Street Stalls & Waterfalls: Two Weeks in Taiwan
After a solid month of traveling around Mainland China and Hong Kong, it was time for the last stop on our China-and-its-maybe-territories tour: the humble island of Taiwan!
Taiwan, like Hong Kong, has been visited and positively reviewed by many of the people I know back home. Wandering around its famous night markets was something that I’ve had on my “Life List” (an actual bucket list I started back in high school) for a long time now, so it only seemed fitting to give the place a proper visit before heading out of East Asia for good.
Day 1: Taipei
After a quick hour-and-a-half flight from Hong Kong, Joel and I arrive at the Taoyuan Airport. Customs takes ages, but we eventually find our way onto the airport shuttle and begin our trek to downtown Taipei.
Both of us fall asleep during the ride and are abruptly woken when the driver announces our stop. Shaken and groggy, we quickly gather our things and hop out of the bus in a daze. We spot a 7-Eleven nearby and agree to grab a cold drink before transferring to the local metro. Once inside, we scan the aisles and decide on a pair of bottled milk teas.
We’re about to pay, when Joel suddenly turns to me, crestfallen.
Joel: “I left the wallet and my passport on the bus.”
Me: (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻
The next three hours involve a few sporadic phone calls with a local shopkeeper, a free bus ride to the main terminal, a long waiting period while sitting next to a Taiwanese Deadpool, a police escort to the local station, withdrawing another $10,000 TWD, and a shameful metro ride to our hostel.
Anyway. It’s safe to say that we had a rough start in Taiwan.
It’s 10pm and we finally check into Happy Taipei, where we’re staying for the next few days, and I resist the temptation to crawl into my bed and give up on everything. Shilin Market is just a five-minute walk away and nothing says comfort like Taiwanese street food. We drown our sorrows in a delicious pool of rice sausages, fried dumplings, pork tacos, and bacon-wrapped scallions.
Day 2: Taipei
We didn’t have much time to plan our trip before arriving, so we spend most of the day researching and preparing for the days ahead (long-term travel means having to take the occasional day off to get your sh*t together). Evening falls and we’re starving, so we return to Shilin Market once more. There’s a basement food court below the main street that’s brimming with hungry customers and casual “restaurants”. We take a seat and order oyster soup (for me) and seafood pasta (for Joel). We wash our food down with local mango beers and pray that things start to look up for us soon.
Day 3: Taipei
It’s our first “real” day out in Taipei, and we’re stoked. We make an initial stop at Chun Shui Tang, the restaurant that claims to have invented boba tea.
The teahouse is located deep inside a mall, and after fiddling around the maze of shops and buildings, we find it. We sit outside on the patio and order two boba milk teas, a portion of shumai, a plate of popcorn chicken, and a bowl of beef noodles. Everything is decent, but doesn’t feel quite worth the price that we pay in the end (around $450 TWD).
After lunch, it’s time for a hike up Elephant Hill, which earns its nickname thanks to the fact that it’s literally shaped like an elephant’s head. It’s blazing hot outside, but at least the skies are clear, and there’s plenty of shade up along the path. We arrive at the top and are awarded with sweeping views of Taipei 101 and its surrounding skyline.
On our way home, we drop by Linjiang Night Market. My favorite dish of the evening is a boat of cheese takoyaki. Each ball comes slathered in gooey cheese, and the octopus inside is soft and plump.
Day 4: Taichung Taipei
If you’ve never lost your passport in a foreign country before, let me tell you: it’s a hassle and a half to replace. This goes double for anyone traveling to multiple countries. The passport itself takes 6 weeks to replace (4 if you pay to expedite it). If your local consulate workers are in a good mood, they might issue you a real temporary passport instead of a piece of paper. This document will grant your departure home, but can’t be used to enter another country other than your own. Given that we were scheduled to fly to Vietnam in 10 days, this news put us in a bit of a pickle.
Luckily, Joel holds dual citizenship between Brazil and the U.S., and it just so happens that Brazilian nationals are granted entry to all of the countries we plan on visiting for the remainder of the trip. Yay! Oh, except that they need a visa to visit Taiwan. Not yay.
So, in order to avoid getting arrested by immigration officials at the airport, Joel spends the day at the American consulate, applying for his emergency passport. I stay behind at the hostel because, as much as I really want to be a supportive girlfriend, I really don’t want to spend my afternoon staring at a wall while government officials push paperwork around. Sorry, Joel 😀
Thus, our travel plans for Taichung are postponed until tomorrow. The highlight of the day is when we venture out to Shilin again and order a giant slab of fried chicken the size of my face.
Day 5: Taichung!
Armed with a new passport, we head off to Taichung via King Bus.
Taiwanese buses are really awesome: modern, clean, and more leg-room than business class on an airplane. In what feels like an instant, we arrive at our destination. Taichung is officially known as the industrial epicenter of Taiwan, but unofficially seen as an Instagrammer’s dream. There are hidden art pieces and quirky photo spots located all over the city if you’re willing to take the time to look.
And so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first stop on our itinerary is the Pokémon-themed coffee shop, Peace Love Café.
I never quite left the “Pokéfan” phase of my childhood behind and so I’m wild about their menu and decor. We order a blue rose iced tea in a pokéball coffee cup and a blackcurrant macaron shaped like Ditto. The sleeve of the cup slips off and transforms into a Pikachu. I’m pretty much losing my marbles at this point.
The sun is setting as we head to Fengjia Night Market, crowned the largest in Taiwan (if you thought this post was going to offer much more than a series of night market visits, you should’ve checked the title). The menu for the night includes coffin bread stuffed with kimchee and pork, a dish crudely named as “small sausage stuffed in large sausage”, and hash browns that are crunchy all the way through. Joel orders a fruity melon drink from a juice stand and discovers that it’s actually wintermelon (the second time this has happened to him, l-o-l).
Day 6: Taichung
We get a taste of the Taiwanese countryside with a trip to the Zhongshe Flower Market. It’s a long journey by train and a good mile on foot down a country road. The sun is beating down with nowhere to hide, and we seriously consider hitchhiking a ride with one of the passing truckers. It’s the last official day of summer and I pray that the palm trees and stifling heat miraculously transform into a colorful autumn breeze by the next day.
We arrive at the market and wander around the various sculptures and flower fields. Zhongshe’s landscape changes by season: at the moment, the fields are bathed in purple and gold from sunflower and lavender plants. There are no other Western tourists here, and it’s clear that we’ve ventured quite far off the East Asia backpacker trail.
Back in downtown Taichung, we cool off with double-scoop gelato cones from I’m Telato. On the way back to the hostel, we admire the amateur murals of Animation Lane, a street art alley specializing in manga and anime characters.
Day 7: Taichung & Tainan
It’s time to head to our next hostel in Tainan. But first: a visit to Rainbow Village.
Rainbow Village is an interactive art piece located to the west of Taichung city, and it comes with a beautiful history attached. Back in the 1940’s, when Chinese citizens fled to Taiwan in search of refuge from Mao Zedong’s communist regime, makeshift villages were built for the purpose of housing soldiers. Over the years, these homes have been slowly demolished, and their residents were placed in better living conditions. Mr. Huang was one of the last surviving residents of his own village and began painting murals to add new life to his home. After protests broke out among nearby university students, the government backed down from its plans to demolish this final complex and preserved it as a landmark of Taichung.
The murals are stunning. They are effervescently vibrant, bleeding color and life into a once-dismal state of living. There’s just something really poetic about seeing an 80-year-old man paint with the enthusiasm of a child. I’ve never seen anything like it.
We track down our new hostel in Tainan and are ushered in by the owner. She’s excited for us to explore her city, even it’s only for an afternoon. She pulls out a map and circles recommendations with a pencil, quickly revealing that Tainan is the food capital of Taiwan. The food capital city of the food capital of Asia? Sounds like our kind of place.
The only way to explore such a spot, we decide, is via DIY food tour. We follow our new map away from our hostel and come across a casual food street, lined with street vendors and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Scooters zigzag along the pavement and locals huddle over low-slung tables. Joel opts for a simple bowl of pork noodle soup, and I order a portion of dumplings from the xiaolongbao guy. He lifts a steamer and plops the little delicacies into a takeaway container. Dessert is an egg waffle and a cup of milk tea ice cream to share.
It’s getting dark out now, which means…Huayuan Night Market! Up until now, most of the night markets we’ve come across have been pretty similar. Different menus and slightly different layouts, sure, but more or less the same. Huayan, on the other hand, is like a carnival, and it’s packed. Hoards of people flow between the stands like slow lava. We have no choice but to the follow the crowd’s natural direction, weaving in and out of the aisles and tasting samples as we go.
The first candidate worthy of our TWD is a sliced oyster mushroom, breaded and deep-fried, then thrown into a cup with a long toothpick dangling at the side. It’s meaty and tender and a great start to the evening.
Next up is an order of triple condensed milk tea. A young girl tosses the liquid back and forth between two glasses like a Moroccan tea ceremony. Finally, it’s poured into a small trash bag (not kidding) and tied at the top with string. She serves it to us with a straw sitting snuggling in the neck.
Nearby, a vendor pulls a rack of buns from the oven. Upon closer inspection, we discover that the buns are actually savory pies. We choose the pepperoni pizza flavor. It reminds me a bit of a Hot Pocket and I nearly burn my tongue on the first bite.
We end the night with a slice of green onion pancake, carved out of a massive circle of dough. It’s a long, humid walk back home and we’re ready for sleep.
Day 8: Kaohsiung
Our next destination sits just a brief 45-minute trip south on the local train. We stop by a traditional breakfast spot on the way to the station. Joel scarfs down a portion of black bean noodles while I munch lazily at my box of dan bing. The lady next to us appreciates Joel’s gusto and starts chatting with us about our trip, and the owner gets in on it as well. They teach us a few new Mandarin phrases and tell us about dishes to try while in Taiwan. This isn’t the first time this has happened——the Taiwanese are known for being some of the most welcoming people, and so far, the stereotype fits.
Our time in Kaohsiung is spent the same way we approach pretty much every city we visit: walking around, looking at things, and eating stuff.
(We’re complicated people, I know.)
There are lunch carts right outside our hostel, and we’re immediately drawn to the dumpling lady. A long line of locals begins to form as she prepares hundreds of potstickers in oversized frying pans. We buy a bag of 15 for $40,000 TWD (about $1.32 USD). I swoop on her neighbor next: oyster omelette lady. This was my first time trying one and oh my god, it was incredible. You’d think it’s just a bunch of eggs with some oysters thrown in, but it’s so much more. They throw in a handful of potato starch to make your omelette stretchy and chewy (similar to mochi), and then smother it in this mildly sweet red sauce. If you ever find yourself in Taiwan, do yourself a favor and order one of these babies.
Towards evening, we head out to Lotus Pond, our only sightseeing activity for the day. When we arrive, the sun is setting across the water in a fiery wash of pinks and yellows. There are also hundreds of bats (?!) fluttering in the trees above us and I just really have no explanation for this.
We circle the perimeter and end up at the Dragon Tiger Pagodas. Usually, when Asian people name famous sights very literally, the interpretations are actually quite vague (take, for example, “Jade Dragon Snow Mountain” in Lijiang, which neither houses jade deposits nor live dragons). Kaohsiung is a bit Taiwanese-hipster in the sense that these pagodas actually have enormous dragon and tiger sculptures leading up to each tower. They’re borderline gaudy, but I find them spectacular.
Day 9: Hualien
It’s a long and beautiful train journey to the opposite side of the island. Our new hostel, Sleeping Boot, turns out to be one of my favorite hostels of the trip so far. It’s cozy and homey with lots of natural lighting, and OH MY GOD THE BEDS ARE AMAZING. It feels like falling asleep in a cloud. Seriously. When I move into my own apartment, I’m making it a point to order these same exact sheets.
Heaven-on-earth sleeping arrangements aside, our staff are also incredibly welcoming. Nick is particularly eager to help and sits down with us to plan out our time in the city. For the days after, he greets us with a cheerful smile every time we walk into the lobby and always asks us about our day.
Joel discovers a popular baozi/dumpling place down the street at the recommendation of le internet. The lady out front points to a small table in the corner and promptly serves us steamer trays of xiaobao (mini bao dumplings). We each pluck a bun from the table and chew.
Guys. This was a life-changing moment.
The outer dough layer is delightfully bready and sweet and the juices soak through to the bottom of the dumpling. The bundle of pork inside is overwhelmingly aromatic and flavorful. Best of all, they’re served with a side of frothy, garlic soy sauce that I’m totally wild about.
We begin to suspect that Hualien might be Taiwan’s real food capital after all.
Later on, we find ourselves at Dongdamen Night Market, which specializes in aboriginal dishes. There are clear winners here, and we shamelessly follow the crowds to the most popular stalls. This strategy does not disappoint. We end up with artfully glazed BBQ skewers, garlic-pork spring roll burritos, and grilled mochi smothered in condensed milk and crushed peanuts. Theory confirmed: Hualien is the best place in Taiwan for food.
Day 10: Hualien
Taiwan isn’t all about eating. There’s, like, nature and stuff.
In all seriousness, it really is a beautiful place to visit. There are beaches to the south, a lake in the center, and mountains everywhere. And in Hualien, there’s Taroko National Park.
The primary sight-to-see here is the Taroko Gorge, a massive marble ravine that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Swirling white stones rise up out of the river like a Michelangelo sculpture. The river is so unbelievably turquoise and clear that it’s hard to believe it’s not Photoshopped. See evidence:
We sneak off the main trail and boulder over the rocks below. Swimming is explicitly banned here, and while we’re tempted to play ignorant, we respect nature enough not to mess with it. After all, we don’t want to be responsible for ruining something this pretty.
Day 11: Hualien
Nick suggests a swimming pool nearby. The only problem: it’s inaccessible by bus and too far to reach on foot. The only solution: rent a scooter.
We tried our luck with one of these things for a day back in Yangshuo, and because we’re obviously experts now, we decide to go for it again. There’s a shop down the street from us that lends rentals for $10 a day. We mount our trusty steed and zoom off towards the edge of town.
Shop and restaurants disappear behind us. The mountains grow greener and larger in all directions. We pass by plenty of betel nut farms and a cluster of small, colorful structures that looks like a village made for children (I later find out that this is a traditional Taiwanese cemetery). Before long, we arrive at a gate, guarded by police. It turns out we need a permit to enter the grounds. Whoops.
Joel convinces them to let us through, and in typical Taiwanese fashion, they agree.
The pool is actually a series of pools, stacked higher and higher up through the trees and waterfalling over man-made ledges and natural rock formations. The water is the same shade of aqua as it was in Taroko, and we dive in, the shock of cold liquid surrounding us instantly.
Our next stop is Liyu Lake. It’s a 40-minute drive away and by the time we arrive, my back is sore from slouching over the tail of the bike. We approach the water and, while it’s beautiful, it’s also fairly anti-climatic. “It looks like a lake,” Joel adds thoughtfully.
15 minutes later, we’ve had our fill of lake-gazing and decide to head back towards town.
At the end of the day, we treat ourselves to a nice dinner and dessert: dry pork noodles and tofu pudding. Noms.
Day 12: Taipei
We pack our bags and head back to Taipei.
There’s an express train that runs directly to the capital, but we embrace the backpacker spirit and opt for the cheaper local train instead. We’re joined by an army of Chinese tour buses, and chaos fills our compartment as retirees race to find an open seat. I spend the journey wedged between Joel’s broad shoulders on my left and a sleeping grandma to my right.
We check back into our previous hostel and take the rest of the afternoon off to rest. At night, we hunt for food. I have my sights set on a skewer stand at the edges of Shilin Market. These restaurants-on-wheels are popular all over the country and sell a variety of meat, vegetable, and not-really-sure-what-that-is on sticks. You pick your own goods, buffet style, then hand them to the lady for prep. She dices ’em into bite-sized chunks, tosses in spices and salts, and gives them back to you in a plastic bag with a toothpick. It’s delicious.
Day 13: Taipei, Shifen & Juifen
I’ve been a Miyazaki fangirl since middle school, and so a trip to Jiufen was pretty much my main reason for coming to Taiwan (well, other than the food).
We start in Shifen, a smaller town in the same area, known for its lanterns releases. We’re planning on visiting Chiang Mai during the Yi Peng lantern festival later in November, and this is a bit like our warm-up. There are plenty of other tourists with us, and it’s raining, hard. People stand undeterred along the train tracks and, draped in ponchos, release their lanterns anyway.
Everyone is writing their hopes and wishes along the sides with black paintbrushes. One lantern reads, “I want to travel the world”.
Joel turns to me, “I feel very lucky that I get to live someone else’s dream.” It feels a little cheesy, but I can’t help but to agree. Despite the hiccups along the way, we’ve had a very fortunate past few months.
The rain clears up as we finally head to Jiufen. The town sits on top of a mountain, and the damp, overcast weather suits it well. Jiufen is a relic from the past, created by the Japanese during their occupation back in the 19th century. The narrow, winding alleys are traced by glowing red lanterns and cobblestone paths. Vendors sell large dishes piled high with translucent meat dumplings and marbled tea eggs. It feels quintessentially Japanese, and much like a scene plucked from an animation reel of Spirited Away. Joel and I settle on a bowl of iced taro balls and pray that we don’t turn into pigs.
Day 14: Taipei
There’s a wonderful free breakfast at our hostel every morning, but it’s 100% carbs. Which means that, by lunchtime, we’re staving. We head to Yong Kang for their famous beef noodles. There’s a short line outside and we’re the last people allowed to wait before they close.
Inside, locals and tourists sit elbow-to-elbow at shared tables. A guy around our age sits down next to us and offers to share his plate of cucumber slices. Joel and I both order the classic beef noodles. The broth is rich in beef flavor and we nearly lose our shit when we taste the meat itself. It’s cut with thick lines of fatty marbling and melts instantly in our mouths.
Our last night in Taipei is dedicated to one last eating adventure: Raohe Night Market.
It’s Saturday night and the market is at its peak, a distinct charge in the air, the energy palpable. Waves of hungry locals swarm the booths. We enter beneath the market’s famous neon sign and grab a pepper pork pie from the popular stand in front. It’s unflinchingly hot, a swirl of steam rising into the air. I find the taste outstanding and it’s absolutely worth burning my tongue over.
We’re swept deeper into the market by the crowds. We sample our way through the vendors and end our night with one last plate of cheese takoyaki. We are scheduled to fly to Hanoi tomorrow, and I’m already finding myself nostalgic for the Taiwanese way of living, of eating, of replacing the ubiquitous bar and club scene that comprises the nightlife of so many similar cities with a festival of food instead. Food is an important part of almost every culture around the world, but perhaps no other people embody this notion so well as the Taiwanese.
Until next time, Taiwan. ✌