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!

The Best of Taichung: Visiting Rainbow Village & Sun and Moon Lake (Part 1)

 

Wanting experience life outside of Taipei, I researched other cities in Taiwan that would fit my adventurous spirit.  Taichung, Taiwan’s 2nd most populous city, caught my interest right away because of its Rainbow Village and picturesque Sun and Moon Lake which are both accessible by bus from the central station.

Rainbow Village

The bright and beautiful colors of this village immediately caught my eye–plus I was curious to know the origin of how it became so psychedelic–so I wanted this place to be my first destination in Taichung.  I took the MRT from Taipei to reach Taichung Station within 2 hours, then I took a local bus to reach Rainbow Village within 15 minutes.  I was greeted by these crazy-colored murals painted on a neighborhood of cozy houses.  The village was a bit smaller than what I had expected, but there were literally so many things to see here!

This village was designated as a home for refugees that fled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, but was sadly planned to be demolished after the war ended.  Not wanting to see his home destroyed, Huang Yong-Fu (who was drafted for the war but still resided in the village), started painting the entire village in rainbow colors in hopes that it would be preserved.  Though not many other refugees were living there at the time, his artwork was noticed by nearby university students and they formed a petition to keep the 11 houses intact.  Fortunately it was successful, and the village has become a popular tourist attraction for everyone to enjoy and learn about the history of the war.  Yong-Fu is nicknamed the “Rainbow Grandpa” of the village, and his murals will always be an important part of Taichung’s history.

This village is literally a photographer’s paradise!  I was really happy to capture a lot of quality footage on my GoPro even though there were a lot of people around.  The murals seem to have cultural influences from all around the world.  There are a number of animals and humans depicted in them with interesting symbols so your interpretation of them completely depends on you.

After spending a good hour here, I decided to take a taxi back to Loosha Hotel where I was staying for the night (I chose it because it was cheap and centrally located).  Taichung can be done as a day trip, but I would recommend staying here 2-3 days if you can see everything.  I will be covering the famous Sun and Moon Lake in my next article this week!  Thank you for reading.

Houtong: Home of the Cat Village and Taiwan’s Tastiest Pineapple Cakes

After hiking Elephant Mountain and paying a visit to Laomei Reef, I decided it was time to travel to Houtong━a village in Taiwan renowned for its high population of cats.  Similar to the origin of the rabbit island I visited last month in Japan, this was originally an old mining town that has attracted hundreds of cats (the former was a nuclear testing ground that is now overrun by rabbits).  Fortunately there are a number of residents, volunteers, and tourists that look after these cats every day.  If you are an feline lover, this is simply a day trip that cannot be passed up in Taiwan.

Getting to Houtong from Taipei is quite easy; from Songshan Station you can take a cheap 40 minute train directly to Houtong Station.  When you get off at the station, you will notice there are two exits; one goes up into the hillside of the village where most of the cats lounge around and play, and the other leads to the roadside with nearby souvenir shops and restaurants.  If you are eager to see the cats like I was, I would recommend taking the stairs to the hillside first.  In fact, you may even see some furry friends lounging around in the station!

There are a number of things about this village that really charmed me.  First of all, I loved how the cats acted like they owned the place.  They weren’t afraid of humans at all and some of them were actually very friendly despite having to put up with us invading their space every day.  I also loved the Neko Atsume cookies and pineapple cakes they were selling here.  The shops had so many free samples that I tried every flavor (the chocolate pawprint-shaped pineapple cakes happened to be my favorite).  I was informed by the shop owner that apparently these are the most delicious cakes in Taiwan, so I decided to bring back some souvenirs for my roommate and friends in Japan.  They definitely had the cutest shape out of all of the pineapple cakes that I had seen here!

I also enjoyed the simple decor of the village.  You could tell that the volunteers put effort into making helpful signs and guides for tourists as well.  These adorable cat-like ornaments were hung in the station:

It really doesn’t take that long to explore the village; I spent about an hour and a half doing photography and exploring the shops.  However, cat-watching is definitely something that you could spend all day doing.  You can purchase food for them at any of the shops or cafes (I stopped by one to order a vodka latte for myself so I could warm up).  I enjoyed watching this kitty run across the souvenir table:

Houtong truly reminded me of a mountain town in Japan because it was peaceful and had the same kind of atmosphere.  Other than the cats, there is a river and a number of temples that you can see nearby.  It is considered to be rural but the trains run here pretty frequently.  On the way back to Taipei, I decided to stop by the Golden Waterfall that you can reach by bus from the nearby Ruifang Station.  You could also combine this with a trip to the Jiufen lantern town if you want!

Unfortunately it was pitch dark when I reached the Golden Waterfall, but this is the best picture I managed to take:

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The Golden Waterfall at dusk.

Afterwards, I decided to go back and relax at my hotel.  This is trip is a great way to see the countryside east of Taipei and also see the unforgettable village run by cats.  Since Jiufen inspired Spirited Away, I can’t help but wonder if Houtong inspired The Cat Returns

Climbing Elephant Mountain in Taiwan (and other Intriguing Day Trips)

As someone who loves hiking, photography, and animals, I couldn’t pass up day tripping to Elephant Mountain (像山/Xiangshan Trail) in Taipei.  Although there’s no actual elephants here, you can get some of the best views of Taipei City from the top, and also try delicious elephant butter bread at the base of the mountain for only 30 TWD.  The climb to the elephant-shaped rocks where this mountain gets its name from only takes around 30 minutes max, so I’d rate it as an overall easy climb.  From the rocks you can reach a central viewing platform and get a fantastic view of Taipei 101 and all surrounding buildings.  Perfect for traveling photographers like me!

To reach the start of Xiangshan Trail, you only need to ride the train 20 mins from Taipei Main Station to Xiangshan Station.  It’s pretty straightforward from there–just follow all of the elephant-shaped signs to the mountain path to start climbing.  What I loved about this mountain is that it had an open-air gym that’s free to use at the top.  I saw less tourists and far more Taiwanese locals here going for walks with their dogs and also lifting weights.  What a way to flex!

If you want to keep climbing to reach the other trail head, it takes around 2.5 hours, but the spot with the elephant rocks at the beginning has the best views of the city.  I spent a good hour and a half here taking photos and also exploring the open gym area.  After I was satisfied, I decided to pay a visit to the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall:

This is actually only a 5 minute ride from Taipei Main Station to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (yes, it’s so famous that it has its own station).  This memorial was named after Chiang Kai-shek, the former President of the Republic of China.  It has a number of building complexes to see and a statue as well.  I had a lot of fun climbing the stairs and taking photos from different angles.  Even if you’re not a history buff, this place is still a lot of fun to see.

I’ll be covering my next day trip to Houtong Cat Village in my next article.  Thank you for reading as always!

Standing at the Edge of the World: Laomei Reef & The Alpaca Cafe

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GoProing in the Reef: Laomei Beach still looks as awe-inspiring as ever in the winter.

Situated at the northern tip of Taiwan, Laomei Reef is a well sought-after location for photographers and beach goers alike with its stunning green scenery and relaxing atmosphere.  Though Taiwan isn’t particularly known for its beaches, I still wanted to experience at least one even though I came here during the dead of winter.  Hoping to capture the best lighting with GoPro, I arrived around sunset by taking the train to Tamsui Station from Taipei and then using a local bus (this took around 2.5 hours but was a nice day trip).  Even though it was the first week of January, all I needed to wear was a light jacket because the weather was sunny and mild.  During the summer months, I’ve heard that this beach transforms into quite the lively place.  I’d really like to come back and experience this in the future because beaches are my favorite places in the world.

Because there weren’t that many people around this time of year, I managed to capture some really great photos of the reef:

I love how the shallow water reflected the image of the sky above almost like a mirror.  You can actually get very close to the reef by standing on the trench by the shore.  According to John Ellis (a local photographer who I have been following), the reef was originally formed by a volcanic eruption that occurred over two hundred thousand years ago.  Summer is the best time to see the reef because that is when the most algae grows, but the beautiful shade of green is fortunately see-able in all seasons.  Though it was too cold to go swimming, I enjoyed watching the waves wash over the reef and felt at ease while I was here:

From this video it looks like I’m standing at the edge of the world!  Not wanting the adventure to end here, I decided to take a bus from here to the famous alpaca cafe called OIA Oia Art Cafe.  If you venture all the way out the the reef, you might as well take the time to pet the two lovely alpacas that live here because this cafe is very close:

I ordered a sweet beer and reminisced on all of my crazy encounters with animals while I was here.  Last year I went to the bunny island and miniature pig cafe in Tokyo, and now here I was in another foreign country drinking with animals (which I often prefer to humans).  Life is truly strange and amazing, and I am doing my best to live every minute to the fullest.

In addition to alpacas, they also have cats here.  I have been to many cat cafes already so I didn’t film them, but they were interesting to watch.  I spent most of my time petting the kind alpaca pictured above.  It looked very tired but fortunately well-fed, just like me.  Maybe we aren’t so different after all.

 

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…