The final leg of our time in Taiwan had come. Anja’s birthday was just around the corner and she was able to get a four day weekend off of work to celebrate it! And what better way to see in a new chapter than with an epic road trip? Liam and I, along with Anja and her partner Kevin (who was kind enough to drive us all), piled into his car for what was bound to be an amazing experience filled with wonderful new sites, delicious food and quality time laughing and chatting between friends. First stop? The town of Taitung.
No shortage of scenic roads
One key ingredient to any successful road trip is having good snacks. So we made a quick pit stop to pick up some mochi. Soft, squishy, and delicious. Mochi has a chewy, gelatin like consistency and is used in a variety of desserts here. It was brought over during the Japanese invasion of Taiwan and has stuck around. We visited a family run shop that learned their mochi techniques from the Japanese and have been selling their popular snacks ever since! We tried a variety of fillings including red bean, sesame, taro and fish floss. This last flavor is apparently quite popular but after a bite of dehydrated sweet fish strands I quickly realized it’s not for me. I’ll be sticking to the absolutely phenomenal red bean mochi cookies. Following a bit more time on the road and our sweet snacks we pulled over for a delicious noodle soup lunch and then headed off for the famous rocky beach here, Xiaoyeliu. The weather was overcast making the rocky coastline ever so dramatic and made our time tossing around rocks in a makeshift game of corn-hole even more fun.
After tons of sunny beach days it was nice to finally have an overcast one again! Oh god wait, am I actually becoming English?
The sun finally set on our first day and we checked into our accommodation. We were upgraded from our original spot to a beautiful, newly done, small hotel across the street with massive beds and a balcony. An amazing bit of luck to start this road trip off right! We went out to the local night market, had a particularly delicious grilled turkey sandwich and played some carnival games. We were all pretty rubbish at them except for Anja who is apparently a hell of a shot and managed to hit most of her balloons with a BB gun. Still impressed to this day.
The streets of Taitung are lined with these adorable lanterns painted by local school children
We made several stops along the way to Hualien which was our next stop on the trip, all of them were absolutely stunning but I’ll limit myself to a few of my favourites for brevity. An amazing seven arched bridge, designed to look like a dragon snaking in and out of the water, leads the way from the shoreline of a remarkably beautiful, turquoise to deep blue sea, across to a lush small island named Sanxiantai. We followed the bridge across and spent a bit of time walking along the wooden path. Completely encircled by towering green tropical plants, it felt like we were completely secluded, like something out of Lost. I’m amazed that this beautiful place isn’t more famous, it was one of my absolute favorite stops on this road trip!
In addition to all the beauty in this picture, the beach was covered with seaglass and blue-green rocks! Incredible
Going a bit more towards the western mountains we headed for a quick break on Diamond Avenue. A gorgeous scenic outlook where you can stand on the narrow pathways linking up fields of rice paddies. Behind you, the emerald mountains and beyond the rice paddies is the stunning blue water reaching straight out to the horizon. Utterly peaceful.
Seriously stunning place
Some intense rock slides meant that we were unable to fully explore our next stop which is a series of caves, one of which you can hear the crash of waves echoed throughout due to a geological funnel below the cave leading to the sea. What we did manage to see was still impressive, Baxiandong cave stands tall and leaves visitors intrigued with what lies beyond.
This cave will remain a mystery
There was one last stop we were making for the day before we set up for the night in Hualien, the Fengbin skywalk. A short walk through a tall cave and we popped out onto a narrow walkway that hugged the side of a mountain. Staring up to see the jagged rocks and then gazing down through the glass bottom to the crashing waves below makes you feel both amazed and acutely aware of your own mortality.
Picture looking directly down and seeing the frothy waves crash against the cliffside
After a long day of driving and site seeing there is no better way to round off a roadtrip through Taiwan than with a night market. Hualien has a massive one and we were really excited to visit it. Anja had spent some time in Hualien before and had fond memories of a kind woman who sold delicious grilled fish on a stick. I knew if Anja was remembering this one visit she made, it had to be good. After a bit of walking we discovered her stall and tried the famous fish, it was absolutely amazing and the lady who ran it was so sweet. After a small feast eating fried soft shell crabs, stinky tofu fries, and one last Taiwanese sausage we were fully satisfied with our day. On our way out we stopped to see some traditional dancing that was happening in a square near where the car was. The dancing was so impressive and the traditional costumes were beautiful and bright. After a few songs they called volunteers up on the stage, I was not about to raise my hand to go up and embarrass myself in front of a crowd but before I knew it I saw the dancers come up to us, and all four of us were pulled up on stage to participate. It started with our embarrassing attempt to join in the group dance (seriously it was worse than any Zumba class I’ve ever attempted) and finished with Anja and I both being carried on the back of each other’s partners on a chair/backpack in a huge circle and then taking a shot of rice whisky. Turns out, this whole routine is a traditional marriage ceremony for one of the native tribes. Thankfully it’s not legally binding or we would have had to make a stop at a divorce lawyer and beg them to offer a 2 for one deal!
This night market is impressively large in a country famous for them
The big day of the road trip was finally here. We were off to visit Taroko, Taiwan’s beloved national park known for its stunning marble gorge. It was also Anjas birthday! I really couldn’t think of a more beautiful place to ring in a new year. After a quick chat at the visitors center we headed over to Shakadan trail. This path follows the marble gorge going deeper and deeper into the national park, where there are still some aboriginal people living on the land today. Looking down from the path into the crystal blue waters, and seeing the massive slabs of marble rock diverting the streams, was honestly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The color of the water is something I haven’t seen anywhere else!
This nice picture doesn’t even do this remarkable place justice
There was one more stop we made in Taroko and that was to Swallow Grotto. A road cuts through the mountainside and from there we made our way to a viewing area to see the marble from the highest vantage point yet! While we were getting lost in the beauty of the place we spotted what I initially thought was a dog at the bottom. How did a dog get down there? Using the super zoom powers of Liam’s camera we saw it wasn’t a dog at all but a weird deer / pig looking thing. The Formosan Serow. Turns out it was an ancient animal only found in these parts and extremely rare! What a cool way to end our time in this magical place.
Felt like we were on a Planet Earth film crew
For Anja’s birthday we ate at an American style diner ran by an American guy who moved to Taiwan. I was over the moon with this choice as I had been missing some over the top American food for ages. It’s a gamble eating a cuisine somewhere that’s so far removed from its origin, but this American diner really delivered the best they could do with the local products available. We had Mac and cheese, poutine, a pulled pork sandwich, a pizza AND a root beer float. An absolute birthday treat. Being present at special occasions is extra memorable when friendships are spread out so far across the world, and I’m so glad we were able to be there for this one.
Pulled pork and hush puppies, yum!
After a long six-hour drive back to Kaohsiung (thanks Kevin!) We still had the task of packing up our bags as we were heading off the next day. We went out for one last meal which I have to write about because it was the strangest culinary experience ever. We went out to a beautiful, fancy hot pot place. The menu was of course in mandarin except for the name of the dish “spicy hot pot” there was a picture of a giant Ying and Yang pot split with two broths, one spicy and one creamy. Anja, Liam and I are all fans of spicy food so when the waiter came by and asked what we wanted we said we wanted both halves spicy. The waiter looked bewildered, shook his head and urged us to reconsider, Kevin also urged us to do the traditional half and half. We were a bit disappointed but went for it. It arrived to our table and it looked beautiful. We dropped our veggies and some meat in and then dug in. I started to eat a root vegetable that was cooked in the spicy broth, it didn’t have much of a burn to it. In fact, it wasn’t really spicy at all! What an outrage, we totally could’ve had two spicy broths I thought, how dare they underestimate our ability to eat spice… Wait. What was happening to my tounge? It felt tingly. I started to feel saliva building up in my mouth as I chewed. Oh my god, am I allergic to something?! I thought in a total panic. I started to look around the table, Liam and Anja were exchanging a weird look. “This is nice but I think I might be a bit allergic to something here” I said “yeah me too!” “My mouth feels… Numb?” Oh, thank God I wasn’t alone. Kevin laughed and filled us in. It’s meant to be this way. That’s what the spicy is like, it’s numbing spice. That’s why you balance it out and eat the creamy broth to counteract it. Wow. All I can say is thank God we didn’t hold our ground and go for two spicy halves! The creamy was actually really nice and I gravitated towards that for the rest of the night. Going to eat food that makes your mouth feel like you’ve been to the dentist and received a shot of novocaine is definitely the weirdest meal I’ve ever spent money on, but definitely a surprising experience I’ll never forget. Thanks Taiwan!
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Team numb tongues