An Island nation in the Pacific Ocean (Week 1)
Our next travel journey took us to Taiwan. Taiwan is probably the most forward thinking country within Asia in term of equal rights. Recently a bill for same sex marriage has been put forward to be legalised, making it the first country in Asia to legalise same sex marriage and is ground breaking. I do hope other countries in Asia will follow suite in order to create a more accepting and tolerant society. Although Taiwan has been self governed for a long time now, it is still not officially recognised as a country, internationally, due to external political issues. However, the reasons behind this issue is too complex to be discussed on this post.
The original plan for us was to loop Taiwan, clockwise beginning and ending in Taipei within 2 weeks. However, we had a change of heart as this was our first trip to Taiwan and the roundtrip within 2 weeks was far too much traveling to enjoy and experience Taiwan. The new travel plans will take us from Taipei > Hualien > Taichung > Sun Moon Lake > Taipei, which is illustrated in the map below.
Travelling around Taiwan is not difficult at all and we did most of our journeying on trains except for a few bus trips. Here are some of the highlights of our trip to Taiwan. One thing to take note regarding the trains is that if you are travelling on the weekends do book your tickets early, online or in person, to get reserved seating.
Taipei is the capital city of Taiwan and is located on the Northern coast of the country. We landed into Touyuan International airport which is located roughly 24miles west of Taipei city. Getting from Touyuan Airport to Taipei was a breeze due the new Airport MRT. Just purchase a tap on/off card after you clear immigration. The card itself cost $100NT (about £2.52) and you could put as little or as much value on the card as you want. Since we were going to be in Taiwan for 2 weeks, we decided to follow the recommendation of the staff at the airport and topped up $900NT each. The card can be used on metros, trains, buses, supermarkets and even some food establishments.
The Airport MRT took us directly to Taipei main station and from there we took the metro to Fuhong, located in New Taipei City, where we stayed for 3 nights. We knew that we needed more that 3 days to explore Taipei so the plans was to stay in Taipei for a further 3 night when we return from Sun Moon Lake.
Taipei has lots to offer in terms of history, architecture, food, shopping and the wide array of night markets. During our trip, we manage to stumble upon the Presidential office building and to our surprise it offered free tours. I must say that that the tour was very insightful giving an in depth account of Taiwanese history. When you visit Taipei 101, there are lots of blogs on the internet advising a visit to the Starbucks on the 35th floor, as a visit to the observation deck cost a shocking $500NT. Sorry to be the barer of bad news, but you can no longer just go up to the Starbucks of the 35th floor and need to make a reservation at least a couple of days in advance. You are also required to buy a drink and can only remain there for a limited period of time.
While in Taipei, we visited both Sun Yet Sen and Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. The grounds of the Chaing Kai Shek Memorial were really grand. Within the Memorial grounds you will also find the National Concert Hall and National Theatre. At both Memorials you can watch the changing of guards that takes place a number of times per day.
Although Taipei had loads to see and do, we decided to take a day trip out of Taipei to visit other nearby towns. At a cost of $500NT per person, the trip took us to Houtong, Jiufen and Shifen. Houtong is known as the cat village of Taiwan. It use to be an old mining village but after mining concluded, the town needed to rebrand itself. The decision was made to turn it into a cat village ensuring all cats within the villiage are protected and they have become mascots of the village. The whole village is decorated with cats and even the train station is shaped like a cat. No one owns the cats but the villagers take it upon themselves to look after the cats collectively.
Jiufen is a town on Keelung mountain founded in the Qing Dynasty. The town is known for its narrow alleyways within the old town and full of tea houses, restaurants, street food stores. The most famous tea house is A-Mei tea house. Visitors can enjoy tea and finger food on the patio while enjoying the view. The tea house was made famous after being in a number of Asian movies.
The last stop of the trip took us to Shifen located in the Pingxi area. This village is a collective of streets and alleys surrounding Shifen train station. An annual Sky Latern festival takes place every year at Shifen. However, visitors are still drawn to Shifen out with the Festival to release sky lanterns. Inviduals of groups can write personal well wishes on the sky latern and set it into the sky. It's believed that the higher the sky lanterns fly the more likely your wishes will come true.
After our 3 day jam packed trip to Taipei, we continued our journey to the city of Hualien. We only booked out train tickets to Hualien 2 days before our planned departure and there were no issues In getting reserved seating (tickets cost $360NT one way per person).
As there were no high speed rail on the East coast of Taiwan, the journey from Taipei to Hualien took slightly more than 3 hours. Hualien county is the largest county in Taiwan and has the largest concentration of Taiwan's aboriginal tribes such as Ami, Atayal, Bunun, Turku, Sakizaya and Kavalanthey of whom roughly make up 27.5% of the population of Hualien County. The cultures of the aboriginal tribes are also well preserved due to the late development of Hualien compared to other counties.
We stayed in Hualien city itself for 3 nights but also booked a full day tour to visit Taroko National Park. The National Park was established in 1986 as part of an environmental protection movement. Taroko National Park is filled with marble canyons, an abundance of flora and fauna as well as beautiful mountain landscapes. During the tour we visited Taroko Gorge; Qingshui Cliffs; Eternal spring shrine; Taroko bell tower; Swallow grotto; Changguang temple, Baiyan waterfall; Buluowan tribal Villiage and Nanbin Beach. We paid $540NT per person for the tour but it was well worth it, if you are pressed for time, do not wish to rent your own transport or don't feel confident driving through the mountainous terrain.
Hualien city itself has loads to offer such as the Dondaman Night Market, where you will find a mix of street food, amusement game stores and souvenirs shops. You could also enjoy some live music while you grab a bite to eat. If you would like to try something unique to Hualien, I would recommend that you try Gongzheng Boazi located at 199-2 Zhongshan Road. They serve some really tasty pork filled steam buns at $5NT each. All the buns are made fresh daily and they never seem to stop making them.
Hualien is very much a walking city and it was refreshing to walk along the beach front and explore Hualien Cultural and Creative Industry Park where you find local artist selling their products and performing. It's an interesting place to chill and gain an appreciation for the local art scene. After taking long walks you could always quench your thirst by having a mango shaved ice. I don't have a photo to show you what it is as it is so good that we tend to get stuck in before thinking about photos! Mango shaved ice is readily found across Taiwan and do take my word for it that it's tasty and refreshing.
As we were leaving for Taichung on a Sunday, we made the mistake of not booking our train tickets online early and only tried to get them 3 days before travelling, when we arrived in Hualien. The train journey from Hualien to Taichung took about 6+ hours and we only managed to get standing tickets which still cost $620NT- the same price as a reserved seating ticket. Over the course of the journey we had to play a cat and mouse game and take a seat when it was empty until someone came along to claim their reserve seat. Then we tried to look for another empty seat. By the time we got to Taichung we were ready to crash after standing for more than half the journey. So be warned- if you decide to travel on the weekends by train, while visiting Taiwan, do remember to book your tickets early unless you are willing to stand for most of your journey.
That it it for the first week of our travels in Taiwan- stay tuned for the second part of our journey where we travelled to Taichung and on to Sun Moon Lake before returning to Taipei.