Going to Ilan
A couple of weekends ago we decided to escape the stresses of Taipei and head into the countryside. Its been a while since we ventured out of Taipei into Ilan and thought it would be great just to head into the mountains and enjoy the "long" weekend away. Queenie booked a room in the Shangri La Hotel in the mountains (hills) above Luo Dong (羅東), we bought some bus tickets for the Friday morning and were all set to go.
The bus journey itself was short and uneventful. It was about 60 - 70 minutes and arrived in Luo Dong (羅東) at around 9:30am. However we had to wait until 10:30am for our hotel pickup. Unfortunately there were no small breakfast stands near the pickup point where we could sit, chat and drink some tea. We ended up standing in a Hi-Life convenience store waiting for our ride. It was too damn hot to wait on the road and the airconditioned store was the answer. Too bad there were no 7-11s nearby with their newly branded Citi Cafe (at least the Citi Cafes have chairs). At 10:30am the driver duly arrived and we were off up the mountain.
The Shangri La Hotel
Once we arrived we were happy to know we were upgraded to a bigger room (Room 775) which had an amazing view of the rice paddies (criss-crossed with pylons of course) in the valley below. The room itself was large with a very peculiar rocking chair, a very comfortable bed, a huge bedroom and a small verandah outside. It was very comfortable and well worth the NTD7,000 we paid for the two nights (which included dinner and breakfast).
After settling in we went off for lunch. The dining room once again had an incredible view of the valley. The lunch (and as we were to discover) and all the meals we ate at the hotel were incredibly healthy. We were impressed. The fruit and vegetables were fresh, as was the meat. Most of the food was boiled or grilled with very little being fried. We were really impressed with the meals. On the first evening we actually missed the free dinner so the hotel gave us a coupon for a free lunch on our second day (lunch cost NTD250 per person). We were really pleased with their flexibility but, after eating dinner on the second day, we were kind of disappointed we missed the first night's meal since it was all really delicious.
Once lunch was done we headed off back to the room to relax. At around 3:30pm Queenie decided we should head out to the Cold Springs in Suao. We called a taxi and was told the trip from the hotel to the Cold Spring would take 40 minutes and cost NTD500. Of course we arrived within 20-minutes and when I suggested to the taxi driver it took half the time so we should only paid half, he roared with laughter.
The Cold Spring itself was pretty funny. Apparently the water in the spring stays at 22C all year around. There were both private rooms and a public swimming area. We chose the public swimming area since it was outside and we wanted to enjoy the sun. Unfortunately the entire cold spring area was the ultimate in Taiwanese kitsch and something we have avoided for a very long time and had missed in some crazy way.
The public swimming area was below the ground level and surrounded by red brick walls. There were also terrible megaphone type speakers blaring out the worst pop music imaginable at the highest volume. The surface of the swimming area was covered in stones, pebbles and rocks making it really painful to walk through the water. And yes, the water was cold. We took our time getting into the water and our bodies slowly adjusted to the temperature. So it wasn't too bad. There were a few screaming kids, a couple of rowdy teenagers and a bunch of adults and babies laughing, talking and screaming in the sunken cavern. The noise was amplified by the echoes bouncing of the red brick walls and only added to the cacophony of the pop music being unceremoniously directed into the bathing area. It wasn't quite the relaxing, peaceful dip in the country I had imagined, but it was Taiwan at its best and most social self.
After more than an hour in the water we decided to head off. The sun was setting and we thought it might be too cold to stay in the cold spring without the sun. We got showered and dressed and headed went to the train station. We had decided to take the train from Suao back to Luo Dong to save on taxi fares and also because we do enjoy train rides. Since we had time to kill we decided to take a walk into Suao. Everyone who has been to Suao would perhaps agree that it is a typical rural town in Taiwan. Its on the coast and at the end of the main road there seemed to be a naval base of some sort. Another part of the town was host to a a rather large temple and even though it was now about 5:30pm, the local night market had not even started to stir. We thought the night market might actually have closed down although there did appear to be some functional stores, they were just all closed.
The trip to back to Luo Dong was 20 minutes on the train (pretty quick). The train conductors was a friendly, smartly dressed character who seemed to take his job very very seriously. We were kind of amused by him but did respect the way he took care of his responsibilities.
Once in Luo Dong we walked over to the night market. The night market itself appeared to be very popular, as popular as any in Taipei. We guessed most of the customers had driven in from Taipei for the weekend. Queenie had been there before and said when she came with her friends they struggled to find parking. I could see why. The night market itself was as good as any in Taipei with the usual Taiwanese foods out for sale, the clothes stores, some DVD shops. The park next to the night market had been nicely decorated and made the place look a little more pleasant. After drifting through the stalls, we settled for some shredded pork and rice with soup for dinner. Not too exciting but it was one of the few stands without a long line. We were hungry and didn't want to wait for our food.
Next on the agenda was a trip to the Luo Dong Sports Park. The local government had decorated the park with a lot of lights and arranged a lot different shows and activities. As we arrived a musical water fountain show started. The show was pretty cool and went on for about 30 minutes. The background to the show was the brightly decorated "Love Bridge". The decorations looked good and had attracted a fair crowd. When the fountain show ended we went for a walk (in a designated direction) through a tunnel of lights, then over the love bridge, around the lake and back to the place we saw the fountain show. Along the way we happened upon many other events and activities. There were performers on stilts, some American-Indian singers doing their native chants, a foreigner playing the panpipes, some latin american music and dancers on a side stage and another full on night market. The park was a great experience and we really enjoyed it. We were happy to have gone on the Friday night because apparently, on Satruday's, people from Taipei visit the park in their hordes. Well, we had a great time in the park, but were tired, and headed off a little earlier than we would have expected.
A Taxi Driver's Story
The taxi driver who took us back told us a funny story. He said that once he was taking a female tourist from Hong Kong back to the Shangri La Hotel. Remeber, the Shanrgi La is not in a town, its on a mountain and to get there you go up a dark and winding road. The taxi driver said that once they had left the town and started ascending the mountain, the tourist asked him, "Where are you taking me? I'm scared." The taxi driver responded, "I'm scared too! I don't know if you are a crazy tourist or not!" We thought it was a funny story and soon the bright lights of our hotel were there to greet us.
The Second Day
On the Saturday morning we woke up earlier than usual and decided to go for a walk. We walked for about 10 minutes and then thought breakfast sounded like a much better idea. So we trooped off to the dining hall for a regular Taiwanese breakfast that included all the goodies including rice porridge. Yes, I even ate some of the water rice concotion (I am used to it now) and we thought it was a pretty good breakfast.
Once breakfast was done and dusted we went for a genuine walk. The Shangri La is surrounded by a lot of greenery and the hotel has put up some fairly good observation points. We went for a long stroll around the grounds and just enjoyed being in nature. It was on our first walk in the morning that we noticed the size of the spiders. The spiders were huge and some of them had spun enormous webs. The spiders were impressive (and scary) and not something we will forget soon. There were also some drums we could pound and just a lot natural greenery to enjoy. We had a blast. We walked around the grounds for about two hours. By this time it was 10:30am, the sun was getting up and it was getting hot so we high-tailed it back to our room to spend the late morning and early afternoon relaxing.
Since our second lunch was free we went back to the dining hall for lunch at midday. The lunch was another splendidly healthy meal. Lots of vegetables and fruit with some cold chicken. It was good. And after lunch (you guessed it) we went back to the room to read and while away the time. Once the heat of the afternoon had passed at around 3:30pm we headed out again along another trail through the grounds of the hotel. The views were spectacular and walking through the trees and natural vegetation was refreshing and relaxing and something we just really needed to do. We also followed another path to the bottom of the hill and landed up in a beautiful tea plantation.
The Second Evening
We walked along the trails and on the road through the tea plantation for about two hours and then it was time for dinner. Dinner was a wonderful buffet of the freshest country food you can find anywhere. We ate quite a bit and it was all delicious. The highlight of the second evening was writing wishes on a lantern and then sending the lantern into the night sky. By this stage a couple of tour buses had arrived at the hotel as some company was sponsoring a trip for the employees so there were a lot of kids running around screaming and special shows were put on. Everyone was having fun. We bought our lanterns, wrote our messages (promising each other we will return to the same hotel in 40 years) and sent the lantern into the sky. I must say, although the lantern did go fairly high, the flight time was less then two or three minutes. It was kind of sad seeing our lantern come crashing down to earth but at least it flew for a short while.
The Final Morning - Death Walk up the Mountain
Sunday morning arrived all too soon. We had a quick breakfast and decided to take another walk down the mountain. The road ran below through the shadows of the vegetation on the mountain above so we were mostly cool on the way down. When we got to the bottom of the hill there was a huge temple overlooking a beautiful lake. The temple itself was quite an impressive and beautiful structure nestled into the side of the mountain. We spent sometime milling around there, bought a drink and then debated how we would go back to the hotel. The most obvious route was to follow the road back up. It would have taken 30 minutes or so and most of it would have been in the shade. The second option was to hike up the hill and head to the hotel along a trail cut through the trees and vegetation. We chose the latter option.
People we spoke to said it would take around 90 minutes to get back to the hotel through the trees but we decided to give it a bash. We started up the hill at a slow pace and rested at regular intervals. As we got higher we had tremendous views of the temple and the lake and we were well covered by the trees. The incline up the slope in the beginning was gentle and easy and within 30 minutes we seemed to be approaching the top. Queenie and I were both thrilled that we had arrived so quickly but little did we know the fun had just begun!
We arrived at the top of the first hill and then the shade disappeared and we were walking in the sun. It was hot and sticky and then, horror of horrors, the trail started to go downhill. In the beginning we thought it would just go down for a short distance but trail continued to plunge further into the valley. I am not sure at what point we realized that the trail would take us all the way into a second valley and that we would have to hike up a steeper and more difficult hill, but we were dreading the second hill. We were not to pleased with the idea but thought we had come this far, we couldn't turn back. Besides, the view of the tea planations were amazing and it really was a beautiful day to be out walking. We just needed more drinks and were racing the clock as we had to checkout by 12:oopm.
We reached the half way point, Zhong Shan (中山). There was a small pavillion we could sit under and a welcome breeze that brought relief from the stifling heat and humidity. We rested up for about 15 minutes but had to continue so we could check out on time. Unfortunately the trail continued to go down for a further 15 minutes. Finally we were at the bottom and looked at the very steep incline we had to ascend. We started up the hill cursing every step. Our legs were tired and the walk was not so pleasant anymore. It took another 40 minutes to get to the top and it was heavy going. Most of it was under the trees so there was no sun beating down on us directly, but it was still hot. We finally made it to our room at the top of the mountain and crashed on to the bed gasping for water. We both concluded that we had done enough excercise for the day.
So that was the end of the weekend. It was a great weekend for both of us. We relaxed a lot, enjoyed nature and ate a lot of healthy food. What more could we want? A more relaxing walk on a Sunday morning I suppose.
P.S. Shangri La is highly recommended if you are looking to get away from the city but can be a bit pricey.