Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Memories of Taiwan: Wulai


One day during our recent visit to Taiwan we decided to head out to a natural hot springs area that is south of the city in the local mountains. This area is known for it's hot spring baths (both public and private) and for the aboriginal arts and foods that can be found. There is also the highest waterfall in Taiwan and a cable car that goes up to a resort area that is at the top of the falls. What could be better?

The town is called Wulai.

My action adventure partner has been touring Taiwan for the last week whilst I slaved over a hot computer, so she has mastered the art of riding the Taipei public transportation and saying “Thank you” in Taiwanesse (Shey Shey? Shin Shin? Sho Sho? It changes each time as far as I can tell). She has already tried one expedition out to Wulai but the team didn't get to make the final ascent up the waterfall cliffs due to equipment failure which lead to the injury of one of the team leaders and an emergency evacuation. Hey. That sounds like a good story, I think I will mix it into this one.

Wulai is way up this windy 2 lane road in the local mountains. You can take the public bus (number 849) up there and you can ride the MRT from our hotel to the bus station. You have to change MRT trains a couple of times but we are experienced at that from our Night Market and dinner outings. No problem. Especially as long as we have our MRT pass. What is that? You don't have an MRT Pass? You don't even know what an MRT pass is? You don't even know what MRT is? I see.

An Elevated Rail part of the MRT. 

MRT is “Metro Rapid Transit”. Not sure what that translates into in English, but it is what the Taipei citizens call the local light rail/subway and bus system. To ride the bus you need a pre-paid multi-pass (which can also be used to board the trans-light to Fhloston Paradise). The multipass is a plastic card. You pay $100 NTD for a blank card and then you can fill it up at the nice machines that are at the entrances to the MRT train sites. The cards are NFT (Near Field Technology) and you just have to put them near the appropriate reader for them to work. A common transaction would be:
      1. Walk up to the fare machine.
      2. Put your Multi-Pass on the flat area that says “Put Multi-Pass Here”
      3. The machine will tell you how much money is on the card.
      4. Load a couple of $100NTD bills into the convenient slot.
      5. The machine will says “Wait while card is loaded”
        1. Actually it says “等待卡装” unless you remembered at step 1.1 to change the language to English.
        2. So go back and do that.
      6. You wait.
      7. Machine finishes and you now have the same card but with more NTD !!

        You can get you Multi-Pass here. No. Wait. This is a AED
The other cool thing about the Muti-pass is that not only does it work on the city trains and busses, you can also use it at many stores. We saw a Multi-pass reader at a 7-11 (which are like EVERYWHERE).  I guess this makes it particularly easy for your high school student to accidently spend his bus money on a slurpee, but that is not my problem. My problem is getting us all on the train to Wulai. Now when you go to enter into the secured zone of the train, you tap your card at the turnstile reader and it lets you in. When you get to your destination, you tap your card on the exit turnstile and it charges your card the pittance it costs to ride that fabulous system and you walk out smiling and happy into the light of a new day.

On this particular well lit new day we already have our loaded multi-passes and we just jump right on the Red line and we are off. We change to the Green line and now we have about a 20 minute ride out to the bus station. The trains in Taipei are very nice and clean. They can get crowded during the rush hour but at the time we were going (around 9:00) things are pretty quiet and we get a seat without even having to take one of the priority seats reserved for Old People, Pregnant Ladies, and westerners that can't fraking read the signs. Ok, most signs are repeated in English so it is actually pretty easy to know where to not sit and when to get off of the train and such.

Wulai is a popular destination. The bus doesn't run all that often (at this time of day) and that same bus handles all of the local traffic for people that live along the river that is flowing down from Wulai. Remember, Wulai is in the mountains and has a big waterfall and hot springs, so a river has to flow down out of it. This also explains the twisty road. But I digress. The bus is full. We get to stand for the first half of the ride. Make sure you hold on to a bar or strap or something because of the aforementioned twisty road.

Some guy on the bus.

It is about a 30 minute ride up the mountain but we eventually come to the end of the road and get out to walk into the town of Wulai proper. Wulai is billed as a place where the local Taiwanese indigineous peoples live. These were the islanders that were there before the mainland Chinese settled. They have their curious hunting and dressing traditions wrapped up and ready for sale to the casual tourist. The main street is lined with little shops selling local food and “hand made” items. We were told that the area has a reputation for selling quality and hand made items at reasonable rates. To me it looked like a somewhat run down tourist trap. Lots of people visiting, most of them were Taiwanese. The main street is semi-closed to traffic (motor bikes only) and it goes through the little town and crosses the river and then comes to the road that leads up to the waterfall area.

A very pretty Canyon.

Back during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (the Japanese occupied pretty much everything in the far east for a while there) this area was a timber production site. There was a little logging train railroad that was built up the hill to the waterfall, and from there a cable system would bring supplies up and cut lumber down from the mountain. We were going up the mountain on the new improved people moving cable car. The small gauge lumber train railroad has been modified to carry passengers (for a fee) up and down the hill. The many advertisements (and web sites) that I researched in my constant search for veracity called it an “electric railroad”, but it was really a little gas bus rail road. There were 4 or 5 of these little gas powered enginees pulling about 3 cars each that would zoom right up and down the hill. Keep you arms and legs inside the fraking vehicle for Gods Sake.

The "electric" train.

We made a little bit of a wrong turn and ended up walking up the car road that runs parallel and below the rail road. “This must have been the streed that we rode the Ambulance down” says my partner.

The what?

Flashback to 4 days ago. I was out in New Taipei City attending some meetings with a big electronics company (I can't name names, but their initials are QUANTA). We had driven somewhat more into the sticks to eat at this famous establishment with a nice river view. I sat down to eat with my 8 associates and I happened  to check my phone to see if I had received any texts from my partner. I new that she and another person (the partner of an associate of mine also at lunch) had headed off to Wulai for the day and I was wondering how they were doing. I hadn't heard my phone ding cause I had the bell turned off for my meetings.

The last text message was shown on the front of the phone. It said:

We're in the ambulance, out of the mountains, and into the city”

WTF? What is going on? What ambulance? Is my honey hurt? How bad is she hurt. I quickly log in and scroll up to find:

“Bernice fell and broke her wrist. We're at the waterfall in Wulai. Called a cab. We need to know what hospital to go to.”

and then after that (and a 20 minute later time stamp)

“We're at: Cardinal Tein Hospital”

I texted back that I was getting messages and had told Bernice's husband Bob.

"Good, the radius is broken and they're recommending Surgery."

At this point, as you can imagine, the lunch broke up some with Bob jumping in a cab with one of our hosts and going off to assist. (Oh, and a special note to Bob and Bernice. Yes, I know you aren't really named Bob and Bernice. I have not forgotten your names. I'm just using blog anonymity. Same reason I call my partner “my partner” and not..... oh oh.... almost slipped there )

And now, back to the present.

We reach the place on the road right under the cable car cables, where the train drops people off. “See that bench there?” says my partner, “That is where Bernice fell”. (see how my partner also calls here "Bernice"?) She had stood on the park bench to get a better view of the waterfall and the bench had pulled out from it's anchor and tipped over, landing her on her wrist and winning her a ride in the local “wah wah”. According to Action Adventure Girl, “wah wah” is what you call a ambulance (with a siren) if you are a nice helpful local person and you don't speak what ever it is gibberish language that the strange women that climb on benches speak. The broken bench was still there, 4 days later. It was still broken. Hell, it was still tipped over on it's front. It did have the addition of some yellow “Danger” tape draped around it. 

 I checked out the cement that had anchored the feet. It was rotten. I looked up and saw a couple of other of the benches now also had the warning tape on them. Preventive maintenance. Wasn't it nice of those American women to call this menace to our attention?

By the way. That comment about rotten cement? Probably Foreshadowing.

So up a flight of very steep and strangely slanting stairs to the gondola station. By strangely slanting I mean they went up in zig zags. How to explain. Imagine that the stairs go straight up a steep hillside. But the path wanders a bit. So instead of turning corners and putting in switchbacks, you just extend the sides of the stairs right or left and make the railing stay in the middle. It means you can't walk straight down the steps, you have to walk sideways. Seemed very awkward to my sore knee. I wish I had a picture to show you but I can't find one. 

We grab a seat in the gondola. It goes like every 15 minutes and is a 2 minute ride to the top. You get a nice view of the town and river. The waterfall turns out to be rather small stream that feeds into the main river. It is sort of the local Multnomah Falls. (would you like a Gondola to carry you up to the top of Multnomah falls?).

I also got the very distinct feeling that the Gondola was a time machine that carried us back in time to the 50's. Cause at the top was this resort. Or perhaps a place that had once been a resort. Or a place that had been built in the 50's to be a high class resort but they hadn't used the best materials.....

A lot of old stuff around.

Have you ever been to one of those places, like on highway 66, that was built by some mom and pop establishment to show off the worlds biggest ball of twine? They had their heyday in the 50s and then went all to hell when the interstate when through? It felt like that. Not sure where the local interstate is though. The place is still operational. There is a little hotel and a restaurant up there, and there is a little pond where you can rent a little rowboat and paddle around (oh, don't go that way, that is the waterfall, you know). But everything is old and out of repair. And Fraking slippery. But there were some very pretty sites. A nice little shrine or two. A beautiful coy pond. But there was also a lot of strangeness. What word do you use for total incongruous things all mixed together? Oh yeah, incongruous.


For instance?
For instance, you get off of the gondola. You get your map at the little information stand, you walk up the steps to the main (once road) path that leads up to the hotel, and right there nestled into the side of the mountain is one of those little romantic 2 person, single car at a time, scare me track rides like you might find set up at a mobile town carnival or state fair. So strange. It was put in such that it looked somewhat organic with the mountain, and now overgrown with moss and fern. There was a little old chinese man at the little gate getting the cars queued up for riders, “Very Fun Ride”, he assured us. We smiled and moved on.

Scary Carny Ride built into the hillside.

The next thing we came across was a nice modern jewelery shop. On a ledge overhanging the river. Well lit and selling more of the coral jewerly you see in the nicer tourist areas. Incongruous.

So now we get to the little dam that creates the little pond for the little rowboats. It is very pretty. Green ferns and red arch bridges. Pretty little hotel/restuarant. We cross over the river to the area that is labeled something like “Aquatic Park”.

Yes. You probably read that right. Unless you read “Aquaman Ark”,  then you read it wrong.

A really bad water slide

Perhaps come back in the summer.

The Aquatic park was a medium sized and very empty pool. It looked like it had been empty for a couple of decades (though it wasn't full of dirt so I was probably wrong on that). There were some old signs indicating that it was open in the summer, but I am somehow doubtful. Around the corner we came to a set of romantic one room bungalos and a stack of old air conditioners. There were train tracks leading to the airconditioners. Evidently this is then the current terminus of that old abandoned logging rail road. From here it goes down hill through parts that are too muddy to hike to the gondola and then takes to the air on down to the town.

The end of the train tracks.

At that same air conditioner site is a trail leading up to the “Aboriginal Adventure Challenge”. And what is the nature of this challenge, you might ask? Well, right off, the trail was so slippery that I couldn't go up it without holding on the railing. (luckily we don't need to use the cement foreshadowing here) and once at the top we found a sort of low ropes obstacle course. It looked like it had been put in by the boy scouts a few season ago and then forgotten. The idea (from what we could make of local signage and our brochure) was to recreate the life of an aboriginal hunter, teaching you the skills of bow making, archery and such. In the process, they would get you in prime aboriginal hunting shape by sending you through the many challenges of the ropes course. Like, for instance, this rope bridge across the rocky stream. Hey, let's do that. Let's cross the bridge. There are only a few slats missing. My partner let me cross first, she is so nice !!

Take The Aboriginal Challenge !


On the other side there was more mud and slippery so we didn't want to continue up. But there was this rope and pulley seated zip line sort of thing back across. Not that long. Not that zippy. Not all that completely safe looking. My partner once again encouraged me to go first. I sat down in the metal swing seat and tried to figure out how to operate the thing. A young woman was over on  a simlar contraption to our right. She was bringing her kids across by pulling on the guide rope. She saw me and rushed over to make sure I had my seatbelt on and knew which rope to pull on to slow my crossing. This sort of thing happens a lot in Taiwan. She was not a staff person or anything like that. She was just a local person out on an adventure and she rushed over to make sure the obvious visitor (perhaps, obvious grandfather) was OK. Very nice people in Taiwan.

The trip back across the river was pretty short and exciting. I was afraid that I was going too fast and was going to be smashing into the other side, but it slowed at the end and I ended up just giggling a bit. Action Adventure girl followed and we decided we had seen enough.

Back down the gondola, and ride the little train to the bottom and we are in the town. 

We decide we need lunch and we stop in one of the many little spa's that do lunch and private hot springs tubs. The room we had included a big soaking tub and a little cold plunge tub. And a shower. Some of the bigger, nicer rooms have a view of the river and a king size bed. No idea what the bed is for.

Our Little Hot tub room

This is the spa from the outside. 

I was not overly impressed with the quality of the water that came from the springs into our tub. Even ignoring the cigarette butt that came out when we first turned it on, it just didn't have that sulferous smell that I associate with hot springs or give that silky skin feeling on submersion. It was very hot, however. And it was very relaxing to soak and then take the cold plunge (I only screamed like a little girl the first time). After an hour of that, you feel very lazy and drained. Perhaps that bed is for a nice nap at this point. We had no bed, so we made our way back across the big bridge and through the town. It was around 4:00 at this point and things had really heated up in the town. Lots and Lots of people, most standing in long lines to get a chicken on a stick or some other delicacy from a local vendor. Lots of people, all in a good mood and having fun. As we left the little town I saw the thing I had missed on the way in, a large parking garage. And lots of (rather nice) cars queued up to go in and park. (See what I did there? I used “queued” twice in the same blog (Hey, Three Times !!)). So, a weekend dinner and fun destination for the car owning city crowd of Taipei. Cool.

We caught the bus down the hill with the rest of the non-car crowd. Even more crowded. We waited in a LONG line (for the second bus, but now running every 10 minutes) and we stood, pretty much held up by our fellow travelers, all the way down the hill. My hands were tired from gripping the bar on the curves.

The last time down the mountain, Action Adventure Girl was in the back of an Ambulance.


So after Bernice fell, and her wrist was obviously broken, they needed help. They wanted to call a cab but didn't know how to say that or what number to dial (the number is 119). The locals came out to help and when they saw the right-angle wrist they called the ambulance (the “Wah” Wah” come soon). The ambulance came pretty quickly (turns out there is a back way to the gondola area that cars can drive) and they were easily loaded up and transported to the local hospital for reasonably quick emergency room service. And now we come to the lesson learned. Always carry with you a couple of hundred dollars (American) in local currency. Why? Because you have to pay for medical services as you receive them. And they don't take VISA. The good news is that the charges are pretty damn reasonable. Trip down the mountain in a WahWah? $30 USD. Xrays? $10 US. Getting quick help in a foreign land? Priceless.

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