Taiwan #4: Shifen

After hiking the Sandiaoling waterfall trail, we decided to stop at Shifen on our way back to Taipei. One of the things on my Taiwan bucket-list was releasing a paper lantern.

We got off the train in Shifen just after sunset and walked through the town which is built along the old train tracks. We saw lots of couples and friends writing their wishes on the lanterns and releasing them. The glowing light illuminated their captivated faces as they held the lanterns up.

We found a store where we could paint on our own lantern and write out our wishes. Tiana got to work while I mostly photographed an extremely old dog. A man was feeding him some sort of yogurt substance. The dog seemed to be in pain and have joint problems, but he was so happy to eat and rolled around afterwards. I decorated one side of the lantern.

We stood in the middle of the tracks feeling the warmth of the flame in our lantern and slowly released it into the sky. We watched the flame flicker above us and carry the lantern along with our wishes up into the night sky. Soon it was nothing more than a glowing dot. And then it was gone.

Taiwan #3: Sandiaoling

While based in Taipei, we went on our second day trip; this time we decided to get a closer look at some of the beautiful nature in Taiwan and hike the Sandiaoling waterfall trail.

We took the train out from the city and walked along the tracks for about a mile to reach the entrance of the hike. There we saw a young couple taking wedding photos. There was small derelict town at the base of the hike. The entrance to the hike started beside the town's local elementary school. We walked up the moss covered steps and slowly began to disappear into the forest.

Shortly after beginning our trek, we ran into a massive worm, which I forced Tiana to stand next to for scale. It was easily the biggest worm I've ever seen. I tried to do some research and find out more about this creature but was having a hard time, partially due to another bizarre worm that was discovered in Taiwan. In general there are a lot of large and strange bugs in Taiwan, which I find deeply interesting.

Shortly after passing a temple area and some other crumbling structures, we came to a lookout with an incredible view of the first waterfall. This view really gave context to the power of falling water within the vastness of the mountainous forest around it. As we watched, large butterflies with unique colored patterns flew all around us.

We crossed a pair of suspension bridges over the water, noticing schools of vigorous fish swarming below.

We saw the white splashing water through the leaves and branches. Soon we were practically right under the falls. I didn't truly appreciate the beauty and scale until that point. The water came shooting over the edge of the jutting rock at the top and crashing onto a large rock below. The cliffside hidden behind the waterfall was concave, carved out from the water. We could feel the mist on our skin.

We hiked up a steep staircase next to the falls. Some of the steps were metal, but most were carved into the stone cliff. Along the way, we were greeted by a friendly black dog that was waiting on the precipitous steps. It was unclear to us how exactly he got there and whether or not he was able to climb the steps. We were told he belonged to someone at the temple located above us. He whimpered a bit as we walked up, making us think he was unable to climb. We agreed to look for someone up above and decide how to help him if we couldn't find anyone.

As we got to the top, there was another waterfall in front of us and an amazing view over top of previous waterfall we had just seen. It was amazing to see the water simply end and peer out into the open air and mountains beyond. We noticed another couple behind us, and one of them was actually carrying the dog! The dog happily came up to the water and drank thirstily. He then went to the edge of the cliff and peered out, seeming to reflect on existence.

As he was expertly tiptoeing the edge of the cliff, showing no fear of heights, I noticed a possible path to the steps where he'd been "stuck". Maybe I'm cynical but I think it's possible the dog was a con-dog who realized he could get people's sympathy (and more importantly, food) by appearing trapped on the steps. If that it is the case, I can't even be mad. Respect.

I was curious about the concave cliffside underneath the falls below, so we decided to explore that a bit before heading back. We found a damp and muddy underside. The rock had a wonderful texture which appeared to be a mixture of deposited minerals and plant matter. There were also a number of surprisingly large plants practically growing upside-down on the cliff wall.

Taiwan #2: Jiufen

Jiufen is often referred to as being the inspiration for the setting of Spirited Away, which is one of my favorite Miyazaki films. Although Miyazaki himself disputes this claim, I can certainly see the similarities. Either way, after visiting the town, I can assuredly say this: Jiufen is a magical place.

We made our way through the mountains on a small bus that we had boarded in Taipei that was set for Jiufen. As we climbed higher and higher, we caught glimpses of the radiant water of the East China Sea. Tucked away in the mountains of the Ruifang District, Jiufen was once an industrious gold mining town. During the Japanese occupation, allied POW soldiers who were held there were forced to work in the mines.

After we got off the bus, we saw a large crowd funneling into a small gap between some buildings on the street. Despite the unassuming appearance, this was the main entrance to Jiufen. I soon learned that Jiufen is a web of narrow alleyways, lined with storefronts and street carts. The main path carves its way up the mountain and each turn reveals new sights and mouthwatering smells.

We made frequent stops to taste different foods and snacks along the path. This is where I had one of my favorite desserts in Taiwan, the A-Zhu Peanut Ice Cream Roll, a sweet burrito stuffed with grounded up peanut candy and taro ice cream. We also browsed several shops, including an ocarina shop with decorative roots growing along the walls and ceiling. Tunnels branched off the main path and led away from the crowds into beautiful mountainside landscapes.

There were a surprising amount of animals to see along the way. There were lots of napping cats and dogs (some stray and some belonging to the shop owners). The cats appeared to take great satisfaction in claiming the seats of motos as their personal napping spots.

As the sun began to set, Tiana and I started looking for a nice place to drink tea and enjoy the view. Instead of going to one of the popular spots, or doing research, we simply wandered around and eventually stumbled upon a strange cave. It was covered in white writing and had a small sign that promised tea. We squeezed through the cave and emerged on the other side to discover a beautiful garden with a statue of Buddha.

We made our way into the tea shop, and noticed that there were tea kettles by each table, heated by hot coals. We enjoyed the best Oolong I've ever had paired with some savory roasted beans. We watched the town and the coast beyond fade from orange to purple to dark blue and the lights slowly begin to flicker on. In the distance, we could hear echoes of a sweet-sounding tune, which we later discovered was music from the garbage truck.

We packed up some of the tea and descended back through the streets to the bus stop. Jiufen had completely transformed during our time in the hidden tea shop. The streets were just as crowded as before, but took on a new quality as they were now illuminated from the warm light of glowing lanterns. 

Before returning back to our hostel we stopped at the infamous night market in Keelung, where we enjoyed braised pork rice, Taiwanese sausage, pork bun with peanuts, and the infamous oyster omelettes that I’d been eager to try since watching Anthony Bourdain eat them on Parts Unknown.