A place to base yourself in order to explore the National Park, the town of Hualien itself is filled with wide streets and scooters, somewhat sprawling but walkable. Picking our way along the pathways was a real initiation into a Tawianese town: an assault course of parked 'peds, hosepipes, street kitchens, old folks' hang-outs and various slopes and steps from one shopfront to the next. Clothes shops sit next to dumpling shops, mobile phone retailer next to furniture place, massage shop next to bank; it is all of everything and nothing has its own special district, a jumbled wonder of Taiwanese proportions merging with a wonder of nature—a show of what this island often does: reminds you that extreme terrain and actual jungle have the majority.
From Hualien the bus to Taroko National Park takes up to an hour depending on how how far into the gorge you want to explore. The bus runs along the coast, past a Taiwanese military base (not an actual stop) and Chishingtan Beach (七星潭風景區) to the right – a popular group/couple selfie spot – before starting to wind its way up through the gorge, taking tumultuous turnings as it climbs high in to the peaks. Some bus drivers can be overzealous with their turnings which is exciting and horrifying for those aboard, particularly if you're on the side of bus where the view of the carved-out gorge grows ever deeper. Seat belts are legally required but rarely worn, as proven by the band of baby cockroaches that erupted across our lap when we tried to pull the seatbelt out. C'est la vie.
Getting an all-day pass for the bus allows you to hop on and off all the way from Hualien Train Station to the route's terminus at Tianxiang (天祥). It's pretty chill to soak up the magnificent scenery on the way, choosing what stops to get off at and allowing you to explore further by foot. Alternatives include cycling, biking, driving or getting a taxi, but unless you insist on your own autonomy, or fancy tackling the turns of the road yourself, the bus is more than satisfactory. Swallow Grotto (or Yanzikou, 燕子口), named for the crowds of swallows that frequent it, is a narrow point of the gorge where the pale colours of the monstrous marble walls swirl, worn and warped over millennia by the shifting earth and its weather. Here you can follow the road by foot for a little while as it tunnels through the solid rock, taking care not to "linger", as the signs put it—falling rocks are real. You can tell from the stands lending out hard hats.
However chill it may be, the bus provides only a glimpse of what the area has to offer, so on our second day we took a stroll on one of the Park's many, many trails that range in length and precariousness. Though one of Taroko's easiest and most accessible, the Shakadang Trail (also known as "Mysterious Valley") very easily pays off. We were able to see more secluded and even more breathtaking views of the twisting bright blue water set in the gorge, ancient rock towering above, surrounded by tropical jungle. Starting on a walkway through the forest canopy where hand-sized golden orb spiders sat in the centre of their huge masterpiece webs, over a rope bridge and along a trail cut into the cliff itself, we rolled almost level with the stream until the path was cut short by a landslide, which is all too common in any of Taiwan's national parks. Many tourists still pushed on past the no entry sign, onwards to epic selfies and photoshoots atop giant boulders cast in the wide shallow trough of the river: the natural world as nothing but a backdrop.
Far from the sheer cliffs and green cloaked mountains you can ease your hunger by eating your way through the delights of a tasty Taiwanese night market. Eating is a big thing in Taiwan and Hualien is no different, albeit with a small, sad twist: all of the town's night markets have been moved from their previous probably years-occupied sites to one giant conglomerate Dongdamen Tourist Night Market (東大門自強夜市) as of July 2015. The locals' night market, as well as the aboriginal night market, the Futing (formerly "Rainbow") Night Market, "Provinces Market" (各省一條街), and others, have all been resettled to this huge unsettling area of permanence and tourism. However! It is fun, especially when busy, and exudes a sort of festivalic theme park atmosphere. And what it lacks in physical and spiritual authenticity it makes up for in one of Taiwan's top treats, which is food and lots of it. There is also a green park-like area and a display of some military vehicles. We did find some non-touristic nocturnal food stall activity around here on Zhongshan Rd though, which was followed by a surprise expedition through a few cool, quiet roads beyond.
Hot and humid when we visited, we felt Hualien was more than just a "base". Whilst it is synonymous with the National Park, and perhaps is seen as a stop-off point for that very reason, the city is an easygoing place that is open and relaxed when it comes to tourists—even its major night market serves however garishly as a comprehensive collection of what Hualien plates up at snacktime. Away from this we found ourselves inducted into the intriguing life of smaller town Taiwan. Wandering around the backstreets, snacking at street-side restaurants and getting lost trying to appease your appetite at the night market, the real life of this city begins to reveal itself and you realise that sometimes nature is exactly a backdrop.
400 stalls. 9 hectares. One stomach. What do you go for? There's no question of being spoilt for choice at this massive night market, so try to avoid arriving indecisive and hungry. One night, we grabbed some snacks and sat on a grassy hill overlooking a junction at the market and watched it all unfold below, buskers and tourists, in the midst of other sitters and kids running around. We snacked on deep fried tofu: they look like potato fries, but that they ain't, they're rich and hearty with a satisfy mouth-filling texture. Check out that mustard for extra zing.
We also ate what was billed as an "Aboriginal Sausage Wrap", which was very tasty but there is no real context for us to judge its relation to Taiwanese Aboriginal food quite yet. It consisted of a gloriously greasy pancake wrapped around tangy sauced meat and shredded cabbage and other veg. For dessert? Try out marshmallow and lashings of chocolate spread in a fried bread toasty. Naughty and sweet but oh so tasty.
We only know about these from Japanese convenience stores, and therefore as an "American Dog" (アメリカンドッグ), but this is indeed a corn dog. A hot dog smothered in thick doughnut-esque batter – better known as cornmeal, hence the name. Deep fried, terribly delicious, comes in two sizes: large or small. Went for large. All the sauces.
🍜 Ba Fang Yun Ji (八方雲集) Dumplings
This dumpling place, part of a franchise known in English as 8 Way Dumplings or something, serves fresh fresh dumplings of various fillings at low low prices (starts at NTD$5 apiece). Steamed or potsticker versions available. Comprehensive sauce station. Small sitting area inside which is basic and unfancy, a fine venue for filling up on platefuls of dumplings. It's on Zhongshan Road, here according to Google Maps, but more on the corner of Zhongshan and Mingguo Rd.
If you do not know the humble yet tasty pineapple bun, it's a bun of soft, slightly stodgy dough topped with a different type of sweeter, crumbly cookie-like dough (same ingredients as Streusel, apparently). Well, that gets a foodular remix here, served hot with a slab of butter inserted. Actually already a thing originating in Hong Kong called 菠蘿油 - that's "bo lo yau", bo lo meaning pineapple and yau meaning oil. Hence the name of this particular establishment, bolo台灣. It is unquestionably delicious. You'll find it here on Zhongshan Rd. Multiple locations nationwide. We ate most of ours before we took a photo.
THINGS THAT ARE NOT SO TASTY / HYPEFRAUD
🍜 Crepe Stand (Savoury)