Taiwan

Highways and Byways: Stepping off the road

Highways and Byways: Stepping off the road


Looking back on four years of “Highways and Byways”

  • Steven Crook/Special Correspondent

I have reached the end of this particular path. After 49 months and 172 articles, Highways & Byways is retiring to make room for other voices.

I will still contribute travel articles to this newspaper from time to time and continue my twice-monthly environment column. However, from now on, I can be a selfish tourist.

When I go somewhere by bus, I will stop paying attention to the parking space. If I ride a motorcycle, I don’t have to think too much about people who want to take public transportation to the same place. On a hot day, if I don’t want to go any further, I’m not going – even if I suspect there’s something around the corner that would be interesting to Taipei Times readers.

Photo: Steven Crook

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy every hike. Seeing so much Taiwan, the occasional blisters, sunburn and mosquito bites are worth it. Some destinations were disappointing, but far more than expected. And I can’t think of a trip I regret.

demystify

When I tell them that maps are more useful than social media, when I tell them that maps are more useful than social media, if someone asks me how to find some of the more obscure spots I cover in Highways and Byways, they often express surprise. For example, on an online map, I first noticed the former Japanese Navy Fengshan Wireless Telecommunications Station in Kaohsiung (Radio Wave, 26 October 2018).

P13 220819 Chiang Cijin

Photo: Steven Crook

Staring at the map isn’t my only old-school habit. On buses and trains, I look out the window while other passengers are fascinated by their smartphones. Eager to enter the wild valleys that can be seen by the high-speed rail from Kaohsiung to Taitung, on a journey eastward, I studied the unpaved road parallel to the Southern Link Railway with the intensity of a spy.

A few weeks later, I came back on my bike for an unforgettable day exploring the Fangshan Creek watershed. On November 30, 2018, my account of that expedition (“Roads Built for Train Positioning”) was published.

Last year, a friend told me that the elevated steel alley mentioned in my article had been demolished. Cyclists now have to ride on gravel and cross multiple creeks – it just goes to show that anything I write should be taken as a snapshot. Due to earthquakes and typhoons, Taiwan’s landscape is rarely permanent, even in places with minimal human impact.

P13 220819 Chukuangkeng

Photo: Steven Crook

Unlike the wildly popular Southern Ring Road, Taiwan’s early enthusiasm for nuclear energy drew staunch opposition. Perhaps it’s no surprise that scientists running the country’s only research reactor are eager to show me and explain how nuclear technology can benefit humanity (“Blue Pool”, 17 Jan 2020).

avoid the usual angles

Taiwan travel notes are mainly based on food, mountains and rivers, and religious culture. So finding a good topic that isn’t related to these topics, like a research heap, gives me a special satisfaction. This, along with my love of industrial heritage, made visiting and writing about the mines (“Petroleum and Popsicles in Remote Miaoli”, 28 May 2021) one of the highlights of last year. Earlier, I mentioned those more intriguing destinations that I dared to hope. Chu Kuangkeng definitely belongs to this category.

P13 220819 IJN

Photo: Steven Crook

Stumble across a place of interest that doesn’t appear on the map – ignored or unknown to all but a few Chinese bloggers – is another joy, especially if it might be related to a shady event in Taiwan’s history. The Mount of Olives is not really a hill, but some say the soldiers trained here because former President Chiang Kai-shek planned to send an expeditionary force to Vietnam. The dictator hopes the army will not only help South Vietnam and its U.S. allies, but also expand the anti-communist war into China (“Cold War relics in rural Tainan,” 4 Jan. 2019).

If Jiang’s influence appeals to you, see my article on Kaohsiung’s Qijin (Cijin), where he was elevated to the status of a minor god (“History’s Wave Sweeps Cijin”, October 30, 2020 ).

When planning a research trip, it’s impossible to predict how many texts I’ll get in the field for half a day or a full day.

P13 220819 Noodles

Photo: Steven Crook

Eight hours of Cijin research yielded two lengthy articles. One of the features is a shrine honoring the dead dictator. Another focuses on the other end of the spectrum of power: drowning female factory workers whose posthumous identities reflect ancient thinking about marriage and lineage (“25 Women in Cijin,” 25 September 2020).

In contrast, I spent two full days on Taiwan’s longest bike path, the Water Green Road, and only wrote one article (“Burn Down,” June 3, 2022). And I didn’t even get the satisfaction of finishing the end-to-end ride.

not leisure

P13 220819 Hakka (1)

Photo: Steven Crook

Some people who have never tried travel writing don’t realize that two days of travel research is not the same as two days of leisure travel. If I were to go somewhere to write this, I would keep worrying that I might miss something important, and I would feel stupid when a reader asked, “But what about…?”

I have to be flexible when I’m on the road. The weather doesn’t always cooperate. At times, the hours of operation listed on the website are not accurate. But staying in one place just because I’m enjoying myself is rarely an option. After gathering hard facts and personal impressions, and taking some pictures, I had to move on. As you might imagine, I look forward to being able to really smell the flowers again. Or dumplings. Or sea breeze. or incense.

There is only one way to end this post and that is a big shout out to all the Taiwanese who have helped me, both during and after my travels, answering questions on different topics like architecture and water birds. I almost never tell the people I meet why I am going to a particular place, so you can be sure that this hospitality is not motivated by a desire to present Taiwan in the best possible way. And I know I’m not the first outsider to say this: People, along with nature and culture, are this country’s greatest asset.

Steven Crook has been writing about Taiwan travel, culture and business since 1996. He is the author of “Taiwan: Brad’s Travel Guide” and co-author of “Taipei Culinary History: Beyond Pork and Ponlai.”

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