What’s so good about Taiwan? A brief look into tourism marketing

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Not too long ago while on a hike at Wuliaojian (五寮尖) with a mate visiting from the UK, we bumped into an American chap taking his dog for a mountain stroll. It transpired that he had been living in Taiwan for around ten years now, so it’s safe to consider him an ex-pat-vet. We chatted enthusiastically for around half an hour about several things; the best routes to walk on the mountain, the latest news in English football (that’s “Soccer” to the ignorant) and swapped information of other local hikes and nearby scenic spots that we should investigate. Following on from the latter conversation, the topic of Taiwan’s tourism promotion came up. Well, lack thereof.

Though I’d wager many long time resident ex-pats would argue against this, but Taiwan is criminally overlooked by Western visitors. It seems to be principally known as a convenient and pleasant place to study Chinese; the accent is generally softer and easier to understand than that spoken in Mainland China, the Internet is unrestricted (Wi-Fi is available seemingly bloody everywhere), and the culture shock factor is considerably lower on this little island compared to it’s mahoosive next door neighbour.

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A rainy evening in an alley off of Tonghua night market ( 通化夜市).

I’ve lived here for a combined total of about 12 months now, and am frequently asked by folk back home and even some of my local friends here: what’s so good about Taiwan? Not in a tone that implies rudeness, but intrigue. Half of the people at home think I’m talking about Thailand, not Taiwan, and the other half seem to have no idea what exists here beyond microchips and factories. So, I enthusiastically tell them about my main hobbies here; biking, motorcycling, camping, hiking, river tracing, wallowing in wild hot springs, et al. I’ll mention the dirt-cheap travel fares, that you can surf within a couple of hours of Taipei City, and the fact that – unlike China – people don’t seem to give a chicken’s arse if you’re white skinned and don’t want to constantly take photos of you (some people may consider this a negative). To summarise, it’s cheap to travel, there’s lots to see, and it’s a pretty clean, developed country with a friendly population and decent grub. Suffice to say they are often shocked that they hadn’t already heard of this outdoor paradise. So why does no-one seem to know anything about it?

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The roof of Pingxi (平溪), just an hour or so out of Taipei city. Lots of steep, spiky-ass mountains here.

My first observation would be that traditionally the vast, vast majority of Taiwan’s tourism trade came from China, so most of the promotion handled itself. However, President Tsai Ying-Wen’s landslide victory of 2016 caused a sharp drop in visitors from the Mainland as the PRC see her as a pro-independence, and were clearly sending her a message by introducing a cap on the number of visas issued to Chinese tourists. Despite this, in 2016 Taiwan had a record amount of visitors from abroad, yet a drop of 20% less Chinese visitors still wasn’t enough to sabotage that.

However, data can be misleading. Did the other visitors spend more or less money than their Chinese counterparts? Conversely, where would the tourists spend their money? Are Japanese visitors more likely to spend in local restaurants whereas Chinese would rather pay all of their money to the tour company? Beyond speculation it’s impossible to tell. One Taipei-based tour group has told the NY Times in an article that holidaymakers from Thailand and Vietnam have increased sharply since 2016, alleging that they will spend around $400US per day – not including accommodation. This is a lot of dough, compared to my own daily expenditure while travelling as a tight-fisted backpacker anyway.

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I noticed during a recent trip to Hualien (花蓮) that I heard some train announcements in Vietnamese and Indonesian Bahasa, and there are new language options on the Taipei MRT ticket machines to include more South East Asian countries. It would be prudent for the tourist board marketing department to set their sights on this demographic and push hard if the spending numbers in the above paragraph are to be believed, and it looks like they are heading in that direction. Thai nationals now temporarily have 30 days visa free until August 2018, and Malaysia benefit from the same arrangement, though permanently not temporarily. Indonesian and Vietnamese tourists are currently only granted 30 day visas if they are travelling with an approved tour group. It’s a slow process, but relaxing the tourist visa laws is heading the right way.

Promotion of Taiwan in the UK is pretty minimal, but getting better. The effort is going into it at least; I remember my shock when I saw a ‘Come to Taiwan’ advert on the side of a London bus for the first time in 2016, and when one of my mates sent me the following picture just two weeks ago.

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“Oh!Bear” (喔熊) giving Londoners the lowdown on Taiwan. Though he looks like he’s threatening that woman. No need to resort to those tactics yet.

They are clearly trying, but I’m not sure exactly what or how effective their tactics are. On the Taiwan Tourism Bureau website I found a few pseudo-artsy short promo videos, one of which follows the clearly fictional adventures of a group of perpetually over-excited Japanese girls that want to shop and eat absolutely everything in sight like a human Ms. Pacman, a milderly (middle aged/elderly) North American couple having what seems to be their last ever holiday due to the unintentionally ominous overtones during conversation, and a backpacker that sports a shark-tooth necklace (not joking) looking to “see the world through [his] own eyes”. It’s terribly cheesy, but the lack of a low production value makes it more difficult to laugh at, and easier to cringe and pity. I haven’t yet decided which is worse.

One idea that I genuinely believe has legs is to invest into and promote the film industry. Encourage Taiwanese production companies to create movies that appeal to other nations, and persuade foreign producers to use Taiwan as a filming location. If I had a penny every time someone told me of their plans to visit somewhere just because it’s in a film… well, I’d have a shitload of pennies. Probably couldn’t retire though. Anyway, Taiwan has that – to a very limited extent – with Juifen (九份) commonly believed to be the inspiration for Hayao Mayazaki’s “Spirited Away”, the internationally famous Japanese anime film from 2001. That’s what people say anyway, but after researching it myself some months ago I quickly found out that it was untrue. Sorry chaps. Another is Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” which, although set in Japan, was filmed entirely in Taiwan around the Taipei area. But I wonder how many people know that, as I certainly didn’t until today.

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Yangmingshan ( 陽明山) in the north of Taipei. Scenes from “Silence” were shot around these grassy volcanic hills last year.

But back to my original point. You only need look as far as the aforementioned Thailand as an example of how film creates tourism demand. The Man With The Golden Gun. The Deer Hunter. American Gangster. The Beach. The Hangover II. As far as Western audiences are concerned, I feel that the latter two have the biggest influence in painting Thailand as a desirable holiday location; an exotic, sun-baked land full of friendly people (unless they are drug cartels), perfect beaches, delicious food, and cheap sin. Speaking of which, in the case of The Hangover II I dread to think how many groups of lads/ladettes tried to emulate that night. And succeeded.

One of the things I like about Taipei in particular is that it oozes a thick “cyberpunk” atmosphere; and by that I mean it blends futuristic architecture and technology with basic concrete buildings, tight alleyways, bright lighting, often drab weather and a high density population. On certain nights in certain locations I feel like I’m an extra in a Sci-fi movie, so I definitely wouldn’t have been surprised had Dennis Villeneuve wished to use it as a filming location for Blade Runner 2049. You missed a trick there, Taipei.

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It’s a fair assumption that people are generally afraid of the unknown. What crazy person would book a holiday in some random country that they had no idea of what to expect? Seeing exotic locales within movies give them more familiarity and creates a desire to see these places, especially if the film is enjoyable. Taiwan has some of the most amazing landscape I’ve ever seen, and it’s not out of the realms of possibility for moviegoers to fall in love at the first sight of the island’s countryside beauty.

I know I did!

How do you think Taiwan can promote itself to more visitors?

 

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Green Mansion – Xizhi (汐止區)

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This is another popular ruin that I marked on my map a while ago, in fact it’s hard to remember exact when and how I found out about it. Being located in the mountains on the outskirts of the city is probably the main factor to explain why I haven’t checked it out until now, but on October 31st, the spookiest day of the year, I finally decided to go and have a lookie.

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The exterior. Loads of girders, bags of stuff, and things. No-one around though, not even any dogs. Phewie.

I won’t write a lot about it for two reasons; firstly there are a few decent articles on the history of the place (particularly this one) and secondly there isn’t really anything to see there as of November 2017. Comparing my photos to the ones on the previous link, it’s difficult to mentally picture how they were taken in the same place. Literally everything that isn’t cemented in place has been taken or rotted by now – even the coving around the windows – and the buildings have some sort of periodic construction (or maybe de-construction) work going on but as with most of the abandoned places in this state, progress is rather listless.

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Nice try, kid. Although, if they meant to write “life is whale shit”, then I might have laughed. Oh, I just did. Ha.

I doubt any non-Taiwanese will be aware of this, but the building was used in the popular Taiwan soap of the early 2000s called ‘Meteor Garden’ (流星花園), as the set of some rich bloke’s mansion. Previous articles state that the buildings were used in conjunction, as a filming set, editing studio and possibly accommodation for the crew and actors.

If you’re looking for a stage to take some grimy photographs, this might be your thing. If you’re looking for old nik-naks and interesting forgotten possessions then expect to be disappointed. This is a total shell. Except for one creepy item I happened upon…

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Boo. Like always, my senses were particularly heightened while looking around this place, so bumping into this little lady gave me a nice spike of adrenaline.

Healthy and high quali-tea: My top 3 tea joints in Taipei

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Delicious pun, eh? Thought you’d like it. Tea-riffic.

Anyway. Despite being a small island, Taiwan is home to a number of fantastic teas, yet the traditional gong-fu method of tea brewing seems to be less common in the 21st century. Arguably the modern lifestyle has played a part in that; people like convenience, speedy service and value for money, hence the rise of the bubble tea shop. Also, it may have something to do with the fact that for 9 months of the year Taiwan is essentially a sauna, so the chance to get thirst-quenching fruity iced tea is a godsend.

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Gong-fu style. Well, an extremely simplified, non-pompous version.

Bubble tea was invented in Taiwan during the 1980s, and there is no single definitive story to establish exactly who invented it, but two people from different cities claim to be the inventor. The story isn’t as magical as you might hope; both tales involve the creator deciding to put some jelly/dessert into tea, Bob was confirmed to be their uncle, and bubble tea was born.

There are tons of chain shops, and I’ll bet you a couple of kwai that you’ll find one within ten minutes walk from wherever you are in Taipei city – but I’m not talking about Yangmingshan or any other places out in the sticks btw, so don’t get cute with me. However, the difficulty doesn’t lie in finding a tea shop, it’s finding one that has decent quality refreshments.

Personally, I’m a tea purist. I don’t like milk or sugar involved (with the exception of a power-shot of Indian chai) and feel the addition of fruit often makes it difficult to retain the flavour of the tea itself without overpowering it. Most chain stores realise this and tend to use low quality tea leaves which are easy to spoil and thus taste bitter, but this is normally covered up with some sugar and/or fruit flavourings, which coincides nicely with the popular tastes. So, if you’re like me and prefer a classic iced tea with no flavourings and without 4 kilograms of sugar, then often you’ll be disappointed.

Here’s a list of my go-to shops that provide good quality, non-bitter tea:

Yi Fang Fruit Tea (一芳水果茶)

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It’s hard to know exactly how many Yi Fang shops there are, but my investigative Googling tells me it’s around 40 branches just inside Taipei and New Taipei city. This is great news chaps, because their tea is BANG ON THE MONEY. Also on the plus side, they buy all of their ingredients from within Taiwan and use no concentrate liquids in their tea. And it’s pretty cheap too, a medium cup of decent black tea will only set you back 20NTD, cheaper than a bottle of tea from the 7-eleven. And they have a pretty cool traditional style theme going on; unvarnished wood, old windows, and Japanese noren (them door curtain things). Menus are in Chinese and English, so non-Mandarin speakers need not panic.

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Alright, what’s the downside I hear you ask? Well, if you go during lunch time or any other busy period, expect to wait a while. It can get a little hectic, and they even have a little butcher-style number screen so you know when your order is ready. FYI, I normally go for the Sun Moon Lake black tea or Four Seasons oolong tea which are both phenomenal. I tried a “Yilan kumquat green tea” recently which was fine, but a little heavy on the kumquat and so tasted more like lime juice than tea. Depending on your opinion, another criticism could be that their menu isn’t as vast as other shops, but in my mind it’s a positive point. More often than not (and this includes restaurants too) a balance between range of choice and quality is struck, so the more choice the less quality.

SUMMARY: Excellent tea if you are lucky enough to be near one, and definitely worth the wait if you can spare the time.

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“Show Tea Shop” a.k.a Da Cha Pu (打茶舖) – No. 110-1, Yitong Street, Zhongshan District (near Songjiang Nanjing MRT)

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Coincidentally living up to its name, this was the first tea shop that showed me that iced tea doesn’t have to be bitter. The quality here is outstanding for a reasonable price, but sadly they only have one branch! They have a pretty decent selection of teas, more than Yi Fang but less than the big boys.

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Big plus: everything here is organic. They source their honey and plums locally from partnering farms, and use freshly squeezed juice in their teas. STS appear to be passionate about using local produce and keeping their drinks free of any preservatives or additives at every stage of the process. The sugar cane used to sweeten their tea is brewed daily, and used to provide a more natural and distinct taste (all according to their Facebook page).

They sell their own packs of loose leaf tea in-house, so you can take home a foil bag of deliciousy goodness.

SUMMARY: Truly top notch tea. But for me, because they only have one shop it dictates that unless I’m around the Songjiang Nanjing area it’s too much hassle. If they had more shops, it would be no contest. Build more pls!

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Ten Ren’s Tea (天仁茶業)

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An old stalwart established in the 1950s, and is Taiwan’s most globally famous tea brand with stores introduced to Canada, Japan, Malaysia, USA, Australia and Singapore. First impressions are good here as you can see the whole drink preparation area, and the fact that it doubles up as a tea retailer. And they’re pretty stocked on ginseng products too, if that’s your thing.

The tea is good. My favourite is the 913 King’s oolong tea which will set you back an above average 60NTD for a big cup, but the tea itself is definitely above average. It contains a little ginseng and young tea leaf buds from the mountains of central Taiwan – according to their company website – and has a slight bitterness to it which compliments the strong and authentic aftertaste. The green and black tea taste pretty good too, but my brew of choice is the 9-1-thrizay. Furthermore, you can find these shops all over the city, and the option to buy your own leaves after tasting a cup of heaven is pretty convenient, and a nice little gift for the folks back home.

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Downsides? It is expensive. While good quality, I still think I would opt for Yi Fang over Ten Ren’s as the extra cost doesn’t seem good value if the two shops are within walking distance of each other.

SUMMARY: Reliable, have shops all over the place, and kicks the arse of other similarly common shops like 50 Lan, Ching Shin and Comebuy, though not Show Tea and Yi Fang. Expensive, but you get what you pay for.

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Losheng Sanatorium (樂生療養院)

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I am now enlightened and realise that this is one of the more commonly visited abandoned sites in Taipei, most likely due to the ease of access, preservation of furniture inside, and a lack of security; or perhaps just an indifference toward urban explorers. Though the negligible guard presence is particularly common around abandoned buildings in Taiwan, I want to believe that any watchmen at Losheng are keen for people to visit the sanatorium, take pictures, and share what they have seen with the world to advertise the historical beauty of the site and plight of the residents and neighbourhood. It’s almost certain the surrounding population feel this way, as I was told a story first-hand about how one explorer was offered tea with a couple of locals after being “caught” leaving the site.

The complex is, and has been going through a series of struggles. It was built in 1929 by the occupying Japanese administration to house and treat people suffering from leprosy. Back then the disease was believed to be highly contagious, so institutions like this were set in isolated places, such as islands or mountainous areas to ensure strict quarantine. Fast forward 70 years or so, and the sprawling tentacles of the Taipei MRT system are beginning to reach out further and further to combat high population density within the city limits. The site of the sanatorium has been chosen for redevelopment in the form of a brand spanking new MRT station by the Taiwan government, despite several protests from local residents, activists, and those pesky kill-joys pointing out that destroying a chunk of mountain could have dangerous consequences for the current residents – even the future station – and that the site should be relocated.

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Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the father of Taiwan. Placed just outside the operating theatre.

Nonetheless, the powers that be were insistent that the plans should press on, despite several landslides at the construction site in 2010 which paused matters for a couple of years. As things stand, it seems a compromise has been made to preserve 39 of the buildings, refurbish or reconstruct 10, and demolish 6. From my visit, I’d assume that the demolition has already happened but the refurbishment is on hold for now. The only notable act of preservation is the erection of a huge steel shelter above most of the buildings, shielding most of it from the rain.

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The current state of preservation. It’ll probably be a few years before anything else is done here.

Anyway, fancy having a look inside? Although it has been cleared of most of it’s intriguing articles (I read another blogger’s story about finding a heart in a jar) as of September 2017 there’s still more than enough to satisfy the curiosity of the average urban explorer. Loads of equipment, files, beautiful architecture and windows (very much my bag) and an eerie atmosphere that makes the hospital seem like it’s still in use. Maybe it is, I did visit during ghost month…

Managed to unearth a multiple entry permit visa for Hong Kong, I’m guessing it belonged to one of the previous residents. Dated 17th October 1990.

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This is an interesting one: it looks like a sign made for a protest but has been left inside the hospital, maybe by a local resident to give visitors more information. Roughly, it translates to “The government is evil, no human rights – who will save Losheng?” Pictures of various politicians have been stuck to a red side and a green side of the circle, but the text is too faded to make much sense of either. The previous president Mr Ma Ying-Jiu is placed at 11 o’clock, who was charged with leaking secret information from a corruption enquiry earlier this year and is awaiting trial.

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Now I’m guessing again, but I reckon this is where the doctors kept their lunch.

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No idea what’s going on here, sorry.

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The old operating theatre. There’s still a fair amount of equipment here, and in pretty decent nick, too.

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…including this X-ray machine.

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Quality sanding job the boys did on this ceiling. Good work lads.

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The nurses office.

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Looks like this may have been the mortuary. Unlikely that it wasn’t, as I can’t see anyone bothering to move those slabs.


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I didn’t look close enough at these bottles while here, but from this photo the brown containers in the top left look like they may have something interesting inside… looks like I’ll be heading back soon, then.

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Elephant mountain’s secret rival

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I’m a big fan of sunsets. Perhaps surprisingly, the concrete jungle of Taipei city is actually a good place to see them; at ground level thanks to the city’s NESW grid layout, meaning that in the correct spot the falling sun is framed nicely between glass panelled office buildings, and at higher points in one of the many surrounding mountains. Since I arrived I’ve been keen to keep searching for viewpoints that beat Elephant mountain, and thankfully my quest hasn’t been fruitless. Here’s one I like in the south-east of the city, called Zhongbu mountain (中埔山).

There are two ways you can find this spot. The first and easiest method is to take the trail from “Lane 24, section 4, Xinhai road”, which is a short walk from the Xinhai MRT station on the brown line. The hiking path is clearly noted on Google maps with the help of a handy dotted line, so finding your way to the peak is pretty self explanatory. Just look for the brown camera/photo logo with “中埔山東峰” (Zhongbu mountain East peak) underneath. It’ll probably take you 15 minutes or so from the start of the trail to the top, and as far as I could see there are no drinking fountains, so take your own water lest you wither and die like an old leaf in the sun.

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Easy route: follow the blue trail. Easy peasy.

The challenging route is more fun, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone that isn’t confident with a little climbing, especially if it’s wet. Nearer to the peak there are several ropes to help you scale up steep rock formations and traverse narrow mossy ridges with some scary looking drops below. There’s even a conveniently placed ladder at one point. Still want to go? Alright, listen carefully.

The nearest MRT station is Linguang (also on the brown line), and your first checkpoint is the criminally under-visited Fuzhoushan park (福州山公園) which incidentally is another cracking place to take photographs of Taipei city at any time of day. The best view here is at pavilion 3, shown on the park’s map below.

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After pavilion 3 you can head pretty much directly south to get to Zhongbu east peak, which eagle-eyed readers will notice is marked at the bottom of the above map. If it isn’t clear, you can cross reference this bad boy with your GPS to figure out the exact route.

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If you take the route through Fuzhoushan but decide that you don’t want to take the difficult route, there’s a cheeky shortcut. When you reach the shelter two-thirds of the way to the top, you’ll see a path going uphill afterwards (tough way) and some stairs leading slightly downhill to the right (see below). Take the stairs to avoid the climbing and it will bring you to some stone steps that will lead you to the peak. I normally take the difficult route up and this way down. Otherwise, enjoy yourself on the obstacle course…

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Easy right, hard left. Easy, right?

The peak is distinguishable by it’s ramshackle shelter overlooking the city, which seems to have been built by local peeps. A large number of chairs, some tables, and various other personal items suggest that this is a community area of sorts, where locals gather to cook, talk and let the children run wild. Maybe if you hang around for long enough they’ll invite you to join their hot pot.

So in my opinion, the finest and most peaceful view in Taipei city (and I’m talking the city not the literal boundaries of Taipei city) easily accessible by public transport. So get yourself some snacks, a six-pack of cold ones and send off the day in style.

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The gutter installed on the roof here is part of a water collection and filtration system which is stored in the metal tub at the end. It has a tap on the bottom, and I’d guess they use it for cooking here. Probably wouldn’t drink out of it though.

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The views. Yeah, you don’t get 101 in your sunset shot, but you also don’t have to jostle your way to the best spot at Elephant mountain.

The final day: Hualien to Taipei

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Today was going to be a trek. Heading 168km north back to my flat in Taipei isn’t exactly a short distance, but fortunately it is incredibly scenic. To quote myself from the prelude of this diary:

“Imagine a day’s drive of winding paths through hilly green tea plantations and quaint villages, a flat cruise through scores of utterly still fishery ponds reflecting the surrounding mountainous landscape and warm rays of the sun. Lastly, a coastal finale providing all the good stuff; hairpin bends, clear blue ocean, and practically vertical towering cliffs with house sized waves regularly and spectacularly crashing into them, producing an astounding natural water display”.

Just put the order of that description back-to-front and you have my journey for day sixteen. The weather looked good, I felt good, I found a nearby breakfast joint for a bacon bagel and hash brown pancake, and was ready to rock and – even more so – roll. Except I needed to get my bike serviced before the long drive home, and didn’t fancy my chances of locating an English speaking mechanic. Time to give the old Mandarin a run out.

After filling up with petrol I saw a couple of mechanics on the opposite side of the road, and aimed for the one with the Kymco sign outside (I’m loyal). A gaunt old gent in a faded vest which looked older than me stood up from his tiny plastic stool to greet and wave me inside. His mostly toothless, betel-nut stained grin seemed much more friendly than alarming as he looked at me curiously for my request.
“Wo… xiang yao… huan yo” (I’d like an oil change)
“Huan yo! Hao…” (Oil change! Alright…)
“Huan yo ma??” *uses both hands to demonstrate a mechanical rolling motion, an ‘exchange’ action*
“Er… dui” (Er… yeah)
“Hao” (Alright geezer. I’ll get on it immediately)

He clearly overestimated my ability to speak the lingo, so began asking me a couple of questions while the oil drained from my engine. I met each one with a shrug and shake of my head, while apologising for how terrible my Chinese was. Ironically, one thing I’m very good at is explaining how bad I am at it. Clearly he noticed the bags I was carrying as a couple of words randomly registered; “huan dao ma?” (which means, “round-island trip?”) along with another brilliantly acted charade – a single handed upright oval-shaped circular motion. Yes. I felt like a native speaker. I nodded and smiled enthusiastically while verbally machine-gunning “dui-dui-dui-dui-dui!” as is the fashion in Taiwan. He nodded his approval in response. With a few taps of his finger, he noticed the Union Jack sticker placed just underneath my number plate and asked if I was from England. Yes sir, I am! I’m in there. I’m practically fluent. This is amazing. And to top it all off, it was cheaper than I’d normally expect to pay.

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One of Hualien county’s many rugged yet bushy cliffs.

Less than 100m from the mechanic’s garage, I waited at a crossroad junction next to Hualien airport for the light to turn green. As I did so, two cars approached each other from opposite directions, and neither were using indicators (surprise, surprise). At the last minute, driver one decides that he would, in fact, like to turn left (Brits: we have right lane traffic here) in front of car two going straight ahead. Car two screeches to an immediate halt, while car one continues on to the left as if nothing happened, at a consistent slow speed. Car two does not appreciate this, and as soon as I spot him fuming through his open window at a standstill in the middle of the junction, I gleefully notice he is wearing a police uniform, and furiously bellows “GAN!” (basically, the Taiwanese version of FUCK) at the top of his voice. Much to the restrained amusement of some other scooter drivers and I, he takes drastic action and spins his car around in pursuit of the dodgy driver. As some of you already know of my disdain for some Taiwanese drivers, you’ll also know how satisfied I was to realise that it’s not only me that gets wound up by these careless morons.

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I ride what’s left of the sublime 193 road (and incidentally, I pass a lone pig strolling through a village) before it joins onto the number 9, and decide to stop at one of the many viewpoints over the ocean for a rest. It’s the last chance for me to enjoy a view of the Pacific like this one for a while, so I park up at the side of the road and sit on the grassy cliff edge for a short time, which drops steeply by about 30 metres straight into the tumultuous water below. In between the rhythmic slams of waves battering the rocks I hear a scooter side-stand kicked into position, and turn around to see a younger man in his early twenties. He waves and shouts hello to me with a smile, then points above the mountains towards a thick manifestation of moody black clouds, as if to say: you’d better get moving, son. I gave a thumbs up and nodded to him in thanks and with absolute agreement as he put on his yellow poncho and headed northwards.

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I ride another 30 minutes or so before stopping off in a small village within Nan’ao township called Wuta. It’s home to a tour bus pit stop, made up of toilets, a gaudy souvenir shop, and overpriced restaurant. Actually, the last comment is unfair because I’ve never eaten in there. It just looks like it’s overpriced. Anyway, it seems to be the halfway house for buses driving between Hualien and Yilan, but I used it as a free shelter from the increasingly heavy rainfall, and was a suitable spot to put on my waterproof gear. I wasn’t the only one, however, as I spotted ol’ yellow poncho from earlier pull up and set his scooter underneath a small area of cover, that was probably only enough to keep his handlebars dry.
“I followed you here!” he jokes cheerfully, while searching for a dry spot to place his helmet. His English is at least conversational level, and clearly wants to practice a little, or perhaps just stay out of the rain for a bit. He tells me that he is on his way to Yilan (宜蘭) but the rest was a little unclear, as I couldn’t establish if he was going for a job interview or starting work today. After examining my chic rain poncho and fake crocs, he tells me – sincerely it seems – that he thinks Europeans are “very gentle”. After hearing this a lot, I’ve worked out that here people seem to confuse the adjectives “gentle” and “gentlemanly” pretty often, but I don’t have the heart to tell him right now. Especially after he says that out of all Europeans, British people are the most gentle and stylish. I ask if he’s interested in going to the UK for a working holiday, but with a frustrated smirk he quickly responds that he needs to work for a while and save a wad of money before he could afford to do such a thing, but travel is high on his list of priorities. He had to get a move on to reach Yilan, so said his goodbyes and zipped off into the distance.

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Several of the billions of people that queue up for a shot in front of the gates of Hualien’s Taroko gorge daily.

I stopped about five minutes drive away in Nan’ao (home of the beach caves) for some luncheon, as my hunger was getting the better of me. On a previous visit my friends and I stopped at a popular seafood restaurant by the train station, and remembering the high level of deliciousness it was the first option that came to mind. I park up and walk towards the restaurant, thinking of what I want to eat, but more importantly how I’m going to order it without the assistance of my local buddies, as reading seafood menus isn’t one of my strengths. In the end, none of that is important as piles of bouquets, balloons and a panicked hubbub from the workers inside tell me that it has been booked out for a wedding. Instead I found a small family run restaurant around the corner, but at first glance couldn’t tell if it was open for business or not. The frail old lady inside gave me a menu and sat me down at the smallest 2 seater table. Maybe they were expecting guests too? I ordered lamb fried rice, and noticed that the restaurant started to fill more as I ate it, and some of the visitors held a larger degree of curiosity towards me than I would receive in Taipei. I don’t mind, as long as they don’t ask me to have my picture taken with them. Stop that nonsense pls.

On the outskirts of Yilan it started to get considerably wetter, so my scheduled visit to the Kavalan whisky distillery couldn’t have come at a more suitable time. Yeah, you heard me right, whisky. Kavalan was established in 2005 after parent group “King Car” realised that the high quality of the water and damp, yet hot climate in Yilan would make ideal factors for producing and ageing one of the world’s favourite spirits. In fact, the climate is so suitable here that a barrel can be aged for just 6 years and have the taste of a 12 year old cask, as the frequent change in temperature and constant humidity considerably speeds up the ageing process. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case the ‘World’s best single malt’ prize in the 2015 World Whiskies Awards, and considering that was a mere 10 years after opening, the brand clearly has a big and exciting future ahead. In recent years Japanese single malt has started to challenge the big boys in Scotland, but now I’d bet that other Taiwanese brands are either thinking about or actively moving to join the fray. Anyway, if you’re in the area it’s an interesting place to visit, and previously I was lucky enough to be given a free personal English tour. The staff are very nice and pretty good at explaining the company’s background and their manufacturing procedure. If you can, visit during the week…

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A sneaky peek-er-oo of the copper stills within.

As it was a Saturday, the car park was utterly rammed with dithering tourists and awful children. Parking was a living nightmare as I fought the urge to run down zombies totally unaware of their surroundings, that is, a car park. A park for cars, buses, and other shit that will seriously injure you if you don’t move out of their way. Eventually I found a spot without murdering anyone and slowly made my way inside the building. One of my main objectives – as I’d already visited here – was to buy a bottle or two of the Kavalan distillery reserve, unavailable to buy anywhere else but from this building. Thankfully, the shop is just to the left hand side as I walked through the front door, but sadly is heaving with people. I find the bottle I’m looking for, but it’s more expensive than I remember so decide to pass up the opportunity. I was going back to the UK in a couple of weeks so it seemed like a slight extravagance considering the relatively cheap price of scotch in comparison. But, I text my mate back home to see if he wanted me to pick him up a bottle as he also rates it, but after hanging around for 30 minutes and hearing no response I decided to leave empty handed. A large part of me was happy with the lack of reply as I almost instantly realised after texting that I had absolutely no room in my backpack to get it home.

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Ageing oak casks of delicious Taiwanese whisky.

Driving through central Yilan at the weekend can be a huge annoyance. As if someone decided that traffic rules don’t exist for two days per week. On the way through I experienced a few incidents, one of my favourites was a car driver that simply decided that he didn’t want to wait in a traffic jam, so attempted to jump the entire queue and pull in front of someone, while almost knocking my bike. I had to brake sharply to avoid any dinks, and made a point of giving him the most evil of looks I could produce to hopefully notify him of his colossal level of bellenditry.  Another was planning to U-turn on a main road. No problem, there’s no traffic coming, so go for it pal. So he slams his foot on the brake for some unknown reason, meaning I have to stop completely and find a way around him in the busy traffic, as does everyone else. Maybe he had an epiphany that he was Taiwan’s shittest driver. If not, hopefully he will soon. But not while driving.

Another road that I enjoy riding is the number 9 from Yilan to Taipei. It takes a couple of hours but has a lot of sweeping roads in good condition, leafy scenery, and a great view of Yilan city from the mountains as you ascend. Alas, I wouldn’t be able to experience this road at it’s finest today, as the rain continued to beat down mercilessly and a thick fog rolled in, shielding the majestic view. Being December there was also a mighty chill in the air, causing my hands to numb slightly at times. Frankly, this was one of the least enjoyable sections of my whole trip, and it was a little sad to finish on this note. Boo. But, it was nice to sleep in my own bed once again.

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My apartment, last door on the left. Keep the noise down.

Lenpep’s final thought:
So that’s that, as they say. 16 days of thrilling adventure and hilariously entertaining stories. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it down (that is, only briefly for once a week). My main purpose of this diary was to have something to document the finer details of a trip that I’d never forget, but I’d be over the moon if it inspires or helps others do a similar thing.

Taiwan is such a surprising country with seemingly unlimited interesting places to visit, home to a friendly population, rich flora & fauna, and a far more interesting history than you might expect from such a small island. If you’re considering coming, then I hope this has persuaded you. If you’re already here, then what are you waiting for? Get yourself a motorcycle and do the huan dao, mofo’s!

– L

Day Fifteen: Hualien city

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I awoke at around 9am and was pleasantly surprised to realise that I had been granted my own choice of wake up time for once. I was the only backpacker staying in this dorm room which gave me more peace than I’d hoped for. The bad news was that I checked the weather outside and saw possibly the bluest sky in the world. Bugger it. I starting thinking that I’d picked the wrong day to go to Taroko, but unless I bumped into Doc and Marty McFly then there was no chance of changing that. And even if I did, they’d probably feel a little put out only going back 24 hours.

The plan today was simply just to have a wander around the city, maybe pick up a souvenir or two and check out the local grub. With a rumble in my belly I hopped onto the KTR and headed towards an area that had been recommended by hostel staff for having decent food options. I arrived to find that almost nothing was open. I previously mentioned in one of the earlier days that finding breakfast between the hours of 9am – 10:30am can be a nightmare for some reason, and it was certainly the case today. After around 15 minutes of careful checking of opening times and menus, luckily I eventually stumbled across a shop which I later worked out was called “Mr Goose”; the drawings of geese on the fascia clearly showing that at least I know what animal I’ll be eating.

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Qixingtan beach (七星潭海邊) in Hualien.

The restaurant cook, a moon faced auntie sporting a hairnet and stained black apron grinned at me as I approached, with the usual tourist pleasing “hello, hello”. In Mandarin, she immediately asked if I could speak Chinese, to which I replied “only a little, it’s not good”. “Hao-ah” was her response, which kind of means: “alright then”. Then she proceeds to point at various dishes and explain what they are in Chinese, which doesn’t help much. Every time I use the phrases “bu zhi dao” (I don’t know) and “ting bu dong” (I don’t understand) she holds her stomach and roars with laughter – like a Bond villain – and repeats what I said, followed by more chuckling. As I can recognise a little writing on menus, I crane my neck to the front of the cooking stall and try that approach instead. I see something that looks like “oil rice”, so I order one of those, then I notice that inside one of her broths has a favourite of mine: duck’s blood pudding. Now hear me out… it’s delicious. OK, that’s all I’ve got. I point decisively at the red squares, and she motioned for me to sit down.

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After some brekkie I headed back to the hostel for a shower, before I planned to hit the souvenir market. Well, if you are looking for pineapple cakes or jewellery then you’re in luck. But there’s practically nothing else for sale on the street that was recommended. This is another Asian phenomenon that puzzles me; rather than have a street consisting of different types of shops and businesses, they will often be located all in the same area. For example, it’s not uncommon to see three or four mechanics all working next door to each other, or in this case, a street of mainly jewellery and pineapple cake shops. How do the ones in the middle of the street make any money? Do people walk along for five minutes, passing cake shop after cake shop and think “no, not today” and then finally succumb to the temptation? Anyway, I digress. The hostel had mentioned a decent souvenir shop that sells aboriginal and hand crafted items, so I headed there first. As luck would have it, it was closed that day. Bugger it again.

The urban explorer side of my brain had been keeping an eye out for something interesting, even though I had heard that abandoned buildings were either few and far between or not particularly interesting around these parts. I spotted a Starbucks on the corner of one of the city’s main streets, and the windows above the shop showed a number of indications that the second floor might be abandoned. Sadly the first hurdle was insurmountable; a concierge at the main – and only – entrance. I gave up on that idea pretty sharpish.

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While I continued my search for some decent trinkets I couldn’t help noticing that the sky was becoming extremely murky, and sooner than expected it started to come down relatively heavily (say that three times fast). I was passing a McD’s and had the desire for a burger and ice cream, so I ducked in there for an hour or so while the rain poured. Unfortunately this continued for the rest of the day, which – if nothing else – gave me ample reassurance that I did pick the correct day to visit the gorge, and allowed me to get some nice shots of Hualien during the evening rush hour. My final evening didn’t get much more exciting than that, as I watched episodes of The Office to the sound of rainfall outside, and enjoyed a relaxed hotpot dinner courtesy of the generous hostel hosts.

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At this time tomorrow I’d be back in Taipei.

Day Fourteen: Taroko Gorge

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I won’t lie. The thought of driving my motorcycle through the meandering roads of Taroko gorge was one of my prime motivators during planning. For the uninitiated, it’s a 20-ish kilometre canyon based in Hualien county which shapes a gloriously rewarding route to drive taking you through the central mountain range, as far as Taichung or Sun Moon lake. Along the way you’ll see the turbulent Liwu river, rushing from the highest peaks of Taiwan down to the Pacific ocean. Let’s not forget the amount of lush vegetation, staggeringly high cliff drops and wild hot springs (if you can find them…) that are gagging to be checked out too. To sum it up, it’s a nature lover’s paradise.

Arguably holding the top spot in my list of favourite places in Taiwan, I’ve been here a couple of times already. I came with Masta Minch in 2015 on a 5 day camping trip, and distinctly remember saying that “if we have to drive the whole length of this road every single day, I’d be happy”. Luckily we did, due to necessities such as petroleum and food from the 7-eleven, both located outside of the national park area. Anyway, hopefully now you understand the magnitude of the beauty and my love for this place, so we can begin. About time.

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Frankly, even I am getting sick of mentioning that military jets woke me up early again. But it bloody well happened. From 8:30am to 8:45am, I counted no fewer than 7 low flying fighter pilots hell-bent on fucking up my comfortable sleep, but for once, I welcomed it. The weather reports looked good around Taroko gorge and I was keen to get there early and do a little hiking before the inevitable afternoon rain set in. My heart was set on one particular route, known as the Lianhua pond trail (蓮花池步道) as I attempted this with the previously mentioned Mr Minch in 2015, however we were forced to turn back as the trail looked a little dangerous while simultaneously seeming to be closed a few weeks after a typhoon.

Approximately five minutes after entering the national park, the rain started to come down, enough so that I admitted defeat by pulling out the poncho and rain shoes. I remember feeling pretty gutted that my Taroko experience would have to be under grey clouds and rainfall, but so be it. 20 minutes passed as I made my way through sweeping bends and mountain road tunnels, when all of a sudden I was greeted with fresh blue sky and dry roads. Was I dreaming? For the rest of the day, the rain clouds were being kept out of the majority of Taroko by the might of the mountains, and I couldn’t believe my luck. Off came the poncho.

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This charming little spot is called “Frog Rock”, because… the rock looks like a frog. And the pavilion is like a little hat, I think. It’s normally flooded with tourists so watch the road as you come by here. They like to shuffle around on the sharp bend like lemmings sometimes.

At one point on my journey I had a moment of severe déjà vu. I was sure that the trail I was aiming for began at a small car park on a hairpin bend, and – while the roads certainly are winding – there aren’t many bends as sharp as the one I was looking for. I drove past one that was missing the car park, but looked familiar. So, stopping at a small viewpoint sixty seconds down the road, I checked my GPS. It confirmed that my instinct was right, and this was indeed the bend I was looking for. Maybe I’ll go back for another look. Well, I did, and I was a little upset. Without a doubt the victim of a gargantuan landslide, the car park had disappeared, and there was nothing to indicate that it had ever existed. The mountainside above the trail used to have a thick carpet of vegetation, but was now reduced to a cold stone face. I took a few minutes to reflect and imagine how terrifying this landslide must have been to anyone unfortunate enough to witness it in person. On my previous visit the Lianhua pond trail began with a memorable low cliff overhang above, but the damage was so severe it was difficult to see any traces of its original state. So I suppose it’ll be a few years before I can try this one again, unless I’m willing to brave the locals’ “safety rope” system…

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Squint a bit, look to the left of this picture and you’ll see some very thin ropes that I assume the locals use to get around the pesky inconvenience of a massive landslide. I thought about having a try myself, but quickly realised that I value my life.

Well, as I was in the area I decided I may as well enjoy the roads. I carried on a little further and traffic was stopped by a band of aboriginal construction workers who were clearing loose debris from the mountainside above the road. It’s not unusual to see this around here, and the normal protocol is to park up, wait for 15 minutes and then continue on. A couple of Taiwanese bikers started chatting with me, one with a Kawasaki sports bike and the other with a rather fetching Triumph. The latter seemed to take pride in showing off his bike to a Brit, but I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I could barely take my eyes off of it. He was a middle aged chap, mentioned he had been to London twice, and was a professional photographer. Mid conversation, I noticed how impressed some tourists on a bus were that a Taiwanese person and a foreigner were having a normal conversation, so they decided to take some very low-key (and by low-key, I sarcastically mean extremely unintentionally obvious) photos of us to commemorate the occasion. They’ll talk about that for years.

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After the initial disappointment of the day, I decided to head to another spot that Mr Minch and I failed to properly explore back in 2015. At that time, it seemed to be a shamefully neglected and overgrown entrance to a possibly abandoned temple. While making our way in we noticed that a gang of macaque monkeys were sneakily trying to get into some sort of defensive or ambush position, so we called it off pronto. This time when I stopped by it looked to have been cleared and open for business. Here we go then. There was no sign of any mischievous monkey activity thankfully, but there were a few angry chained mutts. Anyone that has owned a dog will know the sound of a bark from a genuinely angry or aggressive canine. In the first instance I brushed it off as your classic chained dog behaviour, but as I got nearer to one of the buildings I could almost feel the burning fury in this mongrel’s soul, and the froth spraying out of his angry gob. Taking the hint that I wasn’t welcome in the slightest, I 180’d and headed back to my bike, much to the relief of the flea-infested guardian. Today was not going well.

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Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got dogs and chains.

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An abandoned old wooden shack discovered shortly before the livid guard dog.

My final stop – one which I prayed wouldn’t let me down – was going to be the Wenshan hot spring (文山溫泉). Every time I’ve been to Taroko, no matter what time of year, I religiously stop by this place for a soak in the soup. It is arguable whether or not you are allowed to be there, but it seems while the local authority would like to dissuade you from entering there with tough-talking “prohibited” signs, they also know it is virtually impossible to police. Some visitors may be put off, but there are almost certainly a troop of local residents that regularly visit, enjoy, and maintain the hot spring for others. Every time I have visited here the layout or construction of the spring has been different due to the fast flowing river along side it, and of course those darn landslides.

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The famous Wenshan hot spring view from the suspension bridge above. It used to be much more polished than this, but a huge landslide in 2005 dramatically altered the layout.

A short walk down some stairs of varying degrees of traction followed by a cheeky hop around the side of a metal gate gets me right where I want to be, down at the bottom of a canyon next to a raging river and a natural hot spring conveniently located inside a shallow cavern, like a big sheltered bathtub. There are already a number of other bathers already here. One is a well groomed young gentleman sporting a Duke Nukem haircut and sunglasses, whose main pastime seems to be taking hundreds of selfies. There are a boisterous group of two middle aged women and a man enjoying themselves, who I thought might have been on the Gaoliang, but it turns out that they were just from Guangzhou in southern China. Through my broken Chinese and his broken English, we managed to find out enough about each other to satisfy our curiosities. It takes me around 5 minutes to reach some kind of relative comfort in the hot spring, as temperature here is normally around a scalding hot 45 degrees Celsius. The river next to the spring is a Godsend, as you can switch from hot to cold water or vice versa instantly.

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A shot from the river beside the hot spring.

After starting to feel a little light headed, I decided that I’d had enough bathing for today. A 45 minute drive home was fairly uneventful in the dark, except for when one of the biggest moths in the world decided to fly directly into my face when my visor was up, causing significant panic. Kids, if you learn one thing from this blog, it’s that you should always ride with your visor down.

How to camp under the stars in Nan’ao

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Taiwan constantly surprises me. I may have been through a certain area several times and foolishly think that there is nothing else worth exploring but through the wonder of the Internet and my local chums, new information frequently makes its way to my eye and ear-holes whether it be locations for waterfalls, wild hot springs or in this case, caves on a beach.

A couple of years back on a trip to Taroko Gorge, a friend and I camped in this town no further than a two minute drive from this beach, and had absolutely no idea of its existence. I’ve been generous enough to give you a full write-up of our trip and some handy information at the end. Here is how to camp under the stars in Nan’ao.

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Photo credit due to my two fellow cave-campers, @wu_pongo and @jason_maowang for their sweet photography that I stole for this article.

Last week I received a message from one of my mates – Mao – that used to live in Taipei, but is now stationed down in Hualien on army related business. He tells me that he’s training for the Special Forces, but considering that his Instagram stories are just him walking a dog up mountains, I think he might be telling porkies. Only joking pal. I know you’re doing good work.

Anywho, he invited me on a camping trip to Nan’ao (南澳), which is a small, mainly indigenous town in Yilan County along the east coast, far from any city. He talked about sleeping in a cave by the sea, cooking steak for dinner, doing a little off-road motorcycle riding along the beach and having perfect conditions for stargazing in the evening due to the lack of light pollution. On top of that, it was his birthday, so it would be a crime not to throw a few beers into the equation. Is there anything here that doesn’t sound appealing? So I said yes, and started to pack my bag.

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I took the 3 hour motorcycle journey from Taipei all the way along the number 9 road, which takes you directly to central Nan’ao. I met Mao here (he was over an hour late, for the record) and we collected a few last minute supplies from the Hi-Life near to the train station; drinking water, kimchi, and obviously a couple of birthday beers. Then we loaded our guts with noodles and “100 year old egg”, which is tastier than it sounds. Give it a whirl.

We got down to the beach (GPS co-ordinates at the end of the article) via Hai’an Road and in a particularly sincere manner, the first thing Mao said to me before we touched the sand was:

“Don’t let your wheels get stuck, OK?”

Sound advice that I hoped wouldn’t be an issue for me on my Kymco KTR. I was quite wrong. For around 2km, the ground is manageable. The route is regularly used by the 4×4 vehicles of fishermen on the beach, thus the sand is fairly well compacted. I had little to complain about for the moment, but Mao – on his scooter – had to travel a little slower, saying that he was concerned for the welfare of our eggs. That bloke loves his eggs, I tell ya. When we passed the fishermen, the ground started to get much more soft. We struggled to keep our bikes upright as the front wheels sank left and right. I came up with the bright idea of riding nearer to the sea, where the ground was mainly stones, and presumably had more of a solid ground. I was catastrophically wrong, and I hated myself for it. The wheels sank into the ground, and I had visions of the tide coming in to make matters a whole lot worse. Thankfully, using careful clutch control and a lot of manhandling, I managed to get the bike back up onto the sand.

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That daft sod is me. Nice view though, eh?

Admitting defeat, Mao and I parked our bikes far up the beach as near to the cliff as possible so that the tide wouldn’t reach them. We walked the final kilometre because, well, we couldn’t take any more. Another of our friends joined later (who has a larger, heavier scooter, plus more beer) and had to park 500m further from camp than us. Doing the heroic thing, we walked down to meet him (and the beers) and helped with carrying supplies.

One nice addition to this area is the presence of a small waterfall. You can’t swim in it or anything, but it’s a handy place to have a natural shower in the evening. It’s easy to find, it’s about a 5 minute walk from the caves.

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Our shower for the evening. I’m afraid no towels are supplied so you’ll have to bring your own.

After this point there is a large, unmissable cave that is by far the most ideal spot for camping without a tent. It’s huge, is practically fully covered and has room for plenty of people. Unfortunately for us, when we arrived it was occupied by a group of stargazers. We took the second best option, which is just a little further along. The weather was perfect for our stay with hardly a cloud in the sky so shelter from the rain wasn’t a priority at the time, and we didn’t use sleeping bags. I can’t say with confidence that there is enough cover in the second cave to keep you dry overnight if it rains, so consider taking a tent if the weather report looks a bit iffy.

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This is the prime real estate of the area, the first cave. Set up camp here first and you’re laughing.

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Our evening was essentially photographing the Milky Way, drinking a little beer and scotch, and chowing down on wedges of cave steak. Pretty manly, eh? Yes it is.

We awoke at around 5am just before sunrise, as the dawn’s light didn’t really give us any option. As I have weak British skin, my kind friends mercifully decided to make a move sooner rather than later to stop my pasty bum getting burnt to a crisp. As expected, we struggled for the first section but once we reached the fishing spot it was plain sailing, as they say.

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Top notch sunrise.

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Handy info:

  • You can catch the train from Taipei to Nan’ao, which takes between 2-3 hours, and runs every 3 hours via the Mountain line or the Coast line trains. It’s $304NTD for the fast train and $234NTD for the slightly slower one.* This website allows you to search for train times, is pretty simple to navigate, and is in English! Woohoo!
  • The bus is a little pointless, as you have to change in Ludong (羅東) to get the train to Nan’ao anyway. If you bloody love buses and insist on doing this, you can get the 1917 or 1915 from Taipei bus station, which takes you to Ludong.
  • If you do plan on cooking, central Nan’ao (by the train station) has a few convenience stores such as Hi-Life and 7-eleven, so you can stop up on supplies there to save you from lugging your body weight in dried noodles and canned beef.
  • The caves are located about 4km south of the road that takes you to the beach (GPS co-ordinates for this road are [24.438332, 121.801142], and GPS co-ordinates for the caves are approximately [24.402575, 121.788924].
    You should either be prepared for a long slog of a beach walk or take a 4×4 vehicle. As you have just read, scooters are possible, but not advisable. If you take a motorcycle like a Sym Wolf or KTR, you might be OK, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…
  • If you do take a scooter/motorcycle, don’t ride on the stones near to the sea, like this idiot. I made the mistake so that you could learn! You’re welcome.
  • Take your bestest camera and tripod to shoot the Milky Way at night. If the sky is clear it really is spectacular.
  • Other essentials: earplugs (the sound of waves crashing is LOUD in the cave), mosquito repellent, drinking water, ground mat, picnic blanket, stove (obviously only if you want to cook), towel (if you want a waterfall shower), and a headlamp or LED light.

*All above info correct as of July 2017. You have my utmost heartfelt apologies if any of it is outdated.

Day Thirteen: Dulan to Hualien

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This morning the jets gave me a more soothing wake up call than I would have received from the Minions bin lorry (or “The Binions” as I’ve just realised I should have called it) that followed around ten minutes afterwards, in all their annoying, fatuous glory.

So onto my route for the day. I couldn’t help researching this one before today as it looked to be one of the most interesting and scenic journeys of the trip. The plan was to head south towards Taitung on the 11 road, then north along the 197 – which looked like 40-50km of mountain road bliss – which eventually joins the mammoth 9 road. Thankfully only briefly, as you can opt for the less direct but far more enjoyable choice of the 193 road, guiding you all the way to Hualien city.

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Taitung (台東), as seen from the southern end of the 197 road.

Several days prior, I had a conversation with one of my friends living in Taipei, whose name will remain anonymous. But he knows exactly who he is. And so will all of my Taiwanese friends reading this by looking at the profile picture below.. We talked about where I’d been so far, most of the places I chose to stop off at he was already familiar with, as that group are avid hikers, and probably know every inch of this island between them. Please observe the following conversation.

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Sounds good eh? Aboriginal tribes, mountain roads, and lush scenery, pretty much everything I’m looking for. I wasn’t so keen on the 11 road, as it has the same view of the ocean for the entire journey and would most likely be full of construction vehicles, trucks and tour buses, as it’s one of the main routes between Hualien and the south. The 197 to 193 route was the obvious winner.

Once I’d reached the 197 the traffic became virtually nonexistent, which wasn’t a bad thing at first. Then I realised that I hadn’t seen another human being for about 30 minutes of riding. Then I noticed that the road surface changed from that of a solid asphalt to loose gravel. Then it became slightly muddy. I kept my confidence by noting that I was – at least – still on the correct route as I continued to ride past ‘197’ road markers, and that I was on a suitable mode of transport: a rugged KTR dirtbike. I’ve seen uncles riding these bad boys up hiking trails with several gas canisters on the back, so I had confidence that it was prepared for a challenge. I remember reaching a point where the road continued to get worse and worse, and my brain had a negative spell once the thought of getting a puncture crossed my mind. I had no repair kit, and hadn’t seen a soul for about 10km. If the worst happened, the bike would have to remain while I went in search of a mechanic by foot. I started to care less about enjoying the quiet mountain countryside views and more about getting back onto solid tarmac and finding some degree of civilisation.

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Another beauty on the way out of Taitung.

I powered along the deteriorating road – incidentally the worst I recall seeing in Taiwan – in the belief that it had to end soon. Well, it got worse before it got better. I turned several corners that had clearly suffered landslide damage; piles of rocks teetered on the edge of a steep cliff drop to the left hand side, which was sporadically marked by temporary (though clearly showed some age) concrete safety barriers. Large chunks of granite littered the road but were only a minor obstacle to be steered around. The real stumbling block was around the next corner, which is probably best described as a 30 metre clay pit. Grey, wet, and appearing to have the consistency of a chocolate mousse, I stopped to think about the best method of crossing. Quickly? Nope. If the bike topples in, I’m in big trouble. Hard to lift out, and I would bet that the clay isn’t good for the exposed engine, and tough to clean afterwards. Slowly then? But maybe I’ll get stuck and the bike will start to sink. Not slowly and not too fast? OK sounds good. Let’s do that.

My main comfort was that I could see car tyre marks from previous visitors of the swamp, but I had no idea when they had been made, and if it had rained since then. I was hopeful that the more narrow weight distribution on a motorcycle wouldn’t be a problem if the clay had been compacted by the last car’s mass. I turned on my Xiaoyi camera to capture the event, as I predicted a lot of swearing and anger being directed at the aforementioned expert of Taiwan for his terrible advice, which I could show to him later. With some careful manoeuvring and the use of my feet as impromptu stabilisers, we managed to brave the metaphorical banana skin with only a caking of dried clay on the bike and my trainers.

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Just. Look. At. That. Shit. Not fun.

Around 15 minutes later, a random road sign appeared on the gravel road, seeming to show different routes at a junction. My first instinct was to laugh. My second thought was that a previous landslide had most likely dramatically altered the landscape, thus calling for a slight re-shuffle of the intersection. All of that was rubbish in the end, as 100m later I finally reached a junction made of my old friend: tarmac.

Overjoyed is too insignificant an adjective to describe my immediate mood. I punched the air, whooped, and even chanted my celebrations. I felt like I was smoothly floating over the road, and leaned into turns with ease. We had reached industrially developed society again! A clear reiteration of that was the appearance of a well placed 7-eleven, where I stopped to have lunch – covered in dust and clay.

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Between there and the 193 road there is a place called Chishang (池上), which has a straight road flanked by rice paddies used for a TV advert or movie or something, and as a result has been firmly placed into the Famous category. The knock on effect is one of the most horrible tourist traps I’ve has the misfortune of seeing in all of Taiwan, and is smothered in tackiness. Loud music blares out at eardrum shattering levels, dozens of pedal rickshaw drivers wait by the barricaded entrance to the road, and hordes of tour groups shuffle up and down the road taking their unique pictures of the famous tree. I’m trying my best not to sound negative about this, but… well, I’ll leave it there. I just don’t understand it. I tried at least to have a ride down the road to see what all the fuss was about, and the swindle of rickshaw drivers (incidentally,  “swindle” is a word of my own invention; the collective noun for rickshaw and taxi drivers) jumped up in unison to tell me that no, I was not allowed down this road on my vehicle. However, if I wanted to hire a bicycle or rickshaw then I was very welcome to try and enjoy myself while attempting not to crash into anyone. I very politely told them that this option did not interest me, and carried on my merry way.

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A road leading away from Chishang (池上). There are a wealth of straight flat roads alongside rice paddies to explore, and all but one are empty!

It didn’t take long before I was on the glorious 193 road which quickly made it into my top two favourite roads in Taiwan. It snakes through rural villages, lazy winding rivers, ramshackle farmhouses, stagnant ponds and is home to many curious locals. Frankly, 90 kilometres of pure joy. The traffic is nonexistent as the vast majority of vehicles want to finish their Taitung – Hualien (or vice versa) journey as soon as possible, so logically choose the faster route 9 or 11. The only other users of this road are locals driving from village to village, or lycra-clad tour bikers. It’s surprisingly well maintained, which I would attribute to its popularity with cyclists, and that if it wasn’t in such a condition it would be avoided (like, oh I don’t know, the 197?) meaning a loss of revenue for the local people. Probably the only drawback would be a minor loss of convenience; you can still buy drinks and whatnot, but I wouldn’t expect the choice of FamilyMart or 7-eleven from the little family-run shacks they have here. Although, the road runs in-between the aforementioned routes 9 and 11, so you are never too far away should you wish to get your favourite Matcha Latte drink.

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Some snaps from the sticks on the 193 route.

As the sublime 193 came to an end, so too did my luck. Rain started to fall after an entire day’s worth of dry weather, something fairly rare on the east coast. I pulled over to cover my backpack in tarpaulin and replace my trainers with rubber Croc-like shoes which are perfik for riding a motorcycle in the rain, and as I bent over to slip them on my phone slid out of my jacket breast pocket. It hit the road and settled face down. People that have done this before know the awful feeling of not knowing exactly how shattered your phone may or may not be. Schrödinger’s Screen. It is both perfectly fine and completely ruined at that moment. I picked it up and turned it around for inspection, full of hope. Yeah, It was ruined. The impact hit the corner and the cracks spread the whole way up the screen, splintering in the bottom right. It was the final nail in the coffin, and I decided to get a new phone when I returned to Taipei, but for now, thankfully I was on the outskirts of Hualien and it was fairly simple to find my lodgings for the evening without the use of GPS. I reached the hostel at about 18:30 and took a well-earned shower.

My phone buzzes. It’s a text from my mate, you know, the bloke with all the good travel advice? He asks me how I got on. I tell him I hate his guts and will never forgive him. He seems confused. I tell him every detail of my ordeal, and he nonchalantly responds:

“Aww yeah, sorry. It’s not the 197. 193 is the one I meant.”
“…What?!”
“Did you take the 197 then?”
“Yep.”
“Oh I heard that it’s really difficult, like all off-road…”
“…Yep.”
“Dabon (mutual friend) is the only one of the group that has taken that road before, he says it’s horrible.”
“…I will destroy you.”
“The 193 is beautiful though, isn’t it?”

During my rage, one thing distracted me. How the bloody’ell did Dabon get through that clay pit on a scooter? To stop me riding all the way back to Taipei for a fight, I settled down for the evening by listening to whale song on my iPod. Day fourteen was going to be a big one: exploring the colossal Taroko Gorge.