BACKPACKING TAIWAN PT 1
Is your life calling for an adventure? In need of a tropical getaway? Craving fresh food and cold sweets? Whether you’re in the middle of a long-term trip or have a few weeks off work, Taiwan is the perfect place to live it up and see it all. An island smaller than West Virginia and often called “the heart of Asia,” Taiwan can be fully explored in a matter of weeks, but its rich cultural history, geographic diversity, stunning landscapes, and unfailingly kind residents can keep you busy for as long as you need. It’s cheaper than neighboring Japan, more accessible than Mainland China, and as gorgeous as Hawaii. This is how I traveled the entire island in three weeks, arriving solo in early May and leaving with some of the best stories and new friends I had ever made.
Week 1: The North
Start your trip like I did by flying into Taipei, the capital city and best place to be introduced to the island. The city center is navigable via metro and an easy express train from the airport. Divided into districts and home to the majority of Taiwan’s college population, Taipei has a youthful vibe and is filled with incredible food. The shopping and party district is Ximending, where most of the backpackers decide to stay. I also recommend the Songshan area, a quieter option that’s close to Taipei’s best night market—Raohe—and adjacent to many parks that run along the shore of Keelung River.
The Taiwanese are famously multicultural. Taiwan mixes traditional Chinese heritage (and traditional written characters) with Japanese and Western influence. It’s also politically liberal, with its own government and freedom of speech. Taipei preserves its national and religious history by blending modern skyscrapers with pre-modern monuments and ancient temples. These protected sites are what make up the majority of Taipei’s tourist attractions, and they’re not to be missed. Take in the history and the architecture, learn as much as you can, and cool off after with equally famous shaved ice.
Most of Taipei can be seen in just a few days, but it’s worth staying longer in the area and venturing to one of the many seaside or forest towns outside the city. You can take a day trip to the Jinguashi Ecological Park or the waterfalls of Shifen to have a taste of Taiwan’s many natural wonders. I decided to stay overnight in Jiufen, a historic mining town built into the side of a mountain with views of the ocean. It’s worth braving the bumpy bus ride to the top of the hill just in time for sunset, and even the crowds of people on Jiufen Old Street are worth pushing through to watch the city be lit up by lanterns at nightfall.
The best decision I made at the beginning of my trip to Taiwan was to not have a schedule. I started in Taipei and built my itinerary once I met other backpackers who were starting there too. Even though I’m anything but an extrovert, I pushed outside my comfort zone and went on an organized pub crawl that not only showed me a side of the city I wouldn’t have found on my own, but also introduced me to fellow travelers. Alongside another Canadian, an English math enthusiast, and the others we picked up along the way, I left the city for Taiwan’s east coast having no idea what adventures awaited me there.
· Lodging: Meander Hostel in Ximending District, Taipei
· Site: Longshan Temple and Elephant Mountain, both best at night
· Adventure: Taipei Pub Crawl organized by Tour Me Away. It’s worth the price and where I met the friends I would travel with for the next two and a half weeks of my trip!
· Food: Everything from the night markets, as well as the vegetarian shops, bubble tea, and the bizarre flavors (sticky rice! Pork floss?) at Snow King Ice Cream
And what I missed that I wish I’d seen: The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hal