From our online exploration of Taiwan, I knew that Taiwan was more than just big polluted cities and was actually home to a lesser-known tropical East Coast. But once we landed and took the train down’s Taiwan’s coast through Hualien and Taitung, there was so much that surprised me about each coastal town.
1. Taiwan’s trains are my new favourite form of transport.
Not only will the express train take you all the way around the country, it arrives precisely on time and sometimes earlier. It moves swiftly between each town long the coast providing such outstanding views of passing rice paddies, mountains and the bluest of ocean. It is about five times more comfortable than a flight as you have a lot more leg room, seats are very comfortable and recline deeply, inviting sleep. Women come around selling snacks and collecting garbage along the journey. A true public transport dream.
2. We were led to believe that Hualien was the best city with great beaches
So when we arrived our expectations were really high. We had seen photos of sheer cliff drops down to turquoise ocean and all we saw was an ugly, little town. None of the buildings looked like they had been upgraded since the war and each and every one was covered in shower-bottom tiles. Great for protection from typhoons but not easy on the eye. I decided then and there that it was in fact the ugliest Asian city I had laid eyes on. Upon investigation we walked to down to the sea and found a port and a black, pebble-stoned beach. It had such a sheer drop down from the beach that you couldn’t swim there. It was only once we left that we realised we’d missed the best part- the lovely coast that you can only see once driving south.
3. The astonishingly picturesque Taroko Gorge.
Hualien’s true beauty did not seem to lie on the coast but within its mountains. Entering the Taroko Gorge National Park was such a breathtaking drive. The road curved endlessly, snaking through tunnels, between steep mountainous peeks and azure rivers. We overnighted at Silks Place in Taroko, swam in their pool and jacuzzied on the roof with the sound of cascading water over rocks. We walked along the Bei Yang trail bending below ferns, walking through black tunnels, over suspension bridges and standing in a curtain of water. I don’t believe there is any other place like it.
4. The dentist in Hualien spoke English.
After falling and badly cracking my front tooth on a rock at a waterfall in Thailand, I’ve had to visit the dentist regularly for root canal. Travelling to Taiwan, I figured it was all behind me until I experienced crazy pain in a different area of my mouth. Terrified of going to a random Taiwanese dentist, my husband forced me into one that looked quite professional. Up until that moment no one in Hualien could speak any English (other than the manager of our hostel) so I didn’t have high hopes. Then I looked up and saw photos of the dentist in countries throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia. He was a cosmopolitan man who had worked on all kinds of teeth. And when his receptionist got flustered and couldn’t communicate with us, he kindly came forward and had an entire conversation. Good and rare times.
5. Taitung is Taiwan’s Hawaii.
I had seen videos of international surfing competitions held in Taitung and pictures of its beaches. But none of them prepared me for what I saw on our drive from the train station. Palm trees lined the highway and made way from black rocks and rook pools leading into the dark blue ocean. Its trees, vegetation and flowers resembled Hawaii’s so much that if it wasn’t for the Mandarin signs, I would have forgotten where I was. To the right of us the ocean began to swell in smooth sets and to the left, the mountain rose up holding dense forest and fruit trees on its slopes.
6. There are tanned, Taiwanese surfers.
Being thoroughly acquainted with the vampire tendencies of most Asian people to remain out of the sun and as white as snow, I couldn’t believe it when we spotted tanned Taiwanese locals in Taitung. There was a beautiful, bronzed woman renting surfboards at a store near the beach. We rode our scooter down the path between the palms only to find young Taiwanese boys with great tans riding the sweetest waves. Unlike the most of the Taiwanese population, they didn’t fight the sun. But rode on scooter in boardies and vests with no masks or arm covers and attached surfboards on the side of their scooter or car rack. They spoke English, had such a chilled nature and just wanted to know how our surf was.
7. Taitung county is home to seven Aboriginal ethnic groups.
The first clue I had to any aboriginal people in Taitung was at the train station. Large wooden statues resembling Red Indians greeted us at the exit. At some stage we saw tall statues in the city resembling totem poles and enjoyed live music from an aborigine band in Taroko Gorge. Taiwanese aborigines only constitute 2 % of Taiwan’s population but most reside in Taitung country. The seven aboriginal ethnic groups include Bunun, Paiwan, Rukai, Amis, Beinan, Yamis, and Gamalan ad each have their own ways of worship, songs and dances and popular decorative arts. Some worship their ancestors, other hold the lily sacred, Shamanism (black and white witchcraft) was popular amongst the Beinan tribe in earlier times whilst fly fishing is very important in the life of a Yamis.
8. Accommodation is old-school ( not in the good way).
I had inkling that travelling in less-populated areas of Taiwan may feel like we were being transported to the 1970’s, but I had no idea. For one, most didn’t even have a website and when their ‘presence’ was found online the listing only provided a contact and fax number. Most buildings didn’t seem to have been renovated since the war and indoors décor took inspiration from ‘house on the prairie’ and horror movies where people in sepia photos moved. Floral pink wallpaper, lights and switches on the headboard that resembling a switchboard in an old studio.
9. Highway 11 is mind blowing.
It is the single most beautiful stretch of coastal road I have ever seen (other than Chapman’s Peak in Cape Town) and runs between Taitung and Hualien. In the blazing summer sun we set off from Taitung passing fruits orchards, palm trees, lower green mountainside slopes and ever-moving ocean meeting the land. We ate popcorn and drank ice coffees at the most scenic of viewpoints and rode the bike down dirt roads which led us to beaches with ‘No Swimming’ signs. Sadly we didn’t have the time to drive to the southern parts of Hualien, but next time for sure.
10. The inescapable heat.
Having lived in Koh Samui, Thailand for 8 months and surviving the hottest months of April and May, I figured no heat could shock me. But I was wrong. Taiwan’s heat in the summer is something else. It’s stuffy, not quite as humid but sunshine as hot as hell. On a scooter, we could not go without covering ourselves in sarongs. Even walking around in Hualien and Taidong city was unbearable unless you shielded yourself with something. After making fun of locals with their sun umbrellas, we caved and had to buy our own for fear of sunstroke or severe burning.