On Monday, Chu-wan and I boarded a train for Hualien, a small town halfway down the eastern coast. We arrived and immediately caught a tour bus running up the East-West coast highway.
The East-West coast highway is an engineering marvel. It was chipped out of the three thousand-foot shear cliffs by hand over many years.
Despite the fact that this road has an infinite amount of tunnels and terrifying overhangs, and would only be considered a one-lane road in the US, our tour bus ploughed along at a dizzying rate. More amazingly, it managed to pass other tour busses going the opposite way! Sometimes we had to stop and move at a crawl to allow another bus to pass with the two busses being only an inch or so apart. I wasnâ€™t worried when our bus was next to the mountain. When our bus was next to the 1,000ft precipice, it wasnâ€™t very re-assuring. At one point, I was trying to estimate if I could leap out the window and catch hold of the other bus before ours went tumbling to its destruction on the rocks below.
The road winds its way through Taroko Gorge, a breathtaking sight!
Roughly at the top of the gorge, we stopped at a small town and visitor center. Our original plan was to walk down a 7km trail and catch a bus heading back to Hualien, but, true to form, it was raining and my fever wasn’t any better. If anything, I was feeling more run down. (Not eating on Sunday didn’t help).
Now, my only thought was “French Fries. I need French Fries!” But no such food venue was available to me. This is not to say that food was not available. Even in a town whose population I estimated to be 15-20 people, there were two restaurants. Perhaps “restaurant” is an exaggeration. “Food stall” is a more accurate term. The stalls served authentic home-style Chinese food, that is, some boiled cabbage and stuff with rice. I had a bowl of rice, but when the cockroach crawled up onto the table to join us, I decided I was done with my meal. He looked so tame and well fed, I assumed he worked for the restaurant as the bus boy and was politely waiting his turn at my food.
Despite my frail condition, I managed to cross the rope suspension bridge and climb up the hill to the Buddhist monastery, where we had an amazing view of the gorge.
It was here that I got my first experience with a “Squat Style” toilet. After using it, I sincerely hoped I wouldnâ€™t have the privilege again. They are the toilets from hell. They are not suitable for someone 6’4″ and I vowed never to go to the bathroom again while in Taiwan. (OK, I vowed, but I didn’t succeed. Please remember, I was feverish at the time.)
Did I mention I wasn’t sleeping well on The Board? Certainly, lack of sleep wasn’t helping my condition any. There was a lovely new hotel, the Formosan, at the top of the gorge and I ever so much wanted to take a room there and spend the night on a real, comfy bed. Instead we spent a couple hours sipping tea and watching the clouds pass across the face of the mountains.
Starving and craving French Fries, my salvation came in a can of Pringles Potato Crisps for sale in the visitor center gift shop. I don’t think I would have survived without it.
From this point forward I learned to carry snacks with me whenever we went outside of Taipei.
The trip down the mountain, now in a pouring rain, was no less harrowing, but as we came into Hualien, I saw a vision. There, among the incomprehensible Chinese signs were the Golden Arches of McDonald’s. “French Fries!” I shouted, rather incoherently to Chu-wan. I was going to get French Fries!!!
Neither of us being familiar with Hualien, we tried to memorize the path from the McDonald’s to the train station, but the driver took an incredibly circuitous route presumably in a sadistic attempt to thwart my dreams. Successful in his diabolical plot, we quickly lost the McDonald’s.
Then suddenly, another vision appeared â€“ another McDonaldâ€™s, but we lost it too, and then another, also soon lost. This cruel game continued until we finally arrived at the railway station. Maddeningly we had passed and lost no less than 6 McDonald’s in that town… which I had been assured was just “â€¦a little town”.
We never got to the McDonald’s. By the time we made it to the train station, we didn’t have enough time to go walking far, so we stopped at a nearby 7-11 and bought a hot dog instead.
7-11 Hot Dogs do not taste the same in Taiwan as they do in the U.S. I did not want to explore the contents of the dog. Chu-wan assured me it was just an ordinary “â€¦pork hot dog with onions in it.” (Pork hot dog? Ordinary? With onions?)
While walking through the streets of Hualien, two Mormon missionaries rode past us on their bicycles and shouted, “Hey, youâ€™re not Chinese! Hello!”
My mind had already become inured to the sounds of people talking incomprehensibly to me and they were over a block down the street before I realized that they had spoken English to me. Sorry guys, I wasnâ€™t being unfriendly, I just didnâ€™t hear you.
The train ride home ended another eventful day, but not before we stopped at a McDonald’s in Taipei and I got my French Fries. Unlike other American chains that I tried in Taiwan, McDonald’s hamburgers taste the same in Taiwan. More precisely, that is to say they are exactly as awful as they are here, but by that point, I didn’t care. The fries were great.
Notes from the 21st Century
It turns out that Hualien was a lot larger city than had been conveyed to me. It wasn’t until a future trip that I got a good feeling for the scale of Hualien. We could have easily seen 6 different McDonalds but at the time we thought perhaps it was the same one being approached over and over again.
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