May 15, Taroko

Outside the hotel, Jenni was introduced to a new friend. Our best guess was that this was a tiger bee, and it decided to leave Jenni with a nasty sting. We nearly lost Jenni at this point, but she survived, taking a huge red welt on her stomach that would grow and take surprising forms for the rest of the trip. While Jenni was recovering we took a hike up to a nearby Pagoda. The stairs were open all the way to the top and we enjoyed the view of tour buses rolling into the area. Avery made the top with the rest of us, no problems, except for the coming back down.

We hiked to a popular spot that was supposed to be a nice, built up hot springs area. There were rumored to be multiple controlled jacuzzis of varying temperatures. This turned out to be true, as of several years ago. In the meantime rocks had fallen from the overhanging cliff walls and injured people. The jacuzzis were then torn out and the trail down gated.

Hopping several gates on the journey, we managed to get the whole family down. An impressive suspension bridge crossed over the river at the location of the springs. We knew they must be working, because the bubbling pools smelled of sulfur. Two older Taiwanese men were there to show us how it worked. Dip into the hot spring for as long as possible, and then move to the neighboring river. The intense heat of the hot pools proved to be too much for all but one member of the family. Pete was able to cozy next to his native older Taiwanese buddy in the only spring big enough to form a small pool. There was a small area where the springs met the river to provide a more tolerable experience.

A variety of food was served for lunch at the area eating spots. We started with caution, but quickly moved into the tasty options. The less adventurous of us went back to the hostel snack deck for fruit drinks and chocolate toast. Afterwards, four scooters were taken with four riders for a less mild ride through the rest of the hill. It was a great ride up to more of a summit. It also provided valuable experience using the domed mirrors placed outside the sharper corners.

The last order of business in Taroko Gorge was an easy trail hike. Mom and Avery stayed back at the snack area while the rest headed out. Most of the trail was a casual walking path with many signs about dangerous falling rocks. Other parts of the trail were actually narrow long caves that were almost entirely dark. The trail led to a large suspended bridge that overlooked an area where multiple waterfalls come together. There was one more mysterious path at the entrance to a tunnel. The barbed wire gate did not deter us as we entered. Two signs waited for us at the entrance. One claiming there was a bathroom ahead, and the other saying to follow the handrail through the tunnel. Alicia claimed the bathroom would be a good idea, but it seemed improbably that a bathroom waited for us in the wilderness. The tunnel was long. Long and curvy. Long and curvy and pitch black. It was perfectly dark and you could see nothing. Danger fell on all those behind a person who stopped along the hand rail. The occasional flashes of a camera left a lasting impression on the surrounding cave.

Through the cave we did indeed find a bathroom. It was actually a nice building with a deck on top being used by a crowd of college students. The students were hanging out cooking noodles, but we did not yet stop for the bathroom. There was one additional cave ahead, called the Cave of Water Curtain. There was a small rushing river coming out of this cave and a narrow stepping stone path along the side. The unstable flooring and darkness made it a slower path. As we came around a small curve we could see light coming in from the other side. We could also see large falls of water coming in through the center of the cave. All around us, and in some places, on top of us. On the way out, we were able to borrow some tissue. Alicia made what she claimed to be a significant deposit at the top of the trail. She was glad to be back to her regular self. Dad also self-volunteered for some group photos with the crowd at the top.

The hike took longer than expected, and as we gathered for the ride down we had a few problems to deal with. One, it was starting to rain. Two, it was growing doubtful that we would make it back to Haulien to catch the train at five. Mom expressed her bitterness about the previous two problems. We donned ponchos and headed down the gorge. Fortunately the rain stayed light and did not remain an issue. We got our first taste of "city" driving with the scooters as we winded through town looking for the scooter rental shop. Because of the time, we split into several squads. Most of us tasked with moving nine large suitcases, an assortment of travel packs, and a large stroller from the hotel to the train station. All said and done, we had train tickets in hand, standing on the correct platform with over three minutes to spare. We ended up more prompt than the train, as we ended up waiting fifteen minutes for the late train to actually show up. It also turned out this was the slow train which made many long stops and lengthened the estimated time of travel.

It was during this rushed leg of the trip we had our first luggage casualties. Jenni had a Hello Kitty blanket and pillow that had been left behind. It turned out Paula had also lost one of her sandals. The one she didn't lose had been valiantly retrieved after falling into the street.

The itinerary was to take the train for most of the trip, and then catch a bus to Paula's home town. Because of the train's leisurely pace we found ourselves in another rushed situation to make the bus. Three cabs were required to haul us and our packs to the bus station. A stop at McDonald's was also necessary, as dinner had not been provided on the train. Phil, Alicia, and Avery's cab somehow got lost on the way over. There was no time to go back for them, but to our surprise, they had been given a quicker route to the golden arches. Based on our previous McDonald's experience, we were all in line for plain cheeseburgers. We all ordered cheeseburgers, by the bag full. When we were done ordering cheeseburgers, Phil came in and ordered another five cheeseburgers. This was the cause of a significant delay. I think more cheeseburgers were produced at that late hour than the rest of the day. Contrary to the McDonald's catch phrase, we were definitely not "lovin' it" after the long delay.

The bus was already loading as we pulled to the station. By station, I mean an abandoned looking building with a small, unseen garage in the back. We began the luggage process as tickets were being purchased. A swarm of activity got us into the large back row of the bus and unwrapping a supply of fresh cheeseburgers. The ride was uneventful, and as the bus made stops, people cleared off, and we spread out into empty rows. As we were nearing Paula's home town, an incident that happened on the back of that bus.

If there's one thing I like about Taiwan, it is that a man off the street can walk into a McDonald's and order himself a large drink. We are talking about a tub of American style, super sized beverage. Eight people did this exact thing one late night in a small Taiwanese town. People, who then proceeded to carry off hundreds of ounces of coke, tea, and water onto a luxury travel bus with an unhealthy number of cheeseburgers.

Early in the bus ride we realized that there was a convenient board installed on the bus at head level behind the large back row of chairs. We had overestimated how thirsty we would be on the bus, and several large cups ended up on the storage board along with other items. During the ride, I had managed to find an empty row and get some sleep. I was woken by a particular rushing sound. It was like the wind being sucked out of a room. Or perhaps more like the thunder of a raging river. This sound was immediately followed by a minutes of stifled giggling. I realized that some sort of liquid had covered the floor of the bus. It turns out a large body of drink had formed on the bus floor, coming from the back row. No passengers on the bus said anything, but some unknown passengers were noted as picking their belongings up off the bus floor and putting them overhead. Most of our group had lost control over laughter and reenacted whoosh sounds.

As were leaving the bus, I noticed that the beach area that had formed was sticky and disgusting. We made our way onto three taxis before anyone could evaluate what had actually happened. We were at Paula's apartment by three in the morning. It was during this afternoon of the journey that Phil and Alicia's collection of DVD movies was left behind. Likely on the train. Say goodbye to "Walk the Line", it fell into a burning ring of fire. Phil and Alicia now have only their "bad" movies left at home to rebuild their collection.