Craig woke me up at around 1am saying “we just had an earthquake!!” I was fast asleep and didn’t feel it but Craig felt the room shake for just a few seconds. Our phones had emergency messages on them from the government warning us about the earthquake and to take cover. It was 5.1 on the Richter scale and it happened quite close to Hualien where we were staying. Luckily we didn’t feel any aftershocks and managed to sleep the rest of the night.
We had an early start again today and caught a train north to Chongde, home to a 5km long beach with grey, volcanic looking sand, big waves crashing straight onto the shoreline and a dramatic mountain backdrop. We were the only people on the beach so we had fun running away from the waves and climbing up a precarious floating staircase that felt more like a prototype than the final product. I could only make it halfway up the steps as they narrowed towards the top and the whole thing was wobbling. We walked all the way to the end of the beach where we got a great view of the Qingshui cliffs, regarded as one of the eight wonders of Taiwan. It was a stunning area with mountains rising almost 2500m straight up from the blue Pacific Ocean.
After our lovely morning spent on the windswept beach we caught a train to a very quiet station where we were the only people to get off. Then we had a few kilometers to walk to a place where I was hoping we could go for a swim. After seeing the incredible blue waters at Shakadang yesterday (where swimming is prohibited) we couldn’t wait to jump into some clear Taiwanese rivers. We arrived at a bridge where there was an incredible landscape ahead of us with steep forested hills and valleys. I imagine this is how the world looked when dinosaurs were roaming the land. While Craig was staring ahead at the river twisting through the valley he said “that looks like a nice little pool to swim in” and sure, it was nice, but he hadn’t looked directly down yet and that’s where my eyes were set, at the most perfect, deep, crystal clear pool with water the colour of blue Gatorade. The pool Craig was eyeing up looked like a pathetic puddle in comparison. I told Craig to run down and have a swim while I took photos from the bridge and then I headed down to join him.
It was about 27° outside so the weather was perfect for a cold dip and the water was so refreshing. Remarkably we had the place all to ourselves so we spent quite awhile leaping off rocks into the deep pool. It was absolute paradise!! We decided to take a walk along the river to see if there were anymore idyllic pools. On the way we passed through an indigenous village where a very sweet man came up to say hello and welcome us to his village. He even ended the conversation by saying “Merry Christmas!” Which was very sweet. We wandered past the village school and I think it’s safe to say it’s one of the most scenic locations I’ve ever seen a school. It was backed by pure wilderness, rugged green mountains and rivers slicing through valleys…I bet the kids have no idea how special the location is.
We found ourselves in a car park beside the river where there was a sign signifying a hiking trail which was only 1.5km. We had no idea where it would take us but it looked like it would continue following the river so off we went. There were information boards along the trail explaining the culture and beliefs of the Taroko indigenous tribe. One explained that if someone enters a persons house without an invite the man of the house can kill that person and it will instantly grant him access to a sort of heaven. It also pointed out plants which they eat or use to make rope and a stunning pink gem stone that can be found in the river bed. The trail seemed to come to an end so we took a well manicured path to the left which led us to a little fence. A dog began barking as we pushed the gate open and a quick scan of the area made us realise this had to be the wrong way and we were actually entering someone’s property…geez with these tribal rules we could of been killed! Or maybe that was just in the olden days but we didn’t want to test it so we headed back down and realised the trail wasn’t actually closed, it just had a little diversion from a mud-slide. The trail was narrow at times with ropes to hold onto but it eventually came to an end at a beautiful blue pool. There weren’t many access points for swimming and the sun had gone in but we still managed to find a nice spot for a swim and then spent some time searching through the river bed for these pink gems…and failed.
The following day we headed to another spot along the east coast where I was hoping to find a nice spot to swim. I’d read some information that the route was closed off due to typhoon damage so we weren’t sure if we were going to get half way and have to turn back. We had over an hour walk to reach the gorge, still unsure if our plans would work out but eventually it looked like we were on the right track as we found the gorge and the water was twinkling in the warm sunshine. The setting was really cool as the blue river flowed through this narrow gorge with huge boulders, steep walls and deep pools to jump into. There were various access points down to the river and all of them were a little tricky with rocks to climb over and rope to ease ourselves down with but boy were we rewarded when we made it down to the water.
The sun was in the perfect location to shine on the pools so we could clearly see meters down through the water. Once again we had the place all to ourselves which always makes it feel more special and we were on an absolute high, leaping off rocks into the chilly water. We spent a few hours working our way up the gorge to different pools and soon enough the sun was no longer touching the water so we took that as our cue to leave and take the long walk back. Just before we reached the village where we would catch a bus a local man came up to us on his scooter. He didn’t speak any English but he was offering us a ride. We didn’t have much further to walk so politely said no but he was quite insistent, pulling down his foot steps for the back of the scooter and suggesting we go up the valley to swim in the pools…so we showed him the wet swimwear hanging from my bag to explain we had already been. He was very sweet but when he sped off Craig said he stank of booze, I hadn’t even noticed so it was a good job we didn’t get on his scooter.
Another day in Hualien we caught a bus north to Qixingtan beach, it was a weekend so quite a few locals were enjoying a walk along the long beach, backed with mountains and low lying clouds. The water turned from turquoise to a deep blue, I didn’t know what to expect of the Pacific Ocean in Taiwan but the blue colour was so intense and beautiful. We ended up waiting ages for a bus back to the city but a random car pulled over and the couple asked where we were going and if we wanted a ride so they took us all the way back to Hualien. They’re such a lovely bunch of people in Taiwan!
We also visited a sort of weekend flea market where we met a German guy who has lived in Taiwan for 20 years. He buys precious stones and drift wood from the locals to sell as a hobby and he had a collection of the beautiful pink stones we’d been looking for in the river. I thought it would be over my budget but I reluctantly asked how much for a stone and it was just 20p!! So I picked my favourite one and he even gave me a lovely green stone too which I will hopefully make into a necklace. There were many precious stones for sale at the market, some were in their natural form while others were polished and carved. Jade is big business in Taiwan, the tallest mountain translates to Jade Mountain and the indigenous people wait until a couple days after the typhoon starts before they head up river in search of new chunks of jade that have washed downstream.
The weekend also offered us the opportunity to visit Hualiens night market which was very exciting as Taiwan is pretty famous for these markets and the street food stalls. At the entrance to the market were fun-fair style games where adults were shooting balloons and kids were throwing hoops over bottles in the hope of winning a giant, cuddly toy. Then the food stalls began which were selling all sorts of traditional Taiwanese snacks. The first thing we tried was barbequed Mochi. It’s vegetarian (hooray) and a rectangle slab of mochi is rapidly turned over the heat until it puffs up and goes slightly golden. Then the mochi is covered in your topping of choice, in my case sweetened condensed milk and nuts. Two sticks were shoved through it so I could hold it like a lolly pop but that was easier said than done, it was my first time trying mochi and it was sooooo stretchy, like mozzarella but a totally different flavour and the whole thing began to slide off the sticks. I liked the taste but wouldn’t recommend eating it on a first date! We then got a bubble tea which is basically Taiwan’s national drink. There are so many different varieties to try but we opted for milk tea with brown sugar tapioca balls which are kind of like gummy sweets which shoot up through the straw and make you feel like you’re enjoying a drink and a meal at the same time.
The vegetarian options were pretty poor for me as I don’t like tofu or mushrooms, we did find a fully vegetarian stall but I was worried they were selling meat replicas made from soya etc and the texture makes me gag. So we played it safe and picked some sweet potato balls next, they were deep fried and squished down repeatedly in a special pan but somehow they kept puffing up into big balls which had a nice chewy texture. Most of the stalls were selling seafood, fish balls, and a variety of brown coloured meat. Taiwan is also famous for it’s ‘stinky tofu’ which is fermented and has a strong odor. You can always smell the stall before you see it and there was no way I was going to try it! The market also had a lady singing on a small stage and a sweet old man kept coming up to dance in a sort of fast-paced tai chi style and it was absolutely adorable. We’re looking forward to trying out more night markets in Taiwan.