Taipei (Pt. 1)
We arrived with plans of meeting up with a close friend from Portland who, coincidentally, was in Taiwan 1 week prior for work. Eric and his fiancé Blaise toured Taipei before we arrived thus Eric had some good pointers for us once meeting up. Taipei is a funny city that has quirks similar to Portland. The city is broken up into neighborhoods and each neighborhood has something to offer. The city also caters towards foodies, hipster, streetwear fashion, art culture, and hiking or hot springs are easily accessible with just a metro ride away. We found a craft brewery decorated with reclaimed distressed wood that felt like it was straight out of the Pacific Northwest with a beer menu offering IPAs, stouts, and an attempt at sours. We thought it was pretty funny that they proudly offered Kirkland signature nut mix as a snack on the food menu. Apparently, Kirkland is a hot brand out here. The brewery is located near the Guanghua Digital Plaza - a nerd’s paradise - so Dan and Lander went to nerd town while Rachael found a Boba Tea shop, feeding her newly discovered addiction for bubble tea.
We went on a little hike up Elephant Mountain for a great view of Taipei 101 and found an organized and respectful selfie line at the prime photo op spot. Selfie culture is just as big as it was in India but Taiwanese people are more respectful and take turns taking selfies. Lander also believes we were jaded by our experience in North India. We thought Taipei was the cleanest and most organized city we had been to on our travels while Lander noticed the pollution, loud traffic and waste problems not addressed. Either way, we fell in love with Taipei.
The next day, Eric had to catch a plane back to reality so we had one more day to explore the city before we move to our next destination. Taiwan has unique characteristics that we weren’t expecting. For example, claw machine is a big attraction everywhere. There are shops in every city we went to that were solely dedicated to claw machine used by majority of adults and sometimes children. Claw machines would be full of random items from knock off men’s underwear to anime figurines. We noticed anime figurines and plushies are also a big business as they have stores and even outlet stores dedicated to selling just figurines and plushies. Instead of Starbucks and coffee shops on every block, Taiwan has Boba Tea shops, which Rachael visited frequently. Before wandering the Shilin night market, we paid a visit to a very unique restaurant named the Modern Toilet Restaurant. Our inner children were enthralled with this weird idea for a restaurant. While exploring Shilin Market, we noticed a group of tourists hovering around taking selfies of what we thought was a street performance. Nope, it was a guy baking a large sheet cake. Chefs here are treated like rockstars with the amount of attention they get and large billboard spreads of them doing their craft. And the list goes on. With all Taipei’s quirks, we knew we didn’t spend enough time, so we decided to come back for a couple nights at the end of our Taiwan trip.
We took a regular train from Taipei to Kaohsiung. Taiwan has an amazing, efficient railway system. Again, we couldn’t get over how people willingly formed lines in the designated areas before boarding the train. From Taipei to Kaohsiung, there were two options; the regular train (TRA) and the high speed rail (HSR). The TRA took about 5 hours to get to Kaohsiung however the HSR would have only been 2.5 hours. The TRA was half the cost of the HSR and our budget only allowed for a TRA experience, so no high speed train for us. It’s easy to catch a train almost anywhere around the island.
Once in Kaohsiung, we caught their local MRT to our hotel. Our hotel was near a river called the “Love River” which made a perfect sunset walk. At night, the esplanade around Love River turns into an arts night market where local artists sell their kitchy trinkets. We’ve dubbed Taiwan culture as cute as almost everything tends to lean to the cute side, even the garbage trucks that plays ice cream man music to inform people to bring out their trash. For example, there was an artist that sold only drawings and paintings of Shiba Inus. Of course, the market also had Rockstar chefs and everyone wanted photos of them too.
The purpose of going to Kaohsiung was to use it as a home base while we adventure to Lambai Island, an island that was supposed to be a 45 min scooter ride to the island ferry and offer great snorkeling with sea turtles. The majority of Taiwan is efficient and easy to figure out, however getting to Lambai Island by scooter was longer and more expensive than we thought. The second option was taking a bus then ferry but was surprisingly tricky to figure out the bus system and would have taken over an hour to get there. We got a later start so we opted to do a local tour of Cijin Island by bike right off the coast of Kaohsiung harbor, a great plan B. The island had beautiful views, history involving Japanese bunkers, and local parks with weird artsy sculptures that included selfie stations. The tour ended at a beach with sunset views where we witnessed a wedding engagement photoshoot almost get destroyed by a dude learning to kite surf and his sail crashing down in the middle of their photoshoot.
Hualien and Taroko Gorge
We boarded a TRA from Kaohsiung to Hualien that dips to the south end of the island and follows the west coast up to Hualien. The train ride was beautiful and displayed more of Taiwan’s natural beauty, something we were learning more and more about and accepted that we must return to explore more. When we arrived at Hualien, we found where all the foreign tourists were as Hualien is a hub for exploring Taroko Gorge and outside adventures.
After checking into our hotel (which dubbed itself “Bed and Beers”), we found the local night market that included Rockstar chefs, carnival games, kitchy shops, fashion forward boutiques, and local music. It also had “aboriginal cuisine” from tribes in Taroko Gorge however it primarily involved sausages that we couldn’t tell the difference why it was considered “aboriginal”… just tasted like a regular sausage.
The next day, Rachael heard of these cliffs within the national park that you can drive to called the Quingshui Cliffs. She watched a Youtube video that showed a guy walking to the cliffs through a tunnel on the main highway. However, when we arrived at the train stop, there was no shoulder on the road and there were big trucks and buses speeding down windy roads close to cliff edges. We opted for a beach walk instead and took photos of the gorgeous green Quingshui Cliffs against the turquoise ocean from afar. Taroko Gorge used to be coral, but over time transformed to limestone, then to marble, making Taiwan a rich source of marble. We found the pebbled beach quite beautiful with all the marble rocks. Rachael, a regular rock collector, was really missing her rock tumbler. The coastline hugs the green steep hillsides of Taroko Gorge and the weather was overcast so the scenery looked a lot like the Pacific Northwest in the U.S., just 20 degrees warmer, and much more picturesque water colors.
The following day we opted to take a bus into Taroko Gorge. We found an outfitter that rents camping gear thus we wanted to scout out campsites as well as get a hike. Inside Taroko Gorge is phenomenal to say the least. Lush green gorge walls, beautiful untouched marble carved out by the clean, blue Liwa river, temples dotting the hillsides, and plenty of tunnels that were very dangerous to build. There are multiple memorials throughout the park dedicated to over 200 lives lost in the building of the tunnels and the Cross Island Highway. We were thankful for the work they did so we could experience the gorge. We found a free campground that had nobody camping so we agreed the next day we would rent camping gear and return on a scooter, a packing task that seemed a bit daunting considering the amount of scooter space.
We were told we would need an International Drivers License to rent a scooter but there may be scooter rental agencies that bend the rules. We walked up to the first scooter rental agent who immediately offered us a scooter without asking for our licenses. We were also told to not pay more than $400NT and luckily this agent named the right price. We reserved the scooter, rental gear, and worked out a place to store our luggage while we camped for the next two nights.
We fit two people, a backpacking pack, a day pack, 2 accordion sleeping pads, and all the food on one 125cc scooter. The 3 months traveling prior to Taiwan must have taught us a thing or two about Tetris-ing our gear together. The ride took about 45 minutes that bent and curved against the gorge walls, through tunnels and single lane roads that ended with a deserted campsite and enough time for a 5 mile hike to a hot springs.
Taroko Gorge is a well maintained park with trail markers, permitting system, safety railings, and info plaques on every trail. We did the Lushui - Wenshan hike from our campsite that gave an estimated duration of 5 hours to hike. We packed accordingly but noticed we were traveling much faster than the posted time. The trail was more like a jungled obstacle course, regardless we finished the trail in 2.5 hours. We later noticed that locals tend to walk incredibly slow so maybe the sign postings are intended for slow walkers.
The trail ended at a “closed” hot spring, one of which is situated in a small cave close to the shore of the river. We heard many people, including locals, scoot around the fence and head down to the river where there are 3 hot springs pool that feed into the river. This is one of the only spots you can get down to the river. Taroko Gorge National Park does not own the river thus all the trails are well protected above the river looking down. We got bridge leading to the ‘closed’ barricade and found one local man taking photos of the hot spring from behind the fence. We came to find out that he was the equivalent of a park ranger and escorts us out of the hot spring area. As we are leaving, we notice people getting out of their cars with towels and intentions of sneaking down the hot springs. They walk right by us and the ranger doesn’t bat an eye. Just our luck.
The following day we opted for a tour of Taroko Gorge by scooter with a few short hikes. Our favorite hikes involved hiking through pitch black tunnels that led to wide slot canyons where swallows nest, beautiful elaborate temples, and a bell tower on top of a gorge wall dedicated to all the lives lost in the building of the roads. Every time you ring the bell, the sound echos through the gorge and it is thought it soothes the spirits of the deceased. We shared the trail with several bus loads of Taiwanese tourists thus we had to duck and weave around several selfie sticks.
Our last day in Taroko Gorge involved a hike that re-opened that day. The Baiylang Trail leads to the Water Curtain, a tunnel that unintentionally exposed underground springs during the building process, creating a cascading wall of water you can walk through. At the entrance of the Water Curtain tunnel, many tourists were taking off shoes and putting disposable ponchos on while we just walked through with our rainshells and hiking boots. The entrance was pitch black with light reflected water falling from the ceiling and led to an opening looking out over the gorge to its natural beauty. Due to the trail just opening, we shared the wet tunnel with several Taiwanese tourists taking selfies in pitch black in their colorful plastic ponchos doing funny poses, which is exactly as hilarious as it sounds.
After the hike, we packed up camp, Tetris-ed back onto our scooter, and headed back to Hualien. We dropped off the camping gear but kept the scooter till the next day. Unbeknownst to us, we came back to a festival in Hualien that we are still trying to figure out what they were celebrating. Picture a red carpet fashion show with costumes 15-18ft high, elaborate human-powered carriages carrying doll figurines of what we think was Confucius with small fireworks coming out of the back, and a tribute alter at the end of the red carpet where the people in costumes payed tribute by dance battling in front of other Confucius dolls. We love Taiwan.
We ended our trip in Hualien by paying a visit to the karaoke boxes. Yes. A glass box, with the only purpose of singing your heart out with a headset and microphones for each person. We found this karaoke box tucked in the back of one of the claw machine stores. The claw machine store was completely empty when we started our 2 songs. When we left, it was full of adult men at around 9:30pm.
The next morning we returned the scooter and boarded a TRA back to Taipei.
Taipei (pt 2)
We opted for an AirBnb next to Shilin market. The market has great street food and the AirBnb had a fridge and hot water pot so we thought we could save money by having breakfast in the AirBnb and street food at night. Dan also had a splinter stuck in his eyeball since Nepal and was unable to remove it nor attend a hospital until now. We dropped into one of the local health clinics and learned how socialist healthcare can truly prosper. Initially, the doctor referred to the splinter as an ‘organism’, a slightly unsettling word to use for something that had been hanging out in his eye for over a month. Ultimately, the doctor decided it was actually a ‘foreign object’.
With no insurance, Dan saw a doctor who did not have the right tools to remove the splinter so he referred him to a local eye doctor 5 blocks away. The specialist eye doc had the right tools to look at the eye and splinter. We thought he had a special tool for removing foreign objects from eyes but he pulled out a hypodermic needle and said in broken English “now hold still”. The dude must have removed several foreign objects from eyes using a hypodermic needle before because it was like second nature; within a split second the foreign object was out of Dan’s eye and no additional damage incurred. He prescribed ointment for the eye to heal. The total cost of the initial general doctor, the specialty eye doctor, and the prescribed eye medication was $30usd without insurance. Dan also only had to wait 15 minutes at most.
The following day, we met up with old Northern Arizona Friends, Mary and Miranda. Mary has been living in Taiwan around 10 years. She started her own cupcake business in Tainen, sold it, and currently living in Taipei. Miranda was visiting from China where she runs her own business helping college students. Both incredibly impressive people. Mary drove us to a local town Jiufen on the NE coast of Taiwan about 45 minutes away from Taipei. The town is known for its cute narrow alleys with shops. The animated film “Spirited Away” designed the scenery based on Jiufen. The shops were geared towards tourists, of course, including ocarina stores (not just one but two different ocarina stores), cat costume stores, and tea shops. Miranda was touring with her boyfriend and their buddy with dual citizenship from China/USA but lives in Taiwan. Both Miranda’s boyfriend and their buddy area also entrepreneurs either running successful businesses or about to begin their next business. We come to find out it’s easier to start businesses in Taiwan and China than the U.S. We were seriously impressed (dare we say, inspired) by what these people had accomplished professionally in a foreign country.
Our last day involved meeting up with a friend of a friend before we left for the airport. Chris has been living in Taiwan for 4 years. He runs an online teaching business as well as attends graduate school in Taipei. We believed it would be expensive to go to school outside the U.S. thinking one would have to pay foreign student prices. However, Chris not only has his entire tuition covered but also gets a stipend for living expenses that is more than what he is utilizing. Rachael, who is currently exploring options for new career paths, did a quick Google search based on what Chris told us and found several programs in Taiwan that are taught in English with tuition wavers. Some programs include arts and creative pursuits, which is where her heart lies.
Taiwan surprised us. We chose Taiwan on a whim based on friends’ recommendations and lower costs to go to Taiwan vs. Hong Kong before heading to visit a friend on Saipan. We discovered a hidden love for the country. We felt at home and inspired by the culture, people, and our friends’ pursuits in education and business. We also learned Taiwan is a destination to earn and save money as cost of living is low and easy to find work for English first language speakers. We felt at home in the quirky culture and the ease of Taiwan’s transportation system makes it easy to escape the city for outdoor adventures. As we say goodbye, we are considering a return after our travels for Rach to attend grad school and Dan to replenish their savings.
~Dan and Rach
P.S. Wanna see more of Taiwan? See Rachael Lip Synch to Little Mermaid while prancing around taiwan!