3 Weeks in Taiwan (November/December 2015)

In November and December 2015 I spent three weeks in Taiwan visiting Taipei, Xincheng (Taroko Gorge), Kaohsiung, Tainan, Lukang, and Taichung.

Itinerary

DayDaytimeSleep
1Arrive in Taipei from OsakaTaipei
2TaipeiTaipei
3TaipeiTaipei
4TaipeiTaipei
5TaipeiTaipei
6TaipeiTaipei
7Xincheng (Taroko Gorge)Xincheng
8Taroko GorgeXincheng
9Train to KaohsiungKaohsiung
10KaohsiungKaohsiung
11KaohsiungKaohsiung
12Train to TainanTainan
13TainanTainan
14TainanTainan
15Train and bus to LukangLukang
16LukangLukang
17Bus to TaichungTaichung
18Train to TaipeiTaipei
19TaipeiTaipei
20TaipeiTaipei
21Flight back to U.S.

Timing

The weather in November and December was cool and comfortable. Supposedly this was low travel season, but I couldn’t tell from the hordes of tourists.

Transportation

Hello Kitty kiosks for Eva Air, Taipei Airport. Alas, I did not get to check in on one of these.

Hello Kitty kiosks for Eva Air, Taipei Airport. Alas, I did not get to check in on one of these.

Getting There: I flew to Taipei from Osaka with Peach, a Japanese budget airline. The entire cost for the two-and-a-half-hour flight including taxes and baggage fees was US $93. I had some concerns initially since customer service on the website seemed to be non-existent but everything, including the self check-in process, proceeded smoothly with Japanese efficiency.

Airport Info: I tried several ATMs before finding one that would accept my card, so I recommend having some cash as a backup. From the airport bus station I caught an inexpensive bus to Taipei Main Station (Bus 1819, about an hour).

Getting Around: Taiwan’s rail system is reliable and inexpensive, and I took trains whenever possible. You can buy tickets on the Taiwan Railways Administration’s website two weeks in advance. (For tickets on Saturday or Sunday, booking is available on the Friday two weeks in advance.)

I recommend buying train tickets as soon as they are available. I waited until I was in Taipei, which was too late as I could not get a ticket from Xincheng (Taroko Gorge) to Kaohsiung. I finally found a workaround by booking the journey in two legs, one from Xincheng to Taitung and another from Taitung to Kaohsiung. This allowed me to stay on the same train and even the same car — I just had to get up and change seats in Taitung.

You can pay for the tickets online using a credit card and then pick them up at any train station by showing your passport. If you don’t want to pay online you can pay cash when you pick them up. The website was a little buggy but once you have its quirks figured out it’s relatively straightforward.

SIM card and apps

I bought a SIM card for my Android phone at the airport from Chunghwa Telecom, which has the reputation of having the best coverage. It cost NT$1000 for a 30-day plan with unlimited data. Limited data plans are cheaper, but I tend to consume lots of data using Google Maps for navigation when walking around or taking public transport.

I recommend installing LINE and WeChat since they are heavily used in Taiwan. I used LINE to communicate with local friends, hotel owners, and even taxi drivers.

Taiwan Highlights

  • Trying stinky tofu and betel nut on a Taipei food tour
  • Experiencing a religious procession in Tainan
  • Sampling distinctive local snacks at Taiwan’s innumerable street food vendors and night markets
  • Exploring Lukang, Taiwan’s living museum of traditional culture

Taipei

Stinky tofu, both raw (left) and fried, on the food tour

Stinky tofu, both raw (left) and fried (right), on the food tour

One of the highlights of my trip was a food tour I did with Taipei Eats on my very first day. We spent four hours walking around sampling food from about 15 different restaurants, market stalls, and food carts. It was relatively expensive by Taiwanese standards at US$70 but a great introduction to local cuisine and customs for a newcomer.

Taipei offers a lot of interesting day trips; two of my favorites were Tamsui and Maokong. Both of these get incredibly crowded on weekends so if you have to go on a weekend get an early start.

Taroko Gorge

Rock formation, Shakadang Trail

Rock formation, Shakadang Trail

From Taipei I took a Limited Express train to Xincheng (2 hours 46 minutes). I was picked up at the station by the owner of the lodge where I was staying. After dropping off my luggage he took me to the Taroko Gorge visitor center. After a lunch that was remarkably terrible by Taiwanese standards at the visitor center cafeteria, I set off to hike the Shakadang Trail. The trail is a relatively flat route that follows a beautiful turquoise stream featuring many interesting rock formations. Only the first 1.5 km of the trail were open due to typhoon damage. Unfortunately, this would become a common theme as many of the trails at the gorge proved either closed or only partially open.

Riding a bicycle down the gorge

Riding a bicycle down the gorge

The next day my lodge owner drove me and other guests to the top of the gorge and we rode our bicycles down back to the lodge (about 20 km), stopping at various trails along the way to hike. It was beautiful and exhilarating, but for someone not used to riding in heavy traffic I found riding alongside so many buses and taxis unnerving, especially in the numerous tunnels. By mid-afternoon the roads were so choked with fume-belching tour buses it was hard to appreciate the beauty of the gorge. If I had to do it again I would get an early start and hire a taxi for the day to take me around and drop me at the trailheads.

Overall, due to typhoon damage and tourist hordes, for me Taroko Gorge didn’t really live up to the hype. Still worth visiting? Yes — but not sure I’d go back for a second visit.

Kaohsiung

From Xincheng I traveled to Kaohsiung via the same Limited Express I had taken from Taipei. Kaohsiung doesn’t really have major must-sees; my main reason for going was to visit the Chinese Language Center at National Sun Yat-sen University, where I was considering doing an extended stay to learn Mandarin. Unfortunately, the heavy air pollution in Kaohsiung caused me to abandon that idea.

Kaohsiung itself is a pleasant enough place, with enough interesting sights to fill a day or two. I particularly enjoyed Cijin Island and the night markets.

Cijin Island

Cijin Island

Formosa Boulevard Station, Kaohsiung MRT

Formosa Boulevard Station, Kaohsiung MRT

Seafood, Raohe Street Night Market, Kaohsiung

Seafood, Raohe Street Night Market, Kaohsiung

After some difficulty due to lack of public transport, I arranged a day trip using a private driver to the Maolin National Scenic Area to see the Purple Butterfly Valley.

Purple Butterfly Valley, Maolin

Purple Butterfly Valley, Maolin

Traditional aboriginal food in Maolin, a mountainous indigenous district

Traditional aboriginal food in Maolin, a mountainous indigenous district

Overall, Kaohsiung was fun. But not sure it’s worth a stop unless you have plenty of extra time.

Tainan

Ghost money for burning at the temple, Tainan

Ghost money for burning at the temple, Tainan

 Next I took the train to Tainan. Tainan is considered the cultural capital of Taiwan, and I loved exploring the temples and sampling traditional foods. Religious processions are a frequent sight in Tainan, and I was lucky enough to stumble onto a big one that went on almost all day. I found the various dances and ceremonies fascinating.
Dance of the twelve grannies, Tainan

Dance of the twelve grannies, Tainan

Coffin toast, a popular Tainanese snack. The bread is hollowed out and filled with seafood and then the lid is put back on.

Coffin toast, a popular Tainanese snack. The bread is hollowed out and filled with seafood; then the lid is put back on.

Lukang

City god temple, Lukang. Lukang's city god is famous for solving crimes like theft or robbery.

City god temple, Lukang. Lukang’s city god is famous for solving crimes like theft or robbery.

From Tainan I caught a train to Changhua and then a bus to Lukang from the bus station across from the train station. Lukang was like a living museum of traditional culture and turned out to be my favorite place in Taiwan. I was lucky enough to be there mid-week when the town was serene and devoid of tour groups, so I could wander the peaceful streets and even have some of the temples to myself.

Temple decoration, Lukang

Temple decoration, Lukang

Cod roe drying, Lukang

Cod roe drying, Lukang

Longshan Temple, Lukang

Longshan Temple, Lukang

Traditional street snack of fried mud bugs and other seafood, Lukang

Traditional street snack of fried mud bugs and other seafood, Lukang

Lantern shop, Lukang

Lantern shop, Lukang

Statue, temple, Lukang

Statue, temple, Lukang

Matsu temple, Lukang

Matsu temple, Lukang

Wooden gods being carved at a workshop, Lukang

Wooden gods being carved at a workshop, Lukang

Taichung

From Lukang it was about an hour on the bus to Taichung. Taichung is pleasant enough but lacks interesting sights; my main reason for going here was to meet up with friends and to check out the Fengjia Night Market, the largest and most innovative night market in Taiwan. The market is huge and crowded with students due to its proximity to the university. It was a great place to wander around, try different snacks, and people watch.

Taipei

View from Taipei 101

View from Taipei 101

Display from Night Patrol religious procession in Taipei, which had taken place a few days earlier.

Display from Night Patrol religious procession in Taipei, which had taken place a few days earlier.

From Taichung it took an hour by train back to Taipei. The next day, I tackled the National Palace Museum. I had read so much about how unpleasantly crowded it could get that I made sure to get there right when it opened at 8:30. The entrance to the museum was already jammed with tour buses and throngs of mainland tourists herded by flag-waving tour guides. I fought my way through the crowds and a sympathetic security guard pointed me to the second floor where individual tickets were sold.

Once through security, I made a beeline for the top floor where the main attractions like the Jadeite Cabbage are displayed. The line was short but moved so rapidly that I could only spend a few seconds looking at each exhibit. However, later I was glad I went to the third floor first as the line increased to epic proportions shortly thereafter. The other exhibits weren’t as crowded at first, but grew more so as the day went on. By noon I was worn out but content and ready to head home the next day to the States.


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