Photo Credit: flickr | Larry Koester
Edited with Permission by Frontier
When you think about adventuring off to the Far East, Taiwan might not be the first thing that pops into your mind. A small island off the east coast of China, it is often overlooked in favour of its larger and better known neighbours. However Taiwan is rich in both culture and nature and is perfect for anyone looking to visit the less-well trodden routes in East Asia.
Firstly, Taiwan is home to 9 national parks that stretch over much of the island. The most famous of these parks is Taroko National Park, home to a series of shrines and its namesake; Taroko Gorge. The Gorge spans 19km and is surrounded by mountains the highest of which reaches over 3000 meters above sea level. This makes the bus ride in both scenic and low-key perilous, as the twisty roads look over a very steep drop. The park appeals to sightseers and serious hikers alike with a variety of different routes that can just be wandering around the shrines or climbing the rope bridges which traverse the gorge. Make sure you are prepared if you choose to take the harder routes as a few require permits and can be blocked off due to bad weather conditions. Taroko is relatively easy to get to by both bus and scooter, with the nearest town of Hualien being about an hour away from the entrance.
However, if you only have time to visit Taipei, Yamingshan National Park is just a 45 minute bus ride away from the city centre. Yamingshan has everything you could want from a national park; lakes, waterfalls, volcanoes and an easy to navigate route with a handy bus to take you from place to place.
Photo Credit: flickr | Felix Filnkoessl
If you’d like to learn about Taiwanese culture while also enjoying the incredible nature the Sun Moon Lake in the centre of the island is the place to go. The lake is named Sun Moon Lake for 2 reasons, the first being the natural beauty of the area and the second being the shape of the lake itself; in the east it is round like the sun and the west is shaped like a crescent moon. Surrounded by the mountains of Nantou, the views from the lake itself are stunning and are popular with both locals and tourists alike.
Taiwan is home to 14 different aboriginal tribes, one of which, the Thalo tribe, occupies the shores of the lake. The small island within the centre of the lake ‘Lalu’ is reserved for aboriginal practices so is closed to travellers. However if you want to learn more about the aboriginal tribes in Taiwan the Formosa Aboriginal Culture Village is situated close to the lake and can only be accessed by a scenic cable car ride, with brightly coloured gondolas painted red for the sun, yellow for the moon and blue for the lake.
Photo Credit: flickr | Eddy Tsai
If hiking around the island has left you in need of some time to relax, then the Zhaori saltwater hot springs are the place to go. Situated on Green Island off the coast of Taitung, Zhaori is one of only three saltwater hot springs in the world. The springs are a mixture of seawater and underground water that is kept heated by the volcanic lava underneath the island. The constant flow and change of water means it is constantly kept at a consistent temperature. The pools also overlook the ocean and sunset and sunrise are highly recommended for a view you will not forget easily. However if you’re short on time and still want to experience Taiwanese hot springs, Beitou is an MTR ride away from Taipei city centre and is a different experience altogether. The steaming river that accompanies your walk up to the hot springs is a surreal experience but so are the hot springs themselves. Think of 40 elderly Taiwanese men moving from pool to pool with flannels on their heads. They are apparently immune to heat as the water temperature ranges from scalding to icy cold. This is also not an easily forgotten experience but perhaps for different reasons.
Photo Credit: flickr | Wei-Te Wong
Finally, arguably the best hidden wonder in Taiwan is the food. Every town you visit will be absolutely teeming with night markets, selling all manner of street food for as little as £1. The Taiwanese hamburger or ‘gua bao’ is an extremely worthy rival of its western counterpart. Made with a steamed rice bun, spring onions, and pork belly it is the perfect mid afternoon snack, or if you have 2 or 3 it makes a hearty lunch. It is common place for sellers to ask how much of the meat you would like to be fat and while the recommended 50/50 split may seem gross at first, it is the most delicious way.
Other local delicacies include ‘xiao long bao’ or soup dumplings. These tiny pork dumplings come filled with broth and fair warning, they come piping hot. The traditional way of eating them (and also the best way to do it without melting your tongue) is to bite a hole in the dumpling and let the soup into the spoon and eat the broth separately. For vegetarians the options are much more limited, however Taiwan is famous for its mushrooms and they are extraordinary. Often deep fried and topped with chilli salt, it doesn’t make for a low calorie snack but it is incredibly tasty.
Photo Credit: flickr | Charles Haynes
Taiwan may not compare to China or Japan in terms of size but in terms of scenery, attractions, food and culture, it is one of the hidden gems of East Asia and should not be missed out on.