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DESTINATION: TAIWAN

Gorging on a Rock-Bound Coast

On the island's spectacular east coast, sampling a menu of history and culture, from hot-spring spas to "stinky tofu"

January 23, 2000|ERIC ELLMAN | Eric Ellman is based in Bisbee, Ariz

With the end of World War II and the defeat of Japan, China's communists and nationalists turned on one another. In 1949 Mao Tse-tung's communists prevailed, driving Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists from the mainland. Chiang set up a government in exile in Taiwan, and the rush of migration swelled the population by 2 million more.

"Did they all settle in the same place?" I asked Amy as she drove us out of Kaohsiung. Along the highway south of the city, every square inch of land appeared to be in use. Heavy industry, mango orchards, apartment buildings and fish farms shouldered up to the side of the road.

"Do you like our countryside?" Amy asked, amused. She'd tried to warn me that quaint rural towns were not on the agenda. But this was something else: one of the most densely populated and environmentally compromised places on Earth. No wonder the Taiwanese are such avid weekenders.

Amy promised I would relax in Kenting. We found the beach town's streets full of weekend visitors, but the atmosphere was delightfully laid-back.

The area's beaches are the best in Taiwan, with clear water for snorkeling and several good breaks for surfing. The extreme southerly location makes the water comfortable year-round, yet I saw few people swimming.

In the morning we paid a quick visit to a botanical reserve begun by the Japanese, then turned the car north, away from the barefoot throng and toward the island's wild and untamed eastern side.

As quickly as that, we were alone.

The three-hour drive on the narrow coast road was tiring, and we took some quick breaks, once to splash in a river pool, another time to visit a Buddhist shrine in a roadside cave.

Buddhist and Taoist temples and shrines are everywhere on the island and were an unexpected pleasure for me, a lapsed Jewish boy with little use for organized religion. Perhaps it was the informality. No one led the prayers, and there seemed to be no pattern to the worship. The Taoist temples were particularly appealing. Worshipers left bundles of food for the gods, burned sticks of incense and symbolic money, and threw dice at the feet of the gods' images to divine the future.

Amy had made reservations for us in Chihpen Hot Springs. The Royal Chihpen Hotel was a luxurious introduction to Taiwan's ethnic origins. Local aboriginal crafts inspired the design. A brilliant red-and-white-checkered, full-sized Yami boat was parked in the lobby, on tiles made of the region's characteristic "rose stone," a manganese-infused marble.

What took my breath away, however, was the peculiar odor in the hall outside our elegant room. It was a while before I realized the source: the scorching mineral water that, with the turn of a valve, filled our private soaking tub. After a while, I stopped noticing the smell.

I was less successful with "stinky tofu," a Taiwanese specialty that greeted me at Chihpen's night market and every convenience store we stopped at on the road. Norwegians have lutefisk. Belgians have Limburger. Pungent tofu is Taiwan's culinary acid test. Chase it with a little cobra soup and you can call yourself a native.

We spent the morning in Chihpen's rain forest preserve, focusing one eye on the treetops for monkeys, the other on the ground for cobras. We encountered neither, which emboldened us for a look at Hualien, the largest city on Taiwan's east coast.

It struck me as unattractive, modern but undistinguished. Or was the homogeneity in my untrained eye? Giant signs hung vertically from every storefront, and I couldn't recognize a single neon Chinese character.

Amy didn't need signs when it came to ferreting out the finest in local street cuisine. Instinct drew her through Hualien's crowded sidewalks to a stand where we gorged on the world's greatest dumplings at the world's cheapest price--the equivalent of 80 cents per dozen. Amy pointed out a sign that said, "Over 70? Eat for free." Something to think about when it's time for retirement.

At sundown we hit the road for Taroko Gorge.

Along the way I fell into a dumpling-induced sleep. I awoke to a dream. Taroko Gorge is a national park and Taiwan's No. 1 tourist destination, and the Grand Formosa is its only real hotel. (There are hostels and campsites.) The dream part was the cost: The equivalent of $100 bought a luxury suite, with color television in each room, a patio and a bathtub with a view. Outside the hotel, two raging rivers converged in the gorge flanked by high canyon walls. Inside, the entertainment consisted of nightly music and dance recitals by descendants of the Ami who once ruled here.

This is where I popped the question, adding a vow to spend years exploring this island as part of my commitment.

In the morning I started fulfilling the pledge.

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