Our 5-hour train journey ended at Taitung, one of the biggest cities in the eastern coast of Taiwan. I could only understand the size of the city as our taxi driver navigated his way to our hotel, passing through empty streets. A stark contrast with Taipei, Taitung with a population of only a little over 100,000 people felt like a small town for Indonesian standard. The largest crowd was merely a group of schoolchildren marching on a small alley to celebrate Easter.
Our hotel – with the room that reminded me of pictures of a ryokan with beds on wooden floor – is conveniently located in the center of the city, enabling us to walk everywhere. But the problem was … there was not much to see in the city. Luckily James did his research and decided to go to the old train station, only a few minutes away from the hotel.
A public art installation greeted us upon reaching the old station, in a rather puzzling way. Stacks of white baskets were intertwined and hanged from the roof of a hollow wooden structure, leaving me with questions of what it was supposed to mean. Walking further, the old station stood still with grey-and-yellow painted carriages parked on one of the aging rail lines. While we were walking closer to the old station, suddenly two young boys came to us on their bicycles and handed out a brochure of a Subway restaurant in the city. They grinned at us and left us right away, back to their friends.
A short moment later when we were taking pictures of the old station, a group of young girls approached us and asked James to take a picture of them. Sitting on the rail line, the girls posed the typical v-shaped gesture with their fingers, a gesture far too common in many parts of Asia. Satisfied with the pictures, they chuckled and left us explore the place in peace.
It is often the people, not the places, that makes a city or town interesting.
Realizing that the sun was setting soon, we left the old train station and walked fast towards the beach, hoping to catch the unmistakable beauty of a sunset. After a few detours here and there – including to a neighborhood where old Japanese houses still survived the time – we finally managed to get to the beach before the darkness fell. A heath of daisies separated the sandy beach from the street, a pleasant view to compensate the rather tedious beach. A wooden promenade had been built though, but the local government could have done more to gentrify the beach area instead of letting some pieces of old concrete pipes and unused furniture scattered all over the shore.
As the sun set, we left the promenade in search for an interesting restaurant in the city. Mosquitoes hovered on our heads, increasing the urge to find a more comfortable place, a place with an air conditioner. We were lucky to find a decent restaurant right across the street, our refuge for the next few hours in this eastern coast city.
Taitung might not be the most interesting places of all, indeed. But it has what it takes to make a city great: the people.