Going to school seemed pointless to 19-year-old Chan Chiu-sheung. He was a science student at Chinese University, and while many would envy his degree, Chan just didn't think it was right for him. He applied to transfer to urban studies, but a low score meant the new faculty would not accept him. He felt like he was stuck doing a course he didn't want to be doing.
So, like Reese Witherspoon in the Oscar-nominated film Wild, Chan decided to go on a hike of self-discovery. He decided to trek a full circle around Taiwan - about 1,200km in total - in 42 days. "I'd been to Taiwan six times before, and I can speak Putonghua, so I felt quite safe," he tells Young Post.
He had wanted to travel alone, but he soon realised that the company of friendly locals and fellow hikers was what made his experience so meaningful.
Laying out an old map on the table, Chan traces his route. His finger stops at different places as he recalls the people he met.
"I began my hike in Taichung, and I hadn't even been hiking for two days when I met my first host in a corner shop," he says. "She was inspired by my goal and wanted her eight-year-old son to hike, too. So I took him along with me for a bit."
Walking with a child who often complained was a pain. Chan had to change his pace and arrange for the parents to pick him up again afterwards. But although things weren't going according to plan, he realised he could take a leaf out of the child's book. "I admired how he was willing to accept his mother's challenge in exchange for a little pocket money or 15 minutes on a mobile phone. Life can be quite simple," he says. Chan was inspired by the boy's ability to see something through to the end.
Chan had planned to camp in a tent throughout the trip to save money, but decided to leave the heavy gear at a friend's house so that he wasn't weighed down.
At first, Chan was really worried about having to rely on other people to help him with food and accommodation. But soon he realised it wasn't a problem at all.
Taking advice from a Facebook group, Chan stuck a sign to his backpack saying he was a Hongkonger hiking around Taiwan. Sometimes, locals would invite Chan for a meal. They were interested in learning about Hong Kong. Mostly they wanted to know how much tuition costs, and the size of the average home. "When we ate together they asked me if I understood the menu. They think we read simplified Chinese because we're part of China," says Chan.
Another time, a lady gave him three rice dumplings that were so big he couldn't finish them. He didn't want to turn down offers of help though, so Chan covered up the sign with his rain cover when he didn't need food or water. He also walked in the opposite direction to the traffic to avoid hitchhiking offers.
While getting help wasn't a problem, Chan was tempted to give up his hike when a hostel owner in southeast Taiwan's Kangtsai village questioned the purpose of just walking in a circle around the island.
The owner shared his own story of how he had hiked around Taiwan four years ago, but decided to stop there to open a hostel and spend his time helping the poor local children because it was more meaningful.
"I was stumped," recalls Chan. "I was seriously questioning whether it was worth completing the hike or if I should stay in Kangtsai. Perhaps it was more important to help others."
Three of the seven guests chose to stay on at the hostel after hearing the owner's story, but Chan eventually decided to continue with his hike. It was something he felt he had to finish. "I'm still young, and there'll be more time to experience other things," he explains.
And suddenly, he realised this was the same with school. Studying science may not have been his plan, but Chan was hopeful that things would turn out okay. "I had renewed enthusiasm for starting school again. After all, I told myself, it's just four years."
Next, he plans to bike to Tibet from Chengdu, in Sichuan province. But before that, he wants to do another trip around Taiwan, this time on a bike. "I budgeted HK$12,000, and only ended up spending HK$8,700, so I might as well go again."