I spent part of my winter vacation traveling in Taiwan, where I served as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant between 2011 and 2012. The island is like no other, with its packed night markets serving papaya milk and green onion pancakes, misty mountain hikes always within reach, and inexplicable fascination with all things cartoonish and cute. My China Studies friends joke that Taipei is "Asia Lite," given its modern infrastructure (including toilets!) and Starbucks stores on every corner. Yet the city is refreshingly free of Western tourists.
The New York Times called Taiwan "one of the most underrated tourist destinations in Asia." It published "36 Hours in Taipei, Taiwan" guides in 2008 and 2013, suggesting standard tourist sights like Taipei 101, the National Palace Museum, Din Tai Fung, and high-end shopping malls. Of course, these destinations deserve a visit. But if you are willing to be a little more adventurous, several one-of-a-kind experiences are within a half-day's travel from Taipei.
Scooter in Taroko Gorge
How to get there:
Take the Capital Bus from Taipei City Hall to Luodong (羅東) (120 NT/4 USD). Buses run every 10-15 minutes, so there is no need to purchase tickets in advance. (However, it is best to visit Taroko Gorge on a less-crowded weekday.) The bus ride is about 50 minutes.
After you exit the bus at Luodong Train Station, purchase a train ticket to Hsincheng (新城). These tickets are quite cheap, and the journey is about 1.5 hours, for a total travel time between Taipei and Taroko of 2.5 hours.
Finally, you can rent a scooter from a small shop beside Hsincheng Station. You won't miss it -- there is a large billboard titled "Motorcycle Rental" in English. You will need an international driver's permit (easily purchased from AAA) and your passport. A day-long scooter rental will cost 400 NT/13 USD.
What to do:
From the scooter rental shop, the Taroko Gorge is only a 5 minute drive away. Then, you can spend several hours exploring bridges, temples and scenic overlooks in the gorge. The scooter rental company will provide a map, but it's fairly straightforward -- just keep driving ahead!
A video of my first visit to Taroko Gorge: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsQMbRIHt1k
Pingxi Scenic Railway
How to get there:
Even more so than Taroko Gorge, only travel to Pingxi on a weekday! The train ride can become unbearably crowded with Japanese and Taiwanese tour groups on weekends.
From Taipei Main Station, purchase a train ticket to Ruifang (瑞芳). After a 30-40 minute journey, you will arrive at Ruifang Station, where you should purchase an all-day Pingxi Line pass (50 NT/1.5 USD) at the ticket counter.
The Pingxi Line is a 13-kilometer scenic railway that travels through forests, rivers and waterfalls, stopping at unique villages along the way. The train arrives every hour, so take a photo of the schedule before you leave the train station.
What to do:
Houtong Cat Village
Houtong is a former mining town that declined in the 1990s. According to Amusing Planet, "Things took an unexpected turn sometime around 2008, when a cat lover organized a team of volunteers to give the neighborhood’s abandoned cats a better living environment. They posted the cats’ pictures on the web and received an overwhelming response from other cat lovers. Visitors' raves on local blogs drew more cat lovers to this place who came to photograph the cats or fondle and frolic with them. Soon Houtong became a hotbed for cat lovers and amateur photographers."
Shifen Waterfall and Lanterns
At Shifen, you can purchase a rice paper lantern (250 NT/8 USD) and paint your wishes with black ink and a calligraphy brush. Then, shop owners will light the lantern and take your photo as you release it into the sky -- hopefully. When it's especially windy, the crowd oohs and ahhs as the flaming lanterns crash into buildings along the narrow alley, or careen into shrieking onlookers. "This is dangerous!" I told the teenage shop employee. "Nah, just fun!" he replied.
You can also hike along the railroad, crossing creaky bridges and waterfalls.
Huashan 1914 Creative Park
After these gorgeous -- but tiring! -- trips, you will have earned a relaxing evening at a coffee shop. I recommend exploring the Huashan 1914 Creative Park, a collection of red brick buildings in central Taipei that house artistic exhibits, bars and restaurants. You can read more about 1914 Creative Park from Good Day, Taipei and Taipei 543.