September 12, 2016 § Leave a comment
I must admit I’ve never given much thought to Taiwan previous to my trip. Taiwan is a country familiar to Filipinos perhaps mostly due to all the TV series that were a massive hit in the Philippines several years ago. If not for that, news would usually mention about their illegal fishing activities in our seas – and so Taiwan to me was either the land of F4 or the land of fishermen. Sure, I knew a little historical background about this country and its complicated relations with China, but that was about it. Neither was it a destination I was particularly eyeing. So when I finally had the opportunity to see Taiwan because of a conference, I found every experience insightful. Every observation was a visual and cognitive treat.
Throughout my trip, I was impressed with how easy it was to navigate around even for non-Chinese speaking individuals like me. They had an Easycard which worked with most trains, buses, convenience stores, etc and this made things far simpler. Data was reliable as long as you get a 4G simcard, and at reasonable rates at that. Google Maps didn’t work as seamlessly as in Singapore, for one it kept giving me directions in Chinese ( eliciting a “you’ve got to be kidding me” from me most of the time) and travel time estimates were not accurate, but it was easier than having to have done so with a physical map. If your destination was something for tourists, you can almost always expect signs along the way. If they’ll be in Chinese or in English as well is a matter of popularity. I have to say majority of the tourists when I was there were Chinese so I really did have to ask and struggle with pronouncing Chinese words a few times to get around. Though I didn’t get detrimentally lost in Taiwan, I could imagine it would be easy to just decide where to go on a whim. Take a bus somewhere, visit the Tourist Information Booth nearby, and you can add an item to your itinerary on the spot. Knowing me, I did have quite a detailed itinerary to work with, but that didn’t prevent me from veering off from plans. That being said, fear not getting around in Taiwan. Though taking the bus can be a bit of an adventure as most bus stops were written purely in Chinese, you can always try asking the friendly locals and pray they understand English. The only thing I struggled with were the menus. because as much as I had wanted to eat as authentically local as possible, it was impossible for me to read the names of most stores, much less their menus. I found myself confined to food that had pictures or if someone else had ordered it (then I could conveniently point to it). At times I tried to make use of my brother’s Mandarin knowledge and send him pictures of what I wanted to eat and confirm if it was what I thought. But I ended up one time getting some bun with fermented vegetables and pork fat (no, I didn’t like it) when I wanted a pork bun so I just decided to resort to my more reliable method of pointing. Night markets, convenience stores and restaurants are a good bet for people who want to order easily. I also noticed that the streets were very clean and public toilets were also clean in general (thank goodness!). I still haven’t mastered doing it in a squat toilet though even after so many times of having had to do this in other countries, but if you’re in a tourist area you’d most likely find a toilet bowl. I could only wish the Philippines can follow suit. I read online that Taiwan lessened garbage bins in the street thus curbing litter and vermin. I was surprised to see clear streets even in areas where night markets are held (in Shilin itself!) so it apparently works. They also diligently segregate trash (with particular emphasis on plastics). With the Filipinos’ penchant of throwing trash anywhere though, I think this might make matters worse unless littering gets a heavier penalty. Another observation I made was that a lot of people wore face masks. At first I thought it was because they were scared of getting any contagious disease in public transportation, I found out later on that these people may have a slight cold and it’s their way of politely saying that they don’t want to infect anyone.
train stations in Taipei looked characteristically Chinese. It’s very easy to get around using their train, even to other provinces. They had both options for the traditional train system (TRA) and the high speed one (HSR). That’s me on the train platform from Ruifang on the way back to Taipei with my loot from Jiufen.
night markets are the place to be at night for food lovers like me! I went to a total of 6 while I was there! after I got tired of the night market staples (this may take a while for others as there’s really a lot of options), I wandered to other stores with crowds and I was never disappointed. My favorites were their melon bread, luruofan (rice topped with savory minced pork), braised beef noodles, dumplings (OMG yes), guava juice (perhaps it was in season this time), papaya milk and da chang bao xiao chang (grilled sausage and sticky rice). The infamous stinky tofu is also worth a try and for me though the fried version was a cinch eating and in fact was normal tasting enough, the stewed one was more queer especially with the duck blood (I tried a bit but the texture is really not to my liking. I miss our own version of chicken blood with rice – now that I’m crazy for).
…and let’s not forget the taro balls, which you can eat a lot of at Jiufen Old Street. Let me just say that this is another thing I know of Taiwan, that it’s where Blackball Dessert originated from. As that’s one of my favorite desserts ever, naturally I had to try it in its place of origin. It was really good as well, though I prefer Blackball’s twist of putting in yam and taro chunks along with grass jelly and their signature coffee creamer much more. And yes, I did eat at Blackball Dessert in Taiwan. haha
Tamsui / Damsui / Danshui was the first place I got really familiar with as it was the venue of our conference. The Fisherman’s Wharf and the Lover’s Bridge are the usual spots to visit here. From the MRT to the harbor is a long street dotted with food, souvenirs, other places of interest and what not. A good discovery for me was bus F112 which offered free rides around the area. Something to note about the buses though is that some require you to tap when you enter, some when you leave, and some both upon entering and exiting. I haven’t quite figured out how to distinguish this, I suppose it’s written somewhere in Chinese. Nevertheless, always board the bus in front. Coins are still accepted but you should have the exact fare.
To get a good view of the city, I went up Elephant Mountain. It was a 20 min hike up, but don’t underestimate the continuous stairs that lead up. I initially planned on continuing further up if I had made it here earlier, but as exploring the night markets was a stronger urge in me rather than getting a better view of the city from on top, I headed back down after reaching the first viewing platform. It was a good idea since I realized I don’t do well walking down the stairs – I might have developed a little bit of climacophobia on the way down. Elephant Mountain is actually beside 3 other “beast” mountains that have interconnected trails and is a good activity option for those who have more time. After this, I decided to walk down to Taipei 101 and check out Tonghua night market which was supposed to be near Taipei 101 but it took me a good 20 minutes to walk there. @_@
My first destination after the conference was Yehliu. I took a bus from Taipei Main Station to go to the famous Geopark with their interesting limestone formations. When I got there, I found that the place was a quaint seaside neighborhood with a lot of seafood restaurants! It was a terrible pity that the bus ride left me dizzy so I wasn’t really in the mood to eat anything. I was reading off from my phone the stop list of the bus I was on, and this was what made my head spin aside from the intense heat that day. I became friends with another Japanese tourist traveling by herself, but as her English wasn’t good, we ended up mostly conversing in smiles and short questions. Talking to her did manage to make me change my plans of going back to Taipei that afternoon and instead I headed to Keelung, another seaside city.
All I knew about Keelung was their Miakakoku Night Market. But as I reached there a little after lunchtime, that wasn’t really an option. I went to the train station and saw the Visitor’s Information Center where a friendly grandpa who was working there showed me the map and all the options I had. I scanned the pictures and saw Badouzi – the beautiful view from the brochure was enough to convince me and I got the directions and straight away headed there. When I was already on the bus, it was only then I realized that I didn’t know where to go down and how exactly to get to Badouzi Wangyou Valley. I was actually on the right track when I tried figuring out the way by myself, but a few turns and the lack of English signs made me doubt my instinct and so I headed back to a Maritime Museum there where I decided to ask for decisions. The Maritime Museum was huge and beautiful that I almost felt bad there were barely any people there. It was probably so slow that day that when I asked one of their staff, he volunteered to leave his post and take me to the bus stop to go to the Valley. He even made sure I had an umbrella as it started drizzling at this point. The bus took forever though and as I was conscious of the time, I ended up taking a taxi instead. Turns out I should have walked straight on where I was earlier. Oh well, as long as I managed to reach it!
The view was worth it and I was lucky the rain stopped while I was there, allowing me to get a bit of blue sky on my photos. It was picturesque enough that so many couples were there enjoying the breezy afternoon by the sea. I contented myself by taking their pictures instead. haha. After taking in the scenery, I walked back to town and took a bus to Keelung and subsequently easily took a train back to Taipei.
When I got back to Taipei, I went to Dihua Street and Ningxia Night Market. Dihua Street is full of Chinese herbs and medicine – and a lot of stalls were selling fish roe. I wasn’t familiar with the use of most of these things so I just walked down the road and went inside some interesting shops that sold novelty/vintage items. There were also a few pastry shops down the road, but I was craving for something savory so I ate dumplings at Ningxia Night Market which is a 10-minute walk from Dihua Street. I should mention at this point now that the walk from the MRT to Dihua Street was also 10 minutes, and from Ningxia Night Market to the next MRT station was also 10 minutes. Needless to say, I was damn tired at the end of this day.
The following day, Gale had finally arrived and I finally had a companion going around! More stomach space too to try things since we could split everything. We went to some usual tourist stops in the morning (Longshan Temple & the Chang Kai-Chek Memorial Hall) and proceeded to Maokong thereafter to take the Gondola and enjoy our lunch with the view of Taipei. Although Maokong was quite elevated, it was terribly humid and hot still. There were a lot of dining options but we ended up eating somewhere with AC because there was barely any breeze and it was unthinkable to enjoy sipping tea in that weather. The gondola ride was enjoyable especially if you get the “Eye of Maokong” option which had a glass bottom. Not much tourists that day so no queuing for us yay! After Maokong, we went to Eslite, which is a 24/7 bookstore. It was huge and if not for the weak AC, it was paradise! There were books, food, clothes, toys, stationaries, even cosmetics. Most books were in Chinese though. Syntrend mall since Gale wanted to buy some gundams for her Mike. The mall was swanky and we especially loved how each floor had themes like “Create, Imagine, etc”. It was at this point that we realized that we needed to change money, but found out that the banks don’t allow currency exchange after 3:30pm. And there was no other option but the airport. So we actually had to go to Songshan Airport to change money. Money exchangers are practically non-existent in Taiwan so it’s best to estimate your budget beforehand or bring a lot of extra. We had plans of hiking Teapot Mountain at Jinguashi the following day (i.e. wake up at 4:30 am) so we were bewildered when we managed to do this and find out that the weather forecast that day was thunderstorms when we reached Ruifang!
It took me a few minutes to get over the change in plans but as it was very cloudy, I didn’t think it was worth it going through the hike and not seeing the view I looked forward to. So we proceeded to Jiufen instead. We were there by 8:30 am and so most stalls were still closed. It was a quaint town and fortunately it was only drizzling. I didn’t get a photo with the quality of a Spirited Away-inspiration, but walking in the town situated on the hill, one could get a feel of community and serenity of the place. Gale and I realized Jiufen would be a good place to stay overnight at if we had the chance of going back. The view from the lodges were nice and it was much colder up here. There was also so much good food again, and I will mention again: Taro Balls. After getting enough of Jiufen Old Street, we headed back to Ruifang and bought one-day pass tickets (80 NTD) for the Pingxi Line to go to Pingxi and Shifen. The main tourist attractions were along the old railway, and visitors usually released lanterns here as well as buy pretty souvenirs. Though we didn’t get to go to Teapot Mountain that day, the experience of riding their Tze-Chiang TRA train as well as at the Pingxi line left me a good impression of their railway system. People can actually eat on the train yet it was clean.
This is by the way the fermented vegetables bun I bought with the help of Gab’s Mandarin. I told him to consider going back to Taiwan to practice his Mandarin so I don’t end up eating such things and he told me to go smell the smelly people because it’s deemed respectable. Nothing as reliable as a brother’s advice, really. (sarcasm)
The next day, Yangminshan National Park was on our itinerary. The park is huge and beautiful and more importantly, just 20 minutes from the city center! I’m just really speechless. There are a lot of stops available inside the park, you can even opt to hike. But as we had to meet April that day, we just went down Qingtiangang. The road on the way up is quite curvy and steep. We took an S17 bus which stopped directly at Qintiangang. It was a minibus and that day most of the people on the bus were senior citizens probably looking forward to enjoy some natural scenery on a weekday. After that, we proceeded to Xinbeitou via bus as well from the Yangminshan Bus Terminal.
It was here that we met up with April and her friend. It was really fortuitous that my conference was almost the same time as when April just moved to Taiwan. She’s moved here for work and I’m happy Gale and I were able to meet her here before we gear up for probably a long time of not seeing each other again. Marge was supposed to go as well but she wasn’t able to make it. Xinbeitou is known for its natural hot springs, and it didn’t help that it was damn hot as well that day. We didn’t try the hot springs, but I can imagine it would be a good option on a cooler day. The public library at Xinbeitou is worth visiting though, it had full-length glass windows and wooden interiors. It would have been an optimum place to read had it not been for the droves of people playing Pokemon Go scattered all over the entire area! It was quite an eyesore, and I’m pretty sure they contributed to the heat. We had lunch at a tea shop and went to the Thermal Valley where steam can be seen rising up all year round. After that, we headed to Tamsui that afternoon to see the sunset. That night, Gale left and the next day though I had planned to go around the city area some more, the heat and all the walking the previous days discouraged me and I went to the airport 8 hours early instead. I didn’t really regret it as I got to eat my xiao long bao and do some leisurely souvenir window shopping. The airport was quite comfortable to hang out at actually. There were a lot of lounge-style seats even in the waiting area, not to mention charge points and restaurants, so it wasn’t that bad.
It was a wonderful experience, and if given the chance to go back I definitely will for the sights, the cuisine and the nice people. I’ll make sure to do this on a colder season though. I’m also really grateful for my Taiwanese friend, Jacky, who practically helped me translate and get around so many times when I was at the brink of getting hopelessly lost in translation. Xiexie~ (this is the only Chinese phrase I used and it somehow managed to go a long way)! Here’s my itinerary for anyone interested. 600 NTD budget per day for food would be good (you can’t drink from the tap but you can easily buy bottled water from convenience stores), accommodations are flexible – both cheap and pricey ones are available, and it’s easy to estimate your transportation cost using their train websites so I suggest you do this to see if you’ll do better buying their unlimited train/bus pass. I preferred buying an Easycard though. If I had more time, I would have included a visit to the Sun Moon Lake & Longdon as well. Even more time and I would definitely explore Central, East and Southern Taiwan! Hopefully at another time in the future!