trip report: long weekend in Hong Kong and Taiwan with Dad, September 2016

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Of the old school travel hacking, mileage running was greatly use to both accumulate miles and gain status. The former isn’t the case anymore and that wasn’t my intention of this short weekend on the other side of the world, but we found ourselves with 5 days and 4 nights between Hong Kong and Taiwan with dad joining us. A side effect of my short trip is that I ended up with much more research on Hong Kong and Taiwan then we could use. So this trip report will be slightly different in that I’ll provide a quick recap of my research and then what we did.

the decision

This all begin originally looking for a one way flight across the Pacific from the US. That is when this popped up. Again, I don’t mileage run but this was a pretty good deal and that’s when the idea of a second small trip came onto my radar. With several friends’ families originating from Taiwan, I’ve been told it’s an overlooked destination for hiking. Of course, the Taiwanese culture is all about the food and so am I. Lastly, it also provided an opportunity for me to meet up with my dad, who is working in mainland China. So that’s how our Labor Day plans came about.

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research and planning

itinerary

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flights

In this section, I’ll talk about the general planning of flights and logistics of our trip. More specifics the locations will come as part of the trip report below .

The start of all the planning was the booking of this cross pacific fare from Taiwan (TPE) to San Jose (SJC) and back to TPE. I only had time to book to the original city pairs before it was shut down, but repositioning to the west coast was no problem for us with the Southwest Companion Pass and a few SW points. The first half the itinerary served as our return from Taiwan back to the states and I booked it for the end of Labor Day. Since this was a possible mistake, I waited for the all clear from the airline in that they are honoring the ticket to make other plans.

The first task was to find a flight across the Pacific, which was something I had already been looking for. That’s when one of these low cost sales came about. The booking would take us from New York LaGuardia (LGA) to Hong Kong (HKG). Again repositioning to LGA was no problem through Southwest. Lastly, I had to find a connection between HKG and TPE. Using British Airways Avios for shortest distance redemption on Cathy Pacific made it only 4500 points for each ticket from HKG to TPE. See dated guide on Avios.

logistics

As part of our planning, I decided to only spend 1 night in Hong Kong since Taiwan offered much more in terms of hiking. My dad was also going to meet us in Taiwan, so the aim was to spend the majority of the weekend there. Dad took a budget airline in and would travel with us for whatever we decided to do.

Since we had seemingly endless flights and connection on this trip. We opted for only carry on backpacks and not check anything. Our carry-on included a couple change of clothes — with a set for hiking, camera, and our laptops for the long flights. We didn’t have the time for any backpacking, so no camping equipment.

We didn’t have to worry about food across the many flights as we were able to get lounge access through Citi’s Prestige Card and Priority Pass (not an affiliate link – I’m too small for sponsors). On a side note, the signup and bonuses for this card isn’t as good at the time of writing this and you should be looking at the new Chase Sapphire Reserve for lounge access.

Lastly, neither Hong Kong or Taiwan requires visas for tourism under 90 days with US passports so we were all set.

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trip report

transit to

Our long set of flights begin with driving down to Raleigh (RDU). We opted for the parking this time at RDU’s economy over park n ride at hotels as there was only a dollar difference per day and the airport parking was more efficient with time. Our entire route was RDU -> Atlanta (ATL) -> LGA on Southwest that evening before going LGA -> Toronto (YYZ) -> HKG on Air Canada early in the morning. The Southwest repositioning flight cost us 4915 points and $11.2 total for both of us. We were able to grab a free dinner and drinks at the Club lounge in ATL.

We did have an overnight layover at LGA for 7 hours. Our original plan was to stay air-side until morning base on reviews of LGA on sleeping in airports. A benefit of traveling with just a carry on is that you aren’t dependent on baggage pickup or check in desks to drop off luggage, which is limited in when it’s staffed based on the volume of flights from the airport from the airline. Our plans were interrupted as the cleaning staff informed us that air-side was not open 24 hours. We were dreading the reported land-side chaos, but LGA had sectioned off the food court for passengers with boarding passes. It would have been nice to have our inflatable sleeping pads, but Meg made do with several chairs. I tried to stay up as long as I could in anticipation of time zone differences.

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In the morning, we hit the very basic Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge before the quick flight to YYZ.

We had a quick transition through Canada immigration and headed to the Plaza Premium Lounge for a much better selection of food and drinks. Lounges outside the US are so much better about having real food available. Our flight from YYZ to HKG was 15 hours, and holding to my jet lag plan, I was out for the entire first 7 hours of the flight. The plane was a newer 777-200 with decent space for the economy seat, felt larger than the Southwest seats. I think my plan worked pretty well and didn’t feel much jet lag as we touched down to a cloudy day in Hong Kong.

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Hong Kong

research

For our stops in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, it was short. Hong Kong was layover short almost at 26 hours. So Anthony Bourdain’s Layover episode on Hong Kong was a good quick glimpse. His No Reservation episode was pretty good watch too as I didn’t start looking at activities until a few days before. Both videos should get you some idea of the food around Hong Kong. Walking around and looking for where a lot of people are lining up and just using Tripadvisor are pretty good bets to find good grub. There are also many Michelin star restaurants among the many hotels, including one of the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in Tim Ho Wan dim sum. There are several different locations for Tim Ho Wan.

In term of the outdoors, there are many mountains among the skyscrapers. The most well know from an online search is Dragon’s Back on Hong Kong Island that ends at a local beach. There are a couple of variations and at night possibility, list among several other night hikes. Dragon’s Backbone is a small part of a network of trails across Hong Kong.

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report

From the Hong Kong airport, we had to find transportation into Hong Kong proper. Rome2Rio is once again a good tool, though google maps was satisfactory as well. We took an express train from the airport that stops at 3 stops in Hong Kong for the sake of time. It is costlier at HK$75 each and offer free shuttle connections to specific hotels.

I was able to book a room at Hong Kong Intercontinental with one of my free nights from last year’s IHG accelerate promotion. We even got an upgrade and couple free drinks with the platinum status as part of the Chase’s IHG card, a card highly regarded within the travel hacking community to keep long term as it gives a free night per year for any.

We thought about heading out to do Dragon’s Back, but decided to just relax, walk around, and get some good food instead. It would have been too rushed and Meg wanted a real good night sleep to help her adjust to her jet lag. Plus, we wanted to take our time at the infinity pool (though it really wasn’t as great as those buzzfeed list proclaims).

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For food, we headed out north toward Prince Edward street to eat at the Michelin star dim sum joint, Tim Ho Wan. They have multiple locations around town, but I believe this one on Prince Edward is the one with the star. For around HK$200, we stuffed ourselves silly. The most unique dish is their Pork Bun, which is traditionally a steamed bao. However, theirs was a baked one similar to the black bean deserts with a nice pineapple crust finish on top.

After our night in Hong Kong, we made our way back toward HKG. We were able to grab lunch in the Plaza Premium Lounge, which had full on meals. However, it can be 20-30 minutes from your gate as we found out having to speed walk toward our gate after lunch.

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Taiwan

research

The starting point in research for food in Taiwan is once again from Anthony Bourdain’s Layover episode. Again, food is everywhere from the streets to foodcourts to night markets to shopping areas. One thing that seem to be a favorite among the Taiwanese is the hot pot. There seemed to be always a line there.

Taiwan is a small island, but it is filled with mountains and streams. There are indeed many types of hikes from multi-day 3000m peak to peak treks, day hikes among the gorges and the mountains, and water tracing up a stream. Here is a quick list of some of the geography there. There are a few active meetup groups based out of Taipei that can help you explore areas around the island in no particular order:

The first thing to keep mind is that for many multi-day, backcountry, high elevation, or high volume trails, you’ll need to acquire permits well ahead of time. From all accounts, the local government is actually trying to make it harder to hike without permits in areas across the country or at all (see this discussion).

I have organized a few links below detailing hikes into regions. Hopefully you’ll find them helpful.

general hiking blogs (they also run the meetup groups)

Taipei

Taroko Gorge near Hualien

There are several trails in this national park that doesn’t need permits. However for longer trails or backpacking, permits are needed.

Yushan National Park, the tallest point in Taiwan

I applied for a permit, but it was too late as the access was full.

water tracing

Water tracing is pretty specific name for hiking up a river in Taiwan. It is the only place I’ve heard with a specific name for hiking up a river. There are canyoneering and caving, but those are more technical. Here is a quick write up on river tracing from Hiking Taiwan.

There are specific equipment for river tracing in Taiwan such as helmets and specific footwear. Here is the description from a couple posts on the meetup groups:

River tracing shoes have a soft, felt bottom. Rubber bottoms are completely unacceptable. If you don’t have the footwear yet, you can rent it here or buy it from various outdoors shops. A good one is at Teng San Iou, 18 Zhonmgshan North Road (near Taipei Main Station MRT exit M7). There are several other places next to each other that also sell them. Ask for ‘swor- shee- shair’ (GPS of Ting San Iou: 25.0464811,121.5197649).

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report

We landed in TPE around mid afternoon, but didn’t reach our Airbnb in Taipei proper until 5pm. There are plenty of buses from terminal 1, but it takes a while to get to downtown. It didn’t help that it was a Friday and the start of rush hour. The bus cost us around NTD$150.

At the airport, there are many pocket wifi routers available for rent. We did not rent or try to get any specific cell service while we were there because of the short time, but the router seemed like a decent option to not having to deal with sim cards. From the online forum, it seems like preregistering will save money and the routers’ battery life isn’t great. Here is the an active forum thread about it on Tripadvisor. Of course, Google Fi or T-Mobile are still your best options for cell service abroad.

Our Airbnb was a pretty basic apartment, but it had all the amenities we needed. Good wifi, washer, AC, 2 rooms, fridge, area to cook, and comfortable bed. Melsan and Simone were good about communicating with our different arrivals and we met my dad at the Airbnb. From there we headed to a the Shilin night market for dinner via the subway. We ended up loading some money on the easy cards, which were usable around the island for seemingly any type of transportation. It did have a NTD$100 fee to start, so I’m not sure if it is worth it for the short stay. It was very convenient though and does give a discount for each ride.

At the night market, there was a big food court where there were many food stall set up. Much of it were serving the same type of things, but there was still a good variety of goods. We tried the osyter omelet, some tempura shrimp, egg plants, and some xiao long bao (soup dumplings). They were all ok, but nothing special. We weren’t very hungry by the time we were at the food court, possibly because of the large bag of street fruit we had gotten. It was probably the best food we had from the night market.

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Overall, I think I was a little disappointed by the night market as it was just a lot of street vendors selling random clothing and things other than food. Perhaps we were just a bit tired from the traveling that day. I know different night markets have different specializations, we just didn’t have time to head out to the one know for food in Keeling. The market itself did remind of the markets we saw in Tokyo on our stop over there last year.

The next day we had originally signed up for a meetup event to go river tracing, but the heavy rain forecast changed our plans. Having woke up early, Meg and I decided to hit up Din Tai Fung, the famous chain for soup dumplings for brunch. There was a line already before it opened but we were able to get in with the first group. The quality of these xiao long bao were much better than the night market ones from the quality of the meat and soup on the inside to the thin skin.

After we ate the shit out the dumplings, we met back up with my dad for a hike of the 4 beast trails.

trail information

  • name: 4 beast: 9-5 trail
  • type: through
  • distance: 4.5 mi
  • elevation change: 1380 ft ascend and 1648 descend
  • time: 3 hours and 20 minutes
  • location: Taipei, Taiwan
  • The 4 beasts are known for their views of Taipei, especially the 101 building. There are several different routes in the area of the 4 beasts as specified by the links above. The most popular is the Elephant peak route. There are also many off shots should opt for some ropes and scrambling rather than the concrete stairs. There are many locals that walk the path for exercise, so you can always ask for directions. We took the start from the Tiger route, but continued onto the longer 9-5 route.

From the subway station Houshanpi off the blue line, we headed south until the entrance to the park.

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There are 2 routes here, the tiger mountain route or the connector to the 9-5 on the left, which we took.

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The stretch of stairs was dotted with several small temples.

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There were water faucets here and there, though I can’t attest to their potability. Taipei is sure hot and muggy, so we were all drenched as we headed up.

After a few peaks and viewpoints,

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we found the peak of thumb mountain.

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It was a nice last peak to relax at before heading downwards. Much better than the 9-5 peaks, where the view was blocked by trees (reminds me of the hills of VA).

We eventually reached THE picture point at elephant point.

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Photographers are known to camp out here for night photography well ahead of sun down and there was a large mob at the famous boulders.

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Check out the awesome framing in the first picture here.

It was a quick down from there to the entrance of the Elephant mountain.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 2.5. This was a nice walk to take a look at Taipei. If you happen to be in Taipei, it’s worth the walk and serves as the perfect complement to the large amount of food you’ll probably eat here. I personally would have liked to head up here for a night hike and can imaging rating it up to a 3. An understated aspects of the day hike though is the layers of mountains to the northeast as the backdrop of the mountain.
  • difficulty: 1.5. Stairs and concrete the entire way we took. There are definitely room to increase the difficulty if you go with one of the other routes up.
  • technical: 1. Many markings and people to ask.

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After dinner we turned in early for the night as we decided to bit the bullet of 6 hour roundtrip train ride to visit Taroko National Park near Hualien. This area actually deserved more than an afternoon as there multiple short hikes in the national park you can do without a permit, see above, and there is also the coast, which we didn’t get a chance to visit.

We woke up early the next day around 7 and headed to the train station. A one way ticket on the express train from Taipei to Xincheng, the closest stop to Taroko, costed NTD$403 per person and took about 2 hours. For more information on transportation to the park, see here. We grabbed a quick breakfast at 7-11, which you’ll find as a much more acceptable meal place than in the states. A bao, tea egg, and a milk tea hits the spot pretty well.

Roughly 2 hours later, we were at Xincheng. There is a bus stop right by the station that will take you into the park, which has no admission fee.

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The buses run from Hualien and the last one out of the park starts from the top stop, Tiensiang, at 6pm. After booking a standing room only trip back to Taipei on the more conventional, but cheaper train, we headed into the park on bus 1133.

There are several hikes in the park that you can do without a permit. See the planning section above for more details. At Tiensiang, there is a park office where they’ll tell you what trails are open. There is another office at the entrance of the park. The drive up itself is pretty cool as the road is carved into the mountain side at points as it winds up the gorge. Don’t worry, they go pretty slow unlike Peru. After talking to the park office at Tiensiang, Meg and I were eager to hit the trail. Dad decided to take it easier and grab lunch and take the shorter trail to Xiangde Temple.

trail information

  • name: Baiyang Waterfall Trail and Lushui Trail
  • type: In and out, through
  • distance: 10.5 mi
  • elevation change: 786 ft ascend and 1067 ft descend
  • time: 4 hours
  • location: Taroko National Park, Taiwan
  • Our total route combined 2 hikes this area. To link up the 2, we had to walk a good distance on the road. If you have your own transportation, you’d be able to drive to trailheads of each. Actually if you had a car or scooter, you probably can do most of non-permit trails in 1 day.

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For Baiyang Waterfalls, it is probably a good idea to have some sort of water proofing for your electronics and a poncho or umbrella. We had the later since we had a rainy forecast for the entire weekend. If you don’t have any, you probably can borrow one from the massive crowd at the end of the Baiyang trail where you’ll need it.

From the Tiensiang park office, it was about .7 km on the road along the gorge.

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A minute or so into the sheltered section of the road, there is a huge tunnel through the mountain. This is the trailhead of the hike.

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The trail winds along a parallel gorge

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and takes you through a few more tunnels.

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You cross the gorge once more near the end where you are treated to running waters underneath

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with pretty cool rock formations

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and a view of the falls.

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Through a few more tunnels, you’ll reach the final tunnel that most people walk the trail for. The tunnel was made originally made to build a dam for electricity. However the construction was stopped and abandoned when it was determined that it would change the entire river system. As a byproduct, water started to come though the last tunnel and makes for a interesting phenomenon.

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After heading back down the trail, we meet up with my dad back at Tiensiang. There was a family of monkeys looking on as I grabbed a quick snack for the 7-11.

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We headed down the road toward the Lushui trailhead. The park ranger said this was her favorite as you walk up along a old trail carved into the mountains with a nice view of the river and gorge below.

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It was however only a small section before going through a wooded section and meeting back up with the road and the Heliu campgrounds. A little bit further down the road, you’ll find a suspension bridge and Pagoda that’ the beginning of a trail that requires a permit.

At this point, a bus came by and we waved it down to head out of the park. I think my dad was good in the walking department. The local train back to Taipei took around 3 hours and we were able to find seats here and there between the stops.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 3. Taroko’s cliff faces and rivers were very enjoyable, though doesn’t have the colors or allure that would rate among the best of the world. Granted, I would like to return and spend more time, but I don’t think it’s a place I’d travel solely for. Next time though, I’d definitely into getting the permits ahead of time though for some of the more interesting treks like Jhuilu (old road).
  • difficulty: 1. The trails were pretty wide and not steep.
  • technical: 1. Again, many people to ask and everything well marked

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transit home

All our flights were in the morning. We took a direct bus a few minutes from the Airbnb that cost NTD$70 each and took 45 minutes. We left dad as we had flights from different terminals. When we checked in to the JAL flight, we found out that full fare gave us access to the Sakura Lounge both at TPE and Osaka.

What was surprising though was that we were upgraded to the angle business class seats on the leg from KIX to LAX, it was a first for us and allowed both of us to get the best sleep we had on a plane.

At LAX, we waited for our transfer at the renovating Admiral Lounge, which pales in comparison to other lounges abroad. Once we flew the last leg of the cross pacific ticket, we had a night in San Jose. We were able to book a night at Staybridge suites with the last of Meg’s IHG points from the their Priceless Surprises mail-in promotion in anticipation that some of my CA friend might be able to make it down and hang out. However the odd timing prevent that from working out. We did enjoyed some Vietnamese food during our stay.

The next day, we finished our trip on Southwest going through Las Vegas (LAS) on our way from SJC to RDU. In LAS, the lounges are located in concourse D, which you have to take a shuttle to. However, the signs for concourse D throughout terminal 1 lead you outside security. The trip as we found out was to go toward concourse C and then continue on where the trams are located just inside another security check point. The Club lounge in LAS was very very small and basic without a bathroom. Free booze is free booze.

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final impressions

Out of the 2 locations we visited, my preference was for Taiwan. Of course, Taiwan offers much more in terms of hiking, even though there seem to be a lot of regulations regarding permits. However, hiking wouldn’t be the top reason I’d head back to either Hong Kong or Taiwan, it would be the food that comes with it. This final impression has to be taken with a grain of salt however as it was a terribly short trip. I haven’t seen fully what each location has to offer, but I did enjoy each place. Well, maybe not the humidity and heat.

budget

I didn’t keep track of our budget as well as we were using Cash mostly. It’s hard to know much exactly to withdrawal for such a short trip.

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If you’ve enjoyed this trip report and found it helpful, we would always welcome any support. Thanks!

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