Today we walked through the gap in Taiwan’s coastal mountain range to rejoin the coast. Our path followed the course of the Xiuguluan river; a destination for white- water rafting in the summer. In this season, the water levels are low and there is little traffic on the winding road that runs the length of the gorge.
We left our Ruisui guesthouse at around 7:00AM and headed to the station to get a substantial breakfast and something to take with us for lunch. With no summer tourists to cater to, all of the shops on our route today would be shuttered up. On the east side of the station, we found a busy restaurant with something for everyone – steamed buns, noodles, vegetables, pancakes, fatty pork, soup, coffee, soy milk … Thry open daily at 5:00 for the farm workers and we were among the third wave of customers to sit at their Formica tables that day. The owner was interested to know more about us, so he brought a bunch of small bananas by way of an ice breaker and chatted with Tyson about our trip and the other walkers that he has served in his place. I had a pork bun and sticky rice with sweet, milky coffee and ordered a mammoth rice ball to take away. They filled it with pickles, egg, pork, a kind of Taiwanese churro and other treats, then wrapped it tightly in a plastic bag for me to pack. I enjoyed it a few hours later on the roadside, during a short dry spell.
Yes, it was wet almost all day – at times a soft drizzle and at times a light rainfall. As we set off from Ruisui, Tyson commented that this kind of rain, in this kind of temperature provided pretty good conditions for walking, really. After a day of it, I don’t think he was wrong – I was able to walk with the sleeves of my waterproof rolled up to my elbows and not feel cold.
So far I’m happy with the ultralight gear that I bought from Yamatomichi in Kamakura before this trip. I have a waterproof shell with a good which keeps our the rain from the waist up. On a warm day like today, I found that I wanted the hood down and sleeves rolled up most of the time. The hiking pants (also from Yamatomichi) have been comfortable. When the rain was at its heaviest, they got wet but dried out very quickly. I have no idea what the material is. The rucksack (a Yamatomichi “Mini”) is a perfect size for this kind of through-hike without a tent or sleeping bag. It seems to be quite watertight. If I had one criticism it would be that the detachable waist-belt pockets are too fiddly. I have to clip the belt together behind my back after I unclip it at the front to avoid letting them slip off the belt onto the ground. I miss the padded hip-belt and integrated pockets of my larger Osprey Talon. It seems nobody thinks that a padded hip-belt is needed for a 30L backpack, but I think it would be worth the added weight for this kind of walk.
The countryside that we walked through today was picturesque – paddies and fields with buffalo (with cranes on their backs, in search of insects to eat), passion-fruit orchards, bamboo groves full of monkeys, and dramatic views of the gorge. Unfortunately, though, visibility was often too poor to do it justice with photographs.
Roughly half way along the route, Tyson and I stopped in at the Kiwit museum of aboriginal life in the village of Kiwit. The museum features examples of traditional crafts – from textiles to basket weaving – and videos of the aboriginal festivals. Apparently, Taiwanese people are becoming more interested in aboriginal culture as they tire of modern lifestyles and see the attraction of more organic diets, less stressful lives, and closer knit communities. Taiwan’s indigenous tribes have held on to traditions more than native populations in other counties because they were so isolated until recently. The villagers in Qimai, for example, were not connected to electricity until 1992. Their thatched houses survived until 2010.
Our accommodation this evening is at the limits of my comfort zone – actually way beyond the limits. The number 11 guesthouse in Fongbin is owned by a 66 year old man who grows all his own vegetables, raises chickens, ducks and geese, catches his own fish, and does all the construction in his home. He’s a kind hearted old fellow and he spoke very entertainingly about local politics with Tyson as we ate dinner together. I just wish his guesthouse were more comfortable.
Tyson booked us a “suite” here for $1,000 NT$ each. It turns out to be two rooms at the top of a former agricultural building. Judging from the industrial ventilation in the bathroom, I think it was once a shed for hens. There are live chicks in heated cardboard boxes at the bottom of the stairs. The roof of my room is dripping. The wiring terrifies me. The shower temperature – after we asked the owner to turn on the gas – swings from cold to scalding hot. It’s better than the awful, mouldy, hostel that I stayed at in Dover last year – but only just. For an extra 150 NT$, the owner prepared dinner for us – a huge hotpot of duck (various bony bits), pork dumplings, blood sausage, surimi balls, various vegetables, and medicinal herbs. Everything home grown and organic. In that sense I am sure it was healthy. I tasted everything but I was too squeamish to fill up on it. As Tyson said, this place is a one of a kind experience. I hope it’s the only one of its kind that I encounter on this trip.