Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The New Year's Taiwan Loop II (South Link Railway and Taidong)

After a day and a half in Tainan and Anping, we took a short trip down to Gaoxiong (sorry, Kaohsiung just looks funny) and spent just a few hours wandering down by the Love River.

Recommendation: Don't go to the Love River during the day. It's quite boring and the city views aren't even that great. Do something else - go to Chaishan and the Old British Consulate, or explore Cijin island, go to Little Liuqiu, Meinong, Zuoying or do anything else. Save Love River for an evening when its promenades show some sign of life, when the city lights make Gaoxiong look beautiful (it's not a bad city, but it's not on my hot list of scenic cities of the world), and when the beer gardens are open. We had to leave that area and go searching in Yancheng for some food.

We ended up eating a delicious, inexpensive and relatively healthy meal at a small restaurant near the City God Temple.

One of the lions outside the City God temple.

Then we boarded the South Link Railway. On this segment of the railroad, you can't go north past Taidong, and I am not sure if you can do so on the Gaoxiong side. There are plenty of options along the way, though. Hengchun is not only the jumping-off point for Kending, but also boasts its own natural gas-and-water hot spring in which bubbles of gas catch fire as they exit the water. Guanzilin has something similar. Taimali looks like an interesting stop; the name is almost certainly of aboriginal extraction and my students later told me that if I want to try local food, Taimali is the place to do it. Taidong really doesn't compare on a culinary level.

The scenery along the way is also quite spectacular. It begins with the fading industrial plain and turns to southern countryside before ringing several palm forests and then coming out along the eastern shore, with nothing but sea views on one side, and mountain vistas on the other. I took a few photos, but not many came out well. I am, however, quite happy with this one:

This railway is a good alternative for a scenic ride along the southeastern mountains, as the Suao-Hualien stretch of railway is mostly tunnels and you get very little in the way of good views.

We arrived in Taidong at sunset and went to our hotel (Ming Yu hotel, off Zhonghua Road - good value for money at $2500 or so a night for a clean room with lots of amenities, though we didn't use the breakfast coupons for McDonald's because we don't really like McDonald's and anyway, it was too far to walk. Bonus: gangta rap in the lobby. Ha). There isn't much to do in Taidong, so we satisfied ourselves with a grazing dinner of dumplings, stinky tofu and other snacks and headed back early.

I enjoyed the fresh sea air of Taidong - it was softer, milder and cleaner than elsewhere in Taiwan and the light had a different, almost filtered, quality. I think that and the mountains in the distance really made the city for me, because the urban bustle is all but nonexistent. On the second day (Sunday) we checked out the night market but it was already winding down at 9:30 (!!) - all that was left were games, knock-off accessories and fried food. I was hoping for more aboriginal fare but there was none to be had.

We're not really museum people - I, for one, prefer to see life in action rather than a display case - so we forwent the Museum of Prehistory and spent the second day hopping up the east coast to Sanxiantai and Baxiandong.

Sanxiantai - or Three Immortals Platform - was beautiful:

...with lots of rocks, paths, crevices, niches, stairs, walkways and caves to explore. We never made it to the lighthouse, but we did find a path through a cave on the larger of the "immortals" (the rocks, presumably volcanic in origin) which was quite a lot of fun, and included lots of scrambling to get to.

The souvenir and food area nearby isn't so bad - you can buy CDs of aboriginal music, decent food and good seafood, and grab a cup of coffee afterwards to warm up on a cool, windy day. It's also very accessible by bus and very near the fishing town of Chenggong.

Baxiandong (Eight Immortals Caves), however, was something of a disappointment. The sea views were lovely, and we did see a monkey playing in the trees on our way down, so all was not lost. The exhibit housing the neolithic tools found was quite small, however, and the Daoist grottoes were kind of tacky. Tthe group of meditators at the top were very peaceful and lent a lovely air to the place, though.

The grottoes of Baxiandong
Obviously not a neolithic cave sculpture, but photogenic nonetheless.

We returned to Taidong via Chenggong, where we stopped for a lovely seafood dinner of squid, a heavy fish with an almost chicken-like texture to the flesh, clams and shrimp with egg. There's not much going on in Chenggong but it's a good place to grab a meal.

The next day we returned to Taipei from Taidong via the East Rift Valley. Riding a train with large windows that beautifully framed the passing scenery, I've decided that this has to be one of the most scenic railway journeys one can take not only in Taiwan, but in the world. Especially when crops are in full bloom - we seem to have hit mustard or rapeseed season by the look of the yellow fields. You can see mountains on both sides and rural roads twisting away like ribbons between the fields, and it's wonderful just to contemplate, even if you don't stop. Taking the railway, in this way, is better than driving because you don't have to pay attention to the road; you can admire what's around you instead.

I enjoyed snapping pictures along this route, thinking about how much fun it is to watch the natural and human worlds take turns dropping things in front of you, and as you move, twisting them around into new positions and scenes. Your job, as the photographer of that scene, is to snap right when those arrangements are best. Wait for that unfurled road when it's most striking, or take the shot when the sun hits the water just so, or the cloud passes right there. When the person walks in front of the building in exactly that way, or when a bicyclist or vendor moves a little bit to make the scene more compelling.

I'm not very good at this, of course, but it's wonderful to think about.


cfimages said...

Great trip report and photos. It's not easy taking photos through a train window. For future reference, you could try putting your camera very close to the window - the glass will be too close for your camera to focus on and it should give you sharp pics of the scenery. If you have an SLR/DSLR, you can also manually focus at infinity and it'll do the trick.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Thanks for the tip. I figured out the 'put it close to the window' thing later on, but my camera isn't the highest quality (Canon Powershot A520; I want a newer model) so the pics still didn't focus as well as I'd like. I used the 'running man' thing on the settings but that only compensates so much. Those two images are the only passable ones I got out of maybe 50-60 photos total from the train rides.