We headed for Taiwan with a fascination for taking the old logging train up into the Alishan Mountains. There wasn’t a lot of information available to explain exactly HOW to go about that; but we were determined, and loved the idea of hiking up in the high forests and tea country hills.
What we loved most…
Taiwanese food: If it was based on the number of dumplings consumed since we landed, we would officially now be ‘experts’ on Taiwanese food (especially dumplings). We loved trying it ALL! I have dedicated an entire seperate post to the dumplings, tapioca bubbles, fish ball soup and more…
Taroko National Park and Hualein County
Before we came to Taiwan, I had read about how magnificent the Taroko Gorge is. It is the most famous of Taiwan’s National Parks and the most recognisable, known for the grandeur of its natural marble landscape. It really did feel like the icing on the cake for our loop around a country we really didn’t know much about.
It was the last stop on our circuit of Taiwan, and we debated as we walked wondering if we had saved the best for last. I reckon it’s hard to describe how it felt walking those trails, but it really was a privilege.
If you only have a short time in Taiwan, then definitely make sure Taroko Gorge is on your lists of must-sees.
A second day out on the trails saw slightly more tired legs after the previous days efforts, but we finished another 4km of trails, including the Shakadang trail, with stunning pools of green blue water, bordering on the land of the indigenous Taroko tribes.
Alishan and the Hill Country of Chiayi
Getting up into the Alishan Mountains was our most sought after destination for our time in Taiwan. We wanted the full experience of taking the old Forest Railway up into the hills.
The railway was built by the Japanese over 100 years ago, to use for logging the ancient red cypress trees. Today the trees are protected, and logging has long ceased, but the tracks have two trains a day for tourists, and we managed to squeeze on the last one and buy the last three tickets…
From Chiayi Station, the Forest Railway winds up the hills with stunning views and peaks of changing scenery.
As the train climbs up towards Fenchihu, the scenery changes rapidly from tropical to alpine, and you can quite literally see the plantations of pineapples and dragonfruit being replaced by forest. It’s definitely a mystical kind of exploration following the old logging tracks and making our way out through the clouds.
We stayed one night in Fenchihu and spent the day walking the old logging trails that loop around from the railway station village of Fenchihu.
Of all the places we had visited to date, this was by far the least Western in the sense of being the least English-speaking. When we mapped out our travel plans, we wanted to get the most out of the time we have together on this adventure, and wanted to give the boys the chance to experience the most cultural difference… For this year, we made the decision not to visit any English-speaking countries, or countries where English was the first or national language.
We knew coming up here into the hills that English was even further from the norm, and quite literally did not meet a single person we can have a conversation with! But people are friendly, and curious, and more than anything seem genuinely pleased to see us enjoying their beautiful part of the country.
We were picked up from Fenchihu by a family from one of the villages even higher up in the hills. The family has owned a tea farm here since the owners great great grandfather settled in Shizhuo. It was a bit of a mystery as the car wound up the single lane roads, higher and higher, and further away from the village. But we arrived at a stunning tea station, with the cutest little B&B, and were welcomed by the family with a tea ceremony.
The next day the family drove us back into the village of Shizhou, with instructions (in basic sign-language!) of where, how and when to get the bus up to the final stop in Alishan.
Alishan itself was stunning, and is a National Scenic Area and sought after destination in Taiwan. It is a huge park area famed for its walking trails and historic railway.
However, because getting there is not straightforward, it is definitely not a top touristic spot. It is definitely worth staying inside the park area of Alishan, as you are in walking distance to the train station and all of the walking trails within the park. There is only 2 small convenience stores in the park, and a handful of basic Taiwanese restaurants. The trails are beautiful and easy to navigate. We spent two nights in Alishan and walked every trail over the three days we had there.
Sunrise at Alishan… was it worth it?
It sure made for an early start! Without exaggeration, we had to get up at 4:00am and headed straight up for the train station… We were the last in the queue having not understood we needed to be fifteen minutes earlier, and as we reached the ticket window they had sold the last ticket!
Talk about swinging the emotions from excited to shattered in three seconds flat! But we looked around at all the local tourists squeezing on to the train and felt less bad about the outcome of our lateness… (Where had all these people come from anyway?! We had had miles to wander trails in the forest without people yesterday; apparently a lot of the domestic tourists only come for the sunrise… and don’t do the hiking).
It turned out to be well worth it however, as we walked for half an hour close by where the train tracks go and found our own private viewing spot for the bright purple sunrise… Not bad, don’t you think?
The East Coast
Driving up the East Coast of Taiwan well and truly shattered any last pre-conceived ideas of how industrialised I had imagined Taiwan to be.
There were not enough hours in the day to stop at every sight, or beach, or little cove that caught our eye.
The scale of infrastructure on the last stretch north of the coastal highway is probably the only reminder of those huge links with China. And, perhaps only more so in comparison with day ones narrow rural roads in Taitung, where I literally left fingernail marks in my thighs gripping on as Gavin drove so carefully up roads that should surely have been made to cater one-way only…
We found a cheery little fishing port after setting off early around the southernmost tip of Taiwan, and spent an hour just wandering around after meeting the one local fisherman who spoke a few words of English.
I’d never heard of Taiwanese pipe-boats before, but apparently they are a thing! They are all identically stylised, fishing boats made with PVC piping as a sort of pontoon style flotation.
One challenge from Taiwan?
“Taiwanese people are very conscious about disturbing other people, and so young children are generally taught to be quiet and well-behaved in public”.
It’s funny, because it was only once we got to Alishan that we read the section about ‘Travelling with Children’ in the Taiwan Lonely Planet Guide…
A lovely description; just rather less lovely and more anxiety causing as I read this aloud over the cries of another brotherly scuffle… If you know us, you’ll know what I mean! However, the mountains and beaches and space of Taiwan was perfect for us. We walked and climbed for miles; slid down a few too many steps; and uncovered all kinds of mountain life that walks, grows, flies, and crawls up in the beautiful mountains and right around the coasts.
Where we stayed
- Taipei: Chair Man Hotel [central location; 5 min walk from main train station; Taiwanese breakfast].
- Taichung: KIWI-Taichung Station Branch 1 [great hotel; close to train station; coin laundry].
- Chiayi: Prince Hotel [5 min walk from train station; walking distance to night markets].
- Fenchihu: Qun Feng Hotel [ok-ish; very basic; tricky to find, but close to train station; ‘unique’ breakfast!]
- Shizhao: Cuiti BnB [great family AirBnB; picked us up from Fenchihu; beautiful location; not near shops].
- Alishan: Dafong Hotel [big spacious room; great location right in centre of Recreation Area; electric jug].
- Kaohsiung: Centre Hotel [big room; close to markets and metro; dated; basic, big buffet breakfast].
- Kenting: Ivan Garden BnB [basic but fine; cheap; empty when we were there; only ok with own car].
- Taimali: Amy Walker BnB [very friendly AirBnb host called Amy! Amazing breakfast].
- Hualein: Cullinan Hotel [great breakfast; easy to find; nice clean and spacious room].
We have used the bullet trains (HSR), the over-rail, the subway, the old forest trains, taxis, Uber, buses, shuttles; but the best time we had travelling Taiwan was the legs we did in our rental car. Gavin smashed the driving, and loved it, winding so carefully up roads that I hope never to drive again… but that were so worth it.
We had just over three weeks in Taiwan and found it to bed affordable for budget-mid-range accommodation. Street food is still cheap, and each city has designated night markets and street food markets which are well worth tracking down!
- Average accommodation: $100 NZD ($66 USD)
- Average daily spend: $90 NZD ($59 USD)
One thing we’d do differently if we went again…
Taiwan was everything we hoped it would be. The boys attract a different kind of attention here than they did in SE Asia (where people were all over them, squishing cheeks and taking photos!). Here people are so pleased when the boys say hello or thank you in Chinese, and have a more gentle approach to meeting us (which in itself is quite a worry as we bowl on in with two raucous boys!). We stayed three weeks though would love to spend longer – to work on our Chinese AND our knowledge of Taiwanese food!
For one last glimpse of Taiwan; here’s us, getting all Feng Shui building Zen towers beside the beach… (maybe travel has changed us?!).
Seriously though, Taiwan has been amazing. If anyone is considering Taiwan for a holiday; do. And if you aren’t considering it; also, do! It’s beautiful. It’s friendly. It’s full of surprises. And it’s tasty!