The colourful town of Juifen is the perfect side-trip from Taipei, set in the mountains of north east Taiwan. I fell asleep on the bus and woke up realising we were only 100 meters from our stop so we quickly buzzed the bell, grabbed our bags and hopped off the bus directly into torrential rainfall. We managed to run to an overhanging roof and laugh about the situation we were in because there was no point getting upset…at least for now. As far as we knew getting to our homestay looked fairly straightforward but the area was a maze of alleys and stairways and after thirty minutes we still couldn’t find the place. We had our ponchos on but they were flapping about in the wind and our legs and shoes were getting soaked. A nun saw us looking lost and she kindly called up someone to translate our situation but the rain was so heavy we couldn’t hear what she was saying. We finally ended up at a building that looked slightly similar the one we’d seen online and an old man shuffled out to greet us, phew. It was a really cute little homestay and it felt like we were staying at someone’s grandparents house, well, we literally were. The bed was delightfully soft and comfortable which was such a relief as the previous night we slept on a bed that felt like a slab of slate. Remarkably we had the whole homestay to ourselves, we were a little worried when we booked it as there was only one shared bathroom between 5 rooms but everyone cancelled their bookings due to the rain except for us…every cloud has a silver lining ay!
We had to reluctantly venture out to get some food but we managed to find a cheap little eatery not too far from us that sold simple fried rice and a delicious dessert of soft jelly in a sort of cold, lime syrup flavoured soup. The rain was unforgiving but we had to go out again for dinner and our cheap eatery was now closed which meant a longer walk to the old town. It was the reason we came here to be fair but I was just hoping to see it in better weather. We couldn’t actually figure out where the old town was, we headed up random stairways and through quiet alleys and then all of a sudden we arrived in a square with tall buildings covered in red lanterns. We also found all the people too who were congregated in the narrow alleys leading off from the square. Due to the rain they were all using umbrellas which was quite hazardous in such a narrow space so we had to be careful not to have our eyes poked out.
The town is said to be the inspiration for the movie Spirited Away and the old town was certainly picturesque with its wooden teahouses covered in little windows and glowing lanterns. We couldn’t find any decent vegetarian options for dinner so I opted for a dessert of Taro Ball Soup. To be fair it’s kind of a mix of sweet and savory with these bizarre taro and sweet potato balls which have a chewy texture and are in a bowl of sweet soupy liquid with kidney beans.
The following day was another write-off which was such a shame but we managed to change our plans a little as the day we checked out was dry so we left our luggage in the grandparents lounge and headed out on a hike. A short bus ride took us to the start of the popular Teapot Mountain hike, named because the black, rocky summit resembles a teapot from a certain angle. We got some nice views on the way up of the surrounding hills, little shrines and the sea and then things became a little more challenging from the summit. There were ropes to help navigate our way around the teapot, one of the routes actually enters the teapot itself and comes out the other side but the route didn’t build us with confidence as it was sort of through a rocky cave and earthquakes are always on our mind in Taiwan. So we opted for a route around the side. We continued the hike to Banpinshan Summit which involved some vertigo inducing sections. The first of which was a sort of sheer wall with a chimney section we had to navigate up, there were footholds and a rope to help us up but I didn’t enjoy it much. We stood on a rocky ridgeline at the top and had a steep, slanted section to get across, once again with a rope to help us. Amazingly there were two groups of retired locals aged between 60 and 70 doing exactly the same route as us which is so impressive. I’m glad we finally managed to explore some of the natural sights around Juifen but it’s a shame we didn’t have better weather.
For our final 3 nights in Taiwan we used Taipei as our base and our first stop was a dog cafe, similar to a cat cafe but better…because dogs are better. Cat cafes actually originated in Taiwan, not Japan like many people think so there’s quite a lot of them around the city but I wanted to visit one with dogs and found a cafe that was a half way house for adoptable dogs. There were only 3 dogs there and they were very food orientated so they weren’t really interested in strokes unless we had food in our hand but they were all very cute and I loved the concept of them being adoptable as locals can come in for a coffee and see if they bond with the dog.
There’s plenty of natural sights to explore outside the city so one day we caught a 2 hour bus to Yangmingshan National Park to look for a ‘secret’ hot spring. I’d read some information online that it was illegal to visit and had been closed off so we were really hoping we didn’t do a four hour roundtrip for nothing. Our first attempt at finding the hot spring failed as we came across ‘no entry’ and ‘private property’ signs along with a grumpy farmer so we headed back to the main road and decided to try and hitchhike to the next possible spot. Two lovely ladies pulled over and gave us a ride. They both spoke English so it was really nice to have a chat and when we said “you can drop us off anywhere around here” they insisted on turning off the main road and taking us right to the trailhead. From there we followed a river filled with big orange rocks like chunks of honeycomb and eventually arrived at another river which we had to cross. It was raging and an old lady was putting her shoes back on and pointing back the other way, it seemed like she tried to cross the river and failed but she knew a hidden route over the mountain that we could follow her along. Just as we all set off a young guy turned up and she said something to him, I imagine it was something along the lines of “Ah, thank god you’re here, can you show these tourists how to cross the river…and don’t leave until they’ve both made it across”. There was a rope leading across the river to hold onto for balance and the guy made it look pretty easy, stepping on orange boulders under the fast-flowing water. Luckily the water wasn’t very cold so we didn’t have to rush because of the temperature, and the water wasn’t as powerful as I was expecting, but it was still very challenging for me and some of the lunges from one rock to the next were massive. It was pretty daunting as I stretched my leg over to the next rock but with so much water gushing over them I couldn’t see where to put my foot so it just sunk into the rapids. I did eventually make it over and the sweet local guy sat on a rock and watched us the whole time incase we got into trouble. The rest of the walk was easy but we did have to pass a fence with a big sign saying it was forbidden to go any further and we would be fined. Clearly the locals ignore the sign, to the point that a well trodden path skirts around the fence.
Finally, we arrived at the magical blue hot springs! They were fed by a waterfall to the right which was like boiling water pouring down the mountain and steam was rising off it. To the left was the gushing river we’d crossed further down-stream and through the middle were tiered pools trickling down the hill towards the river. So they were fed with a mix of the hot spring water and the cool river making them a perfect temperature to soak in. The water was a lovely milky blue colour from the clay and silt so we couldn’t see where we were putting our feet as we stepped in and one time my leg sunk into a deep, endless hole. There were probably about 7 different pools so we had one all to ourselves. We weren’t the only ones here, about 10 locals were enjoying the hot water, mostly older people who also had to cross the crazy river and walk around the no entry zone.
Each pool varied in temperature depending on how much hot or cold water flowed into it so we walked upstream to try them all out. The locals sat there with flannels on their heads and they all seemed to be eating oranges, like it was the thing to do at a hot spring. I had to be careful walking to the other pools because suddenly the hot water wasn’t diluted and it almost burnt my feet. We managed to dig into a creepy hole and find some healing mud which we slathered on our face and bodies. Our skin felt like silk afterwards! The old lady we’d met at the river crossing turned up and sat at the far end of our pool…right where my leg sunk down into the abyss. She was probably about 70 or even older and she obviously found the hole an inconvenience so she started grabbing big rocks and sinking them to fill the hole in. It was very amusing because she was on a mission and very unaware of her surroundings so every time she dropped a heavy rock in the water it would splash across our faces and we couldn’t stop giggling “geez, if she keeps this up there won’t be any water left to soak in!
By lunch time the place became pretty busy with around 20 people so it lost it’s idyllic vibe that we had for the first couple of hours. Anyway, it was probably time we set off as we were complete raisins so we made our way back to the main road and luckily no police came down so we avoided a fine, hooray. We caught a bus back to Taipei and on the way we decided to hop out as we passed a really cool volcanic area. Steam was rising in big plume and making all sorts of noises as it violently poured out of gaps in the mountainside. It was a really pretty area with rolling green hills and hiking trails.
Another day trip we did from Taipei was to the hot spring town of Beitou. It was about an hour ride on the metro and I just loved that we could travel straight from the capital to see a volcanic sight. We walked through the town and after about 15 minutes we arrived at an emerald coloured pool with steam dancing across the surface. We continued up a road to see some more volcanic sights at Sulphur Valley. The area used to be mined for sulphur and at the back of this pale blue lake were jets of steam pumping out of yellow, sulphur stained rocks. There were little pools nearby designed to soak your feet in for free and the water was unbearably hot. When we saw locals exiting the pool their calves were bright red from the heat!
On our way back to our hotel we headed to a night market for dinner which was crazy busy, too busy really. The popular stalls all had a long queue with a 30 minute wait for food!! Remarkably some of these street venders have a Michelin star so once that happens everyone wants to eat at that stall and the lines begin. The queuing seemed like such a faff to us but the Taiwanese seem to be the most patient people and will happily stand and wait, sometimes queuing for 30 minutes just so their friend can get a snack from one stall and then they’ll queue again at another stall for a different snack.
After 16 action packed days it’s time for us to say goodbye to Taiwan. We only really scratched the surface so there’s a lot more I’d love to come back and see one day. We loved the natural sights; from hot springs and jumping into crystal clear rivers to the impressive valleys and deep gorges. The people were so friendly and I just loved how easy it was to travel as the trains and buses run to a set schedule. There’s organised queues to enter the subway, people are polite and courteous and it’s just a really lovely place to explore! The downside however is the accommodation which needs to be booked in advance if you want a cheap room, especially on weekends as locals all head out for getaways…or sex! And many hotels have rooms by the hour, luckily we managed to avoid accidentally staying in a love hotel. So the prices on the weekends tend to double or triple which meant we had to really plan where we’d be on a weekend and pre-book. For example in Taipei we couldn’t find a room for less than £60 a night on a weekend so we picked a homestay in Juifen for £26 a night. So it’s very possible to travel on a budget but it takes planning and a bit of the fun out of it as there’s no spontaneity. We also couldn’t really afford to stay in a mountain town like Alishan as rooms were £60 a night. But if we return I think it will be with a tent so we have the freedom to explore the wilder corners of Taiwan.