The first week in Taiwan was filled with paperwork, unpacking, and jet lag. After landing in Taipei, we spent the first day filling out forms and taking pictures to apply for our ARC. In the evening we flew to Hualien and immediately moved into our apartments. One of the perks of jet lag was that I was wide awake at 4:30 am for the rest of the week, so I decided to make the best of it and go out and explore before the day began. I ran through Hualien and took this picture one day from the base of 美崙山 (a small hill in the city the locals refer to as Mickey Mouse Mountain because of the statue of Mickey Mouse at the bottom of the mountain).
View from the Dragon Bridge on the way to Mickey Mouse Mountain
I also ran to 北濱 park a few days later, a bike path along the coast of Hualien with stunning ocean views.
北濱 park ocean views Despite the beautiful views, one of the major downsides of Hualien is the insane humidity and very high daily temperatures. Any sort of physical exertion results in sweat pouring from every inch of my skin. Thank goodness for a laundry machine right inside of my apartment!
After finishing up the first week of orientation, we had the weekend off to explore Hualien and get accustomed to our surroundings. I was particularly excited for the weekend because Elaine and her family were taking a trip from Taichung to Hualien to visit me! For some context, in during my junior year of high school my family hosted Elaine for two weeks in the US as part of a foreign exchange program that was run through my high school. In return her family hosted me in Taichung a few months later. This was my first exposure to Taiwan and I can say without a doubt that this experience influenced my decision to come to Taiwan this year! Elaine has been attending a US college and stayed with my family over Thanksgiving break. When they found out that I’d be spending the year in Hualien, they planned a trip to visit me!
One of the crazy parts about traveling in Taiwan is that even though the island is fairly narrow, the mountains across the middle are too steep to travel safely and so most people take the high-speed train around the edge of the island to get to the other side. So even though Taichung is right across from Hualien, to travel between these locations people take a high speed train to Taipei and then another one to Hualien, circumnavigating all of the mountains. In total it took them more than five hours to get to Hualien. They met me on Saturday morning outside of my apartment in a rental car and told me they were taking me on an adventure to see some cool rocks and find clams. We drove to Lichuan clam farm, a very touristy spot in Hualien. They had clam flavored everything: bread, soup, tea, even ice cream! Too bad I’m allergic to clams…
Lichuan clam farm pick your own clams! Next, we drove through the mountains to a place where sugarcane used to be grown. Apparently they have famous popsicles which were very tasty. Our next stop was 石梯坪 or Shitiping. The name translates to rock ladder which is a pretty accurate description. It was so beautiful! According to my host family the rocks are volcanic and were worn down by the waves to form interesting crevices and caves.
石梯坪 (Shitiping) rock formations
We went to the Fengbin Sky Bridge next, or 豐濱天空步道. This is a very popular tourist destinations that stretches over the rocks and water and has a section that is entirely made of glass!
View from 豐濱天空步道 (Fengbin Sky Bridge)Our last stop of the day before dinner was a cave that looks like a car. Apparently it was featured in a magazine in a car advertisement so it is a very famous site. It was a cool cave, and you can sort of see the car reference…
Elaine, Helsa, their mom and I posing in front of the “car” cave
Dinner was probably my favorite part of the entire day. Elaine’s dad invited all of my friends from Hualien to join us at an amazing restaurant that specialized in Aboriginal food. It was perhaps the most beautiful and surprising assortment of food that I have ever seen.
Top, left to right: fish rice balls and some type of shellfish; pork with white carrots; our server showing my friends how to eat periwinkle out of the shell; barnacles!
After dinner my friends and I attended a dance and music performance put on by several aboriginal groups including the Toroko peoples and the Amis peoples. It included a variety of music from all different genres and incredibly beautiful costumes.
The next morning I met Elaine’s family once again and we headed straight to the beach (with a quick stop to get mochi, a Taiwanese gummy rice dessert with different fillings). We stopped at a beach right out of Hualien city. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of this beach but it is very similar to many of the other beaches of the coast in Hualien. The rocks are beautiful and perfectly smooth. I thought about taking one but then was told that it is actually illegal to take rocks from any beaches in Hualien!
The next stop was Toroko Gorge. Many people visit Hualien just to see the gorge. It is the most popular tourist destination in Hualien, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Taiwan. Because Taiwan (more specifically the eastern seaboard) is located on the convergence of two tectonic plates, there are frequent earthquakes that I hopefully will not experience and large mountains. Toroko is no exception! The gorge is named after the Truku peoples, an Indigenous group that lives in and around the gorge. It is stunningly beautiful in my opinion. Although we didn’t hike much, I got a great tour of most of the roads in the park and got to hike up to the water curtain. Along the road there were many signs that warned of frequent rock falls. The road is often closed after a typhoon or other extreme weather. Elaine’s dad told me several times that the roads and many of the tunnels were hand carved by military workers years ago. I could not imagine hammering straight through rock!
Some view from the gorge off the road
The hike to the water curtain was definitely the most exciting part of the day. We had to walk through a tunnel that was nearly pitch black for a long ways! Unfortunately part of the trail was closed because of water damage but we had a good hike anyways.
Views from the hike to the water curtain
Having a family like Elaine’s in Taiwan takes away some of the homesickness I feel being so far away from home. I know they are watching out for me while I’m here and they often check in to make sure I am happy and safe. It was hard to say goodbye, especially because Elaine will be traveling back to the US in just a few short weeks. Her Dad recently took a job in the US and will also be traveling to Chicago later this year. However I know I will have the chance to see them again soon and I look forward to traveling to Taichung once again!