“He saw the monk [Ji Gong] looking most disheveled. How did he find him? A poem testifies:” 

His face was unwashed; his hair was untrimmed;  
His drunken eyes were screwed up, both open and shut. 
He seemed dumb; deluded; deranged;  
Wherever he went, he made jokes and made fun. 

His monk’s robes were torn, ill-fitting, and holey;  
His coin bands were exposed; 
His silk tassels were tattered and tangled,  
From clump to clump in uneven rows; 
His monk’s shoes were worn to the soles;  
His legs were shiny and red; 
He climbed mountains and waded water like level ground, 
The Four Seas at his behest. 
He spoke not the sutras nor did meditation; 
But drank liquor and ate meat playfully instead; 
Warning the lost masses of ignorance and urging them to good,  
He shepherded mortals diligently without rest. 

Roughly 800 years later, I was standing in front of Ji Gong the god. The late-12th century Chan master had been deified in Taiwanese temples like the one I was visiting, and like in the poem above from the Qing Dynasty Era Biography of Ji Gong even in godhood, Ji Gong was depicted as an irreverent drunk. 
The figure before me was sprawled on a bench in something like a broken lotus posture, one knee pointed at me, and the other at the ceiling with a hand resting on top. The other hand clutched a gourd filled with what was supposedly hard spirits, something like rice wine or Kaoliang liquor. The figure drank deeply, slurping theatrically. 
That was the extent of its resemblance to the Chinese monk of myth, however, for I wasn’t looking at a bald old man with a long white beard and questionable hygiene, but a petite woman in thick tortoise shell glasses in her late 20s roughly the same age as me. 
I had been brought here by a friend, Tian, and her highschool friend, Spongebob (a nickname; she was a fan of the cartoon), the latter of whom was close with our Ji Gong channeler. It isn’t unusual to operate as a god-medium in Taiwan, after all though it was rare that Ji Gong is channeled by a young woman rather than an elderly man. 
Now, it was time to hear the god speak. 

The Departure at Banqiao

The rain met me at my doorstep. It was a light sprinkle, though; and not wanting to shed all the gear I’d just donned to rummage through my pack, I decided the raincoat could wait.  
This was both my starting point and finish line: my place in the Banqiao District of New Taipei City, just outside of the capital. 
The route ahead was a typical Taiwanese urban landscape – an ugly mess. Taiwan is beautiful, but its cityscapes, somehow both too dull and too colorful at the same time, are an acquired taste only true love could have eyes for. Indeed, on first arrival, a visitor might wonder why the exterior of almost every building seems to be plastered with what appear to be dirty bathroom tiles. 
I arrived at the corner of the second exit of Jiangzicui station ten minutes later at 6:00, where I met with a friend, Xiaoda.  
Plenty of my close friends had been anxious about my plans to circle the island on foot alone, but Xiaoda was the only one who had taken the initiative to feign interest in tagging along for the first few hours so that he could make sure I fared okay. 
“You brought a raincoat, right?” he asked in Mandarin, incredulous, but smiling. “Put it on.” 
“I’ll do it later,” I responded in like kind, yawning, though I did take off my socks and shoes and slip into my off-brand Crocs. 
I held out my phone. The rain had let up, and I would be relying on Google Maps to navigate from this point on. 
According to pointers I’d gathered from the on-foot island-circling (徒友) web community, the following places had the best potential as free lodging: 

Taoist and Buddhist temples 
Community centers 
Schools and universities 
Convenience stores 

Credit: Eric Stone

My plan would be to set my final destination for each day around a cluster of such places, then make rounds requesting permission either to set up a tent outside, or in the case of temples, churches, and community centers – maybe even to lay out a sleeping bag indoors. 
I wouldn’t have to worry about that this night, however, as another hospitable friend, Tian, had offered to put me up. She lived in the perfect location for a first stop, too: about 24 km (15 miles) west, in the middle of Taoyuan – the next city over. 
I plotted the shortest on-foot course for Tian’s house, and Xiaoda and I continued through Xinzhuang along a road called “Temple Street.” 

Temple Street: Xinzhuang

The smell of joss smoke was sweet in the humid morning air as we passed.  
True to its name, the street was lined with temples, among other traditional shops, stands, and restaurants. When I say temples, I mean Taoist temples – but don’t think Laozi and the Dao De Jing (道家); think folk religion (道教), with offerings, incense, and god idols on gilded thrones. 
Though each temple was unique, they fit a common mold:  
Their roofs curved down at the front and back, with orange lengths of what looked like ceramic bamboo running between rows of square tiles vertically, and ornate sculptures of green dragons, blue water torrents, red flames, and yellow-clothed figures prancing over their summits horizontally.  
Their front-facing walls and columns, too, tended toward intricacy, nearly every inch of most engraved with similar designs, usually in a stately coal-black or a blue-green like oxidized copper, though polished gray and red granite slabs made the occasional appearance as well. 
Finally, there were the outdoor “Heaven Palace” incense burners (朝天香) before the temples’ arched gateways, which looked like black or gold metal cauldrons with little roofs over them. Images of dragons or the faces of the mythical lion-like beast suanni (狻猊) were forged into their bodies, while detailed moldings of one or the other formed handles on either side of their fat bowls propped up like bellies over 3 or 4 cast beasts’ legs, brimming with ash pierced full of smoking joss sticks left by pious patrons. 
After praying briefly at a handful of the Heaven Palace burners on our side of the road – hands together, eyes closed, nodding slightly every now and then – Xiaoda and I stopped for breakfast on the street at a sesame noodle place at around 9:30.  
The kitchen or at least the appliances for one was out on the street arcade, where the owner took our order like a roadside vendor. Behind him, wood-panel sliding doors with wiry carved designs over opaque windows of Japanese design opened up to a brick-walled sit-down dining area with just a handful of wooden tables with stools, and a karaoke machine that played a decade-or-more old Japanese music video unattended. Beyond the eating area, the restaurant led directly into the owner’s living room, which was decorated more quaintly, and lit dimly in a way that said no one was home. 
We were the only customers. It took the elderly owner and his wife about 20 minutes to get Xiaoda and I our orders, though we finished in short time, nevertheless, speaking little as we scooped up our sauce-drizzled noodles from metal bowls that clanged against our steel chopsticks. 

The City Limits: Shulin

Xiaoda and I set off again at just before noon, making our way to the edge of New Taipei City, past the Huilong metro station and toward the more rural routes that would take us to Taoyuan.  
Before exiting the city, we stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom and ran into a middle-aged couple filling up their scooter who’d apparently guessed what we were up to from my bulky, reflective pack. 
They offered useful advice, giving us a link to a Facebook group for on-foot circlers and suggesting that we post about our journey in case strangers may want to offer us their couches. I wouldn’t consider this just yet, however, as my phobia of being murdered no doubt born of the American slasher films popular during my childhood made the idea of sleeping at a stranger’s house even less appealing than pitching a tent in a cemetery. 
The sky and temperature changed little with the coming of noon as Xiaoda and I then made for the highway. Immediately, we were met with a fork, and we chose the no-semi truck road, Xiaoda noting that it would be safer given how slim the shoulder was: about a foot wide, with just 3 or 4 feet more of a margin where there was level grass or concrete by the street. 
Soon after, we came across a square concrete sitting area next to the road and sat down to try out the snacks I’d brought. As we ate wasabi peas and crackers, in retrospect an obvious recipe for thirst, it dawned on us that the rations I’d brought weren’t worth their weight. 

Downtown: Taoyuan

Finally, we arrived in downtown Taoyuan several hours ahead of schedule at around 1 p.m, then at Tian’s family’s apartment building soon thereafter. I handed my gear over to the doorman, and Xiaoda wished me good luck and departed for the bus station to go home to his wife. 
Tian wouldn’t be off work until 7 p.m., however, and so there was nothing left for me to do for the next few hours after my long on-foot journey but to, well, go for a walk. 
Like the area around my home – and pretty much everywhere else in Taiwan – Taoyuan’s cityscape was bathroom tile-chic.  
To one side stood a line of flats (透天厝) covered with thumb-sized rectangular tiles in a bombastic 1970s olive, and shaded in grimy black around corners and edges, as though the whole building had been shoved up a chimney. Within it, shops sat under three stories of residences, thin vertical sign boards punctuating each flat with dissonant designs bold red text on yellow; curly black text on a blue-and-white gradient; and so on. Their barred windows were the last straw, from chrome utilitarian crosshatches to adjacent black gothic stakes. 
A once-white (now under a film of gray) building sat jammed between identical olive ones like a blemish, its square tiles so much like a public lavatory that it seemed intentional, with streaks of mildew completing the effect. Then came another white one, with glossy 1x1-inch square tiles; then a building with dull terracotta tiles that looked like vertically-laid bricks. 
All of this I observed from the small arcades before those storefronts and under those residences. On the streets in front of them, scooters were lined up chassis-to-chassis, 3 to every 2 parking spaces. I was only lucky they didn’t encroach on the arcade itself, squeezing me and other pedestrians into a one-lane walkway between shop windows and tailpipes, as they so often did in other areas. Still, occasional sidewalk vendors guaranteed one could never walk unobstructed for too long, as they turned what would be salty ocean breezes into greasy cooking smoke. 
Chaotic as it all was, these were the defining markers of this place I’d grown to love and call home. Every defect was familiar and friendly, and so I breathed in the smoke welcomingly, knowing I’d miss its smell were I ever deprived of it (though I still cursed the scooters when they tripped my gait). 
After a short time wandering, I followed one such waft to a braising restaurant (滷味店) to stop for dinner. Companionless for the first time, I felt lonely as I listened to the restaurant staff chat and joke boisterously among themselves, the rest of the place empty save for my invisible corner. 
It was there that I ended up waiting out the rest of the day until I got Tian’s “almost home” text at around 7 p.m., after which time I returned to her lobby to meet up. After I took my stuff upstairs and waited for her to finish her phone calls, Spongebob picked us up at 8:30 and drove us to see Ji Gong. 

Ji Gong’s Temple

The outing had been scheduled specially for my arrival, as Tian had a keen sense of my love of authentic Taiwanese culture and desire to fit in, and enjoyed introducing me to “local” things she thought I might take interest in. Folk religion aside, this also included things like independent films, soap operas (八點檔), and Taiwanese-language indie bands. 
As we arrived, however, I saw only residential flats. Spongebob parked the car in a nearby parking lot, and we followed her to one as unassuming as any other and entered. To my surprise, inside was a flawless temple interior.  
From the stairwell, we climbed to the third floor; shoved one or two pink 100-yuan bills (about US $3.00) into a wooden offering box each; then extracted joss sticks from a cabinet, lighting them and sticking them into the ash of an incense burner on the balcony. 
Finally, we made our way to the depths of the room, toward a small wooden table where the Ji Gong channeler’s aunty-aged (in her 50s or 60s) mentor (姐) gave us each a yellow slip of paper to write out our questions and identifying information names, birthdays, and addresses the better to let the god know who He was talking to. By the time we’d finished writing, we were the only patrons left. 
Tian went first. She was very thin, fair-skinned, and exuded an aura of frailty. Tian tended to attribute her feelings of unwellness, whether physical or psychological, to ghosts and deceased ancestors with grievances and this likewise wasn’t her first parlay with a medium. 
On this occasion, she asked about her love life, and the channeler gave her approximations for when she would get married, how many kids she would have, and reminded her that the guy she'd been seeing was a dead end. 
Much of what the medium said was in Taiwanese a common trope among Ji Gong channelers and her mentor translated what she said into Mandarin with supplemental explanations whenever Tian couldn’t understand, as she, like many Taiwanese folks our age (especially up north), spoke little of the older generation’s native tongue. 
Next was Spongebob, who was arguably even more superstitious than Tian. She believed herself to be able to be sensitive to the supernatural (敏感) something not uncommon among Taiwanese folks and seemed quick to attribute everyday noises (Ex: a sound recorded on her phone) to paranormal phenomena. Sitting in the car with the two on the way over had felt a bit like a parody of the show Ghost Hunters. 
Despite this, Spongebob spoke to the channeler less like she was talking to Ji Gong and more like she was talking to the friend channeling Him. Here, it was she who played the role of the irreverent pilgrim while Ji Gong rolled His eyes in exasperation and explained, increasingly in Mandarin, that she shouldn’t be asking a god for comebacks for her boss. 
Finally, it was my turn. Though skeptical, I was eager to be respectful and non-judgemental. 
The god spoke to me through the girl in what sounded like an artificially deepened voice: “Tsi̍t ê tuā lâng tuā tsíng ê lâng, siá ê jī nà ê tsiá nī suè?” 
Though flattered at being spoken to in fluent Taiwanese, this was a gaping hole in my “local-ness” which had only gotten wider since I’d moved north from Taichung to Taipei. I turned to Spongebob and Tian, who scrambled to piece together their knowledge of Taiwanese and translate to Mandarin. 
“He asked why a grown man writes so small.” 
I apologized for my unseemly handwriting though I’d been writing in Traditional Chinese for as long as I’d been speaking the language, my sloppy characters were often laughingly compared to a school child’s (though the same could be said about my handwriting in English). 
I proceeded to ask about the journey around the island ahead of me. After confirming all the information on my paper line by line, the god told me simply to watch out for pickpockets around Kaohsiung. 
Feeling this anticlimactic, I went on to ask about my love life. Unlike Xiaoda, my single-hood had persisted with no end in sight. Ji Gong told me I’d meet my wife in a couple of years, at 30; get married the next year; and eventually have three kids – at least this was in the cards for me if that’s what I wanted, He emphasized. 
At that, the channeler was released from her trance. She retired to a back room, then came out with a bowl of candy (possibly temple offerings) and shared it with us as we all chatted and played with her pet turtle, who lived near the incense burner in a little pool on the balcony. After some time, Spongebob turned the conversation to the subject of Ji Gong, and told the channeler everything the god had said to her (the implication that she’d been unaware while possessed) while the latter gave her two cents about what He might have meant. 
Finally, at close to 11:00 p.m., we said our goodbyes, and Spongebob returned Tian and I to her apartment, where I settled in at her small at-home work studio (Tian was a freelance make-up artist) for bed. 
The day at its end, I checked my progress, corroborating my route on Google Maps with a tracking app that I’d downloaded before setting off: Day One 24.6 kilometers (15.2 miles); 5 hours and 51 minutes of walking; an estimated 35,480 steps taken and 1,253 calories burned.

Almost midnight now, it was time to sleep. I tossed and turned on the massage table shaped like an oversized ironing board that Tian had laid covers over for me as a bed. My waist ached painfully over the unyielding surface likely because I’d tightened the straps on my hiking pack to put less weight on my shoulders and more on my hips. Still, I knew my sleeplessness wasn’t due to bodily discomfort, but adrenaline.

Soon, I would be all alone in unfamiliar territory: fields, forests, mountains, or highways – the countryside, a rural town, an urban strip, or an industrial park. At the end of the next day’s journey, I’d have no way of knowing where I might lay my head, how safe I would be there, or whether or not I would be disturbed, and in what way and far beyond the prospect of soreness and hunger, that frightened me.

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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)

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