There are many ways to explore Taiwan’s northern and northeastern tourist attractions.
- The easiest way would be to sign up for the shuttle bus tour offered by either KKday or Klook. It’s best to book your tour before your travel date, especially during tourist season. Avoid weekends because Shifen Waterfall isn’t included in most weekend packages and every tourist attraction will be packed with buzzing tour groups. Due to traffic regulations, on weekends, some tourist attractions may not be a part of the tour.
- We didn’t have a choice really and hired a cab from ownrides. It was relatively more expensive, but we knew we’d cover all the sights we intended to see, at our own pace, and wouldn’t have to worry about the transport back to Taipei.
- The cheaper option would be to take the local metro or bus to travel around. However, it would make more sense to use this option — only if you plan to stay back — at any one of these locations. There’s a lot of walking at each tourist point and it could get tiring to use local transport for a day trip. The Taiwan Tourism site is a great place to plan your trip.
- Renting a car is an option for those who prefer to drive on their own. Although, it makes more sense to use this option once you’re away from the cities and deeper into the country — where transport can be hard to find.
Our driver, J, arrived at 9 am. He was very polite and offered us a bottle of water along with the WiFi Pwd. He suggested we visit Yehliu Geopark in the morning, have lunch at Jiufen Old Street, and end the day at Shifen Station — after checking out Shifen Waterfall. We decided to trust his itinerary because he knew the traffic situation better. Earlier, he had sent Basil some pictures of important things to do and see at each tourist sight. Essentially, he would leave us at every point and give us an estimate of the amount of time we could spend at each sight. That gave us the freedom to explore on our own and pace our time as we liked. It still felt rushed at times, but that’s the price of doing a packed day trip.
Given the complex political situation, I preferred to look out of the window rather than engage in mindless tourist banter that could result in a misunderstanding. Strangely, Basil felt the need to break the silence. His first question hit bullseye! He asked J: besides China, which other country do tourists come from? Now, although, J spoke English well, it’s quite possible he confused it with another question he’d been asked before and given the sensitivity of the issue, he became very defensive — without losing his cool. Clearly, he misunderstood the question. He made sure he cleared any doubts (he assumed we had) and started by saying that Taiwan isn’t a part of China before elaborating further. And then, he went back to being friendly and polite. We bought 2 tickets at the ticket counter and J explained the route we had to follow inside. Saturday morning was a busy time with tour groups and tourists filling the geopark.
Yehliu Geopark is quite a stunner and an absolute treat to explore. Walking along the sandy brown paths, that twist around grotesque rock formations or hidden caves, sculpted by erosion, might seem like a sequence straight out of Star Trek. It’s a place where the elements have taken over. It’s hard to escape human fantasy or local folklore here. Shapeless forms are given relatable names and are instantly turned into tourist hotspots — that double as backdrops for selfies. And then again, how would a park attract tourists, if it hadn’t any tourist attractions?
Camel’s RockCamel’s Rock is visible pretty early on the trail to Queen’s Head Rock. It can been first seen from an observation point tucked between trees, and then, from the vantage point — on the elevated platform — facing the Mushroom Rocks. Don’t miss the small garden with an interesting collection of rocks.
The vantage point, on the elevated platform, gives a panoramic view of the Mushroom Rocks below and the sea in the distance. Description boards explain the different structures and how they’re formed in 4 languages (English, Chinese, Japanese, & Korean).
Giant rocks and even the floor bed is continuously weathered by erosion resulting in honeycomb-like structures. It was hard to get a shot without photobombing tour groups or selfie-crazy couples. I got yelled at by an irritated Korean girl who felt I was ruining her picture with a Mushroom Rock. Some tourists were touching the structures whilst others tried to sit on them. There was a park officer who tried to dissuade tourists from any contact with these rocks. But it’s a futile attempt when you’re outnumbered. It’s sad to see people behave badly without thinking about the consequences of their actions. Our evolved cognitive ability differentiates us from the other species in the animal kingdom, however, tourism makes me want to doubt that.
Fortunately, once you’re away from the tourist hotspots, it’s possible to truly appreciate the magnificence of this natural wonder. I never liked geology or geography as a kid, but our travels have slowly changed my perceptions on the subject.
Towards Observation PointCuesta Observation PointThere’s an easy path leading away from the Mushroom Rocks and towards a vantage point. From here, we could get a clear view of the cuesta (a ridge with two contrasting slopes) and the spread of rocks.
Queen’s HeadThe Queen’s Head is the top draw of the geopark and theres a special line for pictures with the rock. Honestly, I thought I’d seen better structures in the park. The Queen’s Head is believed to be 4000 years old and is under constant threat of destruction by erosion.
TIP: You can spend the whole day in Yehliu Geopark and admire it’s hidden nooks and corners. There are many hotels, outside the park, and many trails around the scenic area.
We reached Jiufen shortly before noon. J parked the car at the parking lot (opposite the temple) and took us to the steps that lead to Jiufen Old Street above. There’s a visitor centre, couple of restaurants, and restrooms on the way.
Exploring Jiufen Old Street
The narrow alleys lined with vintage themed shops and eateries are a treat to explore. It’s hard to escape the crowds on a weekend, but there are many quiet corners that meander from the main walking path.
We tried peanut ice cream roll, creme puff, mango ice cream, and fish ball soup. I was still feeling hungry with all that walking and hadn’t had a proper meal, and we also shared shrimp fried rice.
TIP: If you have more time to spare, it would be great to stay back and take in the old-world charm of the mountain town. This place would look fantastic with the lights at night.
Tea HousesJiufen used to be a gold mining town during Japanese rule. Many houses are left untouched and are reminiscent of the past. J jokingly asks Japanese tourists to return the gold back to Taiwan whilst Korean tourists ask him why Taiwan still maintains Japanese houses.
We would have liked to try some local tea at the inviting tea houses, but we had spent more than 2 hours and had barely covered what J had sent us.
First Suspension BridgeIt didn’t take too long for us to reach Shifen Waterfall. I was excited and ignored the tiredness I was beginning to feel. The first suspension bridge gives a sneak peak of what’s hidden inside.
Second Suspension BridgeThe second suspension bridge runs parallel to a railway line that’s still functional. This bridge is higher and offers a breathtaking view of the landscape around. This one’s a little scary though, and I couldn’t wait to get to the other side.
There’s a small temple, couple of food stalls, and a visitor centre beyond the bridge. We didn’t have much time and quickly walked across.
Main Observation PointWe followed the arrows and walked along a trail that lead to a series of steps. The stairs were wet and it was difficult to walk without slipping. The last point leads to an observation point bang opposite the waterfall. If you have expensive equipment, you might want to put in, because you’re bound to get it wet with the spray of water. I’m so glad we got to see Shifen Waterfall because it was definitely worth it!
Shifen Old Street
Shifen Old Street doesn’t have a parking lot and the traffic restrictions are strict. J left us at the main entrance and told us to give him a ring once we were done. I was pretty tired at this point and didn’t feel like facing another round of tourists. We walked away from the crowd and tried to take in the charm of this quaint station.
Caution: This railway line is still operational and keep an eye out for approaching trains.
Make a Wish
I’m not one to fall for tourist traps, and yet, I couldn’t resist giving into this one. We bought a lantern and painted our wishes on each colour. Strangely, I was at a loss for words and I painted a Yin-Yang symbol (because we’re contrasting personalities) that didn’t impress the store owner. It quickly got smudged and my second line had more luck.
Let it GoThe lantern comes along with the services of a photographer (a boy who works at the store). He clicks your pictures and helps you release the lantern. I tried not to think of the pollution or where these lanterns would land. At that moment, we were releasing our wishes to the Universe. I hoped for them to be heard. Maybe, that’s what travel is about. It makes cynics learn to be hopeful.