We had a great weekend, but boy are my legs sore. A few weeks ago we bumped into a family whose son had attended kindergarten with Cole – the two of them had been great buddies – and they invited us to join them for a hike. So last Friday night we stayed at their house in Chiayi (our first overnighter with a Chinese family), where they treated us to Pizza Hut and Pepsi followed by a tour of the local night market. We hardly ever do the night markets, but this one I really enjoyed: lots of food (like the candied strawberries you see here), people-watching, people watching us – all under a cool, starry sky. It was my first visit to Chiayi, a small city, very clean and inviting. We had a lovely evening.
The next morning after a cold-pizza breakfast we headed for Alishan. With so many little ones along we opted not to hike up, but instead took the narrow gauge railroad (one of only two in the world) to a village in the bamboo forest. The train was crowded, standing room only, but I was immediately offered a seat since I had Nora in my arms. It was an hour to the village, so that was a real blessing. We had an amazing view; the train circled around and through the mountain several times (Cole counted 14 tunnels) before letting us off at 1,400 meters. The air was fresh and cool – such a nice change from Kaohsiung.
We made our way from the station to a nearby restaurant. The owner stood at the door, waving and beckoning people in, while at his side stood a life-sized cardboard cut-out of himself, doing the same thing. Apparently he's a local celebrity; his picture was everywhere. We ate a traditional Chinese meal, what westerners call a lunch-box: a lidded tin bowl filled with rice and topped with cabbage, pickled bamboo, green vegetables, a drumstick, a pork chop, fried tofu, and a curly red garnish that no one could identify. I shared my lunch with Nora, who was most fond of the rice and chicken. I made short work of the rest, except for the Maraschino parsley.
After clearing our table, we walked through the market for some shopping and sweets. I decided against the glow-in-the-dark Alishan Train t-shirts (even though Christmas is coming), but was more than happy to spend 50NT on a bag of peppery ginger candy. Cole bought a dozen glutenous strawberry rice balls, and Nora got a pack of melon gum from 7-11. (Tim, I think, was holding out for a latté.) Snacks in hand, we headed for the trails.
Hiking in Taiwan is not an Eddie Bauer affair. Women in skirts, fur-trimmed jackets and low heels were handling the groomed trails just as well, if not better, than I was in my all-terrain runners. The fact that Nora preferred my arms to the carrier on Tim's back may have had something to do with my lumbering pace – that, and the altitude. But the scenery was worth the effort. A bamboo forest is very calming, so when we came upon some benches I was happy to sit and take it all in. The light filtering through the giant grass was soft and cool. There was very little noise. My first impression was of the uniformity of the forest, endless stick-straight stalks of green. But then I saw shades of brown and grey, even blue mixed in. And as I looked closer I noticed characters – Chinese names, love poems – etched into some of the stems. I wondered who had carved them, and when. The forest had become personal, the sameness replaced with individuality. It's akin to what happens when you live in Taiwan for a while: what at first seems like a massive, homogenous population slowly takes shape as a collection of individuals. Of course that's what they've always been, but it takes some time to see it. Humanity is in the details.