Tantalising Taiwan

loading Climb to the top at Chihpen Forest Reserve Area. PM_

Street food, shopping and spirituality – that’s Taiwan for you in a nutshell, according to most tourists anyway. But this beautiful island – literally Ihla Formosa according to passing Portuguese sailors who spotted it circa 1544 – offers so much more to its visitors, especially to those who venture off the beaten track to discover its eclectic delights.

We encountered quite a few raised eyebrows when we told people we were off to Taiwan for a week. The questions were politely pointed; “What about the language barrier?” and “What will you do for food?” were the two most popular. My lovely manicurist was probably the most concerned for us.

“There are a lot of Chinese people in Taiwan,” she explained, earnestly buffing my nails.

I kept a straight face and told her that there are a lot of Chinese people in Penang too.

Marble canyon walls of Taroko Gorge.

Her brow furrowed for a second (possibly at the state of my cuticles) and then she happily launched into a description of her previous three holidays to Taiwan, which, as far as I could tell, involved being on a tour bus for most of the day and then crashing in a hotel room for the night before being woken up at 4am for the next day’s tour.

To be fair, most people we spoke to were not aware of the sort of travellers my husband and I are: guidebook-prepared, map-wielding and with a large measure of adventure-seeking thrown in. And yes, the phrase “organised tour” is likely to make my gentle-souled husband mangle a tour bus with his bare hands.

Taiwan’s train system is excellent, so we had no trouble at all purchasing tickets from Taipei to Hualien, eastern Taiwan’s largest city. After renting a car from an agency near the Hualien train station, we set off to explore Taiwan’s most popular tourist attraction, Taroko National Park. The park is just 15km north of Hualien, and is set in a stunning 120,000 hectares of towering mountains, marble-walled gorges and verdant landscapes. However, the famed blue-green waters of the Liwu River that runs through the park had turned a muddy brown when we were there, due to the recent seismic activity in the region. Still, Taroko is awe-inspiringly beautiful, and there are little hiking trails that you can explore to escape the hordes of tour buses that clog the main roads of the Park.

Pacific Coast at Shihtiping.

South of Hualien, two highways travel the length of the east coast, each offering a different view of the area. We decided to drive down Highway 11, exploring the 200km of Pacific coastline at our leisure, and then return to Hualien via the inland Highway 9, through the lush East Rift Valley. With no particular stops in mind, and our bellies full of Hualien’s famous dumplings to sustain us for the morning, we set off.

Signboards to various sights and attractions were clearly set up, and road conditions on Highway 11 itself made for fantastic driving, despite the two lanes being shared between cars, the occasional truck and bicycles. If you haven’t heard already, Taiwan is a top cycling destination and most small towns have bike rental facilities should you wish to explore the countryside. On Highway 11, we saw quite a few cyclists taking a break at the Baci Observation Tower, which is a rest area with stunning vistas of surrounding cliffs and the waters of the Pacific glinting invitingly in the distance.

From there onwards, we had a leisurely drive along the coast, stopping every so often to marvel at the scenery. And by the way, leisurely is the operative word here, the top speed limit on Highway 11 is 70km per hour, and it’s observed to a T!

By noon we were approaching Dulan, a sleepy little town that apparently comes alive in the evenings thanks to its local arts and music scene. Our guidebook led us to a café run by an Italian man, where we stocked up on some excellent bread and pastries for our road trip. The Dulan Sugar Factory is also worth a look, as the factory has closed down and the space has been taken over by local artisans selling woodwork and carvings.

Waterfall at Chihpen Forest Reserve Area.

We chanced upon a lovely stretch of shore at Shanyuan Beach later that afternoon, and even though the sun was high in the sky, a dip in the Pacific was an absolute must. The beach was deserted, save for a group of friendly lifeguards lounging in the shade. After watching (and probably laughing at) our pathetic attempts at body surfing, one of the guards ran over and lent us her board with a disarming smile and a gesture not to swim too far out.

It was this sort of friendliness that we kept encountering, despite the language barrier that is certainly present in the more remote areas of the island. At a local eating shop in a small town later that night, we were faced with a mildly perplexed owner and no menu. Undeterred, he ran outside and returned with a staff member from the fire station next door who spoke a smattering of English. She helped us order our food, and then happily went back to her post next door with a gift of a bottled drink from the grateful owner!

This was in the town of Chihpen, just about as far south on Highway 11 as we could get. Chihpen is known for its hot springs, and the colourless, odourless and tasteless sodium bicarbonate enriched water bubbles up even on sidewalks of the town. We spent a fantastic few hours wandering around the Chihpen Forest Reserve Area, hiking fairly easy trails that opened up into groves of majestic banyan trees. And at the end of all that walking we rewarded ourselves with a visit to the Hotel Royal Chihpen, which opens up its hot springs facilities to visitors who are not room guests for a very reasonable fee of RM35 per person, which includes use of shower facilities complete with fluffy towels, hair dryers and clothes dryers.

We left our hotel when it was still dark the next morning to drive to Taimali, 10km south of Chihpen, for our last view of the Pacific coast before starting our drive back to Hualien. At dawn, the sky blossomed over a deserted stretch of beach as the waves swept to shore. It simply was the perfect end to exploring Taiwan’s ruggedly beautiful east coast.

In her first ever kindergarten report card, teachers noted that Sumitra Selvaraj "loves words and stories, but is often caught with her head in the clouds". Not much has changed since.

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