Taiwan, part 8: Going Someplace, Outdoor Markets that Don’t Suck, Forgetfulness and Mountains

Let’s have a show of hands: how many of you have ever forgotten something on top of a mountain? Of those of you with your hands up, how many of you forgot something so important you had to hike back up the mountain to get it? After last Friday, you can count me among this elite group. I should have seen the signs, really. Since getting here, I’ve been breaking every domestic record for forgetting things. On a bus last week I reached into my pocket to pull out my iPod, and in doing so knocked $700 NT (roughly 175 RMB) out, and never knew it. Two days ago I put some more money on the transit card we were all issued, the kind you swipe on buses and subways, and promptly left the card on the counter. In the latter case, at least I got it back that night. In the former case, I was just out some money. The coup de grace, though, was Friday’s hike. I’ll get to that in a bit.

I met up with the Nankai crew on Friday morning having no clear idea of what we were doing. I knew we were going someplace, but I didn’t know precisely where. It’s famous, I guess. When I asked anyone in the group where we were going, invariably they’d declare rapturously, “Jiu Fen!” I’d nod and say “ah” in a knowing way, because it’s no fun telling someone who’s incredibly excited about something that it means nothing to you. Which of course this didn’t. The morning we were leaving, I was chatting with Xuebin and Xu Xu and asked, “Where are we going, again?”

“Jiu fen!” they both replied.

“Right, but what kind of place is that?”

They both scratched their heads, and Xuebin smiled and said, “It’s just a place.”

Fair enough. We all laughed and spent the rest of the trip extolling the virtues of “di fang,” or “a place.” We took a series of subways and a long bus ride, and arrived at “a place” about 11:00. The bus had wound its way around a series of switchbacks rambling through an increasingly forested series of hills, and when we broke through on the last curve we saw a massive temple set into the hillside opposite us. One of the great things about traveling with mainland Chinese students is that they love EVERYTHING, and react with a complete lack of restraint. Yesterday on a mountain hike, for example, Danting squealed in transports of ecstasy because a very large squirrel was regarding us from a scant five feet away on a tree. This would have greatly amused my old English teacher Mr. Roetzel, who professed such a thorough loathing of squirrels (“They’re just rats in trees!”) that once, when my sister Katie wrote a class-required short story and included a squirrel as the main character just to needle him, he wrote this in the margin: “Choose another animal.” When we rounded the corner and that temple came into view, everyone on the left side of the bus (i.e. us) gasped and began gabbling incoherently like a bunch of overly-excited imbeciles. Fantastic. The Taiwanese around us just smiled. Mainlanders aren’t hard to spot here.

We got off the bus and immediately took the stairs right outside to a scenic overlook from which we could see the coastline meandering its rocky way off into the distance. The ocean was a deep blue, with lighter tints of aquamarine in the shallows of the bay. The long grass and reeds that covered a nearby peak were beveling forward and back under the hand of a stiff, but very pleasant, ocean breeze. The eastern part of the city was row upon row of white roofs that ran effortlessly down the decline of the hill as though they were afloat on the descending crest of a wave. I had seen coastline like this in northern California, and in some places in southeast Asia, but none of my classmates had seen anything like it. Their exposure to the ocean so far had been either Qingdao (not bad, but not great, either), or Tanggu harbor in Tianjin, which is a wasteland of a sort of brutal futility that would make Mad Max hang his head, sigh, and curl up in the back of his van to wait for the final end. The best way I can think of to describe the effect of the Jiu Fen coastline is to have you picture what it would be like if you had a bunch of kids who had never left inner-city Los Angeles and took them up the coast to Monterey. Or imagine you’d been wearing a blanket over your head for the last 22 years, and all of a sudden someone whipped it off and said, “ta-daaa!” Something like that. Jiu Fen is Taiwan’s “ta-daa!” for visiting mainlanders.

From Ta-Daa Point, we went right across the street to one of the best market streets I’ve ever been to. Outdoor markets in China are generally concentrations of half-defunct bric-a-brac that seems to have been constructed solely to use up some surplus resources. It’s like the large-scale production equivalent of a kindergarten teacher’s craft closet. I’ve walked through an entire market before and never seen anything that rose above the “meh” stage. This market was an entirely different entity. Little toy shops sold tiny ocarinas, postcards, hand-carved tops, Bruce Lee playing cards (Yes, I bought some; how do you not buy a pack of Bruce Lee playing cards?), toy opera masks, and everything in between; food stands sold traditional Taiwanese jerky, grilled seafood kebabs, cold rice-flour desserts filled with strawberry or blueberry filling, a thoroughly bizarre dessert concoction featuring two small scoops of ice cream set on a bed of peanut-brittle shavings and cilantro wrapped up in a thin tortilla (Duan Ying and I both bought one, and even after eating the entire thing couldn’t figure out if we liked it or not; it was just too bizarre. Not gross, just bizarre.), and even a stand selling VERY good iced coffee. The high point of the shopping was a stand selling fresh concentrated grape pulp, to which you only needed to add a little ice water to have easily the best juice you’ve ever had. I mean EVER. I had a sample cup, then ran back to get the rest of my classmates, who were hanging out in a shop nearby. The man beyond the counter was the consummate salesman, talking a mile a minute while handing out cup after cup of free juice, adding a bit of lime juice, blending the juice up with fresh ginger, and when the dust cleared, we’d bought something like 14 large jars of the stuff. He even took down our address at the university and arranged to have it all sent to us for free. We spent another hour or so wandering down the street, which was thoroughly shaded by shop-front awnings, until we suddenly emerged onto a hilltop road that led either left, higher up into the hills, or right, back down to the bottom. We had a quick lunch, then Xuebin and I went off to hike up the peak we’d seen from the bus stop.

Which we had to reach via stairs. Why stairs? Why is it that every scenic spot in China is only reachable by a series of stairs that stretches up into the Himalayas? No matter where you go, it’s an absolute eternity of stairs. Every scenic spot is like a recreation of the Improbable Stair in Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series. I half-expected to emerge not only onto a different part of the mountain, but in a different TIME on a different part of the mountain. There we’d be, trudging doggedly upward in the hopes that soon we’d at least reach a place where we could see the landscape below, then we’d round a corner and Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek would be playing pinochle on an old foldout card-table. The long and the short of it is the Chinese just really don’t believe in paths up mountains. It’s always a straight shot. That makes some sense if you need to get to the top quickly, but if you’d like to get to the top and back down again without your calf muscles feeling like hummus, stairs are the wrong way to go.

It wasn’t the longest hike in the world, but it wasn’t the shortest, either. We only stopped twice, and the rest of the hour or so up the mountain was continuous stair-climbing. But like most mountain hikes, it was all worth it when we got to the top. The peak was a small grassy area, probably thirty feet long by twenty wide, in the middle of which was a white pagoda. The sides of the peak were fringed with long reed-like grass which hissed in the breeze. A weather station had been set up, and a tall antenna made a hollow whistling sound when the wind blew. The view was panoramic, unobscured by pollution or even clouds, and we could see with complete clarity the coast stretching from the Bitou lighthouse atop its rocky outcropping all the way to the Taipei 101 skyscraper towering out of the urban mist. In the distance, rolling slowly over the mountains south of Taipei, was a line of thunderheads which trailed dark curtains of rain over the sprawling cityscape. There was no sound aside from the wind in the grass, and even when it blew stiffly there was a freshness in it that you only find on the coast. Proof of the wind’s force was evident in the white-capped waves in the ocean that stretched into the infinite distance before us.

For obvious reasons, neither of us was eager to leave, so while the rest of our group (which had elected not to climb with us) made their way to a different harbor, we stayed at the top. We reclined on the benches in the pagoda, took off our shoes and socks, and spent the next three hours talking about global events with a Taiwanese man who was relaxing up there as well. It was the kind of conversation that you couldn’t plan even if you had the imagination to do so. For the past two weeks or so, Xuebin had been growing more and more aware of the profound differences between Taiwan and the mainland. It’s more than simply the presence of books that are banned on the mainland. It’s a general air of relaxed assurance that the Taiwanese have. There’s a desperation in most places on the mainland, a sense that if you don’t act fast, you’re not going to get what you need or want. It’s a palpable fear of being left behind or actively dismissed. As a result, generally the only people who are truly friendly and eager to help are those who are so poor they have nothing to gain one way or the other. This would be why if you really want to see and feel the best of the Chinese people, you usually have to be in the countryside. Xuebin has commented on this obliquely many times. Yesterday when we were hiking back down a different mountain, we passed several people coming up who nodded and said hello. The first time this happened, we got no more than ten feet past them before Xuebin turned to me and said, with astonishment, “They don’t eve know us! I can’t believe they’re saying hello!” It wasn’t an expression of distaste, but rather of amazement. How could ordinary people be so friendly, with no strings attached? As he, our new Taiwanese friend, and I talked about the state of things in our various countries, Xuebin was outspoken about his sadness over the way things were on the mainland. Over the course of the conversation, though, both I and our Taiwanese friend had plenty of our own grievances to relate. Eventually we found ourselves at a point of unity. Taiwanese, mainlander, American, it makes no difference when it comes to recognizing the vast gulf that tends to separate those who make the decisions and those who live with them. The reasons for the division are as numerous and different as the schools of thought that led to their creation, but in a neutral spot like a pagoda high up on a mountain peak in Taiwan, the gist is the same. I hope Xuebin realized the importance of that connection. The mainland is in a difficult state, but the only difference between the mainland and the United States is the nature of that difficult state.

Eventually the sun started to set, so we decided to head back down. By the time we got to the bottom, my calves were quivering and I was looking forward to not having to do any climbing for a while. Xuebin and I got on a bus heading to the train station. I reached into my bag to pull out my Kindle and realized. . .that I’d left it at the top of the mountain. That’s right. All the way at the top. On a bench in the pagoda. I pulled my hand out of my bag, said a few choice profanities, and Xuebin and I got back off the bus. We hiked back to the bottom of the mountain, I gave him my bag, and hiked all the way back up. When it comes to reading material, I’m enough of a fanatic to be willing to climb anything. If I’d forgotten a cheap paperback at the top I probably would still have gone up after it if it had been something I was really enjoying. By the time I got back down the mountain, though, I was contemplating the possibility of being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life.

As I said, though, I really should have known better. It’s important to keep watch over your things, but even more so if you tend to forget as many things as I do.

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7 Responses to Taiwan, part 8: Going Someplace, Outdoor Markets that Don’t Suck, Forgetfulness and Mountains

  1. Joel says:

    Haha, should’ve guessed it was going to be your Kindle. how long was the hike back up? I know what you mean about all those mountain paths being stairs!

    I once forgot that my nipple was hanging out of my tank top when taking an awesome memorable picture on top of a mountain in Taiwan… does that count? Now every time I see that photo, that’s all I see.

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  3. Sascha says:

    nice post. too bad you can’t break up all that great writing with a pic or two bro, would help this aging man’s eyeballs.

    • Rob says:

      Working on it. I’m still figuring out how this blog site works. I have the technological know-how of a toadstool.

  4. Joel says:

    I wondered if that would increase my blog traffic.

    And I’ve told him before he could get three or four posts out of each one he’s doing, but honestly it’s nice to read at least one thing that takes some sustained concentration. It just means I sometimes don’t get around to reading it right away.

  5. jd says:

    This is a fantastic blog! It’s so fun to read I can’t leave it alone!

    But come on man. Give Qingdao more credit. We are definitely nothing like Nothern California but I think we are kinda similar to Maine. Maybe next time I can show you around a little bit more. And maybe having some Bayu dumplings.

    I do certainly wish we could be the Hampton Beach of US.

    • Rob says:

      Thanks! And I like Qingdao, too, but after Taiwan I have to put it on a different scale than before. It’s now nice for a mainland city. Actually, I’ll say it’s VERY nice for a mainland city. It’s one of the few I would seriously consider living in. But I’m always going to prefer Taiwan. As for dumplings. . .sigh. I still miss Shandong dumplings.

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