07-Nov-2008 -- My first day of my first trip to Asia. What does a geographer do? Visit a confluence! I was in the country for the Taiwan Geography Education Association conference, and had been eying this confluence as the only one that I could feasibly visit. On the long airplane ride across the Pacific during the previous day, I debated on whether or not to try it. Today, I had most of the day available before I needed to be at the conference, and it was either catch up on sleep I had lost crossing the Pacific Ocean, or visit some of the countryside. I woke up by 6am, and the countryside visit won out. Who knew when I would have another opportunity to explore Taiwan, a land of fascinating landscapes and people? Besides, this point had not been visited since 2001!
I walked downstairs to the breakfast area of the hotel but it was closed. Puzzled, I checked my watch. It was not until I reached the subway station in Taipei when I realized that Taiwan was one hour earlier than Tokyo time. I had been too early for breakfast. No worries--that meant I had an extra hour to explore. I was able to navigate the subway, switched to the train at Taipei Central Station, zipped along at 260 kph on the high speed rail to Taichung, and then walked downstairs to transfer to the bus to Puli. I amused myself by taking photographs of the vending machines. When the bus arrived 30 minutes later, it was very fancy, with curtains, a flat-panel video screen mounted in the front, and about 6 stereo speakers.
I had made a few blunders, but had met some kind people to help me along my way. That's one of the best parts about traveling: We realize how dependent we are upon the kindness of others. I was soon heading east along a winding roadway through some spectacular river valleys choked with enormous boulders and incredibly steep terrain. I saw evidence of a new freeway (Highway 6) that would soon connect Puli and Taichung, and was amazed at the number of tunnels and bridges it required to build a superhighway in this type of terrain.
Seventy minutes later, the bus was traveling down the busy streets of Puli. The city was larger than I had expected. It was wonderful to compare first impressions to the impressions I had after looking at the maps and satellite images. Once again, it demonstrated the value of getting out on the landscape, something we are always preaching in geography education. After awhile, I realized that we were heading back west, and I asked the bus driver about Puli East Station. It turned out that we had been there 10 minutes before. Oops! The driver stopped when he could, and I hiked back to the Puli East Station. This was easier said than done. The sides of the streets are filled with parked and moving motorcycles, motor scooters, and other objects. They required me walking out partway in the open, busy roadways. After awhile I noticed that I was the only person on foot. Yes, the only person. I should have wised up and taken a taxi to get closer to my destination. But I was still naive at this point!
I then continued walking to the east and north, but then cut southeast around what I thought was the proper ridge. As I expected, the steepness of the terrain was an understatement. It made for careful planning. I purchased some additional water which made for a heavy backpack, but the day was hot and humid (85 F, 30 C), a definite switch from what I had been used to in Colorado. I left the city behind and walked on roads bordered by an eclectic mix of light industry, fields, and homes. It was very interesting, except when dogs would bound out at me with no owners to stop them. I did my best to appease them in the few Mandarin Chinese words I knew. Two hours later, I was doing the same thing--keeping an eye out for dogs, and eyeing a way to scale these mountains. I crossed the 121st meridian but something seemed off the entire day. My closest approach to the confluence was in central Puli at 4 km, and hours later, I was 8 km distant and my feet really hurt. I was wearing my dad's shoes which doubled as my work shoes for the conference to save space in my carry-on luggage. At any rate, they weren't hiking shoes, and I could feel blisters in both feet. A few weeks later, with my right foot hurting, I had to buy an orthodic shoe insert.
I finally walked back to Puli on a different route. I had the GPS, of course, but the one printed map I brought with me was at a too-small scale to more accurately determine which road to take. I began asking people if I could rent a motor scooter to get me closer to the point. After about 45 minutes, I had to give up. I was led down many lanes that turned out not to be what I was seeking. Either I couldn't make myself understood, or else there was truly no way to rent a motor scooter. Or, it could have been that I needed a certain type of license, as my colleague at the National Taipei Normal University mentioned to me that evening. A pity, too - there were thousands of motor scooters all around me.
I used my GPS to navigate my way back to the Puli East Station, as the street signs were not too numerous, and I could not read any of them anyway. Still, the entire day, I was the only person on foot. I bought a bus ticket back to Taichung. I then went through my travels in reverse--bus back to Taiching, high speed rail to Taipei, and subway back to my neighborhood, and a short walk back to the hotel. All the way, I puzzled about what had seemed odd about my confluence attempt.
As soon as I was back in my hotel room, I checked some online mapping sites. It turned out that I should have walked north out of Puli first, to Highway 14, and then east, and then north to the confluence. The ridge I had been circumnavigating was the wrong ridge! I was too far south. But all was not lost: I had seen some fascinating new terrain, new people, new vegetation. What more could a geographer ask for?