Taipei II (Feb 18-21): Shifen, Wulai, and Pingxi Sky Lantern

My trip back to Taipei went by extremely quick, thanks to the high speed rail ticket that Mike and Sandy had bought for me. Mike dropped me off at the station in Tainan at about 10:30 and my train left at 11:13. I got some coffee and sat down for awhile, and then went to get some snacks at 7-Eleven. Before I went into the shop, I wanted to get reorganised because I didn’t have any free hands to buy anything, so I set my phone on a broken ATM machine, tied my jacket around my waist, and put some random stuff into my bags. I scanned my ticket to go through the turnstiles, went into the shop to pick up a couple of bakery items, and had five minutes to go to the platform. I was on my way up the escalator and I went to grab my phone. But where was it?! I must have left it on the ATM! I ran up the rest of the escalator, ran back down the next escalator, and went to the man working the turnstiles to ask if I could go back through because I left my phone. He scanned his card, came with me, and luckily my phone was still just sitting there! I grabbed it, he scanned me back through, and I bolted back to the platform and made it back just in time. So much for a stress-free journey! Mike and Sandy had booked business class for me so I got a massive seat, and they handed out coffee and snacks. I had an empty seat beside me for half of the trip (until Taichung), which was also nice! It was great to experience a seat in business class, as I’m sure it won’t happen again! I arrived in Taipei at 1pm, picked up some sushi to take with me from the station (for 10TWD/$0.46AUD apiece), and took the metro to my hostel. This time I was staying at Smile Taipei, which is by the Yuanshan station, and it cost me 330TWD ($15.07AUD) per night for an 8-bed female dorm. I arrived before check-in time so no one answered the door when I rang the doorbell. I was sitting outside, searching up somewhere to hang out, when someone opened the door to leave, so I asked if I could go up. I was able to drop off my stuff, pay, and they got my bed ready within 15 minutes. I ate my sushi at the hostel and then decided to do some more touristy stuff since I didn’t get a huge chance to before. Plus it was pretty much the only day that I’d be spending IN Taipei for the next three nights. I started by taking the metro to the Ximen area, which is a huge (and busy!) shopping area. I went to the Red House, which is a famous theatre, but it was closed.

I noticed that a bunch of booths were set up and saw that there’d be a light show going on every night that week for the lantern festival, so I made a mental note to come back in the evening. I walked down some of the streets, but it was really busy and it wasn’t really my thing, so I continued walking to the Bo-Pi-Liao Heritage Street, but it was also closed. I guess Mondays aren’t a good day to be a tourist… I went to Longshan Temple, where there were a bunch of people taking turns to do their three bows and place their incense sticks. There were people along the edges of the temple who all had hymn books, and they were singing along to the music, which was really quite beautiful – I always find it very moving to be a part of something like that.

After walking around the temple, I made my way back towards Ximen, and walked through a couple of night markets on the way. I found a park, which ended up being somewhere people would bring their dogs to run off-leash. I sat for quite awhile and people/dog-watched before going to a restaurant that serves all-day breakfast called What Day Kitchen. Apparently, it’s really popular in the mornings, so I was glad to be able to find a few empty tables in the evening (although it was completely full by the time I left). They gave me a Mandarin menu and then a photo book with English, but the two didn’t really match up so I wasn’t exactly sure how to order what I wanted. I decided to go for fried chicken with eggs, portobello mushrooms, a salad (with thousand island dressing!), some French bread with blueberry cream cheese, and a milk tea – all for 115TWD ($5.11)!

I can see why the place is so popular! I got back to Ximen Square right before 6:30 and saw a bunch of people waiting around for the light show, so I joined in. I was expecting something to happen at 6:30 but nothing happened. We all waited and then finally, I went over to the information booth and saw that the first show wouldn’t be until 7pm. Well, I might as well just continue waiting! I was right in the front and by the time 7pm hit, there was a huge crowd of people behind me. They had a massive pig in the middle of the intersection and at 7, it played a bunch of music, danced, and changed colours for about three minutes.

I then continued walking among the mass of people because there were different light displays along the main street, some of them done by different countries. By the time I reached the end of the street, the show at that side was just beginning! It was the same type of thing, except all of the pictures were put onto a building.

I walked back to the main station, got a passion fruit bubble tea, and went back to the hostel for the night.

On Tuesday was the Pingxi Lantern Festival, one of the biggest lantern festivals in the country. I had joined a group on Couchsurfing who was planning to go together, so we had a massive whatsapp group. Basically at 10am, the booths open for people to get vouchers, which will give them an official lantern, and one lantern can be shared between four people. Six people from the group were planning to go before 10am so that they could get vouchers for the group, and then the rest of the group was going to head over at 3:30. The event didn’t start until 5pm, but I decided to go a bit earlier and spend the day there. I left at about 10:30, got to the main station and asked for a ticket to Ruifang, which cost me 49TWD ($2.18). I read that there would be shuttle buses from Ruifang to Shifen (where the festival was taking place). My train left at 11:18 so I ended up having to wait for 20-30 minutes, and then I arrived in Ruifang about an hour later. When we got there, it was another big crowd of people and they were directing us to a table selling train tickets to Shifen. They said that the tickets would be 80TWD and that the next bus wasn’t until 12:59 (aka another 45 minutes of waiting). I was a bit confused and asked about the shuttle and they said, “No shuttle.” I said that I’d come back and walked outside the station, where there was a shuttle bus sitting there waiting. Imagine that! I paid 30THB/$1.37 (the return ticket is free!), got a seat on the bus, and it left within five minutes. About 30 minutes later, the bus stopped on the side of the highway and they said we had to walk into town, which was still a 20 minute walk! However, it was downhill on a quiet lane and it was actually quite enjoyable.

I arrived in Shifen right at 1pm so I walked towards the train station, where tons of people were already releasing lanterns on the train track (which happens everyday of the year here). It was crazy because the train track was still functioning, so someone would blow a whistle and everyone would sprint off of the track to let the overcrowded train go by. I found a food stand that I had read about and it debones a drumstick and replaces the bone with rice.

I got one for 65TWD ($2.89), and it was delicious but also messy to eat! I then slowly made my way down the entire street and checked out some of the shops and food stalls.

I wanted to spend the afternoon going to Shifen waterfall, which is also known as Niagara of Taiwan. I made my way across a couple of suspension bridges and then there were a few viewpoints to look at the falls. It was quite busy (especially on the day of an internationally-known festival!), so I had to wait awhile in order to take my own selfie after all of the other selfie-takers took their turns.

Unfortunately, a lot of the park was covered with fallen lanterns. After I finished my time at the waterfall, I decided to check out the Couchsurfing whatsapp group to see what everyone else was up to. There was another girl who had just arrived in Shifen and asked where the group was, but no one was replying. I wrote her and said that I was also in Shifen, so we decided to meet up. She headed towards the waterfall because it would close at 4:30 so I sat at a table and enjoyed a lemon drink. Yaritza (Yari) showed up about 20 minutes later. She’s from Chicago and is doing a one-month trip away from work. We chatted for awhile, walked back to the waterfall, and then headed back to where the main event was supposed to take place. People were already gathered around the stage area, queuing for their lanterns (and it was only 4pm!). We wrote the group, who pinned us their location so we could meet up with them. One of the girls (Val) had gotten to the voucher counter later than the rest of the group (10:30), so her voucher was for the first set of lanterns at 5pm (the rest of the group would be at 6:30). There was also a larger group of people on their way to Shifen, so the chances of all of us being able to use the vouchers was slim. Val wanted to get rid of her voucher because it would still be light when the lanterns were released, so she was about to give the voucher to a stranger. I cut in and said that I’d still go, just for the experience, and Yari said she’d come too. It was 4:40 at that time, so we walked the way that we came and got there right before 5. The organisation of this event was spectacular! They led us into a large area where there were people with signs numbered 1 to 14. They told us to choose a line, and there were probably about ten vouchers per line, so at least 140 lanterns per release (they performed a release about every 20 minutes). While we were waiting to go into the main area, a lady from Formosa News (an English television channel in Taiwan) came up to me and asked if she could do an interview, so I did. She said that I’d be on channel 53 that night, but I had no way of watching 🙁 We finally started leaving the area that we were in to go to the main stage area. We had to wait there for awhile and then finally, we were let into the main area.

It was full of people wearing purple, so they told each voucher-holder to go to a different person. We had to wait again (I think it took so long because we were the first ones, so they were building it up and explaining everything). Finally, they handed out the lanterns and then gave us markers to write wishes with. We decided to write a different wish on each side – love, peace, health, and safe travels. We had a full song to decorate our lanterns so we finished quite fast, and we looked around and saw that some people had completely filled their lanterns with beautiful mandarin symbols (any lanterns written using the regular alphabet really didn’t look that nice!).

Some guys came around with torches to light all of the lanterns, and then we brought it to the ground so that we could hold it down with our feet and it could fill up with heat. You could really feel the heat of the fire – it was intense! A couple lanterns unfortunately caught fire and flew up into ashes. They counted down and we all let go of our lanterns, which was a beautiful sight!

We were ushered back out after our helper asked if she could take a picture with us. By that time, it was 5:50 so the whole process took at least an hour. Getting out was so much more crowded because there were a bunch of people trying to get in as well.

We decided to walk away from the main stage area, find some food, and watch the lanterns from a distance. We found a food stall that served barbecued pork on a hot dog bun and paid 75TWD ($3.33) each.

It was delicious! We sat and watched the lanterns for awhile and then walked back towards the train station. On the way, we got a peculiar dessert, which was basically an ice cream taco with peanut brittle and cilantro on the inside (I skipped the cilantro) – it’s the least messy ice cream snack I’ve had, and it only cost 35TWD ($1.56).

I decided to head back at around 8pm because I knew that it would take at least two hours to get back, and we could see the lineups for the shuttle from the bridge that we were on. A few of Val’s friends met up with us and we walked towards the shuttle. I asked if those shuttles were going to Ruifang and the man replied that the Ruifang shuttles were really far (likely the same 20 minute walk that I had to do when I arrived), and he said that these shuttles were going to the Taipei Zoo station. He said if we were okay with standing, we could hop on right then and there or else we’d have to stand in line. Since everyone else was going to the Taipei Zoo station, I decided I might as well go too, as I wasn’t too keen on walking to the other shuttles. We hopped onto the bus and it ended up taking about an hour, plus the bus driver was a pretty crazy driver. There was a moment when I flew forward, and many of us were falling all over the place. Finally, we arrived at the station and then I had to take two metros back to my hostel. By the time I got back, it was just before 10:30 so I picked up a taro milk and went back to my hostel.

Wednesday was my last full day in Taiwan, so I decided to do another day trip to a small village called Wulai. One of the main reasons for this was that I was determined to see some cherry blossom trees before I left. The cherry blossom season was just beginning and once the flowers bloom, they only stay for about two weeks. Therefore, you really have to be in the right place at the right time. I wasn’t too sure whether I should go because when I looked at the weather, it was supposed to be sunny in Taipei (which hasn’t really happened during my time there), and it was supposed to rain in Wulai. I decided to just risk it since I didn’t want to regret not going. I had to take a metro to the end of one of the lines, at Xindian Station and by the time I got there, it was just after noon so I found a KFC to get a burger combo. I then had to wait about ten minutes for the bus, #849, to take me to Wulai. The bus ride only took a half hour so I arrived in Wulai just after 1pm and at that point, it was still sunny. I walked into the Old Town and saw a bunch of food stalls set up.

Then I saw some stairs which led to a little log cart railway. The log cart railway was finished right before the Second World War, but it was actually used to connect the two parts of the village together – the waterfall side and then the old town with all of the hot springs. Now in the Old Town, you can rent a room and sit in a bathtub full of hot spring water for 100TWD ($4.57) per hour. However, that didn’t really peak my interest because when I think of a hot spring, I usually think outside in nature. Anyway, back in the day, people used to have log carts just as now we have cars – they’d have to use them to get into town to get their groceries or whatever else they’d need. I decided I might as well go for a ride, and I paid 50TWD ($2.22) for a 5-minute ride to the waterfall.

I got a spot right in the front beside the driver, which was cool! It was at the waterfall where I finally got to see some cherry blossom trees! There were only about six trees and only half of them still had flowers on them, so I was lucky enough.

I was looking around and a little old man came out of a museum and asked if he could help me with anything. I replied that I was looking for anywhere to go hiking, and he told me to walk along the highway until I found a bridge, cross it, and there would be some “water for me to play in.” Well, I’m not sure I wanted to play in any water, but I took his advice and headed for the bridge, even though the skies were starting to look a bit dark. There was one point when I had to go through a narrow car tunnel, where there wasn’t any space designated for pedestrians, so I had to walk through quickly and hope that any cars that came through would swerve out of the way.

About 20-30 minutes later, I finally got to the bridge. I walked down the trail for another 20-30 minutes, passed four little waterfalls, and then it started lightly raining so I turned back. I decided to continue walking back down to town rather than take the log cart again because it was only a 1.5 kilometre walk.

I got back to the bottom and stopped at the Wulai Atayal Museum, which had different artefacts from the indigenous people who lived there. I then went back to the bus station and waited for the bus.

By the time I got back into Taipei, it was after 6pm so I decided to go to the Shilin Night Market. Honestly, I wasn’t too impressed with this market – it seemed more directed at tourists and didn’t have the same charm as other night markets do. I ended up in a basement food court and went to a stall that was completely full. I decided to get soup dumplings one last time since it was my last dinner in Taiwan, but I was most disappointed with these ones. They didn’t have any broth and they didn’t seem very fresh, but they were probably the most expensive ones that I’ve paid for at 100TWD ($4.57). I found a bubble tea place and got one last taro bubble tea and then I headed back to my hostel.

On Thursday, I had to get up and out of my hostel by 9pm to get to the Taoyuan airport. I decided to take the bus 936/937 to Linkou Station (which is where Liah lives) and then transfer onto the metro there because the bus tended to be a lot quicker. However, I’ll save my journey to Kuala Lumpur for another post. I really enjoyed my time in Taiwan! The people are so friendly and hospitable, it wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold, and there was so much green everywhere! Plus the food was great! Everyone I talked to would say, “Wow, three weeks in Taiwan?! How are you going to spend three weeks there?” But I didn’t even feel like three weeks was enough time – there’s still so much that I didn’t have time to explore! I guess I’ll have to save it for next time… Love always

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