This is the central statue at a roundabout in Bad Füssing, Germany. I think the author deserves an award, whether it was intentional or accidental. Upon noticing that also the second “s” in the town’s name might just be an assimilated “t”, the citizens of the neighboring town called it Angering 🙂
We arrived at Shitiping and checked in at the campsite. The campsite is very nice, with open shelters for tents – you basically pitch your tent inside a small cabin with only two walls (without the front and back wall). For the first time ever, we encountered a little baby toilet there, and were quite amused by it. The campsite is also occupied by a pack of semi-wild cats, and if you leave your things outside overnight, they will sleep in/on them – my backpack was quite fuzzy in the morning 🙂 The cats aren’t the most cleanly of creatures, and they do drink out of the toilets (literally, they drink the water out of the squatting pans), but they certainly are a pleasant enlivening of this beautiful place.
The coastline at and around the campsite is just breathtaking. The color combination of very vivid blue, green, white, and black, and the splashing of the waves is just wonderful. We met another lovely Taiwanese couple here, this time with kids, and again, they gave us some nibbles.
We checked out the nearby village as well – it is apparently mostly a fishing village, and you will find some of the little privately-owned general stores here. You can find those everywhere in Taiwan, especially outside the big cities. They are usually tiny places or shelters attached to the owner’s house or hut, with a cooler for drinks, some instant noodles, canned products, sometimes fruit and vegetables, and usually other stuff as well – anything from scooter parts to fishing gear.
We spent the afternoon enjoying the sun and the sea – we found a nice little cove at the campsite where the waves didn’t go, and even though the water was only knee-to-waist high, it was the first place where we could access it. There aren’t many places around the east coast where you can swim – we still found it strange at this point that there were signs everywhere saying “DANGER – NO SWIMMING” or something to that effect. We would only later find out that the waves along the coast were just too strong and that it really would be dangerous to go swimming at an open rocky coastline, and any casual swimmer would likely be thrashed against the rocks badly. There was also one very interesting thing about the rocky coastline – the amount of broken, washed-up corals among the pebbles – far greater than the amount of shells.
The next day, we woke up with our faces and arms red as a lobster. I even had dried-up yellow plasma on my face. We didn’t have any sunblock, and the entire day spent in the sun turned us into two little piggies.
We got on the bus back to Hualien, where we purchased some baby oil – sunblock is quite impossible to get outside the big cities – and continued north by train to our next stop, Fulong.
Fulong is a nice little town on the coast with a temple at the seafront, a large sandy beach, and an even larger campsite. We met an interesting guy at the visitor center – not only did he speak perfect English, he also knew where the Czech Republic was and knew the Czech greeting “Dobry den” – his flatmate was from Slovakia, once part of the same country, Czechoslovakia.
The campsite in Fulong (Longmen Camping Site) was completely empty, we were the only visitors at this large but pleasant facility – with a lot of trees, tables, benches etc.
The next day, we went on foot further north to Aodi. We went along a nice trail, starting at the beach (paid entry) in Fulong. The trail leads along a bike path, where you will encounter quite a humorous DANGER sign – Taiwan is rife with DANGER signs, but this one takes the title. To paraphrase, it says “Warning, bikers, you are going downhill!” Which would be funny in and of itself, rendering the bikers complete morons, but its location makes it ten times funnier – the slope is roughly….well, I don’t know, maybe 0.001%? So, beware, if you pedal with all you’ve got, you might go slightly faster than you would on a leveled path.
In Aodi, we got on a bus to Longdong, where we wanted visit the Longdong Ocean Park (recommended to us by the guy in Fulong) and check out local climbing opportunities. I can’t say that the park impressed us very much, as four years later, I don’t really remember anything interesting there – but I think it wasn’t even open at the time of our visit (off season). But we saw how seaweed is processed in Longdong – it is dried in the sun right on the sidewalk by the road. I wonder if this is where various bio-eco dietary supplements get their seaweed from 🙂 At the park, we asked a local woman sitting with a group of cops on the terrace if there was any campsite nearby. She informed us, quite happily, that there was a rest stop – near the “Bat Tunnel” (Pien-Fu-Ton, or something like that) just outside Ruibin, a few kilometers away. That surprised us, because up to this point we thought that wild camping was really frowned upon in Taiwan (that was what we had read on multiple blogs) – due to safety concerns, above all.
With the blessing of a table full of cops, we got on another bus, headed to Jiufen, a nice little town up in the mountains above Ruibin. We drove past the waterfalls in Jinguashi (I would recommend a stop there) and got off the bus in Jiufen. The town has its charm, especially in misty weather that we encountered there, spoiled only by the crowds of tourists, sadly (locals, or so we assumed). We took a peek at one of the local temples, and continued down the switchbacks toward Ruibin, where we replenished our larder and asked about “Pien-Fu-Ton”. Obviously, I pronounced the name of the tunnel intelligibly, and received proper bearings. We went through the tunnel – at the east end of Ruibin – and set up camp in the parking lot, which is right at the end of the bat-infested concrete tube (actually, we didn’t see a single bat). Though there were some cars in the lot, no one cared that we built a tent there. However, we waited for the dusk to do that so we wouldn’t attract unnecessary attention. But no one cared in the morning either, which meant the lady in Longdong was quite right that it was OK to spend the night there (back in 2013, don’t know if it still is). The rest stop is right at the shore, and there are toilets with running water there and some monkey bars as well. In case of bad weather, there are two gazebos available. Local fishermen on the rocks put on quite a show after dark, with fluorescent lights on their rods and all 🙂
The next day, we continued by bus from Ruibin to Keelung, where an older lady gave us some fruit after we asked her where our next bus to Jinshan was leaving from. We got to Jinshan without any hitch, and after a visit to the information center, we found out that there were no campsites in the area, and the cheapest option was the local YHA hostel, referred to as the YMCA by everybody. Finding the YHA in Jinshan is easy, just look for the largest military air-force base in town, and that’s it. Really, it looks like a fortified airport, with the control tower visible from afar. The tower is the main lodge. The service there was great, but it was a bit pricey – though the standard was more hotel-like than anything else, and the overnight stay included wonderful breakfast – again, hotel style – which would give us the opportunity to sample several new dishes. We went to explore the town until our room was ready. We went through a very interesting cemetery with a lot of unified tombs, varying only in color – you get to choose between blue and red – and small statues outside of them.
The local street market was one of the more interesting ones that we visited around Taiwan, with a variety of local foods. There is a nice temple in the center, though at this point the whole temple architecture had gotten quite old and wasn’t that exciting for us – basically all the temples look alike and only vary in size or the presence/absence and style of the casino-like neons above the entrance. We met another friendly local here, a guy named Chon (I think), who told us the temple was Confucian. Chon actually lived in California and was on a visit to his mother. And as the approximately hundredth proof of the hospitable nature of the Taiwanese, he offered us an overnight stay at his mom’s. We had already paid the lodging at the YHA and didn’t want to be a nuisance, so we declined. Looking back, maybe we should have accepted the offer anyway, as we could have learned a lot about Taiwan from Chon, who seemed like an interesting guy, and I have since come to believe that the Taiwanese really are that hospitable, and their invitations aren’t only gestures, but are genuine.
After we checked in at the YHA later in the afternoon, we went to the Shitoushan Park by the sea to take a look at the Twin Candlesticks – two tiny, tall islands a few hundred meters off shore. It is a nice walk for the evening, and you get to see what is probably one of the fattest, most indolent buddhas in the whole of Taiwan.
We got to the Taroko Visitor Headquarters around noon – it was only slightly over one hour on foot from Xincheng. We asked the park employee (again a nice lady with a big smile, very happy to help) for some detailed map of the mountains, but they only had simple touristic/schematic maps – they were free and enough to get around, but not really what we were after. We would, of course, later find out that detailed maps wouldn’t be of much use to us anyway, as the lower mountains are completely covered with impassable vegetation and as the lady told us, we would have needed permits for the higher mountains.
We might have felt an earthquake while we were waiting for a bus to Lushui, a village further up in the park near Heliu camping ground, though I did not find any record of it on the Internet a few weeks later, so maybe the kids running around the restaurant we were sitting at were just really heavy 🙂 We also enjoyed the sounds of a bus worth of Taiwanese men’s cleansing at the toilets at the bus stop. Shortly after the spittle-snot symphony ended, our bus arrived, and after about 30 minutes of jumping up and down in a bus without shock absorbers on a pothole-filled road, we stepped out in Lushui. From here, it was only about 7 minutes to Heliu camping ground on foot.
The campsite was empty, and the groundskeeper – a very nice and friendly guy – told us to pitch our tent under the roof at a nice terrace above the river, even though the sign said not to 🙂 The camping grounds were quite nice, with water taps and fireplaces at the individual tent platforms, and with cold-water showers. I am not sure if the water was potable, maybe it was, but at this point we still avoided drinking water out of random taps outside plus there were some little signs on each tap (in Chinese or Taiwanese only). Also the campsite’s cesspit was just getting a makeover that day and we didn’t want to take the chance of getting any of the old makeup into our bottles.
The next day we went to Tianxiang. There is a nice monastery on the hillside – Xiangde Temple – with a pagoda visible from far away.
After a tasty lunch at a local restaurant, we continued toward Wenshan, properly sunburned at this point. Our original intention was to reach Lianhua (Lotus) Pond, but there was not enough time, so we turned off onto a trail from Wenshan to Lushui. The trail is quite nice and well marked with signs. It leads through thick vegetation, but at one point, it goes along a ridge with beautiful views. It also goes past small remains of police outposts and two Taroko villages from the Japanese era, but these aren’t anything spectacular, they are mostly just the very bases of walls, covered with dirt and vegetation – basically just bumps in the forest. The trail crosses a small stream of clear water, but I don’t know whether it is potable. After about fifteen minutes of an effort to get our SteriPEN working, we decided to get water somewhere down in Lushui.
The trail took slightly over 2.5 hours from Wenshan to Lushui (it said around 5 hours on one of the signs, but I suspect that would require either several lunch breaks or walking backwards). In Lushui, we asked for tap water at a local restaurant and the waitress was happy to fill both our 1.5 liter bottles.
It was Friday and we were no longer alone at the campsite. When a couple from Taichung saw us eating cookies and drinking water for dinner, they invited us for a meal. We didn’t want to impose, but upon their second invitation, we accepted. They were very nice people and gave us each a bowl of broth with noodles. There was just one catch to it – in Taiwan, the broth is usually full of fat meat, to which, unfortunately, I have a heaving reflex. So I swallowed even the biggest chunks whole, smiling 🙂 We thanked them and talked for a while. Since we didn’t know any Chinese or Taiwanese, and they didn’t know any English or any other European language, this comprised of a lot of dictionary searching and picture-drawing. As a thank you, we at least offered them the technical gasoline we bought by mistake in Taipei, but they had no use for it. After the dinner, they brought us a small lamp for our tent and in the morning, they brought us some fruit and vegetables, candy and cappuccino. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anything to give them in return, but as we gradually learned with each such act of niceness, the people in Taiwan are really selflessly generous and happy to help. In the end, we gave the technical gasoline to the groundskeeper, and he brought us a bottle of flammable gel in return.
In the morning, I lost a game of hide and seek to some formosan macaques, trying to take a picture of them that wouldn’t be blurry. We went back to Xincheng by bus. Once again, there was not even a hint of the bus having shock absorbers, and this time it was going downhill. A piece of advice – take off your backpack, when you sit down in the bus, especially if the backpack is heavy. I didn’t bother taking it off for the short ride and my back certainly wasn’t pleased. Also, have the exact amount of money ready – buses in Taroko have a coin box by the door and the drivers do not handle money, so they don’t give change back.
From Xincheng, we went to Hualien by train, and then further south to Shitiping by bus.
Taroko – first impression
Overall, Taroko, or at least the small part of it that we visited, is definitely worth seeing if you are in Taiwan. However, I liked it more for the vegetation, the people, and the atmosphere of something new more than for the everywhere-advertised Taroko Gorge. The gorge is nice, but for anyone used to alpine scenery, it is not that special. Unfortunately, we didn’t have permits to go to higher mountains, so I can’t say anything about that. Maybe next time 🙂
There are many signs warning about wasps and snakes – especially in summer and autumn. We were there in spring and apart from a few individual wasps and some wasp nests, we didn’t encounter either. But judging by the size of the wasp nests, things might get quite stingy if you cross their path. The term wasps probably includes hornets as well.
Practical note 2
From time to time, you’ll see someone with an open wound caused by some flesh-eating bacteria. I’m not sure which bacteria is the cause, maybe staphylococcus or, less likely, vibrio vulnificus, but I don’t know. One such man (a station garbage collector with an open wound on his mouth) wanted to help us at the bus station in Hualien and touched our map, which was not entirely pleasant, since we didn’t know the cause of his wound, but obviously it wasn’t anything highly contagious since no wounds opened up on our bodies after that 🙂 I later rubbed the map with whiskey, but still, it plants some seeds of worries into your head.
The main hostel facilities in a high-rise across the street from the main train station were fully booked, and the lady receptionist took us around the corner to the secondary facilities of the hostel. These rooms were on the second floor of a low-rise building, and the entrance was really inconspicuous, wedged in between the numerous street buffets and shops. Before the lady went away, she showed us a plastic basket and told us to “put shit” in the basket before we left, which later found its way into my book, as it was pure gold (the basket was meant for our sheets).
The next day we slept in quite a bit, and in the afternoon, we looked around the surroundings of the hostel and bought train tickets to Xincheng for the next day – our destination was the Taroko National Park. We asked a random guy at the train station where the ticket machines are, and not only did he show us to the machines, he basically bought the tickets for us (with our money), very polite and happy to help.
In the evening, we ate at a street buffet – which is very cheap in Taiwan, and as we found out, it is the best option for you if you are here only for a few days and don’t have a place to cook. Fair warning though – if you buy anything on the street, it will have meat in it (usually beef or duck). It is very hard to get any edible food, even in the numerous small food stores, that is without meat. The only milk products that you encounter are very expensive cheese and very, very, very artificially tasting puddings. You will also encounter eggs boiled in tea.
But other than that, it’s just meat, rice, and noodles. I am sure that if we had stayed longer, we would have found other options and alternatives, but in our two-weeks stay, moving about, we had to eat meat (which I normally don’t, but I am not fanatic about it), otherwise we would be stuck with instant noodles. It is also not always easy to get bread or vegetables. We came across a fruit-and-vegetables store just once during our stay in Taiwan, otherwise it’s usually just a small assortment of fruits and vegetables in the general food stores. But aside from the fact that every single meal comes with meat, the food on the street is very tasty, and you definitely won’t be disappointed with it. With bread not being readily available outside bigger cities, we later took the advice of a local guy and started eating the omnipresent instant noodles “as cookies”, i.e. dry – which is apparently a common practice in Taiwan.
We got up early the next morning and hurried to a gas station to get ethanol for our camping stove before we left for Taroko. We later found out that we had successfully bought technical gasoline instead and that it is not easy to get flammable ethanol in Taiwan – they use flammable gel instead.
We boarded our train to Xincheng and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of local rail service – clean trains, tickets for individual seats (without paying anything extra), and overly polite conductors. The first one, a girl, greeted everybody in the car and bowed literally into a right angle before she proceeded to check tickets. Riding south, we admired the green rice fields covering the flat areas around cities and villages, with little embankments between the individual fields. Rice fields are of course everywhere in Taiwan, even in the middle of Taipei, as we later found out.
In Xincheng, we bought some food, water, and a small bottle of whiskey to get any hostile parasites drunk, and set out for Taroko on foot.
Practical note – food and other supplies
What you can get anywhere:
Instant noodles, rice noodles, meat products, canned fish, dried fish, basic fruits like apples, bananas, and melons; water, soda, ice tea, especially green ice tea (without sugar, very good), beer, spirits.
What you can’t get that easily:
Potatoes, broccoli/cauliflower, or other staple/main-meal vegetables; cheese (if it is available, it is expensive) and other milk products, bread; ethanol for a camping stove.
What you won’t find outside big cities:
Sunscreen! The reason I guess is simple – locals don’t need it, at least not as much as pasty Europeans do 🙂 But you will at least get baby oil and similar moisturizing products without UV protection in smaller cities.
We had read a lot of warnings about potential dangers of drinking tap water outside bigger cities (one of them being typhus infection), but we drank tap water everywhere without any health consequences that we know of. We just avoided drinking water from streams. We bought a SteriPEN (UV disinfection device) before our journey, but we apparently used a wrong type of batteries, so we basically ended up carrying a useless dildo around 🙂
Tips for substitutes:
bread => dry instant noodles
ethanol => flammable gel – best used in a cut beer can, as it leaves residue – not very suitable for a regular camping stove
“And we’re off!” joyfully flashed through my mind as I was looking at the station through the window of a bus leaving for Prague. Finally. We were leaving for New Zealand.
It was the end of winter in 2013 and our long-standing dream finally came true. My girlfriend and I were finally headed somewhere outside Europe. The first stop was Taiwan.
The main thing we wanted to see in Taiwan were its beautiful national parks. Discouraged by the requirement to arrange permits for various areas of Taiwan’s national parks up to a month in advance, we had decided we were just going to wing it, as well as everything else on this beautiful island. Make it sort of a getting-to-know visit. It turned out to be a good idea for the most part and certainly made our visit more interesting.
We got on board an early morning flight with China Airlines from Prague to Amsterdam and then from Amsterdam to Bangkok, where the leaving passengers received instructions – first in Chinese, but there were a few English words clearly audible throughout the monologue as well, in a nice succession: “…engine…blow up…get out…start crying.” Judging from the reaction of two girls a few seats back, I was not the only one who heard that. Contrary to the stoically delivered information of doom, the engine didn’t blow up, and after a short break in Bangkok, we made the last leg to Taipei. This journey from Prague to Taipei was my first time flying, and I spent much of the time looking out the window. The highlights were the snow-covered Tatra Mountains (Tatry) in Slovakia and the meandering reddish rivers and dustroads of the same color in the green rainforests of South East Asia. And of course the ocean. We flew around Himalayas at night, so perhaps next time. I also have to give it up for China Airlines, an absolutely great experience.
We repacked at the Taipei airport and left the unnecessary stuff at the left luggage office. Our wing-it approach hit the first minor obstacle when we asked the lady at the information desk where the nearest campsite was. Well, as we later found out, there are about seven campsites in all of Taiwan. Apparently, camping is not big here. But we probably weren’t the first ones to have come unprepared, and the lady produced a list of hostels and called one of the cheap ones for us. She and her colleague were very nice about it, which we later found out to be typical for Taiwanese people – very nice and accommodating people, ready to help anyone anywhere. You don’t even have to ask – they just see a foreigner with a map looking for a way and they help on their own initiative. That was something new for us, a very pleasant surprise indeed. A side note for those who have visited SE Asia before – it is not like in Thailand or Cambodia, where the act of helping is usually the start of a more or less elaborate scheme to extract money from you; in Taiwan, the helping is sincere, selfless.
Since the airport is not in the city itself, we got on the shuttle bus from the airport to the city. The journey took about forty minutes, if I remember correctly. The bus dropped us at the train station in the center, and we started looking for the street with our hostel. At this point, we already stank quite a bit since we hadn’t showered for almost two days and didn’t change our clothes at the airport. Also wearing pants was not a good idea, especially since we came straight from the freezing temperatures back in Europe to a very humid climate with temperatures around 25°C. But as I stated above, the Taiwanese are very nice people, and despite our appearance, it didn’t take long and a nice lady asked us what we were looking for. We showed her the address written on a piece of paper by the airport information lady. The nice lady thought about it for a while, during which another 5 or 6 people joined our little orientation session. Finally, after a brief discussion with the others, the lady took us to our hostel and even gave us her business card, saying we could contact her in case we needed anything. This was another one in the long line of selfless, hospitable acts we were yet to encounter during our stay in Taiwan.
Practical note – maps and orientation
We bought a map back in the Czech Republic, but there is no need for it – you can get very good free maps at the airport or at any information center around the island, both bilingual (in Latin and Chinese scripts) and in Chinese script alone. We ended up using these free maps.
We got by fine with English, a Chinese dictionary, and hand gestures. The main touristic points, stations, and public transport connections are English-friendly. Since the maps were bilingual, it was easy to figure out when and where the buses go at small bus stops as well, despite the timetables being only in Chinese characters.
Many people speak English in Taiwan, and those that don’t are patient and nice enough to communicate with using hand gestures, schematic drawings, and a Chinese dictionary. With the exception of the oldest generation, they all know Chinese (the primary language being Taiwanese), as we have been told by locals.