Epilogue and Chapter 4: Hot rocks by the beach, they look like other things

By February 20th, 2019

My last full day at the hotel and I finally manage to partake in their “semi-buffet style” breakfast. It translated to a set plate with all the beverage and soup you want. Unfortunately, I had to rush to finish it since I spied my tour van parked outside 30 minutes earlier than expected.

The Yehliu Geopark

After getting everyone picked up, we headed to Yehliu Geopark where there were interesting rock formations by the beach. Note: bring sun protection and plenty of water. The rocky beach tends to reflect heat and makes the temperature much hotter than the surrounding area. I found a path leading to a staircase with a gazebo at the top of a rise and a view of the beach below. There’s a waterpark across the way from the geopark if you have the rest of the day to cool down. Otherwise, the local 7-11 has a rest area upstairs with central AC.

There are some waterfalls by the main road on the drive up to Jiufen. If you’re self-driving there, make a quick stop.

A quick stop for waterfall photos along the road
The tea houses remind you of the Spirited Away bath house

Exploring Jiufen involves stairs. Lots. Of. Stairs. Make sure you try the stuffed honey pancakes and the grilled mushroom. Also, a refreshing iced milk tea beverage always helps. If you are a Studio Ghibli fan like me, you can channel your inner Chihiro Ogino and explore after dark. Watch out for the spirits and don’t let No-Face follow you home. I didn’t get to stay the night since our tour group had more places to see. I’m saving that adventure for my return visit.

Chihiro’s parents would have been quite at home here
Shifen Falls
A welcoming breeze blows through the trees and prayer ribbons

Before heading back to Taipei, we stopped at Shifen. There’s a trail that leads to a gorgeous waterfall before you reach the town. Shifen itself is a small village by a set of train tracks with plenty of touristy shops. If you squint a little, you can almost imagine travelling back in time to when the mines were still functional and life was so much simpler. The town’s main street is lined with shops that sell snacks, cold drinks, and souvenirs. Here you can write wishes on a paper lantern and float it up to the sky. I wished sincerely for more adventures and the requisite good health and happiness. It was a nice ending to my tour. I walked around up and down the main drag and by the train tracks but it seemed pretty obvious all the other shops were selling the same things so I decided to pass up on the heat and humidity and decided to relax in the van.

The wind damper

On the way back, I asked to be dropped off at the Taipei 101 Building. I bought the Privilege Pass(about $40 and costs twice as much as a regular ticket). If you don’t want to wait in line forever to get up there, it’s worth the spend. You also get savings coupons for shops and a special gift if you buy something from the gift shop. Don’t forget to check out the gem shop. It’s a nice place to buy gifts and souvenirs, and a little shiny thing for yourself as well. Also, check out the damper ball and go upstairs for access to the outdoor walkway if weather permits. I’m trying to establish a travel tradition of going to the highest viewpoint of every destination for a “golden hour” evening shot so I hung around the view deck waiting for sunset and the golden hour for some awesome “from high on up” shots.

Taipei at twilight from Taipei 101 Tower
Taipei’s Golden Hour

The bottom 5 floors are home to shops much like in a typical mall with high end shops as well as stores for plebeians like you and me. I didn’t really spend a whole lot of time window shopping since there wasn’t anything overly unique on sale that I wouldn’t be able to buy online. I ate my dinner at the food court downstairs before taking the MTR back to Shilin and to my hotel (there is an MTR station downstairs inside the building).

I spent the rest of the night packing and getting ready for my flight to the Philippines to see my family. The next day, I woke up early and checked out of the hotel. The desk staff was kind enough to call me a cab to the airport. And just like that, off I went to my next adventure.

Chapter 3: I saw things, and ate things

By February 4th, 2019

I planned on today being a free day for me since I had a whole day tour the next day. I slept in,woke up near noon time and found my way to the National Palace Museum. The plan was to catch the trolley from there and explore the rest of the city.

The National Palace Museum main gate

The National Palace Museum is huge. There are different kinds of exhibits in each of the 3 floors and basement of the main exhibition area. Another separate exhibition building can be seen outside. There is also a South branch located in Taibao City on the southeastern region of the country.

Sculptures guarding the entrance

After I queued up and bought my ticket, I decided to have lunch before going in to see the exhibit. There are restaurants in the main lobby where you can buy food and beverages. Despite not wanting to eat rice, I opted to try their rice burger.It composed of a burger patty topped with a teriyaki-ish sauce and the usual burger veggies: lettuce, tomatoes, onion. The bun is actually rice molded into shape and crisped on the flat top. That and some coffee was enough to get my day started.

A Beef and Onion Rice Burger
Plenty of Buddhist statues in the museum

The museum being a popular tourist spot, there were so many people. Tour guides were herding flocks of tourists from one exhibit area to another. Not the place to go if you’re considering having some peace and quiet in a museum. There were a lot of exhibits of  beautiful art and intricate house wares from bygone eras. I found the displays of ancient texts and literature the most interesting. I tried to see if I could get lucky and catch a glimpse of the jade lettuce but the crowd was a bit too much for me and I decided to spend the rest of the day exploring Taipei instead of standing in line for who knows how long. If you intend to see the jade lettuce, a useful tip would be to go early, as soon as the museum opens, and make a beeline for the upper floor before the tour crowds arrive.

Ornately carved wooden statues
And beautiful pottery

I caught the trolley right outside the museum and got off at the Museum of Fine Arts. It was closed that day so I decided to explore the park across the street and walk to the Taipei Story House. After a quick photo stop, I caught the trolley to main station and took the blue trolley line and enjoyed a narrated tour of the downtown area.

I’m curious to know who lives here.

After finishing the tour, I took the MRT back to my hotel in the Shilin district, took a quick break from the outside to cool down in my hotel room’s AC, and went to the nearby Shilin Night Market to find dinner. It was still rather early for the dinner rush so I was able to take my time looking around and finally settled on some yummy grilled mystery meats on sticks and a hot cup of vermicelli soup. Some places claim to be Michelin starred, not sure if it’s legit but I personally think it’s well deserved. The steamed buns were also good. Cheap eats aren’t always so bad. Sometimes they’re pretty amazing if you know where to go (follow the crowds). I would suggest going before the dinner rush (6 pm or so) to avoid the crowds and long lines. It starts getting super busy after 8 pm.

The Shilin Night Market

I walk-ate my way around the rest of the market, got some steamed buns to go, and went back to my hotel room to relax for the rest of the night. Tomorrow is going to be another sweltering day of adventure.

Chapter 2: Round and round the Gorge and back

By January 25th, 2019

Day two of my Taiwan adventure. I woke up pretty early to get picked up from my hotel and taken to the train station. I was joined by a charming couple in their 60’s (maybe) from Hong Kong. Although they were quite nice, politely maintaining small talk while on our way to the train station still felt quite new to me. At the train station, tickets were bought, and we were herded to the train platform. It felt like a live-action version of a scene out of a Studio Ghibli cartoon. I had fun people-watching while waiting for our train to arrive.

The train ride to Hualien takes about 3 hours. I sat next to a girl from Texas who had family in Taiwan and I was able to practice making small talk with strangers some more.After a while, my body began to remind me of going to bed late last night and waking up way too early this morning so I settled in for a bit of a nap.

At Hualien, I and the couple found our way to the meeting spot and realized we were actually part of a larger group. Texas girl was there, too. The tour guide, self-dubbed “the Queen of Taroko Gorge” was a study in multilingualism. She easily switched from English to Mandarin, to Japanese without missing a beat,making sure to translate everything she said in all three languages. I suppose if you were that talented, you earn the right to crown yourself queen of something.

On the road to the Gorge
The gate to the East Entrance of Taroko Gorge

Our first photo stop was the Arch of Taroko. It’s the East Entrance to the Taroko National Park and often the first thing visitors encounter when entering the park. We drove around the gorge and stopped at a short trail for a quick walk. I decided to stay at the trail head and take photos. After that, the bus traveled through the gorge towards Silks Place Taroko for a Lauriat lunch of local cuisines.

A yummy lauriat lunch at Silks
Looking down into the gorge from above

Along the way, we stopped at the Swallow Grotto. The guide told us we were very fortunate that it was open today. Apparently, the recent earthquakes and high waters had caused long periods of trail closures. We also stopped through the Tunnel of Nine Turns but access to the rest of the area was limited due to construction and road repairs. Still, it was neat to see the gorge from above. Looking down to the river from the cliff side can be stomach-churning for someone scared of heights like I am.

A quick stop for temple photos

Lunch at the Silks was not too shabby, although it was not life-changing either. The ambiance was relaxing, however, especially after the winding roads. We also had a little time to explore the area and just laze around before getting back in the bus.

From Silks, we drove back through the gorge heading for the Marble Factory. Along the way, we stopped at a viewpoint where you could see the Changshun Tzu waterfall and temple. We also stopped at a rope suspension bridge and everyone was made to cross it and back. My knees turned to Jell-O when it was my turn but I did make it across and back. I even stopped midway and took a selfie. I was indeed spending today way outside my comfort zone in more ways than one.

One of the many amazing statues outside the Jade Warehouse
Friends set in stone
Time for a little stretch

At the marble museum, we had a quick primer from the staff about how to tell real jade from jadeite before we were ushered into an enormous showroom where they sold jewelry made from all sorts of gems. Photography was not permitted inside the building but I managed to find lots of interesting things to photograph outside. The massive building looked like a government palace straight out of Europe with waterfalls, landscaped gardens, and marble and stone statues.

Before heading back to the station to catch our train back to Taipei, we stopped by a confectionery store where they sold mochi of almost every kind. I was like a kid in a mochi store. I bought treats for the family and more treats for me. After that, a quick stop to a beach-side park with an awesome panoramic view of the Eastern coast of Taiwan in front of you, and a military installation complete with bunkers and razor wire-topped walls behind you.

The Eastern Coast

By the time we boarded the train home, I was so tired that I napped most of the way despite the clamor and loud snoring from the guy sitting right next to me. I didn’t get to go camping in the gorge on a full moon but I think I will save that for next time.

By the time I got dropped off at my hotel, I was exhausted. After a quick snack and a much needed cool shower, I went to bed to rest up for the next day’s adventure.

Chapter 1: A soup dumpling kind of day

By January 15th, 2019

Taiwan has always fascinated me. There’s so many things to see, do,and eat. I spent 4 days exploring Taipei and the surrounding areas and I still haven’t had my fill. I still plan to come back soon to do the things I wanted to do but didn’t get a chance.

My first day I spent doing the quintessential touristy thing to do in Taipei: eat lunch at the original Din Tai Fung. I’m a sucker for a good dumpling and I love the xiao long bao or pork soup dumplings from the one near where I live in Seattle but friends and family have told me that it barely compares to the original thing. Public service announcement: this branch is a cash-only operation so plan accordingly.

The Bean?
Lion statues outside of a government building

After lunch, I traipsed about downtown, visited the Taipei 101 building, although I didn’t go inside since it was part of our afternoon tour later that day. I did, however, meander through the Eslite store in the Xinyi district nearby. It was floor after floor of cool stuff, and a pretty extensive food court in the basement. I was in the market for a hat and a handy bag to put my touristy purchases in and I found them both there.

Tin men in a roadside garden on the way to the Eslite mall.
The LOVE statue in front of Taipei 101

The Taipei Night Tour I booked took us to the Longshan temple where the tour group (me and one other girl and the tour guide) watched people praying and lighting incense sticks. The tour guide explained to us the various saints and areas in the temple dedicated to the different facets of life: money, health, romance, seafaring, etc. There was also a beautiful waterfall along the wall just right past the main outer gate.

The Longshan Temple gate
Roof details in the temple

Next stop was the Huaxi Street Night Market. It was only about 5pm or so and the market wasn’t quite crowded yet. We went to see the live snakes on display at one of the restaurants and learned about the seedy history of the market.

Huaxi Night Market gate
I get to watch the experts at work.

Our final stop was dinner at the Taipei 101 branch of Din Tai Fung. I was allowed to photograph how the soup dumplings were made. We were also made to try almost everything on the menu. We then spent a few minutes browsing through the grocery store inside the building. Apparently, prices here are much steeper than average. The tour ended with me being dropped off back at my hotel full of food, tired to the bone, and ready for a shower and a comfy bed. An early start and a full day of adventure awaits the next day.

The lights of Taipei wink at me as I say goodnight

Prologue: That time I fell down a rabbit hole

By January 8th, 2019

I did not see a white rabbit in a waistcoat with a pocket watch. The cake I ate did not make me grow taller. The many milk tea drinks I imbibed did not shrink me (they were all delicious, though). However, my tour guides were just about as confusing as the grinning Cheshire cat and I did have one heck of a grand adventure.

I went to Taiwan by myself for a solo vacation before seeing my family in the Philippines. It may not sound like such a big deal to some but for me it was like diving head first into a mysterious hole in the ground not knowing what you would find at the bottom. It was my first time traveling solo to a foreign country since I went to Hong Kong to take the NCLEX 15 years ago.

I only (barely) know how to say one sentence in Mandarin: Do you speak English? I was counting on Google Translate to keep me from making any heinous and potentially arrest-able blunders for the four days I was there. Thankfully, I am good at reading signs and following written instructions. I’m a nurse by profession after all. 

I did a lot of research and pre-booked my tours before flying in. I marked all the interesting sights I planned on visiting on my Google Maps. I did virtual street tours online, read every blog I could and watched every Taipei episode of every travel show I could find. In the end, when I finally got there, I still felt unprepared. I suppose that’s what makes it an adventure.

Come and follow along with me as I recall that time I fell down the metaphorical rabbit hole into a most excellent adventure. Meet the characters I met. See the things I saw. Come along now, we mustn’t be late.