Sent my mum a Happy Birthday text. Yes, I’d finally got a SIM card. It had taken only 30 minutes of waiting in a 7-11, speaking to customer service executives on the phone, the photocopying of all my vital documents, signing loads of forms, being fingerprinted and paying 303 NTD! Never known anything like it – how pedantic!
Had a barren breakfast, then headed out into the drizzle to catch the shuttle bus to the train station. Time to leave Tainan, less than 24 hours after I’d arrived. The rain didn’t want to be left behind, however, and proceeded to follow me all the way to Hualien, which I reached via the ‘fast train’, which still took nearly 3 hours, which I’d caught at Taipei Main Station. On the journey I was fortunate to sit next to a friendly student who was keen on practicing his English, but managed to avoid the usual mundane offerings of ‘I want go England. What England like? Why you come to this place?’ etc. Instead, we had some decent conversations about Taiwanese politics, the state of the transport system, spa highlights of Taipei, and the wonders of Taroko Gorge, a natural beauty spot I’d come here to visit. Through the rain-specked windows of the train I could sense we were entering wilder territory – grey concrete jungle giving way to small clusters of grey apartment blocks set in deep countryside, and finally green mountains and lush terrain as far as the eye could see, with only the occasional farmhouse in view. Arriving in Hualien, eastern Taiwan’s largest city, the views of a small grey city were eclipsed by the stunning backdrop of mountains all around. It was starting to rain more heavily when I arrived, so I ducked into the tourist info centre, followed by an eager taxi tout, who was taking the reverse psychology approach to selling his individual tour of Toroko Gorge and advising me on the best way to get there by public transport, or which was the best organized group tour. I took his card, as he spoke good English, and he pointed me in the way of the hotel I’d just decided to check into, the ChingYen, Hotel Rooms were cheap enough, I paid about 1,700 NTD, and I was pleased to find my room had wifi, and a great view of the mountains that rose up from behind the train station. I had a shower – it had been a long day of travelling – and chilled out for a while in the room, watching the increasingly driving rain slicing down.
It was the start of typhoon season, and I’d timed my visit to Hualien just in time for it to hit. Though the typhoon was way off in the pacific ocean somewhere, the effects on Hualien were pretty spectacular. There was no wind – just merciless powerful rain sleeting down, as though the Gods had forgotten to turn the hosepipe off and it was pointing directly down at Hualien. Pretty soon, the view from my window was of a flooded city, and I thought an emergency may be on our hands. To the Taiwanese, however, this storm was mild, and they have excellent drainage systems to cope.
Despite the atrocious weather, I was hungry, and went out into the dark streets with a black umbrella, feeling like a character in a film noir Asia style. Not many were out in this. I wandered to Jung Shan Road, where there are loads of places to eat and drink, and I wandered into a few, but was put off by menus with no pictures, and petrified-looking waiters, whose faces seemed to beg ‘please don’t come here, I was enjoying a nice relaxing evening, and I don’t speak English.’ I turned down Linsen Road, and found a place eventually – an American-style diner, popular with students, and full of beer signs and 50s America memorabilia. .But it didn’t sell beer, and I could have murdered a pint. Never mind, I enjoyed a rather boring meal set from the limited 3-set menu, washed down with a coke. I headed back out into the night, and stopped at a coffee shop for a cappuccino, which was just the ticket. There was nothing else open now save dodgy kareokes, and I wanted an early start tomorrow, so I decided to cut my losses and go to 7-11 for a few cans of Taiwan Beer, and a small bottle of red wine. I arrived back at the hotel a drowned rat, and wandered to my room. Spent the night writing and drinking.