Monday, April 07, 2008

Day 4 Wednesday :: Alishan > Taipei ::

Freezing 1-2 degrees before dawn and 5-6 degrees in the morning.

It was raining before dawn when we woke around 4.50am so sunrise watching was basically a lost cause. As we had woken, we felt that we should get as much as possible out of this trip since we were already on Alishan and decided to go ahead with the journey while some people decided to cancel. It was a freezing 1-2 degrees in Yushan. Along the way to Tatajia, we made stops to see the husband/wife trees but it was so cold that our camera went bonkers. We had to resort to tucking our camera at our tummies to keep it warm and take photos quick to shorten exposure to the cold. Even the driver, a local, huddled in the minibus. The view of the surrounding peaks at Tatajia was even more beautiful than Alishan but the cold made each consequent venture out of the van shorter than the previous. Even the deers and monkeys purported to be sighted in Yushan were smarter than us to come out in this weather!

As the sky slowly brightened, it became warmer so more photo ops at Shenmu II despite the drizzle. After that it was back to the hotel for breakfast.

Our breakfast ‘included’ consists of assorted porridge which the whole group slurped down heartily as it was invitingly hot after the cold morning out. Although very basic, some even asked for second helpings!

While we were collecting our porridge from the reception (haha, that sounds like some soup kitchen eh?), an obasan in red asked us if we were leaving today and our mode of transportation and introduced herself as the lady from Wufong. The morning staff in Dafeng seemed to know her well so we informed her that we intend to take the 11.10am county bus to Chiayi TRA station and intend to reach there around 2pm as we had already visited Fencihu on the way up. Also we hope to reach Taipei by She tried to talk us into sharing a vehicle with a Japanese couple to travel down the mountain at a price of $200+ per pax. We agreed to the quoted price as it was only a little more expensive than the county bus and we do not need to lug our baggage to the Alishan bus depot at 7-11, naively thinking that we would be able to reach the TRA station earlier as there wouldn’t be any stops/ delays as we do not need to wait for other passengers.

Having made arrangements with the hotel to take us up to the FRA at 8am, we were dropped off at the start of the hiking trail near Alishan Gou to take in the phytokines (sp?) and of course photos with the odd shaped trees but not before purchasing our second breakfast of egg biscuits, pau and soymilk from the breakfast van operating in front of the neighbouring Hotel Wufong. Not much changes from the previous visit.

Met two people (a nun and a aborigine lady) trudging around the woodlands near the magnolia gardens where there were paths. Out of curiosity, we went forward to take a peek. Not understanding, we decided to ask them what they were looking for. Turned out they were gathering wild veggies, which looked like curled young ferns or dragon’s beard, for lunch. The nun told us the name but I’ve forgotten it. Oh, it is more of the nun instructing her companion on where to pluck. Talk about living off the land!

We met the nun again when we went to Tze Yun Temple (near Xianglin Middle School and 3 Generations Tree) as we heard from the breakfast vendor that it was the best spot to catch the sea of clouds. A bunch of tourists were also there to admire the camellias which were in full bloom as well as the white cherry blossoms framing the little shelter housing a bell.

The nun welcomed all the fateful people (meaning it is fate that brought everyone there at that moment) within the compound with a movingly poetic little speech to come to the temple for a meal (that’s where the wild veggies went I guess). I agreed privately on the fate part and was tempted to have the meal but it was only 9.30am! A little early for lunch, a little too close to our 2nd breakfast and we have tons of things yet to see so we moved on. Its fate I guess…

Tze Yun Temple was a tranquil spot with a number of large redwoods and carefully tended flowers. We took a number of lovely pictures before we left for the Alishan House area to engage in the cherry blossom watching activity before hustling down to buy some takeaway to eat on the way down before checking out at 11am.

Waited for sometime at the lobby with the Jap couple but the van didn’t appear so we were getting worried. One-who-must-not-be-named asked who we booked our trip with and when she heard the obasan’s name, she exclaimed in a theatrical way, ”Ah, that women is a famous ditherer!” before advising us to send someone to the hotel to hurry the person along as it wasn’t convenient for her to do so as she would still meet her in the future). That’s when we should have been alerted to the person’s character and known that something was amiss but we weren’t sharp enough. The reminder worked miracles, the van finally came and we fetched 2 other passengers and a gaggle of girls before setting off.

However, due to some miscommunication (I prefer not to be to pessimistic about it), the van let us down at Fencihu for an hour to tour and have lunch! I started to have some qualms then and reiterated that we needed to be at the TRA by 2pm as we need to transfer to the THSR. She mumbled something which I couldn’t hear and told me to try the Fencihu Bento at XYZ for NT80 instead of the Fancylake Hotel which taste better and cheaper which made me even angrier as she tried to distract me from the key issue: I had told her earlier we do not intend to tour anything on the way down.

Wanted to carry our luggage out of her van and take the Fencihu-Chiayi bus down but she had parked and locked her van a distance away from the village to avoid the traffic congestion in the narrow lanes when leaving. We had no choice, since we were hijacked, but to wait this hour out by walking up and down the same old streets again. Later at ~1.30pm, when we set off again, she tried to persuade us into taking up her offer of ferrying us to the THSR station for another NT300 but we turned her down flat as we could take the free BRT (for limited time only. Original fare: NT45) behind the TRA station. She started to grumble to the Taiwanese passengers in dialect of how this bunch Hong Kongers wanted to save that little bit of money and how smooth and good was her driving but we pretended not to understand when she tried to test us with it which made her switch to chinese to persuade us to take up the offer. Our expressions got grimmer as the trip dragged on as we went to even more places like Shizuo to see the poor honey bear they caught as a pet.

If we had the intention of sightseeing, the agreed price would be a steal but this ‘bargain’ is our pain. It was obvious that she regretted our deal as it is underpriced compared to what other passengers paid (NT400) as she took us to the same places. Regardless, she was the one who initially agreed on the low low price which led to the misconception that there wasn’t to be any stops along the way. I think the obasan sensed that we were unhappy of this delay but still pushed on with her sales pitch all the way to the Everlasting Bridge.

At that point, it was 2.50pm and the pitch escalated all the way into an altercation which ended with me hysterically telling her that my joyful experience with her ‘punctuality’ (which departed from our schedule by 1h) gave me no confidence that I should pay another NT300 for a late delivery to the HSR station.

I was prepared to give her another earful when she rattled on again but I was restrained by my companion who injected a sense of levelness into the situation by pointing out that:

1) Since we are already late, there is nothing we can do but accept that fact. Brace ourselves for another round of her antics and not play into her tricks.
2) Knowing that what she wants was cash, cease the argument and refuse her offer politely.
3) Call up all the relevant parties now to inform them that we will be arriving later than the ETA of 4pm and make the best of the situation.
4) Do not put ourselves in a bad position by portraying us as unreasonable tourists.

She brought us to yet another site: Reservoir (nothing special, just any old reservoir). I was still fuming but going with the flow so it was peace and quiet all the way. Think she started feeling guilty for causing the delay so after getting the agreement of the other passengers (that’s very sweet of them), she offered to bring us to the HSR station first at no additional cost before dropping them off at Chiayi TRA.

Due to her unfamiliarity with the new highway? to Tipoh太保 we nearly went south (水库direction I think) to all the way to Tainan! :-o Good thing the schoolgirls noticed it before we went past the point of no return. After some fits and starts, she managed to find the way back to the highway with the assistance of all the locals in our van. Heheh, when I think of it now, the whole incident was a case of 越帮越忙. Nonetheless, I appreciated her attempts to help and how the other locals roped in to help her.

Reached the HSR station at around 4.15pm. I decided to reimburse her NT200 to cover the fuel expenses for traveling the wrong way because she did attempt to make reparations even though she said it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t pay NT300 so as not to encourage her to try this on other unsuspecting tourists. Hopefully she learnt her lesson as well as we did: go through the offer clearly and carefully before agreeing. As some other of the passengers were delayed by that misroute, they decided to take the HSR too but since we were already behind schedule, we didn’t wait for them as we rushed into the station to purchase tickets.

Our mood lifted considerably after we got into the HSR station. As the queue for the manual ticketing booth was quite long, we decided to try out the auto ticketing. Unlike the railway ticketing system, it was fairly easy, just select same day ticket (non reservation seats) and the starting & destination station, select the number of tickets, paid the money and the machine spat out the ticket. Took the 4.36pm HSR and reached Taipei at 6pm. It was a blur when we got out of the station during rush hour. Confusion reigned when we surfaced at level one as all the inadequate signs were not very helpful as they seem to giving different directions and we didn’t know which exit to take. In the end, one of us ran out of Taipei Main to orientate ourselves according to the familiar landmarks like Shinkong and Hope Hotel.

Dragged our luggage across to Shinkong, traversed right and turned left and voila! our hotel.

Took the metro to Longshan Temple station after purchasing our easycards. Went to Huaxi Night Market. it looked horribly deserted that day. Guangzhou Street which was nearer to the metro station was crowded in comparison. We chose to have a yummy sit-down meal (consisting of Luroufan, bantiao, yuntun noodles, white braised tofu and some veggies) in a shop that looked extremely busy near the start of the Guangzhou Street. On the way to Huaxi, we found a stall selling scholar’s cake in the shape of the traditional scholar’s hat (two flavours:sesame and redbean). Tasted like a coarser version of tutu cake. Huaxi was surprisingly lackluster perhaps it was because it’s the weekdays. The only time we saw any crowd was when there was some demonstration on the efficacy of snake blood (no photos allowed). The man tied up a white python?/snake and slit its belly to drain out the blood. Quite ghastly!!! Mom all but ran from the display. Seafood restaurants practically lined the streets. On the way out from Huaxi we ate Ginseng Chicken which was the most aromatic and got some orange juice to quench our thirst and that’s basically the end of our Huaxi Night Market jaunt.

As we made our way back, we noticed that Longshan Temple was bustling with activity which I later realize was for GuanYin’s Birthday. There were some kind of float and the temple was packed to the gills with the crowd spilling over to the streets. Even saw some monks in straw hats standing on the street hah.

Strolled around the Longshan Underground Mall which I didn’t notice the other time I was here. There were some shops on winter sale clearance and multitudes of fortune telling shops. The interesting bit about these shops was that they have many little booths in each unit with different schools/styles of fortune telling. You have one booth for tarot cards, another for palm reading and one for tea leaves and many more ways. So if you hear something bad from one stall, try another. Strangest of all, they looking akin Neoprene booths... My companion confirmed that it had been around the other time, so much for my powers of observation.

Returned to Keyman’s at around 9+pm which is quite early but we were bushed from all the traveling and it’s another BIG day at Taroko Gorge so it is off to sleep.

PPS: A few days later back in Taipei, we heard new reports of some visitors caught for striping its tree bark on the bad advice of some priest that the forestry bureau had to wrap up the lower portions of the tree, in fact other redwood trees too, to protect them from itchy fingers. Hehheh, I now know the purpose of the wooden curtain-like slats now!

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