Our last day in Taipei was spent chilling in a coffee shop on the quaint tree-lined Fujin Street. This self-proclaimed hipster area provided a relaxing spot to catch up on photo editing and blog writing while the sun shined. Allowing for slower paced days like these is essential, knowing we’re on the road for such a long period of time. We’re really enjoying writing the blog and keeping up to date with photos as it gives us time to wind down and reflect on all of the amazing things we’ve seen!

After filling up on over priced and pretentious but delicious coffee that costs the same price as a night in Cambodia, we caught a 3 hour train to Taroko Gorge in Hualien County where we would be spending our final three nights in Taiwan. We were staying in the town of Hualien at a lovely little hostel very close to the train station, sat beneath the mountains of Taroko National Park. We quickly realised there wasn’t much going in Hualien itself and settled for a 7-Eleven dinner (equivalent to a Tesco back in the UK). We felt miles away from the luxuries of fried dumplings and steamed buns enjoyed in Taipei. But it was nice to be out of a city and we were excited to get up early and do some hiking.

Around 4 million years ago the Philippine Oceanic Plate and Eurasian Continental Plate collided, rising thick layers of limestone rock from the ocean to heights of over 3,000 meters. Taroko National Park is sculpted by these continually rising mountains, combined with the erosive power of the Liwu River. The result: a deep river basin, colossal limestone and marble mountains that jut sky high, covered in rich tropical foliage, waterfalls and beautiful rock formations.

We caught the shuttle bus to Taroko Gorge from the station just a five-minute walk from our hostel. These buses run fairly regularly although the timetable we were given wasn’t the most reliable. We were quickly climbing the mountainside, arriving at the Taroko National Park Visitor Centre by 10am. After enquiring about the many different routes accessible to tourists, we decided to tackle the Shakadang Trail, persuaded mainly by the manageable 3-hour estimated time to complete the walk and the wacky sounding name.

As we’re at the beginning of the rainy season in Taiwan, the skies were threatening to drizzle above us and remained cloudy for most of the day. We were prepared with raincoats and marched on through the muggy heat, enjoying the magnificent views into the green jewel water below us. The rocky riverside was scattered with huge boulders that peacocked their elaborate patterns created by water erosion.

We completed the Shakadang trail and caught the 20 minute shuttle bus to the Buluowan Recreational Area, winding up the mountainside road where we munched on our peanut butter sandwich picnic and enjoyed a spectacular view of the gorge. It was here that the weather began closing in, bringing with it some magical cloud formations over the mountains and in the valley below. The shifting weather transformed Taroko Gorge into a mysterious and atmospheric place. We couldn’t imagine a better place to stop for lunch!

Soon after, the showers really began and we hurried for cover under a wooden gazebo while we waited for the torrents of rain to subside. They didn’t. We took shelter in the small museum in Buluowan, documenting the life of the local Truku aboriginal tribal people that Taroko Gorge is named after. There weren’t many walks to explore in this section of the national park and the rain wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down, so we called it day. Knowing we had a full day tomorrow to see more of Taroko Gorge made us more relaxed and we’d already seen a lot to feel satisfied.

We awoke on day two to glorious sunshine. After wolfing down the hostel breakfast of toast and jam, it was back on the shuttle bus to squeeze as much as we could out of Taroko for our final full day in Taiwan. We were even more spellbound by the rugged cliffs and canyons as we approached Swallow Grotto, our first it stop. The sunny, cloudless skies felt like such a treat after many overcast days in Taiwan. We couldn’t believe our luck and tried to pack as much into the morning as possible for fear of the weather turning.

Swallow Grotto provided a great view of the river deep below, carving an impressive, narrow gorge. There are numerous holes in the rock face that house the eponymous swallows that the grotto is named after. The walk only took half an hour to complete but we lingered for longer to take in the views. The rocky overhang was a little unnerving as we saw boulders rolling down the cliffs on the other side of the gorge. Many of the tourists we passed were wearing helmets, courtesy of the tour companies they’d travelled here with. We’d read the helmets were optional and would have felt a little safer with one on, but there didn’t appear to be anywhere to rent them from. Lawrence paid the ultimate compliment by saying that he would prefer his Canon get smashed in rather than Naomi’s head in the event of a rock tumble.

There were hoards of tour buses driving through the Taroko National Park roads packed with Asian tourists. They seemed to hop off for a meagre 10 minutes to take a few selfies and then piled back on the bus ready for the next whistle stop tour of the park. They didn’t seem to be equipped for the hilly walks that we’d geared ourselves up for. Many wore dresses, heeled shoes, jeans or flip-flops and tottered around with umbrellas while we looked on from the scruffy hoods of our North Face anoraks. We both agreed that umbrellas look out of place in national parks.

Tourists stopping for their allotted 3 minute photo opportunity

After Swallow’s Grotto we were back on the bus to Tienshiang where the bus terminates. This little village nestled in the mountains is in the middle of nowhere, deep in the national park. However they had a post office, places to eat and some residential houses where locals live. The sun was only getting stronger, burning any clouds from the blue skies. We walked the Baiyang Waterfall trail, gawping at the incredible mountains that surrounded us as we went.

After periods of extended heavy rain parts of the National Park can be closed due to the danger of rock fall and landslides. Unfortunately the Baiyang trail was closed only a few kilometers in for this reason. We turned back, still delighted with what we’d seen, and climbed Tian Feng Pagoda. The pagoda sits at the top of a spiral staircase providing epic all-encompassing views of Tienshiang.

We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife during our hikes but we read that Taroko National Park is home to 34 species of mammal unique to Taiwan. These include the Taiwanese black bear, the Formosan Macaque (a type of monkey), venomous snakes, wild boar and deer as well as 144 species of bird. This was probably for the best in truth. However we did see plenty of creepy crawlies and lots of clusters of butterflies.

Our last stop was Changuang Temple, a small Zen monastery, before ending the adventuring for the day. The temple, perched on the edge of the gorge, was a sight to behold, and is one of the most significant stops for the hordes of Chinese tourists that visit the park. We headed back down the mountain into Hualien town content with what we’d managed to see in our two days exploring Taroko. It was great to have seen the National Park in both kinds of weather. The first day was so atmospheric and the cloud shrouded mountains added to the moody atmosphere of Taroko. Then pure sunshine on our final day felt like such a treat, exaggerating the colour of the vegetation and crystal clear waters. We’d highly recommend a two-day tour of Taroko National Park to really do the place justice.

Our final day in Taiwan involved a little bit of blogging, photo editing and a sweaty run in the heat of the morning sun. We caught the train back into Taipei ready for our flight back to Vietnam in the evening. It was sad to be leaving Taiwan after only nine days of whizzing round the north and east coast. It felt like we’d only touched the tip of the iceberg and there was so much of the island still left to see. But due to money constraints and the impending rainy season, we had to settle for a speedy visit. We’d love to return to Taiwan and explore more of the rural countryside as well as the islands home to aboriginal people. It’s a fascinating country that’s often overlooked by travellers to Asia for some reason, but one of our favourite locations and such a refreshing change from the Asia we’re used to.