Now we’ve come to my most anticipated day of my trip – going to Hualien. I’d heard so much about Taroko Gorge National Park, and I had to check it out for myself. I’d also heard it would be crowded because it’s the number one tourist spot in Taiwan, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I decided to head down on a weekday instead of the weekend hoping it would be a little better. My plan was to leave Monday evening, spend the night in a hostel, wake up early on Tuesday morning and join one of the many full day tours offered at the train station. However, Miguel told me I should just go on Monday morning and catch a shuttle as soon as I got there to tour the gorge. Then I would have time to meet up with him on Tuesday on my way back, and he’d show me sites outside of Taipei. So I changed my plan, and rushed to Taipei Main Station early on Monday morning.
I got to the train station at around 7:45. After 10 minutes of waiting in line to buy my ticket, I received a ticket for a train leaving at 8:00. The man gestured for me to go downstairs to board the train. I had about 5 minutes to figure out where the tracks were, what train to get on, etc. I was basically freaking out. There was no platform number written on the ticket, no board displaying which trains were leaving from where, etc. So I ended up just running around showing my ticket to random people and going in the direction they were pointing. I jumped on a train with about 30 seconds to spare. I was 100% convinced it was the wrong one. I didn’t have a seat so I walked around through different cars before finally sitting on the floor in one of them. About 20 minutes later a man came by to check tickets. He looked at mine and then motioned for me to stand up. At first I thought he was telling me I couldn’t sit on the floor, but then he motioned for me to follow him. He pointed to an open seat in a very small car with only one other man sitting in it. So it turned out I was on the right train, and I got a seat. Yay! The scenery going down the coast was gorgeous – ocean on one side and mountains on the other.
I arrived in Hualien at about 10:30am. I went directly to the tourist information center. They gave me some brochures, and told me to go directly across to the big orange building to buy a ticket. I really wanted to do a full day packaged tour, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that. I ended up buying a ticket for the on/off shuttle. I boarded the shuttle and it was completely packed. I ended up having to stand in the back. There was one other English speaking tourist on the shuttle, and she introduced herself after we got going (Ilka from South Africa). She told me we could trade off sitting and standing if I got tired. She was very nice, and I’m so glad I met her because the day would have been a total disaster otherwise. We had no idea the shuttle would take close to 2 hours to get to the park. I was not prepared at all, and I hadn’t eaten since the night before. Ilka shared her water and food she brought with me. At around 12:30, we finally got off the shuttle at the very end of the park. We walked around and took pictures. It was beautiful and I was so happy to finally be there, and even more happy to have found someone to walk around with.
After awhile we were ready to check out another spot of the park. We thought we could simply hop on another shuttle, which we could if they ran at reasonable times. It turned out the next one didn’t come for an hour! It was already well after 1:00, so we decided to just take a taxi. Of course, they charge insanely expensive prices inside the park. We bargained with one, and he took us to Swallow’s Grotto. He dropped us off and told us we could walk through and the next shuttle stop would be there. This was my favorite part that I saw of the park. The views were breathtaking, and most of the walk was shaded so it wasn’t too hot. However, my excitement didn’t last long because as we neared the end it had started to rain. We waited for the shuttle bus, but when it stopped it was full so we couldn’t get in. The next one wasn’t for another hour. We were both really upset, and just decided to see if any random person would pick us up. After about an hour in the pouring rain, a taxi finally stopped. A woman and her daughter were already inside, but they offered to give us a ride wherever we needed to go. They had hired the taxi for the day (smart people!!!). They didn’t speak much English, but we learned they were from mainland China right outside of Hong Kong. They took us all the way back to Hualien train station, and wouldn’t let us pay them any money. They even gave us their contact info if we ever visit China. Super sweet people. I was really disappointed that I barely got to see the park, but I tried not to dwell on it too much. What I did get to see was great. I can also offer the following advice to anyone travelling to Taroko Gorge: hire a taxi or a packaged tour – the shuttle is absolutely terrible and a huge waste of time!
Once we got back to Hualien, I parted ways with Ilka to check in to my hostel (Sleeping Boot). We made plans to meet up later that night for dinner. My hostel was very nice, and located across the street from a beautiful temple. I met up with Ilka later that night, and we walked around the neighborhood before checking out the local night market. I had some delicious mango pineapple juice and some really good pizza. I know it was silly to get pizza at a night market in Taiwan, but they had a real brick oven and it looked too good to pass up. Much better than stinky tofu!