Unexpected encounters at the top of Taiwan – by Brent Crane
My bus to Taroko, a natural reserve on Taiwan’s east coast, was as slow-going as its passengers. A big tour liner, it stopped frequently and each pause brought in another sluggish senior – the island oozed with them – wearing a bucket hat with thin straps that dangled below their chins like soba noodles. They congregated in groups at the front of the bus, looking like middle school field trippers in their silly hats, chatty and spry. I sat alone in the back by a window, pleasantly anxious in my hiking shoes, spying from my seat the sceneries of Hualien, a quiet littoral town with an alpine tinge. The island was kind to a slow-going solo traveler like me, showing itself off in hidden valleys, milky coastlines and green mountains that looked like English hills.
A little while later, we turned into those mountains and the landscape became rural. There were houses and here and there a pecking chicken or a floating crow. The land undulated outside the window like Van Gogh hallucinations, rising into ever higher hills that would become hard peaks. Soon the bright colors of the farmland gave way to darker, wilder shades and rocks. A quilt of cloud pressed against the sky, shutting in the earth like a lid as we neared the gorge.
Taiwan was a completely new place. I had flown over from Phnom Penh, a crumbly, stinky city overrun with cranky motorbikes and stray dogs. The Cambodian capital is not unpleasant but, set to a soundtrack of honks, hammers and the menacing warble of alley cats, it is not pleasant either. I had ten days off work, writing for an English newspaper, and though I could have gone to Vietnam, Thailand, Laos or any number of popular southeast Asian expat getaways, none of those fit my criteria. I wanted someplace with mountains, solitude, sidewalks and a language that I could understand. The Orphan of Asia had all four.
Taroko National Park is Taiwan’s premier natural attraction. Its highest peaks reach a height of 3,400m. Geologists say they are still rising, at half a centimeter each year. Cut by the glassy Liwu River, the gorge is the park’s mainstay. It is a mammoth 19-km crack through wispy green-grey marble peaks, carpeted by subtropical and subalpine coniferous forests and sliced with waterfalls of foamy white spray. Its gaping mouth, into which I was now entering, sits flush against a sparkling ocean. The eternal Pacific. Officially nationalized in 1986, the park boasts over 114 bird species, 30 large mammal species, and endless multitudes of fish, reptiles, insects and who knows what else. Some humans call the wilderness home too. Most are from ethnic minority groups – yuanzhumin or “original inhabitants” – of which Taiwan has 16 official classifications. They boast colorful names like Truku, Atayal, and Puyuma. Some have their own languages. By the Truku tongue, Taroko means “magnificent, splendid”.
We came to a stop inside the gorge. The seniors and I shuffled out in a slow march. Some hollered “xie xie!” at the driver and tightened their backpack straps. Outside I took in a breath of the crisp, cool air. Around us rose gargantuan walls of jungle-covered marble. The bus didn't look so big anymore.
Without a plan I strolled away and found a walkway leading up into the mountains. There were monkeys in the trees, coffee-bean brown, with slender arms and drooping thin tails. They rustled the branches, chirping, howling and staring down at me with sunflower-seed eyes, scratching their heads. Elsewhere, invisible life cawed and squawked in the distance – birds, perhaps, but who knows? Taiwan was a mystery. All around was the buzz of origami wings, crackly leaves, snapping twigs, sniffing snouts – a primal secrecy which sucked me towards it like a siren’s call, up into the dark canopy and leafy walls of the gorge.
After some time, I climbed up a steep incline. A middle-aged man and a woman were resting on a bench set on a wooden platform, shaded by a high canopy. By their feet lay a pair of mutts and a lapdog fast asleep. The pair were like old Santa Cruz vagabonds, with tightly-tied head bandanas, clunky rain boots and sweaty bright shirts. Two woven baskets sat empty by their sides. Yuanzhumins. I sat down beside them. The woman turned to me.
“Where are you going?” she asked in Mandarin, in a calm way. The calm of the gorge.
“Up,” I said.
"There were two pretty girls going up,” quipped the woman. She grinned, revealing a mouth of goblin teeth.
"Yes I saw them.”
The man joined the conversation. "Where are they from?" he asked, his breathing slow and audible. His teeth were better than his partner’s. He had a large mole at the tip of his nose. They were old aborigines from deep within the canyon, trekking down to Hualien to purchase food and supplies. They would stay the night in town before returning up the next day.
“America, I think. Same as me.”
The woman asked, "Are you going to Dali village?”
“I guess so,” I said, though I didn't know where I was going. “Does anyone live there?"
“Only one person.” Her back was pressed firm against the bench, collecting her strength. “A man.”
"What does he do?”
“He works there,” the man butted in. “He preserves the trails.”
I had more questions for them – how long had they lived in the gorge? who was this old man? – but they had rested long enough. They stood, threw their basket-packs on, smiled and departed down the way I had come. The dogs awoke one by one and chased after them.
The way became very steep and I lost track of time. It was a solitary hike, sweaty and cerebral. The landscape morphed in the ascent. Soon bushy, jungly trees gave way to smooth straws of whitish bamboo and evergreen ferns. Up above, the clouds were thick and swirling. The day was getting old and I was thinking about turning back when I came onto a flat strip of land. I had reached the top.
Before me lay the whole canyon, stretching far and low into a wall of misty white-green peaks. Hanging over the cliffs were Jurassic palms, coniferous with reptilian scales and ferny leaves. On a neighboring peak stood a lone cabin, and a smaller one farther down the canyon. There were no other signs of humanity. It was just the gorge slicing into the mountains, surveyed by swooping birds and low-lying clouds.
Strolling along the path, I felt total isolation. So I was surprised when I sniffed smoke. Following the scent down an old mining road, I came to a half-constructed house overlooking the canyon. Nearby smoldered the remains of a small fire. Next to the construction site was a small, makeshift hut of bent wood and rusty nails. Near it was an upturned wheel barrel, and a yellow motorized wagon with cartoonish eyes painted onto the headlights. The marks of man.
“Helloo?” I cried, wary of guard dogs.
A man emerged from the shed. He was short, balding, in black rain boots and a black Adidas windbreaker. He saw me and smiled, revealing a missing front tooth. “Where are you going?” he cried. His voice echoed with a clean reverb.
“Dali,” I said.
“Dali is that way.” He pointed into the gorge. There was a motorcycle nearby, an upturned wheel barrel, and a yellow motorized wagon with cartoonish eyes painted onto the headlights.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Building this,” he said, gesturing behind him.
“This house is for you?"
“Yes, for me and my family.” Around us lay piles of timber, metal rods, ropes, measuring sticks, hammers, nails, screwdrivers. We stood on a cement foundation.
The builder's name was Wenli. He had been up here for ten months, constructing his house in alpine solitude. His wife and 20-year-old son lived in Hualien. He saw them on Sundays, when he made the trek down. But most of his time was spent among these piles of rubble, circling hawks and low clouds.
He had grown up in a nearby village, in the gorge. As a child his parents scavenged mushrooms and sold them in Hualien. Wenli had been a bus driver in Taipei before he came back here to his quiet homeland. His parents had moved deeper inside the canyon a year prior and his father had given him the land. He preferred the gorge to the city.
“Can I rest here?” I asked. He nodded.
I sat down on a plastic chair and watched Wenli work. He darted back and forth, hammering, measuring, lifting, sawing, as the sky flowed with silvery clouds and floating hawks. The temperature was dropping. His hammer echoed through the gorge like thunder. He hummed a tune as he labored, as if there was no stranger in his midst – just Wenli, a little bald man alone on a mountain. I asked questions as they came to me.
"What do you eat up here?”
"Do you have a garden?”
“Yes, I grow baicai," he said and pointed to some greenery up the hill.
"How'd you learn to build?"
"Books,” he said and scurried into his shed, returning with a big hammer.
"Did you bring all of this up here yourself?"
“Yes, with that.” He pointed at the yellow wagon with the cartoon face.
“He's your only friend here,” I joked.
“Hah-hah! It’s like that American movie. ‘Nelson Nelson!’ He is my Nelson.” His Cast Away reference surprised me in this remote setting. He asked where I was from.
"I've never been to America,” he said.
"Where have you been?”
Looking down, I noticed splatters of red staining the cement. “Betel nut?” I asked, pointing.
“Pig,” he answered. "I killed it". But how?
Again he entered his hut. He returned gripping a junky, taped together rifle. "I made it myself,” he said. In Taiwan, aborigines are permitted to own guns for the reason that Wenli had one – a frontiersman’s purpose. He made a snorting sound and pointed the gun at the hills.
“America is better than Taiwan,” Wenli said. “It is free.”
"Is this not free?” I said, considering him the very definition of freedom. Wenli thought awhile.
"This is free,” he replied. “But America has lots of money. I don’t have much money.”
"Money. Is that freedom?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “But it is good to have money. You can do things with money.”
“Are you happy here on this mountain?”
“Yes. I am happy here.”
From my vantage point, I could see the whole gorge trapped by the soft cloudy sky. Magnificent, splendid. The air smelled like cold rocks, tinged with whiffs of burnt tin. I watched Wenli and thought about what it would take to be him, to live alone atop an obscure gorge, sawing wood, riding a painted wagon and shooting boars with a homemade rifle. It wasn't envy I felt, but something close to it. Wenli knew exactly where he was; I couldn’t have placed myself on a map.
I made my goodbyes when the cold set in. I walked fast down the trail, hoping to make it back before sunset. I knew that I had already missed the last bus. I would have to hitchhike back to Hualien. An alpine silence accentuated my steps, crunch-crunch over the rocks. Wenli shouted as I went. He was standing at the edge of his soon-to-be house, gripping a scratchy hammer and grinning like the face on his wagon.
“If you have free time,” he hollered over the wind. “Come back!”
Brent Crane is a freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @bcamcrane
Wenli bids goodbye from the mountain top