New Taipei City, Taiwan
November 1, 2018
It rained on our parade. Early November was well within typhoon season in Taiwan; Frances, J9, and I learned the wet way. Nevertheless, no inclement weather could dampen our spirit. Armed with a sunny disposition and a warm smile, our driver-cum-guide Kevin Xie (or Hsieh) drove away the rainy day blues on top of his other duties and English skill, uncommon among the Taiwanese.
Kevin drove east to New Taipei City. Wind and rain blowing in from the Pacific welcomed us to Yehliu Geopark, a scenic copper-colored cape at Wanli District that sprouted rock art formed by the masterful hands of Mother Nature. An eclectic artist, she applied various methods on these sandstones. Swirling oceanic waves, subtle yet stubborn weathering, and occasional tectonic movement all worked in concert to create fanciful shapes given equally fanciful names: bean curd, ice cream, fairy’s shoe, fried drumstick, and the Buddhist monastic pig. Thanks to the rain, we missed all that.
Not that we minded. We came for one particular rock: the Queen’s Head, the iconic image of Yehliu. A kind of water-sculpted mushroom rock, it had a bulky head that tapered sharply at the top and round the base. The collapse of the top rock some 50 years ago left the rest shaped like the silhouette profile of Queen Elizabeth I with her updo of curls. For me, though, it conjured up Cleopatra, but I didn’t get naming rights.
Still, the up-close-and-personal experience truly felt like meeting royalty. We waited in line for a photo op. My turn came up and I curtsied, eliciting laughter from fellow tourists behind me.
The rock that would become Queen’s Head had been estimated to be 4,000 years old. Though that would be a mere blip in geologic time, it might as well be an eternity for such a precarious position subjected to unrelenting elemental forces – and now, daily intrusion of tourists. For this reason I promised myself to see the rock even if we had to don unsightly and environmentally unfriendly plastic raincoats. The Queen’s Head would topple – be beheaded, if you will – as a matter of course sooner or later. Thus, I had my girlfies holler Greek chorus style, “Long live the queen!”
There were many mushroom rocks – rounded tops on slender stems – jutting out of the craggy coastline at Yehliu. Others stood at eye level exhibiting the honeycomb pattern of shallow pockmarks on the surface. It would have been a scientific adventure to explore this natural rock garden, but the same forces shaping them – wind and water – were shooing us away. Well played, Mother Nature!
Back in the car, I told Kevin the Golden Waterfall, our next stop, was a non-negotiable item in our road trip. I was smitten at first sight of it in a photo on a friend’s Facebook wall. Easy peasy for Kevin and us. It was located right by Jinshui Road in Ruifang District. No walking, no hiking, no effort, and no entrance fee. My favorite spot in Taiwan was a roadside attraction for “drive by shooting” (drive by, shoot some photos, and go). The stop took no more than ten minutes.
The Golden Waterfall was not particularly grand nor was it a tremendous cascade even in this rain. It flowed gradually down the slope, not in a dramatic drop. Still, it was gold, quite literally, for its proximity to the Gold Ecological Park. The bright landscape may have been contaminated by heavy metals deposited therein from defunct gold and copper mines upstream. Its beauty could be the product of contamination. If so, it was love at first sight for an environmental disaster.
After that quickie stop, Kevin spirited us away, still within Ruifang District, to quaint Jiufen, an erstwhile mining town turned tourist spot. Or a film set, seemingly. Part of the fame of this town built by the Japanese lay in its resemblance to the setting of the acclaimed anime Spirited Away by filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, though he had denied any such connection. Regardless, we lapped up souvenirs designed with ghost characters from the movie.
More than a century ago, this isolated mountain hamlet prospered during the Taiwanese gold rush. As minerals were depleted, so were Jiufen’s fortunes. But its maze of extant Japanese-style architecture gave the town its second wind as a heritage tourism destination.
And so here we were as in happy golden days of yore. Jiufen had become a rich goldmine of history and culture. Naturally, the entrepreneurial types mined tourist money. As the drizzle gathered strength, we ran for shelter to a seafood cracker store manned by a personable seller. We had some, more out of politeness than craving. By the time we came back to buy more to bring home, a price hike had taken place in the volatile cracker industry.
I came for food and culture, the girls for shopping at Jiufen Old Street. We followed the flow of foot traffic on the cobblestones of narrow alleys that crisscrossed through blocks of traditional houses so dense that, at times, it seemed enclosed as a singular building. I could not tell whether there were residential spaces. By the looks of it, they were all souvenir shops, food stalls, and restaurants. Cultural commerce was robust, to say the least.
It was way past noon, but not even hunger could make the girls agree to have another bite of xiaolongbao. We went for the more filling rice toppings and century eggs, which I did not particularly fancy. Our main event were dessert and beverage from various food stalls: nougats we could not stop munching on washed down with ginger tea that gave us a warm kick in this cold, rainy weather. We capped it all with rose honey milk tea – this was Taiwan, after all – from a convenience store at the mouth of the old street.
We would’ve explored deeper into the town if not for the off-putting crowd. So off we escaped to neighboring Pingxi District. There was more forest cover in this countryside than in Wanli and Ruifang. Kevin deposited us near a river traversed by Jingan Suspension Bridge, yet another vestige of the area’s mining history. Formerly used as a conduit for coal, it had since been repurposed into a pedestrian bridge for visitors to Shifen Waterfall, a good 20-minute walk away. We caught glimpses of a still-operational railway behind the canopy of trees.
Past a complex of souvenir shops and restaurants, we climbed up to a viewing deck overlooking Shifen Waterfall, a more majestic cousin of the Golden Waterfall. Its horseshoe shape called to mind a baby Niagara Falls, albeit surrounded by lush rain forest. This view deck was too close to the cascade, though. A more panoramic perspective could be had farther downstream, but we were too tired and damp to wander off.
Instead, we lingered at Cafe de Flore Bistro back where Kevin dropped us off. The cafe looked abandoned if not for a lone staff who only had blaring cheesy pop songs for company. It was chill time as I sang along loudly to MJ’s Heal the World between sips of latte. The girls were busy with accounting of our group budget while I could not be bothered with mundane money matters.
Twilight was quickly upon us as we drove to the day tour climax – the lighting and setting off of sky lanterns. In all of Taiwan, this tradition was only allowed in Pingxi District for its location wedged between mountains and sea that kept the lanterns from flying too far off. At first, my woke self was worried about its environmental impact, but so was the city government. Incentives were given to local people for picking up and properly discarding fallen lanterns. Such collective responsibility was unheard of in my country!
We came too early for the Pingxi Lantern Festival, a culminating celebration of the Lunar New Year. But the tradition had been touristified and practiced any day of the year. This was a significant stop to our friend, Frances. With a calligraphy pen in hand, she poured her heart out in writing her wishes and names of loved ones on the paper lantern. Historically, the lanterns were simply a medium of communication between people across mountains, much like smoke signals. Ironically, in modern times, it gained superstitious status as a wish list sent to the powers that be in the sky.
We arrived at a lantern shop just as it was about to close for the night. Kevin had to ask the couple in the shop to allow just one more customer. Wish granted before we even wished it. Our tardiness was fortuitous. It allowed us some privacy to perform a ritual out on the street. The elderly woman at the shop ignited the soybean oil within the lantern and, on Kevin’s loud countdown, we released Frances’ wishes into the night sky with prayerful utterances. My wish was for her wishes to come true.
On such hopeful note our tour ended. Xiexie to Kevin Xie for keeping us shining and smiling despite the stubborn rain that, to our pleasant surprise, let up right at the sky lantern shop. How could we not believe that wishes did come true?