Tuesdays are awesome. Ali and I both happen to have the day off from our respective schools, so we designate this day to get out of the city and do some exploring. I packed my camera equipment into my hiking bag and we set off early in the morning. The plan was, we would take the train for an hour up to the famous Shilin Night Market, then take a bus to Yangmingshan National Park, and then another tiny bus to carry us into the mountains to the trailhead. From there, we get on a trail system up North that starts in a tourist area famous for having wandering cows, and covers some gorgeous mountain ranges, through grasslands and thick forests, down a cliff, and then leaves us by a road to catch a bus back to Shilin where dinner on the street awaits us. We zipped up our packs, laced our hiking boots, checked water and with an excited pep in our step, headed up into the mountains.
Okay, one of us was more excited than the other.
It was drizzly and pretty cold by the time we got to the trailhead. It took the coaxing of night market food and bubble tea to get poor Ali to agree (even if it was a bit faux-enthusiastically) to do the whole trail with me. But we set off anyway.
But the drizzle wouldn’t last, and by noon, the cloud system blew through and bits of sunlight found their way through dense clouds, giving warmth to the trail and vibrant color to the mountains.
Enthusiasm was restored.
We spent all day wandering through perfectly undulating hills, weaving in dense forest, wading through grasslands and dodging wild water buffalo poop.
I had the camera locked and loaded on my hand-strap, but despite hopping over mound after mound of fresh poo, we didn’t see a single water buffalo. Instead, as night fell, the forest came alive with the screeching of inconvenienced Formosan macaques out looking for dinner. Again unfortunately, my trigger-finger failed me and I was not able to photograph any of these buggers before they bellowed out a screech and plowed through the trees into the forest.
We got out of the trail as the sun set, giving us a gorgeous panorama of Shilin in twilight. My stomach rumbles thinking of the night market down below waiting for us.
So we walk down to the bus stop and start waiting. There’s utter silence, which is somewhat unnerving after spending so much time in a loud, busy city. Lack of cars, lack of people, lack of wind… lack of our bus.
Where is that bus?
We arrived at the bus station knowing the bus only runs every half hour, but I check the time until the next bus. It was 6:20 (yes the sun sets early here this time of year) and the bus schedule shows that the final bus of the night leaves at 5:50.
To better understand our level of solitude, check out the screenshot I took from my phone, mapping our current location while attempting to locate the nearest bus:
Nearest bus station: “None found.”
Cell service: “Unavailable.”
Neither of us voice concern, and we start walking toward the glowing light of Shilin. This wasn’t exactly a tragedy, as both of us were well warm and equipped for long walks, but it was a bit unnerving having no idea if/when we would find a mode of transportation to take us home.
After around an hour of walking, with not much progress made due to the deep winding curves of the mountain roads, came upon a different bus station in front of an old restaurant. This station was not running this late either. Feeling close to defeat, Ali went into the restaurant to ask for advice.
This image was stolen from Street View, but the restaurant, called “全成土雞城” (literally meaning “whole chicken into town”) is the entire bottom floor of the above pictured building.
The place was empty. Practically barren. In the far corner was a couch, covered in family members watching the progressing election. Ali cutely asks a few questions in Chinese, and looks of pity wash over their faces. She turns to me and says they will drive us to Shilin, we just need to wait ten minutes for them to say goodbye.
I try to offer them some money to pay for the trip, they tell us that some family members were going to leave soon anyway.
As Ali and the owner gab away about hiking, a woman comes out with hot tea and water. We say our customary “oh you don’t need to bring us tea,” then slurp it down. It really hit the spot. 5 minutes later out comes food…
I look at the menu and reach for my wallet, but the word “guest” is passed around and they insist that we eat. “Hiking makes you hungry,” they say. Chicken, pork, rice, steamed vegetables… Everything is wonderful.
Taiwanese goodbyes can last ages, and this one was finally dying down as we desperately scraped the last bits of food off the plates. They offer more, but we refuse, insisting “wo bow len,” that we are too full. Word of advice: if a Taiwanese asks if you are full, you are. You are always bow len.
The smiling couple motions toward their SUV for us to come along. The drive back is a roller coaster ride through deep, blinding woods, and all the while Ali is charming our hosts. There is teasing about my proficiency in Chinese, jokes about if Ali is actually one of my students, and stories about the local landmarks. Around the time we get to Shilin, Ali asks if they live down in the city. They laugh and say no, actually they were heading north, not south. Before I could find the right words to thank them, the driver reaches his hand out to shake mine and tells me in English to enjoy Taiwan and we pile out.
We walk into the night market, looking at the food, but don’t buy much, as we were still pretty full.