Where: Taiwan, in particular Taipei, Hualien and Taroko Gorge.
When: July 2011.
Why: Jeff and I had a week’s holiday in Taiwan whilst I was staying with him in South Korea.
Taiwan is lush. There’s a reason the Portuguese named it Formosa, which means beautiful – as it is. Taiwan positively pulses with life. There’s jungle and hot springs, rivers and wild seas, birds and bats and animals and insects, earthquakes and cloud factories. This is a land which is alive!
And the people we met were friendly, fun, individual and spoke amazing English. I was welcomed into the country by a smiling immigration officer, and pretty much everywhere we went people did what they could to help us.
Taipei is a great city – but Taiwan is not just Taipei and if you do visit I highly recommend that you get out of the city. Head to the volcanoes or the hot springs, or one of the Portuguese fort towns, or travel along the wild east cost, as we did. Pop to the natural splendour of Taroko Gorge or Sun Moon Lake; visit the Tropic of Cancer; go on the beach; visit the islands. There is so much to do here that you could spend weeks, months, even years exploring the nooks and crannies of this luscious land.
Most people know Taiwan as a Chinese political pawn – what they don’t usually know is that it is a stunningly beautiful place. You can understand why they fight over this jewel. We couldn’t believe that Taiwan isn’t known as a holiday destination, as it has everything you need for a wonderful holiday: beaches, shopping, culture, a good transport system which is easy to navigate, a funky capital. It’s just a wonderful place and I recommend that everyone should go.
We flew to Taiwan from Busan with Air Busan. Air Busan are a low-cost carrier, based in Busan, South Korea. The return flights cost about £170 each and the flight time was about two hours.
Taoyuan International Airport to Taipei Main Station
Getting from TIA (Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport) to the main station in Taipei was really easy. We just caught a direct bus. However, since our visit it has gotten even easier to get to downtown Taipei as there is now a direct Metro service.
The Taoyuan Airport MRT runs direct to Taipei main train station and it takes 40 to 50 minutes to get there. Tickets currently (Dec 2017) cost 115NTL (£2.80). The Taiwan International Airport website has extensive information about this metro line, including information about the other stops on this line, times and up to date prices.
If, however, you would prefer to get the bus, it is really easy to do. We followed the signs for bus, which led us to the express bus ticket desks. Kuo-Kuang Motor Company ran our bus to Taipei city station. Our tickets cost us 125 NTL (about £3) each and the journey took us about an hour.
The express bus back to TIA from the central station, departed from the Taipei West A bus station, not the main bus station. Both are right next to the central train station, so this can get a little confusing.
The Taiwan International Airport website has information on buses, times and prices in English.
We caught the train from Taipei central station to Hualien, which is a large town on the east coast, close to Taroko Gorge. We caught a slow train there, which took us three and a half hours. Coming back, we caught the express train, which didn’t stop and which only took two and a half hours. The cost each way was 350NTD each (about £7).
As we were travelling to Hualien on a Sunday afternoon/evening, which is when trains are usually most busy, we tried to book the train tickets in advance, online. We found the booking system to be incredibly complicated, but we did work it out in the end. We even got as far as the payment page before my bank said ‘hang on, why are you spending money in Taiwan?’
What we found with the online booking system, is that it makes a reservation on a train, even if you are just making an enquiry about availability. This then blocks off that seat, and so the trains fill up and it says there is no availability – even if there really is. All of the trains we looked at online said they were full on the day we wanted – so we decided to wait till we got to Taiwan to buy our tickets.
But, I’m kind of glad we failed to book the tickets in advance, as we found it much easier to book the train tickets at the station. There were guides at the station to direct us to the right window, everyone spoke English, and the tickets were cheaper as there was no booking fee.
Incidentally, Taipei station (see above) looks like a scary, communist concrete block from outside, but inside, upstairs, it has the most amazing food hall with every type of food you can imagine. We had Nepalese curry and it was delicious.
The train journey from Taipei to Hualien is one of the most gorgeous train journeys in the world. You travel along the east coast, through tunnels, past beaches, along soaring cliffs, through mountains and valleys.
Luckily we had reserved seats, as the train was very crowded at first, full of people standing in the aisles. There was a refreshment cart on the train.
You can get train times and prices (in English), and maybe even book tickets now, from the Taiwan Railway Administration website. This is a really good website and is very easy to navigate. If you select Taipei as your start station, it will list services that start at other stations in the region; but if you click on the train number in the results list, this will show you every stop, so you can see if it stops at Taipei’s main train station. Also, if you have a look at the Station Timetable, northth bound (their misspelling, not mine) – then you can get up to date train times for the Hualien line.
Getting around Taipei
Taipei has a great metro system (the MRT) that is easy to navigate. The trains and stations are clean and spacious. They even have queuing lanes to make boarding more efficient. Tickets/tokens are preposterously cheap, and if you are there for a few days you can get an oyster style, pre-paid travel card.
You can find a map, timetables and ticket prices (in English) at the Metro Taipei website.
Taipei also has a good bus network and we used this too. Each journey was 15NTD (about 30p). Sometimes you pay when you get on the bus, sometimes you pay when you get off the bus, sometimes you pay when you get on and when you get off the bus. It sounds really complicated, but actually, you just copy what everyone else on the bus is doing.
You can download route maps, use a trip planner or search bus routes at ebus.gov.taipei.
Taiwan seemed to be very keen to promote cycling on the island when we were there and so they are slowly introducing bike trails. Not being too big, I think it could be a pretty cool place for a cycling holiday – though there are quite a few hills.
I haven’t been able to find an official map or list of trails, but this blog by the Bohemian Traveller has some good information about the cycle routes available. Bike Map is a pretty useful bike mapping app, where cyclists can find the best routes for their bike or see rides that other people have planned in certain areas.
What we did on our holiday
Jigi (Ji Qi) Beach
As this was Jeff’s summer holiday, and as the sun was shining, we decided to go to the beach. And because it had a funny name we decided to go to Jigi Beach. (I wanted to go to Shitiping, but it was too far away).
Jigi Beach is a 2km stretch of volcanic, black sand, about 10km south of Hualien. It shelves very gently into the sea and has great waves to play in. There were facilities at the beach, such as a cafe, changing rooms, parking and lifeguards (though these things were being prepared for the summer season when we were there).
It was a lovely beach: the sea was warm, the scenery gorgeous, the waves fun but not too strong. We had a great hour or so splashing about in the sea.
One top tip for Taiwan is if you go to the beach make sure you wear sun-tan lotion – even if it is cloudy. Taiwan is on the Tropic of Cancer and the sun here is very strong, even if it doesn’t feel hot. Even though we only spent an hour on the beach and it was cloudy, both Jeff and I got burnt.
The best thing about our trip to Jigi Beach was the bus journey there, down Highway 11, the East Coast Route. The scenery on this road was simply stunning. This part of the coast is wonderful, wild and dramatic: there’s jungle, mountains, cliffs, hidden valleys, loads of tunnels, cloud factories and everywhere was so lush and alive!
The bus down the east coast left from the bus station, outside Hualien train station, at 11.10 and took just under an hour to get to the beach. We got the bus times information from the information centre next to the train station, but I think this information is now embedded into Google Maps.
Top tip: If you go here, when you get off the bus make sure there isn’t a deep culvert at the side of the road, as you may fall in this (like I did) and get poo on your shoes – or break your leg.
Shopping in Hualien
OK, I shopped – Jeff didn’t. Hualien is amazing for shopping and Taiwan is cheap. Hualien has lots of big brand stores and pedestrianised market streets, full of funky clothes stalls. I was very good and only bought one pair of shoes – but there were bags and T-Shirts, and dresses which I had to work very hard to resist.
Taroko Gorge is the reason most people come to Hualien. It s one of the most popular and famous tourist attractions in Taiwan, and it was the reason we were there.
Taroko Gorge is a stunningly beautiful gorge and national park, which has a brilliant road running through it and many exciting hiking trails.
The road was originally built by the Taiwanese so that they would have a quick route to get from east to west across the island, rather than having to go all the way around the mountains. The road is an engineering marvel, as the terrain here is very dramatic and quite extreme. Many people died building the road, and thanks to typhoons, rockfalls and earthquakes, the road has been washed away a number of times. It really should be Top Gear’s best driving road as it’s just so extreme. There were tunnels and bridges, and the road perches on teeny ledges over the river.
We started our visit at the national park head office, which is by the entrance to the gorge. There’s a museum here, a lovely cafe, toilets and an information desk with maps, timetables etc. We sat outside in the sunshine here, waiting for the shuttle bus, with bats and butterflies flying around our heads. It was gorgeous.
Jeff and I had wanted to walk the Tunnel of Nine Turns Trail, which follows the old road through tunnels, high above the river – but we found out at the head office that this was closed because of a rock fall. So instead we caught the shuttle bus to Lushui campsite and we hiked from there to Heliu. There were toilets at both ends of the hike, and a lovely cafe with great views at Lushui campsite.
The Lushui Trail hike was quite gentle. We went through a tunnel, over a suspension bridge, and then we walked along a path cut high up in the cliff face, up above the road and the river. We saw some huge spiders and lots of butterflies. The 2km walk (plus dawdling) took us about an hour.
We then caught the bus back to the Eternal Spring Shrine. We visited the cafe overlooking the shrine, then we hiked from the shrine to Changuang Temple. Most people just stop at the car park by the shrine to have their photo taken in front of this perfectly picturesque building, which straddles a waterfall, but I’d highly recommend that you do the short 2km walk up to the temple in the sky, as it’s really dramatic.
You start the walk by crossing the new bridge over the river, entering a tunnel, then taking a side tunnel. This takes you to the old bridge which was much lower than the new bridge, and which was washed away in a typhoon. The old tunnel was turned into a shrine, and the struts of the old bridge left in place so you can walk out over the river. You then continue along through tunnels to the Eternal Spring Shrine.
Whilst we were here, there was a tropical downpour, and we had a big question over whether it was safe to continue on the steep, wet paths – but as the rain stopped quite quickly, we decided to press on.
The footpath continued up steep steps, switchbacking up the cliff face, with rock overhangs above. It was quite exposed and scary, and maybe we were a little silly taking this path in such bad weather, but it was fun and the at the top we saw the cave temple and the bell tower – where we rang the bell.
We then crossed a huge, high-up suspension bridge, before ending our hike at the small zen monastery of Changuang, which we renamed the Temple in the Sky. The temple is a working temple which was interesting to visit, and the views on every part of the walk were dramatic and beautiful. This walk took us about an hour and a half and then we caught the bus back from the car park, all the way to Hualian station.
Entrance to the park was free.
For more information, maps and information on the hiking trails (in English), visit the park website at www.taroko.gov.tw.
To get there, we caught the train from Hualien to Taroko, and then a taxi from Taroko station to the national park head office at the gorge entrance (200NTL/ £4).
We ate interesting food
In Hualien we ate duck blood soup. It was… interesting. We also visited the most famous steam dumpling shop, which was opposite our hotel. There were always long queues for this place, with people buying plastic bags full of the dumplings. Jeff and I tried them and they were nice. Jeff ate 14.
We were in an earthquake
Apparently earthquakes are quite common in Taiwan. I thought it was just Jeff being silly and shaking my chair – he thought it was me just being silly and shaking his chair – but no, it was a proper earthquake.
Taipei is a busy city with super modern districts and also areas of rotting tower blocks. Most of the centre is modern and interesting, with brand name stores, boutique hotels etc, but on the outskirts of the city there is a lot of poverty.
Jeff and I spent most of our time in Taipei wandering about looking at stuff.
We really didn’t have a lot of time in Taipei (only one day) and I’d love to go back to explore further. There were so many temples, memorials, markets and museums that we missed. Also, there are a number of hot spring resorts on the edge of the city that I’d like to visit, and I’d also love to take the MRT out to the seaside.
For more information on what to do in Taiwan, visit www.go2taiwan.net.
The Grand Hotel
This is the craziest building in the city. It’s a bright red block of a hotel, decorated with layers of oriental balconies and an ornate pagoda-style roof. The lobby is an opulent dream of red velvet and chandeliers, cafes and coffee shops. There are great views from the top floor (we know, as we sneaked up when we weren’t supposed to – sorry Grand Hotel).
We went to the Shilin night market as we’d heard it was a highlight of the city and a great place to get interesting food. However, it would have been better to go to the night market at night – as in the daytime most of the stalls were closed and those that were open had a real shabbiness about them. We thought that there would be a lot of eating places around the night market, which would be open in the daytime, but sadly we were wrong and we just ended up faffing about in the rainy city.
National Revolutionary Martyr’s Shrine
We headed here as we thought we’d seen the National Revolutionary Martyr’s Shrine on a travel programme, and we thought it was one of the major sights of the city. The National Revolutionary Martyr’s Shrine is a memorial to the war dead of the ROC, and is where the funeral of Chiang Kai-Shek took place. The shrine is a series of pretty temple like buildings, surrounded by nice grounds.
It has national guards who have been trained not to move a muscle – so you can go and try to make them move or giggle etc.
To be honest though, I think we went to the wrong national memorial, and that we actually wanted to go to the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial hall, which is larger, in the centre of the city and which contains the national concert hall and theatre, and which is where the changing of the guards takes place. Oops. We’ll have to go back.
It’s the most famous building in the city, and until last year it was the tallest building in the world. You can visit the observatory on the 89th floor, and if the weather is good, you can go to the outside on floor 91. Sadly, it was too windy to go outside when we were there, so we only went to 89 – but 89 is still pretty high and it still has amazing views.
We visited Taipei 101 at sunset, so that we could see the city change from day to night. It was wonderful being high up in the clouds, watching the rush-hour traffic jams from above.
We had beer floats (worse than they sound) next to a smoking cow, and then we went to see the 60-ton tuned dampner – the huge ball at the top of the tower that keeps the building stable.
In the shopping centre at the bottom of the tower there is an amazing food court. There’s also a great food court at the City Hall subway station – and here we had shaved ice with mango and ice cream. Yum.
The entrance ticket was 400NTD each (about £8).
Getting there: The nearest subway station is City Hall. You can get a shuttle bus from the subway station to the tower, or take a 10 minute walk through the underground shopping malls.
Where we stayed
Hotel Leo, Hualien
Hotel Leo was right in Hualian town centre, located on one of the busy shopping streets. It looked slightly shabby from the outside in daylight, but the rooms inside were lovely – very clean, comfortable and business like. Sadly, Hotel Leo has closed since our visit.
We hadn’t pre-booked accommodation for Hualian, so we just turned up, walked to the centre of town and then tried to find somewhere. We were tired and faffing and looking for a hotel late at night, when we saw the bright lights of Hotel Leo calling to us. We’re suckers for following large neon signs. This time, luckily, it all worked out and for about £30 per night we gt a nice, business hotel, opposite the steamed bun stand in downtown Hualian.
Dandy Hotel, Daan Branch, Taipei
The Dandy Hotel was wonderful. It had one of the comfiest beds I’ve ever slept in, interesting lights, flat screen TV, wonderful bathroom with bath, shower and lots of freebies and a great buffet breakfast. The staff were great (they gave us umbrellas to take with us whilst we explored the city), there was unlimited free coffee, and free internet.
The Dandy is located opposite Daan Park, a huge city park which we would have visited had it not been raining so much. The hotel was a fifteen minute walk to the local MRT metro station, but there was a bus stop right outside the hotel.
We booked the hotel through Hotels.com and it cost £42, including breakfast.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny, unless otherwise stated. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.