It’s eight o’clock at night.
I’m alone, standing still in the middle of what feels like a maze of alleys. I can’t see the water anymore, I can only hear it.
I’m in Jiufen, a coastal village outside of Taipei, perched on hills at about two thousand feet of altitude.
Voices of the only three people I passed ten minutes ago echo behind me. The men were sitting on a cliff edge and had watched my every step. Their stare was blank, their lips tight. What if they followed me now? What if one of them decided to grab and take me deeper into the darkness of these tunnel-like streets? Would anyone even hear me scream?
There are no street lights but there’s a constant breeze. Under normal circumstances, with a loved one, this could be the most romantic place I’ve experienced. Getting lost together in the hills of northeast Taiwan, while gazing at the sea – it almost sounds like one of those Harlequin novels I admit (and regret) reading in my teens (in French no less). But romance is not what I’m feeling right now.
Jiufen was once a sleepy fishing village until the early 1900′s when gold was discovered in its hills. It reached its peak of mining activity during the Japanese occupation around the time of World War II. Influenced by the Japanese, many tea houses and inns were built on the hill tops and became popular hang outs in town. Then, the mines shut down in the early 70′s and Jiufen was abandoned.
Years later, it caught the interest of filmmakers and the movie “City of Sadness” was filmed here in the 1990′s. Soon after that, the town came alive again, the tea houses restored and tourism took over with lots of shops, handicrafts and markets.
Jiufen is now a favorite getaway from Taipei for locals and tourists. They stroll up and down Old Street, a narrow street that takes you through the village as you pass the shopping, restaurants and tea houses. Scenic stops conveniently await posers along the way. And it is oh-so scenic, especially at sunset. Except when you’re lost in the back side of the village — then it’s anything but charming.
At some point on my walk, the shops had vanished and Old Street had transformed into a never-ending tunnel of darkness.
I stood still and took a deep breath, telling myself to calm down. I’m lost. Really lost.
I should be tired after an hour of walking uphill but I wasn’t. I had diligently counted the numbers on the buildings on the street, and followed my guide’s instructions to keep straight. An hour ago, it was daylight.
“Just count all the way to number 69, okay?” She had pointed to the first store – number one – in the flurry of shops along Jiufen’s Old Street.
And I had counted, while strolling and taking photos along the way. The food stalls, the clothing stores, the cobblestone path that led around and further up into the hills. The red lanterns that illuminated the path and reminded me that I was in Taiwan.
Until, I was farther and farther out.
The numbers were increasing, it made sense. But at number 50, I had found myself isolated. Old homes that looked abandoned or vacant were cropping up, along with random locals matching the scenery. The crowd of trendy Taiwanese shopping is now a distant memory.
I have no cell phone. No way to call my guide, nor did I know her number. Would there even be a signal in the mountains? I can’t retrace my steps because even though I walked on one path for the past hour, when I turned around there was more than one narrow alley facing me. One led to a staircase up to another road. How is this possible? I almost never get lost. I know, almost. And as a solo female traveler, I should know better than not anticipate the dark alley phenomenon.
I notice a house further up with a dim lit window but I don’t feel it would welcome my knock – besides, I don’t speak Chinese. Fear starts keeps creeping in. Funny how the mind works. And is this what it’s really like to not speak a foreign language? What a helpless feeling. Lost in a foreign land, with no one to ask, no one to signal.
My mind wanders again to what an unusually grueling and difficult trip it has been already – not because of the schedule or the sights but because of the odd dynamics among a group of nine writers on a press trip, half of whom were unhappy with the planned activities (even though a list was provided weeks prior). Let’s just say, this was the one time I had a chance to explore on my own – walk and take a breather, get unique photos on our last evening in Taiwan… and I got lost. Great.
I decided to take a risk and try one of the three paths leading back in the general direction from whence I came. I prayed on it and picked one. Thirty long minutes later, I could see the lights of the shopping district in the distance. What a relief. At least I was heading back to the world of the living, away from the dark abandoned alleys and the men.
But how would I find my guide and my group in the crowd? I was hoping some time would pass before I saw our guide again, enough time for my annoyed state to pass. It was obvious she had given out the wrong address to the restaurant.
When I reached the red lights and the noise of visitors dining again, back in the center of Jiufen, I felt immense relief. Then, I hear her voice.
“There she is!”
Our guide is rushing toward me, a big smile on her face. She puts her arm around mine but I’m frozen. “Oh I am sorry, I gave you wrong number, haha! You OK? Haha!”
She attempts to rub my arm but I can’t bring myself to smile. I’m perturbed that she’s amused. Yet I get it – cultural gap. When we’re finally seated at the “right” restaurant and served, I start tasting the dishes and feast covering our table. But in my mind I still see the faces of the men I passed in the dark alley.
The restaurant’s shutters are open and the mountain views are incredible. We move over to the deck, where the tea is now being prepared. This could easily be the most beautiful place I’ve seen in Taiwan.
Jiufen, I started out liking you. But I don’t know if I can forget that your dark side almost swallowed me up, never to be found again.
I’d already written this piece and later noticed the “Difficult travel moments” prompt from the BootsnAll 2012 Indie Travel Challenge – perfect timing. Click “like” if you’d like to read more of my misadventure tales from the road!