Daytrippers #6: Jiji

Another long weekend, another trip out to somewhere new! This time we joined forces with a bunch of our teachers and made our way inland to the small Nantou township of Jiji. Word to the wise, get your tones right on this town, or tell everyone you were visiting the male anatomy on your trip.

To get to Jiji you need to make a train switch at Ershui station, changing onto a specially decorated little train that takes you on a special line to the township. Each compartment has its own decor theme – some with animated cats, others with aliens named after the train number (Mr 10 and Ms 01 for train DSC1001). Because it was a public holiday the train was quite full, but the scenery was green and pretty and the trip not too long.

Out at the station, we were greeted by an old puffing steam train photo opportunity, and the town’s famous banana rolls. As with many small Taiwanese towns, Jiji takes its local crop and runs with it: you can get banana ice cream, banana milkshakes, banana smoothies, and these crisp banana rolls. They are delicious! We left with a whole box to enjoy at home.

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For once we were really lucky with the weather – a sunny day that wasn’t too hot. It was perfect for Jiji’s outdoorsy activities. We started with a walk to the town’s major site of interest. A massive earthquake in 1999 shook the town, and the large temple collapsed dramatically. The remains have been left as a reminder of the devastation alongside the new temple.

The juxtaposition of the beautiful and detailed new temple alongside the similarly impressive and tragic-looking ruin was powerful. This sombre atmosphere was aided by a busker on a guitar picking a tune somewhere between traditional Chinese and mournful blues. Trees and plants grow through the gaps in the building, and many of the upper floor’s sculptures now glare out at eye level.

After our stop there we rented some bicycles and cycled around the township a bit. This is definitely a popular way to see the area, and we saw many families renting four-seater tandem bicycle-car-contraptions. We went with more conventional bicycles and whizzed around the town’s outskirts, through a graveyard, and up a hill. It was really pretty!

After our cycle ride, we had to make a choice of Jiji’s other outdoor activities: go-karting or paintball. After a group vote, we settled on the former. For a really good price, we settled into our karts and hit up the track. We had a mix of skill levels, and none of us were really counting our laps and tracking who came first. Nonetheless we had a blast flinging ourselves around the track for what felt like a really long time! With one kart struggling to get going, and the usual competitive ‘unintentional’ ramming, we had a lot of fodder for banter as we made our way back to the train station.

We did a fair bit of sightseeing, and Jiji is definitely a place to go with a group to try out the many activities on offer, from paintball to animatronic singing bear rides, to go-karting and cycling. It was also lovely getting out of the not so green Changhua city and up into a more mountainous and green spot!

The long haul #2: Xiao Liu Qiu

Having cut our teeth on a longer trip to Kaohsiung, we decided we could handle an even longer experience. Since New Year’s day fell on a Sunday, Monday the 2nd was declared an extra day of holiday. With a long weekend promising us a celebration out of Changhua, we decided to join a bunch of the other teachers to explore one of Taiwan’s smaller islands, Xiao Liu Qiu.

Getting to the island is a test of your transportation mettle, as you use at least three different kinds to get there. We caught the express train to Kaohsiung (easy for us now), and from there a bus to the tiny port Dong Gang, and finally the ferry across to the island itself. Certainly not a hop skip and a jump, but the only trick was to find right bus building near Kaohsiung Station (for future travelers, a taxi isn’t too expensive if you’re splitting it, and the convenience is worth it!). Another pro-tip, which we had all forgotten about, was to book your tickets in advance, unless sitting on the floor in the baggage car of the train sounds like an adventure to you.

That said, sharing the trip with company helped the time to pass as quickly as the scenery of central Taiwan, and once we hit the water en route to the island the sea gave our stiff legs more than enough stretching. The ferry was busy, with all the other people heading for a weekend on the island, but we had enough space to stand at the back and lean out over the water to watch the island fade into view.

Xiao Liu Qiu is one of the smaller islands, and the length of time we had was perfect to cover all of the main attractions it has to offer. The island has the claim to fame as Taiwan’s only coral island, and this gives it a really dramatic coastline of jagged coral rock caves. It also boasts a healthy and seemingly year-round population of sea turtles, big enough to spot in the water from the pagodas and pavilions that dot the coast. Tortoises and turtles (tortles as a group, really) are my favourite animals, and the chance to see so many in their natural habitat was wonderful!

As you alight from the ferry you will see a truly astounding collection of scooters and electric bicycles for rent. The island also boasts more expensive but eco-friendly electric scooters, with charging stations marked off on all tourist maps. We opted for a more muscle-powered form of transport, renting pedal bicycles and cycling the western road of the island. This was much to the surprise of our (sometimes overbearingly) helpful B&B manager, who must’ve thought we were crazy for wanting to cycle what she considered a far too long and hilly trek. I can’t recommend the cycle enough, though, as the fresh air and views are extraordinary, and it’s much more scenic without the drone of a scooter engine!

Our accommodation was a wonderfully ‘what-cease-and-desist-letter’ Disney themed B&B, with large and very comfortable beds overlooked by a towering family of certainly not copyrighted ducks. The manager was wonderful, if overwhelming. We had barely met up with her before she had asked us for our plans on about every topic from wake-up times to transport to snorkeling to whether we wanted traditional breakfast or burgers from the nearby cafe. Once the Spanish Inquisition had passed, she actually helped us to book our snorkeling and a Taiwanese style barbeque, which made our lives a lot easier.

To see what the island has to offer might take about a full day if you’re cycling and not training for the Tour de France. We took our time and managed almost everything in one with a break to double back for our snorkeling. We started by walking up to the island’s most famous feature, the Vase Rock. It’s pretty much what it says on the tin, and the bustle around it with everyone (like us) taking a selfie in front of it. We couldn’t help notice its similarity to our home continent. The other attractions to see down the west coast road are the appropriately named Beauty Cave walk, the Wild Boar Trench, and the Black Ghost Cave (sometimes also Black Dwarf and even a few translations say Black Devil). For these, you pay a small fee (NT$120) to get a ticket into all four. They’re scenic walks among the coral caves and rocks, down to the beaches, and up through the tropical forest growth. While we saw no wild boars, we did spot turtles, and the areas gave great views and amazing photo spots.

A highlight for me was snorkelling for the first time. The trip cost little more than a song at NT$300 for rental of all the equipment, our guide, and a CD of photos at the end. We were led to the spot by our B&B staff, where we got into our thick wetsuits and life vests and climbed onto the back of a blue truck and were dropped off below the Vase Rock. A bit of getting used to the snorkels later and we were heading out. Our guide didn’t speak any English but did a good job though mime to herd us all together along our floating rings. The island does have some colourful coral reefs on the east side, but we were diving to the north. We did, however, see many bright blue Dory fish, zebra fish, box jelly fish, and the highlight was a very close encounter with a truly massive turtle who swam right below us for much of our dive!

If you’re looking for surfing or scuba diving, you might find the island a bit too quiet, but for our New Years ramble, it was a great destination. The island boasts a few restaurants that offer hamburgers and Western fare alongside some wonderful seafood (of course!), and many bars. We tried the wonderful Mr Bartender for our New Years Eve drinks, and had a great time with the friendly staff.

By the end of the weekend we were stiff and a little sunburnt, but refreshed and seeing wild sea turtles was crossed off my bucket list.