Travel notes from the trip to Taiwan during the period May 23-28, 2002.
Published: June 2002
travel, Taiwan, Chinese, Mandarin, boat, hike, raft, Taipei, Taroko, YangMingChun, park, hotel, Hualien, Tienhsiang, english, massage, transportation, kaohsiung
We were told not to go to Taiwan because there are many earthquakes in this area lately. This is because the Taiwan island is located on the intersection of three earth platforms. Not over that, the island is covered with sleeping volcanoes, thanks to which there are many hot springs. In any case, we went to Taiwan... Just when we left Taiwan there was an earthquake on 6.2 scale. Though luckily there were no casualties this time. Locals aren't not afraid to live there, they are just used to the nature caprices in the area.
We have landed in Taipei on Wednesday evening and from the first moment we have encountered the problem discovered in the "Lonely Planet" guide -- navigation in the cities is a quite a challenge if you cannot read Mandarin. (It was much easier to navigate in mountains.) The airport bus has brought to the wrong place and even though we had the map of Taipei it took us a long time to figure out where are we in the city and about the same time to find out where is our hotel (which was already prepaid in Singapore). With help of a bunch of locals we eventually mapped out our location and the location of the hotel. Since it was quite far away and we didn't dare to approach buses with bags, we have taken a cab to the hotel.
The hotel wasn't located in the centre of the city and the room was so-so, though the price was more than US$70 and included a so-so breakfast.
The difficulty with street names is in fact that three different transliteration systems are used: Yale, Pinyin and Wade-Giles, which are similar for vowels, but significantly different when it comes to consonants. There were places where I had as many as four different spellings of the same street. Of course this made it impossible to ask directions in English. You must have a map which denominates streets in English and Chinese at the same time, so you can point your finger at the Chinese original name when asking for directions. Luckily the "Lonely Planet" guide had all the names written in English and Mandarin Chinese, so we were simply using the book to help us communicate, pushing the wanted names into the local's face :) be it a bus driver, ticketer or a kind pedestrians. Unfortunately most transportation workers don't speak any English, which makes things extremely complicated if you are shy to ask other local people.
At the same evening we made a short walk in the neighbourhood and took a Chinese traditional body massage, which was great. It was the same price as in Singapore and much more expensive than Thailand. Though the quality was great. Here it's the man that do the massage and most of them are professional masseurs, compared to most amateur masseuses in Thailand which work in tourist places. Chinese full body massage is a must thing if you haven't tried it yet. Though be warned that it's quite painful, but as Asians say: "no pain, no gain". (in Thailand they say: "no money, no honey". :)
Since from the first moments in Taipei we have realised that it won't be a pleasant experience to wander in this over-polluted city, we decided to try to stay away from it. So on Thursday morning we headed to the Wulai waterfall in the south of the city. The journey in MRT (otherwise known as metro, underground, U-bahn in different parts of the world) was nice (very similar to the MRT in Singapore). At the last stop we had to change to the bus, but we couldn't find it. The local bus driver showed us in some direction saying "7", which later we figured out meant near the "7-11" groceries shop. At the bus stop an elder lady has told us that we need change to pay for the bus and since we didn't have any, another lady was kind enough to change the money for us.
The bus journey to the Wulai village was nice, eventually we made it to the waterfall and after a while headed back to Taipei. As the first encounter with the local nature I was amazed by the number of crawling, jumping and flying insects and birds in the area. For example you see beautiful butterflies everywhere, like in the butterfly garden. In the Wulai village there were lots of commercial shops selling aboriginal craft or so it was said, but we usually ignore this kind of stuff. There were a few hot springs along the river. Anya wanted to go to Fusam (or whatever the spelling was) aborigines village, but the only way to get there was by taxi which was very expensive. So we just gave up and decide to go to the YangMingChun nature park which was at the south of the city, so we have crossed the city on MRT and took a bus which took us up to the mountains.
The YangMingChun park is a very nice place to visit. You don't need more than half a day to cover it on foot. We have arrived there about 3pm and had plenty of time before it was dark. Basically this was a green forest mountains massive with a few nice waterfalls and a great view of the city, if you are lucky and there are no clouds. This park is supposed to be very crowded on weekends, but we hardly saw any people as it was Thursday and the summer didn't arrive yet.
In the evening we had the first hot dinner since we have arrived to Taiwan and of course we had a trouble communicating with the waiters, but luckily the menu included the photos of the meals with numbers, which helped us a lot. After the meal we headed for a foot reflexology massage in the same location we went to last night. Unfortunately the shop we went to was full and we went to the one next door, where Anya had a good massage, but I was unlucky to get some young person who didn't know how to do the massage and when I've told him to stop petting my feet and do a massage he has literally started to rape my feet with full forth. My feet hurt for a few days after that.
On the same evening we bought a ticket to a quite remote place, Hualien on the east of Taiwan. So we had to wake up very early to get in time to the 6:45am train. The train car was very convenient, with seats that could recline to almost 45 degrees, so I've slept all the way to Hualien instead of watching the beautiful scenery :). It seems that Anya did wake up every so often and saw some of it. At least I've got some sleep.
When we have arrived to Hualien we have taken a bus up to the mountains a very small village (town?) called Tienhsiang, which was located almost in the centre of Taroko gorge, the national nature reserve. It was a very beautiful ride through the mountains, but there was a Taiwanese monk sitting next to me who decided to teach me basic Mandarin, so instead of letting me look out of the window he was asking me to repeat aloud after him numbers in Chinese and other words. He even gave us some nice tea :)
In Tienhsiang we have found the Catholic church hostel, mentioned in the "Lonely Planet" guide. But all the two persons rooms very taken, so we had to take the 4 persons room and pay a bit more. The price was still about 3 times cheaper than the hotel of the same quality in Taipei.
After a lunch, we headed to our first hike in Taroko gorge. It was already about 2pm, so we didn't have much time before it was getting dark (7pm) but we still wanted to reach Meiyuan, which was quite a remote village in the mountains. Unfortunately before getting to the hiking track we had to go for about 1.5 hours on the highway, but luckily there were hardly any cars passing by. The hardest part was going through tunnels which had no lights in them and occasional vehicles rushing through, which was very dangerous, but we made it. (next time need to bring a flash-light with us.) On the way to the beginning of the track there was a natural hot spring where we spent half an hour or so. The hot spring was going out of the mountain into the river. So it was quite an experience when you were standing with two feet in the water, when one foot is standing the burning hot water and the other in the cold water.
Eventually we have arrived to the beginning of the track, which luckily wasn't ascending all the time compared to the way from Tienhsiang, which was going up all the time. The hike was very nice along the river Taosai and we hardly saw any people on our way. We have arrived to our planned location at about 6pm and had to rush back to get in time to the road before it's getting dark. In the village we met some local people who grow peaches and sell them to tourists in Tienhsiang. When we returned to the road we were both tired and it was completely dark. To our luck we got a lift to Tienhsiang the moment we hit the road. Again, as everywhere else the local people were very kind and helpful to us. At that day we hiked about 20km.
In the evening we went to the only (very) expensive Grand Formosa hotel, where we watched an aboriginal dances show, which frankly was quite pathetic. The whole show was in Chinese, so we couldn't even understand what was going on. The Maori aborigines show in NZ was 10 times better. But hey it was free (since we sneaked in as hotel guests :) so no complaints here.
On the next day we have visited a nice pagoda and the Brahma temple just across the river and headed to Taroko on the bus, located half way between Hualien and Tienhsiang. The Taroko "town" is located at the entrance to the Taroko National Reservoir and has its Headquarters there. At the Headquarters we were allowed to live our big bags in the reception and were explain how to get to the start of the "Mysterious Valley" trail. In the "Lonely Planet" guide we read that there is another trail to the Tali village (where aborigines live), but it's very hard as it requires a lot of climbing (1000m elevation). We have asked about this trail because we wanted to get the Tali village which was on the top of the mountain, but were told that this trail is dangerous and we need three days to make it.
Not having much choice we started the "Mysterious Valley" track along the river Shakadang. The trail was similar to the one in Tienhsiang, but was going much closer to the water. The water was very clean and beautiful. The surrounding mountains were stunning too. There were many huge spiders in this area, I had fun taking photos of them.
When we arrived to the end of the track (3D Cabin) we saw a path going up the mountain, so we decided to see where it leads. It was a very steep climb which we made for about 2 hours. We came all the way up and realised that that must the closed track to the Tali village. On the way we have met a single group of local hikers which confirmed our guesses. It took as about one more hour to get to the Tali village, again climbing all the time. The village was located on the top of the mountain with a stunning view in the area. We have even tried to talk to the villagers, using sign language :)
Then we settled down to have some food, which we thoughtfully brought with us (we were hiking for some 4 hours already). Suddenly we heard and then saw two young Taiwanese guys, coming from the continuation of the trail which were supposed to take next, down the mountain, leading to the park's headquarters, where our bags were. The guys, "Mars" and "Women" were very nice and spoke a bit of English. To our surprise they decided to go with us down the mountain, so we both had a very nice company and they showed us the right path to go down, since Mars knew this track by heart. Half way down we realised that it'll take us a few more hours to get down and our bags are going to be closed in the park's office, which was closing down at 4:30pm. Again to our luck, one of the folks called the office and asked them to take our bags out. When the people in the headquarters office learnt that we did go to the Tali village, they were very upset because we weren't supposed to go there without a special mountain permit. Later we learnt that villagers have asked the officials to prevent tourist flow to their village and disturb them. But we didn't know that, when we decided to go there despite their warnings that this track is dangerous and closed.
On the way down we have met a girl and her mother, climbing up the mountain going home to the Tatung village, which is further away from the Tali village. This girl who was also deaf-and-dumb has to do this hard trail every weekend when they go down to Taroko to the church and shopping for food.
When we eventually got down it was almost 7pm, and we learnt that a girl was waiting for us to come back for the last 2 hours with our bags, instead of going home. Moreover since we have missed the last bus she gave us a lift to Hualien. Where Mars was kind enough to show us a very cheap decent hotel for about US$13 and we had a hot dinner after a very long and tiring journey (we were hiking up and down for about 8 hours that day). He also helped us to book us to the rafting (kayaking) on the next day. Again the office selling the attraction didn't speak any English and didn't have any info in English, we learnt about rafting from the "Lonely Planet" guide. So we were really lucky to meet Mars.
On the next day at 7:30am we went south along the east coast to get the place we were supposed to start the rafting from. The rafting was on the big Hsiukuluan River, which wasn't that big because of the recent drought and overall it was a dry season. Before starting the rafting we were shown a video (in Chinese) on how to behave on the kayak. These were big rubber kayaks for 8-10 people sitting on the sides of the boat. I couldn't take the camera with me, because we were supposed to get completely wet. When the raft started on the first rocky turn me and Anya were thrown off into the water, and the same has happened on the second turn, so much for the Chinese instructions :) After that we have learnt how to pass rocky areas leaning into the centre of the boat and holding on the rope. Luckily the water wasn't very cold.
Since the water level was low the river was very slow and we were constantly pushed and pulled by two boats with engines to make us move faster. This wasn't fun. On our boat we had two other westerners and 2 Taiwanese couples. We were lucky that it was Monday, so there weren't many people. We had 4 boats in total, not counting the 2 pushing boats. I suppose this attraction is more fun when the water is high, but it wasn't bad and much better then the rafting on Jordan river in Israel. The scenery along the river was very nice too. And we had some box lunch on the way. At the end we have arrived to the river's delta where we have disembarked from the boat and had hot showers in place.
One hour later we've arrived back to Hualien and we thinking to try to get onto the early train to Taipei (as we had to leave Taiwan early next morning). To our surprise Mars was waiting for us in the rafting office, where he gave us instruction to get to the cheap hostel in Taipei and a CD with photos from the Tali village and even a video ot this place. This guy is amazing.
We took a slow train to Taipei and in four hours we were back to Taipei. Not without navigation problems we have eventually found the hostel, whose location was very convenient, because the airport bus was stopping just in front of it. And we had to leave at 6am the following day. The hostel was relatively cheap to Taipei (US$11/bed), though we slept in the dormitory room (10 beds) with only one other guy sleeping there. We had to return to the hostel by 11pm, because they were closing the entrance, so we rushed off to buy some fruits and food. We bought a pizza and when I've asked them to sell us some watermelon (which apparently wasn't on their menu, but I probably they bought it for themselves) the owners of the pizzeria gave us the sliced watermelon for free :) Again, people are very kind.
One the next day we headed to the airport and without any problems finished our short journey.
Overall it was a very nice vacation, though too short. We didn't see much of Taipei, though spend most of the time in the mountains, which was great. The biggest highlight of Taiwan for us was the kindness and friendliness of the local people, which were at least as nice as people of New Zealand. There are many places left to explore and hopefully one day we will be able to return and see some more of this nice country.
We dislike shopping so we cannot tell much about it. Though I can tell that Taiwan is probably the cheapest place in the world for computer parts and certain other electronics. Most likely because Taiwan is one of the major producers of electronics and computer parts in the world. So it must be cheap when you buy from the factory store. Otherwise the country is quite expensive, don't expect the cheapness of Thailand. It's more likely getting close to the level of Singapore, price-wise. Though in places where there are less tourists the prices are going steeply down. In expensive places it's still possible to live on a low budget if your don't ask for much -- you can get a bed and a hot shower for a relatively little money.