So That’s Why It’s Hualien

When I ask locals what their favorite place is in Taiwan, they’d often say Hualien.

I had no idea what Hualien has that makes it such a popular choice. I was like, are you guys conspiring to just give me the same answer? 😛 At that time, all I know was that Taroko Gorge, a mountain range park that ought to be listed under UNESCO, is somewhere in the middle of Taiwan.

I didn’t know that the gorgeousness of this place I’m itching to see is nestled right there, in Hualien.

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Apparently, Hualien is the biggest county in Taiwan. Since it’s so popular among locals and East Asian tourists, it took us years to plan this trip as trains were always fully booked. While there are other options, such as taking a domestic flight or even going by bus (too many transfers though), the best travel experience to Hualien is still via the local train. And nope, the high speed rail doesn’t run through this east side of Taiwan, facing the Pacific Ocean.

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Since from Taipei to Hualien takes about 4 hours one-way, it’s impossible to enjoy this place in just one day. You can visit it on a weekend, or better yet, stay for a week to fully enjoy all of its amazing sights and culture. As for our weekend trip, we were only able to visit northern Hualien. My friends say there’s still lots to see and experience down south so that gives me reason to go back and also cover the other trails in Taroko Gorge that I haven’t seen yet.

So what’s up with Hualien and why does it have so many fans, including me? Better check out some of these reasons why, which are undoubtedly better experienced in real life.

Qixingtan beach

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I’ve never been to a pebble beach before, so I got so amazed to see an entire stretch of beach without any sand. In that vast expanse of shore, no two pebbles nor chunks of rocks are alike. Qixingtan is a place where you relax and chill for hours–the pebbles, the Zhongyang Range, the aquamarine waters, everything including the beach air, which didn’t smell salty nor fishy at all, make it impossible for you to leave immediately.

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This lovely beach is facing the Pacific Ocean and I can’t help but wonder how all that calm transforms into something else during a raging storm. My friend pointed out that the waves here sound more musical than usual. Each frothy wave sings in a louder, more high-pitched manner as it kisses the pebbly shores. I also noticed that its seawater is so clear, I could see through each wave that rolls by and watch pebbles dancing inside. But even though all of that seems enticing, swimming is not encouraged here. Locals say the beach has a brief dip near the shore so it’s not ideal for water activities.

Qingshui Cliff

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This viewing spot is a few minutes drive from the Qixingtan beach. You’d likely need to rent a car or get a taxi to take you here. Either way, it’s worth it. Our Taroko Gorge guide/driver picked us up from our rental home and drove us here before finally visiting the park. Speaking of guide/driver, you can ask your landlady/hotel to help arrange tours for you. We stayed in a small AirBNB inn yet got ourselves a really outstanding driver/tour guide who knows how to speak in English. I guess Hualien is just used to getting many foreign tourists.

The cliff can also be enjoyed by driving along the Su-Hua highway, which is known for its heart-stopping curves that have no railings whatsoever.

Dongdamen night market

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Hualien used to have several night markets scattered all over it, each with their own specialty. But to help tourists see all of those night markets, save time, and also help the the night market vendors gain equal access to business, the county decided to just bring all those night market flavors together in one big hectare of space where visitors can sample everything Hualien has to offer.

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Taiwan's coffin bread!
Taiwan’s coffin bread!
Seeing so much seafood
Seeing so much seafood

Hualien’s Dongdamen night market is smack in the middle of Zhongshan Road, right across the big fountain. It’s hard to miss. There’s supposed to be a bus that could take you here from Hualien’s train station, but since it opens around 5:30 PM until 11:30 PM, you can simply check out this time table of buses or take a taxi going there after you’ve settled where you’ll be staying in Hualien.

some night market activities
some night market activities
and street performances
and street performances

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Taroko Gorge

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Where do I even begin. It’s already been months since I’ve been to Taroko Gorge but it’s still…there, like there in my mind and the experiences, that waterfall curtain we went through, all those caves…The experience of being there and seeing what it’s got to offer is just so overwhelmingly spectacular it’s now hands-down, toes-up the most beautiful place I’ve seen in Taiwan.

even the rocks here look amazing, as if they were coals
even the rocks here look amazing, as if they were coals

I personally call it Taroko Gorgeous since the adjective fits it. I first started to learn about Taroko Gorge from friends who told me to go there. That I must see it. Looking back at my recent trip, I now fully understand why. I mean, how often can you find a mountain range preserved and turned into a national park which you can enjoy for free!

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You can explore Taroko Gorge via a tourist bus from Hualien’s train station, but it could be daunting if you don’t speak/read Chinese. I suggest you get a Taroko tour guide/driver who can help you save time navigating inside the park. The trails are quite far from each other and not easy to spot, which adds to the rustic and rawness of the entire place despite being a very popular tourist attraction.

If you're lucky, you might come across the endemic Formosan macaque but please don't get too near them
If you’re lucky, you might come across the endemic Formosan macaque but please don’t get too near them.

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We spent a full day at Taroko Gorge and managed to see about 5 trails. But I think we were able to do that because most of us in the group are used to hiking and trekking. We also didn’t spend too much time lingering in one trail, mostly just taking photos of the scenery then leaving a few minutes later to see what’s next.

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For a more leisurely pace, I would highly suggest that you spend a couple of days in Taroko Gorge. You can stay at a nearby hostel outside the park and arrange a tour guide/driver to pick you up and drive you around inside the park. There are many different trails, each offering their own kind of adventure. As you can see in the photos, hanging bridges are kind of a staple in each trail. But what I really love are the caves and tunnels you can go into. Make sure you bring a raincoat and flashlight if you take the Baiyang trail which is also my favorite trail in this Taroko trip.

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when you see it...
when you see it…

According to my friend, we’ve only been able to check out north Hualien. Apparently there’s still much to see way down south. I take that as a good thing, because that means there’s still plenty of reasons to come back, and hopefully, try biking along the beach coast next time. So if you find yourself coming back to Taiwan with time for a visit outside Taipei, check out Hualien and find out what the fuss is truly all about.

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I more than guarantee you that it’s all going to be so worth it!

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