Taiwan – lIha Formosa (beautiful island)

Forget about the dark
Open up your eyes
You’ll discover there’s a world outside (world outside…)
To fix a broken heart
You have to try
Pick it up, pick it up
It’s a beautiful life
Beautiful life, beautiful life
It’s a beautiful life, beautiful life.

Hello everybody and welcome to Taiwan! 🙂

This adventure starts in Taipei where I flew in from Hong Kong. Directly at the airport met our friends Angeline and David (for those who don’t know them, Angeline is Taiwanese, David Spanish and we met a few years ago in Madrid.. or was it Murcia? ;)). Having two locals (David lived in Taiwan for a while, visited it many times and knows a lot about the country so can almost count as one also :)) made all things easy… this time it wasn’t me who did all the planning and investigating, I just let myself be guided by the experts 🙂

With its all-around adventure landscape, heritage-rich capital, diverse folk traditions and feted night market scene, Taiwan offers a continent-sized travel list for one green island. In 1544 when Portuguese fleet ‘discovered’ it they fell in love with the lush plains, rugged mountains and rocky coasts, and declared Taiwan Ilha Formosa, meaning ‘beautiful island’, a well deserved name I can tell… but let’s start from the beginning…

We set up our base in Taipei where Angeline’s family kindly offered us a place to stay (again, thank you so much for that!) and from there started further exploration.
This post will cover visiting Taipei (point A) and a trip to Hualien (point B) including the area of Taroko National Park and the east coast, roughly 370km by train, there and back from Taipei, plus another 200 by car around the park and the coast.

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TAIPEI

Once the ugly duckling of East Asia, Taipei has undergone a transformation over the last two decades that has turned the city into one of the region’s most dynamic, sophisticated and exciting metropolises. Taipei offers a huge variety of sights and attractions, from temples dating back to the Qing dynasty to wide, noisy neon-lit avenues with exclusive shopping malls.

We visited Taipei in parts, two days at the beginning then two more later during the week but will put everything together so it doesn’t get too confusing. Having David as a personal guide (Angeline had to attend various family meetings) made the sightseeing nice and easy for me.. and well let’s say David’s golden rule (if you get lost, just take a taxi, it’s so cheap in Taipei :)) also came in handy!
Now to the point, sightseeing…

Taipei 101

Towering above the city like the gigantic bamboo stalk it was designed to resemble, Taipei 101 is impossible to miss. 508m tall it held the title of ‘world’s tallest building’ for a number of years. To get to the top you take a ride with a super fast (1010m per minute) lift that takes you from the ground floor to the 89th and 91st-floor indoor and outdoor observation decks in a mere 40 seconds. At the top you’ll also be able to see the massive gold coloured iron ball that keeps the tower stable through typhoons and earthquakes (Angeline, who had a chance to work in one of the offices in the building, said you could sometimes actually feel it move… yes, as scary as it sounds 😉

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However, I have to say I enjoyed more the view from a nearby Elephant Hill popular with locals for weekend hikes. It’s a 20 minutes walk up some steep stairs but the views are spectacular (sorry David to make you do the hike for the second time in the same week but you have to admit the views are worth it ;)). I liked it more since from this point you could actually see how the Taipei 101 rules over the whole city… impressive!

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Longshan Temple

Religious life in Taiwan is alive and kicking seven days a week at Longshan Temple. Though not the biggest temple in the city, there is something unique and beautiful about the vibe at Longshan that keeps people coming back.The temple dates back to 1738. As the story goes, a passer-by left an amulet of Guanyin (goddess of mercy) hanging on a tree on the site of the present temple, and the amulet shone so brightly, even at night, that all who passed by knew the site was blessed.

I’ve been to many temples on this trip but I think never to such an alive one! It was amazing, so much going on…crowds of worshippers engaged in a hypnotic chanting, others throwing moon shaped stones or consulting fortune tellers to get answers to their most important life questions, all paying tribute and respect to the gods. Beautiful and spiritual atmosphere, totally contagious!

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National Palace Museum

Considered by many a must-visit, this museum is home to what could quite easily be called the world’s largest and finest collection of Chinese art. The collection covers over 10.000 years of Chinese history from the Neolithic age to the late Qing Dynasty. Most of the collection are high quality pieces collected by China’s ancient emperors which at one time were a decoration of Beijing’s Forbidden City. A big part of the collection came to Taiwan from mainland China after the civil war with the retreating Kuomintang forces and actually Chinese are still trying and hoping to get it back 🙂

I have to say the exposition is quite impressive. Among the treasures to be seen are paintings, calligraphy, statues, ceramic and jade. The only thing that makes the visit less enjoyable are the Chinese tour groups that fill up the place…

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Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

This grandiose monument to authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek, former President of the Republic of China, is a famous sight and a popular tourist attraction. Entrance to the main hall is made via a series of 88 steps (the age of Chiang when he died). The monument, surrounded by a park, stands at the east end of Memorial Hall Square. The structure is framed on the north and south by the National Theater and National Concert Hall. The hourly changing of the honor guard is probably the most popular sight with most visitors.

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In 2007, the park was renamed ‘Liberty Plaza’ in honour of Taiwan’s long road to democracy, and for a time it was conceivable that the memorial itself would be renamed and the Chiang sculpture itself removed. That didn’t happen, and the reasons will vary depending on who you ask. For now the hall remains quite a controversial sight among locals, some considering Chaing Kai-shek a hero, others a dictator..

Ximending

Ximending is the consumerist heart of Taipei’s mainstream youth culture. This eight-branched intersection is full of shops selling fashion and fast food. If it’s young and trendy, it’s there. Walking through the streets of the area you’ll find the edgier side of Taiwan’s youth culture, the places they hang out and the stores in which they shop. I think it’s a nice and interesting area just to come and watch the people although, as Angeline said this is where the teenagers hang out.. so I don’t know, did she mean that I’m too old for that? 😉

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Night Markets

Taipei offers top quality Chinese cuisines, the best Japanese outside Tokyo, and a full-house of local specialities. And what’s a better way to try it all than in one of the night markets. There’s plenty of them around the city and all serve endless feasts of snacks at a very low price. The must try include stinky tofu, all kinds of dumplings, oyster omelettes, sweet sausages, shrimp rolls, shaved ice and many many more…

Thanks to Angeline and David I got to know some more local markets for even more authentic experience. So if you’re ever in Taipei I would highly recommend to skip the touristic Shilin Night Market and head to Gongguan Night Market, where the majority of customers are students from the nearby National Taiwan University, or Jingmei Night Market where besides food you can buy many other stuff from clothing and CDs to hardware and daily necessities. Tried some amazing food on both of them!

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There’s actually one thing you need to know, there’s food everywhere in Taiwan and every time is a good time to eat (the only phrase I learned in Chinese is ‘xie xie, wo bao bao’ – thanks, I’m full – a polite way to refuse more food and trust me, you better learn it too :)).

Now, all Taipei attractions are without a doubt great things to see. For me though, the best part of the city was being there with Angeline and David, meeting Angeline’s family and sharing two wonderful dinners with them, meeting Angeline’s friends for some more food (of course) and drinks and having a cup of tea with Angeline’s former english teacher (a real hippy from the 70ties :)). So Angeline’s parents, sister, grandfather, cousins, Jim, Kathy, Robert, Joy and Alan thank you, it was wonderful to meet you all!!!

HUALIEN + TAROKO GORGE + EAST COST

After a few days in Taipei David and I went on a two day trip to Hualien, which served us a base to visit the famous Taroko Gorge and part of the beautiful east cost. We got to Hualien by train, 3 hours ride, and were picked up by William, our private driver and guide for the following two days.

Hualien

Hualien is eastern Taiwan’s largest city. Though blessed with few sites of interest, Hualien is arguably the most liveable small city and traffic aside, a chill-out kind of place. Many travellers prefer to base themselves here even if Taroko Gorge is their main interest.

To be honest we didn’t have too much time to explore the city itself, luckily though, found a moment to try the famous steamed dumplings at ‘Xiao long bao’ restaurant. And woooow they were so delicious!! We actually came back 2 more times, and let me remind you we were only two days in Hualien ;). We were also lucky to be there during the week and in low season, otherwise, as I was told, you might need to queue up for an hour or more (but if by any chance you do have to queue up, trust me, it’s worth it!).

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Taroko Gorge

Taiwan’s top tourist destination! Taroko National Park covers 120.000 hectares and rises from sea level in the east to over 3.700m further in the west. In fact, Taroko is 90% mountainous with 27 peaks over 3000m. The highlight of the park though is Taroko Gorge, the largest marble gorge in the world and also one of the Seven Wonders in Asia.

There are many trails you can choose from around the gorge, some quite touristic and other that you can basically have to yourself. In general the deeper you go into the gorge, more chances you have to be on your own. Chinese groups on their tight schedule don’t have time to go too far 🙂

Our itinerary included: Qingshui Cilff, Shakadang Trail, Swallow Grotto and Baiyang Trail, the last one being the least touristic and wonderful walk to finish a wonderful day. Oh, and definitely have lunch at one of the local restaurants serving aboriginal style cuisine, it was a real feast (David for sure will confirm :))!

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East Cost

Next day tour was all about exploring the beautiful east coast of Taiwan, which runs around 200km down from Hualien to the south. We only visited 60km of it but I can already say it could compete with USA’s route 1. We stopped at many spots, unfortunately can only recall the names of a few: Baqi, Niushan Huting, Shitiping. Absolutely breathtaking views, just see for yourselves…

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Our initial itinerary included also a visit to Mukumugi Valley – supposedly another amazing place restricted to only 600 visitors per day. Unfortunately the park was closed due to the recent typhoon strike which caused big damage to the area (well, next time :)). Instead, we managed to convince William to take us for a local trail hike. It never became a tourist attraction since you can see Air Force base from the top and guess the government was not too fond of that. Shame since you get some great views on Hualien!

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After the hike we had just enough time to grab some more dumplings 🙂 and catch a train back to Taipei. And that’s where this post finishes. Hope you enjoyed it. More about Taiwan to come soon so stay alert! 😉

Hugs and kisses,

Maja and Andrej (still from Madrid ;))

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