Sunday 6 October 2013

Surviving Taiwan: tips, costs and everything else

The route:
Flew in and out of Taoyuan
- Bus ride to Zhongli (1 day,1 night)
- Car ride to Taichung (1 day, 1 night)
- Taxi ride to Sun Moon Lake (2 days, 1 night)
- Bus ride to Cingjing (2 days, 2 nights)
- Bus ride to Taichung (1 day, 1 night)
- Train ride to Tainan (2 days, 2 nights)
- Train ride to Kaohsiung (2 days, 2 nights)
- Train ride to Hualien (3 days, 2 nights)
- Train ride to Taipei (5 days, 5 nights)

Total number of days: 18
P.S. the number of days don't really add up because sometimes we spent half a day in one city and the other half in another.
P.P.S. doesn't Taiwan look like a sweet potato?

P.S. The figures are rounded up.

Getting around Taiwan:
1. Trains are the fastest and most convenient way of traveling around Taiwan. It's clean, air-conditioned, pocket friendly and train timings and prices are all available online.

2. Buses are available right outside Taoyuan Airport to take you to Taipei or Zhongli in our case. So no worries about getting stranded. The first bus begins operation at around 7.30am. You can pay by cash but please get your coins ready because no change will be given.

Bus companies such as Nantou Bus (南投客運) have buses for shorter distance travel, such as from Taichung to Sun Moon Lake and Cingjing. You have to do a transfer at Puli (埔里) though. So our journey was like this: Taichung -> Puli -> SML -> Puli -> Cingjing -> Taichung. But we ended up sharing a cab with two other travelers from Taichung to SML straight because the cab driver gave us a discount and we reached SML waaaay earlier than planned.

Taiwan Tourist Shuttle (Taiwan Hao Xing/台灣好行) is another bus company that brings you to most of the tourist attractions. This bus is the only form of transport in places like Hualien where there are no public transport (I think) to bring you to Taroko Gorge. We also took this bus service in Zhongli to get to Ci hu.

3. Public buses are available for intracity travel but most locals are clueless about bus routes because everyone gets around on motorbikes. In Taichung, you get to travel for free if your journey is less than 8km! Again, get your coins ready.

4. Metro/MRT is only available in Kaohsiung and Taipei. You can buy a token to tap in and out from the machines at Kaohsiung MRT stations. I think it's the same in Taipei but we had the EasyCard so we didn't have to get the single trip tokens. Read more about the EasyCard in Useful tips #4.

Useful Tips:
#1. If you're between 19 to 30, you can apply for a free Youth Travel Card at the Tourist Information Counter at the airport. The counter opens at 7am and you just need to show them your passport. With this card, you can get discounts at various attractions and even offers for some accomodation, like our minsu in Cingjing.

#2. You might want to consider getting a local SIM card if you're going to be in Taiwan for a prolonged period of time. There are three telecom companies competing for your attention at the airport, the counters open at 8am. I don't know which is the best but we got ours from Taiwan Mobile (which is the biggest local telecom company), a non-3G SIM card with NT345 credit. 3G SIM cards are of course available but you can easily get free WiFi at hostels/Starbucks.

#3. If you're a student and planning to travel around Taiwan mainly by train, get the TR-PASS. You can get it at most train stations but remember to bring your student card! The TR-PASS holder has unlimited access to the Chukuang Express, the Fuxing Express and commuter trains before the expiration date of the pass. However, the holder is not allowed to travel by No.1, 2, 51and 52 Tourist Trains, No. 71, 74, 73and 72 Groups Trains, special passenger trains, Cruise-Type Trains, and other trains that are specified by TRA. Yes, that can be confusing but the Chukuang express pretty much gets you everywhere so no worries. If you're not sure, just ask the ticket office which train you can take with the TR-PASS.

Options available:
(1) 5-day pass/NTD 599.
(2) 7-day pass/NTD 799. (We got this one)
(3) 10-day pass/NTD 1098.

#4. Taiwan Easycard can be used for MRT rides in Taipei, buses trips in Taipei, New Taipei, Keelung, Taoyuan, and Taichung and some but quite limited train journeys. You can get one and also do top-ups at all Taipei MRT stations and convenient stores. Adult and Student card cost NT$500, consisting of a NT$400 disposable amount and a NT$100 deposit.

Just tap in and out and the fare will be deducted based on distance traveled. The confusing/interesting thing happens when you use this card on buses. You do not tap in and out all the time! Some buses you just tap in, others you just tap out. There will be a neon sign when you board the bus which states whether this bus operates on a tap-in-tap-out (上下车收费) or tap-in only (上车收费) or tap-out only (下车收费) system. I can almost see the blank expressions going around hahaha.

Couchsurfing experience:
We couchsurfed across Taiwan except for Sun Moon Lake, Cingjing and Hualien. This was the first time for us (though we didn't really sleep on couches, we slept on tatamis, beds and mattresses) so we were half expectant, half worried. Luckily, we were blessed with wonderful hosts. All of them were extremely welcoming and made time to bring us around. They showed us hidden gems, good local good and treated us like good old friends.But as much as I enjoyed my CS experience, I was quite glad to take a break from CS in SML, Cingjing and Hualien because I need my own time/space/freedom.

If you decide to couchsurf, please comb through your potential hosts' CS profiles thoroughly, read all their references and you can even message people who have surfed with them previously. Like I've got an email recently asking about my stay with one of the hosts. Go with an open mind but be alert.

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