Taiwan, part 3 – Taroko National Park

Taroko National Park - view from the ridge above Lushui to the east (Wenshan-Lushui trail)
Taroko National Park – view from the ridge above Lushui to the east (Wenshan-Lushui trail)

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.

Some of the giant butterflies in Taroko
Some of the giant butterflies in Taroko

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.

Tianfeng Pagoda, part of the Xiangde Temple complex, above Tianxiang
Tianfeng Pagoda, part of the Xiangde Temple complex, above Tianxiang (photo by Marketa)

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.

Xiangde Temple - one of the two main temple buildings
Xiangde Temple – one of the two main temple buildings

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.

At the bottom of the Taroko Gorge in Wenshan, with a suspension bridge above
At the bottom of Taroko Gorge in Wenshan, with a suspension bridge above.

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.

Typical low-growing palm tree in the forest
A typical low-growing palm tree in the forest.

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.

Views at the start of the Wenshan-Lushui trail, looking north
Views at the start of the Wenshan-Lushui trail, looking north.

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.

Taiwan's most famous eye candy - the face of Taroko
Taiwan’s most famous eye candy. You’ll see this face everywhere.

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 🙂

Quite a big wasp appartment building
Quite a big wasp apartment building

Practical note

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.

An empty shell of what appears to be a Taiwanese combat snail :-)
An empty shell of what appears to be a Taiwanese combat snail 🙂

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.

Taiwanese combat wasp :-) (photo by Marketa)
A Taiwanese combat wasp 🙂 (photo by Marketa)


Eternal Spring Shrine - photo taken through a bus window. I kept the image uncropped to show the fairytale nature of the site.
Eternal Spring Shrine – photo taken through a bus window. I kept the image uncropped to show the fairytale nature of the site (click to enlarge).



Taiwan, part 2 – food & rail

A tree during sunset in 228 Peace Park, Taipei
Sunset in 228 Peace Park, Taipei

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).

228 Peace Park, Taipei

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.

Piccadily Circus, Taipei :-)
Piccadilly Circus, Taipei 🙂

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.

Flatiron Building, Taipei :-)
Flatiron Building, Taipei 🙂

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.

Rice fields (photo taken through a train window)
Rice fields (photo taken through a train window)

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.

One long crosswalk in Xincheng
One long crosswalk in Xincheng

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

228 Peace Park, Taipei
228 Peace Park, Taipei


Taiwan, part 1 – arrival

The east coast looking north from Shitiping, Hualien

“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.

Taroko National Park
Taroko National Park

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.

The front gate of the National Chiang Khai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei
The front gate of the National Chiang Khai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei

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.

The inconspicuous entrance to our hostel – a tiny door among many shops and street buffets

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.

Taipei 101 from the Elephant Mountain
Taipei 101 from the Elephant Mountain