I love Taipei. Its city lights, the hoards of scooters zipping in and out of lanes, the constant chatter I hear around local markets, and even when I’m fighting through the hustle and bustle of peak hour traffic, I enjoy most of it. I love it because it makes me feel abuzz with vitality. All my senses come alive and I am a part of this vibrant city.
With living in any major city however, it can get a little too hectic at times. Coming from slow and steady Adelaide, Taipei can be overly stimulating. A couple of weeks into the routine of studying and busying myself with social activities within this concrete jungle will surely render me in need of open space, and that’s when I head out to the outskirts and look for quiet places to relax.
One Tuesday night after a couple of weeks of said activities above, I’d hit a wall and needed to escape. So I called up my friend Andy, who conveniently has all modes of transport at his disposal.
“Let’s get out of this place. Let’s explore.”
The first place that came to mind was Keelung (基隆). But why would I want to go there? Most people associate Keelung with its not-so-quiet harbour and its bustling seafood and night markets. And rightly so. This place is famous for some great eats and bright lights along the Keelung river. And for being a convenient 40 minute train ride away, it deserves the patronage. Afterall, the giant Rubber Duck by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman wasn’t placed at this site in 2013 for nothing.
The reason why I wanted to go here was because I have long heard of a building that has been left abandoned in Keelung’s quieter streets. Left derelict for so long, that it has become one with its natural surroundings. Trees have grown amongst the building’s concrete frame. I’ve seen it on Imgur, those Buzzfeed lists of top abandoned places to visit. I’ve pinned it on my Pinterest board (probably multiple times). Feeling inspired after reading some excellent blogs like Synapticism‘s take on abandoned places in Taiwan, I was revving to do some serious exploring myself. So we geared up and packed ourselves into the car.
Thanks to a couple of previous explorers who blogged exact location coordinates, it was pretty easy to find the site. I noticed there were plenty of new urban development going on as we drove closer. Albeit that this was strange, I shrugged it off as we pulled over a short distance away. We grabbed our cameras and headed to the hills towards our final destination.
The first sign that something was clearly not right was the fact that the street leading to that place was blocked off and a night guard was on full alert. Do that many foreigners break into these abandoned buildings? We decided not to draw attention to ourselves and went back around in search of another route to get uphill.
Along the way we walked past trails, and I mean quite a long distance full… of dog poop. It was as though this footpath lead all dogs to their haven. Whilst being careful on where to tread in the darkness, my friend pointed out that the locals have aptly coined it as gold nuggets. I don’t exactly agree that accidentally stomping into crap meant my luck would turn for the better, but drawing similarities from the Yellow Brick Road leading to Oz (only much less pleasing), we continued along the Golden Nuggets Trail to our destination. Halfway up the hill, and there was no derelict old buildings to be seen. We decided to check the location co-ordinates on our phones again, this time looking at local blogs in Chinese.
Horror slowly dawned on us as we scanned our eyes to the end of a blog. The abandoned buildings have been demolished in 2012 to make way for new apartments.
You could imagine my disappointment and self-blame for being so careless. I trudged back down the same trail we came from, wondering why anyone would want to destroy such a unique place.
Thankfully, travelling with a local meant he knew of other places to go, and we set off for Plan B. This time I took the wheel to take my mind off the sore loss I was feeling, and Andy led us to Zhongzheng Park (中正). Which in its own way, made the night exciting.
Here stands a giant statue of the buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin. With all due respect, we weren’t here for her. We wanted to hike further up the mountain to a scenic area that overlooks the Keelung Harbour. Perhaps to compensate for the loss of anticipated exploration, we decided to take the dirt path instead of going through the temple grounds to get there. Too busy chit-chatting to notice until we were too close, a pack of stray dogs clearly unhappy with our night-time visit started howling and barking in our direction. We both froze. Neither of us spoke for awhile and I’m sure Andy was thinking of turning back too. But I got here so far, and it must have been that defiance of not letting another plan slip up that I made the bold (and could easily be stupid) move to continue. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We can keep walking…just don’t look into their eyes.”
As though I knew all dogs because I have had the privilege of keeping two very tame ones as beloved pets.
Feigning confidence is easy when people believe you. But as we slowly walked towards the growling animals, I realised that Andy had fallen behind and I was in the more vulnerable position of leading. He didn’t believe me and I was to be the sacrificial lamb in the case of an attack.
Rabies crossed my mind. And then all I could think of was that these strays must be the culprits of the dog-shit trail we walked on earlier. Perhaps it was the lingering scent of that stinking footpath, or my ability in faking confidence has reached new heights that even dogs get fooled, but the dogs quietened down as I got closer. We walked past them with surprising ease and as soon as he was clear of the danger zone, Andy once again fell into step with me.
“So you made me be the shield, huh. Are you a man or not?”
“We Taiwanese learn to protect ourselves first.”
Casting aside notions of self-preservation and who should protect who, we made it to the top and sat there watching the harbour lights. Every now and again our conversation would be interrupted by the sounds of heavy cargo coming into the port. It was like crashing thunder and there was something rather contrasting about the serene imagery that was to be so harshly interrupted by the thunderous noise.
With our butts sore from sitting too long, we decided to head back downhill for a very late dinner. At 11pm on a Tuesday night, the Keelung Night Market was almost unrecognisable from the usual hustle and bustle it has personified so well. Most of the stalls have closed. Street vendors were washing dishes and packing away their trolleys. Only a handful of places stayed open, but I quite enjoyed the fact that there were no lines to cue up to. No one else was rubbing shoulders with me as I made my way down the street. We scoffed down pork cutlets and squid ball soup, then ventured around taking in the rare ambiance of a night market at closing time.
As we headed back to Andy’s car, homeward bound, there was no disappointment left in me despite the upsetting start to the night. No exploration of abandoned places was called to action. No fascinating photos to document my first break in. Our Golden Nuggets Trail gave us no pleasant surprises. And in place of lions, tigers and bears, we faced a pack of stray dogs of which I was happy to not befriend.
We never made it to Oz, but it was the outlying adventure I needed nonetheless.