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Tale Of Two Cities

A city girl heads to Taiwan for a holiday and returns with two contrasting experiences.

Words: Ellyse Ng Photography: Adam Lee 

Tiny stones scuttled down the 10-metre drop. I stood atop the towering cliff and stared at the river below. The deep shade of turquoise suggested a minimum depth of at least 12 metres. My teammates below yelled out words of encouragement. “Anytime you’re ready” my river-tracing instructor urged in Mandarin. I took a deep breath, stepped up to the edge of the cliff and jumped. My earlier days in Taipei played out like a cinematic experience.


The dazzling lights of Taipei, an exciting city that is also home to the famous Taipei 101 tower, the second tallest building in the world.

City One: The Concrete Jungle 

Surrounded by skyscrapers, a delectable food scene and friendly locals, my elation at having arrived in this city was boundless. Taiwan excites me with its charm, and my affection for this island has been a continuous love affair that could easily rival the greatest romances in history.

     Four days earlier, I’d arrived at the ‘Land of the 101’ where the iconic attraction serves both as a national symbol and a useful landmark for tourists. A structure synonymous with Taipei, it truly reflects the city’s persona as a forest of silver skyscrapers, accented with artistic structures and well-manicured lawns.

     It was almost nightfall when I stepped out of my airport taxi at Ximending, the unofficial street to see and be seen. Predominantly catering to the young and inhabited by wideeyed hopefuls desperate to make it big in the city, the street’s youthful pulse promised insights into the city’s underbelly.

     The street was ablaze with neon pants, even brighter hair hues and statement Tees  that’d have had my mother howling in protest! I quickly ducked out of the way of a chain of youngsters on roller skates, stared (politely) at a group of Cos-players in full getup, and took a minute or so to snap photos of a friendly poodle. Soon, even the cute poodle and the shenanigans of the über cool crowd couldn’t keep my hunger pangs at bay. I wandered off, seduced by the enticing aromas wafting from the many street hawkers and cafés. That night, I dreamt of eating stinky tofu on the viewing deck of Taipei 101.


The mountainous landscape of Taroko National Park in Hualien.

If taxis and motorised vehicles are not your cup of tea, renting a bicycle to explore Taipei is the eco-friendly way to go.

     Refreshed, the next morning I set out in search of ‘one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores’ as listed by FlavorWire, in Section 4 of the Zhongxiao District. Thankfully, the locals were ever willing to help, despite my feeble attempts to converse in Mandarin, and pointed me towards a Bohemian neighbourhood of colourful art spaces and kitschy shops. It was here that I found the bookstore named VVG Something. The premise was surprisingly small – not what I’d expected from one of the world’s ‘best bookstores’. The long wooden table in the middle of the room was piled with beautifully bound coffee table books and imported hardbacks. A coffee bar at one end provided my daily caffeine fix as I settled down with a humongous cup of cappuccino and a pop-up book based on C. S. Lewis’ fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia. Not big or beautiful in the conventional sense but with coffee in hand and a delightful book to read, I readily agreed that this was the best bookshop in the world!

     Soon, it was time to bid farewell to the bookstore as I wanted to head over to Xinyi District to catch the sun as it set over Taipei 101. Adam (the photographer) and I searched for a vantage point to capture the moment and soon found the perfect spot on a pedestrian bridge behind the World Trade Centre. The weather was chilly but the spectacle itself was worth a thousand years of confinement in the North Pole.

Attired in brightly coloured clothes, the young truly enjoy being seen as they rollerskate at Ximending.

Come day or night, the streets of Taipei is bustling with cars, bikes and pedestrians.

     Later, wanting to explore the city on my own, I bid Adam goodbye and walked towards Simple Market. By day, the concrete warehouse and its vicinity are an organic outdoor market, vibrant and lively but, by night, the businesses retreat indoors and the warehouse turns into a lifestyle store. I walked into this building and was thankful for the warmth of the foyer that also doubles up as an art gallery. 

     Inside, I noticed a large crowd queuing in front of Good Cho’s Café (www.streetvoice.com/goodchos). Knowing this to be the universally recognised sign of good food, I joined the line and ordered a vinegar pork bagel. It was the perfect culinary balance of east meets west; the Asian vinegary pork wonderfully complementing the chewy bagel – a memorable meal indeed!

     By my last day in Taipei, the traffic gridlock at rush hour and ultra-fast elevators hadbecome a norm. Despite the maniacal pace, I managed to find solace in the vast compound of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. A hushed silence enveloped me like a blanket of hallowed tranquillity. The compound boasted Chinese gardens complete with ponds and bridges, while a huge monument in honour of the former President of the Republic of China  stood majestically in the centre. Staring at this historic icon, gloom hung over my head as I noticed my time in this city was coming to an end. In a couple of hours, a new chapter was about to begin.

City Two: The Natural Jungle

My high cliff jump into the river ended in a spectacular splash. My teammates cheered loudly as I raised both hands in victory – disregarding the hard whack my bum had just taken upon landing on the hard ground. Despite wearing the most horrendous orange wetsuit, the exhilaration of having jumped off the cliff into the turquoise waters of San Zhan River was an experience that words fail to capture. 

Before jumping from the 10-metre cliff, the writer and her team strike a pose.

     Before I drowned completely in euphoria and the deep water, the river-tracing instructors from Peace Diving Company (www.peace-diving.com.tw) pulled me out of harm’s way, setting the tone for my adventure in Taiwan’s Eden-esque town of Hualien.

     Aboard the two-hour train ride to Hualien the day before, I had reminisced about my  time in Taipei and how I’d blended into this mighty metropolis so well. My city girl upbringing had rejected the very thought of living in the embrace of nature for the next four days, but 10 minutes after stepping onto the platform, I was smitten. 

     Gone were the silver skyscrapers, futuristic sculptures and maddening malls. In its place were jade mountains, majestic limestone caves and twisting highways built along magnificent cliffs. The air was fresh in Hualien, and the unobstructed view of never-ending mountains was a refreshing sight. The locals were friendly and ever ready with colourful stories. It wasn’t my idea of a holiday but this wasn’t all that bad either I convinced myself.

     Right after my river adventure, my travel party and I packed into a tiny bus and headed for the forests of Taroko National Park. The starting point for our exploration was the Swallow Grottoes. The sheer marble cliffs are home to swifts and swallows who take up residence in the gaps and openings in the rock face. The gargantuan cliffs were truly awe-inspiring but even more excitement awaited me as we entered a darkened tunnel, emerging at the end to find a forest trail.

When in Hualien, do catch the traditional dance of the A-Mei Tribe, the largest indigenous tribe in the county.

Pictures of Buluowan Village depicting its rich culture and history at the Leader Village Hotel in Taroko.

     In the light drizzle, what kept egging me on despite my inappropriate choice of footwear (ballet flats, unfortunately) was the distant view of the Bai Yang Waterfall. As we neared the white waters that cascaded into a jade green river, my group oohed and aahed, taken up by the sheer beauty of the falls. Crossing a suspension bridge, I entered The Curtain Cave where I could easily make out ‘curtains’ of natural spring water raining down from the ceiling, hence its name. Determined to stay dry in the cave’s heavy downpour, I donned a raincoat and tried opening my umbrella but all these proved to be an exercise in futility as within minutes, I was as wet as a fish.

     After a day well spent in Taroko National Park, it was time for some much-needed rest. Arriving at Leader Village Hotel Taroko (www.leaderhotel.com) in Buluowan Village, I was  given a quick tour of the tribal-themed lobby before the hotel owner regaled me with tales of his forefathers who helped build the twisting highways of Hualien – a seemingly impossible task judging from the lack of modern tools and the extremely steep cliffs. According to him, many men sacrificed their lives during the construction in order to connect Hualien’s once-rural villages to the modern world.

Visitors get to shave fish flakes to top their meals at Chihsing Katsuo Museum in Hualien.

Princess Coffee is an establishment run by an actual tribal princess! Here, she is with her famous honey black tea leaves, harvested only during summer.

     Dinner was a splendid affair as the hotel staff re-enacted the Buluowan hunting tradition where the men bring home the kill (a roasted pig) flaming torches in hand as they belt out traditional hunting songs in Buluowan’s native language. Meanwhile, local children entertained the hotel guests with Buluowan warrior dances and harvest songs. Fatigue and a full tummy conspired and soon, I was yearning for a bed to rest my weary body. Mercifully, the kids soon stopped prancing about and I sauntered off to my wooden chalet on a lush green plateau, surrounded by mountains. That night, I slept soundly in the bosom of Mother Nature.

     My adventures didn’t end there. On my last day in Hualien, I boarded a luxury boat for the most amazing natural encounter ever – whale watching. When it comes to this activity, Huadong Whale World (www.huadong.com.tw) is one of the most reputable tour operators in Hualien. The weather was not in our favour, but the formidable-looking captain was adamant not to let grey clouds and choppy waves ruin the day. As he navigated the boat through the treacherous ocean with precision and skill, the rest of us held on to the railings, battling seasickness while trying to stay brave. The waves grew bigger by the minute, and our hope of sighting a whale or two faded away. Suddenly, the captain yelled and turned the boat sharply. On the starboard, we spotted the grey fin of a dolphin! A rounded snout emerged from the surface of the water, and soon, four other dolphin families joined in the fun, frolicking in the waters next to the boat. I snapped away with my camera phone. By the end of the day, my phone battery flat-lined and I had no other means of connecting to the modern world, but I could not be happier.

Saying ‘Hello’ to a dolphin or two at Hualien waters.

The Best Of Both Worlds

It was with mixed feelings that I left Taipei and Hualien. As different as day and night, one was a capital filled with lights, colours and excitement, the other was the canvas that Mother Nature painted herself. The one similarity they both bore was the Taiwanese stamp of hospitality – warm smiles and an ever willing helping hand. Two wonderfully contrasting cities in one vacation – I could not ask for more!

GETTING THERE: AirAsia X flies to Taipei from Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and Clark (Manila). 
Go to www.airasia.com for details.

Shaped like a water drop and done up in a blue and white theme, Wanderlust is one of the most memorable homestays in Hualien.

Taiwan’s Memorable Eats! 

Lu Rou Fan 
It’s amazing how a simple bowl of braised pork rice has the nation queuing up for hours. Simple yet flavourful, this is considered local comfort food.

Stinky Tofu
Once you’ve gotten past the putrid smell, you may just be up for the challenge of tucking into this savoury bean curd. Love it or hate it!

Deep-Fried Chicken
Bite into Taipei’s much-loved fried chicken for a mouthful of juicy chicken goodness beneath deliciously crispy skin.

Beef Noodle
A visit to Taipei is never complete without the famous beef noodle that’s so famous it has its own annual festival! There are many variations, which are easily found all over the city.

Yu Tiao & Soy Milk
Don’t let the simple cruller and soy milk fool you into lowering your expectations. Sweet yet savoury, it’s no wonder locals can’t get enough of this staple breakfast dish.

This delightful pop-up book of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

The entrance to the Chiang Kaishek Memorial Hall, one of Taipei’s most important monuments.

Hot Spots In Hualien

Chihsing Katsuo Museum
Echoing the Chinese saying ‘work for your own meal’, here you can shave your own fish flakes to top your Japanese-fusion dishes. An educational walkabout around the former fish flake factory is also available for the curious. www.formosoft.com/E_case04.htm

San Guo Yi (Three Kingdoms) Restaurant
Sample dishes made from one of the world’s strangest looking fish (the mola-mola). At certain times of the year, the menu here focuses entirely on appetisers, mains and even drinks and desserts inspired by the mola-mola. http://www.tw301.com.tw/

Hualien Shutao Souvenir Shop  
Savour melt-in-your-mouth pineapple bay cakes at the Hualien ShuTao Souvenir Shop, and meet the jolly owner who’s ever willing to let you sample first. www.funny111.com.tw