The bus circled the route to the interior and the passengers were pushed along to the far left of their seats. A white wind escaped into the window and all was clouded before their eyes. The air tipped the hat off the driver’s head and sent it out onto the open road. Then at a distance in the sky, as if magically summoned, presenting itself from behind the smoke curtain was the crimson city of Jiufen.
A medley of steps separated Mizu from the city on the hills. On getting off the bus, she felt like she had stepped into the cold greeting of the clouds. Many layers of fog wrapped around her and she wore them like a coat and began the long walk uphill.
The path was a solitary one, made spectacular only by the destination to which it led.
On taking a turn and inching closer to the city, Mizu saw an old man meditating on the rock at the far edge of a cliff. He was wearing a sheet of cloth with the words ‘Taiwan Sweet Potato Teahouse’ printed at the back. A whisper escaped his breath and travelled along the wind to Mizu’s ears, but the words had a stillness she couldn’t decipher. Then as though he had assailed her forward, she floated along with her airy coat and entered the city of Jiufen.
Before her lay brick by brick and clustered together, a city with windows peaking into its clockwork musings. Several objects were woven into its structure and Mizu had never seen so many trinkets in a city’s edifice before. The objects felt vintage and you had to pause at every shop to take a look, as if a shoemaker or a toymaker had crafted it, piece by piece. A distant merriment could be heard from the crowd inside the Old Street and it all resounded as one.
Mizu was glad she had worn her walking shoes for before her stretched a maze of stairways. Certainly there were more steps than pathways that tied this small city together. Red orb lanterns were stringed from house to house and shop to shop in parallel to the stairs and it was constructed like a natural entity, like the motion of the waves in the Pacific or the trail of rocks that formed the mountain on which the city lay.
When Mizu entered the Old Street, she saw that it was pieced together with old storefront banners that bore a script that was erased out and rewritten, as was inevitable by the passage of time and generations leaving the family business. Trinkets hung from the shops, dangling in the noon breeze and Chinese letters were scribbled in white onto the stony walls that jutted out from the space between two stores. Bamboo and wooden restaurants extended their shutter roofs to the visitors as though leaning in to say Dine, Stay, and Leave. Ceramic cups lay animatedly inside glass displays and potted plants and scooters aligned the street.
Mizu walked ahead to the taro ball soup shop where a sweet smell candied the air. A white floury dough was being cut by a family of four and dropped into the grey station before her and the scene looked like live machinery. The taro coloured the flour in a violet crystal when turned over in the liquid and they looked like pebbles when dropped into the paper bowl. Mizu held the cup between her fingers, inhaled, picked up the first taro ball which was doused in the rock sugar and took a bite. She couldn’t understand where it got it lightness, but on eating it she felt very much like she was eating air, an essence she couldn’t make sense of.
When the passengers on the bus had spoken about Jiufen, an unsettling feeling had taken over her. When the taro ball was first made in Jiufen around the 40s, the city was a gold mining town under the Japanese. Gold was discovered, caves were dug out, the city was made hollow but built spectacularly. Then the locals left, strangers entered and a new city emerged on the hills. Despite this thought that made her sad, Mizu thought of the peace that the taro in cold soup may have brought the miners on a hot day.
The Old Street almost trailed through the entire city. There were freshly baked pineapple cakes, cilantro-peanut ice cream, and yam dish on several counters and looking at one store to another, Mizu was slowly moving uphill and then downhill and she could feel the mountain that first stood at this exact spot without the city.
One particular alleyway on the Old Street lay in quiet despondence awaiting a visitor. A shop there hidden beneath clothes and other ordinary objects, withheld translations of books and some paintings that were forbidden and not supposed to be sold commercially. The Taiwanese woman who was the shop owner, with a warm mischievous smile asked Mizu to sit down by the books and told her that Jiufen was once a prestigious stay for many writers, poets, and film makers. She carefully took out a rare abridged version of the Quan Tangshi from her collection that was translated into English. Mizu opened a page to read a poem by one of the Eight Immortals who was rumoured for having lived over 200 years. His name was Lu Dongbin.
‘What is Tao?
It is just this.
It cannot be rendered into speech.
If you insist on an explanation,
This means exactly this.’
Again there was something she couldn’t surpass. She understood the words but they were written in a plane that was simply unreachable. The unsettling feeling grew and so she purchased the book from the shop for a very large sum. In the past, she had purchased several things because she couldn’t grasp their entirety and owning the work made her feel more powerful that the art.
She kept the book in her bag and walked uphill. She reached the A-MEI Tea House, the glass and wood-windowed fantastical tea place that was captured in every picture taken of Jiufen. They were known for years to have created a tea drinking culture in Jiufen that was at the center of every tourist experience. The whole of Jiufen’s edifice could be found inside its doors. When Mizu entered and asked for a table at the tea house, the place has surpassed capacity. When she peaked inside, it felt like the world was there, enjoying a moment in the city with a cup of tea in their hands.
Before she knew it, she was following the strings of red paper lanterns and had walked way past the A-MEI Tea House. She looked over at Jiufen before her. The grass was one with the breeze and arched roofs gave definition to the blue sky. The mountains were so high and mighty that the city felt humbled and at its mercy.
At a distance, the enormous statue of the Taoist God of War stood as though made of the same might as the mountains. Phoenixes and dragons and several hues of red adorned a faraway temple. These gave Jiufen a fable-like quality and created in Mizu a sense of dread and wonderment.
Where the string of lanterns ended, stood an entryway to a cave that was rugged and grey as time. There were jarred square openings through which Mizu peaked and saw the Pacific. The walls grew narrower and further uphill and ended at another tea house that seemed more somber and quiet than the previous. A large carcass-like clothing hung at the entrance warning visitors nonchalantly. As Mizu took a seat at the table, a man behind the counter laughed in such a frantic manner that she almost fell out of the geometric seating area.
Mizu thought she had seen him before but couldn’t recollect. He put a teapot on and soon it was shooting steam. A sudden peacefulness filled the room and the steam leaving the teapot was the only noontime activity. From where she was seated, Mizu could see Jiufen and the sea beyond with waters that led to China, Korea and Japan. She thought of how Jiufen was a simple town made magical by a gold rush and the mystical characters of the hills. She though of the old cinema museum and the Taiwanese movies that once played there and the laughter that may have once filled the place.
After a few minutes, the tea was brought to Mizu and in a ceremonious way which included washing the cups and inhaling the scent, Mizu had her first sip of the Oolong tea. A sudden lightness came upon her and somehow the Keelung mountain beneath the city seemed to elevate in the air. She began to chuckle and so did the man who served her the Oolong.
After three potfuls of tea, Mizu had felt empty. When she closed her eyes she was certain that she was in an open space without structure or form. Her thoughts began to melt and escape her mind, as though they never existed in the first place. Then, as if strung to reality, recollecting herself and almost in apprehension, she left the tea house as it was getting late and the bus would arrive shortly. She descended down into the cave, but instead of getting out into the Old Street, a cool whisper from the interior drew her to another route. She recognised the voice as that of the old man who was meditating on the rock at the edge of the cliff. A stony stairway led her further and further below the ground and after walking for a while, she spotted something glinting and earthy surrounding a man dressed in beige sheets. At the back of his garments were the words, Taiwan Sweet Potato Teahouse and around him was Jiufen’s gold.
He began to speak in verse that now, for some reason, Mizu began to understand despite the stillness. He called out to her and asked her to sit. He introduced himself as Lu Dongbin and told her that he found three jewels in the miner’s cave that were richer than all the gold in Jiufen. He pulled them out from his brown straw bag, one by one like the pebble taro balls. The first was Jing which meant essence, the seed and the nourishment. It was suspended in the air. The Second was Qi which meant Breath, the life giving force. It took its place near the first pebble. The third was Sen which meant Spirit, that which is part of death and letting go, and of the higher order. It ascended to the second pebble and then all three vanished.
Jing – Qi -Shen. He asked her to meditate on these words. Jing – Qi – Shen.
Sounds like Jiufen, thought Mizu and shut her eyes to think of the three jewels.
He smiles. He already knows her thoughts. After a while, what seemed like only a second and an eternity, the poet who was over 200 years old said.
“To exist means to disappear and appear. Those who dwell, seldom live.”
And on hearing this, Mizu found herself back at the bus station before the steps that separated the city from her. The evening sky was dark and the whole of Jiufen was lit up with red rays emerging from paper lanterns. The city looked gold dusted and bejeweled. The bus arrived to whisk her away from the hills. When she looked out from her window, the fog had grown dense and Jiufen began to disappear from plain sight.