6 of 15 Days in Spectacular Mongolia

Tour Company: Selena Travel

Tour: Discover True Mongolia 2017

Guide: Bayarmaa (DB)

Driver: Gamba

DAY 1:

ULAANBAATAR- AMARBAYASGALANT MONESTRY

This morning at 8am we met Chimgee, from Selena Travel, at our guesthouse to fill in the paperwork and pay. We paid with local, USD and visa online–we obviously hadn’t budgeted properly for this! It was a fairly easy process, though the verified visa confirmation took a few tries. Chimgee reviewed the itinerary and introduced us to our lovely guide and driver. After saying goodbye to Chimgee, we headed out with DB (our guide) and Gamba (our driver).  We began by driving north, via Darkhan town where we had Korean lunch because everything was still closed for Naadam. We were meant to go to a market but that was closed too, so they took us to two monuments connected by a large bridge.

One was a Buddhist pagoda and the other was a horse and rider that are part of a Mongolian myth.  Both statues had great views of the cute coloured rooftops of the city.
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After a drive on a long bitumen road we then turned off onto the “country roads,” which were like bumpy trails that went many directions.  This is where Greg and I would have gotten seriously lost if we had chosen a self-driving option. It was a bumpy trip which would normally be fun if my neck wasn’t sore.

At 4:30pm we arrived to Amarbayasgalant where we rested until dinner in our first ger. It was reasonably comfortable, like a large tent with twin beds and thin bean filled pillows. The carpets and decor were cute.

After dinner we went for a walk/ hike up one of the hills nearby and got some stunning views. The never ending layered hills were spectacular. Looking back where we had come from, the camp was a dot in the distance. As we walked, hundreds of crickets jumped around our feet; it was quite strange and would be creepy if you were squeamish about insects. We could see horses in the distance and the many dirt tracks across the landscape. The landscape was exactly what you’d imagine for this part of Mongolia.

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During our walk, we saw this insect that looked like a really fat grasshopper with a tail/stinger.  We weren’t sure what exactly it was and if it was dangerous/poisonous, so we gave it a wide berth.  However, we saw many of them on our walk, so we asked Gumba what it was the next time we saw one.  He obviously couldn’t explain since he didn’t speak English and DB wasn’t around, so instead he decided to pick it up by its tail.  I’m not sure what this was meant to communicate, but when the insect leaned in and bit his thumb, he hurled it to the ground, killing it.

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We decided in that moment not to ask Gumba any more questions about the wildlife!

DAY 2:

MONASTERY to URAN TOGOO MOUNTAIN, BULGAN

In the morning, after a very disturbed sleep thanks to the horses munching on the grass next to our ger, we drove 10-15 mins to the Amarbayasgalant Monastery, which was a beautiful Chinese-style monastery set in front of a big hill.  The drive itself was picturesque, and we enjoyed passing by the nomadic Mongolians herding their sheep, cattle, horses, etc.

When we arrived at the monastery, the lamas were just arriving for their morning chants.  The temple where they did this was rustic and beautifully decorated. Inside they have 1000 Buddhas and seats for the lamas (their term for monks) to sit and chant.

We sat and listened to the chanting and watched some of the younger monks mess around.  The younger ones acted just like normal kids would, pushing and poking each other when they should have been chanting.

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Here’s the back of the monastery complex from a distance. This is only a small fraction of its original size.

I love visiting active temples. After the chanting, a lama took us around and explained the different temples in the complex as well as the beliefs of their particular branch of Buddhism. This is where we started to see the true benefits of having a guide–DB would translate what the lama was saying, and through her we could ask any questions to the lama. It was a unique and very interesting experience, especially when he started talking about dream interpretation and everybody’s ability to see the future. We spent about 3 hours at the monastery, which included a hike up to the stupa–the eye on the stupa reminded me of Nepal.

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Another awesome thing with a private tour is they don’t rush us.  We can stop wherever we want for photos, take as long as we want in places, and chat to locals through our friendly guide/ translator!

After the monastery, we then headed further north towards Lake Huvsgul, but we stopped before then at a cute place surrounded by mountains and an inactive volcano. The drive was only meant to be 2hrs, so we didn’t rush and took many stops.  Maybe that’s why we actually got in quite a bit later than expected! The scenery was gorgeous once again and a little greener at times. We had dinner and pretty much rested after that.

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Our camp with the volcano in the immediate background.

DAY 3:

URAN TOGO VOLCANO to MOREN HUVSGUL PROVENCE

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We began the day by hiking up the volcano behind where we were staying. It was a short but steep walk that had us huffing and puffing. When we got to the top the view was spectacular (thank goodness–I hate hikes without a view) and we could walk around the rim. Apparently there is normally a pool/pond in the middle but they hadn’t had much rain this year, so it was dry for us. It was a gorgeous walk and I am so glad we persisted and finished it. The walk down was quite slippery in parts. I know many of our friends would have run up it in minutes, but we are still proud of our morning adventure.

We then drove through the Khangai region, which is a stunning mountainous area. I loved seeing the herders on horses and motorbikes, the winding rivers, the locals camping everywhere, the herds of sheep, goats and horses and of course the dotted gers.

Locals taking advantage of Naadam by camping…everywhere!

Another thing that was interesting are the ovoos that travellers create.  Usually, these are found in high areas, and travellers pile rocks, sticks, fabrics, special objects, and really anything they have that can be given as an offering (money, drinks, candies, etc.).  There were also occasional animal skulls, such as the horse skull we saw in one today.  Gumba thought it likely was a favourite horse of someone’s.

They place these objects in the piles in the hope that a wish will be granted, or that their journey will be safe.  Either way, travellers walk around the pile three times, which is meant to (hopefully) ensure that their wish will be granted.  Some of the ovoos are even believed to grant healing powers, and one ovoo we stopped at today had a pile of crutches and a few prosthetic limbs to attest to its healing abilities. These piles are similar to the ones we saw when we were in Tibet.

DSC_0418.JPGWe stopped for lunch at a local place on the street where we had mutton pancakes, mutton dumplings and mutton noodle soup from the cutest family. Once again, DB our guide chatted to them and asked questions for us.

After the lunch we drove to our camp after bypassing the town. It was meant to be an 8hr drive but this time we were much earlier.  Along the way, we had our first taste of mare milk.  It’s horse milk that is fermented.  Yes, it is alcoholic, but it would take a lot to get in any way tipsy.  It’s more for helping to digest all the meat in the Mongolian diet.  DB got a 2L Sprite bottle full from a woman who was selling it from the back of her van at a stop everyone seems to know about.  It was very sour, and a couple of sips was more than enough!

When we arrived at camp, we rested and then had dinner.  After dinner we walked 5mins to the Bronze Age deer stones and burial sites. It was a fascinating area  almost as mysterious as Stonehenge. Not much is known about them except they seem to be connected to burial sites.

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The stones have faces carved in them as well as many stylized deer. Many were very damaged and pretty eroded, but some were in good enough condition that you could make out the deer with their extensive ornate horns as well as faces. The site also had circular tombs marked with a pile of rocks and concentric circles of stones emanating out from them.  In addition to the circular graves, there were square ones. We learnt about these in the national museum of Ulaanbaatar, so it was interesting to see them as they naturally exist throughout the landscape.

While we were viewing the stones the sun was setting which cast the best shadows. When we returned to our camp, I stood outside and watched the sky turn into a fire-orange. This was the first colourful sunset we have seen for a while. The landscape was breathtaking and the mountains rolled as far as you could see. The artist within me loved the variety of colours in the scenery from red-green-yellow-brown-grey-red-white.  Just amazing.  The clouds themselves were phenomenal, especially the strips of cloud that belted the entire mountain range.

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Mongolia is totally about the space of its incredible, never-ending landscapes. We also loved watching the little zurams (“prairie dog” style marsupials) popping up from their holes and sprinting or bounding across the vast grassy plains.

DAY 4: DEER STONES TO LAKE HUVSGUL

This spectacular drive covered more than 150kms through green hills studded by rocks and covered in pine trees. The road into the lake was a long, bumpy, dusty one, but when you get that first view of the incredible bright blue waters it is simply breathtaking. Not to mention the roads were bordered with beautiful pink wild flowers. There were yaks everywhere, and if not for them, you’d think you were in Canada!

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We drove to the lake past the shimmering turquoise water, goats, yaks, horses and people mingling on the rocky shores. On the other side of the road were pine covered mountains and ger camps. Our camp was beautifully situated on the lake, and it was also beside another smaller lake.

The temperature dropped significantly when we entered this area. The sun was hot, but the breeze was icy. We arrived in time for lunch, and after lunch Greg and I went for a walk to photograph the yaks, horses, mountains, and incredible waters. By the time we returned, it was time for dinner. The food was delicious and well presented, but unfortunately, the following day the driver and Greg, were very sick. We think it was either the food or the sauces they had laid out to accompany the meals.  Their illness came the next day, however.  Both Greg and Gumba felt fine until later that night.

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After dinner we went for a short forest walk with DB.  It was beautiful but would be better earlier in the day with the sun filtering through the trees. The temperatures were dropping quickly, so we had a fire lit in our ger.  The camp also made a bonfire on the lake edge for everyone. Greg had just stated that this was his favourite spot so far because of the fires and beautiful setting; however, it was that night that Greg got sick, so his mind might have changed after that.

DAY 5: RELAXING AT THE LAKE

It was a very quiet day because Greg and the driver were both ill, so I sat in my favourite spot on the dock over the water for a while.  Later, I relocated outside our ger as it was warmer, and then eventually I went to the restaurant area to start writing these blog posts. Other than changing locations, I was just enjoying the incredible view and peace. I also had to check on Greg throughout the day so couldn’t go too far. After lunch DB (our guide) and I went for a walk through the forest again, but this time we walked much further, and then cut through the woods to get to the edge. We were hoping to be able to walk back to camp along the rocky edge next to the lake, but it turned out we were high up on a cliff, so that wasn’t an option. There was, however, another trail through the forest which hugged the edge of the cliff offering spectacular views over the brightest blue water I have ever seen. Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought my camera, so it will just be a fond memory. The walk was brilliant and one of my highlights on the lake. I just wish Greg could have seen it.

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Lake Huvsgul is 2 million years old; it is 136kms long, 36kms wide, and over 200m deep. We were at the southern tip, but if you traveled to the northern point you’d be able to pop over to Russia!

After our walk, we returned to check on the boys. Greg was feeling a little better, so I dragged him outside for fresh air and a short walk. As we walked to a small tip on the rocky edge, I told him to select a gratitude rock based on its texture. It is a rock to keep in his pocket at all times; whenever he feels it, he needs to think of something he is grateful for.  It was very hard choosing, so he has 2 and I have 3 small ones. I want to always remember this trip and be grateful for the life we lead and for our awesome family and friends.

Tomorrow we pack up and leave in the morning. We will miss this stunning place but the journey must continue to even more amazing places. I LOVE Mongolia.

DAY 6: HUVSGUL TO ULZIIT KHISHIG 

Written by: Greg

This morning we had breakfast, packed up, and headed out. This was my first “normal” breakfast after dealing with whatever made me sick all day yesterday, and despite a bit of indigestion, I was okay. Our driver, Gumba, was in the same boat as myself, so we were both a bit tentative with what we ate.

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After breakfast, we headed out the same way we came in to the camp (there being only one route). We stopped at a small market that sold various yack wool, stone, and antler products. There were “reindeer people” there as well, so we stopped for a few pictures. We opted out of the full-on minority costume photos with the reindeer, though we did take a picture of ourselves in our normal clothes.  We also didn’t shy away from taking photos of the Mongolians who were posing in costume. The best photo was of a dressed up woman sitting on the ground, likely unaware of the reindeer poop that was everywhere, taking selfies with a disinterested, captive reindeer. The reindeer themselves didn’t look like they were in top shape, though they had some impressive, hairy antlers.

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From there, we returned to a small town to get some gas, water, and some drugs for the treatment of possible future stomach ailments.  We then left the town, which was the last proper town we would be in for a while, and began our off-road journey to the next camp. Once again, the time estimates were off, as we were meant to be at camp for a late lunch by 2:00; however, we didn’t pull in until 3:30. The road consisted of the standard chaos of dirt paths that Gumba nevertheless divines to our end destination. One path branches off into two or three that then branch off further or return to the fold–there is never just one route, and even with this multiplicity, we still have to veer off our chosen path periodically to make way for an oncoming SUV or Russian van.

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At one point we came across a road sign in the middle of nowhere that seemed very out of place, its arrows pointing vaguely towards what could be the correct path, or what could be the path that veers off in completely the wrong direction! Gumba paused there just long enough to make us nervous, but then he was off with determination. Shortly after, he stopped two different times for vans of locals who were basically lost. Then we passed a cluster of three SUVs circled up, reminiscent of something out of Breaking Bad. We kept driving and about 5 minutes later we stopped for another SUV full of tourists–the driver was sitting cross-legged in what little shade the car provided, contemplatively smoking his cigarette. Our driver joined him while they waited for the other three SUVs we just saw to find them. When the others found their lost companions, they convoyed off and we continued another 10 minutes to our camp.

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The view of our camp through the trees

My one regret was that I didn’t speak up when I saw a great photo op. I saw a complete cow skeleton a little off the road; however, we had already passed it and were really late getting to camp, so I didn’t say anything. Later when I told DB about that, she said how rare that is because animals gradually take away the individual bones to eat. Salt in the wound!

We had a good lunch at camp, but after the salad and a hearty soup, we were pretty much full when the unexpected main course of huge dumplings came out. We did our best, but Gumba and I still were not feeling 100%, and Rebecca was full after 2 dumplings, so we left a lot of food untouched. The owner was worried that we didn’t like his cooking, but DB explained to him that we were basically invalids who couldn’t stomach food. Oddly, he seemed relieved by this explanation.

After lunch, we had a quick rest and then went for a hike, communing with the goats, sheep, and stunning landscape. The serene, vast openness of the hills and valleys that surrounded our camp was a welcome change after the busy camp we just came from on the lake (spectacular though that location was).

We had a very late dinner (8:30), given how late lunch had been, and DB shared a bottle of really sweet French wine with us. Luckily, I always travel with a cork screw (After being left high and dry a couple of times in Italy, I bought a souvenir one, and it has remained in my bag ever since)–the camp didn’t have one, and Gumba was gesturing to hit the bottle until the cork popped out. We aren’t sure if he was kidding or not!  Dinner consisted of more manageable portions (rice, strips of mutton, and 4 bite-sized dumplings), though neither Gumba nor myself ate our yoghurt dessert, being a bit wary of the non-pasteurized dairy.

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One final note. When we went back to our ger for the night, a woman came to light our little fire for us. Unlike the previous night, she got it started first try…using a small blowtorch! However, within five minutes, the ger had transformed into an unbearable sauna. I went to brush my teeth, and when I got back Rebecca was standing outside, rosy cheeked because the ger was sweltering. I only lasted a few minutes myself before retreating outside to sit on the steps and cool down. Our driver was doing the same next door, so that was a comfort.

Our ger eventually cooled down to a less inferno-like temperature, but we still kept the door open for a while. This was apparently taken as a clear invitation for huge flies to come in and race each other around our warm ger. Rebecca had a bit of a go at them with a towel but met with little success. DB suggested that if we turn the light off and left the door open, they would leave on their own. We tried this, and things got quiet for a moment, but seeing that my phone was the only light source (I was drafting this at the time), the flies decided to dive bomb my phone and my head until we caved and turned the light back on. It’s quiet now, and I don’t see any flies. But I’m sure there are still some in here. We will see how the night goes…

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Naadam Opening Ceremony, Ulaanbaatar 

Once again we were up early, and this time we had planned to walk to the event unless we could flag down a taxi along the way. We eventually came across a taxi stand, but the driver of the first cab wanted to charge 3 1/2 times more than what we had paid the day before to get to the stadium, and we had already walked nearly halfway there!  Greg went to another taxi, but the first driver yelled out something to that driver who subsequently told us the same price.  We said no and began to walk away; however, a lovely lady pulled up in her car, and she motioned for us to come with her.  Greg asked the for the price we paid the day before, and she nodded and waved us into her car.  When we arrived, she dropped us near the stadium’s entrance, as it was very, very crowded, and she actually asked for less than what Greg was offering. Once again, we were very lucky!

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Since we wandered around the stadium the day before, we knew where to go.  That was fortunate because it was absolutely packed with hundreds of market stalls extending in every direction. We tried to exude confidence as we showed our possibly fake tickets at the gate.  They were in fact real, and voila we were in.

It was exceptionally hot in the stadium with no shade.  The parade was huge and as to be expected, and the ceremony was all in Mongolian; we think they were retelling their history or possibly the history of the three traditional sports. Once again there were huge numbers of performers, music, storytelling, formation movements, horses, large moving statues, etc., and it ended with a release of balloons.

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The seating was super tight–you literally had to climb over people to get in and out. I would hate to be there if there was a fire as there is no way to get out. We stayed for the whole 3hr event and then waited for the wrestling to begin.  At one point, one of the older men beside Greg (he and his friend had walked on the seats in front of us to reach their own seats) pulled out a small bottle of what turned out to be snuff.  He wasn’t confident in his miming, so he got his friend to offer Greg some; however, Greg thought he was trying to sell him a small bottle.  The friend put a little scoop of it on his hand, then pinched it with his fingers and snorted it to show Greg how it was done.  Greg still declined, which was when the friend turned around and offered it to pretty much whoever was within reach.  The funny thing was that a western family was in behind us, and the mother said no, but then let her son (he looked to be about 10 years old) try a pinch.  Not to be outdone by a 10 year-old, Greg tried then asked to try some.  In return, the friend made some confusing gestures that we eventually understood to mean that he wanted to take a look at Greg’s camera.  When he got it, he looked through the viewfinder across the stadium at the president’s VIP section, and then gave the camera back to Greg with a mildly disgusted look.  We think he thought Greg’s camera was a high-tech binoculars, and he was disappointed they didn’t let him see the president better.

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I have to say their wrestling uniforms were very unique, as you can see in the photos. We learned a lot about the wrestling because we were given a very informative brochure which described each stage of the two day event.  The gist of it is that in order to win, a wrestler has to make his opponent touch any part of his body on the ground, other than his feet and hands.  Wrestlers can push, pull, trip, throw, etc. and they are allowed to grab their opponent’s shorts or top, but heads are to be respected.  Wrestlers can literally move around anywhere on the field during their match, and there is no time limit…though wrestlers take silently agreed upon breaks as their matches wear on.

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Before any competitor begins they do an eagle dance next to their coach.  This involves some light steps (almost like jogging on the spot) with one hand up in the air like they are either acknowledging the crowd’s cheers, or they are trying to gently fly with only one arm.  The other hand is planted on the coach’s shoulder.  Then the coach takes their symbolic hat (The yellow stripes on the hats represents their level and previous success.). When the match is done, the winner walks around, flapping his arms and stepping with slight pauses in his strides over to the podium of the Nine White Banners (poles with white horsehair hanging down in a circle) which symbolize peace.  The victor’s walk is meant to mimic an eagle flying.  He then returns to his opponent who unties his top, signifying defeat, and then walks under the arm of the victor.  In some cases where the loser is more experienced the winner actually walks under his arm as a sign of respect.

Each round (there are 9 rounds) is a little different from the last. They begin with the highest ranked wrestlers (typically these are the biggest guys) against the lowest ranked wrestlers.  For round 2, the wrestler can choose who they want for their opponent.  Next round, there is another pre-selection.  Eventually the same sized and experienced wrestlers go against each other, which is when it can get quite exciting. It is a process of elimination–the last one standing after nine rounds, in the excessive heat, is the winner.  Wrestling is an ancient and fascinating tradition of Mongolia and we are so glad to have seen it during Naadam.

Even though they looked like ants because they were so far away, it was interesting to watch; however, I actually preferred it when we went back to the Irish bar and watched it on TV. This was mainly because we could have a cold beer, were in a/c, and could actually follow what was going on because of the close ups and replays.

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After wandering around the square, we returned to the accommodation. Greg worked on his blog post, and I continued to research and email tour companies. We wanted to travel for 15 days in Mongolia, and of course wanted to see as much as possible. We weren’t too sure where to go and how to go about booking our trip at such late notice. Since it was Naadam many agencies and info centres were closed. I started reading blogs to see what other people had done. Ideally, we wanted to leave the next day but knew this wasn’t going to be possible. It was actually harder than we thought to get info, and because of this we had to extend our accommodation by a night with the hope we could leave the next day.

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I did manage to get a basic idea of what people liked to see and do in Mongolia, but it was diverse and needed a lot of time to sort out. There were trips that ranged from 1-28 days. People either traveled solo with a rented car (this would be a challenge since many of the roads are not actual roads, there are no traffic signs in English, and with our limited time we would find this stressful), or with a hired driver. The other option was to go with a group in a Russian van and split the cost of a driver and guide, and the final option was to do a private tour with guide and driver.

Some of the cheaper trips involve camping and cooking your own food while others were more “comfortable,” involving stays in tourist ger camps. The camps provide gers, toilets, showers, and food. Despite my research and inquiries, I was not having much luck hearing back from any companies since they were either busy with the festival, or they were closed for the holiday.

The next day we decided to do some sight seeing in our area. I was getting overwhelmed with the research and lack of options, so I needed a break. I also pulled my neck again, when my shower went from hot to FREEZING suddenly. I had shooting pain in my neck and shoulder and couldn’t turn my head.  I immediately thought of the consequences this had on our travels and was not liking the idea of rolling around in a Russian van.

We had a lovely walk around the neighbourhood which consisted of gers, dirt roads, coloured fences, amazing murals…and the occasional unexplained huge (hopefully animal) bone!

It is a cool area to explore. We stopped at the nearby Gandan monastery. This was a Buddhist college with buildings of Chinese, Nepalese and Tibetan style. The main one reminded us of a lot Bhutan. There wasn’t that much to see because most buildings were closed.  This was annoying, considering they charge an entrance fee. What was even more annoying was that the main temple, which was basically the only building that was open, wanted to charge us another fee to enter…and an additional fee to take photos! Greg was really annoyed and said no.  We turned to head off, but the monk called us back said, “Ok–but NO photos.”

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We were still a bit miffed, but the temple was actually a stunning room with a huge standing Buddha. Ironically, my neck was so sore that I couldn’t look up to see the whole thing!  We were calming down and enjoying the serenity of the temple until the monk came in to check that we weren’t taking pictures (we weren’t).  Later when we left the temple, Greg got some perverse sense of getting “even” by taking a photo of the monk when he came outside the building to go pee!

We then tried to find the fine arts museum of Zanabazar but failed. Along the way, we popped into a pharmacy and mimed out the problem with my back and neck.  The woman gave us a cream that looked like a muscle relaxant. Our last stop was the National Museum of Mongolia. This was actually a very well-displayed museum that actually had some English signs. It took you from the Stone Age, to Chenggis Khan, to Mongolia’s democratic freedom. The room with the fashions such as incredibly ornate head pieces and jewellery was incredible. Being a visual person, I just wish they had a historical documentary playing as well.

Afterwards it rained and since everything else was closed, we ended up once again at the Irish bar where we watched the wrestling finals. Amongst the other patrons, there was a group of 4 local guys who managed to polish off two bottles of vodka while we were there! The last match was actually very slow.  The two wrestlers were being cautious, but they were also obviously tired because they had been going for 9 rounds over two days. Maybe this is why the spectators needed so much vodka.

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While this was going on, instead of drinking vodka, we were sipping beer and using the wifi to email tour companies.  Three companies finally got back to us. Some only offered short trips, others didn’t go to the places we wanted, and many focused on the Gobi.  However, I wanted to see the northern lakes as well.

Finally, Selena travel  wrote back with the perfect itinerary. Their trip was 15 days and traveled from north to south through 3 of their 5 spectacular landscapes (We would experience the lakes, mountains, and desert). Unfortunately, it was the most expensive (like double of what we thought we’d be paying) one we had found. However, we only had 16 days left in Mongolia, it was already 6pm, and we wanted to leave the next morning, so we really didn’t have any options. I was impressed with the description of the tour and the quick answers we were getting–they were emailing in real time and we started texting on WhatsApp. We Googled reviews for the company and they were very highly recommended on Google and TripAdvisor. We were still concerned about the cost, but it was literally the only option.

Just after we booked with Selena, a friend of a friend contacted me through messenger and said we could do an amazing trip with a couple from the Ulaanbaatar International School…that they quoted as half the price we were going to pay with Selena. We were very tempted to cancel Selena travel, but it was so late and they were already booking our accommodation, so we decided to do the right thing and stick with it. We’d just have to watch our spending when we returned to work to make up for it. The great thing about the trip, other than the fabulous itinerary, was it included absolutely everything.  If we stuck with the food and drinks included in the package, and didn’t do any extra activities, we wouldn’t have to pay for anything else until our last night in Ulaanbaatar. We could sit back, relax and enjoy the trip of a lifetime.

And that is exactly what we did!

 

Taiwan to Mongolia

We had our last delicious curry and kimchi dumplings for breakfast, then packed up and checked out with ease.  The Museum of Contemporary Art was on the other side of the Taipei Main Train Station, so we put our bags in storage at the hotel and walked to the gallery (it was a 10-15 minute walk).  The gallery had one main exhibition at the time, and aside from a couple of interesting sculptures, it was a bit underwhelming.  We only spent about a half hour there before walking back to our hotel where we picked up our bags.

We walked to the Taipei train station and caught the express train to the airport. It was much easier this time, in comparison to our arrival. When we arrived, we didn’t realize that the airport train was different to the MTR. It’s funny how easy it gets, but then it’s time to leave.

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That is how travel works– you are challenged, lost, sometimes confused, and learning something new every day. By the time you leave you have gotten your bearings, figured out new systems, made new friends, have fabulous stories to share, and could even give traveling tips for that city/country. Life as an expat is a little like that too.

A FRUSTRATING TRANSIT
The train, check-in, and flight were easy, until we got to Beijing (our transit airport). We had a tough time finding where to get our new boarding pass, as all counters were closed in the transit area. After finding one open counter, we waited in line for 30-40 mins because a NY plane missed its connection by 3hrs, so they had to arrange accommodation for all the passengers and book their new flights.  When we did finally reach the counter the Air China woman said we couldn’t check in yet because the Mongolian Airlines counter wasn’t open yet.  We were stuck in a random waiting area for an hour until the counter opened.

Once we finally got our boarding pass we had to go through security, which was an unpleasant ordeal.  Of course we picked the wrong line for the scanners, which ended up being twice as long as the others. The security officers at the scanners were infuriating. There was something in my handbag, and instead of asking if I had whatever they were looking for and asking me to open my bag, they simply unzipped the handbag, turned it upside down, and dumped all the contents out.  They sent random contents back through the scanner and did the same thing with Greg’s day bag, telling neither of us what they were looking for.  We were a bit panicky as we tried to keep track of all our things, and in the end they just shoved our bags and the bins with our things down the line–no explanation about what the problem had been. Not happy about that entire process! After that exercise in frustration, we still had time to wait for the plane.  We were excited to see a Starbucks open since everything else was closed, but after lining up, we were told they didn’t take USD…unless we wanted to put it on our Visa card.  Since it would likely cost more in Visa charges than the actual cost of the coffee if we paid with Visa, we declined, peeved at the entire airport by that time. It was 1am, we were tired, grumpy and unimpressed, and just wanted to get out of the Beijing airport asap.

ARRIVAL IN MONGOLIA

It was a bumpy flight, (not one for my brother), but the arrival was fortunately straightforward. We had an elderly driver waiting for us, but he wouldn’t let us change any money before we left the airport.  I’m not sure he really understood what we wanted, but we assumed the exchange was either closed (it was a small airport) or the driver knew of an exchange with better rates.  I think he just wanted to get going since it was 4:30am.  Regardless, he didn’t offer to stop anywhere to change money on the way to our guesthouse.

After loading our bags in the car, we were very worried he was going to pass out; he was breathing excessively, but this eventually calmed down. We were also worried that we would get into an accident because he meandered all over the road, but this seemed to be the norm in Mongolia. The car ahead of us was all over the place as well.


We stayed at Gana’s Guesthouse which had gers (yerts) on its roof, but we weren’t staying in these.  Rather, we were disappointed to find that our room was a slap-it-together, moldy, quadruple room. It had cracked tiles, water stains, and a strong smell of mold. However, they let us check in at 5am instead of 3pm (as was the norm in Taipei), so we couldn’t complain.  Besides, we knew the room was cheap when we booked it, so we didn’t have high expectations.  The room cost $32, but we thought it was $20 (I must have made a mistake booking). It was certainly spacious but not worth the $32.


We slept for most of the day and ventured out at 2pm. It turned out our place is pretty close to downtown, and there were some interesting streets along the way. We walked all over to find an exchange place since we couldn’t do it at the airport. It was exceptionally hot, so much hotter than what we were expecting. We didn’t have much success finding a money exchange, so we popped into an information centre that pointed us in the right direction.
Afterwards, we walked around town and walked around the very impressive central square.  It had a very Russian feel, surrounded by big buildings and being a square, open space of cement.  In the centre was the statue of Sukhbaatar on his horse–he is a hero of sorts for enlisting Russian aid to oust the Chinese from Outer Mongolia, which they had occupied; however, his actions consequently led to the Russians picking up where the Chinese left off, in terms of ruling Mongolia.  At the other end of the square is the Government Palace building, featuring a Chinggis Khaan monument.

Heading away from the square, we found an art gallery and further down the road, heading towards the bridge that leads to National Stadium, was the Children’s Palace.  For some strange reason, it featured a hybrid Alien and Predator motorcycle sculpture out front–something to comfort children, perhaps?!

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We found an awesome Irish pub, so stopped there for a drink; however, we were still a little dazed and tired so headed back to the accommodation and passed out. Travel certainly can be very exhausting.

Day 2 Naadam Festival 


Refreshed, we got up early because the Naadam archery was beginning this morning. We were told it runs from 8-9am and that we could get a taxi on the main road. It turned out that there weren’t any taxis around; in fact it was really quiet, so we went back to the guesthouse and asked if they could call one, but they said they don’t do that here in Mongolia because there aren’t enough cabs.  You can hail any car for a ride, and if they are heading the same way they will take you for a small fee. We began to walk–normally we would walk the whole way, but the archery would be over by the time we got there, as we figured it would take about an hour to get there.


Fortunately, a taxi finally showed up, he had no idea where we were going, but after asking some people on the way he figured it out.  One of the owners at our guesthouse had written down the address for us in Mongolian; however, it clearly was not the correct address.  It took some miming of shooting an arrow to convey where we wanted to go.

As it turned out the archery was well worth the visit even though it was very hot. The traditional outfits were incredibly colourful and ornate.


It turns out that today was more of a soft opening for the event.  We weren’t sure if they were actually competing today or if was a form of opening up the games.  Regardless, this was certainly worth seeing.

When the event began, the most of the archers went down to the end of the field with the targets, while three shooters for each target stayed at the other end.  Each archer fired their arrows at the targets, while their peers stood behind and to the sides of the target.  The target itself is made up of hollow cylinders made of camel hide that are stacked 3 high. The archers would shoot at the target, while the others gathered around the target sang and used hand signals to let the archer know if they hit the target or, if they didn’t hit it, how far off they were and in what direction.


The songs were songs of encouragement. As the game went on the group by the target got smaller but they still sang. It was fascinating to watch, and the best part was that we were the only westerners there, and even with the locals, there were very few people watching.


We stayed there for a couple of hours and then had a look at the ankle bone shooting. This is another sport which happens through the Naadam festival. Greg got a great video which shows it better than I can explain it.

The covered area was incredibly crowded with hundreds of games going at once. I didn’t know if we were allowed to wander around and take photos, so we stayed at the gate. It was pretty hot, so we walked back to the Irish bar for a very western breakfast.  We figured we would be eating exclusively local dishes when we went on our longer overland tour, so we didn’t mind front loading on western food now!


Many places are closed during Naadam as we discovered, so we went back to the art gallery we had visited the day before to take a look at the one exhibition that had been closed. The art was varied and so interesting. Most pieces captured nomads, gers, landscapes and festivals. However, these two pieces were quite unique.

The sculptures were awesome, too. Actually the exhibit opened that day for the festival, so we were lucky.

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After the art gallery, we went to the square to see what was happening for the festival. There were crowds of beautifully dressed locals sitting in chairs and lining up around a barrier right next to the parliament building.

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There was a marching band, some official soldiers and retired officers in the sun, their shining medals proudly pinned to their uniforms. Eventually the president came out of the building and briefly and walked past the seats. So that is what we were waiting for! One of the security guards pushed Greg back (he was in the front row) as the president walked past.

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We then started to walk back through town and stopped at one of the only shops open, which was a fair trade store. They had stunning and reasonably priced embroidery, paper cuts, and jewelry.  While we were looking around, a lovely couple offered us free tickets to a concert which was at 3pm. He was a lecturer, and it was a gift from a student but he couldn’t make the show. We were very dubious, as it isn’t very common to get free tickets to a sold out concert. They seemed in earnest, however, and at one point they hesitated, saying they didn’t want to give them to us if we weren’t going to use them. It felt awkward, but we did accept them after assuring them we would go.  It was only an hour away, so we had a drink and then headed over to the theatre.


The show was so much more than a concert!  It was a cultural extravaganza, with stunning costumes, spectacular backdrops, various genres of dance and songs, and hundreds of people in the production. There were all kinds of famous performers, from throat singers to opera singers.

It was amazing, a true highlight. Now we wished we could find that couple again so we could thank them. They made our trip to Ulaanbaatar and they don’t even know it!

We finished the day with a couple of beers and reflected upon our luck and then returned to the area around our guesthouse. We tried to get dinner, but two places sat us down, gave us a menu and came back to get our order only to reply “no food”. After a frustrating few hours trying to find a place with food or something that was open, we ended up in the Korean place opposite our guesthouse. The food was delicious, we should have gone straight there. Exhausted, we crashed in our strange little moldy room.

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Taitung to Taipei

Leaving Taitung

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This morning we had another blah breakfast at the hotel, checked out, and then walked to the bus station to catch the shuttle bus to the train station. The shuttle bus ($24 TWD pp) was supposed to take 15 minutes, but it took nearly 25 minutes, which left us with about 10 minutes to find the ticket booth in the station (which was under construction) and buy our tickets to Fangliao ($172 TWD pp). From there, we would catch the bus to Hengchun. Of course, there was a lineup at the ticket booth, and there were only two sales attendants working! After some anxious moments, we did get our tickets and made it on the train with three minutes to spare. Since the trains leave on the dot, that was a bit too close for comfort.

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The train ride took approximately two hours and ran through some very scenic patches en route to Fangliao. When we arrived in Fangliao, we went to the bus stop just down the street (left at the 7/11). They directed us down the street and across the road where the bus was already waiting–perfect timing, as the bus departed about five minutes after we hopped on.

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The bus ride to Hengchun was about an hour and a half, which felt a lot longer without a toilet on board! From the bus station, it was only a couple minutes walk to our accommodation, Sineya II. When we got there, we had a moment of deja vu–the door was locked, there wasn’t any sign out front, and no one was answering the door. I had booked the N22 fiasco in Taitung, which had started out the same way, and to redeem myself, I booked this one…which was also starting out inauspiciously. Fortunately, the door had a keypad lock, and Rebecca hit the enter key…and the door unlocked! Inside, there was a phone number posted on the wall, so we called it and Olivia, the owner, answered. She came straight away to check us in.

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Olivia was a whirlwind of ideas and suggestions. Her English was excellent, and after she checked us in, she took us out onto the street to show us the best duck and noodle restaurants (both on her street) as well as the best dumpling restaurant just around the corner. Afterward, she took us to a charming double room upstairs. We literally had the place to ourselves (note: There are no staff there other than when you check in. After that, you are on your own. You definitely need a phone.), so they upgraded us for free. The sheets were entertaining, and the beer decorations and interesting brickwork, tiling, etc. made for a quaint, comfortable room.

That day we wandered around town, finding two of the four ancient gates of the (formerly) walled old town. Our hotel was in an excellent location, and we had a pretty good idea of the old town after an hour or so of wandering. Dinner was a progressive meal, starting with the duck place and ending with the dumpling place. The duck restaurant was right across the street from the hotel, and it was busy.

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We managed to get one of the last tables, and the token one employee with a bit of English helped us order. We ordered duck with rice and duck noodle soup. When I asked the waiter if they had anything else other than what was on the menu (it seemed rather limited), he took me to the glassed-in counter facing the street and gave me a basket and some tongs to add anything else to the meal. Inside the cabinet were the remaining parts of the ducks–heads, offals, and some other parts I couldn’t identify.

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I think I was supposed to put whichever of these I wanted in the basket, and they would cook them up for us as well. Instead, as tempting as those mystery parts were, I asked him if they had any vegetables. He looked a bit perplexed for a moment, but then the light went on he hurried away. When he returned, he showed me a bean sprout–just one–and told me that was all they had in the way of vegetables. We stuck with our original two dishes.

The duck was okay, but there wasn’t much of it, and it was more rubbery skin and bones than meat. Following the table manners of the other patrons, we left a pile of duck bones and uneaten skin on the tabletop, paid, and headed out.

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The dumplings place was our next stop, and we had some yummy pork dumplings to complete our meal.

After dinner, we wandered around some more, pretty much seeing the majority of the old town. Some of the highlights were the sections of the old wall, the ubiquitous cats (one of which I discovered the hard way definitely did not like having his belly rubbed), rows of pinwheels strung above the streets for blocks in all directions, and the public dancercize aerobics in an open square in front of a small temple.

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We finished off with a coffee and cookie just up from the aerobics square at Spoon cafe. It was a very cute, retro cafe that extended back to an outdoor area lit by fairy lights. After that, we meandered home and called it a night.

DAY 2

We had a bit of a slow start today, and since there was no breakfast option where we were staying, we went out in search of a breakfast restaurant or street stall. Which we could not find. Instead, we ended up having an odd assortment of baked goods (a piece of poppy seed loaf and some biscuits) and coffee at the Onion bakery. After that rather disappointing breakfast, we went back to the hotel as Olivia had said the day before that she could help us rent a scooter.

Scooter Rental Part 2

Once again we were worried about the expired Vietnamese license but thought we’d try. If we failed with the scooter we were going to get electric bikes. Olivia arranged for the scooter hire–they came in a car and took us to the rental shop, and Olivia followed on her scooter. She acted as a translator for us, and everything went smoothly. The “boss” asked for neither my license, nor my passport, which was probably due in part to his trust in Olivia…which we felt a bit guilty about. There were three sizes/strengths of scooters, but since the boss assured us the smallest (and cheapest) was powerful enough for the two of us, we took that. We had to fill up the scooter at the gas station up the road (50 TWD), and then we made a break for it in case the boss realized he had forgotten to check my license!

Rebecca had read some really helpful blogs the day before, and based on the photos, we decided to head out on a southern-east coastal route. Sail Rock was our first stop, but it was little more than a photo op.

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Following Sail Rock was Shell Beach. Again, this was basically just a photo op, as you aren’t actually allowed to set foot on the beach! They want to conserve it, so the entire beach has been fenced off. Having been to Shell Beach in Western Australia, which spans some 60 kilometers, this beach was picturesque, but only worth a brief stop.

Our next stop was at Elumbi. Rather than going directly to the Lighthouse with the busloads of tourists, we did things in reverse and began with the walk through some of the trails. Despite the warning sign about snakes and poisonous insects (it was a bit vague about what kinds), the walk was very tranquil and critter-less. Set amongst the trees, the paths came out to ocean views, one of which was the Kissing Rock.

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When we eventually came out of the forest, we walked up a grassy hill, past the obligatory wedding photo shoot, and up to the lighthouse for another beautiful photo.  

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Following Elumbi, we continued on to the southernmost point of Taiwan for a photo with its monument. We parked the scooter in the designated parking lot and walked down…what turned out to be a 20-minute walk. In the sweltering heat. For future reference, you do not have to park your scooter in the parking lot. Much to our chagrin, there were many scooters already parked at the bottom of the hill, right in front of the entrance to the path leading to the monument and the tip of the island!

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The monument was interesting, and there was a nice view of the ocean. More importantly, however, after taking my photo of the monument with Groundskeeper Willie that I always travel with, I met a like-minded travelled who photographs her own two miniature characters. I’m not the only one!

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After a photo with all three of our characters, Rebecca and I headed out. Walking along the stifling hot concrete walkway, we stopped to look at a crab sidewinding it across our path. We also saw a strange creature that looked like a scorpion. It had leathery looking pincers, but it didn’t have a tail or stinger. Unfortunately, it rushed off into the grass before I could snap a picture of it.

Outside the entrance, silently cursing those who had the foresight to park right there, we walked up the hill (still in the intense heat) back to the largely empty parking lot, hopped on our scooter, and continued along our way.

Seeing as we were at the southernmost point, we headed north along the east coast, through the Longpan Park area. We stopped at a couple of areas where scooters and busses had randomly pulled off the road, suggesting there was something to see.

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The views at these vantage points were stunning!

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Rolling green fields and hills gave way to gently sloping cliffs which met the ocean, culminating in dramatic drops at some points and pebbly beaches in others.

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We started snapping away, but I ran into a roadblock when there was a guy in the way of that perfect photo. I try as much as possible to wait until other tourists move out of the frame of my photos (which has occasionally annoyed Rebecca), so I waited while he took selfie after selfie to get the perfect shot himself. When he showed no signs that the perfect photo was coming any time soon, I offered to take a photo of him. A couple of different angles, and he was a happy man. He left, and I could finally get my own photos. I was a selfish hero!

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Towards the end of our second stop, we watched heavy rains start to come inland from the ocean. The rain was a curtain, and in our wisdom, we decided to hop on the scooter and outrun the storm, rather than put our rain ponchos on. Yes, in hindsight that was a poor decision. We got a bit wet en route to the next pebble beach view up the road. By the time we got there, however, the rain had stopped, and thinking the storm had passed us, we got back to the business of photographing the landscape. I noticed a little old Taiwanese man putting on his rain poncho, but didn’t register that when a local does that we should be thinking about doing likewise. When we did notice that the rain seemed to be getting close again, it was too late. We got soaked! After hastily tossing our cameras and phones into the compartment under the scooter’s seat, we set to work trying to get our rain ponchos on. When we eventually managed to pull them on, they clung to our wet clothes like cling wrap, and Rebecca had torn a hole in hers. And it stopped raining almost immediately.

The next little town welcomed us with its suspension bridge. We stopped me for a quick look and while we did so, the little old man, dry in his poncho, stopped to take a gander with us. We then turned right into the tiny village and followed that road until it came to a national park entrance. We considered going in, but thought the entrance fee (80 TWD for the scooter and then another 140 TWD per person) was a bit much…and we were soaked and due for a break.  Turning around, we saw the old dude pull up to the entrance and likewise check out the entrance fees. Coincidence?!

We stopped at a burger shack in the town. While there, we took in the sights…which consisted of surfer dudes with their bronzed bodies and surfer dudettes with their equally bronzed bodies in skimpy bikinis. Our luck with the weather continued at this stop when it poured again, but for once we weren’t scooting in it!  After the rain ended, we headed back via Manjhou into Hengchun. On the way we passed the old dude and exchanged horn toots and friendly waves; that was the last we saw of our travelling companion.

By the time we got back into Hengchun, the gas symbol and the final bar of the gage was flickering off and on, so of course, what did we do? We decided to look for the Brewseum! This was recommended to us by friends, and despite having a screenshot of it on a google map, we could not find it.

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Can you see a “purpose built” brewery in this street?

We spent nearly half an hour going up and down the road it was supposed to be on, continuing down the road beyond the point where it turned into a dirt road and ended in a field, turning around and looking down other nearby roads, etc. Our luck of the day held out when Rebecca’s phone died, so we couldn’t use google maps or look up images of the building online to hunt it down. The street had a guest house, a cement factory, and some other industrial buildings, but no purpose-built Brewseum.

Defeated and dejected, we substituted the Brewseum for a McDonald’s sundae. It was right there…and easy to find.

We were driving on fumes at this point but fortunately made it to a gas station. As the scooter was nearly empty when I got it, I didn’t want to put too much gas in, so I put 30 TWD in. When I turned into afterward, however, the light was still flashing, so I put another 30 TWD in it.  As I drove away, the light went off and it showed a full tank. DOH! Yes it was only $2, but it was the principle of the matter.

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Returning to our guesthouse with numb butts, we dropped the scooter off and grabbed dinner. We had some dumplings around the corner and then picked up Demon chicken from a stall just up the street. The Demon chicken was okay, but not as spicy as its name suggested.

Before packing it in, Rebecca booked our High Speed Rail HSR tickets through Klook (saved us $20 USD–$80 instead of $100) from Kaohsiung back to Taipei. The tickets were not for a fixed time, and buses from Hengchun to Kaohsiung ran fairly regularly, so we didn’t have to book a train time in advance. While she did that, I hunted down the Brewseum online! Eventually, I found pictures of the outside of the building and the front gates with an address on them. Tomorrow would be a new day! And we had a full tank of gas.

DAY 3 Departure Day

Today we got up early and because of the previous day’s lack of success with finding a local restaurant that does breakfast (or that is even open before 11:00) we had a rare McDonald’s breakfast. We knew from yesterday’s odyssey that the Brewseum street was nearby as well, so after breakfast we went back there. And we found it!  But it didn’t open until 11:00. That was cutting it close because we had to check out of our guesthouse by noon, but it still was enough time to see its mural (more on this later) and do a quick tasting of its craft beers.

Our main destination for the morning was actually to the Ocean Park, so we headed off in search of that. On the way Rebecca spotted some houses that looked like they were in trees, so we made a detour back into an area off the main road where there were indeed houses in trees being built. Only, the trees were man-made and together with the crazy houses they supported, were a little Alice in Wonderlandish. The construction workers were eager to wave and yell out “hello” to us, and as we were leaving, we ran into the proud owner who was dropping off some boxes to the workers. He had very little English but was able to communicate that they were his and there would be four in total. He was very friendly and didn’t seem the least bit concerned that we were snooping around his private property taking pictures of his houses under construction.

Next stop:  Ocean Park.

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There was a little bit of confusion about the park entrance, as you first come upon the research entrance. The actual ocean park entrance is just down the road from this. Once in the parking lot, we parked the scooter only to have an attendant, panicked, hop on his scooter and beeline towards us, indicating with his little orange traffic baton that scooters were supposed to park in a different area. He looked much relieved when we got back on the scooter and moved it to the properly designated parking area.

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Tickets were 450 TWD, but they were worth it. There were some cool statues like the life-sized whales in the wading pool, and a huge statue out back of several squid swimming amongst ocean plant life. The aquarium itself consisted of massive tanks that you walked through in glass tunnels. Tranquil music played, and the graceful stingrays flying through the water and over your head in the tunnels were magical; however, the serenity was shattered as small groups/families crowded the tunnel, shouting and posing for selfies and group photos right where you happen to be trying to take your own photo.

There were some performances as well. They had two beluga whales that were curious about the tourists in the tunnel, and they played with some buoys in their tank while an employee talked nonstop for about ten minutes straight. We have no idea what she was saying about the belugas, but it was loud and sounded important.

Similarly, there was a puffin penguin feeding time, and the two women doing that (one inside the enclosure feeding them and the other outside) spoke as rapidly as auctioneers. The two of them also had the volume turned up loud enough to drown out a football stadium of cheering spectators, even though the audience only consisted of Rebecca, myself, and one other family.

Regardless of the auditory assault, the puffin penguins were cute to watch frolicking and flying through the water. There were also macaroni penguins, sporting their funky yellow crests, in the same tank. In the more spacious tank beside these, the larger king penguins zipped through the water while workers made snow/ice using a giant fire man’s hose.

We looked at a few more tanks, one with creepy moray eels, and another with massive, ancient looking arapaima fish (the largest freshwater fish in the world), before heading out.

It was nearly 11:00:  beer o’clock time at the Brewseum!

Having reconnoitered the Brewseum’s location first thing this morning, we had no problem making our way back.  However, despite the posted opening hours, the Brewseum was not open today!  The entrance is along the side of the building, and after checking that, I continued to the back of the building where the shipping dock was open.  I poked around a bit, looking for someone, and wandered down the corridor to the main part of the Brewseum.  I had called out, “Hello” a few times, and eventually a man appeared and told me they were closed today.  It turns out he was the owner, and after explaining our efforts to find his Brewseum the previous day, and adding that Rebecca is an art teacher interested in seeing his Mona Lisa made out of beer labels, he let us come in for a look.  

Along one wall of the Brewseum is a display of glasses from 3,000 breweries around the world.  The class mugs form the backdrop, while the ceramic steins spell out “BEER.”  On the end wall there is a huge mural of the Mona Lisa made out of thousands of international beer labels.  It was pretty impressive and definitely worth a look.  The Brewseum also houses the world’s oldest bottle of beer somewhere, though we didn’t actually see it.  

Had the Brewseum been officially open, we would have sampled a few of their craft beers, which would have been a treat.  However, we really didn’t have much time anyway, as we had to check out from our guest house and catch a bus and then a train back to Taipei.  We were able to buy a couple of cans of their beers to take with us, however, so at least we could try some later.

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The Brewseum was only about a 5 minute drive to our guest house, and since the scooter rental place was along the way, we returned our scooter first.  The rental guy took a cursory look at the scooter, and that was about all the return process involved.  He then gave us a ride back to our guest house where we packed up and checked out (We had called Olivia to check out, and she sent her son over with the cleaning staff.).

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We walked to bus station, about 5 minutes away, and caught the shuttle bus that took us to Kaohsiung (about a 2.5 hour drive) where we would catch the high speed rail train back to Taipei. We had purchased the train tickets through Klook last night, saving about $20 USD (2350 TWD for 2 people $40 per person), and after a brief hiccup picking up the tickets in the station, we caught the 3:25 pm- 5.40pm Taipei train.  We could have caught another one that was a bit later but about 40 minutes shorter, but since we would just be sitting in the train station waiting if we did that, we decided to catch the earlier, longer train.

I love the signs they post on the trains to make travellers aware of the dangers of texting while moving around the train stations.  The best is the “Stop Phubbing” poster, which we assumed was a mistranslation of “texting.”  The Grim Reaper eagerly anticipating the consequences of someone who is preoccupied with texting is another favourite.

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When we arrived in Taipei, we checked into our new place, Morwing Hotel (approx. $55 USD/night).  No, that’s not a typo–it is actually “Morwing,” not “Morning.”  This was right on the food street, and it was just down from the main Taipei Train Station, which would be handy for catching the train to the airport when we left.  It also had the added benefit of providing free laundry service (washer, dryer, and soap included).  Serendipity!  The night clerk was excellent, putting our clothes in the dryer for us when the wash cycle was finished and calling us to let us know when everything was dry.  It had been a while since we did laundry, so this was a huge bonus.  We ate street food that night and then packed it in.

Second-last day in Taiwan

We had a lazy start this morning, and after getting a metro day pass, we took the train out to the Jiufen old town.  Outside the train station, we took a shuttle bus (caught just up the street from the station on the right) to the actual old town.  When we got onto the bus, I asked the driver about paying–most people were zapping what I presume was a bus pass–but he impatiently waved us on.  The bus ride was about 20 minutes, and when we got there we tried to pay again, but he ignored us so…free ride!  

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The old town was set on a hillside with a beautiful view over the landscape and water, though the streets were so narrow that you couldn’t really appreciate the view until you walked a fair way into the warren of shops and small restaurants to a lookout.  There were many shops that sold clothing, food, or tea/tea sets, and there were two unusual shops that sold pillows with cat caricatures printed on them–the fact that this shop had enough business for two locations was somewhat disturbing.  

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We explored the old town for a few hours and then caught the bus back to the train station.  This time we did have to pay for the bus ride…30 TWD for two of us.  It made our free ride up to the old town seem a bit less gratifying since it was so cheap.  Prior to heading south along the East coast of Taiwan, we had considered staying in Jiufen.  However, after our visit today, we were thankful that we had decided not to do that because there really wasn’t much to do in Jiufen; a few hours was more than enough time here.  

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At the bus station, we bought train tickets to continue on to the Shifen waterfalls.  The stop was at Pingxi, and the station there reminded us of the Maeklong Railway Market in Thailand because the station it ends at is small and outdoors.  People scurried off the tracks as the train pulled in, and they immediately went back on them after the train passed by.  This is where tourists can send off huge lanterns (about 1 meter tall) like they do in Thailand. Before releasing them, however, they paint them with wishes and messages.  

When we arrived at the station, we took a quick look around and then caught a taxi to the waterfalls, which were a short distance away.  The waterfalls were by no means huge, but they were picturesque, and we had a tranquil walk along the pathways leading to the falls.  There are lookout areas at the top of the falls, and there are three or four other lookouts at various heights descending towards the bottom of the falls.  After taking a few photos, we walked back to the train station, which only took about 15 minutes.  We watched the lantern festivities while we waited for the return train, and at one point we watched as a fleet of about 40 or 50 lanterns were let off all at once somewhere down the tracks–it was spectacular…especially as some of the lanterns caught fire and came down like the Hindenburg!  

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After the train and subway back to our hotel, we had some final street food for dinner, put some odds and ends in the laundry (the night clerk totally took care of that again), and packed up for tomorrow’s trip.

 

Taitung to Kenting (Hengchun)

During our last morning in Hualien we just relaxed and chatted to a couple of very interesting backpackers. They certainly had some incredible stories about countries I have never heard of, or thought of going to like, North Korea. I had forgotten how fun it was to chat to like-minded people in hostels. I haven’t backpacked for a very long time. I still cherish those friendships I made backpacking through Africa, South America and Turkey. I can’t believe that was 15 years ago!!
One thing we have been aware of, after our first hotel in Taiwan is the late check-in of 3pm, so we have been trying to check out a little later and catch an afternoon train, so that we arrive around 3pm. It’s actually quite nice because we can have a relaxed breakfast, pack up and head to the train station 30mins before our train and then there is no waiting on the other end.


This time we caught the normal 12:12 TRA 3hr train to Taitung. We arrived on the dot, after a spectacular (mountains on both sides) and very relaxing train ride. This is seriously the best way to travel in Taiwan!
The train station in Taitung was under construction, so we followed everyone else straight to the taxis. We were booked into a hostel called N22.


The taxi dropped us off in a random backstreet which matched the address they had listed. However, there was no sign, no people, and no way for us to call them. We rang the doorbell multiple times and nothing. It was really strange. There were no taxis and we were in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, the lady who dropped us off pulled up with a passenger and tried to help us by calling the hostel. She didn’t speak any English so it was really hard to explain. They told us to put our bags in the back and to hop in. It turned out the hostel was in a completely different location and was 15 kms away from the city centre, despite the “great location” reviews on Booking.com. After checking in, Greg asked about hiring a scooter and we were told we couldn’t without an international or Taiwanese driver’s license. The hotel worker offered to cancel our booking without penalty, and since we were so far out we decided it wasn’t worth it, so requested to cancel the booking. We ended up making a last-minute booking at Home Rest Hotel which was double the price (just under $100 USD for two nights) but very central. If it was true that we couldn’t get a scooter, then we would need access by foot or public transport, and N22 was nowhere near that.


While we were waiting for confirmation of the fee-free cancellation, two adorable ladies offered us a ride to town, as they had just hired a car. They didn’t speak any English either but were all smiles and giggles. I was a little worried about her not knowing her way around but google maps solved that. They dropped us to our hotel after quite an entertaining drive and a lot of laughter. They were so incredibly sweet. We really appreciated it because we had already paid twice for the taxi to N22. Since this was over a 15min drive it saved us one more fare. Check-in was easy at the new place, but no one spoke English so we couldn’t ask about scooters etc. English (both spoken and written on signs) seems to be less and less prevalent as we head further south. The hotel room smelt a little smoky, but otherwise it was fine–the beds were comfortable, the shower was good, and the location was fantastic. Note: breakfast was not good and coffee tasted strange.


Since most of the day was wasted on N22, we decided to get out straight away and see what we could find. We walked aimlessly to begin with, and then we had noodle soup in a very local place, which actually had an English menu, so we were very lucky! While we were waiting I checked out the map and realized we weren’t far from the beach, so we decided that could be our next stop. The beach once again was not that great, but the parks (that were most left natural), the trails, and the boardwalks were absolutely stunning.


We went for a very long walk through sea view park and then found an entrance to what looked like a national park with a very appealing bike trail. Unfortunately, it closed at 7:00 pm, so we only had 30 minutes in there, but it was beautiful.



We managed to walk to the first lake. The sun was setting, and the backdrop consisted of mountains and trees that were rather unique because a typhoon had snapped off most of their tops and bigger limbs. It was an incredible setting. I really didn’t want to stop walking but didn’t want to get locked in there either, so we kept an eye on the time and made our way out exactly on 7:00 pm. We then had a fairly long walk back to the hotel. Since it was dark it was easier to see which eateries were popular with the locals. This is often how we choose where to eat.
DAY 2 

As mentioned earlier, we began the day with a terrible breakfast of oily eggs, a strange tofu dish, cold French toast, bacon wrapped pineapple, very rubbery dim sum, and some non-descript fried thing (maybe sweet potato or tofu). We then headed to the bank which was around the corner, to exchange money. There was an old man with a cute little baby girl who he thought should be hanging out with us. He kept putting the child next to Greg on the spare seat and walking away. She’d chase him and he’d bring her back. He wanted her to show us her squeaky shoes. Funny enough, she actually stayed next to Greg when the man went to the counter and then didn’t want to leave. So cute.


I managed to get a coffee that was significantly better than the one in the hotel. Then we continued to the bus station, which was not far from us. The heat was excessive already. We were seriously sweating by the time we got to the station. We needed to get a bus ticket to Luye Gaotai for the hot air balloon festival, a day pass for the local bus, and a bus ticket to Kenting. Yet again, no one spoke English and the timetables were all in Chinese. After a while of Greg trying to communicate with the woman behind the counter while I tried to figure things out online, the lady pointed Greg to a stop sign for the bus that went to the festival. She also pointed to the building behind the station, which turned out to be the information center.


I can not tell you how happy we were with this place. The new woman’s English was outstanding, and she was able to answer all of our questions. It was absolutely brilliant. Just wish we had started there earlier. A really cool thing about the buses here is that you buy the ticket on board so we didn’t need to negotiate, google translate, or line up for any tickets at all. We even got tomorrow’s trip sorted out. She gave us the times for the train and the buses.


We had 3 hours before heading to the balloons (note: if you are there for the festival, July to August, the festival times are from 5am-8am and 5pm-8pm). There is a shuttle tourist bus which leaves directly outside the info center/bus station, one of the most convenient times for us was at 4pm and returned at 7pm. You’ll arrive to the balloons around 5:05pm, which is when they are starting to inflate them, and take off is at 5:30pm. You can pay to ride one or you can just view them.


Before the bus departure we wandered around the art railway which is a mini sculpture park with historical trains and tracks, and handmade lanterns hanging from the trees. I enjoyed seeing the sculptures and the atmosphere of this place as I could really imagine it happening at night time. There is a special music area too. We were planning to come here at night anyway and just wanted to see where to go.


Whilst walking around I was drawn to a couple of pagodas and temples and a hill. Of course it had trails so Greg and I decided to climb them in the scorching heat. It wasn’t too difficult but there were many stairs. The first viewing platform was not too far away and the views were gorgeous. Despite our paranoia after seeing the sign warning to beware of snakes, we thankfully didn’t see any along the trail.


Feeling proud of ourselves for unexpectedly hiking, we rewarded ourselves with a/c and a Frappuccino at Starbucks. I never drink these drinks, but have to say it was AMAZING!


Our last accidental stop was an amazing art center, National Taitung Living Art Center. The first exhibit was still being set up, but was spectacular. The designs were absolutely gorgeous It was a huge inspiration for my teaching, and I honestly could have bought many pieces if they were for sale.


I loved the variety from ceramics to lamps to painting. The second exhibit in another room had incredible landscapes which looked like paintings but when you get up close, they’re actually coloured rice papers and tissue papers layered. The details were phenomenal.
We arrived at the bus station at 3:40, so waited in their cool waiting room until our 4pm bus to the balloon festival. The drive was absolutely stunning, so incredibly scenic with its lush greens, layered mountains as far as you can see, and empty river beds. As we turned in towards the mountains the clouds hung over the mountains and transformed into greys like a monochromatic painting. As soon as we entered Luye the rains began to pelt. Greg and I were concerned that this event was not going to happen. As we went up towards the highland the rains got heavier. Now, we were just hoping we could stay on the bus and go back. We didn’t want to get out. There were no balloons, only an empty, wet, large green field. The bus driver came up smiling saying “mao” meaning “no” balloons.


Everyone stayed on the bus. We sat there for an hour in the hope it would clear…well, the bus driver did that was not our choice. Then the bus loaded with drenched passengers who weren’t as lucky as us and had gotten caught in it. Finally, we were on our way back, disappointed we didn’t see any balloons, but relieved we didn’t get wet, and happy that it was a scenic drive.


We returned to see the lanterns in the art railway lit up, but then it started to rain in town, so we just made our way back to the hotel and ate noodles from a busy local restaurant across the road. Overall it was an awesome day despite not seeing the balloons. We knew it was weather dependent, and because it’s in the mountains you just don’t know what to expect. The funny thing was, while we were looking at the torrential rain, a lady in charge of the buses came on and showed us her stunning blue sky photos and a video of the balloons from that morning. She was being kind, but it was a bit of a tease. She said we should go on the morning bus at 4:20am, but we just don’t know. If the weather was like that a second time, and I was super tired from the early start, it might not be a good combination. That would mean getting up at 3am–I don’t think we can honestly do that. At least we tried. This is what it should have looked like: https://www.eventaiwan.tw/cal_en/cal_20022. I would say if you are planning to see this, the morning is probably more likely to be clear than the afternoon. If we had one more day we would have taken the 4:30am bus!

Incredible Nature at Taroko 

We caught the 11:55 TRA express train from Taipei to Hualien, which took 3 hours. It was very comfortable and a very easy process. You can book online and collect the tickets from FamilyMart or 7/11. There is a machine there where you enter your passport number and booking number. It prints a voucher, which you take to the counter, pay $16 and they print the actual train tickets. It’s amazing. The only tricky part is it’s all in Chinese, so if you are lucky someone at FamilyMart will help you. If they don’t then offline Google translate is brilliant.


Once we arrived to Hualien, we caught a taxi to the hostel “Hey Yo Hostel” very easily. It cost 150 ($5). The manager of the hostel was out, but his friend let us in and we found our room, which was a spacious double room with a bathroom, a/c and a TV. It was 2 streets back from the beach and is on the same street as the night market, which was actually a brilliant location once we got our bearings. It also had a small art gallery at the entrance which was rather unique for a hostel.


We walked along the beach to the night market, had a snack and then continued on to Dos Tacos–we were craving some fresh Mexican food. I know, with all this incredible food why would we do that? Margaritas and burritos were calling me. It was actually a long walk from the accommodation but helped with getting our bearings for the next day. The food was very fresh but not quite authentic Mexican, more like home cooked Mexican. We still enjoyed the cold beer (unfortunately the Margaritas were too expensive) nachos, and burrito. I was too full for the fried ice cream with Kahlua and caramel, which I was a bit gutted about. It was a long but interesting walk back to the hostel.
Day 2 



After a little bit of miscommunication, we finally figured out the best place to get a scooter which was from around the train station. We were a bit worried about not having an international driver’s license, and to make things worse, Greg realized his Vietnamese one was expired. So we were hoping they’d only look at the passport.
SUCCESS! They looked at the passport, asked for an international license and then took the Vietnamese one. They took a photocopy of the license, but didn’t notice it was expired so we drove off quickly before they noticed. It was rather a relief once we had driven off. 24hrs scooter hire costs 350 (approx $12) in this area and because of the extreme heat it is totally worth it. You get a breeze and can get to places quicker than walking not to mention you can explore the countryside.


Our first stop and main goal for the afternoon was to visit Liyu Lake. This was certainly worth the trip, but if you are exploring other areas too, it’s not worth a full day trip, as it is not that big. However for a short stop it is lovely and something different to see.


I loved how it was backdropped by the mountains. The drive to get there was very scenic too. There is an hour walk around the perimeter, and some trails you can do if you do want to make a day of it, but hiking in Taroko would be more spectacular.
After we left the lake we didn’t really have a plan so drove into the tiny Shoufeng Township. There wasn’t much to see except daily life. It was also clouding over and starting to rain so we weren’t sure whether to wait there or continue. We continued in the direction of Fongtian. Since the rain got heavier we stopped at a FamilyMart for a drink and Greg’s favourite (from living in China), green tea eggs. We bypassed Fongtian community, and looped back towards the coast road, in the direction of Hualien. We passed the huge Farglory ocean park, which I’m sure would be a fun stop if you had kids with you, as it looked like an amusement park.


We went to the distillery, which was surprisingly difficult to find, even with the signage. By the time we got there, however, they were closing. We sampled two of their rice wines, but that was it. They also brewed craft beers, but that was in another part of the huge complex, and they closed before we got there.
Overall, the scenery was interesting and quite varied, from stunning nature to factories, temples and little towns. We didn’t really know where to go as far as what to look at, but with a bit more time it sounds like there are some interesting trails, parks and traditional towns to visit. But not in this heat.


We returned to town, had a beer and stopped for more western food at Salt Lick. Greg had ribs and I had brisket.


It was delicious but very expensive, so tomorrow, and for the rest of the trip, it will be delicious street food again. While we were waiting for our food, I booked our next train tickets online again. This time we were off to Taitung. We decided we could spend our last 4 days exploring the south or spend more time in the coastal route between Taitung and Hualien.

After driving around town for a bit we then stopped at a FamilyMart and picked up our tickets. This time we had to use Google translate because the boy couldn’t help us. He was very young and went straight into the panicked “I can’t even try to understand you and you’re freaking me out” mode when we first asked for help. We were very proud of our success, and the boy looked a little surprised to see us back with the voucher! Our sense of accomplishment was diminished somewhat when we went to our scooter only to discover that Greg had left his bag on the scooter the whole time we were getting our tickets! Luckily, his bag hadn’t been touched.


We stopped in at the packed night market on the way home. After safely (albeit accidentally) leaving his bag unattended outside FamilyMart, Greg ironically felt a tug on his backpack in the crowds at the market. When he checked it, the zipper had been opened, but fortunately nothing had been taken. Despite the awesome music, Greg was a bit paranoid after that, and he wanted to leave. Those kind of things are hard to get out of your head. It was a close call.
Other than the bag incident, it was an incredible day. We thoroughly enjoyed today mostly because of the freedom the scooter gave us.
Day 3 TAROKO gorge



After reading multiple blogs, we splurged and hired a car via Klook. It cost $80 for 8 hours and the driver was awesome. He took us everywhere we wanted to go, and used Google translate to communicate with us. It was a spectacular day which made our entire trip to Taiwan utterly worth it.
All the blogs we read said how stunning and incredibly huge the gorge is, and that photos don’t do it justice. Well, I have to say they are absolutely spot on! It is a spectacular place with the most amazing trails for all ability levels. I would recommend a car too because you can stop whenever and wherever you want. Also, when you get back from a trail you can pump up the a/c. The car can drop you off in one spot and pick you up in another, whereas the bus you have to time right, as they only come by every hour. If you miss one, you are stuck in that heat. A car allows you to relax and go at your own pace.

Our first stop was a must-see viewing point of Qingshui Cliffs. From the car park it was a 5 min walk to the viewing platform. This is when we really felt the heat! You don’t need to spend very long there, unless you want to read all the signs, which are in Chinese and English.


Our first trail after entering the gorge was called Shakadang Trail. This was absolutely spectacular. You go down 8-9 flights of stairs to reach the path. For the entire time the trees and the paths cut into the edge of the rock provided glorious shade, which kept me in a good mood! Lucky Greg! You walk pretty much ground level following the river all the way.


It was very relaxed, not too crowded and an absolutely stunning walk. This was the first time we could see the turquoise colour of the water.


There were huge spiders, some the size of your hand, hanging above in the trees; along as they stayed there, they didn’t bother us. It was a bit of a game to see who could find the biggest one. I think Greg won. I loved how the terrain changed from a concrete path with overhanging rock, to a rocky path next to foliage, and then a dirt-rock path with trees. The river was next to you the whole time.


Anyone of any fitness level and age can do this walk. It is an easy flat walk (except for the stairs in and out), and definitely should not be missed.


Our next stop was the Swallow Grotto so called because the swallows nest in the tunnels there. It is recommended to wear hard hats. They are given to you for free just before you enter. They are optional, but better to be safe than sorry. They are for the possible falling rocks. This is another super easy walk with spectacular views.


We were dropped off at the entrance, and you follow the path through several tunnels (all were well lit). This is higher up so you have a magnificent view of the gushing water below and the most impressive view of the smooth, giant walls of the cliffs.


This is where you really grasp the actual scale of the gorge. As other bloggers said, you really can’t capture its magnificence. We walked for 30 minutes and met our driver at the end.


I personally loved the trails where you were dropped off at one point and picked up at another, so you didn’t have to backtrack.
We stopped at Tianxiang for lunch where we ordered our favourite, dumplings with bamboo rice and fried noodles on the side. It was a busy stop where most people pull in for lunch. The restaurant owners meet you at the car and throw their menus at you, which is a little annoying, but I guess they have to get your attention somehow. It’s pretty competitive there. Having said that, we intentionally went to a restaurant that did not do that. After our meal, we got our drinks at FamilyMart. They are seriously everywhere, and so convenient. I have never truly appreciated them before Taiwan.


One of the trails we wanted to do with the water curtain was closed, so our driver dropped us off at Lushui trail and met us at Heliu campground. We knew nothing about this trail but it was absolutely brilliant. You go through a 30m dark cave where a torch is needed (phone was fine for this) then you pop out above the winding roads and river.


Looking up you are completely surrounded by mountains, a looking down is a fabulous view of the bendy roads and gushing water. It was really worthwhile. There is a small hike up but then it is a very easy, spectacular 50 minute walk.



Cimu suspension bridge
was next. This had great views and only 8 people at a time were allowed on. We were so lucky it was quiet, because a tour bus arrived 5 minutes after. In fact we seemed to be ahead of all the buses for the whole day. It was so much quieter than what I had expected.


Our last stop inside Taroko gorge was for a photo at Changchun Shrine. Unfortunately, the trail was closed due to reconstruction. You could walk up to the bell tower, but we were pretty hot and tired by then, so declined.


The final stop before our hostel was Qixintan beach. It’s a well known pebble beach which has some beautiful landscape, gardens, and bicycle paths.


It was extremely hot still, so we only stayed there for 20 minutes. Coming from Australia, it is not that great of a beach, so I wouldn’t go out of your way to see it. Since we were quick, we managed to return on the dot of 4:00 pm, which made it exactly an 8 hour trip.


We rested, cooled off, and then headed out to one of the famous dumpling places in town, which once again didn’t have any English menus, however, as Greg got his phone out for Google translate, a lovely young girl came over and asked if she could help us.


Taiwanese people are so incredibly friendly and some are exceptionally caring. We got the best dishes and figured out what and how to pay because of this lovely girl who just happened to be eating there. She couldn’t quite sell us on the soy milk drink, however!

We followed our dumplings with a cheap beer in FamilyMart, and then walked back to the hostel. It was a great day. However, summer is an exceptionally hot time to travel in Taiwan. I would LOVE to return during cooler weather sometime, maybe to see blossoms or the autumn leaves.

4 Days in Taipei


Our accommodation was: Flinders Hotel- $60 a night, which was very close to the NTU Hospital subway stop.


The reception was in an awesome basement hangout area, which had free snacks, coffee, popcorn, instant noodles, soft drinks all day. It had very trendy decore, with couches, tables, coloured walls, sculptures, and a variety of games. In the cafe next to the basement lounge, they even played movies on the wall from 5pm to 5am! We have never experienced a place like this before.


Our only big complaint was the check in hour. It was 3pm, and they don’t budge on that. We flew through the night so were absolutely exhausted, we arrived at 9 am and had to wait until 3pm. After several pots of noodles, snacks, coffee, a game of chess and multiple games of darts it was finally time to check in. We were too tired to go exploring so this day was a bit of a waste.


Having said that, however, we did explore the nearby Nanyang food street and had pork Katsu Curry for dinner. It was a bit of research for tomorrow!

DAY 2 Taipei

Having pretty much wasted day one of our Taipei 3-day travel card (440 TWD each), since we spent most of yesterday trying to stay awake until we could check in at 3:00, we decided to make the most of it today…that is after we got some laundry done! After Myanmar, we were pretty much recycling our clothes, so it really was the priority. Our hotel didn’t have a laundry service, but they did point us to a coin-operated laundromat a few blocks up in the camera district. It was in a little alley off Sec. 1, Kaifeng St.


The wash cycle took about 40 minutes, which was just enough time for delicious beef noodle soup and some pork and curried pork dumplings in a local dumpling hole in the wall on Nanyang street. After we put our laundry in to dry, we explored the nearby Ximending shopping district for the 35 minute cycle.


We picked up our laundry and went back to the hotel, changing money along the way. We tried one bank that had an excellent rate; however, that rate was only if you deposited money into an account there. The other rate was still okay, but they charged 100 TWD. When I hesitated, they pointed me to the Land Bank up the street, which didn’t charge a fee–Taiwanese people are so friendly and helpful–so we went there. They also had two rates, but their second rate was lower than the other bank’s. In the end, withth no fees, I saved a total of about 50 cents. Rebecca didn’t seem to think that was worth the hassle. And I had to agree.


After all that, we dropped off our clean laundry at the hotel and embarked on our day’s journey. We had planned on making a brief stop at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial to take the obligatory photo of the arches, but ended up spending a couple of hours there. We had a cursory look through the exhibit of the memorial’s namesake, but then realized it was just about time for the changing of the guard, so we rushed about trying to find that. It was on the top floor, and after going up one level, the helpful attendant there indicated we needed to continue up the stairs further. She did this by telling us to “Take a walk.” We assume this was a translation thing and she wasn’t actually telling us to bugger off!


The changing of the guards was worth seeing, if only to observe their stilted movements followed by the worker who straightened the guards’ jackets and tassels and then wiped their sweaty faces before leaving them to their next hour of statuesque duty. It was stifling hot up there, as the room was open to the outside on one wall, and everyone was dripping sweat by the time the changing was complete. I couldn’t imagine how hot the guards must be while enduring that in hour stints.


Another pleasant surprise was viewing the art exhibitions on the second floor. One was a contemporary art exhibition, and it had some beautiful and interesting artwork. The other was of a Taiwanese artist’s oil paintings which were largely traditional paintings with some random cats thrown into the mix.


Following this we went to Dihua street by train. This is an old shopping street full of tea, traditional medicine, dried fruit, and some clothing stores. The smell of dried fish, mushrooms, etc. was punctuated by the occasional stinky tofu. Yum. It was an interesting street with lots to see, and it reminded us of many “old town” streets we experienced when we lived in China.


Aside from the shops, we also visited a temple that featured gods who helped single people find their partners. It also had a wall full of small golden Buddha statues.


Our last stop for the day was via the subway to the Shilin Night Market. We were a bit beat from being in the heat all day, so after a quick loop, we found a tea shop and had a cold drink before heading back out into the crowds. We tried a few different foods from the stalls–a variety of barbecued meats–but the delicious breaded squid on a stick was definitely our favourite. We also got spinners! One place wanted one for 600 TWD, but I bargained at another stall and got two high quality ones for 400 TWD.

Exhausted, we packed it in and headed back to the hotel for the night.

DAY 3 


We started today by having a street food breakfast back on Nanyang Street. We first tried a pepper and beef crispy bun that was delicious (spicy) but had a bit of a texture drawback. Next, we tried a pork baozi, which we used to get sometimes when we lived in Hangzhou. They can be too doughy, but this one was delicious and well proportioned (pork to dough). Lastly, we tried a folded egg omelette-pancake. Rebecca had a ham and cheese one, and I had a scallion one. Both were tasty, and would have been even better had we not watched them floating on oil as they were being cooked–the vendor kept squirting more oil under the omelettes throughout the entire process, so while they were yummy, I don’t think we will go back for another any time soon.


Determined to make the most of our travel card, we headed first to Longshan temple. It was very impressive with its waterfalls (just inside the gates on the right), its big incense burners, the thousands of tiny Buddhas (again representing donors? deceased?), and bronze sculpted columns of dragons. What was also impressive, however, was the local people who were there really using the temple.


Some were devoutly burning incense and praying, and others were eating and socializing. Many were also throwing the wooden moons (two halves) on the floor. We guess that they were praying for something and then the outcome of the toss was the answer to the person’s wish/question.


Next, we headed off to the Red House. Friends of ours raved about this before our trip, so we were excited to see it; however, the main (round) part was closed for renovations. We looked through the two levels of crafts in the attached building, but the crafts there were a somewhat less than interesting, so we moved on and revisited the nearby Ximending shopping district.


After a bit of window shopping, we again moved on, catching the train to the Huashan Creative Park. 


Huashan Creative Park was a distillery that they converted into shops, small cinemas showing artsy movies, art exhibitions, and cafes. We first cooled off with a refreshing iced caramel cappuccino at this coffee place with a retro music (mostly Beatles) theme. Then we explored the shops–there were some interesting ones like the wood store that had wooden games, figures, building blocks, etc. that you could play with, and the one art store that had some bizarre cards.


Outside, there were sporadic statues, a small pond with very tall lotus flowers in various stages of bloom, and a few interesting murals. There was also an interesting wall (on the other side of the murals and just up from the coffee shop) that had trees growing with their roots splayed along the wall–they looked like the younger siblings of the trees from the Ta Prohm temple (think Tomb Raider) in Siem Reap, Cambodia.


After the Creative Park, we took the subway in search of Angela’s Gallery opposite Daan Park. We got a bit turned around when we came out of the subway station, as we hadn’t paid attention to the names of the subway stops–there is Daan station and Daan Park station, and we got off at one, not realizing there was another. When we eventually figured out our mistake, we were able to find the gallery. It was tiny and while it had one or two interesting pieces of furniture, it wasn’t worth the trip. However, we did find a good pet store with lots of toys, which are hard to come by at home in Vietnam, so we did what any cat owners who feel guilty about leaving their kittens at home to be looked after by someone else would do: we bought them toys with catnip! If they are angry with us when we get home at the end of summer, hopefully the catnip will help to abate their abandonment issues somewhat!


From there, we tried another night market. This time, it was the Raohe Street Night Market. This market had a more relaxed feel to it than the Shilin Night Market. It wasn’t as crowded, and while it had many of the same food stalls as the Shilin market, there was one that was a clear standout.


Rebecca and I shared a pepper roast beef with baked baby potatoes that was covered in melted raclette cheese. The vendor scrapes the melted cheese straight off the wheel of cheese. It is inspired from a restaurant in New York, and the vendor has their video playing to draw customers in. It was a small serve, frugally weighed out and garnished with a piece of garlic bread and picked onions. Amazing! We also shared a serve of 10 inch french fries with honey mustard and wasabi dips. To cap off our gastronomic adventures, we shared a small serve of steak pieces topped with rose salt. They were also delicious, and you could not tell that they had just been cooked by a guy with an industrial sized blow torch…if you hadn’t just watched the whole performance.


As we left the market, fully satisfied, we noted the fortune tellers who were animatedly predicting customers’ futures. We had read that some of them use birds to choose cards as part of the process, and while we did see small birds in cages on the tables of a couple of fortune tellers, we didn’t actually see the birds chirping in tongues or helping out in any way whatsoever.



When we got back to our hotel that night, Rebecca did some research into train tickets to Hualien. After reading some very helpful blogs (nickkembel.com, Kevin’s travels and Taiwan Travel) about how to do this, we experienced some complications when actually booking them online, but eventually we were successful.

Day 4 


Today was our last day in Taipei before heading on to Hualien. As per our daily breakfast routine, we headed to Nanyang Street and had 3 or 4 different kinds of dumplings. This was a different place than previously, and we had very little help figuring out and filling in the menu/order form. Luckily, I had downloaded the offline version of Google translate, so we were able to successfully order our meal.

Since our 3-day transit pass was now finished, we got a 24-hour Taipei tourist pass (150 TWD) for unlimited travel on the subway. Our first stop of the day was to the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park. It was an old tobacco plant that had been converted to an arts complex. The main building itself was a bust, with virtually no exhibits and many rooms that seemed to be in the process of being renovated. There was one interesting exhibit in the smaller building by the washrooms that was all aerial video and photography of Taiwan; there were mountains, rivers, oceans, and photos of crops with giant footprints walking across the fields like crop circles–wish there were English captions to give some intimation of what those were all about (giant yetti out for a stroll?).


Part of the complex included the Eslite hotel and mall. The mall had some cool crafts stores, tea shops, and dried good stalls (my favourite samples were the wasabi prawn crackers and the spicy kimchi dried cheese). There was also a gynormous book store, but the English selection was minimal. Overall, the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park experience was disappointing. Maybe it was just a timing issue, being between exhibitions (we did see them setting up a new exhibition, but it wasn’t going to open for a few days yet).


Our final destination of the day was a two-parter. The night before we had booked tickets to go up the Taipei 101 tower. Rebecca discovered Klook, which is a discount travel site (we paid 510 TWD per person instead of 600), so we planned to visit that and have dinner afterward.


It took us a few tries to actually find he entrance point for the tower–the elevators to the entrance were behind nondescript metal doors on the ground floor of the mall (take the elevator to the 5th floor). The tower had been the highest tower in the world at one point, but it has now has been relegated to the 7th or 8th tallest. It also holds the Guinness world record for the fastest elevator, taking only 37 seconds to reach the 89th floor. Going up in it was an experience, as the lights dim, stars light up on the ceiling, and extremely serene music plays…it would have been even more tranquil if the tour group we rode up with hadn’t all pulled out their phones and tried to photograph the ceiling or video the entire experience.


The views from the top really were spectacular, and while we were up there, we enjoyed the rainbow over Elephant Hill after a heavy rain. The huge golden ball of the breezeway was also an impressive sight. It helps stabilize the building in high winds, and they had videos showing it swaying around during previous typhoons and earthquakes. And as usual, there were the ubiquitous selfies involving 30-40 poses that invariably include a peace sign, various degrees of the sideways tilted head, the occasional fish eyes look, as well as the classic puffed out cheeks and pouty lips pose. Some of the routines were clearly inspired by Austin Powers photo shoots and were very entertaining…up to a point.


Following our meditative descent from the tower, we got in the queue for the famous Din Tai Fung restaurant in the mall. It’s a chain, but their dumplings are the best around. We had a 15 minute wait, but once inside, the service was extremely efficient and fast. I made the mistake of asking for a refill of the complementary green tea, and for the duration of the meal, the waitress came by every couple of minutes to refill or top up our drinks. Of course I felt obligated to keep up, and it became a bit of a green tea drinking/refilling competition. But I digress. The meal was superb–their standard pork dumplings really are the best we’ve had, and the other dumplings and beef noodle soup were equally delicious.


After dinner, we went outside to photograph the lit up tower, but the lights were somewhat underwhelming, so we took a couple of photos of the illuminated leggo-like sculptures outside instead. Also, in the tunnels leading to our subway station, we took a time lapse video of this cool mural. It was a of a person’s face divided up into many rectangles that flipped like the old airport schedules used to (or Frankfurt’s still does). One face would change piece by piece into the next, and it was fascinating to watch. There were actually two of these; I tried to video the first one that was constantly morphing from one face into the next; however, the Taiwanese are so polite that many of hem stopped and waited rather than walk through my video. Despite Rebecca trying to wave them through, it became a bit awkward when a small group had gathered, not wanting to ruin my video, so I wasnt able to video as long as I had hoped.


Finally, we took the red line back to our hotel and packed our bags, ready to move on to Hualien the following morning.