I sprang out of bed in panic. It was bright outside, I was supposed to get a flight at 7am. What on Earth was the time? It was nine. Fuck.
The hotel was deserted, my surfboards lying lonesome in the lobby. Shit, I was stranded in Taiwan.
It had rained almost the entire week I’d been in the southeastern county of Taitung. Taiwan is a strange place. A perfect blend of weird and cute mixed in with some serious greenery. I anticipated that it would be industrial, remembering every item of clothing and plastic goods I had touched over the last few years being tagged with ‘Made in Taiwan’. There are many words I would use to describe the island however, and industrial is certainly not one of them.
With a past coloured by mixed colonial rule and multiple exchanges of annexing, Taiwan comes across as calm, tranquil and really, really rainy at this time of year. As with many islands littered about the globe, there was a crisscross of Portuguese and Dutch colonisation during the sixteen hundreds which eventually gave way to Japanese control and finally to the Chinese. With a complex to-and-fro between pushes for independence from Taiwanese political groups to more recent trade agreements with mainland China and as usual, some serious meddling from the United States of America – the situation in Taiwan remains delicate. Recognised by some countries, including its own, as a republic in its own right and by others as part of China – the history lends itself to a classic story of colonisation and occupation. Regardless of this however, the place could be considered some kind of paradise.
The county of Taitung is located on the south east corner, a six-hour bus ride from the northern capital of Taipei. It is a small city surrounded by dramatic volcanic hills and lush rainforest that rise abruptly into the sky, populated by monkeys and numerous waterways that meander down to the Pacific Ocean.
To the north of Taitung City sits Jinzun Harbour - a small harbour framed by black sand beaches and palm trees. The backdrop is a hazy deep green mountain skyline, that watches sedately as the small, brightly coloured wooden boats chug in and out of the water enclosure. On the opposing side of the breakwall sits a rocky point, A-frame peaks hitting at angles, lefts and rights reeling in horseshoe formation on either side. The trade winds come in from the east a little after 10 in the morning, sending brave beach goers scuttling for shelter.
It was on one of these windy afternoons we decided to go looking for hot springs, driving south on the smooth, noisy highway. We took a wrong turn, driving through roadwork signs and getting caught up among some concrete barricades while construction workers watched on in amusement. We swung the car around and had to drive back past the guys watching us, desperate cries of “ni hao” echoing out the windows as we hurtled past.
Eventually we found the hot springs at the end of a small road that snaked into the mountainside. By golly it was worth the effort. Blue, silent and enveloped by the green jungle, it over looked boundless hills and a riverbed valley – this was bliss.
At every turn in Taitung there is something adorable to be discovered. Small café’s with the best pork buns you might ever taste. Tiny stalls with shell embroidered hats and a shop owner so old her eyes have all but disappeared among the folds of her ancient skin. Nighttime food stands hem the streets, where you can take your pick of any of the strange looking seafood and tofu. A lady will dunk it the deep fryer, add seasoning and it’s yours for around four Aussie dollars.
The streets are lined with flashing lights and scooters whip by as you step head first into oncoming traffic. Quirky bars can be found if you know the right alleyway to turn down and karaoke clubs fulfil the Asian stereotype on lower levels of large hotels. It is however, surprisingly clean and swift, with very few signs of poverty. Things are cheap but the place ain't nasty.
I got a taxi to the airport and bought the next flight I could find. The lady at the desk smiled at me, happy to practice her English it seemed. She was tiny and petite, a perfect replica I thought, of most things on the island. Taiwan was magic, and as every sign seems to denote, it does indeed feel like the heart of Asia.
Words and Photography // Lucy Small @saltwaterpilgrim