Tainan / Kenting / Hualien, Taiwan  臺南、墾丁、花蓮

With Taipei’s treats capturing so much of my attention, I was left with just one week to circle the rest of the island.

Where Taipei looks forward with modern trends, Tainan looks back to history and tradition, as the oldest city in Taiwan. On the streets, I hear far more Taiwanese than I do Mandarin. And as if Taipei didn’t have enough temples, well… Tainan’s chock full of them, and each of them are chock full of people. Tradition isn’t something just for the old though.

Having never really learnt much about Confucian or Taoist beliefs, let alone even heard of Matsu before, most of the contents depicted in temples goes right over my head. While the Confucian temples are spacious and simple, adorned with Chinese calligraphy celebrating humanity and personal ideals (which graduating students seem to flock to for fun photo shoots), there aren’t any deities, and I can pretty easily set them apart. On the flipside, I’m not even sure if Matsu (a sea goddess) worship has been subsumed by Taoism, as their temples looked pretty similar to me — red and gold and smoky, gods depicted in statues or drawn on the walls. Worshippers kneel and offer incense, reading their own fortunes from a barrel of sticks 求籤 or from geomancy, and writing their prayers down on a temple board. It’s not just old people doing it though — by far the largest cohort seems to be students, coming with their friends! That came as probably the largest surprise to me — I had assumed most were non-religious, like the many members of the Taiwanese diaspora that I know.

I can’t keep track of all the gods, but I’m pretty sure I at least passed temples dedicated to a god of war, a city god, and an underworld god with a bunch of demons gods. (Some of the murals get a little gory.) Prominent historical figures become deified, too — Matsu’s one example, but another prominent figure here is Koxinga, a Japanese-Chinese general who fought against the 38-year Dutch occupation of Taiwan.

…Which is something I never even knew about before. You can see the Dutch history elsewhere in Tainan: the Chihkan temple is built on top of the old Fort Provintia, while there’s even still a Dutch lighthouse and fort in the suburb of Anping 安平. While Anping is now full of more Chinese-style temples, graveyards, and old homes (many sporting an emblem of a lion with a sword in its mouth), it used to be an old trading port seeing Dutch, Japanese, Spanish, Han Chinese, and the aboriginal Pinpu all co-mingling. There are still colonial style heritage buildings that were built for merchants.

Behind one of these merchant houses — formerly Tait & Co., now a museum — is its old warehouse, now completely overgrown by a banyan tree! The sheer extent to which it has been reclaimed by nature is hard to believe, even in person.

In addition to historical sights, Tainan’s also known for food that leans more into the past than the new-fangled stuff you see in Taipei. There’s oyster omelets 蚵子煎 (gummy, slathered in a rather sticky sauce; not exactly my style, but a favoured texture in Taiwan), coffin toast 棺材板 (deep-fried toast, with one side cut open and stuffed with a creamy seafood gravy), danzai noodles 擔仔麵 (seafood and braised pork), and streets full of vendors passing out samples of freshly-pressed shrimp crackers. Locals recommended far more, and I waited through giant lineups for a simple beef soup, milkfish belly in a sweet and starchy “soup”, turkey rice, pig heart (…I passed on that one), and enormous loaves of that fluffy traditional-style cake. Most of these were in mom-and-pop stalls with their plastic chairs and tables overflowing onto the streets, rather than night markets: they’ve been open for decades, and they all specialise in variations on the same one or two items. The hour-long lines speak for themselves.

And while Taipei has large night markets that run every evening, Tainan’s largest markets run a schedule instead, alternating opening days so that at least one is open every night. At the rather inconveniently-located but enormously popular Dadong market, I skipped the bugs and super-popular duck blood and instead tried a variation of the Taiwanese “(sweet pork) sausage in (sticky rice) sausage” and a jaw-droppingly perfect, freshly made green onion pancake. If it weren’t for me already having had dinner before going to the night market, I could’ve spent ages longer shuffling through the aisles: rather than lining a single street, this market is a crush of stalls lining a park, with fancy stalls rubbing shoulders with cheaper ones, and banners everywhere screaming for attention.

Leaving Tainan and its colourful streets behind, it was time to relax and hit up some nature! At the very southern tip of Taiwan is Kenting National Park, dotted with little seaside towns of all sorts — whether for locals, tourists, surfers, or fishermen. And after months and months of cold weather, from Uzbekistan all the way back to Canada, I was elated to finally hit up the beach.

…For one beautiful day. Unfortunately, the weather for the rest of my stay was a mix of sun, rain, and heavy winds, but I still had a good time! Renting an electric scooter that maxed out at 30 km/h, I slowly but silently putted my way around the surprisingly hilly coast (as everyone else from motorcycles to trucks passed me), stopping everywhere that looked pretty. Sandy beaches, rocky coasts, crashing waves, windswept forests, mountains, and cliffs formed the backdrop — I’ll let the pictures say the rest.

Aside from Kenting’s main beach though, I spent some time at the very small Baisha (white sand) Beach 白沙灣, which lives up to its name. More intriguing though is the surrounding trees: strange, twisty, and alien-looking. This was the setting of the film adaptation of Life of Pi, and not coincidentally, director Ang Lee is from this area of Taiwan. While it’s now sadly been turned into a bit of a tacky tourist resort, the charm is still there.

I also took a short hike through Sheding 社頂 Nature Park, not far from the Kenting National Park Recreational Area, except smaller and with free admission. Both parks are situated on some of the highest terrain in the area, and yet were formerly part of the sea floor: deep gorges made of ancient coral give that away.

Joining up with fellow traveller Varoon and his scooter after I returned mine, we pushed the battery to the limits, finding a nameless roadside beach to ourselves in stormy weather, sampling the local fish, then heading to the Qigong 七公 (seven level) waterfalls. It was a short but strenuous and steep hike — lined with ropes which were welcome and necessary — before we came across a swimmable pool, with a waterfall above and a waterfall below. It was a rush to lean over the edge to take in the view of the jungle surrounds and the rocks below, but we hurried on out upon signs of another impending storm.

Exhausted and cold, we chose to reward ourselves with a dip in the hot springs…some 30 km (one hour) away, riding in the dark into headwinds, too worried about the scooter battery to turn on the headlight for more than a few seconds at a time. More exhaustion! After an hour splurging at the fancy Japanese-style digs complete with high-pressure cold water massagers and scalding hot pools, we made a detour (again, bracing ourselves for a dead scooter battery) to the Chuhuo 出火 Scenic Area, home to an eternal fire due to natural gas leaking from the ground. Considering the one I saw just a few months ago in Turkmenistan… well, this one was a bit of a bust. Heh. At least we managed to make it all the way back to Kenting — it’s kind of a marvel that we did, and we fretted the entire time!

All in all, we had a great time hanging out together and just trying random places on the map! Alas, if time permitted, I would have loved to stay even longer, whether to hope for good weather (which turned out not to be the case anyway, after I left) and relax on the beach more, or slow-scoot around some more finding more oddities — like a nuclear power plant open to visitors — little hidden gems. But instead, I took the train all the way up the east coast, watching as the landscape changed dramatically from dense forest to rice paddies to cliffs dropping into the sea, and made my way to Hualien.

Hualien itself is just a city, though not without its charms, and by charms I really just mean food. Aside from the night market, which inexplicably had its own elaborate yet too-close-for-comfort fireworks display on a date of no significance (seriously, these fireworks are better than what Vancouver puts on for Canada Day!), I was recommended a ton of local specialties that were universally delicious: the east-coast version of coffin toast, aboriginal boar sausage, ultra-sweet watermelons, and the classic steamed dumplings, to name a few. But still, beyond food, there wasn’t much keeping me in town.

Rather, everyone comes to Hualien to head to the nearby Taroko National Park, home to the namesake Taroko Gorge 太魯閣, Taiwan’s most famous nature destination. While the weather again put a small damper on my visit, as did crowds and long waits for buses, it’s pretty much impossible to detract from how beautiful the tunnels and canyons of marble are, the tops of which are cottoned by clouds like a traditional Chinese painting. Winding beside rivers of bright blue hues, hiking paths are carved right into the face of the canyons, and I lament not getting a permit for the Jhuilu Old Trail, the most precarious of the lot. Still, I’ll take what I can get!

And with that, a train back to Taipei, and a full loop around the island! There’s so much I skipped… But being back in the world of time-limited travel means I had to pick and choose. With plenty more I didn’t touch on including nature destinations (better in the summer), outlying islands, aboriginal culture, and of course food, I’m beyond eager for a return visit!

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