Taipei (Wednesday, June 23, 2010)
After a lazy breakfast and extended packing, Chang rushed us down to the curb to take a taxi to the Taipei main train station. Incredibly, this one station connects the traditional train system, the MRT, and the new High Speed Rail (HSR) modeled on the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train system. We had not left a wide margin of error, and the line at the “Today’s Ticket” window for the HSR looked prohibitive. Fortunately, there was a short line to buy tickets using a machine. With its easy touchscreen interface and excellent English, buying tickets from the machine was a breeze. It couldn’t do a senior discount, so we just paid full price and rushed to our platform. No problem. (Although HSR trains depart almost hourly, in order to meet our guide at the promised time, we had to make this particular train.)
Once on board, we settled into our Economy class car. The window seats apparently sell out in advance, so I had the aisle and Dad had the middle. The first occupant of the window seat was receptive to speaking in English, so Dad had someone new with which to discuss trees and practice Chinese. When someone new took that seat at a later stop, he never removed his MP3 player earbuds, so who knows whether he would have been a lively conversationalist.
Chiayi and Sitou (Wednesday, June 23, 2010)
Pulling into the Chiayi station, I reviewed the directions from our guide Richard Foster: “I will be the large bald foreigner loitering in the middle of the station.” Wearing a baseball cap and clutching a very large cup of coffee, Richard did stand out a bit from the rest of the customers. We rolled our luggage over to his small SUV and headed out.
Richard described his path to Taiwan as the end of a long period of wandering from his home in Northern Ireland. He arrived in Tainan, and decided to settle there. I had found him through a reference to his company, Barking Deer Adventures, on the user edited site Wikitravel. It was dumb luck really, to hire someone who either was naturally curious about the same things we were, or who was just incredibly generous in extracting information from people and translating for us.
Early in our journey to Sitou, we detoured through an area that is struggling with the balance between development and conservation, and attempting to make a go of ecotourism. It was nothing to write home about, but perhaps it will, er, develop into something more visitable in the future.
Taiwan features a very tall ridge that runs from North to South, separating the narrow East side of the island from the broader West. As we drove from the subtropical plain to the mountains, the temperature and humidity moderated, but even when we reached Sitou, it was quite warm. After a review of the map, we headed down the paved trail toward a meadow area where we were assured of seeing an old Taiwania tree. Most of the visitors were reasonably quiet, but a few smacked their walking sticks, talked on their phones, or laughed raucously. The park was quite busy, perhaps because of problems on the road to Alishan. As we ascended a scenic trail, the crowds dropped away. We stopped regularly to appreciate beautiful vistas — and catch our breath. At one point, a snake slid quickly across the path ahead of me, but for the most part, we saw just a few birds.
The tree in the meadow was as promised, but insufficient to justify our trip here. We stopped in a park building for a a humble lunch on their porch featuring a sticky bundle of meat and rice steamed in a banana leaf, as well as other basic fare. Coincidentally, perhaps, the forestry office was upstairs and we soon were deep into discussions about their tree growing operations. Just when we were about to have tea with the office chief, the rain broke so we decided to head outside while it was clear.
A couple of the younger employees ushered us into an electric cart and drove us up the hill to their “conifer nursery.” Here we saw hundreds of spindly saplings, already several years old, awaiting future planting. Dad asked questions, Richard translated the questions and answers. Patient hosts held up umbrellas as we learned about their operation. Soon it was decided that we should see the oldest tree in the place. This was a very long drive, mostly uphill; we could never have made it on foot. It turns out the tree had been severely damaged, perhaps by lightning, during its 2000+ year lifespan. To see similarly ancient trees in good condition, we would have to try Alishan or that place out on the East coast. The office chief came out with his camera to take a group photo, and we headed back to front of the park.
It was now nearly 5:00, and although it was a bit early for dinner, we had eaten quite lightly at lunch. We stopped in at a very local where our young electric cart driver ordered for the group; he later generously insisted that the park pay. I don’t have any photographic record of dinner, so I can’t recall what we ate, but it was okay.
Our first choice of lodging was the park youth hostel. Despite the description, there was nothing particularly youthful about the guests, so we fit right in. Three bedrooms shared one bathroom and one sitting area with a hot water pot. I didn’t think this would work, but I think the people across the hall might not have gone to the bathroom the entire time. Anyway, it was no problem.