Taipei, Juifen and Shifen- Hidden Gems in Taiwan

At Taipei airport Di and I purchased sim cards for our two week stay in Taiwan. We find this is a better option than relying on trying to use free wi-fi at hotels, Starbucks, etc.  We caught a taxi to our hotel in the centre of the city. If we were to arrive again we would catch the MRT (subway) from the airport as there is a special airport MRT line that is quick and built to take passengers and their luggage right into the heart of the city. The taxi cost us NT$1300 (AUD$65) for the 50 minute journey. The MRT takes the same time but costs NT$160 (AUD$7.80) each and goes to Taipei Main Station where you have to then get to your hotel.

We stayed at the Queens 2 Hotel in Taipei. It was a trendy little place in the heart of the city and about a 15 minute walk from Taipei Main Station. The hotel was only on the 4th Floor of a building and this can be a little confusing finding it. Our taxi pulled up and the driver said, in broken English, “Your hotel’.  We looked out the window and just saw a row of shops and doorways. The taxi driver had to point to a small sign in a doorway saying Queens 2 Hotel, 4th Floor. As we went up in the elevator we were expecting the worst from our hotel and, on exiting the elevator, on the 4th floor we were greeted with a stale, damp, mouldy smell – luckily there was another hotel on the same floor and the smell came from there. A sliding glass door opened for us to enter the Queens 2 and with it the awful smell was left behind. Once inside we were pleasantly surprised how contemporary it was and we were pleased with the standard of the hotel. We paid AUD$80 per night, which did not include breakfast, but did include ‘do it yourself laundry’.

We used the MRT to get around Taipei and there was a station about ten minutes from our hotel.

The streets were not that busy and we were shocked to see pedestrians waiting at the kerb for the walk sign to come on – cars actually stopped at red lights and motorbikes gave way to you – have these people forgotten how to behave Chinese!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The people of Taiwan are only Chinese in appearance, after that they are the exact opposite of all things being Chinese. There is little of the hacking, spitting and belching sounds that haunt Western travellers in public throughout mainland China. There is no pushing and barging through people. The Taiwanese understand the word queue and do it with absolute perfection – in fact I would dare say, this may be considered slander; but I would dare say the Taiwanese queue better than the English do!!!

Best queue ever!!!

We were soon to discover that many Taiwanese also speak English and love the opportunity to demonstrate their command of English by asking us if we needed any assistance, or could they help us in any way. It’s funny, if a person came up to you in, say India, and asked could they help you, you just knew any conversation with them would cost you money. That is not the case in Taiwan – they really want to help.

We made it to the MRT easily enough and found it to be a fast, cheap and easy way to get around the city and surrounding area. We did though, in hindsight, make a huge mistake and should have purchased an EasyCard, rather than paying for each individual trip. The EasyCard, we were to discover, can be topped up throughout your stay and is used on all the buses and trains throughout all of Taiwan and not just the MRT.  The EasyCard can be purchased at any seven/eleven, Family Mart, and convenience stores.

Nice clean trains   

Our little adventure on our first day in Taipei was to Elephant Mountain. Elephant Mountain is a series of hikes on a mountain overlooking Taipei. We caught the Red Line MRT to Xianshan Station. On exiting the MRT at Exit 2 it is a little confusing to find the start of the trails, mainly because of road works, but you walk through the park around the road works and then up a hill – we looked lost and a Taiwanese lady stopped and asked us if we needed help – of course we did – and she soon explained we needed to walk around the road works and up the hill. At the entrance to the hiking path we found lots of people limbering up, you know stretching muscles and all that stuff. The Xianshan hiking trail start is a small gate, easy to miss if it was not for the ‘limber uppers’ limbering up.

Now Di had researched these hiking trails and one small detail seems to have been overlooked by other bloggers. The small detail is that the first thirty minutes of the hiking trail is AAAALLLLLLLLLLL steps.

The best part… going down

Most tourists come to the trails to go to Elephant Mountain because here you get panoramic views over the city of Taipei. It is common for tourists to come at sunset. Beyond the lookout points on Elephant Mountain a vast network of hiking trails will unfold, but we were there for a supposed comfortable 30 minute hike and then watch the sun set. ‘Comfortable hike’, did I say, it was hundreds of steep steps straight up hill in humidity nearing 98%, with temperatures in the mid 30’s – it was anything but @#$#@#!@# comfortable!!!!!!!

Sweaty and tired Di almost at the top

The hike was pretty busy. It was frustrating with so many people climbing the steps as someone would get a burst of energy and went powering past you, only two minutes later their energy sapped and they halted mid step right in front of you. Some people wore hiking boots and even had walking poles – whilst others had high heels and wore summery dresses – regardless they were all sweating profusely as the trudged up the steps!!!

We only had one bottle of water between us which Di drank, there was no point in me drinking water as it would flow straight through me and simply drip off my shirt – @#$#@ it was hot!!! The highest lookout point was full of people and there were photographers with tripods set up in the best viewing positions – this was a couple of hours before sunset – so Di squeezed among them to take a few photos.

Yes I was hot – @#$#@#$ HOT!!!!

We waited about 20 minutes at the lookout but with our thirst and the growing crowd we made the decision to not wait for sunset and set off back down the stairs. It was funny as we neared the bottom, those people who were just starting their climb, saw us descending looking like we had swum a kilometre rather than walked – I was drenched – note to self, bring more water next time and wear a shirt that is water proof!!!!

We then, after buying lots of water and ice cream, walked about 20 minutes to the Taipei 101 building. The Taipei 101 building is the tallest building in Taipei and up until 2004 was the tallest building in the world. It is easy to find Taipei 101 from Elephant Mountain, just look up.

Taipei 101

Taipei 101 has an observation deck which is pretty popular with tourists as it has an elevator rather than the infernal steps of Elephant Mountain – but hey, where is the adventure of catching an elevator! Taipei 101 also has a Starbucks on the 35th floor. It used to be the case where you could go to Starbucks and pretty much get the elevator ride and the views for free. This is not the case now. To go to Starbucks on the 35nd floor you need to book the day before and you must spend a minimum of NT$200 (AUD$9.50), so that little loop-hole is now closed.

Taipei 101 does have a very large food hall on the ground floor and we had a reasonable dinner there. There is a Red Line MRT station under Taipei 101. I thought climbing Elephant Mountain and then walking over to Taipei 101 for dinner was a good way to spend an afternoon – it certainly creates space for a few refreshing cold ales.

The next adventure was off to Juifen. We walked to Taipei Main Station to catch a train (NOT MRT) to Ruifang.

Taipei Main Station

There are basically two types of train to catch. We caught the fast train and on this train you have to buy a seat and obviously it costs more, NT$60 (AUD$3) each. As we bought our seat only an hour before departure so we couldn’t get a seat together in the same carriage, let alone sitting together.  There is also a slow train whereby you pay a lot less and there is only a few seats thus you may stand.

Fast train

Once at Ruifang train station you walk out the front of the station turn left, cross the road and walk about 200 metres, just beyond the police station and there you catch a bus to Juifen. There are several buses that go there. If you do not have an EasyCard you have to pay the exact money, NT$20 as they do not give change – another reason to get the EasyCard. The bus takes about 20 minutes to get to Juifen and to Old Street. You come to Juifen for two reasons; the view down to the coast and to survive the challenge of walking through Old Street.

The view from Juifen

Old Street is a maze of street stalls. It kind of reminded me of the wizard world from a Harry Potter movie, in that there is a small opening into this bizarre maze of a world where all kinds of strange food and products can be purchased. Once you enter the street there is no other way out other than the way you came in.

The street is crowded, so a slow shuffle is the best you can hope for whilst wandering through.

The food for sale is mind-boggling and free samples are offered. Though after sampling several free samples, Taro Balls for example, which are god knows what, our eagerness to sample anything, let alone buy, completely evaporated due to the unusual array of tastes we were experiencing.

 

Ice Cream on a bread roll!

We did discover that ice cream sandwiches were a pleasant experience. There are several versions of the ice cream sandwich. Some, literally, dump a blob of ice cream in a bread roll. The version we opted for was like a crepe, with a bed of nuts and two dollops of ice cream plopped on and then wrapped up. It was yummy.

Ice cream crepes

The street is covered over and very narrow. There are some brutal smells about, and not just from the food. The words ‘personal space’ simply does not exist and of course it is hot. BUT, it is an intriguingly enjoyable experience.

We had planned our day around seeing Juifen and Shifen waterfall as they are near to each other. This meant we were to forgo some of the other sights near to Juifen like, the Gold mine, The Golden Waterfall, a temple, the beaches and Yin Yang Sea. In hindsight, if you have time, I would have done Juifen, the Gold mine, etc as one trip and made Shifen waterfall a separate day trip.

We had to now catch a bus back to Ruifang station – exact money again. Then catch another train out to Ping Xi Train station and the Shifen waterfall. The train to Ping Xi only comes every hour so you need to time your arrival or you can be waiting around. The train costs NT$20 and takes about 30 minutes. The train trip is pleasant as you follow a river and it all becomes quite scenic.

On arrival at Ping Xi Train Station you will be greeted by a sea of faces squashed together all looking at you as the train pulls to a stop. On exiting the train and, once the train as departed, you will see why all the people are there. The train line is the walkway among the shops leading to the train station. Once the train departs the people commence moving about the shops by way of the train line.

There is a party feel to walking along the train line among the shops – let’s face it, this is not something you often do. You walk straight out of a shop on to the train line – there are some fences along the track but these appear to be a token only. People are taking photos of each other on the tracks, which involves poses any super model would be proud of and even people sitting or lying down on the tracks – it is all rather amusing.

Super model Di

What was also happening was that people could paint their own paper lanterns and then light a flame under the lantern and release it into the sky. This was big business as dozens of these lanterns were being released from the railway track every minute. I am not sure of the cost of these lanterns but people bought them and then painted words of wisdom on them before releasing them into the sky – I guess it brought good luck or perhaps what they wrote may come true!

Suddenly a person started blowing a whistle and the carnival atmosphere shifted a gear as most people started heading off the track – there were of course those dilly dalliers who hung around for one more photo and needed a sharp whistle to be blown for them personally – yes the train from the opposite direction was now coming and it was time to get off the tracks. There are those daredevils who stick their heads out for more selfie as the train passes – yes, an accident waiting to happen methinks!

The reason most people come to Ping Xi is the Shifen waterfall. The waterfall is about two kilometres away. Your options are to walk or to catch a taxi. The taxis are NT$100 (AUD$4.75) for a one way trip. The Meandering Wanderers of course walked.

The walk is pretty flat for most of it, one uphill part which is not too bad. The taxis take you to one side of the river whilst the walk takes you to the other side, so the walk has few people on it as most take a taxi.  You are following the river which is scenic and has these cool suspension bridges across it, so do the walk at least one way – we walked both.

The Shifen Waterfall is pretty spectacular stuff. There is basically a large broad round hole that has water pouring into it. We could hear the waterfall a long time before we saw it and this raised the anticipation levels – we were not disappointed.

There are several vantage points to view the waterfall. You arrive facing the water fall and then can work your way around to where you are above it.

There was construction being done to build another viewpoint between the current two main viewpoints. I think the falls have become quite popular and the place can get crowded, though it was not too bad the day we were there.

When you are standing right next to the waterfall you can see how crystal clear the water is. It’s funny what you become fixated with, as I could clearly see schools of fish feeding at the waterfall edge – I became mesmerised by their ability to swim so close to the edge of the waterfall and NOT get sucked over – amazing.

The Shifen Waterfall was well worth the visit. On the walk back the weather became somewhat balmy and thunder and lightning was about; make sure you have your umbrella. We beat the downpour back to the Ping Xi train station where the track party was still in full swing.

We were catching the second last train for the day, it was 4.50pm and as such the train platform was crowded. We walked past the crowd to the end of the platform where it was relatively empty – you can rely on people to be lazy – so when the train came Di was able to get a seat without any trouble. On arrival at Ruifang Train Station we had to buy a train ticket, NT$60, (get a EasyCard people) and a slow train was arriving soon so we caught that – yep it is slow and stops at every station, it takes forever! We arrived back at Taipei Main Station about 7.00pm and we were exhausted, so it was KFC for dinner as we walked back to the hotel. It was an awesome day.

Over the next two days we used the MRT to get around town to some of the main tourist sights – which of course meant walking a hell of a lot in stifling humidity also.  Luckily Di and I are used to each other’s smellier sides.

We enjoyed walking along the river bank which was fairly close to our hotel.

This led us to Wan Hua shopping area, which is a walking street with trendy shops, street performers and food stalls.

This led us to the Red House, again shops, bars and museum. Then a short journey over to Long Shan Temple and then we finished the day off at the movies – The Mummy was a terrible movie but the cinema was air-conditioned.

Long Shan Temple

The next day was an MRT to Chiang Kai Shek memorial hall – this was a surprise as it was a grand old spectacle worthy of a Cecil B. DeMille epic.

Memorial Hall

The memorial is huge. The place is a bit of a concrete jungle, but is surrounded by parkland and sun really beats down (umbrella is a must). The path to the memorial is flanked by two buildings, the National Theatre and the National Concert hall, which all add to the grandeur of the place.

 

Chiang Kai Shek was the leader of the Nationalist Party that fought the communists when the communists took over China, after the Second World War. The Nationalist eventually fled to Taiwan and is the reason why the Taiwanese are so adamant about not being ‘like them’- the mainland Chinese. Chiang Kai Shek was the first ruler of Taiwan as a separate entity from China.

Guarding the statue of Chiang Kai Shek

We then caught the MRT out to Dahu Park. The MRT here is above ground and the train is designed differently from the underground ones and allows you to sit at the front and watch where you are going – I am such a sucker for sitting at the front.

Dahu Park is a pretty little park and is the start of many of the mountain hikes on the outskirts of Taipei.

We wandered through the park, took a few happy snaps of the moon bridge and sat and took in the ambience of the place.

We then went to 2-28 Peace Park by MRT. I always enjoy discovering new pieces of history I knew nothing about. The 2-28 Peace Park is a memorial to three days of mass killing that started near the park back in 1947 on the 28th of February, hence 2-28. It is actually a blight against the history of the then ruling Nationalist Government. A radio station located near the park was taken over by protesters who were protesting against police brutality on local people. The army was called in to break the protesters up and rioting in the streets started.  This resulted in over 10,000 people being killed during the three days of riots.

We then walked a few kilometres back to our hotel, stopping on route at a night food market, for dinner.

Taipei is just so easy to get around, the footpaths are wide and are not an obstacle course and the MRT is efficient and, of course, all in English. I just wish we would have purchased an EasyCard from day one – we discussed buying one several times but as we were leaving Taipei soon it felt there was no need – how wrong we were – it can be used for the whole Island you IDIOTS!!!!!!!

We loved Taipei, we loved the charming people and there were simply lots of things to do there. We would recommend Queen 2 Hotel as a place to stay. Oh and we also recommend you buy an EasyCard! Our five days in Taipei were over and the next day we set off by train from Taipei Main Station to explore the rest of the island.

Let the adventure continue……………….

 

 

 

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