Sometime in December I got a call from my brother and sister in law, Hannah. I was in the midst of creating an itinerary for my family’s visit to Taiwan in December and I was feeling a bit down because I knew that Ben and Hannah would be unable to accompany them on this adventure. I figured it would be almost a year and half before I had the opportunity to see Ben again because he had left to hike the PCT back in April of 2018 and although he had finished hiking, I was already in Taiwan by the time he was back on the east coast. Much to my delight, over the phone they told me that they were planning to come visit me in Taiwan and that they were in the midst of searching for tickets. The best part was that they were planning to come over my birthday weekend which also happened to be a long weekend!
We brainstormed what to do for a while and decided on a big hike for the long weekend. After some research, we settled on a four day hiking trip up Nanhu Mountain in Toroko park. Although it would take the entire four day weekend to hike, we decided that it was the most exciting and adventurous option and many of my friends at the climbing gym assured me that it was one of the most spectacular hikes in all of Taiwan. When the time came to apply for our permit, I was in Japan but I logged into the system to submit the application. It required a winter equipment checklist and gear like crampons, a pickax, climbing rope, carabiners… etc. I was feeling a bit apprehensive about the adventure when I discovered that some people had been able to access the application portal early! This was because they were starting the hike a day earlier and as a result got to submit their entire application early. This was both frustrating and somewhat unfair because these applications already filled all of the spots in the cabins, leaving us with no options but to camp. Even though our application got approved, due to the fact that there was snow on the ground up in the mountains and it was below freezing every night, we decided against camping and brainstormed a new plan.
The Arrival and Taipei (February 27th)
Hannah and Ben arrived on February 27th and I met them at Taipei Main Station. From there we headed to the hostel “Come Inn” for the night, my favorite hostel in all of Taipei. It was late when we arrived so we walked to Mos Burger for a quick dinner and headed back around midnight for bed. The next morning we slept in a bit and then headed to out to explore Taipei City. Our first stop was the 228 Peace Park. Although I knew that the reason for the long weekend was to commemorate those who lost their lives during the White Terror in Taiwan that had started on February 28th 1947, I hadn’t put together that the 228 Peace Park was created to commemorate the same event. As we walked through the park, we stumbled into an outdoor concert and remembrance ceremony. The museum was free of charge because of the holiday so we walked through to learn more about the story of those who lived in Taiwan during the White Terror. I was reminded of my visit to Green Island and the stories of political prisoners who were held and tortured there.
228 Peace Park (February 28th)
A brief explanation of the history of the 2/28 holiday is that on February 27, agents from the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau confiscated the illegal cigarettes of an older female vendor as well as her money and then beat her over the head with a pistol. A large crowd surrounded the woman and the agents opened fire on the crowd, killing one person. This incident led to mass protests the next day—February 28 (for a more detailed story you can check out this article). These protests continued for a few days until Chiang Kai Shek called reinforcements from mainland China and began killing citizens at random and imprisoning them. This began the period of martial law in Taiwan that did not end until 1987. Thousands of people were imprisoned and died during this horrific period of time in Taiwanese history. Thus, 2/28 is a holiday for all Taiwanese people to commemorate those who were deeply affected by this tragedy.
Chiang Kai Shek Memorial
Our next stop was the Chiang Kai Shek memorial. I had planned to show Hannah and Ben how despite the terrible history of the White Terror and martial law in Taiwan the memorial upheld Chiang Kai Shek as an upstanding leader in Taiwanese history and hardly mentioned the horrors that occurred under his leadership. However, when we arrived we found that the hall was closed! This was unexpected because the visitation hours said it was open. There were police cars stationed all around the building and there were barricades blocking people from approaching both the flagpole and the structure.
Elephant Mountain and Taipei 101
Our next stop for the morning was Elephant Mountain. Despite the clouds we were still able to get some good views of Taipei 101 which we visited promptly after! We grabbed some snacks including some adorable Hello Kitty egg cakes and some bubble tea (and of course we had to take the obligatory tourist pictures at the LOVE statue). Our last stop before heading out for the day was the Sun Yat-Sen memorial where we actually got to witness the changing of the guard, something I hadn’t had the opportunity to see before. Along the way, we collected as many stamps as we could before heading back to Taipei Main station to catch a train to Taichung.
Taichung and Din Tai Feng!
When we arrived in Taichung, we got a taxi to our hostel Stray Birds. It was a lovely place with a common area and bed cubbies covered by a curtain. After quickly changing, we met my host dad Stephen in the car and he took us to meet the rest of the family at Din Tai Feng, the delicious and famous soup dumpling restaurant in Taiwan! We chatted and I learned that Elsa is heading to the US next year for college, and the whole family will be moving there in just two years! After dinner they dropped us back off at the hotel where we met Shelly to plan for the next day.
苗栗火炎山, The Mini-Grand Canyon (March 1st)
The next morning, we met Shelly at the train station in Taichung and headed to Miaoli. It was the MOST CROWDED train that I have EVER been on. More and more people were piling on and we discovered that they were all heading to the botanical gardens expo a few stops before ours. In addition to Shelly, Ben, Hannah and I, Shelly’s friends Josep, Victoria, and Samia were joining us on the hike. When we finally exited the train we could breathe again. We took a taxi to the trailhead and began the somewhat treacherous hike. Though it was short, the trail was quite steep and quite crowded. Shelly explained that many people called this area the “grand canyon” of Taiwan and I could understand why. It was a pretty impressive view from the top of the hike. As we were just about to reach the summit, disaster struck. Samia rolled her ankle and it quickly swelled up. She could hardly walk down the trail! Luckily Josep came to the rescue and carried her down the rest of the way on a shortcut trail that was much less steep. We split with the group early to make sure we could catch the train in time to pick up our rental car in Taichung.
After and equally crowded trip back to Taichung city, we grabbed our bags at the hostel and made our way to the rental station. My host dad Stephen insisted on driving us there, once again reminding me of the kindness and generosity of my Taiwanese host family. He even helped us sort out the details of the car rental and showed us to the road that we needed to take to begin our next adventure! It was sad to say goodbye to him because I wasn’t so sure if I would have the chance to see my host family again before leaving Taiwan. But it was time to continue on with the next leg of the adventure… Hehuan Mountain! Instead of Nanhu Mountain, we had decided to rent a car in Taichung and drive through the Hehuan Mountains, staying overnight and hiking for a day. Then, we planned to continue across the mountains all the way to Hualien and return the car there.
The Hehuan Mountains
There are several hiking options in the Huhuan Mountains, but most of the trails are quite short and require only a few hours at most. We were looking for something a bit longer so we decided to bag two peaks, Hehuan North and West peak. I had read many blogs from others who had attempted this hike so I knew that the whole hike was about 13 kilometers and was rated as a difficult hike by many individuals. Ben, Hannah, and I were all in fairly good shape so I wasn’t too worried. I had read in several places that I needed to acquire a permit to hike this peak at the police station so I had planned to stop in the morning before the hike started. We had reserved a place for the night at a cute hotel called 挪威森林民宿. The drive up to the hotel was very treacherous! I was glad that I wasn’t driving as we wound switchbacks and avoided other cars and scooters in the middle of the road. We accidentally passed the turnoff for our hotel and attempted to turn around on a side road. This was almost a disaster because the roads are so narrow! But luckily we managed to turn around and arrived at our hotel in one piece. When I tried to check in, they informed me… “sorry, no space!” I panicked for a second before re-explaining that we had a reservation and showing her our confirmation email. Thankfully she found our name and showed us to our room. There were even little slippers for us to use! After eating some ramen for dinner, we headed to bed early so we wouldn’t be tired the next day.
Birthday Morning (March 2nd)
The next morning (my birthday!) we were blessed with the most amazing clear weather. We looked out from our balcony to see mountain peaks stretching for miles!!! It was incredible. We headed downstairs for breakfast which was the first real Taiwanese breakfast Ben and Hannah had tasted. It included anchovies, toast, congee, noodles, and so many other interesting things. Then we made our way to the police station next door for a permit. Although I didn’t quite understand what the officer was saying, I gathered we were in the wrong place. I looked at our map and realized that there was a later station on the road up so we continued our drive to the trailhead. We stopped at the next station and I was confused when they said we couldn’t get a permit their either. They explained that the place where we should have stopped was actually wayyyy back near the bottom of the windy road… oops. We decided to continue on without a permit hoping that no one stopped us.
Hehuan North Peak
When we reached the trail head, there were already many cars and hikers making their way up the mountain. We stopped at the visitor’s center for a map and some stamps and then we were on our way. The North Peak was only about 2 km from where we parked our car but it was a steep ascent. We started the hike at about 9:15 am, a bit later than we had planned but still with plenty of time for an exciting day. Many hikers were slowly making their way up. The thin air didn’t help much as we trudged up and we were quite out of breath by the time we got up the first false summit. It was a beautiful clear day and the views were stunning. We made it to the first peak after about an hour of hiking at a fairly quick pace.
Hehuan South Peak
After snapping some photos, we headed on to the West peak. While the trail was well-maintained, it was evident that most hikers turned around after reaching the North Peak and continued back down the trail. We encountered far fewer hikers in this section which was nice because before leaving the North Peak trail it was quite crowded. After about a km of hiking, we suddenly stumbled upon a section of the trail that looked like a cliff. It just dropped right off the edge of the mountain! There were twisted ropes hanging down to assist hikers as they slid down a steep dirt path. We looked at each other, and then began the slide down. It was very exciting and the main thought in our minds was… how the heck are we going to get back up this thing? Nevertheless, we continued on.
After another km we reached a forest between several camel hump peaks. We began rapidly descending through the forest, using several ropes so that we didn’t tumble down. We emerged in a valley-like area that looked fairly open all the way to the summit? Nope, a false summit again. We climbed up, down, up, and then finally we saw what looked like a sign for the top? We were a bit confused because the “peak” was actually located at a lower elevation than the vast majority of the hike. However, it was very beautiful and views stretched as far as the eye could see. We decided that the South Peak marked the end of the range as opposed to one of the taller points on the hike. We didn’t stay for too long as it was already a bit after noon and we knew we had some steep climbing and a long drive home ahead of us.
On our way back, we ran into another hiker while climbing up the forest looking for a lunch spot, and he must have sensed that we were hungry. He told us to wait and reached into his bag. He pulled out three oranges that he gave to us, and three pieces of caramel candy! It felt like a bit of trail magic, but I have found that this is pretty typical Taiwanese hiking culture. Taiwanese hikers are so friendly! Just a little further along, we stopped at 1 for a quick picnic just outside of the forest climb, about halfway back to the North Peak. Then we trudged through the last section and hauled ourselves up the cliff. We were quite exhausted at this point and feeling lightheaded from thirst and elevation.
Back to the Visitor’s Center
We were a relieved to see the crowds of people at the North Peak because it meant we were almost back! Our hike from the North to South Peak and back took 5 hours total. After snapping some photos, we headed down the trail to the car. Ben and Hannah discovered some pretty nasty sunburns but luckily I had remembered to put on sunscreen and wore long sleeves (the sun is quite strong in Taiwan I have unfortunately discovered through previous sunburns). In total, we hiked 13.4 km and hiked two of the top 100 peaks in Taiwan; Hehuan North Peak (3422 m) and Hehuan South Peak (3,145 m). The entire hike took us a total of 7 hours at a fairly rapid pace. We were tired and quite hungry by the time we reached the car and bought some snacks before heading out.
Although we left the Hehuan Mountains around 4 pm, the drive down took us about three hours due to the winding nature of the roads. We did stop twice to take photos of the old growth forest and the sea of clouds on the way. When we got back we were ravenous but lucky for us, my favorite Korean restaurant still had tables available! We got food there and then walked around for a bit. After we stopped at Home Bakery near my apartment and Ben and Hannah got me a cake because it was my birthday 🙂 After opening some presents (including so much granola… oh how I’ve missed granola) we tumbled into bed for the night exhausted.
Liyu Lake (March 3rd)
For our first day in Hualien, Ben and Hannah and I decided to take a trip to Liyu Lake, one of my favorite places to go near the city. The weather was beautiful and quite hot, so after walking around the lake we decided to rent a swan boat with pedals to travel around on the water. While we were riding, the wind picked up and we were pedaling with all our might to make it back to the dock in time! Thankfully, we managed to do it but it was not the nicest thing to do to our already tired legs.
Around lunch time, we decided to head over to the Zuocang trail for some hiking and in hopes of catching a glimpse of a monkey or two. Because we were tired we hiked to the waterfall and back instead of up the mountain which only took about 45 minutes. We caught sight of a few monkeys on the way! We even witnessed a full monkey fight which was quite exciting, it sounded like an angry child shrieking.
On our way back to the city, we realized that although Ben and Hannah had been in Taiwan for a bit already, they still hadn’t seen a temple! So we stopped at the 花蓮港天宮 (Gang Tian Gong Temple), one right up the street from my house. I actually hadn’t been there before so it was nice to see it. It is an absolutely huge temple filled with many different worship statues. While we were there, we ran into a man who was attending the school there. He happily showed us around the temple and introduced us to all the gods. He even let us drink from the sacred water in the center of the temple!
Nguchus Cat Cafe
In order to show Ben and Hannah all of my favorite places in Hualien, the Nguchus Cat Cafe was a must. We stopped there in the evening and got some coffee and cake. It was quite delicious and we had a great time playing with the cats. The owners were excited to see that I had brought another friend along to see their cafe and when they realized that they had actually met my whole family now, they were so excited!
As any good tourist would do, we stopped at the night market for a snack dinner. We got stinky tofu, meat on a stick, squid, chocolate, and all the good snacks. It was a feast! I ate so much, I was absolutely stuffed by the end of the night. Watch the video to see just how much Ben and Hannah enjoyed trying the stinky tofu!
Fu Shi and Toroko (March 4th)
Qi Xing Tan
The next day we split up because I had to go to school so Ben and Hannah went on a solo adventure in Toroko Gorge. They had a blast and visited many spectacular sites. Unfortunately I was unable to join them but I had a great and busy day with my students, psyching them up for Ben and Hannah’s visit the next day. After school, they picked me up and we drove to Qi Xing Tan to see one of the most famous beaches in Taiwan. The views were beautiful as the sun started to go down in over the mountains. We finished the day with a walk around the smaller night market and some packing, because sadly they next day Ben and Hannah were heading back to Taipei 😦
Fu Shi and Shakadang Trail (March 5th)
However, before they left there was one more thing left to do, perhaps the most exciting thing of all. I was bringing Ben and Hannah to my school to meet my students! They were going to come to my 6th and 3rd grade English classes and my 5th grade music class. I planned a lesson that was about Starburst (Ben and Hannah’s Cat) adventuring through the seasons which my sixth graders absolutely loved and Hannah and Ben enjoyed experiencing. I even gave them the link to Starburst’s Instagram page… you can follow it here if you’d like! They even got to help me teach part of my third grade class! Our lesson was parts of the body so my students started by showing Ben and Hannah the dance they knew to head, shoulders, knees and toes. Little Will was so excited that he practically danced his pants off (although that is par course because his pants are always falling off). Afterwords, I sent the students over to Ben and Hannah one-by-one and they quizzed them by saying “touch your ears!” It was so much fun to see them interacting with my students despite the language barrier and I guarantee that my students had a great time.
Because I didn’t have any afternoon classes, the dean let me leave early for the day and we decided to head to the Shakadang Trail for an afternoon hike. It was muggy and hot again with just a bit of rain but the river still looked as bright as ever. The crowds weren’t even too bad because of the time of day!
After returning the rental car, we had time for some dinner so we stopped for 35$ noodles (only 1 usd!) at one of my favorite places and some apple cider vinegar drink (my new favorite addiction and constant craving). It was a good but bittersweet last meal and I felt really sad having to say goodbye for four more months. We got some last stop bubble tea on the way to the train station and gave some sad hugs while they waited for their train. I waited until they had walked out of sight before I headed back home to my apartment.
It had been an amazing and memorable adventure for me, and I’m sure for Ben and Hannah too. I loved having the chance to be their tour guide and show them all my favorite sights, tastes, and people. Though it was a short trip, I won’t be forgetting our adventures anytime soon 🙂