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Taiwan: The Land of 7-11s

When a great deal to Taipei, Taiwan (TPE) showed up we didn't hesitate to book. It would be our first time to Asia, and to be honest, we didn't have a clue what there was to see or do in Taiwan. Our initial thought was that maybe a 12 day trip would be too long, would there be enough to see? But after some research, we were glad to find there would be plenty to do in this relatively small island country.

November 3 - Thursday

We left the Calgary airport bright and early. The same guy who helped us when we missed our flight to Denver earlier in the year checked us in. He also gave us an airport restaurant recommendation for our stopover in San Francisco, a Mexican restaurant called Andalé. His recommendation was right on the mark, it was pretty tasty airport food. He also recommended the Japanese place, we'll have to try that next time!

We boarded our plane for our 10.5 hour flight to Tokyo - with no seat back entertainment (1st world problems as Chris says!). We were forced to be entertained by 3 really bad movies for the trip.

November 4 - Friday

Switched planes in Tokyo for our last leg of our 23 hour journey to Taipei. Upon landing in Taipei we caught a bus from the airport to Taipei Main Station and then grabbed a cab to our hotel, Qstay. A friendly guy checked us in and made us the Taiwan version of Mr. Noodles and we went straight to bed as it was 1 am!

November 5 - Saturday

- Woke up, ate some buns and 3 choco pies, then jumped on a bus to the Yehliu Geopark. It was about an hour NE of Taipei, along the coast. The park is full of interesting rock formations and thousands of Asian tourists. Guides, groups, microphones, and 2 white people (us). Also blistering hot and humid. We snapped some pics, had a picnic lunch, tried to snap pics of 'the queen' and then took the bus back to Taipei.

- Made our way to the Maokang Gondola near the Taipei zoo. Rode up in the gondola with a girl from Taber, Alberta and her friend from Brazil. Walked around at the top and took in the views. Came back down with a mother that wouldn't stop screaming at her kid.

- Exhausted from the heat, walking, etc, we picked up some beer from the 7-11 (one of 40 we've counted so far in the city) and took them back to the hotel.

- Headed to Taipei 101, the tallest building in the country (2nd tallest in the world). In the base of the building we ate at Din Tai Fung which allegedly has a Michelin star. It definitely was tasty and we learned the proper way to eat dumplings (1 part soy sauce, 3 parts vinegar, into bowl containing giner. Poke hole in dumpling. Consume.)

- Tried to go up to the top of Taipei 101 but the lineup was daunting. Instead we went and walked around the Ximen district, a trendy shopping area.

Things we've noticed so far:

1. 7-11s are *everywhere*. We've made a game of spotting and keeping a tally. 25 after our first day, 40 by day two.

2. The metro system is ridiculously efficient. We've never waited more than 2 minutes for a train, and the embarking passengers line up in place with the lines on the ground and wait for the departing passengers to exit the train.

3. 'Busy' is the order of the day, everywhere. People, people, and more people.

4. Vegetarian meal options are severely limited.

- By the end of the day I was exhausted. Tried to go to Party World but it didn't open until midnight. Couldn't make it that long. Feet were throbbing.

November 6 - Sunday

- We made our way to the Taipei main station and caught the train to Pingxi (after some confusion about what train to get on to get to Rueifang and then transferred to the Pingxi line).

- Got off the train at Pingxi and walked through the village to get to some hiking trails. We walked up a trail and then many stairs, some of which were carved into the rock. Then we reached a section which involved scrambling up a small face using some ropes and footholds. We both were able to make it up to the top of our 1st peak.

- We had a snack and enjoyed the nice views over the valley. Making our way down from the top we could hear voices approaching - upon reaching the top of the section to scramble down using the ropes, Chris exclaimed 'Holy shit, look at this!' and gestured me over to look down, only to see a whole mob (29 to be precise) of Taiwanese hikers who were starting to climb up. Luckily they let us down first so we didn't have to wait for them all to come up!

- Next we made our way along a ridge and then down a *lot* more stairs and then on to the next peak. This one involved walking up a lot more stairs and using some footholds and ropes to walk up some steeper sections.

- The third peak that we climbed had a ladder and ropes, then we finished with a short climb up to a 4th peak. The peaks we climbed were 1) unknown to Cimushan ridge 2) Cimufeng 3) Xiaozishan 4) Unknown. We also noticed the peaks seemed to go by a lot of different names!

- Caught the train again and got off at Shifen - along with most other people and made our way through the village in which lots of people were painting and releasing lanterns into the sky (ie: plastic colored garbage bags). From there we kept walking along a road, over a suspension bridge, and along the tracks to see the Shifen Falls, aka the Niagara Falls of Taiwan. We walked back to Shifen, got on another crowded train, and made our way back to Taipei.

- After a short rest at the hotel we went back to the Ximen district where Chris had some noodles with pork intestines at Ay Chung Noodles for dinner. We made our way to the main station where I had food from Minder Vegetarian at the Qsquare food court.

- Next it was onto Shilin market, the biggest night market in Taiwan. While we were there we had a fruit shake and then went to S.F.T. for shaved ice. I had peanut butter flavored which had the appearance of chicken! And Chris had his topped with mango.

November 7 - Monday

- Went to check out the Longshan Temple. Arrived just as some sort of ceremony was taking place. Chanting, singing, burning incense, etc. Seemed Buddhist.

- Walked to the botanical gardens. Weren't overwhelmed. No turtles. Very green. Not much for colorful flowers. Not as good as the one in Halifax.

- Went for traditional breakfast at Yong He Dou Jiang Da Wang, and had ...

fried egg with green onion
wheat pancake with egg (shao bing)
fried turnip cake (luo buo gao)
egg pancake (dan bing)
salty tofu soup

Delicious and cheap, our bill came to $3.

- Bought some stuff from Taipei main station bakery (Shunchen) and walked around Ximen a bit. Looked for Wannia building and Tom's Arcade but couldn't find it.

- Caught the train to Xincheng (Taroko Village). Arrived in Xincheng and tried to communicate to the taxi driver where we were staying, with little success. A woman from Hong Kong tried to help us by acting as a translator, but it didn't seem to help. We had the supposed GPS coordinates though, so we gave it a shot.

After driving around for a while, and the taxi driver attempting to drop us off in the middle of nowhere in the Taroko National Park (at night) we decided to head back into town. There we found a youth hostel where a kind girl helped us call the Crossing The Rainbow Bridge hotel. It turns out the owner's wife was willing to come pick us up, which was great.

The hotel turned out to be right across the bridge (which has nothing to do with the name of the hotel). There we met the owner, who took us into town for some dinner. He is a professor at the local university, and is now semi-retired, running the hotel with his wife, and educating people about the Taroko culture and the history of the aboriginal people.

For dinner I had pig ear, noodle soup, and raw ginger (good for the health according to the professor). The meal cost the two of us $100 NT, or about $3.30 CAD.

Tuesday November 8

Woke up and had a traditional breakfast, consisting of rice porridge, fried egg with some sort of sauce, steamed yam, peanuts, pea shoots and tofu, lemon wedges, miscellaneous brown powdery substance (sweet taste), and some sort of green spinachy looking thing.

Grabbed some bikes and headed out into the rain towards Taroko Gorge. Went to the headquarters, grabbed a map, and set off to bike the Taroko Gorge highway in the rain. We biked through tunnels, dodged tour buses, and took in the views.

After 18km we turned around, and headed back. To our surprise we were biking up hill the whole way, which made for a very easy and fast ride home. Back in town we stopped at the 7-11 to pick up some noodle bowls and beer for dinner.

Back at the hotel we sat out on the nice patio deck, played some cards, and made our arrangements with Barking Deer to secure our hiking permits for the next day.

Wednesday November 9

Ate another traditional breakfast, and then Henang from Barking Deer picked us up to take us to the beginning of the Old Juahlien Trail.

The trail started off with some up and down, through some tunnels, and then up, up, up, straight up for about a km or so. Then we reached the vertigo inducing cliff ledges with stunning views of the Taroko Gorge below us.

The hike was about 10.3km in total, and involved long stretches of walking along ledges, with trails just a few feet wide with certain death a mis-step away. It was definitely a fun hike, with plenty of ropes and ladders and bridges. There were also plenty of signs warning us not to linger, for fear of rocks falling down on hiker's heads.

On the way down, in a dark forested section we heard a deep, low, growling noise. Chris asked if it was me making that noise, and I said no, and then we heard the growl a second time. That was all it took for us to make a hasty retreat. We debated on what to do. Keep going? Trek 8km back? Wait for more hikers? We decided against those options and armed ourselves with rocks to continue past the spot where we heard the growling. We never did figure out what it was, and maybe that's a good thing. Chris suspects it was a bear, despite me telling her that bears are extremely rare in Taiwan.

Further yet down the trail we heard some crashing in the trees above us. We looked up and noticed some monkeys playing in the trees. They were a distance away but we managed a few glimpses. Then we hiked to the end of the trail, across the suspension bridge, and were unlocked by the gatekeeper to release us from the trail.

There we grabbed our bikes and biked to the Eternal Spring Shrine. Then we biked over to Shakadang Trail which we hiked the first 1.8km or so.

We biked back home through the rain (again) and it felt good to get out of our wet clothes. We rode our bikes into town where we ran into Henang who was cruising the streets with his son and spotted us. He took us to a restaurant with really good fried rice which cost the two of us $4 (total). Henang also took us to a fruit stand and then drove us back home, which was great, I think we both had enough of biking in the rain this week.

Thursday November 10

After breakfast we were dropped off at the train station by the Rainbow Bridge owner. Bought our train tickets to Yuli but we had a stopover in Hualien. Walked around Hualien a bit, but didn't accomplish much, buying a traditional bakery thing with sesame paste on the inside, and some sort of raw dough thing. After taking in Hualien, we were glad we had stayed in Taroko instead.

Jumped back on the train and made it to Yuli where Vicky from Wisdom Garden was waiting to pick us up. She asked if we had eaten, and we had not, so she took us to a small restaurant for the famous Yuli noodles. Definitely tasty. Then she drove us to the Wisdom Garden where we met their new 2 month old puppy and had some tea.

Next I got a brief lesson on how to ride a scooter and we took off to the Antung Hot Springs. We went to the New Life hot springs just outside of Yuli and learned a bit about how the Taiwanese enjoy their hot springs. You can get your own private room with a bed and bathtub or a room with no bed but a private bath. We elected to go in the outdoor pool which we had all to ourselves and had nice views of the tropical valley. We sat in our pool while the rain fell around us.

It was getting dark so we scootered home and stopped at 7-11 to pick up some noodles for dinner. Riding home on our scooter in the dark and in the rain on the highways of Taiwan wasn't something we had anticipated doing before we left for our trip.

Friday November 11

Had some dumplings and other traditional Taiwanese breakfast items. Caught the train to Fangliao, but missed our stop, so we had to come back in the reverse direction. From there we caught the bus to Kenting. Arriving in Kenting we checked into Love Sea 126 and met Jenny (of Jenny and Kenny fame).

Our seaview room turned out to have a pretty nice view, and we grabbed some beers from 7-11 (where else) to enjoy on the balcony. Then we went to Warung Di Di for some Thai food. We ordered enough food to feed an army and left feeling *very full*. But we still proceeded to the local night market and had some twist ice cream for dessert.

Saturday November 12

Enjoyed breakfast on our beach view balcony and headed out to try and rent a scooter. But without our international drivers license, nobody would rent us anything but an electric powered scooter.

So instead we went to Kenting beach. Pretty beach, but not really anywhere suitable to swim.

After that we rented bikes and biked to Baisha beach. It was around 14km away, and the weather was definitely hot and humid. The beach turned out to be quite gorgeous with very blue water. Here we were able to go for a dip, and the water was nice and warm, although you couldn't swim very far out without losing your ability to touch sand.

Biked back and had some beers on our balcony again and went to Amy's Cucina for dinner. After eating nothing but noodles this week, we were anxious to switch it up and bit and have some pizza. It was pretty mediocre though, since pizza in Taiwan doesn't seem to include tomato sauce, leaving the taste a little bland.

Went for another stroll through the night market, which was really busy now being Saturday night. This time we tried some green tea ice cream and some sort of sweet potato in batter and guava with some sort of red sprinkle seasoning. We took the guava to the beach, which was now completely covered in darkness, and ate our fruit while listening to the waves crash against shore.

Came back to our hotel to discover that we would not be able to go to Maolin as planned, due to heavy rains knocking out the only road into the area. So instead we decided to stay another night in Kenting.

Sunday November 13

Had breakfast on our balcony again and packed up our bags to move to a non ocean-view room. We rented an electric scooter from Jenny and headed towards the southern most point in Taiwan. Apparently we were not the only ones that wanted to view the southern most point, as the hordes of tour buses had also dropped off their massive waves of people, overwhelming the viewing platform. On the way back we found a gigantic spider.

Our electric scooter had a top speed of about 25km/h on flat sections, and struggled to make it up anything resembling a hill. So we had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery as we crawled past it. We headed to the east side of Kenting and drove up the coast, stopping to admire the views from a few bluffs overlooking the ocean.

At a certain point, when had about 3 of 5 circles left on our electricity usage gauge, we had to head back, for fear of being stranded with a dead battery. We made it back in one piece, grabbed some beers and seaweed flavored chips and walked to the beach to enjoy the sunset.

Then we went to the night market for dinner, and started with the cheesy potato (parmesan and fake cheese sauce) and next we enjoyed some more deep fried sweet potatoes. Then we stopped at a create your own stir-fry place and had some noodles. For dessert we had a pastry roll and a banana milk drink smoothie thing.

Monday November 14

Facing a long day, we wanted to get an early start. Had breakfast in our room, packed up, and took a taxi, driven by a crazy taxi driver who juggled calls on multiple cell phones while driving erraticaly and seemed to be playing drum bass with the foot pedal of the car. We also picked up 3 more passengers along the way to add to the madness. Oh and there were no seatbelts.

Dropped off our bags at Kaohsiung main station and went to look at the Formosa Blvd station, which allegedly has the largest glassworks dome in the world.

Then we tried to go to Monkey Mountain, using the instructions in Lonely Planet, but after 30 minutes on the bus we realized we were going nowhere near Monkey Mountain. So we got off the bus and took the MRT back to another station, and tried to catch a different bus, but it didn't seem to exist. So instead we walked up the mountainous hill on the outskirts of Kaohsiung. Afte a long walk uphill we ended up finding a zoo, which was closed, but appeared to be getting close to Monkey Mountain.

We did eventually find the trail, and a passerby noted us checking out the map and told us we would see plenty of monkeys along the trail. Around 2/3 of the way up we saw our first set of macqaues monkeys, and then more, and more, and more, until we were monkeyed out and headed back down the mountain. On our way to the train station we hit a milestone, noting the 100th 7-11 store spotted in Taiwan on our trip. I had joked earlier about wanting to see 100 on our trip, but didn't really think we'd make it past 50 or so. In the end we ended up spotting 128 of them.

Next we caught the high speed train from Kaohsiung at 6PM and arrived in Taipei at 7:30, traveling approximately 300km/h the entire way. Then we ran to our Qstay hotel, by this time we had the Taipei subway figured out, so we were pretty efficient. We quickly checked in, threw on some non-sweaty clothes, and ran back to the subway and took it across town to Taipei 101. Our goal was to have dinner at Din Tai Fung again, and also somehow fit in the last elevator ride up Taipei 101 before it closed at 9:30. Doing both seemed impossible, but thanks to the efficiency of Taiwan, we were able to do both.

At Din Tai Fung we ordered more food this time, and were now very proficient with the ordering process, checking off the boxes from the list before even being seated, which means that your food comes quickly and efficiently, like everything else in Taiwan.

After dinner we rushed up to Taipei 101, and discovered that the top obersvation deck was closed, but decided to go anyways. The elevator ride up is apparently the fastest in the world, and I believe it, it was ridiculous that we could ride up 89 floors more quickly than the 6 floors at our hotel.

On the top of Taipei 101 we had beer floats, and took in some foggy views of Taipei at night. There wasn't a whole lot to see but you could still appreciate how high you were. It was also neat to see the 600 ton damper ball that greatly reduces the swaying of Taipei 101 and might even help in the event of an earthquake,

After Taipei 101 we walked around a bit, solemnly taking in our last night in Taiwan. We also walked to Carrefour and finally discovered where Taipei buys their groceries. Our mission was to buy hi-chew candies, which we had become addicted to, courtesy of the bowl of them at our hotel's front desk.

Tuesday November 15

Ran to the airport bus station, which we had difficulty finding, working up our final humidity induced sweat. Took a fairly circuitous route to the airport, while our driver dodged scooters, ate, read his newspaper, and talked on his cell phones.