Hitchhiking across Taiwan to See a Burning Boat – Part I

Part 1 – The Hitchhiking Adventures that Ensued

While most people in Taipei were busying themselves with Taiwan’s National Day celebrations, I stayed up late one night to finish a sign. A sign which hopefully will guarantee me a lift when I attempt to hitchhike for the first time.

The idea to hitchhike through Taiwan came when I was at a bus stop in the wee hours of the night, waiting to head back to Taipei from a little township a distance away. I only mentioned it in passing that I would probably be home already if I wanted to hitch a ride. A week later I put this barely-thought-out idea into action. I will hitchhike from north to south to the small township of Donggang (東港) in time for the King Boat Festival (迎王平安祭). My goal was to first get to Kaohsiung ( 高雄市), spend the night, and then continue to the festival the next day.

 The hitchhike that ensued: A map of my journey, including all the stops I took.

Despite the offers to accompany me, I felt it was important that I did this on my own. Besides, I have heard that hitchhiking in Taiwan is rather safe and many people before me have toured the island this way quite easily. I told a couple of friends, but for good reason, refrained from telling my family about my haphazard plans. Even my friends have thought I’d flipped it, let alone the people who fear for my life the most. I didn’t want to think too much about what could go wrong, or dampen my excitement by worrying.

No rain can dampen my mood! Full of hope with my fresh sign

There are two major highways that would take me to the south of Taiwan. National Highway 1 and 3. I decided on Highway 3, purely because the hitchhiking spot seemed easier to get to. I have read on Hitchwiki that this was a good place to start. So on a rainy Friday morning, I rode the MRT to Yongning Station (永寧站) and made my way to Formosa Oil Petrol Station, sign in hand. After 10 minutes though, I felt I should move to a place with more traffic.

So I crossed the road to where a line of shops were, which made this section of the road seemed more busy (see map above). Cars had no option but to pass me to turn right onto the highway. There was also a small driveway which would allow cars to pull over safely. And as it turned out, I’d picked a better spot than I bargained for.

“No one will want to give you a lift.
You’re soaking wet! Who would want to get their car all wet on the inside? Here. Stand under my shelter. I’ll extend the rain cover for you.”
– Friendly local vendor whose shop it was I stood in front of, waiting.

Unbeknownst to him, my jacket was waterproof. But barely five minutes after his kind gesture, I was in a car hitchhiking my first ride towards the little township of Minxiong (民雄鄉).

My first driver was a man of similar age who was heading south to meet his girlfriend’s family for the first time. He was also new to picking up hitchhikers, and when I asked him why he decided to stop, he said he felt a little sorry that I was on the side of the road…in the rain…by myself. Receiving pity from other people isn’t something I’m used to, but in the case of hitchhiking I thought the more of this I can take advantage of, the better. Afterall my aim is to get to Kaohsiung by night time so I don’t get stranded somewhere I’m not familiar with. We drove for about 3 hours with a pit stop on the way and I happily munched on the chips and dried persimmons he so kindly offered. Soft-spoken with a gentle demeanour, he kept the conversation interesting with an extensive array of topics – from popular Taiwanese movies to comparing Australian and Taiwanese society and politics. Needless to say, we are now Facebook pals.

Before leaving me at my next stop, he asked me whether he looked presentable for his meeting with his possible future in-laws. I told him for being how he is, he had absolutely nothing to worry about.

My second driver was an older man, broad and rough who spoke with a thick Taiwanese accent. He picked me up mainly because he thought there was no way in hell I could catch a ride to Kaohsiung from where I was standing. (My previous driver had dropped me off on an intersection to Highway 1, and I guess standing on a slip lane to a major highway is a little dangerous). He was first going to take me to Chiayi Train Station because there would be more traffic there but upon hearing that I’ve never been to Chiayi city (嘉義市), he took it upon himself to take me on a tour to Lantan Lake Reservoir (蘭潭水庫). And so for the next hour or so I was gazing outside the window at the large body of water and the surrounding scenery. He wanted to buy me an early dinner in case I ended up skipping meals from waiting too long, but being full on persimmons and pit stop food, I politely declined and told him next time he can take me to his favourite eatery. Before he dropped me off at a 7/11 on Highway 1, he gave me his number with strict instructions to call him if I did not find my way out before sundown. He was all gruff but had a big heart.

My third and final hitchhike for the day was with a sweet old man and his middle-aged son. They had no idea what I was doing at first when they saw me with my sign and my thumb out. When I told them I was trying to hitchhike to Kaohsiung, they had panic looks on their faces, as though I’ve just said something disastrous.

“But you are all alone! It’s dangerous to hitchhike, and no one hardly ever drives to Kaohsiung from here …why not just catch a bus instead?”

I tried my best to explain to them that this was a personal challenge. I felt as though I was talking to family members from the way they were looking at me with such bewildered concern. They were on their way to Qigu County, a township far-west of the island which wasn’t exactly convenient for me but was still heading south nonetheless. After trying to further reason with me, they gave in and dropped me off at Madou District (麻豆區) which was along Highway 1.  But not before they pulled over at a bus station to give me a timetable of the next available buses in the case I changed my mind out of desperation.

Sundown and I'm still on the road, only halfway to my destination.
Sundown and I’m still on the road, only halfway to my destination.

Surely enough, I was starting to fret. Darkness is upon me and I’ve made little progress distance-wise with the past two trips. Standing on the side of the road with my sign, which by now is smudged from the black ink that has been sodden with rain, I started to think about the bus option. It seemed almost impossible to catch a ride here. Most people were only slowing down to see what I was trying to do. I’ve had one car pull up and video record me, because they thought I was an interesting (ok, maybe crazy) foreigner, doing something that was obviously uncommon in this side of town.

All of a sudden, a woman appears. She’s not in a car…and she was clutching a phone.

“Hello, I am from the U-Bus Service nearby. I am on the phone to a very generous man who has purchased a bus ticket for you to get to Kaohsiung. Could you please follow me, your bus will be leaving soon.”

Taken well out of surprise, I looked at her dumbstrucked for a second before I stuttered 什么? (What?). I wasn’t sure I was hearing her correctly. What a random gesture of kindness! I asked to speak with my saviour over the phone, furiously thanking him for helping me, a stranger. He was from Kaohsiung, also heading that way to go to work when he saw me on the side of the road. He couldn’t stop to give me a lift but wanted to help me – thinking that even if I wasn’t heading to Kaohsiung, it being the next major city would surely help me on my way regardless. So he rang up the bus company and bought a ticket, requesting that someone also go outside to find me.

So despite not actually hitchhiking my last leg, I still managed another free trip to Kaohsiung! By the time I reached, it was already well into the night and I have indeed skipped dinner just like the second driver predicted. It may have taken me 8-9 hours, but I know my journey would’ve been much more difficult, if it were not for the warm-hearted locals I met. Thinking back to that day when I attempted my first hitchhike, it seemed almost surreal that I have had such good fortune to accept this level of kindness from strangers. I wanted to hitchhike to test new waters, but along the way I reaffirmed my faith in humanity, and in the Taiwanese’ hospitality.

Despite the tiredness, I was extremely elevated that I saw myself through this new kind of travel. While I watched my nervous self in that very first moment of my attempt to hitchhike, I couldn’t help smile knowing that I once again proved that it is always fulfilling to take that leap of faith. I wanted it, so I made it happen.

7 thoughts on “Hitchhiking across Taiwan to See a Burning Boat – Part I

  1. Great job and really gungho & further testament to how Taiwan is not that bad of a place to be in–in spite of not being so international or present on the beaten path of other more well known destinations in Asia! 🙂 Love your spirit — my mother loves getting lost in Taiwan when she visits here as there will be always Taiwanese strangers who will come up to her, and go out of their way to help her, even though my mother does not speak a word of Mandarin 🙂 加油台灣!

    1. Thank you for reading! Yes even though I’ve been here awhile, it still surprises me how wonderful the locals are here! I’m glad you and your mum love Taiwan too 🙂

  2. “Taken well out of surprise, I looked at her dumbstrucked for a second before I stuttered 什么? (What?).”

    Gotta go native! Since you’re in Taiwan, next time try stuttering 什麼?(What?)