When we were researching online and asking friends and family what we should do in Taiwan beyond visiting Taipei, a unanimous suggestion was always to go visit the Taroko Gorge in Hualien county to take in some of Taiwan’s beautiful natural landscapes on the Pacific coast. So that’s where we headed next.
We were warned that getting train tickets in and out of Hualien can be tricky (with many trains getting booked up very fast) so we actually booked our tickets back when we were in Taipei (and thankfully when my mother was there to help us translate!). In fact we weren’t able to find tickets on the train we wanted to take from Tainan to Hualien so we had to settle on catching a train from nearby Kaohsiung instead. This meant on the morning of our travel day we caught a taxi to the train station in Tainan in order to take an hour long commuter train to Kaohsiung first. This ended up being quite a pleasant ride, much like a subway or GO train equivalent with big bench seats that let Daniel roam around and look out the window the whole time. When we arrived in Kaohsiung, we picked up a few more delicious train station boxed lunches and waited for our next train to Hualien. This ride would take about 5.5 hours, which made us a little nervous since we figured the kids would be restless and tired but surprisingly they both took it relatively well and we managed to enjoy our ride touring down the beautiful southern tip of Taiwan and then up the scenic and mountainous eastern coast. Jesse aptly remarked to me mid-trip that this would have been the kind of train ride we would have absolutely loved pre-kids. But truthfully it was fairly tough for us to be able to do much more than glance a few minutes at a time out the window while we tag-teamed watching, feeding, entertaining and potty-ushering/diapering the kids. Still, we enjoyed the train ride more than we expected and before we knew it we had arrived in Hualien.
We had once again rented an Airbnb apartment here which was fairly close to the train station. It was a 4th floor walk-up (much to Jesse’s dismay for having to lug our giant suitcase up all those stairs!) but it turned out to be an absolutely huge and lovely apartment. The incredible host Jerry had bought us a brand new crib, high chair and baby bathtub to use (amazing!) and the apartment was everything we could have hoped for. It also happened to be a stone’s throw away from a grocery store, park and some decent food options (though a little further out from the centre of the city) so we felt pretty set.
We had prearranged for a driver that I found online named Jason Huang to come pick us up the next day to drive us to Taroko Gorge which was about 30 minutes away. He ended up being a lovely man who was accommodating and patient with us and the kids. That morning we managed to feed the kids before leaving but didn’t actually eat much ourselves so we asked Jason if we could bring us somewhere to grab a quick local breakfast. Well, it ended up being one of the most delicious meals we’d had in Taiwan – hot out of the oven saobing stuffed with freshly cooked eggs, some sort of perfectly flaky pork buns and fresh soymilk. Amazing. Sadly, we scarfed it down so quickly that we have no photos of it to share.
Truthfully, because everyone just told us to go to Taroko Gorge we didn’t really research much in advance and so we didn’t actually know what we were going to see/do that day. After a brief stop at the Taroko Gorge entrance to take photos (Jacob had already fallen asleep in his car seat by this point), Jason brought us to the Shakadang Trail where he told us to hop out, follow the trail and he’d meet us back in a few hours. Oh boy! We hadn’t really anticipated a few hours of hiking with the kids. So we just headed out and hoped for the best! We started out by walking down the steps beside a gorgeous red bridge. Seeing that the people from other tour groups embarking on the same trail were certainly not dressed for strenuous hiking, we felt hopeful and as it turned out the trail was mostly flat. Daniel did alright, making it maybe halfway through the outbound journey before getting a touch whiney, coupled with some slippery parts of the trail. That’s when Jesse put him in the carrier on back and we powered on. The views were quite beautiful along the path, with the marble canyon rock facades layered with so many beautiful hues of grey and brown. The water below was also a beautiful bright shade of green and having been mostly in cities since we arrived in Taiwan it was pretty great to be out enjoying this change of scenery. The trail didn’t end up being too challenging and we returned back to the start again just over an hour later.
After that hike, Jason brought us to an area called Swallow’s Grotto where again we hopped out of the car without really knowing what we were going to see. Jason motioned that he would meet us further along the path, so we just followed the other tourists ahead. Funnily enough we seemed to be the only people walking around without hard hats, but it didn’t seem to matter too much as there wasn’t really anything falling overhead from what we could tell! We walked along the side of the road beside the grotto and we were again impressed with the beautiful colours of the grotto with, as expected, many swallows flying around. The water running below was a crisp grey colour which was quite unlike anything I’d seen before.
By the time we’d made it back to Jason’s car, Jacob was so tired that he fell asleep almost instantly as soon as we started to drive. Jason brought us to a restaurant area where he offered to wait in the car with Jacob so he could sleep while we grabbed lunch. For the first time in Taiwan, we had an underwhelming and overpriced lunch. If we were to do it over again, we’d definitely bring a packed lunch. Daniel threw a huge temper tantrum while we were eating (I can’t even remember why) which required me to carry him out of the restaurant kicking and screaming so we could have a very “serious talk” outside while everyone else watched. Thankfully he snapped out of it eventually and went back inside and ate a bit before we headed back to the car.
With Jacob still asleep in the car, Jason brought us to yet another trail starting point but Jesse and I were pretty “trailed out” at this point (i.e. exhausted from carrying our kids!) and since it had just started to rain, we decided we just couldn’t do another hike. Jason then happily offered to take us to a beach instead which sounded like a perfect alternative for us. As we exited the park, we did one last quick stop to look at a beautiful temple perched up high on the rock facade with a picturesque waterfall flowing below it.
Upon arrival at the beach, Jacob was still asleep so again Jason offered to stay in the car with him while Jesse, Daniel and I checked out the beach! It was overcast outside but still absolutely beautiful, and the beach was lined with gorgeous grey and smooth rocks. Jesse and Daniel had a ball skipping and throwing rocks into the water and watching the tour buses of other tourists taking selfies at the beach. Eventually I went back to the car to get Jacob (who I had to wake up…poor guy, he must have been so tired!!) so he could also enjoy some beach time. He loved picking up the rocks and throwing them as well, and we had a really lovely afternoon at the beach. I think Daniel would have stayed all day if we had let him! Before heading home, Jason drove us to a local fruit market so I could pick up some pineapples and a huge watermelon before driving us back to our apartment where we all slept well that night.
After our day at Taroko, my mother came in from Taipei to spend a few days with us in Hualien. We didn’t have many plans for those days other than to just relax and find some good food while we were there. There was a park near our apartment that had both a playground and a big area that was enclosed by brightly painted truck tires that were set halfway into the ground which Daniel enjoyed running around in. Each morning while Jacob napped one of us would bring Daniel to the park and along with the usual park stuff, we also enjoyed watching endless military fighter jets zooming overhead.
My mother happened to have a university friend, Mr Huang, who lived in Hualien and he and his wife offered to take us out for dinner on her first night there. They brought us to an awesome Japanese food restaurant where we ate so so much delicious food including some amazing curry fish cakes that I absolutely devoured. Mr and Mrs Huang were both so very kind, and we felt very lucky to have been able to enjoy their company and generosity that evening.
The next morning as we were walking back from breakfast with my mother, we noticed some men in a covered area next to a temple wearing these huge, tall and ornate costumes that I can only guess were of gods or emperors. The men were practicing how to walk and sway their hips in these 10+ feet high costumes in a way that it made the costumes come to life. It’s hard to explain it, but it was quite fascinating and beautiful. Daniel become completely mesmerized by this that he wanted to continue to watch and refused to move for over 30 minutes! Eventually when it started to rain harder (and my mother had gone to meet her friends and Jesse had already left to bring Jacob home for nap), I managed to convince Daniel to leave because there was a children’s library just adjacent to us where I could see dozens of kids and their parents flooding in. Thankfully Daniel loves libraries so he eventually (though reluctantly) left the costumed men. I was a bit confused when we first walked in as the other parents seemed to be signing their kids in, but as I tried to ask someone what I needed to do I think they decided to just let us in since we were clearly foreigners. The library was great – packed with kids, and had lots of activities. There was a lady in front of a projector screen animatedly reading a book to an audience of kids, there was a little play section with toys and, lucky for us, there was even a section of English books! We probably read about 30 books before I finally insisted that we had to leave. Thankfully it seemed like the library was actually closing for lunch time so there was a mass exodus of kids at the same time as us!
The rest of our time in Hualien was quite relaxed. We just enjoyed our mornings at the park, or walking around finding good food (we had some fantastic steamed baos, hand cut noodles and a delicious goose dinner!) and enjoying our great apartment where Jacob learned to perfect his army crawl.
We headed back to the beach one day with my mother this time, having brought some train station lunches with us and as expected Daniel and Jacob absolutely loved it there again. Mr and Mrs Huang generously offered to take us out to several other delicious meals while we were there, and even surprised us on our last day with a huge delivery of freshly made red bean mochis (a Hualien specialty) which were the best I’d ever eaten. Even Daniel loved them! It was a great few days where the boys got to see Po Po on a regular basis again, and we just hung out as a family at our great apartment. It was also in Hualien where we started a new little routine with Daniel before bedtime where we will recap what we did together that day and record it on our iPhone in the hopes that he will be able to start to reflect back and remember this special time more (and us too, come to think of it!). It’s funny to listen to what he does remember from each day and sometimes also what he has already forgotten happened. Either way, it is nice to have these little recorded memories of our time together which hopefully we can play back with him one day!
On our last day we all headed to the train station. My mother would be taking the train back to Taipei and we would continue on to Taoyuan where we would spend one night before flying to Vietnam. As expected, the train ride was super comfortable and enjoyable. It was great to have my mother along as well for extra company and to hold/entertain Jacob when we needed a break. Daniel was quite sad when he realized that Po Po was getting off at a different station and definitely shed a few tears when he saw her on the platform waving goodbye. It has definitely been hard for him to have family come and go, as he is growing more attached to them with each day. He continued to ask why Po Po didn’t stay with us on the train for several days after!!
All in all, we had a really fun time in Hualien. Taroko Gorge was certainly beautiful, but our time spent with Po Po and meeting her lovely friends Mr and Mrs Huang made it even more memorable and fun.
Actual travel dates: April 19-24, 2017