"If you get a chance, go to Taroko Gorge."  

Not really much to go on, but it was my father's only advice when I asked him what to see while in Taiwan.  He served in the Peace Corps in the Philippines after graduating college, and visited the nearby island during one of his breaks.  After spending a week and a half bathed in the brightly lit chaos of Taipei, I was craving some rural landscape and decided to give it a chance.  

I woke early the next day with determination to make it to the breakfast buffet before walking to the nearest MRT (metro) station.  A few of my coworkers had agreed to join me for the adventure, newly engaged Josh and Krista, and my close friend, Rogelio.  After a ten minute walk to the City Hall station, we bought metro tickets for $20 NT (about 70 cents) and rode towards Taipei Main Station.  When we reached the train station, we had the option of purchasing tickets from an automatic vending machine or standing in a line snaking across the main floor to talk to a teller.  Some of the machines had an English option, but waiting in line for the teller can sometimes be worth avoiding accidentally purchasing the wrong ticket.  

Josh, Krista and I bought round trip tickets to Sincheng Station on the train bound for Hualien for $730 NT (about $24).  Ro decided to go back to the hotel after the teller informed him the only tickets left were standing room.  I can hardly blame him, as it was nearly a 3 hour train ride, but unfortunately, there were several seats available.  

On the ride there I sat next to the window and a man who smelled of day old fish and cigarettes.  Halfway through the ride he began a conversation in broken English.  He kept telling me he had a friend who could drive me around Taroko National Park.  Although I kindly declined the offer, he insisted to the point where he shoved his phone towards my ear after calling up his friend.  

His friend spoke even less English and after ten minutes of repeating myself, and continuously saying "excuse me?" he told me I should hire a taxi once I arrived at the park.  I handed the phone back to my neighbor without attempting to explain, and assumed by the smile on his face that he assumed we'd resolved the matter.  

Later during the ride our train caught up with the shoreline, and I saw strips of sandy beach and sapphire water through the opposite windows.  When my new friend saw me take out my camera, he asked passengers on the other side of the train to move so I could take some photos.  Occationaly the scene was broken by walls covered in ivy and bright purple flowers, and for a while I bounced from side to side of the train, swiching from shoreline to pasture as brightly colored shrines sporadically sprang into view.  


I kept an eye on the LED monitor at the front of our car for Sincheng Station to appear.  After a while, the strickingly similar Xincheng Station began to appear repeatedly, and when I asked a passing train worker, he said it was the same stop.  Apparently letters can change based on the particular translation.  When the train stopped, I walked towards the car where Krista and Josh sat, and we followed a group of teenage boys carrying camping gear, figuring they were probably heading towards the National Park.  

When we reached the parking lot, they got into a cab, and we decided to follow suit.  I had to interrupt a group of cabbies clearly on their break who were playing cards nearby.  Once we were settled in the taxi, the driver showed me a laminatted sheet of pictures with prices attached.  He began speaking Mandarin, as I continuously shook my head in confusion.  After a while, I began to understand that he was trying to get me to pick a tour option from the sheet.  

"No," I said, "just a ride to the park," as I pointed to a photo of the park's entrance.  He looked a bit offended but I was pretty sure he understood.  Later that day, we realized that most people travel through the park by taxi, although it is completely doable and usually safe to hitch hike.

When we arrived at the entrance, I paid the driver $170 NT (about $8) and we walked up a curved road towards the visitor's center.  After looking over the free map of the park available at the center, we realized that the park was much larger than we expected, and began to wonder if we'd made a mistake in dismissing the cabbie.  After a quick lunch in the cafeteria, we walked back down to the entrance to try and flag down a cab.  This proved to be pretty unprofitable as all the taxis that drove by were occupied by patrons who secured rides at the train station.  

Being my impatient self, I threw caution to the wind and asked a kind looking couple standing near a car if they wouldn't mind giving us a lift.  They expressed concern about how we would return when we were done hiking, but I assured them we would be fine (without really knowing myself).  

They eventually agreed, and we all climbed in and headed into the wilderness.  Krista, Josh and I knocked knees in the back seat as we wound through the curvy roads of the park.  Our young driver introduced himself as John (or something that sounded like John, anyway) and told us his wife's name was Toby.  John told us they were from Kaohshung, a coastal city in the West, and were recently married.  They seemed harmless enough, and soon the hesitancy we all felt when we got in the car began to disappear.  

Along the way, we stopped at suggested photo stops and snapped photos of each other against backdrops of swirling marble walls.  After a while, it began to feel as if we were a family on a road trip with John pulling over once in a while for a quick snapshot and then ushering us back into the car.   At one point John made us all laugh by looking at Josh with concern and telling him he should have worn a jacket, and that he'd be really cold once we were up higher in the park (it usually averages somewhere in the mid 60s in the summer at the higher elevations). 

When we reached the head of the Lyushui-Holiu Trail, we said our thank yous and goodbyes to John and Toby, and headed off into the jungle-like landscape.  It wasn't long at all before we had our first encounter with wildlife.  Suspended between two tall trees was a finely spun web, and at the center, an eight inch spider.  We took a few photos without getting too close, and then moved on wondering what else we could find.  As we walked I read aloud info about the park provided on the other side of the map.  "There are 34 species of mammals found in the park, including the black bear, Formosan Macaque (rock monkey), serow, wild boar, and sambar deer, etc."  Yikes!  And we thought the spider was scary!

I went on to read a bit about aboriginal Taroko culture.  Apparently, it was a tribal rite and identification to be tatooed on the forehead around the age of 7 or 8.  For men, this would occur after their first successful head-hunt.  Woman would receive their facial tatoo after mastering the art of weaving.  Quite a big difference in what was expected of each sex!

About halfway through the trail, we came to a small suspension bridge.  Several tour buses were parked nearby, and there were probably a dozen or so people traversing the bridge.  It looked a bit rickety to me, so I waited until it was a bit more clear before climbing across.  I tried not to look over the edge too often as it was a pretty steep drop.  At the bottom of the canyon below, white water rushed past the jagged marble rocks of the canyon walls.  

After crossing the bridge, we followed the group of tourists towards another trailhead.  We were handed white hardhats, and wandered along the Tunnel of Nine Turns, an area originally composed of coral reefs that underwent metamorphism and transformed into the marble walls of the current gorge.  Signs stating "beware of falling rock" appeared frequently, and I began to wonder how much protection the plastic hardhat I was wearing could provide if the ceiling of rock above me began to crumble.  


Once we reached the end of the trail, we began to wonder how we would manage to find a ride back to the train station.  A few taxis passed periodically, but all of them were occupied.  So, I stood on the edge of the road with my arm out and my palm down, waving my fingers back and forth, in the gesture the Chinese use for "come here".  After fifteen minutes I had only received a few friendly honks, and no offers for rides.  Finally a large, brightly colored tour bus pulled over.  The  door swung open and a gentleman asked us where we were headed.  

Before we knew it, hands appeared to help us onto the bus, and the people sitting in the first few rows, stood to give us their seats.  We learned that the group was from China, and they were on a tour of Taiwan.  They all continuously smiled from ear to ear, as we answered the questions they asked in broken English.  In all the excitement, we failed to realize they were taking us to the Hulian train station instead of Sincheng where we arrived at earlier that day.  However, our little hiccup ended up working to our advantage, as a place to go for dinner was much easier to find in the larger Hulian train station.  

We ate at a small family owned restaurant with large photos of the main dishes on the menu.  Every family member, including a small eight-year-old girl who brought our drinks, had a part in the business.  As we ate spicy fried rice and egg rolls, we recounted our favorite parts of the day before catching the last train back to Taipei.