Burning money, ringing gongs, and hungry ghosts abound as I clean black sound out of my ears in the sea-side town of Toucheng.
I take my time getting out of Airbnb. The airconditioning is oh so sweet, and there’s some drizzle coming down outside so I figure “Let’s lounge around a bit”
When I finally drag myself out after checkout, I find a little grill shop and get one of those delicious bacon-cheese-pancakes I adored so much from the day before.
This one’s not as tasty as the one from the day before, but who can complain when they’re eating a bacon-cheese-pancake?
I eat up and head out. I don’t have a real tight schedule today, but I’m planning on going to little surf town just south of Taipei. I sent a couchsurfing request to someone in this town, not knowing where it was or why people go there. She was too busy to take me, but I did find a surf hostel for $13 a night. You put those two words together and I’m all yours. Surf hostels are filled with the chillest of people, just looking to sit on the beach and catch a few waves. I’m horrible at surfing, but I think it’s so much fun. So I hop on the train and head about an hour South.
Trains are nice in Taiwan. Japanese train level nice. Fast, clean, and efficient. Since it’s Taiwan, I only spent about $6 for my ride as well. The ride goes up through the misty mountains past Jiufen, then right along the North coast for half of the ride.
I completely did not expect it to be as nice as it was, and when I arrived in Toucheng I wished I could have sat and stayed longer.
There’s rice paddy’s, little old ladies walking their grandchildren, and those same misty mountains out of a Chinese painting. The town itself is stunningly adorable. All of the buildings are blocky and worn down, but the lifestyle here is so lovely. It feels a lot like Japan. It’s also impeccably clean everywhere I’ve been in Taiwan. Cars are relatively spotless, and the streets are devoid of litter. For a country where I hardly see public trashcans, the streets are remarkably clean. I constantly see shop owners hosing down their storefronts and chefs hosing down the street kitchen and giving it a scrub. From what everyone has told me, mainland China is very much the opposite. So for those that appreciate Chinese culture and a good clean atmosphere, Taiwan may be the place for you.
People are so friendly in this little town as well. I’ve received several ‘Hello!’s from passing scooters, and smiles from shop owners and passersby. I walk to the hostel, and see two Europeany guys pass by on bicycles. I figure they must be at the same hostel, I mean come on there can’t be that many white guys in a little town like this.
Lo and behold, when I do finally make it to the hostel I’m greeted by Martin, a Dane, and Drori from Israel. They were running into town to fix one of the hostel’s bicycles, so I sat and watched them while we introduced ourselves.
They’re still working, so I run and get some lunch. My trick of going to the busiest restaurant leads me to a Vietnamese pho shop, which makes an excellent beef pho that tastes like it’s straight out of Ho Chi Minh.
I wander back, having seen all of the cities 3 streets. The bike is finally fixed, so Martin and I hop on bikes and Drury takes his skateboard for a ride to the beach. We get lost twice along the way, but eventually come upon a huge black sand beach filled with surfers and lazy beachgoers.
Drori and I go for a swim, getting black sand everywhere and enjoying the perfectly warm waters. It’s an excellent beach, with pristine clear water and devoid of any jellyfish (as far as I can tell) or garbage. I don’t feel like surfing now, but the waves do look good enough to be able to catch one or two.
We hop back on our bikes and skateboard and head down the “scenic route”. That’s a long narrow bike path running along the ocean, and it’s every bit as perfect as it sounds.
There’s even a statue of this mysterious guy, posing in perfectly 70’s disco-ready tight shirt and bell bottom jeans. No clue who he is though.
On the way back, we stop at a tea shop where you can tap and seal your own bubble tea. It’s delicious and cheap, and not at all sweet. Just tea and tapioca.
We sit in the park and enjoy our big sips of tea, enjoying the cute town. When we get back, it’s gotten pretty late and I feel it’s about time for dinner. I have a roommate in my two bed dorm, a Frenchman named Olivier. We just say hi, and decide to go for dinner. Olivier is gluten free, which takes a lot off the table for us. We ride bikes under the neon glow, strolling past shut down restaurants and gluten filled noodle stands. In the end, we go to a fruit stand and buy some grapes, a dragon fruit, and a mango. I buy a cup of noodles, just because I’m getting used to having soup at every meal.
We get back around 21:00 and share our fruits with our hostelmates while talking about all of the mind-bending trips we’ve all been on. Martin is dating the Taiwanese owner of this hostel, Izon, and they both met Drori because Drori’s girlfriend is Martin’s girlfriend’s best friend.
But they met in India, on one of the endless journey’s India seems to be. It’s on my list, absolutely, but I’ll need to take a few months off to go experience all of it. We talk, and Olivier and I decide it’s time for bed. There’s no air conditioning, and the fan makes a little squeak above my head every time it passes by. But without it, we’d probably sweat to death.
I wake up, to a shirtless Olivier shaking the bed asking if I want some coffee. “Five more minutes”
“Okay, meet me on the beach then.”
I linger in bed a while, enjoying the fan slowly push moderately chilled air across my body. I get up, have a cup of tea, and ride the bike back to the beach.
Olivier said he would be by the first surf shop. But which one is the first? The one on the left or the one on the right? The beach is packed with little surf shops, renting boards out for the day. I wander with my bike back and forth, up and down the black sands looking at a sea filled with more surfers than water. Someone runs up to me, “Hey! Can I please take a picture of you?”
I strike my exotic, tall long haired white guy with a bike pose. This causes attention, and a random pale guy out of nowhere shows up. His curly hair pushed up almost into an afro, speaking with an Irish accent glistening with hilly dew. He says he wanted to talk to me because he saw I was Western, and we talk a bit about our lives while the cameraman runs back in the ocean.
“Is there a surf hostel around?” He says, in his decadent brogue. “I want to find a place to live and work for free, so I can go to Chinese school.” I show him the way to the hostel I’m staying at, but warn him it’ll be a good 45 minute walk. He heads off, red afro waving in the wind while I stand and watch the sea for a floating Frenchman.
After about an hour of waiting, I decide to head back. The moment I pull my bike in, I see Olivier sitting outside on his phone, “Where were you?” he says.
I guess we just missed each other.
Olivier is heading to Taipei, so we go back to the tap your own tea shop and sit under a great old tree before his train departs. I wander back, and meet Drori outside. He says it’s time to surf, after he finishes the chapter in his book, so we sit in the heat and read for a while.
Even though it was cloudy on the beach, I’ve gotten a bit sunburnt. I run for some sunscreen and slather myself up before we head to the beach. We run up and down, asking everyone for the price of a board rental. The cheapest we can find is $11, so I open up my goody bag of stuff I brought only to realize I forgot my wallet in the hostel.
I cycle back as quick as possible, cycle back to the beach, and get my board. Drori and I head into the water, and quickly find out it is not a good day for surfing. The tide is really low, and the waves are breaking to fast and not carrying on. I’m not a good surfer, but I do know that those are not good waves. I try for an hour or so, getting pushed around in a rough tide before deciding to take a frisbee brake to see if the tide changes. A short Taiwanese guy with a giant marijuana leaf on his shirt joins in for a while, smiling as if this were his first time throwing a frisbee.
The tide stays the same.
So we go get noodles. As we sit, fire crackers go off all around us as a tiny procession of gong and horn players pass by, playing loud cranky music. People are also lighting little fires in front of their houses, and leaving little food offerings all over the place. Apparently, it’s the hungry ghost festival. I’m not 100% sure what it’s about, but apparently hungry ghosts are walking among us during the next month, and it’s our job to give them some fake money, which is burned so they can use it, and food offerings (please leave a comment to correct me if I’m wrong). Otherwise the hungry ghosts get hangry, and cause a mess for everyone. Part of the festival must be playing horns and gongs loudly too, shooting off firecrackers to scare away the hungry ghosts. I’m not sure how this started up, but I’m glad I got to see some festival culture while I was here.
Drori and I head back after our noodles, and find that Martin and his girlfriend Izon are out. The door is locked, so we sit on the porch and flick coins into a bucket for a while. Then Drury gets upset after losing so many times, and just decides to try crawling in through the high window. He opens up the window, balances on two chairs, and like a honeybadger crawling through a meerkat tunnel, squeezes his way down into the building to unlock the door. They teach you some crazy life skills in the Israeli military.
Drori cleans up the kitchen and I read for a while, and eventually Izon and Martin come back and start preparing some dinner. Drury and I head to get some beers and ice cream from the store, and when we return there’s a beautiful meal set and ready.
I think Izon even impressed herself a bit with this one.
This meal feels very Japanese inspired, with a lot of the dishes being available in Japan as well. Izon says her grandmother grew up having to learn Japanese, as it was still under Japan’s rule back in the day. We eat and talk, and after dinner burn some money for the hungry ghosts and tell them we have some wine, rice, and junk food for them.
The combination of feeding hungry ghosts and surfing tired me out, and I have my final Taiwanese destination coming up tomorrow. So far I’ve seen the big city and the small town, and I’m sure whatever is next will be equally charming and rewarding.
Thank you guys for reading! I hope you have been enjoying reading about my travels so far, and please feel free to comment or like if you feel. I’ve got a lot more coming, so remember to subscribe to stay updated!