The Gorgeous Gorge in Taiwan

What’s so special about a drive through winding mountain roads that pierces through a slew of tunnels on a misty December morning? Most mountain roads are beautiful, aren’t they? But this drive on Taiwan’s Central Cross Island Highway offers spectacular vistas as it runs parallel to the mighty Taroko Gorge – a constant reminder of how nature works and how beautifully carved creations it leaves behind.

Liwu River

Liwu River

On a wintry December morning we embarked on our drive to Taroko from Hualien – a coastal town in Eastern Taiwan. Within a few minutes – from sea level we drove into the steep landscape on the Central Cross Island Highway – one of the most scenic highways I have ever been to.

The highway is not just beautiful it is also considered one of the most dangerous highways in the world due to rock fall incidents every now and then, especially after heavy rainfall or typhoon, when the highway is closed for safety reasons. Interestingly, Taroko Gorge has been formed due to the shift in plates – the Philippines Oceanic plate pressing against the Eurasian Continental Plate. In fact the Gorge is still gaining height which is why the place is prone to earthquakes and hence considered risky.

The Shrine of Eternal Spring and more

The Shrine of Eternal Spring

The Shrine of Eternal Spring

After about 20 minutes, we reached the main entrance to Taroko Gorge – a favorite stopover for tourists and take photos.  We also did the same touristy stuff. As we proceeded on the highway, the stunningly carved Taroko Gorge became more and more intimidating. The 19-km-long marble canyon is formed by the flowing Yiwu river which runs in between the gorge.

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Our next stop was at the Shrine of Eternal Spring. We walked up to the other side of the Gorge to the Shrine via manmade tunnels. Just for trivia, the central cross island highway was constructed by workers using simple tools and some 200 of them died during the construction. This shrine is dedicated to them. Next to the shrine is a natural spring and its water empties into the Liwu River below. The legend has it that the spring never dries up and hence the name. The view of the temple with the gushing spring water amidst the steep gorge seemed surreal and looked like a postcard straight out of some ancient Chinese book.

Swallow Grotto

Swallow Grotto

Swallow Grotto

December is the time for monsoons on the east coast of Taiwan and certain parts of the Gorge were covered in mist. Capturing all the picturesque vistas, we drove to our next stop – Swallow Grotto. We had a chance to observe the marble carved by the Yiwu river from closer quarters. Our cabbie dropped us at a point from where we walked close to the gorge to explore on our own. How artistically the marble has been formed with the water flowing and cutting the rocks over several hundreds and thousands of years. We were told, in earlier days, marble was extracted from the gorge for personal / commercial use by locals. But today, it’s banned and the canyon is protected by the government.

Deep into the Gorge

Deep into the Gorge

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Marble formations

Marble formations

Thereafter, we also stopped by at the Suspension Bridge that goes over the gorge. The wobbly bridge reminded me of the Lakshman Jhula in Rishikesh, India.

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The Suspension Bridge

Apart from these stopovers along the gorge, the drive itself was brilliant as we crossed one section of the gorge moving into the other with some sharp hairpin turns leading to a new vista every time. We crossed several long tunnels cutting through the gorge.

Another major attraction at Taroko is the Tunnel of Nine Turns, but it was closed for maintenance when we visited.

Drive to Hehuanshan and ahead

After sometime, we gorgeous gorge gave way to central mountains. We stopped by at the Bilu Sacred Tree which is said to be 3,200 years old and about 50 m high with a diameter of 3.5 m. The trivia that our cabbie shared – this tree is even older than Taiwan’s civilization – because the island has seen human settlement only in the last 2,000 years or so. Interesting, but not sure if it’s true!

Panorama of the Beautiful Gorge

Panorama of the Beautiful Gorge

At this point the weather was slowly getting cold and we stopped by at a local restaurant on the highway for lunch. The food served was pepper chicken with rice – was finger licking good especially on such a cold winter day.

After lunch we headed to the Hehuanshan Mountains. For those unfamiliar with Taiwan’s geography, the country is shaped like a sweet potato and the central mountains separate the east from the west coast as it runs from north to south.

Hehuanshan mountain range is the tallest mountain that is accessible by vehicle in Taiwan at 3422 meters. The day we visited the mountain, the temperature dipped to -2 degrees! We shivered and it started to snow – tiny little flakes. Coming from hot and humid Singapore, it was such a wonderful thing to shiver! After crisscrossing the several beautiful mountain ranges, our cabbie dropped us at our final destination on this leg of the trip – Cingjing Farm in Taiwan’s Nantou county. So, stay tuned for this part of my Taiwan trip in my next post!

Things to Remember while visiting Taroko Gorge

  • The best way to travel to the gorge is from the nearby town of Hualien – which is well connected by trains from Taiwan’s major cities like Taipei and Kaohsiung.
  • Bring warm clothes as it can get cold in Taroko. Bring an umbrella if you visit during the rainy season.
  • There are buses that take you to Taroko Gorge from Hualien station. We took a cab because we were doing a cross island trip to Hehuanshan and Cingjing Farm.
  • A typical cab ride from Hualien to Cingjing via Taroko and Hehuanshan costs about TWD 5000. A cab can take a maximum of 4 pax. Check out http://www.hualien-taxi.tw/ This is a very reliable agency. But you need to book in advance.
  • There is no entrance fee into the gorge. However, please check out the official website http://www.taroko.gov.tw/English/ for any news of closure.
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Day Trip to Pulau Ubin – Singapore’s Kampong styled island

A ten minute boat ride can transport you to another time – probably the 1960s. Pulau Ubin – where time seems to have paused – is a true relic from the past as compared to its rich sister Singapore. Consciously preserved in true kampong (village) style, the boomerang shaped island is a popular weekend day trip destination for many high-rise city dwellers of Singapore.

CAM01605Just off the northeastern coast of the main island of Singapore is Pulau Ubin. Its humble surroundings are a complete contrast from the well-manicured environs of Singapore’s mainland. Pulau Ubin had been on our to-do list for a while now. So on a hot and humid Saturday morning (can’t get a better day as this is the typical Singaporean weather), we head to Changi Ferry Terminal to catch a bumboat ride to Pulau Ubin. Within ten minutes we were transported to Pulau Ubin Jetty.

To explore the island, you can rent a bicycle, walk or hire a minivan (suitable for bigger groups or people with elderly /infants). The best way is to explore on a cycle as walking can be a lot more tedious and time consuming. We rented a tandem cycle to explore the island for SGD 12.

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We grabbed a map of the island and decided to begin with Chek Jawa Wetlands. The island has proper signboards so it’s easy to navigate. After cycling for about 10 minutes we reached a point where the terrain gets hilly and rough. We embarked on it thinking we will reach the wetlands in no time. But it took quite a while as the terrain was uneven. There were times when we had to push the bike and tomes when we had to ride with caution, especially the steep slopes.CAM01616

After reaching Chek Jawa Visitor centre, we parked our cycle at the designated spot and walked to the Broadwalk that leads you to the mangroves. The Broadwalk is a proper wooden pathway taking you in between the mangroves into the sea. Since it was low tide, we saw some marine life tiny crabs, fishes and some other creatures that I didn’t recognize. We were told, if you are lucky you may see star fishes too.

Mangroves

Mangroves

Some kind of Marine creatures

Some kind of Marine creatures

Since it was a weekend, there was a lot of people. After our walk along the sea, we resumed our cycling. Next stop was at the Balan Quarry. Pualu Ubin had many granite quarries in the yesteryears. Now mining is banned and the quarries have filled with rainwater, transforming into picturesque lakes. The Balan Quarry is located near Chek Jawa. However, swimming and fishing are not allowed in Balan Quarry as well as the other quarries in the island.

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Balan Quarry

Balan Quarry

Another Quarry

Another Quarry

We cycled across the island and visited other spots such as the Sensory Trail, Butterfly Hill, etc. The island also has many campsites such as Noordin and Mamam but some of them have been closed due to soil erosion.

At about half past noon we decided to head back to Ubin town area for our lunch. We chose Season Live Seafood and treated ourselves to some honey glazed prawns and later a steamed Hong Kong styled fish. I absolutely loved the seafood as it was fresh and deliciously prepared. After an hour of feasting, we explored the other side of the island –vmore greenery, trails, and more rain water filled quarries.

Hong Kong Steamed Fish

Hong Kong Steamed Fish

The afternoon heat made cycling a drag and we decided to return the cycle to the shop and head back home. We didn’t have to wait much long for the bumboat return ride and were back on the other side in about 15 minutes.

The day trip was rewarding for our air-con bred bodies that for a change inhaled fresh air and our eyes had a good break from the computer screen.

The island is good for cycling. There is also an area for mountain biking – which we didn’t explore. Overall it was a good break from our routine life.

Things to note:

  1. Bumboat ride per person per way is SGD 2.50 (per person). So SGD 5 for a round trip per person.
  2. You have to pay directly to the bumboat owners at the beginning of each way trip.
  3. The bumboat carries 12 people and it only leaves when they have that number onboard. Or else you can pay SGD 30 and take the boat to Pulau Ubin.
  4. There is no proper timetable for the ferry departure.
  5. The island opens from 8:30 am to 6 pm every day.
  6. You can choose from a variety of bicycles.
  7. Do not forget to bring in cash as cards are not accepted in the island.
  8. Try to reach as early as possible to avoid the heat.
  9. You can get your own cycle from Singapore on the bumboat by paying SGD 2.
  10. Wear sunscreen, comfortable clothes, sunglasses and sneakers. You may also carry mosquito repellent, especially if you are camping.
  11. Carry water. Although you can buy at the vending machines located island wide.
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A short weekend getaway – Malshej Ghat and Diveagar

A few years ago we went to Diveagar in Raigarh district of Maharashtra. Although it’s about 170 km from Mumbai, we took a different route. It was actually a detour. We first went to Pune (another city in Maharashtra) where we were joined by our friends, and then we drove via Malshej Ghat to Diveagar.

The road into the Ghats

Malshej Ghat

The route via Malshej Ghat is one of the less taken ones as it’s not in a very good condition, making the journey long and tedious. But it’s also one of the most beautiful places in the ghats, hence the decision to take it.

View from the top of Malshej Ghats

View from the top of Malshej Ghats

Greenery!

Greenery!

It was the rainy season, and the best time for visiting the Western Ghats (hills) when they come alive with breathtaking greenery all around. So we embarked on this journey – a rather back breaking one, thanks to the terrible roads. But we survived it with occasional stops enroute to soak in the beauty of the place, especially the numerous waterfalls.

We reached Diveagar at about 3 pm and checked into Exotica Beach Resort. Diveagar is a small town in coastal Maharashtra and is one of the many beaches that people visit on long weekends from Mumbai and Pune.

Waterfalls along the way

Waterfalls along the way

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

The resort is located next to the beach. We stayed in one of cottages in the resort.

After a freshening up we walked to the beach. The beach was quite clean and there were very few people. It was a clear sky and the sunset on the Arabian Sea was beautiful. Since the place around the resort has practically nothing to offer, no shopping or eateries, we retired to our rooms and spent the evening at leisure inside the resort.

Exotica Resort

Exotica Resort

We returned the next day.

The perfect sunset

The perfect sunset

3I wouldn’t highly recommend this beach to you. You can do it if you like solitude. Bring along books to read and please visit in a group so that you have company.

As far as Malshej Ghat is concerned, you can do a day trip from Pune during the monsoons. It’s a ted far from Mumbai.

Diveagar beach

Diveagar beach

Sunset on DIveagar Beach

Sunset on DIveagar Beach

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Trip to Hong – Picture Perfect island in Thailand

When in Krabi you can choose from a host of islands to visit. We chose Hong because it is supposedly still unspoiled. This post will be more on the photographs – well they will speak for themselves!

Some of the most popular islands that are visited by tourists are – Koh Phi Phi, where the Hollywood movie ‘The Beach’ was shot and then there is James Bond island that was featured in Bollywood movie ‘Kaho na Pyar hain’.

Speed boats and long tail boats ferry tourists from Ao Nang (this is the main area in Krabi) to these islands. But booking your tickets at least one day in advance is advisable for a guaranteed seat. These boats generally leave in the morning, so that you have the day in hand when you reach these white sand beaches. While some of the islands are uninhabited, some like Koh Phi Phi has many resorts.

We chose a day trip to Hong island – an uninhabited island. We were told other islands have become a tad commercialized due to high inflow of tourists and Hong is still somewhat secluded and unexplored. So we set out on our Hong sojourn in the morning by a long tail boat.

Here is the photo essay!

One side of Hong island

One side of Hong island

Long Tail Boats on Hong island

Long Tail Boats on Hong island

Group of islands in the distance

Group of islands in the distance

Another island in the vicinity

Another island in the vicinity

Picture perfect beach!

Picture perfect beach!

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Getting inside the lagoon!

Getting inside the lagoon!

while Kayaking

Kayaking

Inside the lagoon

Inside the lagoon

Exploring!

Exploring!

The opening of the lagoon into the sea

The opening of the lagoon into the sea

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Smell and Drink Poop Coffee – the most expensive cuppa in the world!

It’s probably the only time when poop and expensive come in the same sentence! Coffee Luwak aka Civet Coffee is the most expensive and exotic coffee in the world! I had heard about it, but I wasn’t sure if I could muster the courage to drink it. Then I went to Bali and I thought I might as well add another ‘first’ to my travel experiences! I drank this exotic coffee and here is my experience.Fotor01031113914

Coffee plantations are not something I would highly recommend during a Bali trip, but to taste the exotic coffee luwak – a visit would be worth it!

We had a brief stopover at a coffee plantation, on our way to Ulan Danu temple in Bedugul and that’s where I tasted Coffee Luwak!

Coffee berries in the Plantation

Coffee berries in the Plantation

Luwak coffee berries

Luwak coffee berries

Luwak Coffee beans

Luwak Coffee beans

How is it exotic?

This is not just another cup of coffee; it’s exotic because it’s made from poop! People spend several dollars for a cup in the West! Spend a pretty penny for coffee made from poop? Well, the coffee beans are of a different kind as compared to your regular ones.

When the coffee berries are ripe, an animal called Asian Palm Civet eats them – thus it’s also popularly known as civet coffee. The civet eats the coffee berries and poops out the beans – which are then collected, cleaned, roasted, and grinded into coffee powder. The berries are fermented in civet’s digestive system, which gives this coffee its unique flavor and aroma.

So, it is literally poop coffee!

Sounds yucky right? I also thought the same, but nevertheless wanted to taste this exotic coffee that people rave about. There is a guide that takes you around the coffee plantation, where we saw the coffee berries, the excreted coffee beans which were being cleaned, manually roasted and grinded.

After a short tour of the coffee plantation, we arrived at the tasting area where we had our cup of Civet Coffee!

Well it looks like any other cup of coffee. But it does taste different. It has a distinct aftertaste. Although I didn’t like it so much, I would recommend it for the sheer experience of it.

Civet coffee is very affordable in Indonesia

Luwak Coffee beans

Luwak Coffee beans

Hand Roasting Process

Hand Roasting Process

Coffee luwak is a specialty of Indonesia and it has a huge market in the west. But a cup of coffee luwak in Indonesia is super-duper cheap. We paid a meagre IDR 50,000 for one 1 cup – which is about USD 6! But in the west, it’s available for as high as USD 80!

The exotic Cup of Coffee Luwak

The exotic Cup of Coffee Luwak

Also, it’s more authentic because it’s produced in Indonesia itself. When you drink it outside Indonesia, you never know whether it’s really luwak or something else, especially if it’s your first time.

There are other types of tea and coffee that we tasted – like ginseng, vanilla, coconut, hazelnut, etc. – which are complimentary.

Luwak Coffee is also sold in restaurants and cafes in other part of Bali at the same price. So if you do not have time to visit the plantation, you can have it in any of the cafes. Though you will miss out on experiencing the coffee plantation and how luwak coffee is processed.

Roasted coffee powder

Roasted coffee powder

Different types of coffee beans

Different types of coffee beans

A complimentary platter of coffee for tasting

A complimentary platter of coffee for tasting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can purchase luwak coffee as well as other types of coffee and tea at the small store outside the coffee plantation.

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