Head East and Take in the Scenery – Hualien and Taroko

Head East and Take in the Scenery – Hualien and Taroko

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Diem (and others) told me that I didn’t sound too enthusiastic about Taipei in my last post. I can see that it wasn’t a completely positive description but in my defense I want to be as honest as possible in this blog about the different locations we visit. In my opinion, there are very few large cities that will really stand out during our travels because large cities (e.g., capital cities) typically blend together and have the similar features to them. We’re also going to be visiting a lot of monuments, museums, temples, etc. so I know that it’ll be hard for some of these to stand out to me. That being said, I really liked Taipei as a city and think it would a great city to live in. I also believe that Taipei isn’t going to be the highlight of our time in Taiwan. So on to see more of this great country!

From Taipei, we hopped on a train and headed east to the coastal city of Hualien within Hualien County. It's a pretty quick 2.5 hour train ride on the TRA line.

Taipei to Hualien Google Map_1

When we arrived in Hualien City, our Airbnb hosts met us at the train station and drove us to the apartment which was pretty much right around the corner. The apartment was decent, with good AC and a nice water cooler that had hot water for coffee and tea. It was another hot day in Taiwan, we asked the hosts about good places to eat and headed to one of their suggestions for lunch. It was a decent little spot but we didn't stay out too long since it was really hot and it was starting to rain. We spent the day working on our blogs and researching Taroko. We had dinner at a place near the train station and we had a tour booked for tomorrow morning around Taroko so we went to bed early.

We haven’t talked to many locals since we’ve been in Taiwan because of the language barrier but the ones we have been able to communicate with have all said that Taroko is their favorite place to visit. Taroko is one of the nine national parks in Taiwan and has a number of hikes, scenic views, and landmarks. Taroko was named after the Taroko Gorge, the landmark gorge of the park. The name, Taroko, means "human being" in the Truku language of the Truku indigenous tribe. Legend has it that long ago a Truku tribesman saw the beauty of the azure Pacific when he walked out of the gorge. On seeing the magnificent scene, he cried "Taroko!" The park spans over Taichung Municipality, Nantou County, and Hualien County of Taiwan.

We like to set our own itinerary for the places we visit so we’re doing very little organized tours. In this case though, because there are a number of places to see around Taroko, we decided to do a guided tour to make sure we see everything and to learn more about the area. We booked the tour on an English website but were surprised when the tour guide picked us up 15 min late and everyone else on the bus was Chinese or Taiwanese and the tour guide only spoke Mandarin. It put a sour taste in our mouths to start the tour but we were still hopeful and excited to see the sights of Taroko. The first stop was Qingshui Cliffs, an overlook along the coastline with bright green mountains coming out of the water and extending upward and inward.

Quingshui Cliffs
Qingshui Cliffs

It reminded me of Hawaii with the lush green mountains so close to the water. The next stop was the Taroko Archway along a road in Taroko, not really worth a stop though. We next stopped at Swallow Grotto. Here, the tour guide gave us helmets and we walked through a road that cut into the side of a mountain and ran next to the river of Taroko Gorge.

Swallow Grotto
Swallow Grotto

The Grotto trail is interspersed with tunnels and overlooks the narrowest portion of Taroko Gorge where the river is most rapid. Due to long-term erosion of Taroko by the Liwu River into an extremely narrow and deep valley, the marble cliff faces are scoured into hundreds of potholes, which have become a natural nesting location for swallows, hence the name.

We also stopped by the Tunnel of Nine Turns along Taroko Gorge, not really noteworthy tunnel, similar to Swallow Grotto. Next we hiked the Shakadang Trail along the Shakahtang Ho River and below the bridge of 100 lions. Each of the lions had a different expression or pose and they were pretty cool.

Shakadang Trail Endpoint
Shakadang Trail Endpoint

Shakadang Trail, also known as “Mysterious Valley Trail,” was famous for its crystal-clear turquoise water strewn with imposing marble boulders. Unfortunately, due to the destruction caused by Typhoon Saola in 2012, the scenery of Shakadang Trail was severely damaged and most of the crystal-clear turquoise water was filled by landslides. At the end of the trail we put our feet in the water but the river was pretty low throughout. The estimated time for the trail is 2 hours but it took us about an hour round trip even with stopping several times.

Finally, we went to the Eternal Spring Shrine (cover photo for this post), which to me is the most beautiful site of the Taroko Gorge. There is a waterfall spewing from below the shrine and a cavern walking path that gets you close to the shrine but not all the way there. There is also a viewing platform across the shrine where we took pictures. The river and waterfall seemed a bit shallow so I’m sure the view is even more beautiful when the river is deeper and more water is flowing. Even though the tour guide didn’t speak much English, he was very nice and would tell us how long each stop would be and would be waving and smiling at the end of the scheduled time to get everyone on the bus. Like other places in Taiwan, we only saw 1 or 2 Americans or English speakers the entire day. We did see a number of bikers and learned that it is a very popular spot for cyclists, which I can see why because of the beautiful scenery and the roads. Speaking of cyclists or triathletes, if you want to rent a bike, Giant Bicycles is headquartered in Taiwan and you'll find bike shops pretty much in every major town where you can rent or buy a bike.

Our last spot on the tour before returning home was QixingTan Beach. This area is just north of Hualien city and has a number of statues and has a large beach of small pebbles. We noticed that no one was getting in the water. We asked one of the locals about it and they said that water is very dangerous because the coastline drops down very fast and current/riptide is very strong. That being said, I was still surprised that there were no lifeguard towers or signs telling people to stay out. Maybe there were up closer to the boardwalk and I couldn’t read them but I didn’t see any.

Mango shaved ice, finally a good one.

The tour started at 9am and we got back to Hualien City around 6:30 PM. It was a long day but we got dropped off at the Hualien Night Market. This has been our favorite night market because it is a separate portion of the city that has its own dedicated area. That means no scooters and cars driving through the market and it means much wider walkways for pedestrians to navigate.

The food was also top notch. There were certain dishes that we found at this market that we didn’t see at the night markets in Taipei. My favorite items were the sticky buns sandwich (also called the Taiwanese hamburger) and this aboriginal wrap of beef and onion. The best part of the wrap was the “tortilla” that held the beef. I’m not sure what it was made of but it was buttery goodness to me. I also got another shaved ice, but this time I got the mango flavor which had fresh mango chunks on top. Finally, I found some delicious shaved ice and I was satisfied.

The next day we were having some trouble deciding which place to go to. We originally thought of going back to the Taroko Gorge to go a hike over the suspension bridge we saw during our tour but that required a permit. After some research though the hike entrance was about 2 hrs from Hualien so we decided on the Golden Grotto hike instead which was about 30 minutes north of Hualien in a town called Pratan or Sanjhan.

Diem and the guys
Diem and the guys

The directions we found were not all that great. We took the local train up to the Jingmei station and walked to the town. The walk wasn’t all that far but we didn’t know exactly where we were going. We had a nice experience of walking behind a house where a teenaged girl was going to the bathroom and a diseased dog was walking around so we made a detour. We eventually found the visitor center but the lady there didn’t speak any English. The map we had told us to follow the river alongside the town and we saw some people walking along and in the river so we followed them. A little ways down, a group of about 10 guys set up shop at a wider portion of the river. We were pretty hot and exhausted so we stopped there to put our feet in the water before continuing on to find the Golden Grotto Trail. I started skipping rocks along the river and the guys quickly joined in. I decided to jump into the water because I was really hot. The guys showed me up one of the cliffs along the river and where they were going to jump off. I followed them up which was a little concerning because the rocks were slippery and it wasn’t that easy getting up the face of the cliff. The jump wasn’t all that high but was pretty fun. We ended up talking with some of the guys. They were high school seniors doing some last trips before they all went to college in different parts of the country. They were really nice and offered us some of their food and tea. Diem was impressed with their cooking situation. They made some instant noodles and brought some fresh pork to cook using a travel butane cooker.

Alan, our savior
Alan, our savior

It looked like it was going to rain pretty hard and when we felt some rain drops we headed back to the train station. It started raining but we had our rain jacket and poncho, respectively and the train station wasn’t that far away. We waited at the train station for a while and when we checked the schedule we found out that we missed the last train and the next one wasn’t coming for another 3 hours. We saw some cabs along the main road so we made our way back there. The rain started coming harder and we waited another half hour without seeing a single cab. Diem saw that there was a police station a half-mile down the road so we decided to walk there and have them call us a cab. We were standing in the rain by a bus stop we saw along the way when a car pulled up to us and asked us if we needed a ride because he was heading into town and he said that the buses were unreliable. We gladly said yes and got in. The guy’s name was Alan and he was coming from Xincheng, the town just north of where we were. His family has a BnB there called the Poseidon, his website is www.cfpsdtw.com. It actually looks pretty nice. I don’t know much about the town there but if we were going there we would stay with him. We went back to the Night Market for dinner and I grabbed a couple of dishes that I saw the night before. They were delicious as always. Night market food is similar to your State Fair or Del Mar Fair food but Asian style so not as fried and fatty, although you can definitely get some of that at the night markets. It was a long day and we had a long day of traveling tomorrow so we went back to the apartment.

The next day we took the train from Hualien to Sun Moon Lake going through Taipei. I'll talke about that more on the next post but it was not an easy adventure. Overall, I think we spent the right amount of time in Hualien and Taroko. Maybe we could have done another day to do the hike we missed but anymore than that would have been too much. Definitely worth seeing in Taiwan and my advice would be to get an English speaking tour guide if you can find one!

See the full gallery here: Hualien - Taroko

Tunnel to Eternal Spring Shrine
Tunnel to Eternal Spring Shrine
Hualien Night Market
Hualien Night Market
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Paul is a lawyer taking a mid-career break focused on capturing all his adventures during his yearlong honeymoon around the world.

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