With Tomb Sweeping Festival approaching in Taiwan, it was the perfect time to find a decent spot to travel for the next few days. Though I’ve visited every major city from Taipei to Kaohsiung, there was only major stop left behind; Taichung.
Though there seemed to be much less of a buzz around the city and, according to Jess, it was the most crime-ridden region of the country, it was time to find out for myself. A few spots around the city had gained a national reputation, and better yet, it had a whole host of instagrammable spots.
So it was time to explore Taiwan’s second-largest city as I dove headfirst into the city of Taichung.
Table of Contents
Not the Best of Starts
Up until now, my travels in Taiwan have had great luck when it comes to weather…then I arrived in Taichung. The dark dingy day wasn’t the best time to be exploring, but we had little choice. Our first site of the day didn’t help the tone either…
We got to the Cultural Heritage Park expecting a burst of creative outlets and art exhibitions. Instead, it was exactly as the old brewery was intended to be, abandoned! Other than a few poorly advertised exhibits and a run-down centre filled with DIY craft stores, there wasn’t much there. Quite a disappointing start to what would end up being an incredible trip.
Harry Potter and the Over-the-top Ice Cream
What fixes every problem? Ice cream! From a bad break up to your father abandoning you, there’s nothing that a good old scoop of dairy can’t fix. So hopefully it would do the same for Jess’ less than stellar mood due to the constant downpour.
We were headed to Miyahara Ice Cream, a place that’s gained quite a photographic reputation. Inside gorgeous displays of old bookshelves stacked up to the rafters looked like something you’d find in Diagon Alley! The staff skipping around the store dressed like 20-century pixies felt like a different age, a time when ice cream was still considered a luxury!
It wasn’t bad either! They had endless options, never before had I seen such an immense amount of chocolate flavours! The variety also extended to the toppings which reminded me of those sweet old days with Pizza Hut’s all you could eat ice cream!
The Holy Hell Hotel
Love is all about compromises, and no relationship goes without. Jess is a person who prefers staying in a hotel, not an expensive one, but a hotel nonetheless. I on the other hand couldn’t give the slightest shit where I’m laying my head down for the night. A bed is all I need, and the cheaper the better. Thus our trips always start with an agonizing search for a place that fits both our needs. This time, however, we achieved it beautifully!
The design of the hotel was wholeheartedly unique. The entire centre of the building was left bare and rugged, like something you would find on a construction site or a decrepit old building. Along with the plants strewn across its edges and the rain falling from above, it looked truly awesome, as if the building was being reclaimed by nature!
A Private Tour
Weeks prior, we had already planned to visit two of Taichung’s most iconic sites on the west coast, we just had to figure out how to get there. They were too far or inaccessible by bus, and I couldn’t get a scooter license due to my visa. The only option we had left was being part of a tour group, which I can’t fucking stand.
Tour groups are my worst nightmare. Tied to a group of hobbling OAPs and an over-eager chatty guide while forced to stay within a strict time limit, no thanks. Sadly this time, we had no choice.
Heaven above shone down on us that day as we turned up to the awaiting minivan to find we were the only couple on the tour and basically got ourselves a private guide for the day, thank God!
The ultimate guide to Taiwan’s ancient capital; Tainan.
What to see, how to get there, where to stay, what to eat.
First, we had an unscheduled visit to the National Taichung Theatre. Once we arrived, there wasn’t that much to see, other than a nice little craft market that established itself on the ground floor. More than anything, the visit made me question whether or not this was a scam.
A few times I’ve fallen for the odd tour group or guide who conveniently has a couple of stores that they just have to show you, whether I want to or not. Obviously, these guides must get some sort of commission or back-handed tip for bringing prospective customers to their store.
So, my question was, was this happening now? The stop wasn’t mentioned on any itinerary, and the little craft market was the only thing to see. I wonder what the driver’s true motivation was, and more importantly, how much did he earn from it?
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
At last, we were headed to what many consider the best highlight in Taichung and one of the quirkiest in Taiwan. But first, a bit of back story…
While Taiwan was under a brutal regime of martial law for almost 40 years, the ruling KMT party established entire villages where soldiers could be provided with their own little homes. Once martial law had ended, so too did the need for these villages. Ever since these places have been aggressively demolished. Regardless, one lone former soldier tried his best to save his neighbourhood by decorating the street and houses with vibrant rainbow colours. A few local students petitioned the government to allow them to preserve this little marvel, and thus, the Rainbow Village was born.
Though it is nothing more than a collection of little houses, the bright colours and intrinsic designs that this lone old man (now referred to as Rainbow Grandpa) created were so wonderful. It looked like the perfect setting for a kid’s TV show! It made for some awesome pictures, to say the least!
A Rainy End
Our last stop of the tour would take us to the Gaomei Wetlands. Photos online of the enormous wind turbines and gorgeous sunset backdrop made it too good to miss! However, the weather still refused to cooperate, and suddenly the beaches of Taiwan matched the overcast windy coasts of the UK!
It was cold, miserable, and not the least bit beautiful compared to the photos we had seen. We also came across quite an aggressive cat that apparently was the reincarnation of Gandalf as he refused to let us pass. Though the driver gave us 2 hours, we only needed 30 minutes.
Yes, Another Night Market
I don’t think I’ve ever visited a single Taiwanese destination without visiting a night market, it’s near impossible! This time around we even planned to spend as little time as possible at the ones at Taichung as we assumed there wouldn’t be anything new there for us…it didn’t go to plan!
There always seems to be something too tempting to turn down. Meat buns, Taiwanese sausages, fried chicken, I just can’t say no! Turns out it was a major mistake as our stomachs were bursting by the time we got to our dinner reservation…lesson learned.
The ultimate itinerary for exploring the indigenous hot spring town on the outskirts of Taipei, Wulai!
The next day began on a very sombre tone. Taiwan is prone to many natural disasters, including seasonal typhoons and even tsunamis on rare occasions. However, its biggest threat is earthquakes, which they endure practically every other day. Though the majority are too small to register, and others cause nothing more than a gentle sway, every few decades, there’s one that rocks the country to the core.
This is what happened in 1999 when the entire country was devastated by a 7.7 magnitude earthquake. Taichung was at its epicentre, and thus received the greatest amount of damage. Thousands were killed and over 100,000 individuals were left homeless.
Evidence of that horrific event is on full display at the 921 Earthquake Museum, where the crumpled remains of the former school were left in their damaged state. Having only experienced very mild tremors during my time in Taiwan, it was eye-opening to see what could be my reality at some point. When it comes down to it, you really have no chance if mother nature decides it’s so.
Continuing With Our Sombre Theme
Following that quite disturbing visit, we headed to our next death-related attraction for the day, Taichung Martyrs’ Shrine. The site is a dedication to the fallen men and women who fought for Taiwan. As beautiful as it was, there was a very eerie vibe throughout it. It was completely empty, not even a single staff member or guard, it just added to the air of melancholy mystery the area had.
As it was directly next door, we also swung by the Confucious Temple. Though it had a beautiful, picturesque entrance of a bridge rising over a koi pond, Confucious temples tend to have simpler designs. Rightly so, as they believe the teachings should be more important, not the appearance.
Another Creative Touch
Next, we were headed to yet ANOTHER craft market, Shenji 368. This spot unlike everywhere else in the city was packed to the rafters, which made the experience all the more stressful! For any sort of market, you want to take your time hopping from stall to stall, not forcefully shuffled along by a conveyor belt of locals.
I also found that despite being an interesting place for a quick peek, I never actually buy anything. Don’t get me wrong, they’re always beautiful, well-crafted items, but what the hell do I need golden hoop earrings, hand-painted pictures of cats and endless stacks of bucket hats (which for some reason are hugely popular in Taiwan). I have no need for it.
Time for Some Animation
Some of the sites I suggest going to are often met with a “why do you want to see that?” from Jess, There’s never a real answer, it’s mostly just because it’s there, and that’s what happened at Painted Animation Lane. All guides made out that this was one of the city’s biggest highlights and a must-see, so it was worth going to check out right?
To be fair, the artwork was done incredibly! You know when you see a painting of SpongeBob or the Simpsons perhaps on the back of an ice cream truck, it’s always warped and mutated. Not with this lane, each one looked like it has been painted by the original artist.
I understood Jess’ point, there wasn’t much there, just a few handfuls of these paintings, but they were pretty cool, nonetheless. What else were we going to do with our time?
Here’s a list of the 20 best sites to see in the artistic and cultural centre of Taiwan, Kaohsiung.
Last day, and the most physically demanding of all! Taiwan has plenty of incredible hikes, and the ones in Taichung are amongst the most picturesque! Even better when the trail is a real get your hands dirty kind of affair, not a gentle grandma-friendly stroll!
The entire trail was made out of logs that formed a half-staircase, half-ladder sort of walkway that led across the mountain. It felt like walking on train tracks where you couldn’t get into a natural rhythm, as you always had to be aware of where you were stepping and how to traverse the trail, it was awesome!
It made it a more special experience when you really had to work, and hard work it was! The trail would often become near vertical and would be made even harder when people would try to pass in the opposite direction. Either way, it’s easily one of the best trails I’ve been along in Taiwan!
Just in Time For Lunch
Having spent hours photographing each other in some of the coolest poses and attempted-candid positions, we didn’t realise we were about to miss our lunch reservation! Thus, the lower half of the trail was spent in a powerwalking daze to the bottom of the mountain and along pathless roads trying to get to our restaurant. Having arrived there, it was well worth the effort.
As with every other destination in Taiwan, Jess is always in charge of the restaurants. She effortlessly finds the coolest picturesque spots, something that always becomes the highlight of the trip, and this time was no different.
The traditional Japanese restaurant complete with authentic short tables, floor seats and a zen garden made for an awesome end to the trip. It was the sort of place where you’re served what they have to give you for the day, you simply sit back and enjoy the ride. Ending the day sitting in a peaceful zen garden overlooking the city was a perfect cherry on the Taichung cake.
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A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.