A couple of days after our wedding on June 25th, 1969, I wound up in the hospital with a bad case of mononucleosis. I was in for quite a while, about six weeks, I believe. (I remember listening to the first moon landing on the radio while I was in there. I think that was in late July.) So our honeymoon was delayed a bit while I recovered. I finally was released with a clean bill of health, and after a few weeks of rest (just to be sure I was back to 'normal'), Mei-O and I set out on our honeymoon.
Our honeymoon plan was to drive all the way around Taiwan in our red nineteen-sixty-something Volkswagen Beetle. In those days, the roads in Taiwan weren't very well developed, and we really didn't know what we were getting into. As it turned out, several interesting experiences awaited us.
We left Taichung in central Taiwan where we lived and drove up the west coast highway and through the mountains to Taipei, the capitol city of Taiwan. We stayed in Taipei a few days, and while we were there, we bought a little brown puppy from a street vendor. We were told he was a pure-bred something or other (he cost us all of $5.00), but he turned out to be just a sweet, lovable mutt. We named him Blue, and brought him with us on our honeymoon.
Chinshan - We Go Fishing
After a few days, we left Taipei and headed north through Chilung, ending up in the small northern fishing village of Chinshan where we spent the night. Arising early in the morning so we could get an early start down the east coast highway, we took Blue for a walk on the beach. Just as we got there, dozens of fisherman and their family members were pulling in huge nets that were dragged out in a wide circle earlier by the village fishing boats. Everyone was pulling on the lines to bring in the morning's first catch, so Mei-O and I joined in. It was hard work, and even with so many people tugging, the pull of the sea, the weight of the lines and the net, and especially the hundreds of sea creatures we were pulling in, strained us all. After a half hour or so of pulling, we finally were able to see our catch. Lots of fish, of course, but also included in the bounty were all sorts of strange sea-life, including large sting rays, small sharks, and some pretty odd looking creatures, things I'd never seen before and have never seen again to this day!
The Highway From Hell
We said goodbye to our fellow fishermen, got cleaned up, and started down Taiwan's East Coast Highway, thinking we could get to Taitung by mid-afternoon and stay there overnight. Unfortunately, when we got to the east coast fishing village of Suao, we discovered that the East Coast Highway, as narrow as it was, was a one way highway. From Suao to Hualien, it was only wide enough for one vehicle, being carved out of steep mountain sides hundreds of feet above the sea below. The direction of the highway was controlled so that during certain hours traffic would flow from north to south,and during other times, the flow would be in the opposite direction. At designated times during the day, entry to the highway would be prohibited, and vehicles arriving at the gate would just have to wait. A control gate worker would note the total number of vehicles he let enter the highway and the make and the license number of the last vehicle allowed through, which he would then relay to the control gate at the other end. Once that final vehicle passed the exit gate, waiting vehicles, some lined up for hours, would be allowed to proceed in the opposite direction. Thus, when we got there, we found ourselves waiting in a line of trucks wanting to go south, waiting for the last northbound vehicle to exit the narrow, winding, dirt road which was the East Coast Highway.
We were the only passenger car in line. This 'highway' wasn't a tourist route. It was, in fact, a major truck route connecting the southern cities on the east coast with Taiwan's capitol city, Taipei in the north. Not a lot of people owned their own personal cars back then, and travel between the cities in the south and Taipei was usually by train. Our little red Volkswagen must've looked quite out of place amongst the long caravan of large trucks waiting at the gate.
It was sometime after noon when we were finally allowed to begin our southbound odyssey. I had no idea the road would be in such bad shape and so scary. It was just a dirt road with deep ruts, ruts much wider than the distance between the tires of our little VW, ruts which made handling our little bug somewhat difficult. For most of the length of the highway, sheer cliffs dropped steeply down to the sea just outside my driver's side door, and on the passenger's side, the landscape rose sharply to wooded hills. As it wound down the east coast, I found myself crawling along at a snail's pace, my hands tensely grasping the steering wheel, trying to always maintain control of the car plowing along the rutted road. Only moments after entering the highway, the trucks in front of me disappeared from view as they, powered by drivers who were quite familiar with the terrain, having travelled it day after day, quite fearlessly lumbered to the south. And behind us, trucks honked repeatedly, demanding that we either speed up or let them pass.
Fortunately, every several miles along the highway there were pull-offs, little spaces carved into the mountains on the right or jutting out onto overhangs on the left, where one could park for a while if necessary. As soon as we spotted the first one, I pulled off to the right and let all of the trucks behind me pass, which, once back on the road, greatly reduced my anxiety. I felt we could just continue on at our own pace now and enjoy the beauty of the mountains and the sea, a vast panoramic view which extended for miles ahead and off to our left. And we did just that.
From Suao to Hualien can't be more than 50 miles as the crow flies. But along this scary, winding road, it seemed like the distance must've doubled. Or tripled. Crawling along as slow as I could (so as not to fall off the mountain into the sea below!), it eventually started getting dark. We kept wondering just how much farther we had to go until we reached the southern gate and got back onto a real road. I was quite tense; the darkness caused the mountain road and the sea and the horizon to all blend together into one big black vision ahead of us. Suddenly, out of nowhere, something popped into my headlights. It was a big dog, wolf-like in appearance, which jumped out from the side of the road and into my field of vision. It instantly began barking wildly at us. Since I was going so slow, it was easy to stop in time, but the suddenness of the appearance of this wild creature out of the quiet, intense darkness had my heart racing and my adrenaline pumping wildly. I just wanted to get off the mountain as soon as possible. It took quite a while before we were able to laugh about it.
The 'wolf' (as we still refer to it to this day!) eventually left us alone, headed back into the woods, and allowed us to continue on our way. It was getting late, and I knew we should've been at the south gate hours ago. As I came around a sharp bend in the road, I suddenly came face to face with a northbound truck. Because of the sharp curve, he too was going quite slow. Apparently, the gatekeeper at the south gate got tired of waiting for us and started the next wave of northbound drivers up the highway! (I always suspected they thought we probably drove off the mountain into the sea. No one ever took that long to make the trip!) It took some maneuvering, but I was able to jockey our little Beetle as far to the left as possible, right up to the edge of the cliff. (If I would've opened my door and stepped out of the car, I would've headed straight down into the water below.) We sat there for quite a while as numerous trucks passed by and disappeared northbound into the darkness. I thought these guys must be either the greatest drivers in the world, or just plain old crazy
We had no way of knowing when the last northbound truck went by, so we waited until fifteen minutes or so passed without any trucks, then once again continued our trek towards the south gate. We still had no idea how much farther we had to go, but figured it couldn't be too many more miles. We did encounter a couple of more northbound trucks, but each time there was always enough room to pull over and let them pass.
Hualien - The End Of The Highway
We were scared, anxious, and tired and hungry by the time we finally saw a big cluster of lights in the distance, way down below off the mountain. It had to be Hualien, Taiwan's major east coast city which had become our new target for the day. We were finally there (although our original goal for the day was Taitung, many miles farther down the coast)! Coming around the last bend in the East Coast Highway, we spotted the south gate control station. What a relief! I didn't know for sure, but I suspected that the road on the other side of the south gate must be better than what we had just endured for the last eight hours. We drove through the south gate without stopping (I imagine the gatekeeper probably had a good laugh), and sure enough, we found a two-lane blacktop road ahead of us. Our ordeal was over. We left the Highway to Hell behind us forever.
We finally pulled into Hualien and immediately found a place to eat and a hotel for the night. Blue, who had been living in a box in the back seat of the car through most of the trip, enjoyed romping around the hotel room, exploring his new world. Needless to say, we all slept extremely well, only to be awakened the next morning by a thunderous noise just below our room.
It was about 6 AM, much earlier than when we planned to get up, when a loud crash just under our second floor hotel window awoke us. Looking out our window, we couldn't see anything that could've caused the noise, but people were coming from all directions walking towards the hotel entrance which was just below our room. I got dressed and went downstairs, only to find a taxi in the lobby! The driver had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed right through the main lobby doors coming to rest in front of the main desk. He didn't seem to be too badly hurt, but there was debris everywhere, and the whole lobby, especially around the main doors, looked pretty shaky and unsafe. Our room was right above - I figured it would be best to get ready and get out as soon as we could.
South From Hualien - The Washout
Leaving Hualien, we headed south to Taitung. The road was much better on this leg of the trip, and after the previous day's trip through hell, everything seemed to be going along pretty smoothly. Until we got to the river. About halfway between Hualien and Taitung, the highway was submerged. I don't know if this was an everyday occurence, or if we just 'lucked out' on this fine day. There were a few trucks stopped there along side the road, and one halfway across the washed out area, which was probably about 100 yards across, the length of a football field. It wasn't deep - we could tell by the truck that was attempting the crossing - but it looked bumpy and the current looked mean. We didn't know what to do.
A few locals came over and offered to get our car across for about ten dollars, not too much for us but quite a lot for them back in those days. I wasn't sure what they had in mind, but after looking the situation over, I decided we would try it on our own. (I didn't realize at the time that if we got stuck in the middle, their price would probably triple!) I put our little VW bug in first gear, slowly crawled up to the wash out's edge, then gunned it and headed as straight as possible for the opposite 'bank'. Everyone was watching us as we entered the water, and as I plowed my way across, a wave of water poured up over the hood and onto the windshield. (On VW Beetles, the engine is in the rear, so I wasn't too worried about flooding it. They are also supposedly 'water-tight', which seemed to be true in this case.) As we neared the opposite side, we actually passed the truck that had tried to cross ahead of us and which was now stuck with its engine dead - its driver's wallet soon to be a bit emptier.
We made it across, much to the surprise of the locals who stood by, probably hoping we'd get stuck anywhere in the middle. We stopped and waved to them, then headed on, continuing our journey to Taitung. It was a beautiful day, and we felt great. It was a victory not to be easily forgotten.
On our way from Taitung to Oluanpi at the southernmost tip of the island, we pulled off the road to give Blue a bath in a stream that ran along side the roadway, and Mei-O almost accidentally drowned the poor little guy, letting him loose in the stream thinking he'd be able to swim around and 'play' in the water (I told her dogs naturally knew how to swim). As small as he was, the current was a little too strong, and we had to fish him out, a little scared, but none the worse for the ordeal.
On To OluanpiArriving in Oluanpi, we checked into a U.S. military communications station where we were able to stay in a very well kept guest room for just 25 cents (that was the going nightly rate!). On this southernmost tip of the island, we watched the sun set on the west coast of Taiwan one evening, and awoke the next day to see it rise on the east coast. The beaches at Oluanpi were beautiful white sand, and the water was the clearest, bluest ocean water I've ever seen.
Tainan And Mei-O's Cousin
From Oluanpi, we headed north through Kaoshiung to Tainan where we went to visit Mei-O's cousin. I never really liked her very much, and didn't want to spend much time at her house, so I suggested we (Mei-O and I) should just do some sightseeing around Tainan, then head back to Taichung. But she insisted we have dinner with her and her family that evening, and, in order to make sure we returned, she held Blue 'hostage' at her house while we went sightseeing. She insisted, so we left Blue with her (she had a big yard where he could run around), and we went off on our own. When it came time to go back for dinner, I didn't really feel like seeing her again, so we drove over to her house where I sneaked into the yard and grabbed Blue. We began our final leg home to Taichung without saying good-bye. It was a pretty nasty thing to do, but we were just finishing up a long trip, I was tired, and, as I stated earlier, I really didn't like Mei-O's cousin very much. We found out later that she was really upset (understandably) about the whole thing.
And so we headed north to Taichung on the last leg of our adventure-filled honeymoon. The whole trip lasted about a week, and took us to some really interesting places and through some rather exciting experiences. We still talk about the 'wolf' incident today, especially when we're driving along dark country roads at night, and we often remember Mei-O's almost accidental drowning of little Blue. It's been more than forty years, and so much of it still remains strong in our minds.
Blue stayed with us and then with Mei-O's
family after we left Taiwan in 1970. We saw him again when we went back to live in
Taiwan from June of 1972 until June of 1973 while I was attending Tunghai University
just outside of Taichung. He died sometime in 1974 or 1975. He was a great dog and a
great friend. We still talk about him and his antics occasionally. But, then,
that's another story....
Last Modified: July 10, 2010