Backpacking in Taiwan: Chiayi City!

After spending our first 24 hours in Taiwan getting buses, acclimatising and checking out the city of Shinying, it was time to head north on the train to the larger city of Chiayi. It’s pronounced “shy ye” in Northern Irish English, which I enjoyed. Neil had some time off that day and accompanied Natalja and I from his house in Shinying to Chiayi. 

The morning was quiet in Shinying, we had time for a pork and egg roll (Taiwanese style from the corner shop) and a milky tea with jelly bits in it. These shops are everywhere – literally the Taiwanese love their food and their tea. There is no HOT tea anywhere here – the air is too humid and we need to cool down in the rays of a hidden sun. So after that it was off to Shinying train station at the end of Sanmin Road. We are the only tourists in town and we stand out a mile, attracting attention everywhere we go. “Beautiful lady” they shout in Chinese to Natalja. To me and Neil, we are “Why Gorrans”, which translates as “bloody foreigners”, but its all good natured and I haven’t felt out of place once, more at home than anywhere recently. From the train station, a slow but enjoyable train cost us 89 dollars (less than £2) for a return to Chiayi.

Chiayi city is further north than Shinying, the train stopped only about 5 times maximum and there we were in Chiayi. A bigger city, with some English speakers, but still we stood out as the only foreigners. 

On exiting the station, Neil told of how a massive dinosaur used to stand outside a toy shop on the main high street. I was excited, but sadly when we got there, the big dinosaur had been removed and all that was left was for me to pose for a photo next to a sign bearing the word “Jurassic”, still that was enough! 

Then it was a right turn onto Minsheng Road, where scooters and mopeds fly past you. They never hit you, theres never any danger and jaywalking is normal. People respect each other’s space and you can guarantee a car will stop in traffic just to let you walk past. The scooter culture is quite amazing. Nobody walks (except we were), even between shops commuters and locals use their own scooters and motorbikes to go everywhere, shouting things and talking to their mates as they drive past. It has to be seen.

Minsheng Road was the venue for today’s Chiayi City Market – a delightful glimpse of real food and drink for these locals. Every stall was different. Everything from duck face to chicken feet to octopus to bull willy can be bought. We went safe and bought some delightful juicy fruit. Watermelon and some kind of sweet apple gave the 3 of us our juice fix for a while as we dandered nonchalantly up a market which is so different to anything you’d see in Europe. You can have you octopus cooked for you there and then, you can choose your chicken, the amount of sauce, vegetable, dead animal parts and meat is infinite. You find yourself guessing what certain things are. Chicken hearts are next on the agenda for tonight’s main course, incidentally.

The Chiayi City market was vast and varied and twisted down a few lanes until it reached an end by a park with a fountain. We took a seat there while I got some water on my face and soaked myself in the fountain. 

The water was cooling us down in the sweltering heat. There were a few things we wanted to see in Chiayi City, which was Chiaji Tower, Chiayi Park, the 228 Monument (more on that later), the Lake and Dizang Temple. 

Next up was a walk up to the very edge of town, where civilisation almost came to a standstill as the massive Chiayi “Sun Shooting Tower” bore down on us. It was noticeable from a distance against a grey smoggy sky, and although its not instantly impressive, you had to admire the architecture of the structure and the finances and effort involved, in what is to me an over sized market city. Or as Neil called it “a university city.” There is a university there but we didn’t want to go there and its on the edge of town anyway. 

Soon we saw the baseball stadium for the local Chiayi team (Baseball a big sport here – we go tomorrow night!) and behind it the main tower and park on the East of Chiayi City.

We saw a “Yakult Bar” (you know that popular far east healthy drink) and a real life lizard (ugly looking thing) on route to Chiayi Tower. 

Soon we were at the bottom, posed for photos beside Panthers and then we paid 100 dollars to go up the lift to the top. 

The best view of the city and a relaxing tea garden. There was also a mini art-gallery for tea lovers which bored me. Neil and Natalja weren’t too impressed either, so we by-passed it, ordered 3 teas and headed upstairs to relax. 

It was there we had to say goodbye to Neil for the day, as he needed to be back in Shinying for work. However Natalja and I fell asleep for 20 minutes, finished our black cold lemon teas and slowly headed back down. we enjoyed the gardens and park there before we decided to head to the Lake.

The Lake at Chiayi is on the outskirts of the city, and very remote. There is a dam before it called “Lantam Dam” and the end of a commercial street where two schools were just finishing. 

Before we walked all the way to the lake, we stopped by at the 228 Monument. I had to do some research into what exactly it represented and why there were monuments in Chiayi. To put it simply, back in 1949, on the 28th February the Taiwanese goverment decided to put a tax on or charge vendors and residents seling alcohol and tobacco. For a lot of Taiwanese people, their lives depended on this money and their families and therefore there was some kind of revolt. I didn’t go into details, but Chiayi was one of the cities where the locals attacked the goverment buildings that day 2/28 (28th February), many of them actually being killed by their very own government in what goes down as a black day for Taiwan.

The monument itself was a small tower and a garden with rocks bearing “228” on them. Models of popular animal the deer also sit in the garden. This garden is not the only one in Taiwan, but it was nice to get a bit of history and realise the trauma of the Chiayi people who were affected by the killings, all over a debate on alcohol and tobacco sales. I’ll read up more on it as I go, and you can too. 

So after that I found us the way to Lantam Lake (also possibly known as Orchid Lake). A hill scooped round to the right on a long road with residents shouting “Hello” to Natalja and I as we walked along. We were probably the only foreigners them streets had seen for years. We stopped traffic and people double took us just to check we were real!!

The walk was longer than we expected and not touristy at all. Once we finally got there it was actually starting to get dark and even the lakes water fountains had stopped. It wasn’t the beautiful lake setting we had hoped for, but we climbed to the top of the Lantan Pavilion to oversee the Lake, the road and the countryside. For the first time the smog and rain from the typhoon was beginning to clear and we could see the mountains of Taiwan. We each had a packet of Tayto cheese and onion crisps there and decided we should head back to the train station via a temple, a tea shop, the toilet and some shopping streets.

There was actually one thing we wanted to do and sadly couldn’t. That was the famous Alishan Railway Adventure. Basically its an old traditional train journey up from Chiayi past Fenchihu and up as far as Alishan in the middle of the mountains, near Mount Chushan (2489 metres high). The train was something i read about in my Lonely Planet guide. Apparently it takes passengers to a height of 2200 metres above sea level on its way passing over 77 bridges, 71 km of track, 49 tunnels and three different climatic zones. The train is red and takes 3.5 hours from Chiayi. BUT THE RECENT TYPHOON flooded the track, and so it was off while we were there. We won’t get our chance to see that, but not to worry. The weather spoiled it, being safe is more important.

Walking back from the lake to the city centre was faster and downhill. We stopped at a small temple for photos, near a random mural for a tiger type pose and while sitting down at a random bus stop, we had Taiwanese school kids talk to us in English for a change. The world is changing and the next generation will also have the language of English to boast. Street signs and some signposts/tourist information in Chiayi is already written in English (American English), so it makes it easier for travellers like myself and Natalja. You’d have struggled here if Hungarian was your only language.

Soon we walked into another temple looking for a toilet. In there it was spooky as I walked upstairs and found 3 statues of a “God” wrapped up in cling film. It was odd, so I made a swift exit back onto the main street. We also got caught in rush hour traffic, but we were w2alking so it was OK. In the rush hour here, they seem to have random traffic warden type people standing at every corner directing, in addition to the red and green lights system. Its not confusing, it works…perhaps the England could take a leaf out of that book. What a nightmare it is driving around in England, glad I don’t have that any more.

We found a toilet and a tea house fairly soon after called Da Yung Tea. I enjoyed a kiwi fruit tea, the first I’d had since my visit to New Zealand back in 2007. This one somehow tasted nicer, and much more refreshing in the Chiayi heat. Natalja had watermelon in hers, then had a look in some ladies shops before it was time to admit we had seen all we wanted to in Chiayi and should head back to the train station and back to Shinying, our base here in 

The train station was easy to find and I noted that street names are similar in every Taiwanese city centre, you’re almost guaranteed to have a Johngshan Road, a Minsheng Road and a Simen Street. Others are repeated in each city and to be honest the street system here is easy to navigate around, whether on foot by bus or whatever transport we use. We caught a train back to Shinying and met a local guy, Anthony who guided us and spoke some English. As we said farewell to him at Shinying station, he gave me his business card, this is a common thing in Taiwan. I gave him one of my old business cards in return and something you should know:

If a person hands you their business card, NEVER put it in your trouser or back pocket while they are with you. This is seen as a big insult. Its recommended to put it in your top pocket of your jacket, where your heart is. I knew this because I’d read about it before, but Neil had reinforced the point to me. Its an interesting trait of their culture, and one that I see the logic in. You dont want your business card going to someone’s ass or the pocket nearest the place they piss from.

And so we got the train back to our base at Shinying. After we got back to Shinying that night, we had some Japanese food for a change. I had some pork with rice and mixed vegetables, very very tasty. Then it was time for a sleep and to plan the next few days of our trip. I write this about a week later from the village of Taroko deep in the mountains, but despite its lack of sightseeing, I’ll remember my day in Chiayi City and the friendy people there.

Transport Used – Train (from Shinying to Chiayi and back again)

Who Went – Neil Macey, Natalja Tsumakova, Jonny Blair

Food of the day – Sweet apples and watermelons
Nationalities Met – Taiwanese (we were the only foreigners in town)
Drink of the day – Kiwi fruit tea

Key Song – 

PLATNUM – LOVE SHY (Love Chiayi??):

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