Last year (November) was the first time I took Jay OMGTREX to Taiwan for a one week trip. It was a bit of a whirlwind, but I tried to plan it as a fairly comprehensive introduction to my family’s home country.

After our flight into Taipei, we immediately took a bus towards Taichung, where a couple of my relatives live. This train station had just been built, with many of the bottom retail spaces still empty. The town also had recent public art improvements around with quaint walkways along rivers and new sculpture installations.

No trip to Taiwan would be complete without getting boba. Chun Shui Tang is allegedly the origin of bubble tea, and they make them a bit smaller than boba you would typically get elsewhere. We got a pretty standard tapioca milk tea – it’s good to try but not a must. They also had some decently-priced snacks like toast, eggs, and corn salad.

While we didn’t tackle quite as many places as I had hoped along this city, we did squeeze in a photo excursion at Animation Alley. It’s a small street covered in tons of anime paintings, from Naruto to One Piece to Super Mario.

We picked up our luggage from a lalalocker location (cheap and convenient, especially for short periods of time. Can also handle different sizes of luggage if they don’t fit in train lockers!) and headed back to the train station. It’s about 2.5 hours from Taichung to Tainan, the oldest city in Taiwan. Tainan itself is my mother’s hometown and is fascinating in that you can see all the various influences of complicated reigns under the Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and Chinese.

Dinner was at A-Xia, a 60 year old restaurant where their signature dish is this crab sticky rice (which you must order in advance)! This was so interesting as I’m used to the bamboo-leaf wrapped version with pork and had never tried one with seafood. It had a lighter flavor but was still no wonder that this was the star of the meal. We also ordered a set meal which came with an array of soup, karasumi, shrimp, Taiwanese sausage, napa cabbage, seasonal fruit, and almond jelly and rice balls dessert. Service was also great, and the fact that there were three different call buttons (one for the check, and two for things I don’t remember) amused us too.

Anping is my favorite area in Tainan because it’s such a historic part of town. It was a former Dutch trading point and the location of this merchant house, the Anping Tree House. An old banyan tree has since given it a life of its own and touts a beautiful force of nature.

Of course, we cannot neglect the street food. Much of Tainan’s traditional foods lean on the sweeter end compared to elsewhere in the country. Pictured is the most famous stall for spring rolls (AKA popiah), 金得春捲 . This was also one of my favorite things my grandma would make – it bundles in cabbage, egg, pickled turnips, bean sprouts, peanut powder, sugar, pork belly, and more! – and these little burritos are packed. Next door is also an excellent place for steamed rice cake (wah guay).

From Tainan, we wanted to go to a tiny village called Yuli. Since public transit on the East side is virtually nonexistent (read: extremely infrequent and inconvenient), we decided to rent a car in Tainan for this portion. Admittedly, car rentals in Taiwan are a lot more expensive than the US (about $80/day for a standard compact car), but the convenience was worth the splurge. Despite our rudimentary grasp of Mandarin, the rental process went smoothly and we were off for the long drive.

To get from the Western to Eastern side of Taiwan, there are really only three roads in the entire island, two of which are often out of commission due to landslides. We decided to risk it because it would be a significantly shorter route, and a couple hours through, well, we lost. The road was blocked – closed for construction! We were forced to double back and drive through the much longer loop (~9 hours) along the southern peninsula. Fortunately, Jay enjoys driving…😅 On the bright side, we picked up unique-to-Taiwan snacks like a Lays Beef Noodle Soup flavor, Apple Milk, and a McDonald’s shrimp burger for the trip. We arrived at our AirBnB late at night and these cute kittens greeted us at the door.

In the morning, our host graciously prepared a full breakfast for us with local fruits and sausage. We spent the rest of the morning seeing a nearby waterfall and bright green rice fields before it started drizzling, and then headed to my favorite hot spring, An Tong Hot Springs. It’s a hotel from Japanese-occupied times nestled in the mountains and houses several pools at different temperatures. Since it was a weekday in the off season, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. They had made some changes to a couple pools since the last time I was there, but it was still a relaxing experience.

Slightly southeast of Yuli lies Sanxiantai (Three Immortals) and the eight arch bridge. In the winter, the winds were fierce; you could feel the cold ocean spray and the unsettling feeling of a slightly swaying bridge with every step. Should you get the chance, Sanxiantai is a neat island to explore, as it does have a bunch of coral, volcanic rock, and some small tunnels.

Head up to Hualien, which is one of the biggest towns to Taroko National Park. We walked around the city at night for the best clam soup and Hakka mochi. We headed to the park the next morning, since we got a permit about a month prior to hike Zhuilu Old Trail. It was a fairly easy process, though you do need to follow instructions carefully and present your pass at the station by the entrance of the Swallow’s Grotto. There, they’ll let you cross the suspension bridge and start the trail.

With my disposable poncho and the rain, the hike quickly became hot, to the point where we simply used the poncho to cover our backpacks and let ourselves enjoy the weather as is. The trail had a deceptively steep incline, but the elders trekking along and the eventual views inspired us to keep going.

After the hike, we continued into the park to stop by Xiangde Temple. You could really spend over a day exploring all of Taroko’s gorgeous trails and sights, but because of the increasing rain, we decided to call it an early day.

As we left the park and headed to dinner, we hit another snag – our car had a flat. The rural village we were in had only about two main streets, and the rental company said they couldn’t send someone until the next day. What were we to do?