A Travellerspoint blog

Taipei, Taiwan

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Taiwan was a bit of an unknown destination, I knew about Taipei and had read that there were some good national parks but other than that, I wasn't really sure what to expect. They are a manufacturing giant just off the coast of China with 23.5 million people with a relatively small land mass. One of the first interesting things to understand was the fact that they aren't officially classified as their own country (despite having their own government and military). It's a little confusing however it turns out that when China had a civil war last century, the communist party won and the opposing party sought retreat on the island of Taiwan, claiming to be the real 'China'. Over time this claim dissipated with the rest of the world, who now acknowledge mainland China with Taiwan being left in a peculiar situation.

I flew into Taipei and quickly realised there was loads to see and do. It's a bustling large city with a super efficient subway system. Neon signs, tall buildings, endless shopping areas combined with great street food and a traditional culture that seemed to be a fusion of Chinese, Japanese and other Asian influences.

For the first few days, I stayed at JV's Hostel right next to a night market on Tongua St, not far from Taipei 101 and returned to stay at 3SS not far from Taipei Main train station. Both were great - small rooms but had everything you'd need.


Sights in Taipei

There were some really great highlights including:

- Taipei 101 - Formerly the tallest building in the world (currently 4th), at 509m with 101 floors and pagoda design, it dwarfs every other building in Taipei.
- Elephant Mountain - A walk up Elephant Mountain is an ideal way to get a view back over the city and see it's scale.
- Memorial Hall / Liberty Square / the City Gate - Are architectural show pieces.
- Temples - Longshan Temple, Boan Temple & Xingtian temple are very popular with worshipers and look fantastic.
- Shopping Next to Ximen Station - Is bustling with neon signs, people shopping and eating into the night.
- Presidential Office - You wont be able to get too close but it's an impressive 100 year old baroque-style building.
- 1914 Creative Park - Home to all sorts of creative talents and buildings including an upside down house! The park is used to showcase the talents of theater groups, painters, wood sculptors, writers, movie producers and more.
- Shilin Night Market - Taipei's largest night market with a huge range of culinary options.
- National Palace Museum - Not far from Shilin Night Market, the palace has a huge collection of nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks which is one of the largest collections of its type in the world.
- Maokong Gondola - South east of the city is a very scenic gondola that climbs up for 20 minutes into lush mountains where tea is grown, produced and tasted.

It's a city that you certainly need at least 5-7 days for. The subway is great but like any city, it's always good to walk from place to place and dodge the endless stream of scooters!


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Jiufen, Taiwan

rain 25 °C
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After a slow yet scenic train trip I arrived in Ruifang and then jumped on a local bus to go to the small town of Jiufen. It was a old gold mining town up until the 1950's and has since become a popular tourist town following the release of the movie 'City of Sadness'. The movie was a hit and since it came out in 1989, people from Taipei and abroad have been flocking to the city.

It's a small town with great views over mountains and the ocean with narrow winding streets and traditional building scattered on the mountain side. The 'old street' is full of local eateries where you can sample loads of Taiwanese food from a peanut ice cream wrap to stinky tofu (smells terrible, tastes a little better) and everything in between. It's a great place to wander and sample the food and admire the views.


I stayed at the Flip Flop hostel which is fantastic. The guy working there takes people on nightly walking tours, giving guests some pretty cool insights into the town including it's history and it's local artists. One day was enough but it would have been great to stay longer to just relax and soak up the culture.

The next day the owner of the guest house told me that typhoon Meranti was due to hit Taipei on Friday, the day I was due to fly out. Taiwan is used to typhoons however Meranti was classified as the worlds largest of the year and was almost guaranteeing the fact that I was not going to catch my flight out of Taiwan. Luckily the typhoon ended up going west towards China and not up towards Taipei however I still felt the edge of the typhoon which had incredibly ferocious winds.


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Hualien & Toroko National Park, Taiwan

overcast 30 °C
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I was really looking forward to the next part of the trip. After jumping on a train in Tapei's central station, I headed east and then south down Taiwan's east coast toward Taroko National Park. The nearest town to access the national park is Hualien. A small yet vibrant town with great food, weather and a really cool night market. I stayed at the very nice Sleeping Boot Backpacker Hostel which is right in the centre of town.

Taroko national park is big and you could send many days exploring the various trails from short hikes to multi-day treks. With limited time, there are basically 3 options: jump on a day tour from Hualien, utilise a hop-on hop-off bus service or rent a scooter and have full freedom flexibility.


Of course I rented the scooter (after checking my travel insurance). It cost 500 Taiwanese dollars and after signing a the written contract (all in Chinese) off I went for the day. The ride up to the park was around 30 minutes away and one great thing that I had was a map of Taiwan download to my phone with the app 'Here Maps'. With headphones in, it allowed me to have full offline voice navigation which directed me to Taroko National Park. Much easier than having to stop all the time to check a paper map and try to work out what the street signs said. I just enjoyed the ride.

I first went and checked out Quizing Beach which is about 7 kilometres north of Hualien and then went on to Chingshui Cliffs which is where the ocean meets 800 metre mountains. It's these cliffs that form the entry into Taroko National Park. Following a river into the national park, you're suddenly dwarfed by these huge sheer cliffs either side as the road winds through a gorge. Along the way there are trails, rivers, temples and another buildings to check out. It was fantastic. The further you go, the more the road climbs, up to 1,000 metres in altitude and well beyond that.

Some must see highlights of Taroko National Park include:
- Shakadang Trail
- Changchun (Eternal Spring) Shrine
- Yanzikou (Swallow Grotto) Trail
- Jiuqudong (Tunnel of Nine Turns) Trail
- Cimu Bridge
- Lushui Trail
- Xiangde Temple Trail

After the last stop, I kept riding and as the road climbs, you have amazing views back towards the ocean. Daylight and rain was the only issue, so I quickly got back on the bike and rode back towards Hualien. I was back in time to go to see the night market again enjoy some more food before dropping the scooter back at around 9:30pm. It was one of those great days, where you find yourself enjoying every minute.

I did plan to spend another day in Hualien but decided to go back to Taipei via a one night stopover in Jiufen, a place that had marked before the start of the trip but didn't think I'd have time to visit.


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sunny 32 °C
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Last time I travelled to Singapore was in 2008, right at Chinese New Year. What I now realise is that the city certainly has a different feel to it the rest of the year. I recall a lot of the areas such as Little India, downtown and even China Town being quite empty with many of the businesses closed. The waterfront on the other hand was teaming with people, festivities and all sorts of celebrations.

It was quite different this time around. Singapore is a true modern metropolis with 5.4 million people within the relatively small area of 719.1 km². With low taxes, this country is has the presence of many of the worlds largest companies. It's well run, modern, has great infrastructure and you get a real sense that a good portion of the people here are wealthy.

After an overnight flight via Kuala Lumpur, I arrived in Singapore and stayed at the very convenient 5footway.inn Project located at Boat Quay, right in the heart of the city. Small but comfortable, modern and affordable accommodation. China Town was this time bustling, as was downtown and after exploring the city on foot, I caught up with a good pal from home and we went and tried the local specialty - Singapore Chilli Crab. Pricey, but very tasty.


Another difference this time around was Marina Bay Sands and Gardens By The Bay. Almost unbelievably, this entire area did not exist in 2008. Marina Bay Sands is an architectural marvel, both inside and out. It's well worth going to the observation deck, however you can avoid the official S$23 ticket and request to go to up to the bar instead. The views are basically the same and it's free - although you should get yourself a drink and enjoy the view. Gardens by the bay is also a great place to walk around and explore if you have a few hours to spare.

The other area I explored was the famed Sentosa Island. It's an island resort accessible by foot, bus or cable car that attracts 20 million visitors per year! There's plenty to do and see including Universal Studios, golf courses, beaches, a bird park and more.


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Serbia - Belgrade

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Our stay in Belgrade was just not long enough. We arrived after dark in the evening and had to catch a morning flight out the next day. We made the most of it however, thanks to some helpful advice from our host at Hostel Revolution.

We walked most of the major areas within the city, first stopping at Skadarlija street which is full of very nice restaurants. We indulged and ate a delicious casserole at a restaurant called Tpu Wewupt. After checking out Knez Mihailova street, another pedestrian area, we ended up at the Belgrade Fortress! This place is open 24/7 and seems to be the place for young people to hangout.

We returned the next morning to get beautiful views over the Danube and Sava rivers. The other side of the river has actually never been developed, which is in stark contrast to most other cities of the world. People here must not have valued river views! It won't stay like this for long however as there is a $3 billion plan underway to redevelop the whole area.

A bus to the airport and the European leg of our adventure had come to an end! The time to return to Australia had arrived.


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Albania - Tirana

sunny 16 °C

Tirana is the capital of Albania, 2 hours south of Shkodër. It's a busy bustling metropolis and unfortunately for us we could only experience it for 1 night. We stayed at the very comfortable Tirana Backpacker hostel with a great outdoor area. Loads of oranges were also perfectly ripe on their orange tree, so we weren't lacking in vitamin C after our visit.

The Scanderbeg square is home to the National Historical Museum, National Theater of Opera and Dance, and the Ethem'Beu Mosque. It was busy with traffic and people mingling, in fact the whole city seemed to be. The International Centre of Culture pyramid was build by the Russians in 1988 and is now used as broadcasting center by Albanian TV channel Top Channel. At night it's a pretty eerie sight. The Blloku district was once home to the elite Albanian politburo during the communist era. The area was gated just for them and therefore it is full of impressive old architecture. It's now an up-market shoppng and restaurant district.

We had some very tasty Albanian style doner kebabs, which were delicious and got an early night before an early bus to the airport the following day.


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Albania - Shkodër

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After a 1.5 hour bus ride we landed in the heart of Shkodër, a city located in northern Albania. We stayed at the centrally located 'Mi Casa es Tu Casa' hostel, a quirky and very welcoming place to chill out for a few days.

We didn't have any expectations for the city as it was predominantly a stop-over to get to Tirana. Apart from Rozafa castle, there aren't too many major sights for a traveller however we really enjoyed unique Albanian culture. There are coffee houses everywhere and they are all full of guys drinking espresso. It seems coffee is the drink of choice and most often it's guys hanging out with guys - not sure where the girls were!

You do notice some economic differences with other European countries, since the Socialist Republic was dissolved in 1991 and the Republic of Albania was established. The last 24 years has seen political unrest including a financial collapse and also affects from the Kosovo War. There seems to be less wealth in general and an ageing infrastructure.

The people are friendly and vibrant, which was noticeable as we walked along the Bojana river, and as we ate some tasty Albanian food at a restaurant called Peja. This was just one of the many local restaurants, which cook up local specialties each day and offer a menu that is based on what food is freshly available. They keep the food warm in a bain marie and you just select what you feel like. No listed menu with prices was a good change! We had pasta, potatoes, a range of veg and some Albanian sausages.


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Montenegro - Ulcinj

overcast 23 °C

Our next stop was just one night in Ulcinj, southern Montenegro. We booked an apartment at 'Apartments Adriatic' which had great view over the town and ocean. After a tasty dinner at Pizze Bife we walked the bustling waterfront, followed by another walk in the morning throughout the old town. It was nice but also felt a little sketchy in the area between the town centre and the bus station.

It was a short stay, next up - Albania!


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Montenegro - Kotor

overcast 22 °C

From Dubrovnik, we headed south into Montenegro en-route to our fly out destination in Albania. Kotor had been recommended to us and we completely forward on that recommendation! It's a wonderfully preserved walled in town set on among mountains and the Adriatic sea. It dates back to the 7th century. The town wall climbs up the mountain side to the Castle Of San Giovanni which gives you a stunning view. Inside the old town you can get lost in the labyrinth of lane-ways which were purposely designed that way to confuse potential invaders.


We took a day trip to the nearby town of Perast. Perast is a small town with two unique islands, one of which is home to R.K.C. Gospa od Škrpjela cathedral, which you can take a small boat out to.

Our hostel called 'Old Town Hostel East Wing' was just about as good as it gets, set inside a 500 year old building with great amenities and a good group of travellers at the time we stayed. Great price too, only 12 euro's per per person with an en-suite. Our favourite place to eat was Mesara Tanjga, with loads of fresh salads and veg but also all kinds of raw meat. You just choose your type and cut, and they cook it up! All for about 4 euros.


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Croatia - Dubrovnik

We flew out of England with Monarch Arilines on one of the strangest flights we've been on - there were a total of 16 passengers. Let's just say, we could easily stretch out!

Dubrovnik is a popular tourist destination for all Europeans and it's clear to see why, the people are friendly, it's affordable and the old town completely stunning. It's located in southern Croatia right on the Adriatic sea with the old town dramatically clinging to the cliff edge.

We stayed at the 'Rock Palace Apartment Midnight Lady', via Airbnb and were given a great introduction of the area by our great host, Zlatan Muslic. The location was good and we had a full kitchen, bathroom and outdoor area to relax in. November was an ideal time to come, the weather was still good and the crowds were minimal (apart from when the large cruise ships came in for a few hours).


We made the most of our few days in Dubrovnik, there is plenty to see and do. The old town was a great place to explore, with endless winding laneways, impressive cathedrals and loads of restaurant options. The best way to grasp it all is walking around the old town wall, especially at sunset.

There are plenty of islands you can get a boat to, we went out to Kolocep, Lopud and Sipan which was a good day trip albeit quiet as the summer crowds are gone!

Fort Imperial is also well worth a look which documents the defense of Dubrovnik from the Serbian and Montenegrin armies in 1991. It also provides a great view of the city and beyond. In terms of food, Bistro & Wine Bar Gusti was tasty.


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England - Cotswolds

sunny 19 °C

Over Paul’s birthday we hired a car and spent a few days in the Cotswolds, a beautiful area of UK countryside with rolling green fields and streams dotted with historic villages built from Cotswold stone. Our time included exploring lots of picturesque villages, more afternoon teas and pub dinners in front of a roaring fire against the cold, dark evenings.


We were very lucky to find some great accommodation - a newly converted barn cottage fabulously done up with top notch finishings overlooking open fields. The main house was a large farmhouse and our host took us out to feed the sheep in the morning which was a bit of fun!

On Paul’s birthday the weather was damp and drizzly, so we spent the day at Blenheim Palace, in the village of Woodstock. Blenheim Palace is the home to the Duke of Marlborough, and also happens to be the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.


The Palace remains in original condition dating back to 18th Century Baroque architecture and houses traditional furniture, china, tapestry and paintings. At the end of the day we had fun racing each other through the impressive giant maze in the gardens!

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England - Oxford

overcast 19 °C

Lucy’s Uncle Richard lives in Oxford, being an ex-University of Oxford employee gave us a fantastic guided tour of the Oxford Colleges, grounds and laneways filling us in on the history of the city. This was followed by afternoon tea in a High Street tea room as it started to get dark outside on a crisp October evening. Richard and Anne were fantastic hosts, greeting us with a warm cuppa and a chat each evening.


Oxford was built on the crossing of two rivers (Thames and Cherwell) it has many waterways running through the city. We enjoyed walking into Oxford along one of the many canals, taking in the scenery and the canal boats lining its banks.

The pedestrian main streets make it easy to walk through the city. We loved the Covered Market, an old-fashioned mall which offers cheeses, tea rooms and shops all under the cover of a roof. We also took the opportunity to have a well-overdue catch up with friends and family, enjoyed evensong in Christchurch College, and a lager or two in some of the cosy old pubs.


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England - London

overcast 18 °C

We arrived in London and caught the train into Paddington Station. It brought back memories for both of us seeing the UK flags hanging from the rafters. It was great to be back with some time to explore this great city!


Originally from the UK Lucy spent a bit of time catching up with English friends, and lots of our Aussie friends who are over living in London. We enjoyed a morning at the Borough Market, sampling delicacies along the banks of the River Thames. Crossing the river we visited the Tower of London, adorned with a flowing carpet of ceramic poppies planted to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. It was an inspiring sight, 888,246 poppies, one for each British fatality.

Lucy’s Grandfather celebrated his 90th birthday during our visit, and we enjoyed being a part of the celebrations and catching up with family, overlooking rolling green fields in Harrow on the Hill.

We took in some other main sights, sipped lattes in Clapham Junction and explored the Brixton Village Market at night. And on our last evening, we enjoyed a stroll along the river soaking up the London sights light up by flood lights....Ahhhh London!


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Slovakia - Bratislava

overcast 20 °C

I found a good flight across to London from Bratislava, so I beelined to Bratislava from Warsaw on a Polski bus. It probably would have been nicer on the train but the cost was near €100, versus the bus at around €30. Plus the bus had Wi-Fi, so I did it that way. It was a very scenic 10 hour trip, especially once we were in Slovakia.

Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia with around 500,000 people and I bunked down in the old town at Wild Elephant hostel for around €13 per night. There's a fair few volunteers that work there which are loads of fun and generally explore the nightlife with guests. It's another really cool old town to wander around and is flanked by the Danube river. Some things to check out are the main square in the old town, the Slovak National Theatre, the 'UFO' bridge, and the Bratislava Castle which looms over the whole town and provide great views across to Austria.


Another highlight was exploring an abandoned hospital thanks to a tip from Deb who works in the hostel. It's around 6 levels with loads of chairs, tables and medical equipment that was just left there about 20 years ago. It's boarded up but there's a small hold around the back you can get into. We sat on the roof with a few drinks and watched the sunset - very nice apart from the spooky walk back through the building in the pitch black!


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Poland - Warsaw

overcast 16 °C

I was originally thinking of heading into Minsk, the capital of Belarus after Vilnius but due to the time it takes to get a visa as well the cost, I changed my plans and decided to take the 7 hour Lux Express bus to Warsaw. I had been to the region around Krakow previously but not to Poland's capital. It felt like a modern metropolis when I arrived in the new bus station, flashy billboards and glass covered buildings. It's come a long way since the early 90's.


I Couchsurfed with Paulina, a great host who gave me loads of tips and took me to Zapiecek an authentic Polish restaurant so we could enjoy potato pancakes, goulash and dumplings. She also took me to a vodka bar which are scattered across the city. The concept it simple, on your way to a club - stop at a tiny vodka bar with around 50 flavour options, shoot 3 or 4 at 1 euro a pop and continue on to the club. Ideal for a pre-drink.

Warsaw is a big city of 1.7 million and you can sense both the Russian communist feel as well as the new exuberant western European feel. It's busy and in a good way. I walked right throughout the city centre checking out Royal Park which includes the Chopin Monument, the Presidential Palace and the Polish National Opera building. The old town was a fascinating place to walk around. On the face of it, it seems like a collection of impressive building and squares that date back to the 13th century. This is true but around 90% of the city was destroyed in world war II, so therefore the majority has been rebuilt since then.


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