Hello everyone and Merry Christmas from China! Since it’s probably cold outside and you’re all snuggled up with your coffee, getting ready to see family and friends, I thought I’d bring you back to my trip to Taiwan, where you can look at beautiful pictures of sunny skies and hot weather.
For those of you that haven’t been following long, I went on a three-week solo trip to Taiwan over the summer and it was AMAZING!!! I’ve been spreading out the posts about my awesome trip because I have a million other things I also want to talk about, and I don’t want to overwhelm you with Taiwan’s awesome-ness.
Since It’s been a while, here’s a quick itinerary of my trip around Taiwan:
Taipei -> Tainan -> Taitung -> Lanyu (Orchid Island) -> Hualien (Taroko Gorge) -> Taipei
I started in Taipei, where I relaxed in sulfur hot springs and explored some pretty awesome night markets. Then I took the train down to Tainan, where I saw the most beautiful temples and ate all the food (literally). I then hopped on the train to Taitung, where I attempted to learn to surf, and took a ferry to Lanyu, a traditional aboriginal island that is way off the beaten path. Finally, I hopped up to Hualien where I hiked Taroko Gorge and went river tracing! I ended my trip back in Taipei, and flew out the next morning to begin the long journey home to Seattle.
If anyone wants me to help them create their own amazing Taiwan itinerary, I actually do that now (for about 1/4 the price of a travel agent)
Okay, onto the real post:
Hiking Taroko Gorge
Taroko Gorge is a must-see in Taiwan. A stunning gorge lined with marble rock, Taroko is not only a beautiful hike, it’s also easy. After years of climbing mountains in China that solely consist of stairs, it was such a relief to be able to hike along the flat trails of Taroko. The best part about Taroko Gorge? It’s FREE! That’s right. FREE. The only thing you have to pay for is the bus to shuttle you through the park, or you could rent a motorbike or use a car.
To see Taroko, you can either get a hostel or hotel right outside the gorge, or you can stay in Hualien, the small local city surrounding the train station. I would probably recommend staying in Hualien, which is what I did. There are tons of accommodation and food options, and there’s a cheap bus that will take you into the gorge.
The downtown area of Hualien is actually very small. Many hostels, including mine, are walking distance from the train station. My hostel, which I found on Hostelworld, was actually pretty weird. They gave me walking directions from the train station to a cafe. I followed the directions, found the cafe, but I couldn’t find the hostel anywhere!! I eventually went into the cafe to ask, and it turns out the cafe was the hostel. Basically my hostel was masquerading as a cafe with very expensive fair-trade coffee that no one ever bought. Thanks for the heads up, that was really not obvious in the directions.
Most hostels in Taiwan are not registered as such because the fees and taxes for hotels are so expensive. I also found that many of the hostels in Taipei look like normal apartment buildings from the outside, and most will require you to sign papers saying you’re staying for two months (even if you’re not). Just go with the flow on these things, especially if the place has a high rating on Hostelworld.
In addition to my hostel fronting as a cafe, the rooms were also ridiculous. I was supposed to be in a 25-person dorm room, but I counted almost 40 beds. The worst part? They were almost all full! I opted to stay in the girls dorm, rather than the co-ed dorm because I figured it would be less crowded. Apparently I chose wrong. The co-ed (aka boys) dorm was half the size and had about 5 people sleeping there. The girls dorm was absolutely packed with Taiwanese girls.
Do boys not travel in Taiwan? What’s the deal?
The worst part was that a lot of these girls were very disrespectful about sleeping habits. They insisted that all of the lights stay on until about 2am, and had conversations at full-volume. I’m going to save this rant for another day, because it’s something I’ve experienced in all my hostels throughout Asia, but in a 35+ person dorm, it was absolutely ridiculous.
One night at around 1am, almost everyone was asleep, but one girl was lounging on her bed texting. I asked her if she minded if I turn the lights off, and she said “Oh, I’ll do it”. About 30 minutes later she hadn’t turned them off, so I hopped off my 3rd-storey bunk and flipped off all the lights except for one near the bathroom. Girl, you can use your phone as a flashlight. We are all trying to sleep.
Eventually me and a German girl (the only other foreigner in the room) asked to move to the co-ed room downstairs. The hostel girls couldn’t understand why we would give up our all-girls slumber party room to sleep near icky boys. It was the best sleep of my life.
A bunch of girls in my original room actually worked at the hostel in exchange for free accommodation and a chance to practice their English. This was great, except for the fact that they knew absolutely nothing about Hualien or Taroko Gorge. Honestly, if you’re going to get a job in a hostel at least have some general knowledge about the city you’re in. They had no clue how to get from Hualien to Taroko Gorge, or how to navigate the gorge once already there. Thankfully the German girl and her friend told me about the bus, otherwise I don’t know what I would’ve done.
This situation is very common in Taiwan. Every hostel I stayed at had local girls working there for the summer to improve their English and explore a new part of the country. I think it’s absolutely great, except for the fact that they definitely need more training because a lot of these staffers were absolutely clueless. Although, I will say the girls in Taitung were very helpful in booking me a guesthouse in Lanyu and helping me get ferry tickets over the phone. I definitely wouldn’t have even known where to start without their help.
Heading to the Gorge
Thanks to the help of my German friends, I knew how to get to the gorge, and all of the logistics of hiking. There’s a bus in Hualien town that you can take to the gorge, and it leaves every hour or half-hour depending on the time of day. I decided to take the 7:30am bus, because the Germans said it gave them more than enough time, and I’m really not a morning person.
I grabbed some buns and an iced coffee from 7-11 (they sell them for $1USD!) and made my way to the bus. Thankfully I got a ticket, because there was a bunch of people there. I noticed a blonde girl waiting, so I decided to strike up a conversation with her. Apparently she was also from Germany (the Germans love Taiwan?), and was doing a 6-month solo trip through Asia and South America. Some of the girls I meet on the road are so impressive! Naturally we hiked the entire gorge together.
Eventually it was time for us to get on the bus. Unfortunately the German girl and I were stuck behind the driver in seats with absolutely no leg room. Although we were thankful for these seats when part of the way through our journey, an entire summer camp of young children smashed their way onto the bus. It was absolutely ridiculous, and I have no idea why the summer camp couldn’t have used carpool or hired a van. I felt so bad for all of those kids. We even let two little ones sit on our laps because there was literally no room for them. It was a very uncomfortable ride.
When heading to Taroko, you’re given a map of all of the destinations you can see along the way. In-between these spots you can catch the bus, however, it only comes through every hour or half-hour. You have to make sure you’re catching the right bus though, because there are also a lot of tour busses.
I heard that hiking Taroko Gorge on the weekend was a nightmare because it’s so crowded, but after living in China, Taroko Gorge is nothing. Even if you have to go on a weekend it’s really not that bad. Don’t expect it to be empty, but it’s really not as horrible as Lonely Planet makes it out to be.
Hiking the Gorge
There’s plenty to do and see when hiking Taroko. Temples, rivers, marble-lined walls, breathtaking vistas, and giant spiders (?!!) are just a few of the things I saw. You can definitely do the entire gorge in one day and take your time. If you visit in the summer remember that it’s going to be really hot! I can’t tell you how bad I wanted to jump into that water.
Hiking the gorge is absolutely beautiful, and I couldn’t have had better weather. It was sunny and warm, but a lot of the trails are shaded. Just be sure to bring a giant water bottle if you’re going in the summer because it is very hot and sweaty. I also brought a 7-11 sandwich for lunch because there’s only one cafe and a few snack shops. Although we did splurge on ice cream and down multiple cold bottles of water at one of those snack shops. It was a great decision.
While I had an amazing time, if I did it again I would definitely rent a motorbike. The bus schedule isn’t exactly correct, and it was stressful to try and catch busses if there was an hour before the next one. It would have been nice to go at my own pace without worrying about the bus. I’ve had friends do it this way, and they highly recommend it.
Also, my German friend’s hostel told her that you can flag the bus down in-between stops which is definitely not true. Since it was over 20 minutes until the next bus, we tried to walk between two of the stops hoping to flag the bus as it passed by. The bus did not stop.
With over an hour till the next bus, we had a dilemma. We were stuck on a highway, too exhausted to keep moving. We had come so far, but we weren’t even half-way to the next stop!
We leaned against the railing eating our lunch and enjoying the view, when we finally decided we’d have to hitchhike. We figured that everyone would be doing the same route and it wouldn’t be too much trouble to bring us along. Also, the two of us didn’t look too intimidating: two tiny white girls with day packs in hiking clothes don’t really come off as serial killers. We put out our thumbs and the first car immediately stopped! It was a family with a young son, and they welcomed us into their air-conditioned car. Apparently they were staying at a hotel in the park, but offered to drive us to the next spot anyway!
I have to say, Taiwan has some of the kindest people I have ever met. It’s also one of the safest countries in the entire world, especially for women. This was the second time I hitchhiked in Taiwan (both out of necessity). If you’re going to hitchhike, Taiwan is definitely the place to do it. In Taitung, I met a Thai girl who hitchhiked down the whole east coast by herself. Even the locals recommend it! Although, my parents weren’t too happy when I told them… whoopsies.
For the more adventurous
If you’re a bit more adventurous, or have more time, you can apply for a permit to hike other parts of the gorge. We met a few Taiwanese guys doing this while we were waiting for a bus. These trails are very intense though, and a bit scary because one slip can mean a fall to your death. To get a permit you must apply a few days in advance at the park office.
Definitely do not attempt to sneak off the main trail even if you find an opportunity. One of my friends didn’t get a permit and decided to hike one of these trails. An attempt at a shortcut led to him and his friends getting lost in the mountains for two days, where they had to stay with two different aboriginal tribes that didn’t speak Mandarin or English and had never had foreign guests before.
…and that’s why women live longer than men.
Overall, the Taroko Gorge is one of my most favorite hikes. It’s beautiful, not too strenuous, and FREE.
What is your favorite hike? Tell us about it in the comments below :)