On this trip, since we were hitting three different countries, one thing I was concerned with was the cost. I wanted to keep it as affordable as possible, especially since living for 10 days abroad in hotels could become wildly expensive. As such, I began looking into something I’d always thought about but never done: hostels.
Finding A Hostel: Bouti City Capsule Inn
For Taiwan, after a bit of research, I concluded on giving Bouti City Capsule Inn a go around. Now, I know many people hear hostel and think, some grubby, hole-in-the-wall place where, with your every possession strapped to your back, you bed down with 30 strangers and call it a night. But hostels have come a long way since this romanticized idea of the “ideal summer in Europe.” (Hilarity is within that link. Click it. Do it now.)
On the contrary, while booking our reservation to this capsule inn, we had the choice of many styles of rooms. Some were private and some mixed, with rooms for doubles, singles, females only, and mixed giving more options for a cautious traveler. In each room, the beds are situated within private “cubbies” along the wall with a pull-down partition for privacy. Furthermore, each bed gets its own key-card locker utilizing the same card that allows you access into the room itself. On whole, it’s a very effective system.
Danny and I stayed inside a double-bed room with five other doubles and Cara stayed inside a female dorm. On average, the three of us only spent 30 dollars a night here, which was super affordable. Plus, there were plenty of clean bathrooms. In the morning, breakfast was provided (sandwiches, tea eggs, and toast) with unlimited coffee. I think the coffee was the best part. On top of all this, they played movies in the eating area each evening since it was the holidays and even provided free beer. If that didn’t interest you, you could sneak away to a get-away spot to watch out the windows. Overall, I would highly recommend this hostel to anyone going to Taipei. It was definitely worth our time. (For a few more pictures, check out our first day in Taiwan.)
Heading Northeast to Jiufen
But day two saw the three of us heading to the train station to find tickets to Ruifang, a city to the northeast on the coast. The train ride itself was maybe an hour during which we made friends with a Singaporean family and talked about our plans around Taipei and our later plans in Singapore. We talked about multiculturalism and world affairs; it was fascinating to hear her take America vs. Singapore, especially noting the effective blending of cultures and ethnicities that has made Singapore famous for being an international hub.
Getting off the train, we made our way down to a bus which promised to get us to Jiufen Old Street in 20 minutes down these old curvy mountain-edge roads. In reality, it took perhaps 8 minutes, all the while we wondered if we’d fall off the cliff. As we got off the bus, we were greeted with the bustle of Jiufen nearby and the sight of a local temple with the coast far beyond.
We eventually made our way down the road, around a bend, past Jiufen Street which we would return to, and we arrived at a trail head for Keelung mountain. With so many steps to climb, it would give us a sweeping view of the area and an awesome view of the coast, allowing an onlooker to see (if they strained) even the proud Taipei 101 far in the distance. You could even see the shrines that populated the hills by Jiufen, probably to do with Confucian philosophy, that were for familial ancestors.
Jiufen Old Street, A Foodie’s Paradise
A bit later, we were back at street level discovering “tea eggs” and showing Cara what pineapple cakes were. In Taiwan, tea eggs are made by hard boiling eggs, cracking the shell, and then continuing to boil them in a hot tea peppered with different spices and/or sauces such as star anise, cinnamon, Chinese five-spice, soy sauce, and Szechuan peppercorns. Ridding the egg of its shell shows a marbled-colored egg with a slight spiciness and different flavors depending on the type and strength of the tea. It was delicious. Meanwhile, pineapple cakes are pastries with a sweet pineapple filling, the outer dough being crumbly, chewy, and fragrant. They also had taro cakes that were scrumptious. Taro is basically a purple potato that is sweeter than sweet potatoes, and you’ll find them in all sorts of dishes in Taiwan. All three of these can be found extensively in any Chinese area, which is the only reason I was okay with walking away.
A little information about Jiufen: This area is a decommissioned gold mining town that was built up from obscurity during the Japanese occupation around 1893. You can still find Japanese-influenced buildings everywhere in this area, though its popularity for the coastal view and the tourist attraction of the cobblestone Old Street have brought in souvenir shops, cafes, and all sorts of other attractions. And let me repeat, the popularity of this place is off the charts; as we found our way into the narrow and crowded alley, it felt like we were transported. There was so much happening: different foods to try, teas to taste, or people to stumble through. And did we try food!
We ate ice cream runbing, otherwise known as peanut ice cream wraps (yes, there’s a recipe): imagine eating a super-chilled crepe filled with peanut brittle shavings, vanilla ice cream, and chopped cilantro, where the lattermost gives a pop of freshness to temper the sweet. This was definitely a Taiwanese specialty, since Taiwanese food has a strong cilantro presence. We ate snails: chewy, tasting a bit like mussels, with an occasional crunch (which made Danny uncomfortable). It was interesting watching them get popped out of their shells by the women serving them up. And we ate a red bean dessert soup with tapioca pearls, taro balls, and a bunch of other things I couldn’t name for you. It was steaming hot, not too sweet, but surprisingly delicious especially noting its soupy appearance. Overall, Jiufen Old Street played up to our expectations. We tried some tea, saw some items that would make a Westerner blush or laugh, and took forever getting out for all the people.
Seeing the Golden Waterfalls and the Yin Yang Sea
Our next destination required another bus (actually, two), but once we finally arrived, we got to see a natural formation called the “Niagara Falls of Taiwan” or the Golden Waterfall. Granted, these are nowhere near the immense enormity of Niagara, but they were much bigger than I expected. The water was peculiar in that it turned the rocks it flowed past an amber color due to past mining efforts further up in the hills; this is both beautiful and deadly because the water is, as such, completely polluted with toxic metals. Pretty hurts.
We followed the stream down to its outlet, known locally as the Yin Yang Sea for its shocking division between bright blue sea and golden outward flowing water. I found myself wondering if any wildlife could actually survive in this iron-rich brew but I couldn’t find any information online about its effect on the local species, there. We watched the lapping waves spraying their sea foam against what looked like massive jacks, which I assume protect the coast from erosion. We stood on the edge of a highway as we watched, with cars zooming by us and other locals running across the highway to snap their own pictures. A burnt down smelter factory loomed in the distance behind us, dark and falling apart. Everything here seemed lonesome, and it was beautiful.
Our bus ride back to Ruifang was excruciating; the traffic was poor, the roads were narrow, and there were too many cars trying to drop off or pick people up. The ride back, which had only taken us 30 minutes there, took over two hours. We chatted with two girls teaching in Hong Kong about their travels and prior experiences teaching in Korea. The train ride from Ruifang to Taipei Main Station was just as eventful as that morning: A few university students thought we looked interesting enough to talk to and began asking us about our time in Taiwan. One of them was a student studying there for a year, originally from China. We were on our way to Shilin Night Market, and we ended up talking and walking with them on our way through the subway station.
Night Out at Shilin Night Market
If we thought Jiufen Old Street was busy, we had another thing coming at Shilin. Foot traffic was snail’s pace and people were crowded densely together. But herein, we got to experience more delightful Taiwanese street food, ranging from pork buns (super doughy with a barbecue type filling), breaded octopus, grilled spicy mushrooms, papaya milk, and, my favorite of all, a type of sponge cake that came in two flavors: “original” and “cheese.” More below.
This was a whole affair. We had been walking down an alley when we were hit with the unmistakable smell of wafting bread. The bakery was an open-kitchen shop where you could see the workers inside preparing the next batch. As each pan of bread came out, one of the workers would brandish a large bread cutter, slice individual pieces, and then mark each loaf with the insignia of the shop. It was a show for the crowd watching on, and at only NT$60 for the “original” and NT$100 for the “cheese,” we knew that this was something not to be passed up. Over the entire vacation, this bread still stands out as one of my favorite moments.
We walked around more that night, but we eventually made our way back to Bouti City Capsule Inn where we relaxed with a beer and the community movie in the dining area. After having been on our feet all day, a rest was certainly needed.