Browsed by
Category: Taiwan

Taiwan Recap

Taiwan Recap

Taiwan, you have won our hearts.

DSC_0640

We spent a total of 19 nights in Taiwan to kick-off our RTW trip! Our initial plan was to spend 4 nights in Taipei before heading around the country starting with the east coast and working our way clockwise around the island by train until we made it back to Taipei. We made it to Hualien, a city about 3 hours by train southeast of Taipei. We were supposed to spend 3 nights here before continuing our tour around the island. We stayed here for 4 nights and then decided our time was best spent in and around Taipei for the remainder of our time in Taiwan. We are not totally sure what made us decide to ditch our plan to see the whole country and head back to Taipei, but this is exactly what we did. We are a big fan of Taiwan and know we will be back one day to explore the rest of the country that we missed this time around. We do regret not seeing more of the country, but we are also happy that we took it slow and got to explore every inch of Taipei.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

DSC_0052

 

Cities Visited

Taipei (15 nights), Hualien (4 nights), Keelung (day trip)

dsc_0588

dsc_0857

Things We Liked

FOOD, friendly people, street food, non-street food, night markets, cleanliness, bubble tea, Taipei 101, mango snowflake ice, ease of transportation, sense of safety, and a lack of tourists (it felt authentic and not just another stop on the “backpacker trail”).

DSC_0552

img_2949-1

 

Things We Disliked

Lack of public trash cans, no napkins at restaurants, stinky tofu, and unbearable humidity/heat (we knew it would be hot but we downplayed how oppressive it would really be). We also could have skipped the toilet themed restaurant, The Modern Toilet, and been completely content.

It is way more stinky than it looks.
Tofu with a hint of…dirty gym socks.

img_3306

Highlights

We will end up writing about all of our highlights in their own blog posts (we just have so much to say)!

1. Night Markets

The night markets of Taiwan are out of this world. In fact, they’re so incredible that there’s no way a few paragraphs in a ‘hightlights’ reel could ever hope to do them justice. Which is why a full post will be coming in the near future – fully dedicated to breaking down our night market experience, market by market, delectable street eat by street eat.

dsc_0371-1
Street dumplings

For now, know that Taiwan is home to dozens if not hundreds of night markets. Vendors wheel in booths, closing down entire blocks of the street. They serve everything from live seafood, to fried insects, to the stinkiest of tofus and these markets happen every night of the week, rain or shine, all throughout the cities. Locals and tourists alike stroll the streets, filling up on $2 portions of some of the strangest and most delicious foods imaginable.

dsc_0350
Various chicken parts

There are very few experiences in life that compare to the beautiful chaos that is a Taiwanese night market. Whatever fears we had about clean kitchens or food safety standards before setting out on our journey were certainly concurred on the streets of Taiwan. These night markets are worth the trip to Taiwan alone and we will most definitely be back.

2. Muyumugi Gorge

Everyone goes to Hualien to go to Taroko Gorge, the biggest tourist draw in Taiwan. We were no exception. When asked what else there is to do in Hualien there was not much else people recommended. Scott’s Taiwan research led us to Muyumugi, just one bus ride and a few miles of walking later, to the best swimming hole I have ever seen. The water was crystal clear and it was the perfect relief for the oppressive heat and humidity. Scott wrote more on our on our time at Muyumugi in another post.

DSC_0202

3. Food Courts

When someone recommended we try a food court in Taiwan we almost laughed. We both immediately thought of the mall food courts from back home with crappy food and Cinnabon on every corner. Fortunately for us, our food court experience in Taiwan was not like this. Their food courts had sections for just about every type of food (beef noodle section, Indian food, Japanese food…) and you could wander around for an hour before looking at all the menus. These food courts were impressively big and always packed. They are scattered around Taipei and we had the best and biggest one just 10 minutes from our apartment making it easy to get some good, cheap eats quick. Scott has more on this topic in another post!

Beef noodle

Lowlights

1. Taroko Gorge Tour

We signed up for a tour of Taroko Gorge, one of the most popular places to see in Taiwan. Our hostel set us up on a tour and told us it would pick us up in our hostel lobby between 8:10-8:40 am the next morning. We woke up early and went down to the lobby around 8 or so…ready to go adventuring! As time went on we realized they might have forgotten to pick us up, but we had no idea who to call or how to get in touch with the tour operator. At about 9:15 am the hostel receptionists showed up and realized what had happened, called their boss (who knew English), and tried to figure out something for us. They offered us a half-day private tour for just a little more money than the full-day tour we were supposed to be on. At this point we were frustrated and felt as we were being cheated out of our full day of adventures so we declined. Instead we decided to stay an extra night in Hualien and try to take the full-day tour we had originally signed up for. We wish we had done the half-day tour and been done with it!

The next morning the tour guide did in fact pick us up. We were on a tour with 5 others and nobody knew English (including our guide). Our guide would tell the car a bunch of interesting facts (I assume the facts were interesting at least) for 20 minutes and then say to us “to the left there are mountains” before continuing on in Chinese with more facts. It left a little something to be desired. A lunch break was taken in the middle of the day to an expensive and really terrible buffet. We were done and ready to head home before lunchtime and could not believe we had another 5 hours to go! As mentioned in a previous post, we learned maybe all day tours are not our favorite thing. Exploring Taroko Gorge was amazing and beautiful, but we never seemed to escape the feeling of being prisoners on this tour.

IMG_3121 (1)

dsc_0333-1

2. National Palace Museum

With 700,000 pieces on exhibit some people call the National Palace Museum “The Louvre” of Asia. It is on every list as a must see place in Taiwan. We made the semi-long journey (a long metro ride and long walk) to the museum, paid our admission and were ready to see all of the things. Turns out that we just weren’t that interested (most of the explanations were in Chinese) and I got a migraine while at the museum. We were most excited about locating the “meat-shaped stone” which is a piece of jasper that has an uncanny resemblance to a piece of braised pork belly. We saw this work of art on Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover: Taipei and knew we had to find the prized piece. After walking through the entire museum and not finding it we did a quick google search before we learned that this piece is on a rare loan to the Asian Art Museum in San Fransisco. What a let down!

Photo Credit: https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/meat-shaped-stone-taipei-519005
Photo Credit: Art Net News

The Stats

Total Number of Nights: 19

Languages: Chinese and Taiwanese

Currency: $1 USD = 31.34 New Taiwan Dollar (NTD)

Number of Miles Traveled: 9,392 miles (including our flights from the US)

Number of Miles Walked: 156.9 miles (average of 8.26 miles per day)

Steps Taken: 337,605 steps (average of about 17,769 per day)

Transportation Used: bus, train, plane, metro/subway, and 9-passenger van

Type of Accommodations: apartment (2) and hostel (1)

Number of Beds: 3

Number of Items Lost/Ruined: 2 (Scott left his fancy collapsible water bottle on the train and I ended up with a ripped skirt beyond repair)

No seats on the train for those who don't buy tickets in advance...
No seats on the train for those who don’t buy tickets in advance…

 

The Supreme Taipei Food Court

The Supreme Taipei Food Court

In America, the term ‘food court’ is synonymous with shitty fast food, Orange Julius, and middle schoolers. How far from the truth this is when it comes to Taipei. We quickly found out that food courts in Taipei are nothing like what we think of back home. They’re filled with a dizzying array of every Asian cuisine imaginable, and all of it very high quality. To the uninitiated, it may be hard to believe, but the food courts of Taipei are not to be missed.

We spent our first few days in Taipei sampling various dumpling and noodle spots we’d picked out from an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover, but it wasn’t long before we’d exhausted his list and found ourselves wandering the streets, looking for a quick food fix. Since we were only a few days into our trip, our guard was still up when it came to food and we were probably a bit overly cautions when it came to sampling the various street foods or anything that didn’t come from a TV show or TripAdvisor. Since then, that fear has fallen by the wayside, but, at the time, our reluctance actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, leading us straight to the glorious Taiwanese food court.

The first time we entered one of these food courts was out of sheer desperation – we were starving, sweaty, and tired. We saw a mall, noticed a sign for a food court, and our bellies collectively said ‘fuck it, lets go’. Our jaws dropped when found row after row of shops hawking ramen, dumplings, pho, sushi, tempura, bibimbap, hotpot – you name it, it was all there.

For our first Taiwanese food court experience, we did a few laps around the halls and decided on a shop selling bibimbap. Bibimbap is a Korean rice dish served in a large, piping hot, iron bowl with various toppings mixed in like egg, kimchi, fermented veggies and meats. Typically, you get to pick out a few side dishes to accompany the bowl such as pickled seaweeds, fish cakes or more kimchi. At the time, this was my first experience with bibimbap and I had nothing to compare it to. But as someone with a deep love for food, I knew this place killed it. It was fantastic. Were all food courts in Taipei this good? We needed to find out. And we certainly tried to over the course of the next few weeks.

We found a food court in the base of Taipei 101 – once that tallest building in the world – that made the first food court look like child’s play. This one was three times as large with even more variety of food. Every Asian cuisine was represented, many times over in some cases. They had bakeries serving frosting topped waffles, stands serving exotic teas and sushi conveyer belts. We had another sampling of Korean food here. This time a Korean kimchi soup. Fantastic, once again.

During our final week in Taipei, we found what we would come to realize as the mother of all food courts: The Breeze Food Court at the Taipei Main Station. Now this place quite possibly the greatest food court in the entire world and that’s no exaggeration. This food court takes up the entire top floor of the main train station in Taipei. Each section of this food court is divided up based on cuisine. There’s an entire section devoted to beef noodle, a section for Indian food, a Chinese food section with Sichuan, Cantonese, or Hunan shops, a ramen isle, a hotpot row – the options go on and on. The hallways between the pods of regionally centric shops are filled with sit-down restaurants – everything from German food to coffee shops to hibachi. Incredibly, many of these sit-down restaurants have lines, out the door, of locals waiting to eat. The size of this place and the number of options is truly overwhelming. Deciding on a place to eat here is a time consuming task in it of itself.

We ate there twice over our last week in Taipei, having a Thai noodle soup one time and an Indian curry the next. The Indian curry, served with some sort of milk soup and miscellaneous fried chicken parts, was nothing special. With that many options there’s bound to be a few disappointments. On the other hand, the Thai soup that I’ve since come to recognize as Khao Soi was phenomenal. Khao Soi is a coconut curry-like broth with a mixture of soft egg noodles, some sort of protein (often times pork) and a garnish of fried, crispy egg noodles. The flavors are vibrant with strong hints of chili oil, lime and pepper. This particular soup substituted the fried egg noodle garnish for fried Japanese Enoki mushrooms. I ordered mine with fried pork while Shelby had the one with a chicken drumstick. Seeing Shelby make quick work of a drumstick with only a spoon and chopsticks made me realize how far our chopstick skills had come over the past few weeks.

Chopstick master
Chopstick master

 

The quality and variety of food we found in these mass collectives of fast-casual styled, culinary talent is truly remarkable from the perspective of an American. The only General Tao’s chicken we saw being served here was at a fine-dining, sit-down restaurant with white linen table cloths – an establishment that I once would have thought to be entirely out of place in a food court, serving a dish that seemed to be as equally out of place in it’s current environment. No McDonalds. No Panda Express. No Orange Julius.

img_4369
A+ presentation. No greasy McDonalds bags at this food court

If you had asked me for my thoughts on food courts before Taiwan, I wouldn’t have had much to say that was positive. But we’ve now seen the light. What once evoked images of adolescence, greasy fried food and scenes from Fast Times At Ridgemont High now holds a special place in our hearts and bellies. If you ever find yourself in Taiwan, do yourself a favor and find the Breeze Food Court.

Off the Beaten Path in Hualien

Off the Beaten Path in Hualien

I first came across Taiwan’s Muyumugi Gorge last spring in a short article that was linked to in a Reddit post. The author described an off-the-beaten-path swimming hole, just a short bus ride outside of Hualien, with water so clear you could see straight through to the rocks on the river bed. The pictures looked awesome and it sounded like not many tourists made it there so I promptly clipped the article to Evernote. Like most of the random tidbits that wind up in my notebooks, this article was on it’s way to being forgotten about until long after we left Taiwan, had it not been for a former coworker who overheard me talking about our upcoming trip. As it turned out, he had just come back from Taiwan a few days earlier and one of his highlights was the Muyumugi Gorge. Sure enough, the short article I had nearly forgotten about and his Taiwan highlight were one and the same, instantly bumping the Muyumugi Gorge up to the top of my list of things to see in Taiwan.

The big draw of Hualien for most people is undoubtably the Taroko Gorge, making it overrun with tourist year-round. And while the Taroko Gorge certainly factored into our decision to visit Hualien, the Muyumugi Gorge was the spot that I’d been talking about nonstop. So, on our first full day in Hualien, we set off via bus to find the lesser-known gorge.  The bus we boarded zigzagged back and forth through Hualien’s busy streets before heading off, into the hills just west of the city.

The little research we’d done prior to our excursion made it sound like you needed a permit in order to hike into the hills of the aboriginal village where the gorge was, and that the local police limited the number of permits to 600 a day. When the bus let us off at the final stop, we headed across the street to the police station, hoping that we hadn’t arrived too late to make the days allotment of visitors. To our surprise, we found that the ‘permit’ was just a sign-in sheet with only a few dozen signatures. On our way to the police station, we’d befriended another traveler, a Polish girl volunteering in Taiwan, and after few signatures, the three of us were on our way, hiking up the dirt road toward the gorge.

An old bridge alongside the trial
An old bridge, alongside the trial

 

A few vendors setup shot along the trail leading to the gorge
A few vendors setup shop along the trail leading to the gorge

 

Tunnels on the trail cut through the hills leading up to the gorge
Tunnels on the trail cut through the hills leading up to the gorge

For the first time on our trip, we’d left the large city and found ourselves in a lush, jungle-like setting. About three miles in, we started to see smaller trails leading down toward crystal clear waters that snaked through the hills. Even from fifty feet above you could tell how incredibly clear the water was. We headed a bit further down the main trail, leaving the small crowds of Taiwanese locals and tourists behind, and found a nice secluded area.

We spent the next few hours swimming and jumping off the surrounding rocks into the chilly water. You could see groups of small fish swim right up to the edge of the rocks that dotted the bank. The marble walls that surrounded the gorge, at points rising high into the hills, were lined with incredibly intricate patterns that seemed to have been polished smooth by the flowing water.

 

Crystal clear water
Crystal clear water

The entire scene was perfect – exactly what we needed after a solid week of trekking through city streets in ninety degree weather. It was also an unexpected and welcome surprise to find another Westerner. We’d been on the road for a little over a week at this point and it was refreshing to hear from someone else also navigating their way through Taiwan.

Crystal clear water
Crystal clear water

 

Cutting right through the hills
Cutting right through the hills

With only a few buses making the trip back into the main town, we made our way back down the trail, stopping along the way for a passion fruit popsicle from one of the local aboriginal vendors. We waited at the village’s one bus stop, an old tree in a parking lot behind the police station, feeling refreshed and totally relaxed.

Often times it’s a crap shoot when you hear about a ‘must see’ attraction. If the spot lives up to the hype then it’s often overrun with tourists. If the endorsement is the product of circumstances beyond the destination itself, then you’ll scratch your head and wonder what the person who made the suggestion saw in the place to begin with. The Muyumugi Gorge is one of the rare gems that exists in the magical grey area between tourist hotspot and disappointing dud. The natural beauty of the marble walls, the refreshing pools and the hike out of the aboriginal village and into the hills, combined with very few tourists make our day at the Muyumugi Gorge a clear favorite so far.

Lessons in Taiwan

Lessons in Taiwan

We chose to start in Taiwan for a few reasons: tickets to Taipei were cheap, we have heard Taiwan is a foodie’s paradise, it is small enough that you can explore the whole country, and it was in Asia (our desired starting point). To be honest, I am not sure if I knew that much about this country when we signed up to come here.

We have walked until our feet want to fall off, tried out the food, sweated more than I would like to admit (hello humidity), visited temples, explored nature, and tried not to get hit by all of the scooters. There are a lot of things we have learned about Taiwan and ourselves in the past two weeks.

DSC_0222

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

DSC_0052

The MRT (Metro) & Friendly People

The subway system that runs across Taipei is extensive and easy to use (well, once you figure it out). When in a metro station there is a certain set of rules that should be follow. A person would assume that these rules would be posted everywhere, but they are nowhere to be seen. I suppose it is possible these things might have been posted somewhere in Chinese, but we will never know.

I think it is amazing people actually stand to the right.

The best way to learn about that set of rules is to look very lost and confused while in the metro station and wait for one of the notoriously friendly locals to show you the ropes. We had heard the people in Taiwan are very friendly, but we learned so first hand when a local woman saw us and thought that it looked like we needed some help. For the record, we probably did need help. She rode to the station we needed to get to (she took a transfer to another line with us) and walked us to where to buy train tickets for our trip to our next destination in a few days. We were blown away by her kindness and overall very impressed with the metro system as a whole. Here are some of the things we learned about the MRT:

  • There is no drinking or eating allowed on the train or in the station. I understand why chewing gum or snacks might be against the rules, but not being able to take a sip of water seems a bit harsh.
  • On the escalator everyone stands on the right side so that the left is clear for people who are in a hurry. While this is a common courtesy a lot of places in the world, it is very serious here and everyone does this.
  • You must queue to get onto the train. There are painted lines and arrows that will show you where to stand. It is astounding to me that people actually do this and enter the train in the order that they queued.
  • They play classical music to indicate the train is about to arrive. I think it is lovely!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Night Markets

Taiwan is very serious about their night markets. Going to eat or even just walk around the night markets are hands down the best thing to do at night in Taiwan. There is so much delicious food at these markets that there is really no reason to eat dinner anywhere else. There are night markets all over the country and each one is a little different than the next one. There will be a whole blog post on the night markets in the future…there is that much to talk about.

DSC_0397

DSC_0552

Trash

We have quickly learned that trash cans are few and far between. Everywhere we have been in Taiwan is so clean and there is no litter on the streets, parks or sidewalks. There have been many times we stop and get a bubble tea. This is all a great idea until you have finished your tea and are looking to get rid of it. WHERE DO PEOPLE THROW AWAY THEIR TRASH? It is confusing and after almost two weeks here I have yet to figure out how this country is always so clean when they make it so difficult to ditch your garbage.

On another note, the garbage trucks that come around to collect trash from houses and businesses have been a highlight of our time in Taiwan. A song plays as the garbage truck drives around indicating it is time for people to come out and throw their trash bags into the back of the truck. It is like a disappointing version of the ice cream man, but we are so amused by the way trash gets collected here. Scott had actually learned about this on a podcast before we came. The first time we heard the musical stylings of the garbage truck we ran outside to get a good look (and take some videos). The ladies working at our hostel thought we were crazy for being excited about garbage collection, but overall I think they were amused by our excitement.

The Magnitude of Taipei 101

DSC_0640
View of Taipei 101 from Elephant Mountain

Upon completion in 2004, Taipei 101 was the world’s tallest building. It now ranks as the 8th largest building at the time I am writing this. We took the world’s fastest elevator up, clocking in at 37.5 mph, to the observation deck on the 89th floor to catch 360 degrees of incredible views. It is surprising to us that for such a tall building it is pretty hard to see when walking around most of Taipei, but I suppose that with other tall buildings around the view just gets obstructed. The one place that gets an unobstructed view is Elephant Mountain, which is a short hike from the city (actually just a bunch of stairs).

DSC_0248
View from the Observation Deck in Taipei 101

We also checked out the tuned mass damper. In an effort to try to keep my nerd level in check, click here to learn more about the damper and how it structurally supports the building. My engineering heart was so full after seeing this! They had some videos playing of some of the largest swings the damper has seen due to high winds caused by typhoons…although it would have made it more exciting to look at, I am glad the damper was nice and still while we visited 🙂

DSC_0300

Tours

We have learned that we really don’t enjoy tours. It might be alright to do a half day tour, but you put us on a whole day tour and we feel like prisoners. We have taken one tour since we have been on the road to go explore Taroko Gorge, one of Taiwan’s biggest tourist attractions. Nobody spoke English on our tour, but that was fine as we only needed the tour for easy transportation. Everything was going great until lunchtime when we were dropped off at a buffet that was horrible and expensive (at least relative to what he have been paying the $6.31 a person buffet was outrageous). After lunch we explored more places in Taroko National Park. We loved some places we visited, but being at the mercy of someone else’s schedule drove us crazy. If the tour would have ended right before lunch we would have called it a perfect outing. Lesson learned: if we do a tour, make sure it is for no more than a few hours.DSC_0316

IMG_3125

The day before the tour that never ended we decided to go independently to Mukumugi Valley to check out the scenery and go for a swim. This day was 10 times for enjoyable than the tourist “must do” Taroko Gorge as we were on our own schedule, we paid no money to see it (well, we did pay $3 round trip each for bus tickets), and we were not stuck with thousands of other tourists trying to see the same thing as us. Don’t get me wrong…Taroko Gorge was worth doing and we are glad we did it. It was stunning! We just have more fun seeing things independently and wished we would have skipped the full day tour. Our independent trip to Mukumugi felt much more authentic and it was a lot more fun. It also didn’t hurt that we could go swimming which was perfect in this oppressive heat and humidity!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

DSC_0202

Plans Change

We have learned that plans can change at the drop of a hat. We were planning on traveling around the entire country, but after 4 days in Hualien we decided to go back to Taipei and stay for the next 11 nights. We found a nice apartment through AirB&B that has a couch/separate living room area which is a huge upgrade after staying in a room with only a bed and no windows for a few nights. We have decided to finish out our time in Taiwan here before moving on to China. Staying in one place will help us not burn out (the pace we were moving and trying to see things was far too fast) and maybe help us figure out a routine of sorts. There is so much to see around the Taipei area and we are excited to make it our home base for a while!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Touch Down in Taipei

Touch Down in Taipei

The first day of our trip have been a whirlwind. One minute we were in New Jersey saying bye to family and the next (actually, more like 24 hours, but who’s counting?) we were halfway across the world. The only goal of the evening was to find our accommodations for the night, an Air B&B in the Da-an District. Our research, done on a layover in the San Francisco airport, told us there was a bus we could take from the airport to this area. Our research (or lack thereof) did not tell us which bus to take, where to buy tickets, or how any of this works. If we would have been on the Amazing Race, we would not have won. We are thankful that the Taipei airport has free Wi-Fi and that the internet exists. We did eventually figure out which bus to take and made it to our little corner of Taipei for the next 4 days. Upon arrival to our place, we knew we needed to find a beer after this crazy travel day. We found a bar steps from our apartment that looked perfect. The only problem was that they technically are not in business for another 2 weeks….lucky for us they invited us in to have a Paulaner beer and made us their official first customers! Thank you to the two British guys who are opening the bar who welcomed us in. IMG_4113

IMG_2870
Our rooftop terrace in Taipei

Being across the world and outside of familiarity takes some getting used to. It is sensory overload and we are trying to figure out everything one step at a time. These things include how to not get hit by a scooter when crossing the street, to figure out what is safe to eat, how to communicate when everyone speaks a language we don’t…the list goes on. We are working on getting used to the constant state of unfamiliarity.

IMG_2890

IMG_2816
Our general plan for seeing the country was to start in Taipei for 4 nights, take the train all the way around the island starting down the east coast, back up the west coast, and then ending our stay in Taiwan back in Taipei. We have around 2.5 weeks total in Taiwan before we fly to Shanghai to meet up with my dad who will be there on a business trip. So far we have only have chosen our next destination, Hualien, and have booked accommodations there. Beyond that, it is up to us to figure out as we go!

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 9.37.41 AM
Although this Google map makes it look like we are driving, we will be taking the train all the way around!