Misadventures in Northern Taiwan

This is the third post in a series about my family’s trip to Taiwan back in April 2018. The first post was about our journey and adventures in Taipei; the second covered a magical day in the tea-growing region of Pinglin.

Sometimes, the most memorable vacation days are the ones when nothing goes as planned.

Since our trip to Taiwan was so brief, we had to pack a lot into each day, and didn’t have a lot of wiggle room in our itinerary. My husband Brett really wanted us to see Yehliu, a geopark he’d visited back in 2010, as well as Jiufen, an old mining village in the northern mountains somewhat close to Yehliu. So we planned to visit these destinations the Friday after we arrived.

The forecast for that day did not look promising. But even though it was supposed to be rainy and cool, we decided to go ahead with the trip anyway. No big deal, we figured. We’re from Seattle, after all! Can’t let a little rain stop us! Besides, it had been so hot that a rainy day sounded pretty refreshing.

Yehliu, Land of Cool Rocks

It would have been difficult to see both places in a single day via public transportation, so our friends rented a van that would fit us four adults and four kids. When the driver picked us up around 9am, it was cloudy, but the weather didn’t seem too bad. However, as soon as we left Taipei, it started to rain. By the time we arrived at Yehliu, it was pouring. And windy. And cold.

None of us were prepared for a storm of this magnitude. It felt like winter, as opposed to the tropical drizzle we were expecting! The tourists who were queued up to buy their entrance tickets had also apparently been taken by surprise. Nearly everyone was wearing a plastic poncho in various pastel, Easter egg-type colors. I found that quite visually pleasing for some reason… though it was hard to appreciate much of anything while the wind was whipping my damp hair into my face.

We tried to soldier on. We really did. The park looked so cool; it would have been amazing to explore the strange, beautiful, morel-mushroom-like rock formations in more hospitable conditions. But we weren’t dressed warmly enough, and our umbrellas kept getting blown inside-out. It didn’t take long till we were all soaked and freezing. We had to abort the mission quickly.

morel-mushroom-like beach rocks in Yehliu

The eight of us retreated to the visitor center to warm up. We had a nice time inside checking out the exhibits on erosion and sipping hot chocolate from the snack bar. So it wasn’t a total loss.

A Nerve-Wracking Bus Ride

The driver picked us up soon afterwards, and we headed to Jiufen. But as we approached, he pulled over into a parking lot at the base of a big hill, and explained to my friend Janice in Mandarin that they were now limiting the number of cars that could go up the mountain. We’d have to catch a bus to the top, and meet him back in the parking lot when we were done.

bus station at the base of a green mountain capped with clouds

Luckily, a bus was pulling up around the time we made it to the shelter. We were able to find seats for the kids, but the rest of us squeezed into the aisles as we headed up yet another narrow, twisty mountain road.

The scenery was beautiful, though I tried not to pay too much attention to the steep drop-off to our right. We climbed higher, and higher, around many a hairpin turn. I was marveling at the bus driver’s ability to navigate these sharp corners in such a massive vehicle–until we suddenly stopped.

I looked over the heads of the other passengers, through the windows to our left, and quickly saw the problem. Another bus, just as large as ours but heading downhill, had been attempting to take the same hairpin turn at the exact same time. But, the turn radiuses of the buses being what they were, neither had been able to make it, and now they were stuck.

There were a tense few minutes when we weren’t quite sure what was going to happen. It didn’t seem possible that they could figure out a way past each other, especially since a long line of cars and buses were now stretching behind both of them. But, I told myself, these guys were pros; they would figure it out. I trusted in this, though my mind was of course racing far ahead, thinking about what might happen if they couldn’t, picturing a long stormy walk downhill along the side of a cliff. 

It didn’t come to that, thankfully. Slowly but surely, centimeter by centimeter, the two buses backed up and corrected their courses, and eventually the bus heading downhill cleared the corner. Then we were free to go.

The bus riders cheered, then laughed when the driver exclaimed over the intercom, “Well, that was unusual!” He also gave some key information about how to find the correct return bus. Good thing Janice could translate for us. Otherwise, we might have had another calamity on our hands at the end of the day!

Jiufen, Land of Tourists and… Roasted Yams?

All of us were starving by the time we made it to Jiufen. It was immediately obvious why the number of cars and buses on the road had to be regulated: the place was absolutely packed. We thought about heading to the Old Street to find somewhere to eat, but were daunted by the rivers of poncho-clad tourists, and ducked into a FamilyMart to find a quick meal instead.

The ambience inside the convenience store left a little something to be desired, but we ate a satisfactory meal anyway. I was queasy after the bus ride, and didn’t feel like eating the instant noodles that Brett and the kids had gotten. So my lunch that day was an entire roasted yam; I scooped out the orange flesh with wooden chopsticks while listening to the catchy jingle that played every time the doors opened. Which was often.

After we ate, we headed to the bathrooms that Janice had found down a short flight of stairs… right next to a very nice-looking restaurant. If only we’d known! The little alleyway outside the restrooms was beautiful, and much quieter than the Old Street.

Alley in Jiufen

But of course we couldn’t leave without visiting the main attractions! So, we ventured into the sea of people and did some souvenir shopping. I had originally planned to try some cho dofu (stinky/fermented tofu) while in Taiwan this trip, but the cheesy smell wafting toward me when passing vendors of the delicacy was… less than appealing to my still-unsettled stomach. Nor could I find the ai yu jelly I was craving. But I did try some mango jelly and a brown sugar/black sesame mochi ball, both of which were delicious. The kids had a great time, especially when they each got to pick out a ceramic ocarina to take home. 

ocarina shop in Jiufen, Taiwan, with red lanterns at the top and lots of tourists in pastel-colored rain ponchos milling around
The ocarina shop

Soon enough, it was time to go. After a bit of asking around, we made it to the right bus stop. We lined up for the next ride down the hill, immensely glad that we weren’t in the mass of people waiting to catch a bus back to Taipei.

waiting in line with a bunch of poncho-clad tourists, under cloudy skies, in front of a temple

The view from the bus station was gorgeous, and I quickly snapped a few pictures before hopping on board. I can only imagine how much lovelier it would have been on a clear day.

view from the bus stop in Jiufen

Thankfully, we didn’t get stuck on the way back down the hill. Our bus driver this time was far less affable, but his crankiness made sense. We kept having to wait for our turn to take those hairpin curves, which resulted in many delays since the traffic was so backed up at the top of the mountain.

By the time we made it back to the parking lot, we were ready for an uneventful ride home. And it was, for the most part… until one of the kids got carsick at the very end of the journey. It seemed a fitting end for a day that had constantly veered close to disaster, without ever quite crossing over into the truly catastrophic. One thing is for certain: it was a day that none of us will soon forget!

Your Thoughts

Have you ever had any memorable-yet-semi-catastrophic travel days? What’s the strangest meal you’ve eaten while traveling? Let me know in the comments!

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