Credit: Grand Escape (Reimagined Version) by RADWIMPS ft. Toko Miura (Cover by AVIAND)

I spent years obsessing over, Apple of My Eye, a well-loved Taiwanese film about a pair of high-school sweethearts. Then, with only two days of planning, my sister and I finally had time in summer 2015 to travel to the famous filming location in Pingxi, New Taipei City to participate in the popular activity of releasing lanterns, an imitation of a scene in Apple of My Eye and a cultural practice of pleading for peace. We were reunited after a month of completing separate programs as overseas students, with her program being lessons in Chinese and mine being English-teaching in the rural town of Fuguang. The spontaneity of the trip excited us, but our lack of research resulted in several mistakes, arguments, and dangerous situations. Ultimately, though, we learnt to take care of and appreciate one another.

The air was thick with humidity the morning we left. We walked over to Tsinghua University from our aunt’s apartment in Hsinchu to catch the Kuo-Kuang eBus, a frequent shuttle bus that took us to Taipei City in 45 minutes. Then, we took a train to Badu Train Station to transfer to Pingxi via the Pingxi Branch Rail Line towards Jingtong, which took approximately two hours. During the three-and-a-half hours’ journey, my sister and I caught up about our past month. There was so much to say that even the lengthy ride did not allow enough time.

Since the day was still too bright to set off lanterns, we agreed to start exploring from Shifen, the second last stop on the railway line, and travel backwards. Walking along the train tracks through the bustling Shifen Old Street, we marveled at the low pitch roof houses and little shops selling cultural artefacts, traditional souvenirs, and street food. Never had I imagined the outskirts to be so charming; I was in awe. My favourite local delicacy was an ice cream and peanut wrap, a dessert inspired from the original run bing (spring roll).

Our first stop was the Shifen Waterfall. My sister and I took a detour to hike up it after reading signposts of its must-see beauty. It was a strenuous one-hour walk, but we admired the stone houses, hanging bamboo chimes, and danced in the middle of empty highways on the way up to relieve our minds. The unoccupied road had us assuming that the destination would be quiet, but our encounter with crowds of tourists, who we later found had taken taxis and tour buses up, proved the contrary. We watched the graceful cascades of the broadest waterfall in Taiwan plummet into the Keelung River, as the cool air refreshed our sweating faces. Boulders surrounded the river and there was a steep stairway on one side that led to different vantage points for observation of the waterfall.

After treating ourselves to pineapple slush and exploring the pathways near Shifen Waterfall, my sister and I caught the train to our next stop, Wanggu, a strangely quiet region. The landscape seemed to whisper secrets of the past. Over the train tracks towered the destroyed Qinghe Suspension Bridge, historically used for coal mining. Since the train only came once an hour, we wandered around aimlessly. Had we done more research though, we would have discovered the Wanggu Waterfall hidden next to the station. Nevertheless, my sister and I spent the hour laughing and singing, our voices ringing in the desolate wild. It felt like the world was ours.

There was still an hour left before the sun went down, so we hopped on the train and headed to Jingtong. We weaved in and out of numerous shops including the Jingtong Railway Story House, fascinated by the handmade objects sold and the small-town vibe of the Old Streets. We were amazed at the spectacular view beyond the village too – a mountain of trees and vertically rectangular houses enveloped in fog. There was a path to walk down and a love bridge strung with bamboo tubes of written wishes below that arched across a gently trickling river. The bamboo tubes sounded like windchimes when the breeze knocked them together. Time escaped our minds… and that was when we missed the train.

Not wanting to wait another hour, my sister suggested walking to Pingxi, which was fortunately just a station away. On the train tracks we walked – past the huge Jingtong Mining Industry Life Pavilion, secluded farms, and lonely houses – as the sky grew pitch black. I was frightened and weary, but we talked and sang into the distant skies to have our echoes keep us company.

Finally, we arrived at Pingxi. We hungrily ate wraps for dinner just before the shops closed for the night. It was only 7pm, a time when Taipei city would have just begun stirring with commotion, but it was bedtime for the rural town. Still, my sister and I persisted with our daydream to set off sky lanterns.

When we reached Pingxi Sky Lantern Story House, one of the many shops that sold lanterns, the compassionate shopkeeper kindly agreed to handcraft two more multi-coloured lanterns despite near closing hours. What I had imagined to be an experience with a crowd was now an experience solely shared with my sister. We talked about our dreams and filmed each other writing them down on the lantern as we struggled printing with the calligraphy brushes. An hour later, we were ready to release our lanterns. We couldn’t help shouting with joy, as we sent our wishes into the stars. Watching them float away was beautiful – two lone lanterns flickering in the night sky. It was truly a dream-come-true.

After thanking the shopkeeper for staying an extra hour with us, we hurried on to check the train schedule and were relieved when it read that there was one more train departure left. By now, me and my sister were the only individuals left in the whole village. 9pm felt like midnight as we sat waiting, fearful and exhausted, for what felt like forever. When we arrived at Ruifang Station, however, we were horrified to learn that we may be homeless for the night. The hostel we had planned to stay at had no entry sign and the manager’s direction to meet him downstairs in a building sounded risky. As for the other hostels nearby, they were either occupied or required an earlier check-in time. Calling one hostel after another, we were almost in tears until a manager offered us safe residence for the night. Although the price was two times higher than our budget for accommodation, we accepted the consequences of our ill planning and thanked God for his protection.

The journey to Pingxi has been me and my sister’s most unforgettable trip to date. I can still recall the rhythm of the waterfall and the bamboo tubes, the chipped paint of the old houses, the honest faces of the local citizens, the desire to understand the secrets of the wild, and the mixture of excitement, fear, and bliss I felt during the time of. Moreover, there is something about spontaneity – the danger and adventure of it all with no itinerary, set timetable, or destination – which has given me renewed gratitude for who I was traveling with: my sister. Throughout the ups and downs of life’s many more adventures, there is no one else I am happier to share them with than her.