20 Sep Natural Wonders of Taiwan
There are two contrasting sides to Taiwan: the modern, high-tech cities which are sprinkled with colourful temples and the lush, mountainous countryside. We spent roughly half our time in Taiwan exploring the bustling cities of Taipei, Tainan and Taichung and the other half hiking around in the National Parks, where we got to see some of Taiwan’s most amazing natural wonders.
Taiwan is unlike any other country we’ve been to in Asia; it’s wealthier and cleaner for a start. Stopping in Taiwan right before we went back to the UK proved to be a good transition from our more challenging adventures in less-visited places like Burma and the Philippines to the comforts of the western world. Travelling around Taiwan is extremely pleasant; our longest journey from one place to the next was four hours in an incredibly clean and comfy train. This came as a welcome relief after a year of hellish, epic bus journeys and break-downs across South-East Asia.
Even though it rained often, we also welcomed the cooler climate in Taiwan which helps to keep the country green and lush. With its steaming geothermal landscapes, dormant volcanoes and thick forests, Taiwan reminded us an awful lot of New Zealand, which is definitely not a bad thing! Like New Zealand, Taiwan also knows how to look after its natural gifts; National Parks are well cared for, there are plenty of visitor centres, clean public toilets, picnic areas, clear trails and even shuttle buses around the parks.
Although this all sounds amazing, we sometimes found the orderliness stifling after our off-the-beaten-track hikes in the Philippines where we hired local guides and were the only tourists in sight. Even though we didn’t see many westerners in Taiwan, there were coach-loads of Chinese tourists everywhere we went which sometimes made us feel like we were in a Theme Park rather than a National Park. Even so, here are the natural wonders we enjoyed while we were in Taiwan.
Taroko Gorge, Taiwan
To get to Taroko we took a two-hour train journey from Taipei to Hualien, where we stayed in the lovely Black Bear Hostel. The hostels in Taiwan were pretty pricey so we usually opted for dorm rooms, but they were also great quality: clean, comfortable and homely. Most people choose to take a coach trip to Taroko National Park or hire a private car or motorbike but we relied on the cheap, public shuttle bus which meant we had to time our hikes and make sure we didn’t miss the last bus home.
Rising early we took the 6am bus up to Taroko, where we started out by hiking (along with hundreds of Chinese tourists) the Shakadang trail, an easy flat path alongside the river with the stone gorge walls rising up from either side of us. We then caught a bus up to Tianxiang where we walked my favourite trail through the gorge, some tunnels, across a suspension bridge and into a water cave.
Alishan Scenic Area
From Hualien we caught the train to the small town of Chiayi, where we stayed at our favourite hostel; Assemble Backpackers. We managed to get a mini-van up into the mountains to Alishan Scenic Area, where we wandered around enchanted forests and lakes, tried to avoid more noisy tour groups and posed by strangely-shaped tree stumps.
We had been looking forward to witnessing the famous Cloud Sea at Alishan but unfortunately the weather was far too misty and rainy to see anything other than a wall of grey. However, we weren’t too disappointed as just a couple of weeks earlier in the Philippines we had spontaneously seen the sunrise over a beautiful Cloud Sea from the window of a bus as we left Sagada.
This really encapsulates for me the difference between the natural beauty of the Philippines and Taiwan; whereas noisy crowds cram onto viewing platforms to see the sunrise over the Cloud Sea in Taroko every day, we shared our view of the wild, untouched mountains in the Philippines with a few local people on a rickety public bus.
Sun Moon Lake
Accommodation at Sun Moon Lake is very expensive so instead of staying the night we decided to take a day-trip there from Taichung. This meant an exhausting six-hour round trip and unfortunately it rained torrentially for the few short hours we visited. There was definitely no sun at Sun Moon Lake while we were there!
Having made the long journey to the lake we were determined to make the most of things though, so we donned a couple of fetching ponchos and hopped on the ferry to take in the views of the lake and mountains beyond, which admittedly looked very atmospheric under the grey stormy skies.
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