Taiwan was exactly what everyone told me it would be—a surprise. That seems completely contradictory, but before visiting, what I’d heard from my few friends and acquaintances who had visited, was: “You’ll be surprised how much you love it and that you never thought to visit sooner.”
And this is exactly what happened. After just 6 days in Taiwan, trusty travel companion A and I left the country wondering why it isn’t on more people’s travel bucket lists. Is it because it’s so small? Because people get confused about whether it’s a part of China? Because everyone disagrees about its status as an independent state?
But this is all irrelevant: GO. HIKE. EAT. EXPLORE. We thought that our quick 6-day holiday would be the perfect time to visit because it’s such a small country (about the size of Maryland), but the truth is that we could have easily spent all 6 days in Taipei alone (we ended up squeezing in 4 days in Taipei, one of which was a daytrip to Yehliu, and 2 days just south in Hualien (home to beaches and Taroko Gorge), and we left feeling as though there were far more things we wanted to do that we missed out on (to name a few: the Teapot Mountain hike, bullet trains, Taitung).
So what did we love about Taiwan? Perhaps rather than narrating our whole trip, a list would say it best.
1. Food. Okay, okay, it’s cliché, and it’s also one of my favorite things about every single trip I take, but clichés exist for a reason, right? The street food scene in Taipei is superb. Night markets are abundant in every city, and they each have some of the same delicious foods, in addition to regional specialties. Unlike in other parts of Asia, these markets are not just grimy streetside stalls where you grab takeaway, these are places to browse, play arcade games, see and be seen. Teenagers stroll around on dates, people walk their designer dogs in strollers, trendy clothing shops open their doors late for shopping while snacking. And the food is inexpensive, so you can come hungry and try a little bit of everything. Some of our favorites were the Taiwanese classics: coffin bread, fried chicken, and stinky tofu. I even made a video paying tribute to Taiwanese food. It probably deserves a post of its own (coming soon). (Night markets visited: Xinyi Anhe and Shilin in Taipei and Zhiqiang in Hualien.
2. Bubble tea. Can I count this as a separate thing from food? I drank (at least) one every day of the trip, so I think yes. The milkiness of the tea, the squishiness of the bubbles, getting to choose your sugar percentage, breaking the giant straw through the plastic seal, the endless varieties and flavors…I just love the whole bubble tea experience.
3. Taipei. I can imagine living in this city. While I love a lot of cities I’ve visited, I wouldn’t say that about many of them. It’s a big city booming with life, arts, music, food, events, culture, shopping…but also polite, efficient, natural, clean, and environmentally-conscious. On our first evening in the city we walked up Elephant Hill (Xiangshan) at dusk for an amazing panorama of the city and Taipei 101 (once the tallest building in the world, until Dubai’s Burj Khalifa took that title in 2010) watching the sun set.
4. Transportation. Clean, quiet, fast, convenient, easy. In part, living in Laos for so many years has made me appreciate any form of public transportation, but I think even without the inconveniences of living in a developing country, I would still appreciate Taiwanese transport. The subway is clean and efficient and connects almost everywhere, while trains and buses can connect everywhere else outside of Taipei. In Taipei, you can be in a big city, but take the bus only 30 minutes to an hour and suddenly be on the beach, or hiking. You can book train tickets online and then print them out at any 7-11 and hop on the clean, quiet, fast and inexpensive trains south a couple hours and you’re in another city.
5. Roadtripping. Driving around (on two or four wheels) is one of our favorite ways to travel, because we can stop for snacks, or photo ops or side adventures whenever we want. Plus, travel is boring without the near-death experiences, close calls, fear of getting lost, and arguments that come with roadtripping (this is only half a joke). We originally wanted to rent a car to drive from Taipei to the south, but neither of us had up to date international driver’s licenses and Taiwan doesn’t accept home country licenses, so we were out of luck. We still wanted to get a motorbike for driving around Hualien, but only barely managed to do this without an international license, by looking sad and explaining to the man at the shop that we both owned motorbikes and I had been driving one for five years, and proving it to him by driving his bike up and down the road “better than he expected.” So in the end we still got this stylish electric-powered ride pictured below and scooted around Taroko Gorge. (Traveler’s tip: renew or get an international license before coming if you want to roadtrip!)
6. Culture. Taiwan’s culture is fascinating—at first glance it is obviously very Chinese, but we visited shortly after our three week trip through mainland China (blog posts coming soon!) and in many ways it feels completely different than China. Taiwan has in some ways a very Japanese vibe, which makes sense as it was once a Japanese colony. At the same time, it seems to have aspects of Pacific island culture, as it has its own indigenous people with a very distinctive island culture.
7. The cute and artsy aesthetic. I just loved the “cuteness” of Taiwan. And not necessarily the pop-cartoony Hello Kitty variety of cute, but just the sense of aesthetics and attention that seems to go into spaces, like all of the hostels and guesthouses where we stayed. I guess I’m a sucker for the Taiwanese hipster style.
8. Coasts. From the rocky outcroppings of the north at Yehliu, to the light sandy tropical-looking coastline at Hualien, every bit of Taiwan’s coastline that we saw was gorgeous. I wish we had more time to travel north to south, but that will have to be next time. I had no idea there was water and sand like this in Taiwan, though!
9. Taroko Gorge. Taroko is a National Park 45 minutes from Hualien, best known for its scenic marble gorge. We were there on an overcast rainy day and it still was gorgeous, and we didn’t even have time to do any the hikes that we wanted, so it definitely would be worth a two day visit (at least if you’re like us and spend half your day sleeping in, eating dumplings and taking a side trip to the Cingshui Cliffs). We just rode our rented scooter from one end of the gorge to the other with a map guiding us to all of the shrines most scenic spots along the way. There is such heavy tour bus traffic on the road through the park that I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner motorbike driver.
10. Yehliu. On our second day in Taipei, we took the bus 90 minutes out of town to the northern coast to visit a little town called Yehliu, known for its Geological Park, a natural playground of interesting rock formations created by erosion over time. Different shapes have names, based on what they look like—Mushroom Rocks, Candles, the Princess, the Love Heart, the Dragon, and so on. One, the Queen’s Head, so named because someone decided it looked like the profile of the young Queen Elizabeth, has become so famous that there is actually a guard monitoring a line to take photos by it one by one to keep people under control. It’s an extremely touristy place, which was overrun by masses of umbrella-wielding senior citizen tour groups from mainland China when we visited, but quirky and interesting enough for an afternoon’s excursion.