After breakfast i grabbed a coffee and jumped on a bus out to a town called Nanzhuang, which is a tourist destination in the mountains. After yesterday's debacle i wanted to try hit both the mountains and the coast in one day, but the bus took longer than i expected - we were really heading out to the sticks. The whole country looks completely different up there. There are trees everywhere and buildings are tucked into nooks and crannies and cling to ledges. The usual thin, low-rise row houses still cluster in the villages, but i also saw fully-detatched villas up on the odd crest. The streets wind and curl and meander and it gives the place a quainter feel than the industrial plains.
Nanzhuang turned out to be a little larger than the other villages we passed, with 2 or 3 main shopping streets. I wandered up and down looking for lunch and started to get exasperated at all the people trying to usher me into their joint. It's the first place i've been where almost every restaurant had photographic menus outside - it looked like a street full of "China restaurants" in Germany or Czech Republic, and was definitely geared for pulling in tourist groups.
Eventually i picked one and had to do a double take because the prices started at 200元. If i was in Europe i wouldn't balk at that, but here it just seems insane. Some dishes i recognized were mapo tofu, stir-fry meat and snow peas, yuxiang eggplant, garlic water spinach... Those were the cheap dishes - the more heavily meaty ones cost more. But when i know i can get all the same stuff at a cafeteria and my plate comes in under 100元 it just seemed excessive. I even tried to ask if they could make it small - xiao - but she looked at me like i was crazy. So i left, and in my low blood sugar grumpiness saw a place making wide rice noodle and just told them to give me whatever. It had garlic and spring onion and beansprouts and a light dusting of ground meat and cost me 45元. It was fabulously tasty.
Once i'd eaten, my plan was to take a walk, because as charming as this village was with all its little alleyways and temples on hills, it had pretty much all the same stuff as Lukang. I am becoming familiar with the Taiwanese tourist trinkets now, and i am not here to go shopping. But, for a change, i went to the visitors' center instead of just striking out on my own, because this seemed like a real nexus of Stuff To Do. I wasn't wrong. There are tons of Aboriginal villages and lakes and retreats and things to see and do around the area. There are lots of B+Bs up there too. If i'd know i would've brought my bag and stayed the night. But instead i asked if there were any nice places to walk. On the (English) map she gave me i could see countless hiking trails, so i kept asking whether i should take one or the other and she kept shaking her head nervously. She barely spoke any English, so we mostly used our phones to communicate. She showed me her phone: "very few people". Over here you are considered crazy if you want to go somewhere where no one else is. I nodded and tried to say that is exactly what i was looking for. Eventually she pointed at one trail and suggested it should only be a few hours and i could take the bus back from Xiangtian Lake at the other end.
I realize now that she probably hadn't walked any of the trails, or even known anyone who had. But at the time i picked up a bottle of water at 7-11 and a few little red bean cakes from a street vendor and headed out. (I can't give you the translation of the red bean cake because i don't know the name, i just ask for "red bean". It's basically two little halves of a pastry filled with either red bean or egg custard, then cooked on a waffle iron and folded over to make a dry package that is crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside.) Out of town it was much quieter. I couldn't find a trail head after walking back and forth, but i did see several small roads heading into the mountains and one of them had a bus stop next to it, so i figured that had to be the one. Spoiler alert - it wasn't.
I started climbing a road that was not marked on Baidu or OpenStreetMap, but it did show up on Bing so i didn't feel totally lost. Well, i didn't until my GPS signal disappeared off into the mysterious gray hole where there were no roads on the map, but i was still on the same road as before. And "road" is putting it generously. It was a raised concrete pathway barely wide enough for a car. Given the incredible humidity, the concrete was mostly covered with moss and, due to the steep incline, was also very slippery. I walked past a couple of houses, then a couple of shacks, then a rusty shipping container, then the road split in two and i just chose the fork that led up.
Every now and then i got back onto my GPS road, but it was pretty clear this wasn't a hiking trail. I started getting a little concerned. The foliage blocked the sun and the wildlife was deafening - buzzing and screeching and whining and squawking. Up in a tree i saw something like a racoon. At one point i feared one - or something worse - was behind me, from the thrashing and scurrying, but i refused to turn around because i thought it'd be better to keep walking in ignorance. Also, i needed to keep a steady footing and dodge the lazy butterflies. Just when i was about to give up, i heard an engine. I rested on the walking stick i had fashioned from a tree branch along the way, and watched a guy in a battered Mitsubishi Delica roll past. He just smiled, like seeing me was the most normal thing in the world, and pointed upwards. So i kept going upwards, even as my shoes found no grip on the slime, even after the crotch of my jeans tore out, even remembering my recurring nightmares of exactly this situation.
When i got to a crest where my phone had a bar again i considered my options. I've done enough hiking to know when you get to a certain height, there isn't going to be a bridge going to the other side of the ravine, you're just going to have to wait for the path to go back down and ford the creek. Even though i hadn't caught up to the guy in his van, i made a decision to head back the way i came - i figured it didn't make much sense to climb down the far side of the mountain on the gamble that the path would go where i needed it to go. If i lost the gamble, i'd have to climb all the way back up. That was the best decision i made all day, because about 10 minutes into the descent the clouds opened up. I was already soaking wet from the sweat and humidity, but the thick tropical rain found new ways to drench me.
Halfway down i noticed that there was a scooter parked near a clearing and i heard an odd mechanical buzz from somewhere in the jungle. I walked in and saw a guy up on a hillside using a weed-whacker to cut a trail. I wonder if perhaps that was the trail i was supposed to take, but hopelessly overgrown, or if it was an attempt to build a new trail. If it was America i would have gone up to ask, but here i know there's not a hope of being able to have a conversation with anyone, so i continued down the hill, reassured that there were at least two people besides me on this insane path today.
I took the bus back to Zhunan so i could recharge my phone and dry out a bit. Then i went back to my original plan to go to the beach. Yes, it was pissing down with rain. I was a little annoyed, because i had checked the weather reports and rain radar this morning and it looked like today was going to be fine, but perhaps the wind moved faster than expected. Still, i'm a dumb tourist and ain't no one gonna stop me doing stupid things in a foreign country, so i walked out in the direction of the beach. On the way i saw a truly gigantic statue of Mazu and walked briefly through the temple, which was ridiculous and deserved a longer stay. But i was on a mission to get to the beach for sunset, so i marched through rice paddies and over an expressway and under a freeway and past a bunch of seafood restaurants and then - lo - the fucking sea.
It was beautiful. I swear, i almost shed a tear. After 2 weeks on a crowded island where every direction you turn there are more buildings, to see the sea again - an unbroken horizon - it was something else. Oh wait, hyperbole. Of course the horizon was broken. There were offshore rigs and windmills, but let me have my moment. I skipped and danced across the wide, flat beach. There were only two other people there - one guy walking his dog and collecting seawater for some reason, and a girl with the same idea as me - paddling in the waves and taking photos of the sunset. It was perfect. I jumped and waded and splashed seawater on my face and took photos of the stormclouds and windmills.
When i got back to the city, i decided to treat myself. Up until now everywhere i have eaten has either been a cafeteria or a street stand. I have rarely eaten indoors, and aside from those restaurant/bars i haven't ordered off a paper menu at all. I saw a Thai restaurant and went in. Not that i don't love Chinese food, but i needed a pampering. I needed to be able to order something without having to point and gesticulate and feel like a complete fool. It's the same reason i picked up a bánh mì when i was hungover the other day. You have no idea how fucking awesome it feels to confidently yell out your order until you have spent a couple of weeks having to turn even the simplest orders into a song and dance. So i sat down and i pointed at the "fried meat" and said "pad krapao?" And she said "pad krapao!" And i praised the Lord, because pad krapao is my favorite Thai food and (when i still ate meat) my most commonly cooked dish at home. And He was smiling on me this day, because the pad krapao came out and it was ground pork - not that abysmal watered-down nonsense with chicken breast strips and bell pepper - and it had a fried egg on it and it was spicy as all get-out and i smiled. I also got water spinach and a beer. And then they brought me some cherry tomatoes with sugary salty spicy dip and red bean in coconut milk, because i think they thought it was cute that on this rainy Monday night a soggy gweilo walked into their empty restaurant and started orgasming over the most basic thing on the menu. It was a feast. It was banquet prices. The whole lot cost 350元, but it was worth every fen.
Tomorrow i go to Zhongli, my last stop before Taipei. It's a bit more big smoke than the last few places, back to highrises and urban parks. I hope i can find somewhere to buy pants. The next week the whole island is going to be thrashed by tropical storms, so the city is a good place to be. I might just chill and give myself a bit of a breather and time to plan my mainland excursion. That is going to be much more difficult than here because downloading offline maps of mainland China is illegal and the Great Firewall may potentially block tourist information and other communication. I have already decided i want to come back here after the mainland so i can go back down the east coast and visit Kaohsiung again. I really loved Kaohsiung.
After that? I'm not sure.