“Water,” I croaked, hauling myself out into a muddy clearing. “Does anyone have water?”
The men looked at me, bemused and surprised. I was red faced and drenched in sweat. Clearly lost – as lost as you can be in the trails that criss-cross beyond Elephant Mountain. I smiled, my most manic, pleading smile. “Empty,” I said, showing my bottle, miming that most glorious act of drinking. The men giggled uproariously.
Elephant Mountain, following the Taiwanese tradition of bafflingly named geological structures, looks absolutely nothing like its namesake. It is jagged and rocky and absolutely covered in unkempt trees. But despite this, a little before sunset almost every night, hundreds begin the twenty-five-minute march up to the summit. If you’re lucky, or tall enough to peek above the endless bobbing heads, you might catch a glimpse of golden sky, shifting and waning to black. Or, more likely, you’ll be blinded by the flashing of a dozen cameras, poised to take that perfect selfie.
For tourists and locals alike, Elephant Mountain is far and away the most well-known and well-travelled destination along the Taipei skyline. And for good reason; it’s a short hike, to rather spectacular views, made all the more surprising by the sprawling streets of Taipei in miniature below.
If you continue past Elephant Mountain into the wilderness beyond, you’ll find dozens of new trails, ferrying you towards Lion Mountain, Leopard Mountain, and Tiger Mountain. (Really, whose naming these things?) Then there’s the tallest summit of them all – 9-5 peak. Technically, these are all peaks on the grand Nangang Mountain. If you want to sound very badass and cool, however, you won’t say you climbed Nangang. You’ll say that you conquered The Four Beasts.
Or, as it goes, gotten lost in them.
It was hot, you see. And I hadn’t brought much water, only expecting to be out for an hour or so. The deeper I hiked, the more I was lured away from the main trail by aged trees and forgotten shrines. Soon enough, I was wet with sweat, rasping, and desperate for a drink.
My rescue came in the from of five elderly men, seated around a stone table, smiling to one another. “Sit,” one of the men said, once they’d given up interpreting my flailing charades. “Sit, sit, yes.” We were huddled, shoulder to shoulder, just outside a dishevelled hut. The men laughed at their private conversation, as a woman bundled her way out from the building, teapot in hand.
She noticed me and stopped.
“This is…” one of the men started. He pointed at me. “Your name?”
“Danny,” I rasped.
“This is Danny, from England!”
The woman shrugged. She handed me a delicate ceramic cup and poured me a mouthful of steaming herbal tea. It smelt like mint and lavender.
I gulped down the beverage in one swift motion, which didn’t sate my thirst at all. The teacups, you see, were tiny. Much too small for a person of my girth.
I tried to savour the second cup by taking gentle sips. But it just wasn’t practical. Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. I drank and I drank as they refilled my cup. I felt guilty and tried to say that I’d had enough, but they wouldn’t hear such nonsense.
They shared their food, as well – salty biscuits and pineapple cake – and I offered them some chocolate in return. “No, no, you eat!” they insisted.
We struggled through our conversation. They explained to me why they were here, on this offshoot trail, drinking and chatting and watching the sky dim. From what I could understand, this was a yearly occurrence. They were friends, from all across Taipei, with families and jobs and lives that had drifted apart. But once every twelve months, they would sit at this same table, on this same trail, and spend the day together.
I should have felt like an intruder, looking back, but they were so welcoming, so eager to share their food, their drink, and their stories. It felt as though I was exactly where I should be. As if the trails had led me here by design.
Fully quenched, and a mite heavier than when I arrived, I got to my feet and waved goodbye. As I was leaving, a broad-shouldered man wandered towards me. The old guys shouted at him, and he looked over, confused. He approached them, and after a few moments, sat down. I heard the familiar thrum of laughter as I walked away.
Was he their friend, or simply another stranger passing through? Was there even a distinction between the two?
As I made my way back to Taipei, I saw dozens of people making the journey to Elephant Mountain. I wondered how many might trek a little further , away from the crowds, until they were somewhat lost. And I wondered if the old fellows, with their picknick in the forest, might be there to rescue them.