Wulai: Aboriginals and Hot Springs
Karma is a relentless force that I came to know all too well over the last 6 months. While the rest of the world has been in complete turmoil over the last 2 years, I was fortunate enough to live in one of the few countries that avoided the worst of the COVID outbreak. Though despite Taiwan’s near-perfect record, one careless visit to a couple of ropey old prostitutes brought the country momentarily to its knees. And just like that, Taiwan joined the rest of the world with its first real outbreak of the pandemic.
As schools were shut and all-but essential travel was forbidden, I found myself in a quasi-lockdown with the road firmly closed for the near future. 6 months later and with unbearable restlessness kicking in, my personal travel ban was finally lifted, and it was time to get back on the horse and do some exploring!
Where Should I Go?
We were back to the same old question, where should we go? Having been in Taiwan for a while now, I’ve already ticked most of the most iconic spots off the list. On top of that, we only had a short weekend open, so we couldn’t stray too far from Taipei. Though as is often the way, everything you need is in your own back garden.
The district of Taipei and New Taipei City practically covers the entire northern end of Taiwan! As such, there are plenty of treats hidden within its far-reaching corners! Most of which are found within the magnificent volcanic valleys that blanket the northern half of the island.
In Taipei’s furthermost district of Wulai lay a tiny little town that seemed like the perfect spot! A small aboriginal town hidden in the middle of the waterfall filled valleys and natural hot springs, just what the doctor ordered!
A Renewed Appreciation For Travelling
If there was one benefit to my extended travel break, it was the renewed appreciation I had towards travelling! After spending months on the road popping from one hostel and city to another, you tend to forget the significance of what you’re experiencing, and in some cases, take it for granted.
Now having been denied the opportunity to travel for so long, what should have been my travelling prime, I had a renewed appreciation and a fresh sense of wonder! I felt as if I was experiencing life on the road for the very first time!
I arrived at Wulai with a giddy smile and hyperactive anticipation! Each and every tiny detail fascinated me, from the colour of the water to the dilapidated structures that lined it and the forest-covered mountains that it ran through, life suddenly became HD! I was a kid in Disneyland again, and I couldn’t wait to explore!
As Wulai doesn’t have that many attractions to see, we could experience everything in a single day, which I was more than eager to do!
Back to a Night Market
As I often point out in all my Taiwanese blogs, Taiwan has a deep love of night markets! You can find one in every single town throughout the country! So naturally, in a tourist spot like Wulai, the main street acted as a one-stop-shop of street snacks, local craft stores and restaurants. It was another welcome sight, as the pandemic also brought these night markets to a close, bringing a severe lack of snacks to my life!
Though it’s better to visit these markets late at night, that wasn’t really an option. In smaller towns such as this, they tend to close much sooner, pretty much losing the market’s night element. More importantly, our route for the day meant we had to pass through it anyway and we simply couldn’t resist!
Along the way, I finally experience an all-time favourite of Taiwanese vendors everywhere; endless bottles of multi-flavoured rice and fruit wines. Having passed these bottles a countless number of times, the day had finally come for me to try it for myself, and question why it took so long to do so! The ultra-sweet peach flavoured plum wine was just too flavourful, I couldn’t resist adding it to my ever-growing booze cabinet.
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One of the things that makes this sleepy little mountain town so famous is the aboriginal tribe that call it home, the Atayal. Though there are several tribes surrounding the island, this is one of the largest, and more importantly, the closest to Taipei. As such, each store along the main street was aboriginal owned and run. From each restaurant to the hand-made items in the stores, the town proudly represented the different aspects of their unique culture.
Before we arrived, I told Jess that I was desperate to meet genuine aboriginal natives and get a first-hand look at their culture. And just like that, my wish came true!
As I was busy ordering myself a cōng yóu bǐng, out of absolutely nowhere, an entire parade of local aboriginal tribe members from other subgroups of the Atayal, that just so happened to be visiting that day, walked straight past me. From hobbling grandmas to fresh-faced youth, everyone was kitted up in native clothing. Even better, they happened to recognise the woman who was serving us and was eagerly cheering and yelling local Atayal phrases towards each other! We had this once in a lifetime front-row seat to the joy of aboriginal life!
A Different Perspective
Maybe it was the lack of travel recently, but I found Wulai to be absolutely gorgeous! I was blown away not only by the incredible natural scenery but the simple stacked-up buildings which lined the turquoise waters as they wound through the valleys! It was utterly beautiful, though Jess wasn’t that impressed. This stark contrast has repeated itself endlessly as we travelled our way through Taiwan.
Of course, being as this is Jess’s homeland, this isn’t anything she hasn’t seen before. She’s grown up surrounded by landscapes like this and visited these places plenty of times as a child. Somewhere like this simply isn’t special to her anymore, particularly compared to a first-time visitor like myself.
Obviously, it’s a simple case of the grass is always greener, and you tend to lose the significance of what’s in your own back garden. Even so, I still couldn’t believe she didn’t think Wulai was as beautiful as I did! I just look forward to tables turning and having the chance to finally show her something she hasn’t seen before! Thanks COVID.
All Aboard the Choo Choo Train
Another common theme of our travels together is a very simple and set-in-stone dynamic; a sick-and-tired mother being dragged around by her ADHD-riddled child! I’m just not able to contain my child-like excitement, even for things that should not seem appealing to a grown-ass man.
Such was the case with the Wulai Scenic train! The tiny little rail cart, which barely sat 2 passengers per carriage, was once used in the logging industry that was one central to this area. Since then, it’s just been used to transport tourists to the next attraction up the road. I was desperate to get on, Jess was not. Guess who won in the end?
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After a brief little zoom in the choo choo, we arrived at Wulai’s main attraction much deeper into the valley. The 80 meter-tall waterfall commanded the entire area and stood out in all its might as it crashed down to the turquoise waters below, providing this tiny little town with its lifeblood! The multiple cascades and streaming misty looked like a perfectly crafted water feature that could easily put you to sleep if you stared long enough!
Nearby were a few more aboriginal owned businesses, mostly little cafes and trinket stores. The more we visited the more I had the deepest urge to buy a piece of aboriginal craft, but I could never settle on which one to get! I have no use for a purse, hip-side satchel or a fragile backpack, even if they did look amazing! There were quite a few of those handwoven sweaters, the kind you usually see weed and nitrous loving dreadlocked hippies wear at festivals, which I actually like quite a bit! I just couldn’t find the right one. There’s always next time.
Dining Aboriginal Style
Having spent plenty of time amongst the night markets of Taipei, I’ve become pretty familiar and know what things I should expect to find. Now the challenge is finding something new, unique, or a local favourite. And considering where we were, each food revolved around the all-important aboriginal theme.
These included the iconic boar sausages made out of the wild boars that roam the nearby mountains. The meat also happens to be a personal favourite of aboriginal tribes throughout Taiwan! Another Taiwanese favourite are pí dàn, which are eggs that have been left to ferment for weeks or even months, hence its nickname of thousand-year-old eggs! With a pitch-black and greenish centre, it’s definitely an acquired taste and not the most appealing!
My fondness for diabetes-inducing snacks guided me towards the candied sweet potatoes, which are just marinated in sugary syrup similar to that of toffee apples. A personal favourite of mine has always been millet doughnuts! I’m only able to find them in night markets and I buy some every time! They’re spongier and chewier compared to regular doughnuts, and as far as I’m concerned, much better!
Relaxing in Style
It’s not just local aboriginal tribes that’s the appealing aspect of Wulai. This sleepy little mountain town is the venue for a typical weekend getaway for one simple reason, hot springs!
These natural volcanic springs are an enormous industry here in Taiwan, they can be found everywhere! From the Northern District of Beitou or on the island of Ludao off the Eastern Coast. Entire towns survive and thrive around these hot springs, and they draw in eager travellers from both home and abroad to bask in their volcanic goodness. And as both Jess and I had worked our asses off over the past few months with no vacations to show for it, a personal little spa day was much needed by the both of us!
If anything, these springs would do wonders for our health anyway! As Jess never tires of reminding me, the water does wonders for your skin, and often claims to be able to treat all manner of ailments. Not that any of that really matters to be, as all I care about is FINALLY having a god damn bath after months and months of having to live with the misery of a standing shower. Thus having our own little personal hot springs in our room was the perfect thing to top off a wonderful little weekend away.
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