When Mama and the daughters came to visit us in Santa Barbara in early January, Mama realized that she had somehow “failed” on all my previous visits to Taiwan to show the country’s beauty. So for this visit, Berry (mostly) arranged a two-day trip for all of us to go on to take in the sites. They rented a small bus and a normal-sized bus driver to take us into the mountains north-east of Chia-yi.
So off we went at eight in the morning on a typical gloomy day. When we hit the main motorway, Mama busted out with the karaoke (mandatory equipment on all tourist buses) and Baba entertained us with his particular brand of caterwauling.
First stop was a tea shop a little bit up in the mountains. When the Taiwanese (or, from experience the Japanese) say “countryside” they mean anything that doesn’t have a mass transit system. Malibu would be countryside, for example. Anyway, this was “the countryside” even though there were plenty of convenience stores and tons of political posters for the upcoming election (total number of candidates: 11…or more). We were given a little teamaking demo by the co-owner of the shop, and given some shortbread cookies made from green tea (with actual leaves in the middle instead of jam). At first I thought this was going to be a typical Asian road trip, where every stop is some sort of shop. But the co-owner boarded our bus and directed us to a tea farm up in the hills.
The tea plant is not the most amazing thing to see up close, not like seeing an orchard or anything. From a distance they have the orderly look of suburban shrubs, and up close they are bushes of dark leaves. The mountain air is clear, fresh, and free of carbon monoxide, but nothing smells like green tea. A small monorail goes up the side of the mountain to carry buckets of picked tea back and forth. I didn’t get to see it in action, though. Today was the workers’ days off, so we were the only ones walking through the rows.
Next up was a leftover of the “921” earthquake in 1999, the 7.6 rumble that destroyed quite a lot of Taiwan and changed the landscape a lot. In towns that saw lots of crappy buildings crumble, they have quickly rebuilt and put up newer, still crappy buildings. Here, in the back of an alfalfa farm, they’ve left the destruction and can take you around with a megaphone-bearing tourguide. The site is a traintrack that was twisted beyond recognition. At one point the earth raised twenty-five feet, leaving the rail hanging in the air. Right nearby a section of rail was bent into a 90 degree angle. Near this iron pretzel is a large electric pylon that is now imitating the Leaning Tower (don’t worry it’s disconnected from the grid).
Of course, after this tour, they take you to the gift shop to sell you plums. Typically, I found, the gift shop sells nothing related to the actual site. A twisted, unworkable toy train set would be fascinating here, no?
Onward! And off we went further into the woods, stopping at Jiji Station. If you’ve seen Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Dust in the Wind, you’ve seen this station. Unfortunately, it’s now a bit commercialized, trying to look like some Swiss Railway concoction, with the usual plums on sale in the gift shop among other tat. The train station is still working, though. Nearby we saw another victim of the 921 earthquake, a fairly recently built temple that had collapsed on itself. This be would be oh-so-tragic if it weren’t for the fact that a) it was completed one year before the quake and b) the collapse was the fault of half-assing the construction (you can bet there were kickbacks involved).
I began to wonder if just leaving shit around and claiming it’s a notable evidence of the tragic earthquake is just easier than cleaning it up.
We then arrived at “Sun Moon Lake,” one of the major lakes in Taiwan, and one with a horizon that disappears into the mist…and the Taiwanese like it that way. The nearby town offers numerous restaurants and hotels, all quite ugly, and a harbor that is much better looking. We took lunch here in an average restaurant, the defining feature being the owner’s daughter’s pet: a potbellied pig. No, he wasn’t on the menu, and he had the run of the place.
We walked on the harbor for a while, which floats up and down with the tide, then continued on again.
I was told before the trip we’d be visiting a rice winery, but I was very disappointed, as it turned out to be one large gift shop surrounded by other, smaller gift shops. Most of what was available to sample was food, as well. Blimey. Rice wine popsicles. Cakes made of wine. Plums pickled in wine. Even an ointment made of wine, which a helpful assistant sprayed on my neck. My neck was on fire for the following hour. Wine samples were restricted to about a teaspoon and were mostly weak. And no “winery tour,” but rest assured there was a remnant of the earthquake outside, a busted storage tank with accompanying concrete girder, now reset in a water-garden display. Actually, you could have passed it off as post-modern sculpture. The place sold good egg tarts, though, creamy and with a lovely puff pastry crust. No wine inside either.
Just as I was thinking the trip was mostly going to be these type of places, we really went into the mountains, taking a winding path until we were thousands of feet up, all that was between us and a sheer cliff sometimes being only a concrete lip less than a foot high. And still there were flags and posters for this election’s candidates. Imagine being in the middle of an American National Forest and seeing a Bush/Cheney card on a tree.
As the sun went down, we hit our final destination for the day: Lu-Shan hot springs. The town exists on either side of a steep gorge through which a river rushes. The side where all the hotels and hot springs are can only be reached by a pedestrian bridge that spans the gorge, and it wobbles a bit let me tell you. There are several hotels on this side and food stalls that sell food that is boiled on the spot in various pools being pumped full of sulpherous water.
Our hotel is centered around the many pools it offers which you can use even if you’re not staying there (though what you may be doing in the area otherwise is strange). There’s a series of whirlpools, a “waterfall” that you can stand under, a series of jet hoses that massage your back with high water pressure. There’s a lap pool, a sauna, a steam room, and the usual spa amenities. First thing I did wasn’t swim but sign up for a 90 minute full body massage.
This turned out to be quite different from the ones in the States. First of all I didn’t have to strip down too much. Instead of tinkly new age music, the window was open, so I could hear the house music from the “activity pool,” the drunken karaoke from the lobby area, the constant white noise from the water, and the chattering from the people passing by the window (and looking in).
But the massage was gnarly, all pressure points. I lay on my side first and the masseur (yes, I know, bad luck, eh) started pressing down on my jaw and then my neck. Oh man, it was exquisite pain. First one side, then the other, then my back, then–laying on my back–my stomach. The man was playing with fire there, I tell you.
By the time I was out, most everybody had finished swimming, but Jessica was still waiting for me and so we tried the lap pool, which was excellent fun, especially as I’m still trying to find a foolproof way of teaching Jessica to swim. By the way, Taiwanese swim fashion judging from this visit is based upon outfits your grandma used to wear. In her not so risque but still small two piece, Jessica had the effect that the first bikini must have made in the ’50s.
By the end of the night I was pretty exhausted. Our room opened out onto a tributary of the river, leaving us with nothing to do but fall asleep to the sound of falling water.