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.

 

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