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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Kaminoge's Ultimate Taiwan Itinerary (KUTI)

Michael Turton recently put up a post on The View from Taiwan about “distinctive towns in Taiwan”, and asked readers to submit their suggestions. A lot of interesting locales were mentioned, but what struck me about many of them was the fact that they would mainly be of interest to long-term foreign residents who have been there, done that when it comes to Taiwan’s sightseeing spots (let’s face it, only a serious architecture otaku would take the time to visit Siluo in Yunlin County just to see the small collection of old buildings there – everyone else would come away with a case of the BFD’s). Anyone who has traveled extensively in Northeast Asia would probably feel the only things distinctive about Taiwanese towns are the ugly architecture, polluted air, dangerous drivers and dogs (stray and otherwise) roaming the streets.

Despite all the silk purses being made from sows’ ears, Taiwan is arguably THE undiscovered tourist spot of Asia, so I’ve taken it upon myself to come up with an itinerary highlighting many of the places to visit in Taiwan. The criteria for this list are very simple: 1.) the sights must appeal to the first-time visitor to Taiwan (not to the lifers); and 2.) the locations have to be accessible by public transportation (though a few places do require vehicle rentals). This proposed schedule assumes our hypothetical traveler has both the free time (about a month) and the funds to undertake this journey.

If you actually take the time to plod through everything below, it won’t take long to realize that the itinerary is heavy on history, while light on hot springs, hiking and offshore islands. The list is naturally subjective, and because I’m interested in historical places, the itinerary reflects this. As for hot springs, while it’s true there are a great many places in Taiwan to enjoy a good soak, the true onsen 温泉 aficionado is arguably better off traveling around Japan. After all, most of Taiwan’s best hot springs were developed by the Japanese during the colonial era. When it comes to hiking, Taiwan is an undiscovered gem (when will Lonely Planet get around to putting out a hiking guide to this country?), but the best spots are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach via public transport, and so do not satisfy the above criteria. The ridiculous permit requirement for mountains over 3000 meters high would also just add a layer of unnecessary bureaucratic hassle for the short-term visitor to have to go through, so I’ve had to reluctantly leave out the best hikes, such as the ascent of Yushan. On the topic of offshore islands, the Penghu archipelago is probably the best of the lot, but visiting it would require several days, and so I’ve gone with one of the other islands that presumably could be seen in the course of a single night’s stay.

And so, without further ado, here is Kaminoge’s Ultimate Taiwan Itinerary (most of these things I’ve done, and the rest I would like to):

Day 1
We arrive at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, take the bus to our hotel close to Taipei Main Station, and crash. It was probably a long flight, and we’re feeling the effects. Still, we might take a walk around the area.

Day 2
We get most of the Republic of China-related stuff out of the way, in order to focus on things that are more “Taiwanese” later on. This means we will visit the Grand Hotel, the Martyrs’ Shrine and the National Palace Museum, before making our first foray into Taiwan’s culture by ending the day at the Shilin Night Market.

Day 3
There are three options on the table for this day: 1.) take the train to Keelung, and visit Jungjeng Park and Keelung Miaokou; 2.) soak in the hot springs in Beitou (established by the Japanese, of course); or 3.) stretch our legs on some of the hiking trails on Yangmingshan.

Day 4
This itinerary doesn’t really require us to do so, but it would be a shame to visit Taiwan and not go for a ride on the High Speed Rail, so on this day we take it to Taichung (actually Wuri). However, instead of taking the bus into Taiwan’s third largest city, we take a regular train from the adjacent Xinwuri Station, and make the short trip to Changhua. I live in the Taichung area, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the city to someone looking to live and work in Taiwan, but for the short-term tourist, there’s really nothing to see here. Instead, after dropping our bag off at our hotel, we spend the afternoon exploring Changhua, especially the Confucius Temple and Baguashan. Changhua is also a good base for…

Day 5
…when we make a day trip to Lukang, going to and fro by bus.

Day 6
Leaving Changhua in the morning, we take the Jiji Line to Jiji, rent a bicycle and spend some time cycling in the countryside. Then it’s back on the train to Shuili, from where we catch a bus to Sun Moon Lake, and spend the first of two nights there.

Day 7
Sun Moon Lake is the most overrated tourist destination in Taiwan (don’t take my word for it – several of my adult students have said the same thing), but it’s one of the few places in Taiwan that is known in the rest of East Asia, so we might as well go there. This day could be spent visiting some of the lakeside temples, taking a boat tour of the lake itself, doing a short stretch of hiking and/or, if it’s a weekday and the weather is good, renting a bike and going for a ride.

Day 8
It’s back on the bus to Shuili, and on the Jiji Line to Changhua, with a possible stop in Ershui for some more exploration of the Taiwanese countryside via a rented bicycle. From Changhua, a regular express train will have us in Chiayi, our destination for the night. There isn’t much to see here, but there are plenty of eating options in the area around the train station.

Day 9
The Alishan area took a beating from Typhoon Morakot, but we’re assuming that at some point in the future, repairs will be carried out and things will be (somewhat) back to normal. Therefore, we will leave Chiayi in the morning on the Alishan Forest Railway. If there are two trains running that day, we will ride the morning one to Fenchihu, get off there and do some looking around, then catch the afternoon train for the final leg to Alishan. Otherwise, we’ll stay on the train all the way to the end, and spend the afternoon walking around some of the trails up there.

Day 10
It’s the done thing to do in Alishan, so we’ll get up before the crack of dawn, take the train up to Chushan to see the sunrise, and then walk back through the forest to Zhongzheng Village. After some more strolling around, we’ll take the bus back to Chiayi, and then get on a train to Tainan. Assuming we arrive in Tainan around dinner time, we’ll see what kind of nightlife Taiwan’s fourth-largest city offers after our evening repast. .

Day 11
Lonely Planet’s Taiwan guidebook lays out an excellent walking course through central Tainan, so we’ll make use of it.

Day 12
We’ll spend the morning and afternoon in the Anping area, then return to central Tainan, and take a regular express or local train to Kaohsiung. After checking into our hotel, it’s off to the Liuhe Night Market.

Day 13
Kaohsiung has really cleaned up much of its act in recent years (though there’s still much left to be done), so we’ll reward the city for all its hard work by visiting Lotus Pond (where the temples are tacky but fun) and Cijin Island, before seeing the sunset at the old British Consulate at Takao, followed by a tour of the Love River at night.

Day 14
Along with Sun Moon Lake, Kenting is the most overrated place to visit in Taiwan. However, a month-long visit without any time spent at the beach would be disappointing, and seeing as we won’t be going to Penghu on this trip, we might as well take the bus from Kaohsiung to see what all the fuss is about. Let’s avoid Spring Scream time, however, unless your idea of fun is hanging out with drunken 20- and 30-something Western males, all the while listening to music from bands you’ve never heard of (and never will from again).

Days 15 and 16
One day will be spent at the beach and in the water, while the other will take place on a rented scooter, riding out to Eluanbi and Jialeshui, before looping back to Kenting via the old town of Henghcun. Don’t be shy, either – get out and soak up some of the nightlife.

Day 17
It’s a bus to Fangliao, then a train ride to Taitung, and our accommodation for the night.

Day 18
We take the bus and make a day trip to Chihpen Hot Springs (another legacy from the time the Japanese were here).

Day 19
Hopefully the weather will be good, because on this day we are planning on taking the ferry to Green Island. We’ll rent a scooter in order to get around (I probably should have mentioned an International Driver’s Permit is a necessity for this itinerary), and spend the night in a homestay.

Day 20
After some more fun on Taiwan’s former place of political exile, we’ll catch a late ferry back to Taitung, and spend one more night in the city.

Day 21
It’s a long but scenic bus ride along Highway 11 to Hualien. We’ll make one or two stops along the way (one being at the Platform of the Three Immortals), but we’ll need to take careful note of bus timetables in order not to get stranded out in the middle of nowhere.

Day 22
More money will have to laid for scooter rental (or even a car), because we are going to spend the entire day in Taroko Gorge, Taiwan’s premier sightseeing destination. The serious hiker might consider spending the night here, but we’ll be content with seeing the Eternal Springs Shrine, and walking the Tunnel of Nine Turns and the Baiyang Trail, before making the drive or ride back to our hotel in Hualien.

Day 23
This time it’s back on the train, and on to Ruifang, where we will catch a bus up to Jiufen. When in Rome, you should do as the Romans, so we will walk along Jishan Street and gorge ourselves on street stall snacks. Things should be more atmospheric in the evening once the day trippers have gone home.

Day 24
It’s up early for the climb up to Jilongshan, and afterward we’ll take the bus for the short ride over to Jinguashi, and its Gold Ecological Park. Once we’ve had our fill of the mining-related attractions there, we’ll return to Ruifang and take the train back to Taipei, thus completing the circle.

Day 25
Having seen much of the island of Taiwan, we should have a better perspective on things, so now it’s safe to explore some of Taipei’s remaining sights, like Longshan Temple and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Even though it’s no longer the world’s tallest building, we might as well check out Taipei 101, maybe staying long enough to see the night lights come on in the city far down below.

Day 26
Our last full day in Taiwan will be spent in Danshui, easily accessed by Taipei’s excellent MRT system. We’ll walk along Gongming Street and on to Fort San Domingo and Huwei Fort, detouring to see some of the George Mackay-related sights, before taking the bus out to Fisherman’s Wharf (don’t confuse it for the one in San Francisco!). What better way to enjoy our last evening in Taiwan than by watching the sunset while drinking a cold beer (just make sure it isn’t Taiwan Beer), before taking the ferry back to Danshui, and the subway back into Taipei?

Day 27
It’s time to say 再見 to Taiwan. With a trip like this one, we probably won’t be back, but hopefully we’ve enjoyed ourselves. In the end, that’s all that really matters.

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