Taiwan


Apr 20 2019
Taiwan
Posted by Karen

I can't believe 4 months have passed since we left for Taiwan and I'm only blogging about it now. Taiwan was an amazing experience, and I love that I get to re-live the memories by writing this post. The first part of our trip involved climbing Yushan, or Jade Mountain, and the second part of our trip took us to Taipei.

We took a 12hr flight from Vancouver to Taipei on EVA Air, leaving late on Friday, Dec. 21. We flew premium economy and had a comfortable flight. We landed in Taipei around 5:30am on Sunday, Dec. 23. From there, our goal was to get to Alishan, a small village in the middle of the country, about 20km from the Yushan trailhead. Getting to Alishan involved taking a series of trains and busses to a remote area of the country, where we don't speak the language. I had put a lot of time and energy into planning this route prior to the trip. It was not easy finding all the info using Google. Fortunately I had a co-worker from Taiwan who was able to give me some advice.

So we landed in Taipei, and took the metro to the High Speed Rail (HSR) station. From there, we boarded a HSR train that went up to 250km/hr to Chiayi (pronounced Ja-yee) about 300 km south of Taipei. Once in Chiayi, we had to look for the Alishan bus that only leaves the station 3 times a day, with the last one leaving at 1pm. When I was planning the route, I was concerned that we would not make the last bus at 1pm and would have to spend the night in Chiayi. In the end, we ended up catching the first of the three daily busses at 9:30am. There was a bit of a commotion getting on the bus, as no one spoke English and we weren't sure which compartment to place our backpacks in, along with the fact that the bus driver did not carry change. But it all worked out and we found ourselves on the bus to Alishan!

The 2.5 hr drive to Alishan was up a beautiful, winding mountain road that could make some stomachs nauseous. We arrived in Alishan around mid-day and took the time to walk around the 2000 year old, old growth forest of Alishan National Forest.

Part of the reason we spent our first day in Taiwan travelling to Alishan instead of relaxing in Taipei was because we wanted to get some extra time acclimatizing to higher elevation before climbing Yushan. So here we were at 2500m (8200ft) elevation, finding ourselves out of breath going up a few steps to the Alishan hotel, wondering what it was going to be like climbing Yushan.

Alishan is an older village with only a few amenities but delicious food. We had the yummy noodles, fried rice, and a green onion omelet from a little restaurant as our first meal in Taiwan. We also tried some wasabi covered peanuts (instead of wasabi peas!) - the wasabi kept coming up through my nose though causing me to yelp and Chris to laugh at me.

The hotel we stayed in was a bit odd, with no shower curtain on the shower, a hotel employee unlocking our door and just walking into our room to try and give us tea while we were taking a jet-lag induced nap, and getting a phone call at 9:30 pm while we were already sleeping to ask if we wanted a wake-up call the next day. We did not.

The next day, we took another bus from Alishan 7/11 bus depot to the Dong Pu lodge at the Yushan trailhead. This bus only came twice a day, so we took the first one, giving us a back-up just in case. The additional challenge with this bus was that we weren't getting off at a terminal, but on a roadside in the middle of nowhere. So we followed our route using Google Maps. When we reached the general area we wanted to get off, we signaled the bus driver to stop the bus and we hopped off. We then walked down a narrow road to our next destination, the Dong Pu lodge, where we would spend the night before beginning our trek up Yushan.

The Dong Pu lodge was an adventure. The lodge was broken up into 4 large rooms, each of which housed approximately 30 backpackers on bunkbeds - plywood planks lined the wall allowing each backpacker to sleep side by side, with more plywood planks above allowing for a second set of sleeping backpackers. Each guest was given a quilt for padding against the plywood and another one to keep us warm, and a pillow. I tried not to question when the last time the quilts and pillows had been washed. The shared bathrooms did not include western-style toilets, but porcelain "squaties" with water leaking everywhere. We made friends with the one other group in the lodge that spoke English - a father-daughter from Maryland, along with their guide who helped us with a few translations. We shared the delicious food made for us by the caretakers of the Dong Pu lodge for our Christmas Eve dinner- just don't ask me what it was because I have no idea. Despite all the craziness of the Dong Pu lodge, I loved it. The energy was amazing and the people were kind. It was definitely the most interesting place I've woken up in on Christmas morning.

Due to jet-lag and some serious snoring in the room, I ended up waking up around 4am and started to get ready for the hike. I spent about an hour stretching in the main area, where I was joined by a few other hikers. Though I couldn't understand them, I could feel the excitement and happiness as we all prepared for the hike ahead.

Chris and I started the hike around 7am on Christmas morning. We saved a bit of time getting started that morning as we had already checked in and received our hiking permits the day before. The hike itself was beautiful and it seemed like our plan to acclimatize had paid off. We trekked uphill for about 8.5 km over an 800m elevation gain until we arrived at the Paiyun Lodge around 2pm, where we would spend the night.

There was an option to climb to the west peak on the same day, but I didn't want to risk summiting the west peak then being too tired or get altitude sickness that would keep me from climbing to the main peak the next day. Instead, I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening reading a book that I chose to lug up the mountain so that I would have something to do at the top.

Paiyun Lodge was significantly cleaner and better maintained than Dong Pu, however we were still on uncomfortable bunk beds. But instead of using a quilt for padding, there were these foam gym mats! Though there was very little English, if we did need to communicate to ask where our bed was or when to get food, someone would always jump in to try and help translate, even if they only knew a few words of English. We were given warm sleeping bags, but no pillows, making me grateful we had brought our inflatable MEC base camp pillows with us.

We were in bed and fast asleep well before lights out at 8pm. We woke up the next morning for our 3am breakfast and began our 2.5km over 550m elevation gain trek to the summit. The hike started off relatively pleasant, with the moon giving us good light on the trail. However about half way up, we hit the cloud line and ended up in a cold misty fog that didn't allow us to see more than a few feet in front of us, even with our headlamps. The trail was steep and narrow. It was slippery in some sections, with only a chain to hold onto as I stepped precariously from one rock to the next. Losing my footing would mean tumbling down the cliff. I was scared for myself and even more scared watching my partner do it. A few times I wondered if we should turn around. However we persevered and kept climbing. Eventually I pulled up on a chain and saw the Yushan Main Peak marker. We'd reached 3952m (12,966ft)! I turned around to Chris who was following a chain behind me and told him we had arrived. I waited for him to get to the top, took his hand, and together we touched the main peak marker! I was so happy we arrived I started crying!

We stood around the main peak, finding shelter from the wind behind some rocks and waited for the sun to rise. We didn't get a good sunrise that day, but looking down onto the clouds, with the mountain peaks poking up through the top made me feel like I was on top of the world.

We began our descent back to Paiyun where we stopped in, grabbed our packs and had "brunch" - a warm and very welcome bowl of noodle soup. Then we continued the remaining hike all the way back down the mountain.

We weren't quite sure how we were going to get back to Alishan that night (which caused us a bit of concern), as there was only one bus that went back to Alishan and yes, it only came twice a day with the last one leaving at 11:30am. Of course it was now noon and I really didn't want to spend another night at Dong Pu lodge. Fortunately, the tour guide from the father-daughter team arrived at the bottom of the trail around the same time we did and helped us translate. She was able to get one of the Yushan shuttle drivers to take us back to Alishan about 30 minutes away. Phew!

We arrived back at the Alishan hotel around 1pm and they told us we could not check in until 3pm. I almost started crying as my feet hurt and I hadn't taken a shower in days. When the reception clerk saw my reaction, she made a few switches and got us into a room right away. It felt so good to shower and lie down. Chris and I didn't move from the bed for hours, and we mostly just kept sighing about how nice it felt to have our feet up. Though we had some interesting encounters our first night in Alishan, this time it was rather uneventful. The hotel receptionist even got us a shuttle from the hotel to the bus stop the next day, so we wouldn't have to walk there with sore legs - I think we grew on her!

We took the return bus and train from Alishan to Taipei with no incidents - we were practically experts at this point.

Taipei was like another world compared with Alishan. For the first 4 days of our trip, no one spoke English and we got around by pointing and gesturing. When we were approaching Taipei Main station, I wanted to make sure we were getting off at the correct stop so I prepared my ticket and started gesturing to the person behind me trying to ask if the stop we were approaching was the one listed on my ticket. The person answered back in perfect English that yes, this was the stop I wanted. I felt a little silly with all my pointing.

Once in Taipei, we checked into the Tango Nanshi hotel in the heart of the city. The room was reasonable and even had a Toto toilet complete with bidet functions - what a difference from the squatties at Dong Pu and Paiyun lodges!

Taipei itself is extremely busy and quite clean. There are cute little neighborhoods and alleyways everywhere. Over the next 5 days, we went up Taipei 101, visited the night markets where we ate stinky tofu and octopus balls, checked out the thermal valley, ate at the famed Din Tai Fung, visited huge electronics malls, tried the food at 7/11, and climbed Elephant Mountain.

Taipei 101 was the highlight of Taipei for me. 20 years ago I watched a documentary on the concepts for building Taipei 101 and I was amazed with where our world was heading. When it was finished in 2004 it was the tallest building in the world. Today, 8 other buildings have surpassed it in height. When we went to the observation deck, I thought we'd only spend an hour up there. Instead we stayed for 3 hours allowing us to see both the day and nighttime views. Being up there was an incredibly calming experience with stunning panoramic views.

It took me a long time to write this post. There were so many great things that happened on this trip. I was nervous taking so much transit and climbing a mountain in a country where I don't speak the language, but we did it. My mantra for the trip was:

I know more today than I did yesterday. And I will know more tomorrow than I do today.

Here are a few notes I put on my phone to jog my memory for later:

  • The incredible humidity at the airport.
  • Breaking the glass on Chris's phone while he was waiting to get his SIM card at the airport and starting to cry.
  • Transferring our clothing items from a box to our backpacks in the middle of the train station.
  • After spending months trying to figure out how to get from Taipei to Alishan and Yushan, it actually ended up being pretty painless.
  • Meeting the "rescue guide" at Paiyun Lodge and seeing pics we didn't want to see.
  • Leaving our bags under the Alishan hotel reception desk and hoping they would still be there 2 days later.
  • The bus driver stopping the bus to tell everyone to put their seat belts on as we started a rough pass between Alishan and Chiayi.
  • Putting so much effort into planning the bus and train routes and not spending a ton of time researching the hike itself.
  • Trying to find a cozy restaurant to enjoy a couple of drinks.
  • Going back to the little place with the food we liked three times.
  • The crazy food at the 7/11