8 Months in Taiwan

Our journey to Taiwan began in the most unlikeliest of places. A simple conversation with fellow travelers as we warmed ourselves fireside one evening at a tea house while trekking part of Nepal’s snowy Annapurna mountain range.

“There’s a small city in Taiwan called Hualien that we’ve been living in….”

The words seemed so innocuous at first, but as we began talking with our new found hiker friends, the idea of a beach town surrounded by green mountains in the tropics sounded better and better. The cold wind whistling through the tea house as we spoke certainly helped! Ah the tropics. It had been a year on the road already, and we were growing keen to the idea of stopping to rest and work for a spell. Two months in India had certainly taken their toll and our bodies and stomachs were due for break. Living out of a backpack and moving every few days is adventurous, sure, but after a while the journey can grow weary. A condition we had found ourselves slowly approaching for months.

Which brings us back to the conversation in Nepal. As time went on and we eventually made our way to China, we thought more and more of the description of Hualien we’d heard from the fellow travelers and kept in touch with them via email. After some research and deliberation, we finally pulled the trigger and decided to give it a shot. Months had gone by and we were already in China, Taiwan’s closest neighbor after all. So a short flight to Taipei and a train ride down to Hualien later, and we arrived unwittingly at our future home.

“We’ll stay three months,” we told ourselves as we settled into the local community, rented an apartment month to month and began to explore. We quickly found jobs teaching English to local Taiwanese children, an easy job for foreigners to get that pays well and offers great hours. We soon found our lives and our lifestyle transforming completely. Our typical work day lasting from 3pm-7pm, our mornings were left open to explore the amazing mountains, beaches and rivers of the spectacularly beautiful region.

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On the train to Hualien.

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Hualien waterfront at Chishingtan beach.

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Downtown Hualien.

With so much new found time available, Daniel began writing his first novel while the local expat foreigner community embraced us with their kindness. It wasn’t long before we were hooked.

Laura’s father came to visit us just a few months after our arrival and, after a few days in Taipei, we traveled to the dramatic Toroko Gorge about twenty minutes from Hualien and various other sites in the area. The trip only helped to solidify our instant love of the unique beauty of the region and the warmth and hospitality of the people.

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Laura and Dad in Taipei

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Yum!

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No trip to Taiwan would be complete with out visiting the night market!

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Temple in Toroko Gorge

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Toroko Gorge = EPIC

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Bike riding to the beach through Hualien with Lauras dad.

The three month deadline came and went and after a visa run to Hong Kong we returned to new job offers at better schools for more money… the deal was sealed. Our new plan became to stay in Hualien indefinitely as Daniel would write his novel and we would use Hualien as a jumping off point to adventures throughout Southeast Asia. And why not after all? Yes we missed our friends and family greatly but neither of us missed the 60+ hour work weeks and accompanying stress that a return to America would bring. Working 20 hours a week gave us ample to time to write, work on other pursuits and also have enough time to enjoy hanging out at the beach, swimming in the crystal clear rivers and waterfalls and hiking in the mountains, ALL a fifteen minute drive from our apartment. Daniel spent 3-4 hours each morning working on his book and by July, a 900 page first draft was completed! Yes, you read that correctly. 900 pages. Here are just a few pics from our first 8 months in Taiwan. They don’t do it justice!

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Cow Mountain beach. 30 minutes from Hualien.

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Taking a dip.

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Incredible drummers at the Toroko music festival.

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Dragon boat races at Liyu Lake!

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Fireworks over Hualien for Chinese New Year.

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One of countless places to swim within 15 minutes of our house.

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Hualien nights

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Temple by our house.

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Hualien oceanfront park. Our favorite thinking spot.

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A parade today! And many days.

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Liyu lake on a warm quiet rainy evening. So tranquil.

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Another epic swim spot nearby.

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Jici beach just south of Hualien.

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Rinsing in the fountain with friends after a great beach volleyball game.

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BBQ in the park. Makes me happy.

After a wonderful 8 months, it was time for new adventures and the proximity to so many unique countries made our decision hard. Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, the Philippines, etc., etc.. But two places had LONG been on our wish list and stood out now for being in a good weather season for visiting. The jungled island of  Borneo in Malysia and the archipelago nation of Indonesia. With flights to Borneo costing a mere $80US from Taipei and flights to Bali even LESS at $67 our decision was made. BOTH! We had six weeks off for summer break and we were going to use every last minute of it. When class ended on July 2nd we jumped a train for Taipei and flew out that night. The orangutans of Sarawak, Borneo were calling, and we were listening. To the jungle!

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Kylie and Bowman who first told us about Hualien back in Nepal. Thanks Guys!

Nepal: From the Jungle to the Mountain Tops.

Nepal… For many, the name alone brings up images of the mighty snowcapped Himalayas, serene Buddhist stupas adorned with strands of multicolored prayer flags flapping in the wind and a sublime combination of solemn, almost mystical tranquility and unparalleled natural beauty seen nowhere else in the world. I love Nepal. The people, the nature, the spirituality, the food and every ounce of every little thing in between. As we crossed the border from the chaos of northern India into Nepals southern Terai, a general sense of calming and slowing down washed over us. It’s hard to describe the sensation precisely but I guess it’s easiest to say that it felt a lot like exhaling a long, deep breath you’d been holding in for too long. It felt good. Really, really good.

Just a few kilometers past the border our first destination would be to the small, hot southern town of Lumbini. The birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama in 623 BC, the original Buddha and the founder of Buddhism. The actual spot where Siddhartha was born had been historically marked with a large flagstone and years later a stone temple was erected atop the sacred spot, one of the five most sacred locations in Buddhism. These days the ancient crumbling temple is protected from the elements by a modern structure but it is still a pilgrimage site for Buddhists around the world and a unique and spiritual place to visit. The crumbling temple and the stone slab where Buddha was born gave me an almost tingling feeling being in its presence. Itself the epicenter of the profound belief of millions of people around the world. Over the past few decades the forested land around the temple has been donated by the Nepalese government to the global worship of Buddhism. And in turn, each country that practices the religion widely has built, or are currently building a temple nearby in tribute to the sacred birthplace of Buddha. It was fascinating for us to spend a day walking along the tree lined paths visiting beautiful temples built by countries from Burma and Indonesia to Korea and China and even Germany and Canada. There are around two dozen beautiful, ornate temples in all. Each one different and striking in their own way. Buddhism is a beautiful, peaceful religion and one that Laura and I feel very strongly towards so seeing where it all began was amazing and a highly rewarding experience for us.

wpid-img_9610.jpgView from Buddhas birthplace

wpid-img_9605.jpgIn the beautiful German temple complex

wpid-img_9558.jpgBurmese temple

wpid-img_9549.jpgMany temples throughout the forest

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Moving on from the hot farmland and jungle of Lumbini, we headed north to the lush green foothills of the Himalayas and the jumping off point to the Annapurna range… beautiful Pokhara. Nestled between fertile green mountains on the shores of a lily covered lake with snow-capped peaks in the distance, Pokhara is the type of place that grabs ahold of your soul immediately and doesn’t want to let go. It is a special place with an unparalleled combination of adventurous outdoor activities from trekking to rafting and yet it somehow maintains a calm tranquility in its idyllic mountain landscape. Needless to say we were hooked and hooked hard.

wpid-p9066081.jpgIncredible Pokhara

For eighteen days we made Pokhara our home away from home. Spending incredible days wandering along the majestic lake, watching rich local cultural shows, going on motorcycle adventures into the mountains, lounging deep in thought at lakeside cafes reading and writing and so much more. I already look back on those days as some of the finest and most peaceful we’ve had on this epic adventure.

wpid-p9076175.jpgTraditional dance in Pokhara

wpid-p9076137.jpgMomos! If you are in Nepal, you must eat momos.

wpid-p9176460.jpgBiking into the Himalayas!

wpid-p9176477.jpgBeautiful roads…

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Among many memorable highlights in the Pokhara area, one of the greatest both in the region and on our trip as a whole was a five day trek into the Annapurna range. Wild and inspiring on so many levels, the sheer magnitude of the stunning beauty we saw along the winding climb through the mountains left our jaws agape at every turn. Absolutely breathtaking. Climbing the “Stone Steps” our second day, a collection of over 3000 muscle testing stairs carved straight up  the mountainside was both exhausting and thrilling.  Knowing that at the end of the day we’d possibly catch a glimpse of snow-capped peaks all around us, some of the tallest in the world, made the pain of the days hike almost disappear. When we finally reached the apex we found ourselves wrapped in a thick blanket of clouds with no views to be had. But after an evening relaxing our aching feet and warming ourselves by the fire in our mountain teahouse, we rose again at 4am and climbed to the top of Poon Hill and watched…. in awe… as the sun rose over the snowcapped Annapurna range. Its snowy peaks framed majestically by the layers of silky clouds around us. It was magical and one of those experiences whose memory will be with us for a lifetime.

wpid-img_9847.jpgInto the Himalayas we go…

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wpid-img_9750.jpgLooking good Mode… okay not really. Definitely happy though!

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wpid-img_9747.jpgSunrise at Poon Hill

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As we continued our hike in the Annapurna range walking along trails through farms and past beautiful handmade stone homes adorned with flowers and fruit trees, we were taken aback not only by the incredible setting in which these people live, but also by the friendliness we encountered from local villagers we passed along the way. It was inspiring and heart-warming. At one point some local farmers even gave Laura a “mountain cucumber” which was about the size of a watermelon. They sliced it into pieces for us and put some fresh crushed green chili pepper on it and it made for an excellent cool and spicy snack on the trail. After several amazing days hiking we finished our trek off with a visit to a natural mountain hot spring and soaked our weary bones in its warm waters for an afternoon. The perfect end to an epic adventure. The Annapurna trip was one of the best experiences we’ve had on this trip so far and possibly ever. As soon as we returned to Pokhara we decided that we would definitely need to come back someday and trek deeper into the Himalayas, likely to Everest Base Camp and quite possibly sometime in the near future. More trekking in the Himalayas has a new esteemed place at the top of our must do list.

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wpid-p9136229.jpgLaura leads a morning yoga group on our teahouse roof in the mountains.

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Hot water after a long cold trek. Nothing better!

Leaving Pokhara after several incredible weeks was about as hard of a departure as we’ve had on this trip. To make it a little easier we decided to make our way down to our next destination Chitwan National Park, by whitewater raft. Why bus when you can raft I always say?! We found a rafting company that agreed to shuttle our backpacks down to us in their pick up van (talk about service) and we set out to spend an incredible day rafting through the mountains south towards the Terai jungle. Rafting really is so much better than a bus (understatement). For four hours we found ourselves on an absolutely gorgeous wide river winding through rolling green hills and past waterfalls and scenic village after scenic village. Local village children would run out onto suspended foot bridges above us to wave to us as we passed by. Smiling and laughing when we waved back. After a long day rafting and swimming in the cool river, we reached the exit point and ate a late lunch at a riverside shack, eating home cooked Dal Bhat, Nepali all-you-can-eat curry and rice. Warming to both our tummies and our souls. After lunch we piled into a local public bus we flagged down to take us the final hour down to Chitwan and sat packed in on top of bags of rice with barely enough space to turn our heads. Never a dull moment on the road.

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wpid-p9216587.jpgA break between rapids

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Seven years ago I spent several months in the Chitwan area working on a documentary with my friend Michael about the endangered One Horned Asian Rhino so I was very excited to return to the area and experience it again with Laura this time. Boy how things can change in seven years. For one thing the area has developed a much more involved tourist infrastructure and where there previously existed just a handful of hotels we now found probably a hundred. Also the river that defines the border of the national park has moved and so the landscape itself has actually changed from when I was last there. It was interesting to see but far less familiar than I was expecting. That being said as we headed down a dirt road to our guesthouse and several large tusked elephants walked by I knew we were back in the jungle I fell in love with years ago. That night, as we sat on the porch of our guesthouse, the palm tree lined field next to us came alight with the twinkling glow of hundreds of fireflies. Then in the moonlit darkness we saw several elephants walking through the field and parking themselves a mere 20 feet away from us to sleep for the night. Their trumpeting calls lulling us to sleep that night, I heard Laura quietly giggle every time the silence was broken by our massive big eared neighbors. Have I mentioned how much I love Nepal? The next morning we decided to go on a long jungle hike. Our two guides (one in front, one in back) brandished large heavy sticks to use for defense if we found ourselves threatened by the Rhinos, Tigers, Wild Elephants and Sloth Bears that make this jungle a dangerous place to wander into on foot. Though we didn’t run into any of those large animals (unfortunately?) we did see loads of different types or deer, monkeys galore and a huge variety of interesting insects and flora. The green beauty of the jungle and the sounds of its millions of inhabitants is itself an enchanting experience.

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After returning back to the village we decided to go back into the jungle with a different mode of transport. On elephant back of course! That afternoon we climbed aboard our elephant and our driver/guide led us back deep into the jungle with several other elephants. For an hour or so we lumbered up and down uncomfortably on the beasts back through rivers and jungle, getting whipped in the face more than a few times by tree branches. All part of the charm I say.  As we got deeper into the jungle we finally found what we were looking for. We came into a clearing and there… in the green jungle… was a massive Asian Rhino. The Asian rhino is much different in appearance than the African rhinos we had seen months before, larger and darker with a smaller horn but still incredibly intimidating. We followed it for a bit in awe of its sheer size and uniqueness before slowly making our way back to the village for the night.

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The next day we decided to explore the jungle a different way, canoeing in a long shallow dugout canoe down the river for a bit. Along the way we spotted many crocodiles, fish and large colorful birds along the riverbank. Oh the wildness, diversity and beauty of the jungle.

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That night, our final night, we visited a Tharu stick dance show. The Tharu people are the indigenous villagers of Southern Nepal and their incredible rhythmic dance style which involves hitting baseball bat sized sticks together while dancing in unison is indescribable. One of the most enthralling dance shows we’ve seen on this trip. We would spend 3 days total in the Chitwan area before heading back north towards the Himalayas… but this time to bustling Kathmandu.

Kathmandu is a rambunctious and lively city, especially by typically mellow Nepali standards. It’s easy to lose oneself wandering around the vibrant and colorful streets, taking in the sights, smells and sounds that surround you at every turn. And that is exactly how we spent our first few days in Kathmandu. Just enjoying it and trying to take it all in. But there is so much culture and history to see in the city and in the greater Kathmandu Valley that after a few days we finally gave in and had to go spend some time sight-seeing. What a time it ended up being. First up on our hit list was the incredible Bodhnath Stupa, the largest Buddhist stupa in the world. We spent several hours in the surrounding square, walking slowly around the massive domed shrine with local Buddhists, sliding our hand over spinning prayer wheels and smelling the aromatic incense that burned all around us.

wpid-img_0207.jpgBodhnath Stupa

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Next up we headed to the ancient capital city of Bhaktapur, wandering its old narrow stone streets filled with temples, artisan crafts and amazing traditional wood carvings unlike anywhere else in the world.

After Bhaktapur we would visit another of the ancient Kathmandu Valley capital cities, Patan, and take in its incredible temples and age-old beauty.

wpid-img_0276.jpgBhaktapur and Patan

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Our final major sight to see would be the massive hilltop “Monkey Temple” of Swayambhunath. Perched atop a large hill in the middle of the valley, The Swayambhunath Stupa and temple are truly spectacular beyond all explanation. With thousands of prayer flags suspended between the temples and surrounding trees, 360 degree views of the surrounding valley and hundreds of monkeys playing all around you, it is one of those places that you just have to experience to truly understand its aura.

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Kathmandu Valley is an incredible place full of unique and beautiful cultural and historical sights. It well deserves a visit from everyone if possible as does Nepal as a whole. It is that special a place. After a few more days in Kathmandu it was time to head off yet again to another country and a whole new world. As we made our way to the airport for our first flight in nearly 3 months (a new record on this trip) we felt sad but also began to get excited for China, the Far East and the new adventures that lie ahead.

wpid-p9246649.jpgKathmandu!

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wpid-p9276715.jpgYum!

While in the mountains of the Himalayas we met our new friends Kylie and Bowman. Meeting them would change the course of our trip in a most unexpected way….

wpid-p9186492.jpgEating with Kylie Bowman in Pokhara.