Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Hongludi Mountain Trail

I recently went on a day trip to hike up Hongludi trail in New Taipei City. Surprisingly, the attraction, with a temple dedicated to the Earth God, isn't too well known, but I think the short hike up the mountain is well worth it thanks to the gorgeous panorama of Taipei. It rivals the views from Xiangshan, and it is far less crowded on the weekdays. 

Hongludi is a bit tricky to reach. First we took the MRT to Nanshijiao Station. A few blocks down from the MRT is the stop for the free shuttle 512, which arrives hourly. The shuttle stop is next to this adorable image of two koalas, in case you have difficulty locating it.  

After about twenty minutes, the shuttle dropped us off at the terminal stop at the base of the mountain. On normal weekdays, 512 ends its service at the bottom of the mountain so you have to hike up to the top of the mountain to get to temple at the top On weekends, the shuttle actually goes all the way up to a parking lot near the temple, so you would only have to climb a few sets of steep stairs instead of the entire mountain. 

Though we ended up experiencing the "difficult" option, it ended up only taking about 1.5 hours, and we got to see some interesting sights along the way. There are long stretches of steep stairs though, so be prepared for some moderately strenuous exercise. 

First we walked up from the shuttle stop to the mountain, following the signs for the trail. 

The older area around here is an odd mixture of rural fields, small workshops, and small traditional houses.

After a few hundred meters, there is a point where the road splits into two. One way leads to stairs going up alongside the main road to Hongludi, while another one takes you first to another temple lower on the hill. We walked up the path that bypassed this other temple.

There were so many steep stairs, and I knew this was only the first stretch! However, there are clear views of the city when you turn around, and seeing the slow progress upwards was quite motivating.

I'm glad we got to pass by this first temple. I didn't get the name, but it is vibrant and colorful.

Even at this lower elevation, there are already stunning views of Taipei City.

After more stairs, we arrived at the base of the top of the mountain, marked by this gigantic statue of the Earth God. There is a parking lot here, where the 512 shuttle stops on weekends. There were also some visitors who had driven up in cars.

After a few more steep steps, we finally arrived at the top of Hongludi. The beautiful temple had all the amenities of a nice rest stop, with a large convenience store, bathrooms, vending machines, and a small eatery.

The food vendor, near the back of the temple, sold many local foods like stinky tofu. We decided to get a warming early dinner.

The food was not bad at all for coming from a random small shop at the top of a mountain. I got the soup on the right, full of different vegetables and tofu in a rich, spicy broth (about $2 USD). 

There is a trail leading out from the back of the temple to other mountains, but the real stunning view is right in the front. On a clear day, you can see most of Taipei laid out in front of you. Dusk is a particularly nice time, as the orange-hued sun rays hit the city and create a warm glow.

At this time, I was quite jealous of all the people who had driven up in cars! We still had to hike down the entire mountain, and we weren't sure if the shuttle would be on schedule, or if we could even make the next hourly departure. Fortunately, we caught the 6PM shuttle.

Near Nanshijiao Station is a small neighborhood full of Burmese immigrants. There are Burmese and groceries all along a street called Huaxin St. We decided to eat dinner here, though some of the businesses were closed by the time we arrived, since they focus on providing breakfast.

The restaurants seemed really authentic! There were Burmese language posters and menus everywhere, and a bunch of rich curries laid out on a counter. It brought me back to my travels in Yangon.

We decided to try out a Burmese classic, mohinga, otherwise known as fish noodle soup. The soup is made with a pungent fish paste, giving it a savory and rich taste.

There was also a shop down the road that sold some Indian-style foods, like naan for $1USD. I had to get a piece! It was enormous but surprisingly light and fluffy. My carb craving was deeply satisfied.

What a fun day trip! I'm so glad I spent this long in Taipei, to be able to see some of the lesser-known sights in this great place. Hongludi Mountain is the place to go for gorgeous views, a moderate hike, and fewer crowds. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Beautiful Taiwan Landscapes

Taiwan is gifted with gorgeous natural beauty - tall peaks and valleys, rivers, lakes, farmlands and miles of ocean coast. If you just visit Taipei without venturing outward, you are really missing out! 

The East Rift Valley is an especially pleasant area to visit. Even on a gloomy and overcast day, there is no denying the breath-taking nature of some of these places.

The sheer variety of sights to feast your eyes upon is simply amazing. Outside of the cities and industrial towns, the air is crisp and fresh, the vegetation is shades of lush green, and the waters run clear.  

Most of the towns and cities are connected by well-maintained roads, even through the mountains and valleys. We saw many bicyclists and motorcyclists making their way along the coast. There are several popular routes that travelers take, depending on whether they want to ride along the coast or journey through mountains. 

If you travel in January, between New Year's and Chinese New Year, you will hit the low season, with its benefits and disadvantages. On the one hand, the weather is cooler and there are fewer tourists. On the other hand, some of the smaller attractions and tourist services may be closed. It's also quite rainy during this time.

Sadly, I'm leaving Taiwan in less than two weeks. I can't believe how fast these past six months have gone, and I've grown quite fond of this country. I highly recommend everyone to visit - it's modern, safe, convenient, beautiful, affordable, and the people are some of the friendliest you will ever meet. I'll be back!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year everyone, from the countdown at Taipei 101!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Pingxi Railway Line

The Pingxi Railway Line is a fun day trip from Taipei. This 12 kilometer historic railroad connects a few traditional mining towns, and now has become a tourist destination, famous for sky lanterns and picturesque scenery.

It's fairly simple to reach the beginning of the line from Taipei. We took a 40-minute train ride from Taipei Main Station to Ruifang Station. At Ruifang, we bought a one-day pass for the Pingxi Line, which cost only $2 USD. The train runs by the hour, so you can get off at any one of the stops, and time your trip so that you come back to the station at an hourly interval.

We started our trip at a little town called Shifen. It's known for Shifen Old Street, as well as a nearby waterfall. Unfortunately, the waterfall is currently closed because its platform is being renovated. However, we managed to have fun wandering up and down Shifen Old Street. People are allowed to walk among the train tracks, and officials will blow the whistle to warn of the train's arrival.

There are many shops that sell paper sky lanterns. One fun activity to do is to buy a sky lantern (between 150 to 200 TWD, about $6-7 USD), and write your wishes on the paper. Then you light a fire underneath the lantern, and release it up into the sky.

I loved all the bright colors. All along the street, tourists were painting their wishes onto their sky lanterns, and then taking turns releasing them into the air. 

Right next to the train station at Shifen is a very nice suspension bridge over the river. We had about 15 minutes left before the train came so we walked across the bridge and enjoyed the nice views. Because we did not go to the waterfall, about a half an hour walk away, one hour was the perfect amount of time to spend in Shifen before hopping on the train again.

We then rode the train to the last stop on the line, Jingtong. Jingtong is a similar small mining town, and it also has an Old Street with traditional shops and restaurants. It is actually very small, and there was not too much to do there. One attraction, the historic Japanese-style train station, was actually under renovation. We did not have the best timing on this trip!

We relaxed at a nice viewing platform, decorated with these hanging wooden charms.

There is a very cute cafe called Farmers Coffee at this platform, and they sell various types of thick toast with spread as well as specialty lattes. I had to try their sea salt latte. The sea salt is blended into the foam, and somehow gives the latte an almost chocolatey taste. It was delicious!

We sat at the benches that overlooked the gorgeous valley below. The red bridge that transverses the valley is called Lover's Bridge.

Jingtong is actually not too far from Pingxi, the namesake of the line. We walked about half an hour back along the tracks to Pingxi. Unfortunately I forgot to take photos at Pingxi. It's a town with a similar atmosphere, though the Old Street at Pingxi is a bit bigger and there were more businesses than Shifen or Jingtong.

We unfortunately had to skip the last major destination on this train line, called Houtong. Houtong is "Cat Town," because it is known for all the stray cats wandering around the streets in a surreal, Murakami-like scene. We left the area around 5PM, and got to Taipei in time for dinner.

Pingxi Railway Line isn't a must-see destination if you are only in Taiwan for a few days, but I think it's worth a visit for a longer stay, especially if you want a glimpse of an older, more traditional lifestyle. There are also several mining and coal museums if you have an interest in that area.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bukchon Hanok Village


The Bukchon area is a must-see if you are in Seoul. This is a traditional Hanok residential neighborhood, very much still lived-in, with lovely architecture, winding alleyways, surrounded by boutique shops and cafes. It's near the Anguk MRT station, and within walking distance of the major palaces.

The streets surrounding the neighborhood, down below, are full of interesting shops. You can see that at several points, stairways lead upwards from the main street towards the residential area.

There was an interesting looking vintage second-hand shop, with clothing displays leading up to the store. I wish I had time to take a look; secondhand stores always hold such treasures if you are willing to do a little bit of digging. 

Each alleyway offered its own surprises; family-owned restaurants, cool cafes, hand-made gifts stores. 

Finally we climbed upwards towards the residential area, which has a 600-year-old history. There was a nice view from the top, where we could see the nearby neighborhoods and rooftops sprawled out before us, with mountains in the distance.

The Bukchon Village alleys had many signs that cautioned visitors to be respectful and quiet, as families still do live in the homes. Some of the houses, though, had been converted into cultural centers, handicraft workshops, tea houses, and guesthouses.

There is somewhat of a walking path through the neighborhood, and various tourist maps and signs will point out where you are. Depending on how fast you walk, and whether or not you stop, I'd say you could go through the entire route in thirty minutes to one hour.

Even on this cold and snowy day, there were plenty of people walking up and down the main alleys. This little girl was fascinated by the snow.


Overall, it was such a lovely walk, and a great way to spend an afternoon seeing a different perspective of Seoul, usually pictured as a throbbing metropolis.