Lunar New Year Vacation!

Or, my first (half-hearted) attempt at travel blogging (Everyone keeps saying I should do it, so here’s one for all my fans.)

According to something I heard somewhere once, the Taiwanese work the most out of any country in the world. We don’t get a fall, winter, or spring break here (most local teachers and students don’t even get a summer break), but long hours and low wages are offset by a week off for Chinese New Year! This year, the lovely Nika and I decided to adventure to the east coast for a few days of R AND R (rest, adventure, nibbling, drinking, relaxation). What follows is a recap of our trip, so in the year 2040 when Taiwan finally lets tourists in again, you can follow our itinerary and have a pretty great time!

On Saturday morning, we took the slow train from Taichung all the way up and around to Hualien. Harriet says this railway was on a British TV show once, so we felt pretty special. The trip took about five hours and, due to Covid restrictions, there is no eating or drinking on the train, though we snuck a few sips of water at one point. (Don’t tell the government.)

Upon arriving in Hualien, we rented a scooter, dropped our stuff off at the hotel, and went to find some lunch. Luckily for us, it was raining and everything was closed. Chinese New Year is a bit of a weird holiday. Even though most people have off and like to travel, it is primarily a family holiday, more like Christmas than Spring Break. So a lot of the local shops and restaurants are closed while the owners spend time at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. So while Hualien is a popular travel destination due to its natural beauty, the town felt eerily quiet in most places. Eventually we did find a little Taiwanese cafe that was open and treated ourselves to a tasty lunch.

Three cup chicken and beef noodle soup. Two Taiwanese classics.

After a nap at the hotel, we made the 30-minute walk to Salt Lick, which we agree is one of the best American restaurants we’ve been to in Taiwan. This country does not do bars very well. There are restaurants, there are cocktail lounges, and there are clubs. There are very few bars, pubs, or taverns, which has been an unfortunate circumstance for this Wisconsinite. Salt Lick was a rare exception. With a diverse menu that included pulled pork, chicken wings, mac ‘n’ cheese, deep dish pizza, and a handful of desserts, this Chicago-style bar really hit the spot. And lest I forget, craft beer on tap(!), another sadly uncommon occurrence around here.

After consuming a week’s worth of calories, we strolled down the block Komod’z for a cocktail. If you are looking for uninspiring, overpriced, vibey cocktail bars, then Taiwan just might be the place for you. Always in an alley, always dark and trying-to-be-trendy, always underwhelming. But a decent drink and decent company is never a bad time, so we aren’t here to complain.

Day two was our big adventure day. We went to brunch at Country Mother’s to carbo-load. Good selection of local and some western-style food, friendly service, and reasonably priced — high recommend. After that, we made the hour-long scoot to Taroko Gorge to see what we could see. The gorge is one of the most iconic attractions on the island and for good reason. I asked Nika what words she would use to describe it and she said “big, deep, and woah.” Personally, I’d go with breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and incredible, but you get the idea. The scoot was absolutely gorge-ous (pun very intended). We stopped several times to walk along the river and look at the views. There are crazy temples built impossibly high up on the sides of the mountain. There are terrifying suspension bridges that defy gravity. And there are long, winding tunnels that are marvels of engineering. This is one of those places that you can just sit and marvel at the beauty of nature. My second-favorite gorge activity was simply staring at the vastness of these mountain faces and contemplating the largeness and smallness of life. The pictures, of course, do not do it justice. Truly, a place you have to see in person to appreciate it fully.

My third-favorite gorge activity was seeing monkeys along the side of the road because, well, who doesn’t love seeing wild monkeys? We stopped and chatted with them for a bit and obviously named them Curious Gorge and Gorge of the Jungle, but we’re getting off track. My first-favorite gorge activity was undoubtedly the hot springs. Formerly a park-sanctioned space, a recent earthquake and subsequent landslide destroyed most of the structures built around the springs. What remains is a few hand-made rock-walled pools at the bottom of a very sketchy slope. Entrance into this area is one of those things that is “off limits”… but everyone does it anyways. We had been warned that the climb down was a wee bit dangerous, but I thought, “psh, Taiwanese are very safety-conscious, I’m a good hiker, I’m sure it’s no biggie.” Take it from me: this slope is not for the faint of heart. I surmised that in an effort to prevent people from going down to the river, someone tried to scrape off all of the steps of the existing rock staircase, leaving little more than a slope at a 45º angle. Did I mention that it was raining? So add water to the equation. A few industrious adventurers have tied together a makeshift rope railing. What’s left to do but put your faith in this wet rope that’s definitely probably secure, hang on tight, and rappel your way down? We weren’t so sure at first, but we watched a couple who appeared to be in their 70’s and were wearing flip-flops climb right on down without hesitation, so we figured if they could do it, we could too.

After a few knee-knocking minutes, we made it down safely and was it ever worth it! There was a little cave with a stream of water coming out of the wall forming a natural pool. The water in here was way too hot for us, but there were five or six elderly Taiwanese people who were sitting in it and chatting as if it was nothing. The pool overflowed and mixed with the river. Along the banks, people have made some little rock pools. The water in these pools was the perfect temperature and full of minerals that I choose to believe are good for you. On a cool, rainy day, laying in a hot spring at the bottom of a gorge, looking up at 1000 meters of mountain on either side… I’m not sure I’ve experienced a better feeling. I was simultaneously overwhelmed with awe and at total peace. I closed my eyes and felt the water running over me, listened to the sounds of the rushing river, and thanked God, Buddha, and Allah for allowing me to have this moment. I wanted to stay there forever, but it was getting late, and scooting in the dark is no fun, so we got back on the road. (For those wondering, the climb up was much easier and less stressful than it was on the way down.)

Hot springs hEVAN on Earth
Impossible to capture the impressive beauty of this place in a photo.
Temple on the side of a mountain. How?

For dinner that night we went to Dos Tacos and Nika went three-for-three on her restaurant picks. This is surely one of the best Mexican restaurants in Taiwan, although that isn’t saying much. Good Mexican food, like dive bars, is another thing I miss greatly here. We had some delicious food, good margaritas, fast and friendly service, and peach empanadas with cinnamon ice cream and caramel to seal the deal.

After dinner, we headed down to the night market. As you probably know, night markets are very popular in every part of Taiwan. In most cities, you can throw a rock in any direction and you’re likely to hit a night market. This one, however, was unique because of how organized it was. First off, it was pedestrian only, which is always nice to not have to worry about getting clipped by a scooter while you’re eating your snacks. Secondly, it was organized into sections of games, food, and aboriginal stalls. We played a few games, won a few prizes, had a few snacks, and even found a stall that was a small bar called *pauses for suspense* Small Bar! The walk home was filled with a possibly-unhealthy dose of claw machines. These games are everywhere in Taiwan and most people usually ignore them. But not us. Not this night. We did pretty well too! After winning about 5 stuffed animals, a handful of plastic cockroaches, and a fake banana, it was time to call it a night.

Burrito, fajitas, margaritas, and una chica. All full of flavor.
One of the many unique offerings of the night market. Did not win one of these.

Monday was mostly rainy, so we didn’t want to spend too much time outside. It was also New Year’s Eve and everything was closed, so we couldn’t spend too much time inside either. We scooted along the coast and looked at stopped at some nice ocean viewpoints. It felt like it was probably beautiful there in the summer. The highlight of this day was Pony, the cafe/petting zoo! We were hoping to chill by the ocean for a bit and not only did this place fit the bill, but it was one of the few places open. There were bunnies and puppies (adorable), ponies and pigs (sad-looking), goats (aggressively hungry), and even an ostrich (confusing and sketchy)! Would recommend for anyone with kids who don’t yet have a concept of what healthy animals look like.

Coastal views
Stairway to the sky. One of the many Instagrammable spots at Pony cafe.
I love this resilient little palm tree.

It goes against my travel instincts to repeat a restaurant, but partially because there was very little open and partially because it was just that good, we went back to Salt Lick for dinner that night. We ordered different things than the first time, so that counts for something at least.

On Tuesday, I got up and went for a run before we had to catch our train. I found a really nice waterfall just on the edge of town! It was also sunny for a few minutes and I even saw a rainbow, which gave me a true glimpse of how beautiful this area must be in nice weather. I was glad to have at least had this moment on the last day. It felt like Hualien was saying, “come back in the summer!” as we headed back north.

A smooth two-hour train ride (TRA), a 20 minute Metro ride (MRT), and a 15 minute walk later, we were at our second hotel in beautiful Beitou. Beitou is a cute little tourist town situated just on the northern edge of Taipei City and nestled at the bottom of Yangmingshan, a dormant volcano. It is known for its natural hot springs. All of the hotels in the area have natural hot tubs in the rooms and there is even a steamy creek running through the town.

After getting settled, our first stop was a pottery shop run by an adorable old man. He served us tea and told us he had been painting this pottery for over 40 years. He even had old photos to prove it. The artwork on the cups, plates, and bowls really was beautiful, and even if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have let his hospitality go unrequited, so we each purchased a few souvenirs before continuing on our stroll about town. Unfortunately, many places were still closed for the holiday, so there weren’t many options. We did find an amazing bakery and got a few snacks to hold us over until dinner. After several days of adventure, hiking, and walking, we opted for a night of relaxation. Uber Eats in the hotel room and a soak in the hot springs tub were just what the doctor ordered. (Be careful. Believe it or not, volcano water can get really hot!)

Wednesday was another adventure day. The hotel had a nice continental breakfast buffet. You can even boil your own eggs in the hot springs. (Can’t do that at La Quinta!) After that, we hopped on the local shuttle bus and it carried us right up the mountain. The driver did her best to make Nika as sick as possible with each switchback turn. We got off in Zhuzihu, which is a little village area known for its Calla Lilies. In a relatively common instance of Evan looking at the map and saying, “I’m pretty sure we can walk from here to there,” (I blame the Hash) we took a lovely stroll along a creek, through some fields, up a road, through some bamboo, and eventually, up a few stairs to the Yangmingshan Visitor’s Center. I think most people start here, but we aren’t most people. At this point, the wind and rain were really picking up. We had a coffee and spent some time perusing the gift shop (and buying some sick hats!) while we warmed up and prepared to head to the summit. The trail to the summit is paved with stone and isn’t overly difficult, at least when it’s dry. The views of Taipei and the surrounding area are unparalleled, or so we read online. We made it about halfway up, decided we were too cold, too wet, and too… wet. I mean, we were in a cloud. What do you expect? Like sad, wet puppies, we trudged back down to the Visitor’s Center and called for an Uber home, which took a while because, you know, on a mountain.

I picked up a phrase in Costa Rica. “Some people get wet, others feel the rain.” This has become a bit of a personal motto for me. It makes no difference to the weather if you’re happy or grumpy about it, so you might as well lean into it. Even though the rain made the day less-than-ideal, I couldn’t get over how cool it was to be on a volcano! Along the trail, there were several fumaroles where the steam releases from the heat deep within the earth. I’m not sure what makes them so confident that it isn’t going to erupt at any moment, but if you gotta die somehow, lava river is alright with me. When we got back down, we looked up at the clouds surrounding the mountain peaks and thought whimsically, “We were in that cloud.” Pretty cool stuff. Additionally, I am continually impressed by Nika’s grit and willingness to go along with my foolish desire for adventure. Before we met she hadn’t spent much time hiking at all and now she is climbing through bushes and trekking up rivers like its a walk in the park.

Expansive fields of lilies in Zhuzihu
Always looking for the path less traveled
Signs warning of how hot the fumaroles are. The yellowish-grey rock is sulfur deposits that solidify when they hit the cold air.
Showing the amazing views from the top of Yangmingshan

Okay. We’re nearly to the end. I’m tired of typing and you’re probably even more tired of reading so I’ll wrap it up. We went to a restaurant called Kahu for dinner. It was very nice. We tried and failed to dry all of our clothes before packing up and heading home the next morning. The high speed rail (HSR) was our third and final type of train on our journey. The trains and other public transit systems here are things of beauty. They are efficient, easy to figure out, clean and well maintained. It’s a small island, but even still, I am very appreciative how how easy it is to travel all around it. It’s the best we can do, since we can’t leave the country and come back without quarantine.

Overall, it was a very fun adventure – a break well spent exploring some new parts of this beautiful little island. I hope you can all check it out for yourselves someday! Until then, keep reading!