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.
|1||Arrive in Taipei from Osaka||Taipei|
|7||Xincheng (Taroko Gorge)||Xincheng|
|9||Train to Kaohsiung||Kaohsiung|
|12||Train to Tainan||Tainan|
|15||Train and bus to Lukang||Lukang|
|17||Bus to Taichung||Taichung|
|18||Train to Taipei||Taipei|
|21||Flight back to U.S.|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Overall, Kaohsiung was fun. But not sure it’s worth a stop unless you have plenty of extra time.
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.
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.
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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