We celebrated our long weekend by taking an evening train to Chiayi from Main Station. Liz was a little late so we just made it on the 5 o’clock train. It took only about an hour and half to arrive at the station and from there we walked to Assemble! Hostel a few blocks away. Upon arrival, the host and hostess of the hostel met us at the door, explained in detail the map of the area and Alishan, and recommended restaurants. I had taken a very hands-off approach to planning this vacation so we asked their advice about getting to our B&B located in the mountains. They not only called the B&B for us, but also wrote down all the instructions we needed to get there. Liz and I have had really excellent luck with hostels so far. I’d highly recommend this one to anyone who might want to visit Chiayi. They had fruit themed rooms, and adorable knick-knacks and old movie posters on the wall. They also offer free breakfast and snacks, each room is super clean, and the beds were incredibly comfortable.
In Taiwan’s Lonely Planet guidebook gives Chiayi a less than enthusiastic 1-paragraph description. “While Chiayi (Jiāyì) is not part of the Alishan National Scenic Area, almost every traveller will have to pass through here on the way there. The narrow gauge train to the Alishan Forest Recreation Area leaves from Chiayi train station, as do buses and taxis. There are a few better-than-OK sights to recommend in Chiayi, so plan to spend a half day or so before moving on. Central Chiayi is small enough to walk across in 30 minutes, though air pollution often makes it unpleasant to do so.” Liz and I found Chiayi to be much more pleasant than the guidebook made it out to be. Instead of just a polluted transit point, we found a lively little city that was easy to navigate and eccentrically charming.
We had an awesome vegetarian meal nearby the Chiayi version of Zhongshan Gongyuan, and then walked toward the central area passing by a mock Eiffel tower, an ET restaurant and a rotating sculpture promoting the new baseball movie Kano. We found the local night market after dinner. Even after spending almost 7 months in Taiwan and having seen my fair share of night markets, they never fail to entertain. I almost always find something new. Liz was on the search for shoes, but unfortunately I ended up stealing her thunder. I found a cute pair of cat-faced shoes – my last ones were wrecked when I crashed my scooter. As we walked farther down the busy street, we found a sweatshirt shop. I found a sweatshirt that says “Depraved” on it with flames on the sleeves and decided that the irony was just too much, I had to buy it.
Afterwards, we headed back to the hostel and picked from an eclectic selection of foreign and American film titles. We watched “The Graduate”, both of us for the first time, and then headed to sleep.
The next morning we went to Shark Bites Toast, and each ate probably way too much for breakfast. We later regretted this once our bus started the ascent up the mountain. The first leg of the bus trip was fine, it was when we changed buses in Meishan and had to sit on the floor at the back of the crowded bus with 5 other people, that we started getting a little motion sick. The roads in the mountains are dangerously narrow and the cars move recklessly fast. There are mirrors around some corners but not all, and the barriers lining the side of the road and the cliff edge are flimsy, if they are there at all. We survived, barely, the 2-hour journey to Yuantuan – where our B&B was located.
That afternoon we walked around the area to see the Pubu (waterfall) and the Fengjing (scenic spot). We spent enjoyed afternoon tea with our hostess practicing our Chinese and made plans for the following day. Originally, it was our plan to try to see the sunrise over Alishan, however the B&B we were staying at was pretty remote and far away. We had booked our B&B through Agoda, but they changed our B&B at the last minute because it was overbooked so we ended up at Sanhua Minsu which was much more difficult to get to. I was grateful that they booked it at no additional cost to us, however if I were to go again, I would stay somewhere closer to Alishan.
We left instead at around 8am after breakfast and tea. The Alishan area is famous for it’s tea. Our B&B owner drives very lihai (intense). The roads as described before are incredibly windy and also weave up and down along the mountain’s side. “Is it dangerous?” I asked. He just smiled at me and said, “Not if you know what you’re doing. Don’t worry, I’m very familiar with the roads.” He smiled again. “You mei you yunche?” It was only a few minutes later that we figured out that yunche meant carsick as the car swung back and forth through the tangled mountain road.
We stopped by this mountain below that is supposed to look like an elephant. If you look closely, you can kind of make out its trunk and eye.
The B&B owner took us to Fenqihu to walk around. We stopped for tea, again. He bought us some local food and toured us around the market. He showed us a house where a famous movie was filmed – the importance of which was unfortunately lost on Liz and I.
Afterwards, we drove to Alishan. Our B&B owner had a lot of friends in the area, so we were able to get into the park for free. I’m not sure exactly how he did it, but we also were able to get on the train for free. We grabbed snacks at the 7-Eleven at the base and then headed up. It was pretty crowded with Dalu tourists, but not horribly so. Our B&B owner toured us around, explaining everything in Chinese as we went and apologizing for the Dalu tourists who aggressively stared. The Sacred trees, the Two sister pond and the nearby temple – he told us the detailed back story of all the places on the mountain. He bought us corn, mochi and more snacks around the temple area from friends of his. He literally knew everyone on the road. We stopped to eat and see the cherry blossoms, before walking back down. We moved slowly so the hike wasn’t too bad and we got to see the sunset over the mountain as we walked down so I was satisfied and got some well-framed photos. If solaced myself, knowing that if missed sunrise, at least I got to see sunset, which was at least two thirds as nice and I got 6 hours more sleep.
We got tea again on our way back to the car. Since we were the only guests staying in the hostel that night our B&B owner took us out to dinner with his friends. So we had a large meal with a group of middle-aged men that we had just met. We were a strange sight. Not many could speak any English, so the meal was rather silent on our part, but occasionally our B&B owner would inquire what kind of Taiwanese man we wanted to marry. He was convinced we wanted to stay here, and that he was going to find us a smart, handsome, tall Taiwanese man to marry so that we could live in Taiwan forever. We let him believe we were sincerely looking for a husband probably a little too long – because he was seriously asking his friends about whose son might be a good prospect.
Our B&B driver is an incredible driver. At night when we were going back the roads were unlit and it seemed pitch black. There were occasionally cars in the other direction, which seemed super hazardous in the dark. Still we drove recklessly fast down the roads, and our guide decided to take some of the back roads which were even more narrow then before if that is possible. Lastly, the clouds or mist of the evening had settled thickly over the mountain roads, so the headlights of the car reflected off the watery fog, making it even more difficult to see. I swear to Liz that I thought I was going to die on that mountain.
We again survived, barely. Of course, when we got back to the B&B we had another round of tea before heading to sleep. It was a weekend full of tea and dangerousy winding roads.
Sunday morning after getting back from Pingxi, I got up at 4:30am to catch the MRT to the World Games Stadium. I had signed up in early November to race the Ultra Half Marathon in Kaohsiung, part of the Mizuno International Marathon event. The MRT was opened early just for this event so everyone on the train was running. They were stretching, listening to music, dressed in spandex and the unspoken energy was electric – we were ready – an army of silent, focused athletes.
I have trained for this for about four months now, running around the Cultural Center and Aozidi park too many times to count. Previously, I had never run more than 8K in an organized race, so this was a new experience for me. My goal was to finish without stopping.
After arriving at the stadium my prerace nervousness was off the charts, luckily I had Fonda, Liz, and Abbey there for support. I assembled in line with the other runners according to my number and waited for the countdown in Chinese. After the marathon runners set out, finally it was my turn. “San…er…yi…kaishipao!” And we were off!
The first part of the race absolutely exhilarating. The sun hadn’t quite risen yet and we ran familiar roads that I use to get to school every morning. It was so strange to be running down the middle of Bo’ai in the morning with no cars just the sound of 7,000 runners. At every 2.5 kilometers or so there were distance markers with some kind of crowd. Mostly schools (including my school!) assembled small cheering crowds and drumming crews. At one of the kilometer markers there was even a small lion dance – which made me smile.
Things became treacherous around kilometer 17.5 when I was losing steam fast, and my muscles were more than sore. The sun wasn’t too warm yet and the momentum of the crowd was enough to keep going. I finished the race 2 hours and 40 minutes later after 25 kilometers. I ended up being 29th in my group of 20-29 year old females, which was far better than I ever could have expected.
With a busy weekend like the last over, the week itself feels infinitely more surmountable.
After seeing the Gorge, Liz and I split up the next day and I left from Hualien on a five day biking trip up the East coast of Taiwan.
It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in Taiwan so far and there is so much to write.
First, a photo of my bike - which I’m obsessed with. I bought my X-road bike from the large Giant store in Kaohsiung. It’s lovely and lightweight and purple and I plan to take it home with me after Fulbright ends.
What I hadn’t realized is that biking accessories actually are more intense than the bike itself. I also bought a helmet, biking gloves, lights, a waterbottle and holder, a rack, bike pants, bike bag etc, and I had them all shipped from Kaohsiung to Hualien for relatively cheap. I had to ship the bike because Hualien didn’t have any bike rentals available (although that is a preferable and popular option for those who want to start in Hualien). Michael and Linnea biked basically the entire East Coast; from Kaohsiung to Gongliao, while I biked only about half. Although Michael and Linnea did most of the planning work for the trip (I was just tagging along), I have three suggestions for Taiwan biking info for those interested in doing a similar trip:
Looking at these websites proved really helpful while preparing for the trip.
I plan to post a little about the various locations that we visited on our trip but in total I biked with them about 180km. We saw Su’ao, Yilan City, Jiaochi, Gongliao and several other areas. We camped out in a school yard, rented a room in a temple and couch surfed thanks to other Fulbrighters. We ate many delicious foods and saw more of Taiwan than you could ever see by simply touring around. Someday I would love to do the entire Island, but for now I’ve been trying to plan some small weekend bike trips from Kaohsiung.
Below is Linnea and I in our intense biking outfits!
A long time coming…
Staying in Hualien was more than pleasant. Besides the New-Year-fireworks that went off all night long, we had a comfortable night sleep. We woke up early a little after sunrise in order to catch the first bus to Hualien.
It’s a pretty far ride to Taroko from Hualien, about a 2 hour drive. Sometime people rent scooters, but we only had one license between the two of us and the roads in the mountain are windy and narrow. We decided not to risk it. There are two types of buses. The free public bus and the privately owned Hualien Bus Co. which costs only about 200NTD. Since it was the day after Chinese New Year the public bus wasn’t running, but rising early wasn’t all for nought, we got on the Hualien Co. 8:20 bus that came a little later. The perk is that you can get on and off the bus wherever and whenever you want - so we were able to navigate through the gorge pretty well and get around quickly. The buses circulate about once every 20 minutes and leave right from the train station.
It was good that we got an early start to the day because the Gorge is fantastically huge and there are many areas to explore. First Liz and I stopped at the Information Center near the Taroko Village to grab a map and walk some of the trails.
We saw this frightening warning sign while we were hiking the Swallow Trail.
Afterwards we headed farther into the National Park. There were some amazing views of mountain and sky.
The Taroko National Park which houses Taroko Gorge is one of Taiwan’s eight National Parks. The park is so large it spans Taichung Municipality, Nantou County, and Hualien County. Taroko Gorge is often compared to the Grand Canyon, but it has a very different feeling than it’s desert sister. The name of the Gorge, Taroko, means “magnificent and beautiful” in the Truku language of one of the indigenous tribes in the area. As the story goes, a long time ago a Truku tribesman was wandering through this coastal area of Taiwan. He was wandering through the hills of the Gorge and walked out of the hilly terrain to the beauty of the azure pristine Pacific Ocean. Upon seeing the magnificence of the infinite water and the sky, he cried “Taroko!”. And so the name stuck.
After hiking we headed toward Xiaofengkou to grab a bite to eat. We saw a beautiful pavilion there. Which we climbed and took lots of photos.
Afterwards we headed down a trail to see the water curtain. It involved walking down the highway for a bit.
The Baiyang Waterfall Trail is known for it’s scenic views and many tunnels. The trail starts with a tunnel entrance on the Central Cross-Island Highway 900 meters west of Tianxiang. Many of the other hikers had come prepared with flashlights and raingear, but Liz and I just muddled our way through the damp, dark passageways, stealing the light from others.
The trail was originally built by Taiwan Power Company in 1984 during the early stages of their plans (approved for construction in 1979) to develop hydroelectric power in the area, so the tunnels have a very industrial feel. But they are broken up by breathe taking views of the Gorge and waterfalls.
Apparently, the ground rock after Water Curtain is loose and there is some danger of a collapse so visitors are only allowed to the entrance. However, this wasn’t entirely clear and many families there with their rain gear on were wading into the final cave. The families, toddlers included, pulled on their ponchos, pulled their shoes off and plunged fearlessly into the cave’s opening, so I followed suit. The ground of the cave is flooded with about 2 feet of water, and there is only a narrow passageway on the side for people to come and go, so the going was a little slippery and dangerous, but the view inside was worth it. The water curtain is appropriately named. It is created by cracks in the ceiling of the cave, through which water pours out in sheets. It’s a pretty remarkably natural occurrence.
After we reached the end of water curtain, we headed back to Hualien via the bus (we ended up seeing some other Fulbrighters by chance along the way!)
I had to catch the Giant store before it closed to grab my bike for part 3 of my epic winter vacation. We were a little panicked getting back in time, but little did I know, that shipping a bike in from Kaohsiung was actually pretty big news among the biking community in Hualien, so they waited for me— no problem!
A weekend in early February, Liz and I left for the HSR station immediately after finishing classes. Snacks in hand we boarded the now very familiar High Speed Rail train bound for Taipei.
We arrived around 3:30 just in time to check in to our hostel – Lamb Tour Hostel, our favorite on Hostel world – and grab a vegetarian lunchbox to go. Liz had looked up all the information ahead of time so the trip was pretty smooth sailing – catch MRT to Taipei Zoo stop, catch shuttle to Pingxi. We arrived at Pingxi just as the rain was starting to fall with full force. We had hoped that the rain would let up before nightfall, but no such luck.
We ate our vegetarian lunchboxes under an overhang while watching people paint their aspirations onto lanterns.
Luckily Liz had bought an umbrella from Seven earlier and I bought a rain poncho shortly after because we were in for a long rainy night. The lanterns, however, flew up despite the rain and the crowds were substantial too. There were some minor mishaps with lanterns getting caught in trees and flying into power lines, but everything was too wet to catch fire luckily – nothing is ever truly dry in Taipei. We wondered what they did when it was not raining. Reactions to the power line lanterns ran from slightly distracted to mildly concerned, but no one really did anything. The police came and stood underneath it for a few minutes, but as far as I can tell this did nothing if not endanger their lives a little instead of helping.
We found a good spot on a hilltop to buy and paint our lantern – only 150 NT to send your aspirations up to the sky. There were large group launches every half our or so, but you have to reserve those well in advance. Everyone else can launch theirs independently.
We preferred this anyways because we wanted to take our time painting our lantern. We used a maobi – calligraphy pen to paint Chinese and English characters and paint some pretty pictures. To echo some of our students’ Christmas wishes we scribed, “World Peace” along the top – but decided to leave out the many wishes for I-pods and I-pads.
After we finished lighting and setting off our lantern we watched a few more lantern launches until our feet were thoroughly numb from the cold and rain. Then we hopped back on the bus and headed back to Taipei.
By the time we returned it was still early, only 9pm, and our hostel was buzzing. New exchange students who just came in from France, and had yet to find housing were gathered in the lobby of our hostel with Seven bags of Taiwan beer and some instant noodles. They greeted us when we came in and then returned to their insular conversation – every so often an uproar of laughter would escape their circle and make its way through the walls to our room upstairs. We went down to chat with some of them in an effort to stave off sleep. I kept forgetting that they had just arrived and tried my very best to remember what it was like to see Taiwan 6 months ago with fresh, unfamiliar eyes. I try to this whenever I can, whenever I find myself becoming too complacent or too sedentary.
When we traveled to Singapore we ended up dancing in this video featuring Singapore’s Scenic spots, meant to celebrate National Happiness Day on March 20th. We had a really fun time!
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