Last year I went backpacking in Asia. You meet lots of other travelers on the way with whom you always have the same kind of conversation: “Where are you from?”, “Where have you been already during this journey?”, “Where are you planning to go next?”. This is followed by the exchange of traveling experiences and some tips and tricks. But my conversations usually stopped at the second question. Because Taiwan (where I went) isn’t really well known by most travelers. Nobody connected traveling with going to Taiwan. What can you actually do there? What is Taiwan famous for? Is it beautiful there? Are the people poor or rich?
Let me tell you: Taiwan is a not yet discovered pearl in Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean beneath China, Taiwan has everything a backpacker needs: stunning nature, beautiful beaches, helpful friendly people, a very good public transport system, cheap and good food, old culture, good atmosphere….
7 Reasons Why You Should Visit Taiwan
Taipei is the capital city of Taiwan and has a lot to offer. Visit some of the beautiful temples like the Xintian Temple (photo) or the Bao’an Temple. Gaze at the impressive majestic Memorial Hall built for Chiang Kai Shek. Shop (and eat) till you drop on one of the night markets or drink tea in a traditional tea shop in the Maokong area. Wander along the river in Danshui and visit the old fort that still lies upon a hill. And don’t forget to count how many 7-Elevens (convenience stores) you see on your way!
2. Taroko Gorge
Taiwan was discovered in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese, who named it “Ilha Formosa” (The Beautiful Island). It is a valid name, for Taiwan is truly beautiful. The north coast (from Danshui up until Keelung) is well known for its sandy beaches and artistic rock formations. The northeastern edge of the island (Bitou cape) offers you beautiful hiking trails with great views over the coastline and the sea.
In the east, near Hualien, you have the breathtaking Taroko Gorge. The gorge is sometimes called one of the most beautiful places in Taiwan. There are overhanging rock walls, tunnel-like caves with flying swallows all around you, and green canyons with boulders on a flowing river. You experience all of this with great view everywhere you look. Shuttle buses take you along for the greater distances so that you can see as much as you can. Driving the Central Cross Island Highway straight through the Taroko Gorge must be amazing!
3. Rafting on the Xiuguluan River
In Hualien you can book tours that take you for a raft on the Xiuguluan River. Take a big blue rafting dinghy, four people on the left side and four people on the right side. Put one leg on the boat and one leg in the water, give everyone a paddle, and go! The guides push you away from dangerous rocks in the water and pull you through the roughest, most dangerous parts of the river. They also try their best to make you as wet as possible. Meet the adventure by floating on high waves near big rocks in the strong current of the river. At the same time, try to make your way in the right direction without bumping, falling or flipping the boat upside down.
Meanwhile, try to enjoy the beautiful landscape you’re in. The towering mountains are made of black rocks, covered with bushy subtropical plants, trees and moss. You see small and bigger waterfalls clattering down and birds we don’t know in Europe. All that in one stunning view beneath a beautiful sky full of clouds.
4. Night Markets
Taiwan is famous for it: every proud city has a night market. This is where you can buy snacks, eat meals on plastic chairs and plastic tables (miniature versions), buy cheap clothing and bags, and play fair games like shooting balloons or small gambling games. Every evening, the market is full of people having fun. Taste some local snacks like spicy fried chicken, 30 cm tall ice creams, fishcake, and, of course, the famous bubble tea (don’t ask, just try!). And, if you’re brave, you can even try some of the famous Taiwanese delicacies (found the most disgusting of the world by most western travelers) like stinky tofu or the 1000 years egg…
5. Enormous Temple in Tainan
Tainan is the name of both a province as a city in the west of Taiwan. The province hides as many as 5000 temples, from very small to very big ones. In the city of Tainan alone one can find as much as a thousand temples, one of which I found very special. It’s located fourteen kilometers to the north of Tainan (hire bikes, you’ll get there!). After long and boring roads and some insignificant village streets, two enormous statues appear, along with an even bigger temple complex.
We couldn’t find any information online or in travel guides that could tell us which temple it was, who was being honored there or when the temple was built. Nevertheless, this temple (called “台南土城正統鹿耳門聖母廟” in Chinese) was certainly one of our highlights of Taiwan!
6. Mountain Train from Chiayi to Alishan
The east and west of Taiwan are separated by a long chain of mountains. Somewhere in these mountains you can find a lovely national park, Alishan. However, Alishan (literally: Mount Ali) is most famous for the old train that runs all the way to the top of the mountain. In 1912, the Japanese (who occupied Taiwan for several years) built a railway to facilitate the transport of wood. Up to the present day, the old red train still meanders for 86 kilometers along a narrow gauge. It passes through 50 tunnels and across 77 bridges.
It’s a true spectacle to descend the mountain at only 15 kilometers per hour (we took the train on its way down). It is amazing to see the locomotive in every curve alongside a beautiful view of the mountains, the valley, low hanging clouds, palm- and banana trees, and the small, sleepy villages full of dilapidated houses.
7. Hot Springs
Hot springs are a popular thing in Taiwan. Because the geological location of the island is on two tectonic plates, the volcanic activity in the ground warms up the groundwater, which can then be used for natural spas and hot springs. You can bathe in naturally warmed groundwater, full of specific minerals and other ingredients that are beneficial for your skin and general health.
You can find numerous resorts and hotels offering you this lovely experience. But if you’re lucky (like we were), you can find a hostel that will take you to a private hot spring in the mountains. You will spend your evening in a hot tub with a glass of wine. Or you will find a public hot spring full of Taiwanese people wearing a swimming cap, enjoying massage showers and baths with rising temperatures. A perfect place to recover from all those days carrying around your heavy backpack!