Describe the moment when you realized you were in love with Taiwan.
That was the discussion prompt a few months ago that someone posted in the community of Taiwan watchers on Twitter. It inspired a wonderful conversation, with many people describing travel adventures or culinary discoveries. Some shared stories about friendships and acts of kindness.
I was busy at the time and didn’t have a chance to weigh in. So now I want to make amends and describe the moment when I fully realized that I had fallen in love with Taiwan.
It was way back in 1989. I don’t remember exactly when, but I had already been living in Taiwan for a few months, studying Chinese at the Mandarin Training Center. An American classmate of mine invited me to go on a hiking trip on the weekend.
He warned me that we would get wet – very wet. I was advised to bring a fanny pack with a spare pair of shorts, socks, t-shirt, and towel wrapped in a sealed plastic bag to keep them dry. He told me to wear sneakers and running shorts or swim trunks.
I’m embarrassed to say I have no idea where we went. It might have been some part of Yangmingshan National Park. This was nearly two decades before Google maps, and I couldn’t read Chinese, so I spent much of my time during my first months in Taiwan getting lost or blindly following friends who seemed to know the way.
We hopped a city bus near the Taipei train station and about a half hour later we were winding our way up a mountain road. We got off at a stop that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. We hiked down the road a bit until we came to an unmarked trailhead, almost hidden by thick tall grass that seemed to be a perfect habitat for venomous snakes.
My friend said that the trail’s location was a secret, only shared among hiking fanatics.
The trail took us to a stream, where we stripped down to our shorts and began following the stream bed up the mountain. The cool water felt refreshing as it splashed against my calves, which were slowly filling with lactic acid as we climbed. There were four or five small waterfalls that we had to climb around, presenting an interesting mental challenge.
The higher we climbed, the warmer the water became because the stream flowed through sulphur pits. Finally, we reached the top of the mountain, where the ground was covered with massive slabs of stone. What was unique about the stone was that in some areas, the stream had carved out mini pools. They actually looked like small natural hot tubs.
We put down our packs, stripped off our clothes, and slid down into the pools for a relaxing hot bath. The mini pools were deep enough that the water came up just past my belly button as I sat in the water. It was so refreshing and revitalizing to soak in the hot water. The only downside was the water’s strong rotten-egg stench of sulfur.
After bathing for about a half hour, we dried off, put on our spare set of clothes, and began hiking down the other side of the mountain on a trail that didn’t require wading through a stream.
When we got to the road, we decided to hitchhike back to the city. After sticking our thumb out for five minutes, a young newlywed couple on a Sunday drive stopped and picked us up. We chit-chatted with our limited Mandarin, and they were amazed that two foreigners would go hiking in the mountains with no real plan about how they would get back home.
It was at this time that I began to appreciate that Taiwan was a place with incredible natural beauty. It was a great place for adventure and kind people who would give a stranger a ride home, even if they reeked of sulphur. It was the moment that I realized I was in love with Taiwan.