Asia-Pacific Tour: Taiwan, Korea and Japan (Part One)

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National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taipei, Taiwan

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget backpacker travel through 15 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from the Pacific Islands to selected Asian countries including: Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Macau, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan – and the USA.

East Asia
By Cacahuate CC BY-SA Wikimedia Commons

Exploring the mountains around Taroko National Park, one of nine national parks in Taiwan and named for Taroko Gorge, an impressive 19-km-long canyon carved by the Liwu River near Taiwan’s east coast. The name Taroko, means “magnificent and splendid” in the language of Truku, the aboriginal tribe that resides in the area, which is also well known for its abundant supply of marble, thus its nickname, “The Marble Gorge”.

After a splendid couple of days wandering among the amazing gorges, the lush, green hillsides, hot springs and across suspension bridges in this particularly scenic part of the country, I returned to the capital Taipei to meet with my colleagues at the YMCA, which offers a range of programs for all ages including camping, club programs, physical education, social activities, leadership training, vocational training, supplementary education, including a large English language program.

The Taipei YMCA also runs a hotel and restaurant, and participates in staff and student exchange programs with YMCAs in other countries, such as the International Camp Counselor Program and the Overseas Service Corps of the YMCA (OSCY), for teaching and learning English as a second language.

Suspension Bridge, Toroko Gorge, Taiwan, Own work CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

The OSCY English language program (in cooperation with YMCAs in Japan and the USA) was of particular interest to me personally. So deeply taken by the overwhelming charm of the people and the place, I could easily consider a longer commitment in Taiwan (or Japan) to teach English. But for now, it was time to continue on to Korea.

I often wondered at the serendipity of life – the chance meetings with other travelers at a particular place or point in time, and how it would all have been totally different had we each taken a different bus or train, at a different time, or had traveled a day earlier or later. But somehow, I was meeting the most extraordinary people all along the way – and many would become lifelong friends. One of the benefits of traveling alone is this added opportunity to meet new friends.

By edwin.11 – View From Swallow Grotto in Taroko Gorge, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

And it was happening again as I boarded the packed bus in Korea’s capital, Seoul. Dropping into the last available seat as the bus pulled away from the station, I turned to see a beautiful young Korean woman seated next to me. Mi Sook spoke fairly good English and was also traveling alone. We chatted a bit and soon learned that we were headed to the same destination – Cheju Island, a short ferry ride from the southern coast of South Korea.

Cheju Do, as it is locally known, is a popular holiday spot among locals, and has some of the only swimmable beaches in the country. It is also popular with couples and newlyweds.  Large rock statues or Dol Hareubang found throughout the island have come to be known as the symbol of Cheju Do, and are considered to be gods offering both protection and fertility — although this interpretation may have more to do with Cheju Do’s present-day status as a “honeymoon island” than with tradition.

Mi Sook and her mother ran a beautician shop in Seoul, and she was taking this trip to get away from the city for a short holiday. I was on my way to visit the YMCA International Youth Center on the island – a neat, modern building that had been donated by the Japanese YMCAs. I had been treated with impeccable hospitality at the YMCA in Seoul and at other YMCAs throughout the country, and this warm welcome continued at the Youth Center – staying in first class accommodation and with delicious meals as guest of the YMCA. My hosts spoke no English, and my Korean was basically zip.

Jim, Mi Sook and a Dol Hareubang statue on Cheju Island, Korea

Still, my YMCA Youth Center hosts were undaunted. Taking me around the island, Mr Kim (it seemed like everyone’s family name in Korea was either “Kim”, “Lee” or “Park”) and I joined the multitudes of visitors climbing the island’s impressive volcano “Hala-san” – where we literally had to queue up on the trail, but were rewarded with wonderfully cool, bracing air and great views. The change in scenery and climate in this temperate setting was a welcome relief from the heat of the tropics – refreshing and invigorating.

Stay tuned for Part Two – coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

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