Venturing away from Taipei.
Going to Sun Moon Lake, you must get up early to beat the crowds and catch the first bus there. We got the 0750 bus but the little station was already packed with tourists! There’s a selection of ticket packages you can buy along with your bus ticket, ours included a boat ride across the lake, free shuttle bus travel around the area and bike rental. From what I recall, they weren’t too expensive for the varying packages, but keep in mind how much you think you can fit in throughout the day! On the bus, I was getting ready to fall asleep when I spotted our friend Aline, who we met in the Taipei hostel, she had left a few days earlier than us so it was a pleasant surprise to see her again – yay for travel friends!
I’ve now mastered the art of sleeping on transport and fell asleep on the journey there, waking up to a stunning view of the clouds weaving dreamily in and out of the hills. Getting off, we exchanged our boat vouchers for tickets with a lady on the street. It’s not something to be suspicious of, but do be aware there are different companies around that you can exchange your vouchers with so make sure your group all exchanges with the same person! With the water so clear and blue, it wasn’t hard to enjoy the cruise across the lake and on the other side, we visited Wen Wu Temple and a peacock garden before catching a bus back to the main area for lunch (Taiwanese beef noodle soup – the best!) After lunch we decided to make use of our bike vouchers and rented a bike for the rest of the afternoon. There’s a great cycle path to take, although at some points it can get a little crowded and frustrating when the people in front of you are too slow. Turning back at Xiangshan Visitor Centre, we were able to enjoy the view for a while before we witnessed a drone accident! Someone lost control of the drone they were flying and it flew into a lady’s head, knocking her unconscious. (Reading up in Taiwanese news the next day, we can all breathe a sigh of relief – she was fine!) Another thing to note is that buses on the way back from Sun Moon Lake can be get extremely busy, so it’s best not to get the last bus back as you might get stranded – we left at around 4pm and there was already a huge queue!
Friends and food are the best medicine.
Travelling with friends has it pros and cons. This day I discovered the con – catching their illnesses. I woke up with a sore throat and cold which immediately killed my mood and made me a little grumpy for a good part of the morning, (sorry guys)! Powering through, we visited the CKS Memorial Hall, which we actually went to the night before on a mini cycle tour around the National Taiwan University. Going off on a tangent for bit, a fun and cheap activity to do in Taipei is to hire the rental bikes scattered around the city! You’ll need a Taiwan number, which shouldn’t be a problem if you’ve bought a sim card for data. Then just purchase an Easy Card from the MRT stations, register and go! You can register multiple cards on one number, so you can rent bikes for everyone in your group! Luckily there aren’t many hills in Taipei so the ride is pretty relaxing, especially at night when the streets and roads are less busy!
Returning back to the day at hand, I loved the open space of the CKS Memorial Hall and because of a local festival going on at the time, we saw a lot of dance groups practising chorography which was fun to watch. Feeling hungry we went to Din Tai Fung for lunch, waiting only 30 minutes for a table! A restaurant famous for having a Michelin Star with accessible prices on their menus, it’s a popular destination for visitors and locals alike. Having been to the one in Hong Kong, I can definitely say that the branch in Taipei has much better service, if no perceptible difference in food quality! Eating there was such a mood booster and we went on to watch a local dragon boat festival in happier spirits! We took shelter under the bridge and amusedly watched as teams of varying ability competed against one another. We stayed for an hour before picking up our bags at the hostel and catching our train to Taichung. Similar to the bullet trains in Japan, Taiwanese trains are so spacious, modern and clean, it was a dream to ride! Upon arrival there was a brief moment of confusion as to what bus to take into the city, but we managed to figure it out (yay) and got to our hostel without incident.
Sightseers and information seekers
After our disappointing first attempt to sight-see around Taipei, we checked and double checked opening times this time round, setting off nice and early to fit as much in as possible. With the sun on our side we arrived at the Dalongdong Bao’an Temple (臺北保安宮). It’s a small but beautiful site that has been awarded for its conservation efforts by UNESCO. There’s a lack of English signs providing information about the temple and it would have been nicer to be given more about its history, but it’s nothing you can’t read up on Google later I suppose! Across the road from here is the Confucius Temple, which does have an abundance of information given to you in English! Although less intricate in architectural design, I did enjoy this temple much more due to its interactive exhibitions! There’s also a screening room towards the back of the area showing Confucius related films in 4D (!!!), there are nine screenings spread throughout the day if you have the time. Having just missed the previous screening, we decided to press on with our itinerary feeling sorry to have missed the 4D film.
We next made our way to the Taiwan Fine Arts Museum, not seeking out anything in particular but to check out some works by Taiwanese artists. Entering the main exhibition, it was nice to discover for ourselves the works of Daniel Lee (a Chinese artist raised in Taiwan). The collection consisted of human/animal hybrids, termed ‘manimals’ by Lee, created through both digital and traditional mediums. They were all fantastically beautiful and creepy to view, provoking ideas of future bodily manipulations or even ethical implications of combining animal and human genetics. Not having any expectations of the museum beforehand, it’s pretty easy to be satisfied with our visit, but lovelier to find pieces that strike you and create conversation – something that is definitely harder to come across!
Moving on from the arts museum, we went to meet another friend (this time a Taiwanese local) and explored the surrounding area, ending up at Maji2, a little hipster street style food court that serves a variety of food from different countries. There’s also a few shops here for those of you wanting to buy quirky gifts to take home! We stopped here for lunch and can confirm that the prices and quality of food here is pretty decent!
Completing the cultural tour, we then went to the National Palace Museum, which is a fair bit away from our location (~1hr) – something to keep in mind for anyone else planning their itinerary. Once there however, it’s a spectacular sight to behold. The structure itself is huge and imposing, which is funny contrasted with the rather shabby block of flats directly opposite. For those residents, it must be amazing to have such a view to distract you and reminds me of this observation from Karl Pilkington. Heading inside is like walking into a vault of treasures, temperatures are kept low to preserve the artefacts so bringing a light jacket is advisory (unfortunately, no one told me, so I kept warm by briskly walking around the exhibits). There’s a lot to go through and even more locked away from the public eye (!) but my favourite parts were the calligraphy and jade exhibitions. We spent the rest of the day here but still weren’t able to make it around the whole museum, there’s so much to see!
If you have a day spare in Taipei, make sure to take a train out of the city and explore the surrounding villages. After visiting Jiufen, we bought a train ticket to Pingxi and stopped off at different stations along the way. Our first stop was Houtong Cat Village, which is exactly what you’d expect! Residents here have fully embraced the animal, with cat-related adornments all over the train station as well as actual cats! We spotted a few as soon as we off the train and probably would have seen a lot more if not for the rain. Taking refuge in a nearby shop, I unsurprisingly ended up buying some souvenirs. The selection was pleasantly surprising too, but maybe I’m slightly biased. It’s not your typical machine-churned-touristy-products, more like items you’d find in a cute local art fair! Prices weren’t too extortionate either, yay! Braving the rain, we delved further into the village in search of more cats before my allergies got the better of me and we took the train to the next destination.
Luckily the rain had subsided as we got into Shifen and we grabbed a quick snack, (BBQ chicken wings stuffed with rice – so delicious!) and headed off to see the waterfall. Although it is free to enter, do be aware of opening times (09.30-17.30), depending on how long you want to spend there! We just about made it, having a good 10 minutes to view and take pictures before we were shooed away! Another point to keep in mind is that many shops/stalls selling food also close pretty early too – something that completely slipped my mind after being in cities for so long. It’s best to have a big/late lunch or pack snacks while you wait for the next outbound train!
Our original plan was to go to Pingxi to set off some lanterns but we figured it would take too long to get there and back into the city (we were pretty hungry and also due to meet a friend). Basing our plans on internet recommendations, we read that Pingxi is nicer to set off lanterns (due to less tourists) but to be honest Shifen isn’t a bad compromise. We decorated our lantern and got bitten by mosquitos, before a cinematic worthy send-off along the railway track! After such a heart-warming send off, it’s a little disenchanting when you see the lantern run out of fuel and begin its descent. Especially when the idea is to write your hopes and dreams on it. 😐 Overall, it’s a lovely way to spend the evening and at this time, there’s less crowds, making that moment just the more special (corny, I’m sorry).