“Did you fight?” is the first thing I ask when friends tell me about their travels with friends. “Not quite, but almost,” is a common response. Volatile personalities, varying budgets, unique interests, limited time, and a shared bathroom — in my mind, it was a recipe for disaster.
So, when my friend of 20 years asked me if we were pushing through with vaguely made plans of taking a trip together, I suggested a destination that was less than two hours away: Taipei. (We would learn later from our tour guide that this was a political move to lessen Taiwan’s dependence on tourists from mainland China.)
I needn’t have worried. Despite our differences, my friend and I are actually two of the most agreeable people I know. When I crossed out the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and museum from our itinerary, she said okay. And when she mentioned that her corporate job and ultimate frisbee activities were keeping her busy, I volunteered to handle our travel plans. Whenever I procrastinated, she trusted I’d eventually get around to it.
Finally, when we both admitted that we actually preferred the role of follower when traveling, we decided it would be fair to alternate as leader for each of the four days.
A sunset hike
The large boba tea that I was eagerly slurping on must have clued them in that we weren’t serious hikers. A middle-aged couple in workout clothes, who at first looked like they wanted to continue with their stretching exercises and mind their own business, finally decided to chase after us.
In slow English and with frantic arm-waving, they warned that we should turn around. It seemed like the ominous start of a horror movie if we ignored their dire warning, so we followed their instructions to the letter, and set off to find the entrance with the drawing of an elephant.
The “easy” path was 600 steps, and I wheezed and sweated through it, taking a break every hundred steps or so, lured by the promise of an enchanting view of the city skyline at sundown. The braver trekkers clambered up a moon-shaped boulder about 12 feet tall, for an IG-famous shot with the Taipei 101 looming in the background. My friend and I contented ourselves with the crowded viewing deck where we watched the sky darken and the city lights start to twinkle in the night.
I wish I had prepared my message for the skies ahead of time. While other people covered their paper lanterns with illustrations and Chinese characters for happiness and wealth, ours looked a little bare, with plain but sincere bullet points for love and health. (Yes, bullet points! Our corporate backgrounds making themselves known…)
It was a solemn experience, those 15 minutes that I held my brush and dipped it in black paint, tasked to verbalise my hopes and dreams. It felt greedy to ask, when I already had more than my younger self ever hoped for. I put brush to paper and wrote down what I was grateful for: love, friends, health, travel, contentment. We prayed for peace and the health of our families.
Two guys from the store that we had bought our lantern from shouted out commands as they took our photos: light it up, flip it over, careful from the flames, strike a pose, get off the rails — the train is coming(!), do it all again, and finally, release.
We watched our multi-coloured lantern take flight, straight up and confident, to the cloudy grey and ominous sky. It didn’t teeter totter like the others’ did despite the reluctant weather. And though I didn’t believe in signs, it felt at that moment that everything was going to be alright.
Taroko Gorge in Hualien was surprisingly easy if you wanted it to be. All events leading up to it hinted that it wasn’t: A confusing website to book the train tickets from Taipei, a 7-Eleven kiosk to claim said tickets that spouted instructions only in Chinese, and a panicked last-minute search for a taxi tour guide the night before we got there.
Our NT$3,000 (₽5,000) for a taxi was worth every cent. It was easy-breezy from the moment our taxi guide picked us up at the train station at 10.30am with an itinerary that already considered what time we needed to get back.
First, we ambled along the Shakadang Trail, a 1.5-km easy river cliff path that ran parallel a brilliant blue stream, that flowed through jagged marble rocks, protruding trees and round, polished stones. Curious kids, white-haired seniors with walking sticks, and their pet dogs traipsed the same trail. I half-expected babies to crawl past us, the trail was so flat. We trekked until the stall where aboriginal sausages and grilled mochi were sold and after we had our fill, we turned back to our waiting taxi.
The Swallow Grotto trail was even less challenging and we walked leisurely along the side of a highway, trying to capture the beauty of the gushing river below in photos. Our guide met us with the car at the other end. Then, we crossed a suspension bridge just five minutes away from where we parked, sipped on take-out coffee by the beach and made it to our 4.30pm train back to Taipei with plenty of time to spare.
Taroko Gorge’s beauty was laid bare for everyone to see, with no need to traverse the more difficult trails available to thrill-seekers.
One thing I would warn, is not to take off the unflattering green helmets provided on-site. Tourists were injured by falling rocks dislodged by a 6.1-magnitude earthquake in April 2019. Natural disaster aside, Taroko Gorge was simply stunning, and for me, the highlight and unmissable part of our trip.
A biking trail
“Do you think we should not go?” I asked my bleary-eyed companion at 5am, claps of thunder in the background and 100 percent chance of rain throughout the day guaranteed by the weather apps on our phones. But we had already sunk ₱2,000 on pre-bought high-speed rail train tickets and I had been practicing my newly-acquired skill of riding a bike in preparation for this day.
Three hours, a train and a bus ride later, the rain still hadn’t let up. We passed the time slurping on cheap but bland noodle soup, then hanging out at a Starbucks that overlooked the foggy lake. It felt like we were in Tagaytay.
Upon observing two girls walk dejectedly with their rented bicycles, we made do with walking the perimeter of the lake, not too impressed with the pretty enough but gloomy view. I probably wouldn’t be back.
Not wanting to waste any more of our last full day, we caught a train back to the city as chance passengers five hours earlier than we had originally planned, and headed straight to Ximending for last-minute shopping and bonding over Taiwanese craft beers at happy hour.
“Consider it done!” my travel companion said confidently when I asked her to be in charge of my diet. But she couldn’t quite bring herself to stop me from having two boba teas in one day, certainly not in the birthplace of tapioca pearls swimming in milk tea. She contented herself with a disapproving shake of her head as not even the store sign that screamed 382 calories could shame me from ordering a large with normal sugar, please.
Flavours at Shilin Night Market
We went to Shilin Night Market for the food and I knew we were in for a treat when a pre-teen boy fell back in line for his next Hot Star chicken chop, even as he greedily tore through his first one — and it was bigger than his face! I understood why he went for seconds after my first bite into the crispy, heavily seasoned breading and the juicy chicken breast fillet, still piping hot. I almost regretted our decision to share just one, but it only meant we still had space for torched beef cubes.
We followed our noses to the wafting scent of grilling meat until it led us to a smoky stall with a small crowd gathered around a guy with full sleeve tattoos blowtorching bite-sized pieces of steak. Not that tender, but not that tough, either; perfectly salted and just a little bit charred — I loved it!
Mala Hot Pot
On a rainy night, we tried the Mala eat-all-you-can hotpot, which is probably better enjoyed with a large group. Neither of us were big eaters, so it felt sad that we could only finish one round of the eat-all-you-can pork and beef slices, and didn’t make that much of a dent on the scalding spicy broth.
Din Tai Fung
I’ve had a love affair with those delicately wrapped soup dumplings since 2009, so I didn’t at all mind the 40-minute queue for a taste of the original Din Tai Fung pork xiao long bao at Taipei 101, never mind that it tasted exactly the same as their Manila counterpart.
Tasty Taipei bites to take home
Then, I brought home five kilos of Black Bridge Taiwanese sausages in original, garlic, and spicy flavours and bags of different-flavoured soft, chewy Tzen-Mochi.
Also read: 25 Taiwan Souvenirs & Where You Can Buy Them
Travelling with friends
I usually travel with my husband rather than with friends; and apart from the more obvious reason of spending quality time together, it’s also because it’s comfortable and I know what I’m going to get (i.e., his messiness and superior sense of direction).
Travelling with friends, on the other hand, is another story. Getting lost, that slightly uncomfortable feeling when someone wants to do something and another person wants to do something else, and splitting the expenses are just some of the things that come with the experience.
My friend, Map, was a great travel companion for me because we took turns navigating and researching, and we had that same accommodating personality. There were times in the train that we were just quiet, when she was poring over Youtube videos and LinkedIn articles related to her job and I quietly marvelled at how that was my life just less than a year before.
And then there’s the other part — “You’re like a different person!” my sister exclaimed of our Taipei itinerary, that involved more physical activities than I was accustomed to. And I think that’s the beauty of travelling with other people: discovering a side of yourself that you might not have known, the one that can still learn to ride a bike at 36, and climb 600 steps for a sunset.
5-day Taipei itinerary
- Din Tai Fung & Taipei 101
- Elephant Mountain Hike at sunset
- Jiufen, Shifen, and Yehliu day tour
- Shilin Night Market
- Taroko Gorge Tour (Shakadang Trail, Eternal Spring/Changchun Shrine, Swallow Grotto, Cimu Bridge, Yuefei Pavilion Suspension Bridge, Qixingtan Beach)
- Mala Yuanyang Hotpot at Ximending
- Sun Moon Lake
- Shopping at Ximending
Taipei budget & recommendations
- ₱12,000 via Cebu Pacific
- ₱20,000 for four nights at CityInn Hotel Fuxing
CityInn Hotel Fuxing is the top-rated value-for-money hotel in Taipei, according to reviews. It’s easily accessible via airport bus, is a two-minute walk to the MRT, has a four-star room and bathroom, and a large common area where guests can bring in their own food. But when I go back to Taipei, I’d choose to stay in Ximending, for easy access to A LOT of food and shopping.
Taxi tour guides
- NT$3,500 (₱5,800) for eight hours to Jiufen/Shifen/Yehliu
- NT$3,000 (₱5,000) for 8 hours in Hualien
“We loved Uncle Brian!” my friend Jeannie raved about my recommended cabbie tour guide. He was a cheerful fella, and we never felt like that was the nth time that week that he was pointing out where to eat sweet taro balls topped with crushed ice in Jiufen Market.
Booking a personal guide might have been more expensive than DIY or joining a large tour, but we loved the stress-free convenience, being able to go at our own pace and our guides’ expert manoeuvring for avoiding the crowds.
- NT$880 (₱1,500) round-trip TRA train to Hualien (for Taroko Gorge)
- NT$550 (₱920) one-way HSR Train to Taichung (for Sun Moon Lake)
- NT$360 (₱600) round trip bus from Tai Chung to Sun Moon Lake
- NT$635 (₱1,000) Mala Hotpot
- NT$70 Hot Star chicken chop (₱115)
- NT$535 ₱900 Taipei 101
- NT$80 (₱130) Yehliu Geopark
- NT$300 (₱500)
- Black Bridge Taiwanese sausages 600g
Estimated total per person