Have you ever given Taiwan a thought for an easy and low-cost trip to Asia? If you are looking for a unique experience into Asian culture without the craziness of some of the more third world countries, I would highly recommend it.
For starters it’s one of the friendliest and safest spots to travel to in South East Asia. I can’t really compare it to Japan because Japan is in it’s own world and you should probably go there first if you’ve never been to Asia. But if you’re looking for a trip full of smiling people, great food, and amazing culture, put it on your list.
It also happens to have some incredible overlooked mountain ranges and pristine coastline plus all the ancient Chinese history you could ever want.
I had been wanting to visit Taiwan since I began my Asian travels almost 2 years ago. I had always heard about the great food but had only recently heard about the stunning National Parks that are scattered across the island. I also wanted to check out Taiwan because of my budding practice and interest in Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and Kung Fu. Unfortunately on this trip I didn’t find any masters to practice with. I did, however, walk the parks and took some tips from the senior citizens doing their early morning Tai-Chi routines.
My trip to Taiwan turned out to be a great experience despite having a few hiccups* and booking it last minute.
* Hiccups: I broke my phone while trekking in the mountains and was relying on it for everything; directions, booking hostels, etc. I ended up wasting a day and a half wandering the coastal towns trying to find my way back to Taipei. Luckily I got some help from a few locals who got me on the right train and bus. What did we do before SMARTPHONES?!?!
I visited Taiwan for 8 days. Taipei for the first 4 days and then went down South to go hiking in the mountains for the last 3 days. You could easily do Taiwan in 4-5 days if you were tight for time and still see a lot.
I was fortunate enough to stay with a friend in Taipei and it was great way to find the best restaurants and see how the locals live. I didn’t get to all of the main tourist spots in Taipei but instead just rode around the city on the back of a scooter checking out all the little food stands, walking in the parks, and hanging with friends. I also built on my extensive 2 word Chinese vocabulary (Nihou and Xie Xie) and can now say about 10 words. Progress.
I loved all the food in Taiwan. Being with a local was a real treat but also forced me into eating some very odd things. Here are a couple of the popular Taiwanese dishes that I never would of tried if not for getting a nudge from my local friend.
1. Stinky Tofu – Chou Dou Fu
This stuff is pungent. It smells like a musty sock mixed with spicy Indian curry. It’s an odor that you become familiar with walking around Taipei as it’s sold everywhere. While it doesn’t smell great, I wouldn’t say it’s repulsive but it does take some getting used to. It’s not like Durian where it actually makes you gag. As for the Tofu itself, it’s a deep fried square shaped tofu served on a stick and doused in a rich coat of fermented spices. It is quite good and I definitely recommend you try it once if you go to Taiwan. You’ll also get major street cred with the locals.
2. Pig’s blood soup – Zhu Xie Tang
Yeah, sounds gross I know. But is it really? Figure it’s no worse than eating sausage. I was reluctant to try this stuff but my mantra has always been, “don’t knock it until you try it” so I gave it a shot. The broth is like a savory chicken broth and the pig’s blood is textured like a thick tofu. I’ll say the pig’s blood pieces really didn’t have that much taste but the actual soup was incredible. There were a lot of vegetables mixed in which made it taste even fresher. To me I would describe it like a really good ramen broth. It was good enough I had it twice during my trip. Try everything once…or twice, I say.
3. Pork intestines & thin noodles with oyster – Da Chang Mian Sian
This is a must try in Taiwan. It might have been one of the best dishes I had on my trip. The little stalls spoke almost no English and I would have never had known to try it if not for my local guide. But here’s my recommendation: if you see a bunch of locals eating this stuff, stop what you’re doing and go to the stall and point and order. They’ll fix you up. The broth has a very thick consistency but together with the chewy intestines and oysters and thin noodles, it’s a perfect combo. Put on some chilis and oyster sauce on top and this is a killer dish.
Other delicious treats:
Calamari – Taiwanese style
Xiao Long Bao – Chinese buns
Brunch – Scrambled Eggs, chicken cutlet, veggies, Japanese curry, and of course two scoops of rice
Taiwanese Pancake – fried dough with an egg and spicy sauce drizzled on top.
Day trips and hiking
Hualien and Zhuilu Old Trail
I knew I wanted to get out and do some hiking as Taiwan is about 20% National Parks and everywhere you go there are amazing protected forests and trails. Most of the hikes require permits and many of the ones I wanted to do were off limits due to it being the middle of winter and there being inclement weather. I ended up booking with an Adventure guide service so I wouldn’t have to deal with the permit process and worry about the language barrier or transportation.
I booked with Eye Travel Taiwan and would definitely recommend them for any guided hiking you are looking for in Taiwan. The hike I did was called the Zhuilu Old Trail located in Taroko National Park on the east coast of the island.
We had an awesome guide named Jeff, who made the trip with his knowledge of the trail, wildlife, history, and making sure we stayed safe. I would recommend this trail but I wouldn’t do it without a guide, unless you speak Mandurin and you are not afraid of heights as the cliff faces are almost 3,000 ft straight down.
The town I stayed in was called Hualien and was a quiet little beach town. I was quite surprised to find the market and downtown to be very lively at night with great food and shops. If you want to explore the National Parks in Taiwan and you end up staying in Hualien, I highly recommend Sleeping Boot Hostel. They were super helpful and friendly. I wouldn’t of minded to stay one more day in Hualien and checked out more of the National Parks or coast line – if the weather had cooperated.
Another spot to make sure you check out if you go to Taiwan is Jiufen. It’s a quaint little coastal village about 45 minutes outside of Taipei and very easy to get to by taxi, train, or bus. I went on one of the rainiest days of the century – no kidding it down poured the entire day – but it still was beautiful and I would recommend you go. The whole town is on the side of a mountain and has some excellent food and tea shops.
Four Beasts Mountain – Elephant Mountain Trail – difficult side
For my last day in Taipei, I told my friend I wanted to do a hike near the city as I had read there were some really nice trails to see the Taipei skyline. We ended up going to one of the Four Beast Mountains, Elephant Mountain. Each peak is named after the different “obstacles” on the trail – Elephant, Lion, Leopard, and Tiger. We hiked to the Elephant Mountain peak but we went up a much more challenging and obscure trail, called the Tiger face.
This ended up being a very difficult rock climb that was supposed to have a rope to guide you. It turned out the ropes had been cut and we ended up having to solo climb some parts. I wasn’t really prepared for it but didn’t have a choice to go down because it was very slippery and I had already ascended some steeper ledges. I would not recommend this particular hike to anyone unless you have the proper gear. The regular Elephant trail, however, is very nice and well maintained and you get the same views. Stick to that one.
Overall I had a great time in Taiwan even though the weather was pretty bad the entire week. I felt like I really experienced Taipei and got out and had some exciting adventures. My favorite part about Taiwan was the friendliness of people and the laid back atmosphere even in the heart of Taipei. Even when the Taiwanese couldn’t speak any English they made a great effort to accomadate, from helping me order food to helping me with directions. If you ever get the chance or are thinking about it, definitely visit Taiwan!