Tuesday, October 31, 2017

On to Taroko Gorge and Silks Place

I am now on my second day around Taiwan as a solo traveler who can’t speak Chinese and only using public transportation. My first stop was Luodong where I visited the National Center for Traditional Arts and had a nice stay at the Sunny Stream Villa homestay. See Day One post here. I am now traveling down to Taroko Gorge and will spend the night at the luxury resort Silks Place in Tienxiang which is 18 km down a twisty, sometimes one-lane road in Taroko Gorge National Park. 

Nondescript Luodong Station

To get there I will leave from the nondescript Luodong station and take what is called a local train that stops at every station on the way to Xincheng, the nearest station to Taroko Gorge National Park. I purchased the ticket when I first arrived at Luodong. The fare was about US$3.50. Cheap!  I had inquired about the express train to Xincheng, but it left late, cost more and it was a standing ticket only. My experience is if you can pronounce the city you want to go to correctly, you’ll have no problem with ticket clerks outside of Taipei or better yet, write down the city and times you want to leave on a piece of paper and show them.

Local train interior

Local trains do not have reserved seats, but on this weekday I had no problem getting a seat. The train was filled with many local tourists, heading to Taroko Gorge. While the train seemed slow going (just over an hour), the view was amazing every time we came out of a tunnel and saw the coast.

Very pretty Xincheng Station

Xincheng station has been redone and is very nice. Half the parking lot was full of private tour buses which is where most of the tourists headed.  If you are traveling on your own, you have two options to get into Taroko Gorge, the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus, and the local bus. Both stop at the bus stop in the parking lot at the left as you exit the train station.  My only goal was to get to Tienxiang since I had toured the amazing Taroko Gorge before, and both buses made a stop there. As it happened, the local bus arrived first and with my “Easy Card” I was off along with the other tourists!

Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus route


Incredible that a road could be built here


The bus made a few stops, but overall we had a quick trip through the beautiful Taroko Gorge and I finally arrived at Tienxiang. I arrived too early to check into the Silks Place resort so they took my bag and said they would email me when the room was ready (amazingly I had 4G).

Silks Place resort hotel

So I had time to kill in Tienxiang. A hike up to the Tianfeng Pagoda was in order in addition to walking around Tienxiang. I had wished Silks Place had a lounge where I could rest and have a drink. They have a  lounge, however, it’s only for those guests who pay extra to be “Retreat Guests.”  So I had my Taiwan beer in the stall across the parking lot. At 3:00 pm I got an email saying my room was ready (I will review Silks Place in my next post).

Tianfeng Pagoda 

Restaurants and stalls across from Silks Place parking lot

Church up above Silks Place

I had reservations on the southbound express train leaving about 10:00 am the next morning from the Hualien Station. This ticket was bought in advance when I was in Taipei. Both the local bus and the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus terminate at the Hualien train station. When I checked out, the local bus was waiting in the Silks Place parking lot. I also have noticed that the local buses do not always keep to a schedule and may leave early, so keep that in mind. After another trip through Taroko Gorge this time by a betel nut crazed driver, I arrived safely at the badly needing upgrading Hualien station for my next destination in my around Taiwan trip.

What happens when two big buses meet on a one-lane Taroko Gorge road?

One backs up.

A Homestay in Luodong

Sunny Stream Villa

If you have just come from Taipei, Yilan/Luodong is very different. It is more rural with many small fields that are submerged in water or that are planted in rice. Standing among these fields are houses. Some are very nice and have been turned into homestays. If you visit the Yilan/Luodong area, I would recommend staying in one of these homestays. I found myself spending a night in Luodong as my first stop in my around Taiwan trip as a solo traveler who does not speak Chinese.

Lots of water and small farm plots

Finding Taiwan homestays where English is spoken can be difficult. Try the usual booking sites such as Airbnb and Agoda. I have used Google Maps and clicked on the homestay and where they have a Facebook page listed, I message them and see if they reply in English. Payment is another issue. Most Taiwan homestays want a deposit sent to a Taiwan bank. This is where Airbnb and Agoda are more convenient.

My homestay in Luodong was called Sunny Stream Villa and like most homestays, it is owned by a nice couple. When determining which homestay to stay, I will look at the reviews on Google Maps and other sources such as TripAdvisor if the homestay is listed. I find pictures are also very useful to determine the condition of the house. 

As a rule, I don’t want to be far from the train station since I am traveling around Taiwan using public transportation.  However, to get to Sunny Stream Villa I had to take a taxi from the bus station which was in front of the rear exit of the Luodong train station. The taxi driver did not speak English, so I showed him the location of Sunny Stream Villa on Google Maps on my phone. Apparently, I didn’t show him the street name in Chinese.  He got me close but not at the correct address. With help from the hotel he stopped at, I got to the Sunny Stream Villa.

The host/owner warmly greeted me as I walked in (but I forgot to remove my shoes, a big no-no). She offered me coffee and a snack. Her English was good, so I told her I wanted to go to the National Center for Traditional Arts (NCFTA) and how was the best way to get there. It was too far to walk or bike, so she called a and made sure the driver knew where to go.

After a long day of visiting the NCFTA, the Luodong Forestry Culture Park, and a walk to the night market, I got a taxi back to Sunny Stream. This time I made sure the driver saw the street name in Chinese on Google Maps. When I got back, the owner offered me fruits and snacks. As guests, you also have access to the kitchen, coffee maker and any snacks on the counter.  Everything was very clean and organized.

Fruit and snacks available

My room was on the top (4th) floor and there was no elevator or “lift” as my UK friends would say. I had a great view of the Yilan city area and the mountains in the background. The room was large and beautiful. The bath had a large tub and windows all around so you could view the city as you shower. There was a balcony shared with the other fourth-floor room, but there was no outdoor furniture which would have been nice to sit on and enjoy the weather and views. Only a small complaint I have is that the AC controls were in Chinese. It would have been nice if there was a sheet that translates those to English.

Roof balcony

The morning breakfast was elegant. Many different items were served in a bento type tray. It was fresh, satisfying, and nice to look at. Afterwards, the owner dropped me off at the train station as I continue my journey around Taiwan with the next stop at Taroko Gorge.

Simple elegant breakfast

and the breakfast carbs...

Nice stay. Thank-you!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Luodong Forestry Culture Park

Some Taiwan Logging History

A good way to get between the National Center for Traditional Arts and the Luodong Forestry Cultural Garden and vice versa is to use the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle. My experience with the Tourist Shuttles is that you need to flag them down to get on board and press the button on the bus before your stop to get off or chances are the driver won’t stop.

Logging of cypress trees off Taiwan’s mountains was a big operation that got started under Taiwan’s Japanese occupation. Those trees from Taipingshan’s forests were brought to Luodong for processing and ultimately for transport to Japan. The harvesting lasted 68 years and trickled to a stop in the early 80s.  In 2004, the Taiwan Forestry Bureau unveiled a plan to create the Luodong Forestry Culture Park. In 2009, the park was officially opened to the public.  

Within the park, the log storage pond, Zhulin Station, wood-dragging tracks, forestry agency office, Japanese-style dormitories, and segments of old train tracks are all well preserved. The site is further divided into the forestry exhibition area, old dormitory area, art and culture area, administration and management area, nature and ecology area, green area, hiking trails, and parking space.

When I was there, many locals were using the boardwalk to walk around the wetland. I saw only one shop open in the art and culture area.  It may be a work in progress and probably busier on weekends. 

The old leftover twisted logs leave you with the impression of how large these trees were. 

In all a nice place to visit but probably appeals more to locals than to tourists.

The Place Yilan - A Hotel next to the NCFTA, Luodong

A hotel next to the National Center for Traditional Arts - Luodong

This hotel complex is next to the National Center for Traditional Arts (NCFTA). I would characterize this hotel as one for families that want to visit the NCFTA. While I did not stay there, the staff showed me a couple rooms. There rooms I saw had two bedrooms and a common area. Sometimes the second room will have a bunk bed. The d├ęcor looks like a cross between a college dorm (but a lot cleaner!) and modern Scandinavian. It’s a large complex that may involve some walking from the parking lot to the building. I did see a golf cart shuttle that looks available to help.  

It was explained to me that the buildings are owned by the government and every 12 years a hotel company receives a contract to remodel and operate them as a hotel. The Hotel Royal Group now has the contract.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Cultural Theme Park in Luodong, Taiwan

What is the National Center for Traditional Arts?

On the banks of the Dongshan River in Luodong, Taiwan is a tourist attraction called the National Center for Traditional Arts (NCFTA). Before I went, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. The English brochure says you will, “Experience our ancestors’ traditional lifestyle and culture in the ancient setting of a commoner’s everyday life.” Also, “Travel through time and space to experience traditional Taiwanese customs and immerse in the joyous festive atmosphere.” Think of it as a “cultural theme park.” Not a theme park like Disney with rides but one that showcases the early culture on Taiwan.

The park mainly consists of three “boulevards” and an Exhibition Hall. 

Luban Boulevard has buildings highlighting some handicrafts. I was there on a weekday and no one was demonstrating handicrafts, but when days are busier it looks like people can try their hands at making crafts. Architecturally, walking down this area was very pleasant.

Shop on Luban Boulevard

Wenchang Boulevard is a re-creation of an old street that could have been in any early Taiwan trading town. Again, a lot of effort has been done to make it look authentic. However, it is new construction, so it does not truly reflect a feeling of “old Taiwan.” Many stores were selling things, some looked local and some not. I felt this area could be improved by selling handicrafts or agricultural products produced in Taiwan.

Wenchang Boulevard

Waterfront Boulevard has a view of the water with slow boat rides being offered. When I was there a stage was being erected for a performance. I wished there were more benches (shaded) where one could rest and just watch the boats.

Waterfront Boulevard

The Exhibition Hall was showcasing some very fine historical artifacts that appeared to be on loan from the National Palace Museum. Thankfully, the labels were also in English.

Cool carved bench

Probably the highlight of the visit was the live performances. I just happened to come across them. If the time and locations where noted somewhere, I seemed to have missed it.  There was one performance in front of the Wenchang Temple and another a short time later between the Exhibition Hall and Chiang Wei-shui Theater. The performances featured acrobatics and colorful costumes. The narration was only in Chinese.

Performance in front of Wenchang Temple

This is a family-friendly attraction where one can spend a few hours, maybe longer depending on the live performances. I visited during the low season so admission was only NT150 (US$5) so very reasonable.

Can't leave without my bubble tea

Guanghsiao Shrine

Cute bug

Next to the attraction is a hotel which I will review in my next post.

Getting there: From Luodong station by taxi about NT$200. Taiwan Tourist Shuttle behind the rear station exit (First location in front of the bus terminal by the station). Uses the Easy Card.