The steam and smells wafting from the food vans in the parking lot were a beacon of comfort to all who had ventured out in the dead of the dark morning, in the freezing cold, to see the famous sunrise at Ali Mountain in the south of Taiwan.
The vendors had roughly the same setup: a metal tray on wheels with at least three gas hotplates. On one sat a series of large kettles, bubbling away; on another a large pan with boiling water in it, stacked with over 20 gently rattling hot cans and glass bottles of milk tea, coffee, soy milk, barley, and more.
The most important component featured a large, iron frying pan sizzling with oil to make French toast with ham, eggs, and other local Taiwanese breakfast favorites. Pilgrims to the sunset waited patiently to be served their steaming victuals, which they would bite and sip on while waiting in line for the train.
The Way Up
Packing onto the trains in the dead of the morning was an eerie scene. It was easy to make the grim association with a group of prisoners being sent to Siberia: passengers sat shoulder-to-shoulder along bench seats on each side, the sound of the rails drowned out voices, and the sparse, swaying carriage seemed to rocket toward nowhere.
As it was winter vacation, mostly students filled the train. Some kept themselves busy taking photos of each other, some fiddled with their phones, while others pretended to sleep. A few sipped on warm Ovaltine through straws, observing the morass.
The cattle-train experience continued when we arrived at our destination, with everyone being sent through a metal grate, climbing an incline, and then waiting to be administered the sunrise. This was carried out expertly by the two government-employed hosts and their helpers.
The main two hosts perched themselves at different places along the 50-or-so-meter crowd, and they used megaphones to give their presentations; their strategic distance meant that one wouldn’t interfere with the other. The helpers kept everyone in line along the series of steps and pointed out where to look to see the best view (to the right, where the hazy clouds are, not to the left, where it is clearer).
Our sunrise emcee’s presentation touched on a startling variety of topics. Initially, he said he would only speak in Mandarin for the benefit of those from Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Mainland, but ended up constantly switching to the local Taiwanese dialect when he got excited. At these times, too, he would throw out his arms for emphasis and yell in a high pitch, for example, to bring to life the emotions of one of the characters he had introduced in his speech.
His 50-minute performance seamlessly wove through dozens of unrelated topics, including the pillage the Japanese wrought on the area less than a century ago. Topics ranged from how to pick local plums, featuring at least four varieties, all of which he had prepared and bagged in pocket, to how many people fainted last year due to the height of the mountain, their ages, and which countries they were from (mostly young, adult Taiwanese). He talked about the history of the area and local indigenous people, the highest mountains of Southeast Asia (of which this was one), how the sunrise changes across the seasons, and a host of other subjects.
Vendors snaked through the crowd. In thick local accents, they chanted their prices for the cellophane glasses to block out the bright light when the sun rose, and for miscellaneous other items like underwear, socks, and flowers.
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