The Best of Taichung: Visiting Rainbow Village & Sun Moon Lake (Part 2)

After visiting the eye-popping Rainbow Village, I decided to take a cheap local bus from Taichung Station to the famous Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan (its name immediately made me think of Pokémon Sun & Moon).  After an hour and a half ride, I was dropped off at Shuishe Pier, which is part of the central hub of Sun Moon Lake.  There are a number of restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops that you can browse around, although the real adventure lies elsewhere!  From here you can ride ferries and buy tickets to attractions around the lake.  The ferry will take you to Ita Thao Pier and Xuanguang Pier which both have a number of hiking trails and sightseeing spots to explore.  If you are unsure of what to do, the official Sun Moon Lake website has a number of itineraries available.

Originally I was thinking of going to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village and ropeway (which is a huge amusement park with a waterpark), but due to the mild and foggy January weather, I opted to do some hiking instead.  My favorite viewpoint that I discovered was the Ci-en Padoga built by Chiang Kai-Shek in memory of his mother.  This was about a 40 minute hike through a bamboo forest but was easy to access thanks to the English guideposts.  The ferries depart from pier to pier every half hour, so you can see the majority of sights in one day.  However, if you wish to see the smaller islands and go to the amusement park that I mentioned above, you will definitely need two full days.

Unfortunately due to the fog it was hard for me to capture good footage of the hike I took, but the mountains surrounding the lake were breathtaking and gorgeous.  I would say this was the 2nd most beautiful place that I have been to in Taiwan; the 1st being Taroko Gorge.  I wish I could have spent two full days here, but I was happy with all of the scenery I was able to see in one day.  Getting between the piers only takes around 15 minutes, so you can definitely make the most of your time here if you plan it out.

When you purchase your ferry ticket (mine was only 250 TWD because they thought I was a student), you are given a map with all the major landmarks on them.  If you are a seasoned traveler, I would just follow your instinct and go wherever looks most interesting to you.  The guideposts make it pretty straightforward, and there are always usually hikers around to ask in case you get lost.  Sailing around and feeling like I was in an RPG was honestly the best aspect for me.  It was so nice getting out of the city and into this amazing world of nature:

In my next article, I will be writing about Taiwan’s southern city Kaohsiung and Cijin Island.  Thank you to all those who have kept up with my wild adventures!

An Epic Journey to Taiwan’s Most Beautiful National Park: Taroko Gorge

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GoProing at the Gorge: Taroko Gorge turns out to not be a tourist trap, but instead an unspoiled private paradise for hikers.

After exploring Yehliu Geopark and Jiufen, I hopped on the last train from Taipei’s Main Station and made my way to Hualien, a beautiful town surrounded by nature and the ocean on the east coast of Taiwan.  My main destination here was Taroko National Park, arguably the most beautiful park in the country with its marble cliffs and gorges.  The gorgeous blue color of the water reminded me a lot of the ocean that surrounds the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand.  Though Taroko Gorge is more of a hiking spot than a place to swim, my tour guide allowed us to go swimming at the base of the Shakadang Trail!  Even in January, the water felt surprisingly warm and refreshing.  This place is truly unlike anywhere else in Taiwan and I definitely recommend people visit.

Due to its massive size Taroko is very difficult to cover in a day, but with a lot of online research, I managed to find The Better Taroko Gorge Tour which not only lets you pay in cash, but also accepts solo travelers (most tours to Taroko are extremely expensive and require group reservations).  It is also one of the few tours that includes lunch, so I was extremely fortunate that I chose it or else I would have been starving!  My excellent tour guide, Alan, took our group of seven people through the Swallow Grotto, two suspension bridges, the newly opened Tunnel Of Nine Turns that was previously closed due to an earthquake, and scenic the Bell Tower Padoga.  We unfortunately were unable to hike up to the Eternal Spring Shrine due to road conditions, but we were able to see all of the highlights of the park on this tour in one day.

The tour started early at 7:30am, but we managed to avoid the crowds and I had a lot of time to capture photos and video with my newly purchased GoPro:

Most articles you read online recommend spending 2-3 days in this park if you are a hiking enthusiast, but one was enough for me because I was planning on seeing all of the major cities in Taiwan and also meeting up with friends.  I was extremely satisfied with the challenge of the hike (it really wasn’t hard at all, minus some stairs) and also with all of the shrines I got to see.  I would DEFINITELY recommend coming here with a tour guide, because riding in a van will save you a lot of time on the roads, and the guides know exactly where all the scenic spots here are.  Coming alone is possible, but I think it would take much longer and be difficult to navigate and know which paths are safe to hike on.  This park is not dangerous, but some of the slopes are affected by the weather so you need to be cautious while climbing them.

The Official Taroko Gorge Website has a list of trails that are currently available.  Shakadang Trail, Changchun Trail, Swallow Grotto, and the Tunnel of Nine Turns are the paths I recommend taking (you can see all in a day if you have a car or skilled tour guide).  We managed to see waterfalls and many temples too!  Throughout the park you will see signs that say you need a permit to enter, but we were informed that such permits do not exist–this is just to warn tourists of potentially dangerous areas so the park does not get sued in case of injury.  Enter these parts at your own risk (I hiked through one part, but it was literally nothing but green forest so I turned around as to not lose my way).  In the middle of the day, we had a delicious course lunch at a restaurant in the mountains, and I had the chance to try Taiwanese mochi too:

At the end of the day, our tour guide took us to a nearby beach in Hualien where we could relax after a successful day of sightseeing.  We were all amazed with the creative rock stacks (called cairns) here.  The beach was literally full of them:

At the end of the day, I was completely exhausted and wanted to return to Taipei, so Alan kindly drove me to my hostel (called Cave) to get my luggage, and then back to the main Hualien Station where I could take the train back.  I made an extremely kind friend on this trip who is currently working in Okinawa, so I was very happy with my experience.  Island Life Taiwan is one of the best local guides for Taroko Gorge, and I would happily book them again if I decided to come back here in the future!  The total cost was only 2000 Taiwan Dollars, which is much cheaper than most advertised tour packages.  This was one of the best days that I had in Taiwan, and I will not forget the beautiful unspoiled paradise that is Taroko Gorge!

Making a Wish and Getting Spirited Away: Exploring Lantern Towns in Taiwan

After exploring Yehliu Geopark, I traveled to the small railroad town of Chifen where I was able to paint my wishes on a lantern and set it off into the sky.  Chifen was originally used as a hub to transport coal, but it has now been re-purposed into a district of lanterns and shops that travelers can stop by on their way to Jiufen.  It’s a very quaint town, but is definitely worth seeing as it has a lot of history.

Most lanterns are available for purchase at 200 Taiwanese dollars.  You are then handed an ink brush by the shop keeper and are free to write whatever you wish on your lantern.  I was surprised at how large the lanterns actually were!  The staff will assist you with safely lighting it, then it will gradually inflate and soar into the sky.  Here is a video of me with my lantern just before it flew away (it was a very happy time for me):

Although this activity definitely falls into the tourist category, it was an extremely fun experience for me after living in Asia for over 4 years, not to mention a great beginning to 2020.  I like to spend my New Year’s doing different things each year and this was definitely unique.

The colors of the lanterns have slightly different meanings which you can see below.  You can choose to customize the colors of your lantern if you have enough time:

Afterwards, I took the bus to the nearby town of Jiufen that inspired the famous movie Spirited Away.  This mountain town actually resembles a lot of places I’ve traveled to in Japan, but the illuminated lanterns at night make it an entirely new experience.  It was once a prosperous area of Taiwan filled with gold mines but was then abandoned shortly after WWII when the gold rush ended.  It went through a period of depression, but now it has grown into a bustling area full of shops, street food, hotels, and sightseeing.  There are a number of places that you can hike to from here as well (I recommend seeing the Golden Waterfall which I’ll talk about later).  Arriving here at night/dusk is ideal so you can see all of the illuminations:

I was amazed at how much this town resembled scenes from Spirited Away!  They had Miyazaki souvenir shops everywhere to pay homage which was cute.  It’s truly inspiring how much this place has transformed.  Since I came here on the 2nd day of January, it was extremely crowded and difficult to move up the hills due to the sheer amount of people, but fortunately I was able to see the majority of the town within 2 hours.  If I ever come back to Taiwan, I definitely want to come to Jiufen again.  It’s actually quite small, but each time you climb the hill you start to notice new things so I think it takes multiple trips to see it all.

Now when I watch this movie trailer, I can’t un-see all of the sights I saw in Taiwan:

I definitely had my Chihiro moments as I wandered aimlessly around the illuminated streets, looking for a way out but also captured by the charm of this beautiful new world.  Last year I went to Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama, Japan, which also inspired Spirited Away.  One reason I love traveling in Asia is because it brings back so many memories of things I watched in my childhood.  I never want to leave!  One of my unwritten wishes is to continue immersing myself in culture so I can continue to learn more about the world and about myself.

TO BE CONTINUED…