Tracing Taiwan

This is another overdue entry of my travel in the year 2019. Yes, it is already 2020 now. I am months too late.

Return tickets = around RM750 from Penang to Taoyuan, Taiwan via KL.
Areas covered:
Hehuanshan + Cingjing by public bus/van.
Alishan by scooter, from Chiayi.
Hsinchu by public bus.
Tarako Gorge by scooter, from Xincheng Taroko Railway Station.
Shifen, Jiufen and Shen’ao Elephant Trunk Rock by train and public bus.
Taipei 101 and Xiangshan Trail by train and hiking.
YangMingShan by public bus.

March 30
Took the evening flight out from KL and it was a flight of anxiety as AirAsia failed again to leave on time. It had decided to take pity on late passengers and somehow, indirectly, punished punctual passengers, who might need to arrive in Taiwan on schedule. I needed to be at the airport before midnight. After more than an hour delay, the flight departed, to arrive at a congested Taoyuan airport and had to wait to park the airport. The time was close to 11.30pm. I rushed my way through the airport, managed to clear the immigration and got to the counter at 11.57pm, to get my much needed sim card, before the counter closed at midnight.

March 31
Got on the early morning airport bus to go to Taichung. The bus departed around 1.30am and arrived at Taichung Bus Station at 3.30am. Tried to sleep but failed. Taichung Bus Station seemed to be a safe place as several could be seen trying to catch some sleep before getting on 6am buses, including single ladies.

I had a tough time, trying to find my connection. Following the internet instruction, I ended up at the train station but I could not locate the bus stop. I asked the counter for help and she directed me to a building a few blocks away. I arrived on time for the 2nd earliest bus to head to Puli. And… just to learn that this bus actually passed by the train station and stopped at Taichung Bus Station to pick up passengers.

My initial plan was to go to Puli, grab a connection public transportation to Cingjing Farm and somehow, pray that I could find a way to HeHuanShan. But lucky me. My bus arrived in Puli. I waited for the bus to Cingjing. A van arrived. And I heard the conductor shouting for passengers who wished to go to HeHuanShan. I was so happy, I ditched my Cingjing plan and jumped into the van.

Hehuanshan was cold. It was not just cold. It was windy and cold. I swore my hands froze at times, when the wind blew past me.

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My first day in Taiwan and I just had to go to the peak. Trailing a few other tourists there, I was stunned to learn that I had to climb up a cliff by rope to the top. I was hesitating but decided to make the best of my trip. I climbed. And it was alright. Snapped a few photos and then, I realised others seemed to walk down the other way. So, I thought there was more at the peak for me to see. I followed.. just to find out that there were proper staircase to walk up to or down from the peak.  Like duh…

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I had to wait for the same van to return after lunch time for me to get down from HeHuanShan. Since that I was early, I decided to stop by the recommended CingJing Farm to see the sheep. Entrance fee was TWD200 and somehow, the farm failed to impress me. Yes, there were sheep and families seemed to be happy to be feeding them. Or taking photos with them. And that was my problem. I was alone. There was no one to laugh with. No one to take my photos beside the sheep. Not that I was interested to go near them. Something about me and animals. So, my entrance into CingJing Farm was a brief adventure and I walked out to find me my local transportation back to Taichung.

In Taichung, I stayed in Easy Single Inn. I had to say that I was really impressed by the hostel. It was what I would say a perfect ideal hostel for me. Friendly staff members, free drinks, snacks, comfortable bed etc.

April 1
I was sad to bid goodbye to comfortable Easy Single Inn but I was excited to get to one of my personal wish-to-go-to-list tourist spot – Alishan. My preparation for Alishan was tedious as it was not easy to find a cheap accommodation there. Some of the internet articles were not updated. I was told of the church dorm as well as another famous, beautiful guesthouse, but it was not an easy task to contact them.

Lucky for me, I found this Yunhai B&B. It was TWD500 for a night. This was a great steal, as compared to other accommodation that was easily 2 or 4 times more expensive.

Anyway, I arrived in Chiayi to rent a scooter. Lucky for me, a fellow Couchsurfing member decided to be kind to me and showed me a motorcycle shop that could rent me a motorcycle. In Taiwan, I was told that it would not be easy to rent motorcycle, unless I have a Taiwan license. In a remote area, perhaps the rule was slightly more relaxed. However, Chiayi was not a remote area. It was a city. Anyway, this one shop just opposite the train station let me rent a scooter for TWD700 for 3 days. Petrol was TWD100.

Riding up the hill and eventually mountain towards Yunhai B&B, which was halfway of my journey to Alishan was not difficult. The whole ride was enjoyable. And thank goodness I did not bump into any law enforcement. Not that I was a bad scooter rider.

Before arriving at Yunhai B&B, there were a few spots that made me stopped my scooter and took out my camera for photo-snapping.

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I arrived at Yunhai B&B around after lunch, to be greeted by the guesthouse keeper in a tone that I thought was harsh but eventually, I realised that was just the way he spoke. He was not rude. And.. I was the only one occupying the guesthouse that night. I believed there were around more than 10 rooms but I was alone. From my internet reading, I was given the impression that it was difficult to find meals but there was a well-equipped convenient store opposite of the guesthouse. I guess my stop at 7-11 before my ride up was not necessary.

I left my luggage in my non-luxurious room, rode my scooter to Fen Chi Hu, the fame town where the scenic train ride to Alishan would start. I came to Fen Chi Hu to have a hand on the talk-about Bento Lunch. It was an interesting experience and certainly a break away from cheapskate lunch budget.

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After lunch and a brief walk around the small, cozy town, I headed back to my guesthouse. Back in Yunhai B&B, I had the chance to go for a short hiking at Eryanping Trail. The trail was a highlight for me. It was interesting and peaceful. I even saw the much raved 53.1 guesthouse that I could not stay in, as it was too expensive. I had to admit it was beautiful. And what was great was that in the evening, I was already standing above the cloud when I was back at the start of the trail. It was too cloudy for any sunset view.

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The guesthouse keeper checked on me and requested me to join him for dinner. I turned him down politely as I had had my meals from my 7-11 purchase earlier. I did not tell him that I was having trouble flushing the toilet.

April 2
Just like non-sunset evening for me on the day before, my early wake-up was not greeted by any sunrise. Still, the misty mountains and clouds around the valley were great, along with the cool morning air.

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I started my ride up to Alishan. The whole ride from the guesthouse took more than two hours. It was a pleasant ride, except for the scary witness of 3 tourist buses rushing down the steep mountain road and almost crashed into one another, when they tried to overtake one another.

I had no idea how the folk song of Alishan came to my attention when I was a kid but the fold song stuck to my head. So, arriving at Alishan to see for myself the mountain the song was singing praises of – was important to me. And… honestly, I was disappointed. There were no native girls or boys. No native tribes or native feeling. It was all trees and trees. And the famous train, which I paid and took a ride. A short ride, in a train where windows were barred and felt too modern to feel anything special. I really wanted to like Alishan. I came all this way on my own to see this mountain. And yet, it felt lack of human spirit. I walked around, and looked at trees that spoke little to me. Perhaps I would have loved it more if it was a forest of autumn foliage or even great sakura blossoming. Without this, I was in a month of a dull Alishan.

I had more fun riding train from Bangkok to Hatyai. I fell in love with Phu Chi Fa where the peak was embraced by the tribe villages. In Alishan, I felt nothing of my expectation.

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I left Alishan with drizzling rain threatening my view of the slippery road. And mist was coming up. It was not easy to ride my scooter with visibility of less than 40 meters.

April 3
I left in the morning, to catch the fast train to Hsinchu. It was a day to meet my friend. So, practically, it was a day of doing nothing but to admire his university and to be pampered by his guide on food to eat. Other than Bento lunch, this day was a day that I was eating properly. LOL.

I left Hsinchu before it was too late, for Taipei. My hostel bed was waiting for me.

April 4
I headed for Hualien. This journey gave me a bit of difficulty in planning as it was almost impossible to get the direct train to Hualien from Taipei. Train tickets were sold out as soon as they were available. So, I did what internet told me – take a bus to Luodong and then, commuter to Hualien. The advantage was that it was cheaper. The unfortunate part was that I had to stand for the whole journey from Luodong to Hualien. It was a long ride.

Instead of heading straight to Hualien, I stopped at Xincheng Taroko train station. There was a motorcycle rental shop. I got a scooter for TWD400. Stopped at 7-11 for lunch. And I have to pause here to praise this 7-11 outlet highly. It was the most friendly convenient store I had ever stepped my foot in. The staff workers were so helpful, attentive and polite.

My decision to explore Taroko Gorge by scooter, and not by bus, was a good decision. The ride, the breeze, the view.. they were all very pleasant. Sure, at times I looked at the cliff and wondered of falling debris. Thank goodness nothing bad happened to me. I skipped the famous Zhuilu Old Road trail as I could not imagine spending my vacation, sweating on a long trail that could take my whole day.

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Where Alishan failed, Taroko Gorge reimbursed. I know I want to come back to this place again one day.

I ended up journey by a detour to Qingshui Cliff. No wonder some raved highly about this tourist site. It was really breath-taking.

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By the time I got to my hostel, it was too late for me to even consider looking for the firefly lake. It was a pity as the month of April was supposed to be the highlight month for such a tour. I needed my rest.

April 5
I took the trains to Riufang and then, to Shifen. The crowd at the train station was overwhelming. True enough, it was a struggle to be comfortable in the packed commuter to Shifen. The Shifen train station was another circus-like spot, as I needed to navigate through the narrow space with crowd to get moving. All around, people were raising lanterns from the train station and taking photos. I decided to explore first. My first target was Shifen Waterfall. It was a doable walk from the train station to the waterfall spot.

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I could not enjoy Shifen much due to the crowd as well as the fact that I was carrying my backpack with me and I prefer not to overdo it. I took the train back and switched to bus to get to Jiufen. By the time I arrived at my hostel, it was already late afternoon. I settled into my assigned bed and headed out to explore Jiufen town; the town that was said to inspire the movie setting for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (the animated film that won Academy Awards). Although the pavements were crowded with tourists too, it did not bother me much as I was busy enjoying the glow of the hanging lanterns.

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April 6
I woke up early to explore the town again. It was better as there were very few people going around the place.

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The friendly hostel lady at My Story Inn Jiufen told me that I should consider hiking up the nearby Mount Keelung. She said it would take me less than an hour to reach the peak. I was not really eager for any hiking or excessive sweating but since that I did not have much to do, I decided that I should.

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Instead of heading to Yehliu Geopark, I decided to go to Shen’ao Elephant Trunk Rock. It was said that the tourist crowd there was less. I took the bus from Jiufen to Shen’ao but I could not recall the routes I had taken. All I could remember that the day was really hot.

I headed back to Taipei.

My afternoon was reserved for Taipei 101. I would never understand how a tall concrete building like this could generate so much joy, just by being there to admire it. I still feel the same from viewing KL Petronas Twin Towers and I was feeling the same being near and watching Taipei 101.

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Of course I did not stop there. I had heard of Xiangshan Trail and view from the peak. So, I went hiking. It was challenging, since that I was already tired of walking for so many days. However, the wait for the evening to set in was worth it. The view of Taipei 101 was simply magical.

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April 7
My mistake was to head to YangMingShan National Park when I did not have any concrete idea of where I would want to go or what I had wanted to see. I just went with whichever national park bus was available and ended up seeing the sulfur mountain and also the valley with a lot of flowers.

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April 8
I left Taipei happy, with the plan in my head to come back for more of East Taipei. I do wish to see more of this side of the island and perhaps to take up the long train ride along the east cost.

Overall expenses = Around RM750 for flight tickets and around RM1000 for accommodation, meals, scooters and travel within Taiwan.

Back to Beijing (2018)

This is post is more than a year late, but still… it is a journal I care to jot for memories. So, here it goes.. going down the memory lane.

Managed to get return tickets from KL to Beijing for around RM500 and decided to visit Great Wall of China again. There was something magical about that World Wonder that would draw me back to it.

November 2
Took the 7pm flight from KL. Reached Beijing airport at 1.30am. So, I did what a backpacker would do. Tried to get some sleep at the airport before the morning express train was  available. Lucky me that Beijing airport was a safe airport.

November 3
Taking the airport express to Dongzhimen and then, to Jianguomen and then, another one to Tianenmen East was a bit challenging for me. I was beginning to wonder if some were correct when they asked if someone like me, a non-Chinese speaking Chinese, would survive in China. LOL.

Back there I was, arriving at my destination, meeting Alex, my Couchsurfing friend, who made himself available for me for the weekend to bring me around. First stop – Tianenmen Square and outer layer (free) Forbidden City.

The morning continued with our journey to Fragrant Hills. Unfortunately, since that it was a weekend, the line was long at the train station to head there. Still, it was interesting to wrestle with the crowd, who was not that pushy. Bad for me that I had a backpack that seemed to be a bother for those behind me.

Fragrant Hills was a must-stop for me, as I would hope to see my first autumn foliage. However, I arrived in Beijing when autumn was ending, leaving the season change for the start for winter. Still, I was hoping that some trees would hold their autumn colours for me.

I was in luck that a few trees were glowing with their red or yellow glory. The photo above shows my backpack for the 6 days in China. I still believe that I was overpacked for my trip. LOL.

I could not remember what we ate for lunch. That’s the problem of jotting down journal way too long after the trip had ended.

After Fragrant Hill, we headed for Mutianyu. More than 10 years ago, I visited China for the first time, following a tour. I felt robbed by the short time spent on Badaling Great Wall. I really enjoyed my climb to the peak then and I wanted to relive for my admiration for Great Wall. Alex suggested weeks earlier that we should do Mutianyu and I was only too happy to oblige.

However, my arrival in Mutianyu disappointed me for two reasons. One, from the guesthouse, I was not able to view any stretch of Great Wall. Two, the meals there were expensive. And… Alex and I were the only two guests in the whole guesthouse. It was nice, to have the whole courtyard to ourselves. There was nothing to do for the evening. The sky was threatening to rain.

November 4
Woke up to a drizzling morning. Early morning sunrise watching at Great Wall was called off. Anyway, it was not possible to see any sun as the sky was cloudy. Still, in the drizzling morning, Alex and I headed for Great Wall.

Maybe Alex thought I was funny to be overjoyed (maybe he had seen better) but I was really happy with the colours of the trees greeting my arrival at the bottom of the hill. We walked up to the wall. It was a challenge but it was a nice walk. Thank goodness I brought my raincoat.

The top was covered by mist when we arrived but I was lucky that at times, the sky cleared for a few minutes for me to see what I had wanted to see – the long stretch of Great Wall. I bet it would be even more majestic if the sky was blue and clear. Still, I loved the mist around the walls. And the autumn foliage… Sigh… beautiful!

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I was told the colours were even more glorious a week earlier. Still, I was happy with what I could get. This was good enough for me.

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Actually, I did wish to spend longer time there. However, I guess I should have told Alex that. He suggested us to go back after an hour or two, strolling along the stretch. Anyway, it made sense too. On our way down, more tourists were arriving. Some were huffing and puffing, looking regret that they were not ok enough to walk the steps.

As for me, I am still fond of Great Wall. Perhaps one day, I would want to see Great Wall in winter?

So, the rest of the day was spent on trying to get public transportation back to Beijing. This was not easy, to stand by the roadside, cold and waiting for a bus that seemed not to be arriving. And meanwhile, we were harassed by taxi that stopped by, claiming that public bus was no longer in service. The bus came, after close to an hour, and we were squashed in an overcrowded bus. I actually contemplated on my safety.

The night came and I bid my goodbye to Alex who went back to his wife in Tianjin. Oh yes. We did drop by Jingshan Park at evening, to view the Forbidden City.

I boarded my sleeping night train to Datong – RMB158.50. It arrived in Datong train station at 5am.

November 5
It was freaking cold. It was below 0 degree Celsius when I walked out of Datong Train Station. There was not many options for me to go to, and neither could I find any toilet. I walked into a shop and pointed at other table’s food, to indicate the meal I wanted. The buns was warm enough to sooth my cold hands. I was underdressed.

Took a 3 yuan public bus to Yungang Grottoes. The temperature was 1 degree Celsius. Entrance fee to Yungang was RMB100, for the off-peak season.

Yungang Grottoes was awarded UNESCO World Heritage in 2001, housing many caves with Buddha images. It was just the right time for me to visit as cold weather led to smaller crowds. But then again, it was really early in the morning.

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This Buddha statue was carved in a cave. However, the outer layer of the cave had collapsed, revealing the Buddha statue within.

Went back to the city center and got a bus for RMB70 to Taiyuan, as I could not get any train ticket to Pingyao, which was my next destination. in Taiyuan, my nightmare began. I had booked and paid through Expedia, a hotel room in Taiyuan. My plan was to look for this hotel – Bestay Taiyuan Railway Station, stayed the night and would leave early the next morning for Pingyao. I was having headache from insufficient sleep and was all too happy just to be able to get my evening rest. So, imagine my shock, after finding Bestay Taiyuan Railway Station, to be told that there was no room for me and I could not stay there. Expedia was not helpful. I could not get through Expedia for support. That was the one time that I was having communication barrier. I ended up, having to look for another budget stay. There was not many options. Looking at Booking or was it Agoda, I managed to reserve another hostel bed and went to search for it. It was an illegal apartment converted to hostel. The owner was resting on one of the bunks when I arrived. He got up from the bunk and told me that it was mine for the night. After Bestay and Expedia’s betrayal, the look of the bunk got me even more depressed. I slept with my hand on my backpacks, got up early morning and left for  Pingyao, not looking back.

Until today, Expedia did not reimburse my money. I would never deal with Expedia again. Not even a reply. How do I put a hashtag to label Expedia as dishonest?

November 6
Pingyao was everything I could wish for, to cure my bitter taste of Taiyuan. And my hotel room… sigh… it was a heaven sent. Again, I believe I was the only one occupying the whole hotel courtyard. The photos below was my hotel courtyard and it was occupied only by me. Like wow. This was Fly by Knight Pingyao Courtyard. It was RM94 for a night. The bed was comfortable. Towel. Hot water. Private bathroom.

Pingyao is well-known for the well preserved old ancient city look, within its 4 walls. As the weather was cold, there were not many tourists as well. So, the roads were almost empty and the tourist spots were not so crowded.

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The shot above was taken from the top of the wall of Pingyao. I paid for the entrance tickets to several traditional homes and this wall entrance for RMB125.

I did not regret making the long trip to Pingyao. It was really a trip of fond memories, despite my disturbing Taiyuan stop.

November 7
It was my ride back to Beijing. I decided to try the bullet train. It cost me RMB183.

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Honestly, call it a bullet train but one could never feel the speed, sitting in the train. It just got me to Beijing in a shorter time.

November 8
Ditched my plan to visit the end of Great Wall by the sea and went back to Forbidden City. I was glad with my decision as I got to see areas in Forbidden City that I could not during my first visit more than 10 years ago.

Caught this photo before I entered Forbidden City.

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By the time I left Forbidden City, and I was not really done with the City yet, it was already approaching evening.

And of course, one last photo of my favourite colour – the colour of autumn foliage…

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And I was ready to bid Beijing goodbye.

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Total Expenses : RM1600