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.

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The long haul #1: Kaoshiung

Having mastered the art of the day trip, we decided to really push the boat out and go away for a whole weekend! I know… Crazy mad! One of our teacher friends talks about Kaoshiung a lot as a place he really enjoys visiting. It doesn’t hurt that his significant otter lives there, but he has a lot of good things to say about the city. For context, it’s the second largest city in Taiwan, and is on the south end of the island, 2.5 hours from Changhua by express train. Something we have since learnt, is that it not only has a large white ex-pat community, but is very popular for Japanese tourists, businessmen and ex-pats. So a lot of the city is very first world and efficient and beautiful. Formerly an industrial port, the city has been working hard to rebuild and rebrand following the industrial market decline in Taiwan. Now “Beautiful Kaoshiung” is the city’s slogan, and literally everything is under renovation!

As it was longish trip, we actually booked train tickets online, to ensure we’d have somewhere comfortable to sit. So worth it! The scenery a dozen other towns and cities whizzed by and after 2.5 hours we stepped out into Kaoshiung train station… Which is huge and has about a million platforms, and is full of people bustling to catch their train because their platform is basically in the next county it’s so far away… And there was us, trying to work out if we needed to take Exit A or B or C or J to get onto the road we needed to be on in order to find our hotel… No, not really. In comparison to Changhua, and even Taichung, the Kaoshiung station is really big and really busy, and it was very intimidating trying to work out where to go without getting in the way of everyone behind us. But truthfully, we just followed the flow of people until we found a quiet corner to duck into, and we were absolutely fine.

Kaoshiung uses a different transport system from the rest of Taiwan, and so our first stop was to buy an iPass, because EasyCards don’t work on the buses or the underground railway. So, with iPass in hand, we set off to find our hotel. Along the way, we stopped and ordered coffee from a bohemian looking cafe, of which there are many! If you are a cafe person (which I am) Kaoshiung is an absolute cornucopia!

Our hotel was only a short walk from the station, and again, it is one of many places to stay. We had been warned by the internet that the staff didn’t speak English, so we got our booking details ready, bracing for the pointing and miming to begin. But as we stepped up to the counter the lady said “Booking.com?” and 2 minutes later we were in our room. The hotel’s gimmick is themed rooms – PacMan, The Union Jack, Daisies etc, so we were quite excited to see what our theme would be. The furniture was minimalist and geometric, the bathroom very nicely done in black and white, the bedding was white and fluffy and offset the chunky wooden base very nicely… And all of this was charmingly highlighted by twenty or so pairs of stuffed boobs hanging from the walls. Hilarity ensued. I wish that we had a bigger and better picture to show, but it’s difficult to remember your camera when a wall of boobs is bearing down on you!

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Anyway, we checked in and then set off at a furious pace for the remainder of our stay. According to the iPhone step counter, we walked 32 km over the course of weekend! Needless to say, we got a lot done!

Our first stop was the Kaoshiung central park, only a short distance from our hotel. It’s a lovely big park with a stream and ponds and modern art and a fountain, so it’s a lovely break from the city. There is also a lovely, but expensive cafe in the park itself, which was our destination for lunch that day, after we had sauntered around the park talking to the ducks and squirrels. The food was delicious, and with full bellies we set off towards the 85 Sky Tower, the second tallest building in Taiwan. It’s not difficult to find, because you can see it from pretty much anywhere in the city, so we just made sure it was always in front of us and set off. The tower houses a department store, a hotel and a restaurant, but the real reason to visit it is to ride in the high-speed elevator to the viewing deck on floor 75. The elevator travels at 10 m/s, which is fast enough to make your ears pop, and the lights dim dramatically as you travel to show off the odometer above the door. It’s all very futuristic and exciting! The viewing deck is definitely worth a visit. There is a gift shop with the obligatory tourist doodads and thingamajigs that seem super necessary when you’re doing something you’ve never done before, and there is also a little coffee shop so you can get a coffee and an ice-cream while you look out over the sprawling city below you. The view is actually incredible, as you have the ocean on one side, a vast expanse of city on another and mountains in the distance. Unfortunately, the Asian Brown Cloud (ABC) was out in full force, but it was a lovely view nonetheless

As the 85 Sky Tower is just shy of the water’s edge, we went down to the ferry wharf, which has been gentrified into a very chic, modern hang out, and many of the old warehouses have been converted into art galleries and exhibitions centers. The day we were there, a pet show was being hosted, so the whole area was filled with dogs and cats and birds of all shapes and colours and sizes!

You simply can’t visit Kaoshiung, without seeing the Love River. It would be like going to London and not seeing the Thames – you’d just be wrong! There is some kind of story behind the name Love River, but the tours are all in Chinese and the internet is very vague on exactly what the “cultural significance” of the river is. However, it is a beautiful spot to visit, particularly at night as the river banks are decorated with fairy lights and the riverside restaurants come alive. There are also gondola and ferry rides along the river – we chose the gondola because it was peaceful and pretty, and also because it’s a gondola!

 

The other major attraction in Kaoshiung is the Dragon and Tiger pagodas at the Lotus Lake. This is a little way from the centre of Kaoshiung and provided us with the opportunity to try out the KRT (the underground railway system). The main station (Formosa Boulevard) is the site of a modern art installation called the Dome of Light, the largest glass art installation in the world. The whole station is a tribute to the Formosa incident  and the Dome of Light promotes a message of love and tolerance through depictions of the four elements.

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On our way to the pagodas we found ourselves at an indigenous botanical garden – read “a tiny patch of indigenous forest in the middle of the city”! It was a lovely surprise, and an excellent opportunity to do some bird watching. We wandered around the forest garden for a short while, saw some squirrels and beautiful birds (including a goshawk!) and got eaten alive by mosquitoes, before we set off for the Lotus Lake. The lake is man made and, as the name suggests, is famous for the lotus flowers which grow there. Unfortunately, they don’t flower in winter, so there weren’t many to see when we were there. There are also a number of temples around the lake, but the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas are by far the most charismatic. The pagodas themselves are twin buildings, joined by a walkway, with an enormous (and rather gaudy) tiger at one door, and dragon at the other. The “auspicious” thing to do, is go into the pagodas through the dragon’s mouth and leave through the tiger’s mouth. Each pagoda has seven levels, with a spiral staircase winding up the middle. It’s quite a steep climb and if you take it too fast, you feel pretty dizzy by the time you reach the top, but we definitely recommend climbing to the top of at least one (or both if you skipped leg day). We only managed one, and then decided we felt quite auspicious enough for one day! The pagodas are free to visit, but are supported and maintained through donations from the public, so if you ever do visit them, do consider leaving a little something in the donation box.

Our final destination for the trip was the British Consulate. We weren’t exactly dying to see the building itself, but it’s set into the side of small mountain (big hill?) with a lovely view over the sea and a view of the lighthouse, which is a little more difficult to get to.There is a tour of the building, if you are a history nerd, but as we were under a little bit of time pressure it just wasn’t an option for us.

Our trip home was pleasantly uneventful, and as the hotel let us leave our bags in the storage room, everything was really quick and easy and convenient. We are talking about going back to Kaoshiung sometime to try some restaurants we liked the look of but didn’t get to eat at, so we may be adding a follow-up Daytrippers post later! If you are a city person, Kaoshiung is definitely somewhere we would recommend, and the number of people who speak English makes it a lot easier to get around! We had a really good time and, even though we aren’t normally city people, there was a lot to do in the city.  The number of green spaces dotted in between the buildings breaks up the concrete and glass really nicely, and the facilities and infrastructure make it a breeze to get around! If we had to live in a city in Taiwan, Kaoshiung would be it!