Pingtung: Expect the Unexpected (Part one of two)

One of these days the good folks in the Taiwan Motto Making & Sloganeering Bureau will listen to me and adopt Taiwan: Expect the Unexpected as the official slogan of Taiwan tourism. For now I’ll just have to appropriate it as the title for this story about three surprise-filled days I spent in Pingtung, Taiwan’s southernmost county.

I’d come with a group of Internet Media professionals from Malaysia and Hong Kong. Like me, my fellow journalists knew Pingtung primarily as that part of Taiwan where Kenting is, and as such were mostly expecting beach oriented activities. I’ll get to the sea kayaking in a bit, after listing a few of the activities that I didn’t expect to encounter out of the way:

  • I did not expect to find myself riding a four wheel ATV across sand dunes in a chunk of Taiwan so remote it might well have been the planet Tatooine (and at the risk of mixing my sci-fi references, hell yes J.J. Abrams’ favorite Beastie Boys song Sabotage was going through my head the whole time);
  • I did not expect to wander across a windswept grassland that seriously reminded me of the setting of an Ingmar Bergman film (complete with a brief appearance by death, though in this case literal death and not case the chess-playing avatar thereof);
  • I did not expect to be served one of the finest Quatro Frommage (Four cheese) pizzas I’d ever eaten alongside the best Mojito I’d ever drank (or is it drunk? I may well have been);
  • And I definitely did not expect to spend a night sleeping in a tipi inside an “American Southwest” themed hostel replete with dream catchers and flat screen TVs and electronics charging stations inside the aforementioned tipi.

My take-away is that after so many years in Taiwan I ought to know better than to be surprised by anything.

We began the trip on Monday evening in Pingtung city, where we visited Shengli, one of several old military villages around Taiwan that, like many of the sugar factories on Taiwan’s eastern coast, have found second life as centers of art and culture. Built during the Japanese occupation and taken over by the ROC military in 1945, Shengli’s importance in the current defensive landscape of Taiwan is best illustrated by the fact that the vast majority of its inhabitants are feral cats who call the old buildings of Shengli (in various states of renovation) home. But in Taiwan, villages where cats are the main draw aren’t unique, and in the case of Shengli I suspect the cats were neither part of the plan nor consulted. Instead, what brings people to Shengli are the installations set up in front of and in between the old houses. They’re part of the ongoing Pingtung Land Art Festival, and as a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll save you some reading.

After spending two hours wandering among art, history and cats, we had a meal in Pingtung city and settled in for the long drive down to Houwan, just north of Kenting, where the group split up to spend the night at separate B&B’s along the coast. I spent a perfectly lovely night at 海洋阿帕朵, or “The Ocean Apartment” here’s their Facebook Page and woke up to coffee and breakfast served on the porch before heading out for the first activity of the day.

The schedule called for a Stand Up Paddleboard expedition, but the wind had other plans. Our guide Andrew felt that sea kayaking would probably be a wiser choice. Being more into SUP than sea kayaking (seriously, once you’ve gone SUP you don’t want to go back), I thought about trying to weasel my way into getting Andrew to let me take out an SUP instead, but in the end I let skin color be the deciding factor. Our guide had the sort of deep bronze hue that comes only from a lifetime spent on the ocean, whereas my own pasty white (soon to be painfully red) skin clearly said do not let this guest make decisions for group in which drowning may result.  

I was grateful for the lower center of gravity, which did not save me from capsizing my kayak at least once during the trip, at which point I was grateful for both the life-jacket and Andrew’s insistence on starting the trip with a full lesson in kayaking safety (including the all-important how to get back into the kayak after you’ve fallen out in rough waters).

We kayaked for about 90 minutes, heading for lunch afterwards. After lunch, we headed for what turned out to be merely the first hike of the day, along a mostly paved path in Sheding Natural Park. (Read more: River Tracing in Taiwan)

Misalu, our guide, was a Bunun tribesman wearing traditional tribal gear save for a pair of high Wellington boots. As as he pointed out various facets of the park from the clearly trammeled path, I found myself thinking hmmm, the boots are a bit overkill, eh?

Not for the first time in the day would I learn that most valuable of travelers lessons: Observe locals, who know to behave accordingly.

Misalu and I shortly before our encounter with death.

The park hike turned out to be a mere warm-up. After taking us around the park, pointing out various plants and oddly-high elevation coral formations, Misalu asked the group if we were interested in something a bit more challenging. We agreed enthusiastically, and perhaps a bit too quickly. We went back to our vehicles, and Misalu hopped into the front of the lead car, directing the caravan from the paved parking lot over a series of increasingly narrow and rough roads. After about a half an hour, it was clear the cars would proceed no further, and we all got out….

…To Be Continued.


Next Week: Our adventurers encounter several near-death experiences, one actual-death experience, Taiwan’s most unique hostel and more!


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