a little directionless. Pretty girls were selling cookies and tea cakes at SGD3 a slice on a makeshift table, and jewellery-makers set up stalls just at the entrance giving the place a flea market air.
The reason for this could very well be that space constraints aren’t an issue in Taiwan. So, perhaps there is no impetus to utilise every square inch of real estate, unlike Singaporeans or Hong Kongers who have grown accustomed to existing in shoeboxes.
There is ‘live’ music most weekends and it’s best to get your hands on a performance schedule of sorts in advance. The Dulan Sugar Factory Cafe’s Facebook page might be a good place to start.