Camping Truths in Taiwan

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Free camping in Dulan.

Free camping in Dulan.

For some the lure of camping is non-existent and for good reason. You drive (or hike) into the middle of nowhere with very few comforts from back home, set up your shelter, forage for firewood, battle mosquitos, rodents and other pesky creatures, often eat bland food and on the tail end of things you end up smelling like shit.

I hear the complaints and I can sympathize, but I also enjoy escaping the city and its traffic noise, annoying neighbors, blaring stereos, barking dogs and that damn garbage truck song, in exchange for some fresh air and natural scenery.

I never took the chance  to camp while living in Korea, but on a scooter trip during our last vacation we camped out for seven of nine nights at different locations scattered about Taiwan’s east coast and central mountains.  The trip went as planned but I now realize that there are several truths about camping in Taiwan that may or may not hold true elsewhere.

I tend to better enjoy camping when there’s no more than a few people along for the trip (The less smelly bodies in and around my tent the better). Nonetheless I was baffled by how many large groups I saw during our trip. It seems that for many Taiwanese, the more people you can cram onto one campsite, the better.

At a campground in Kenting we saw a group that, by outward appearance, looked like a small family reunion. They erected a mansion of  tent that made our small 3-person look like a plastic dog house. Right next to it they set up an equally impressive screened in gazebo with a fold-up table and a few chairs underneath.  By the time they rolled out their buffet style dinner spread I almost forgot that we were at a seaside campground and halfway expected to see them cart out a portable karaoke machine.

The view from the campsite in Kenting.

The view from the campsite in Kenting.

Honestly I can’t blame them for wanting to enjoy the scenery as a family. The campsite is run by a friendly Taiwanese gentleman who rents out space on his land situated just above a coral beach, there’s no swimming, but you’re close enough to the water to hear the waves from inside your tent.  That being said, 15 people nestled onto one campsite is a tad excessive by my standards.

In  Dulan I would learn a second truth about Taiwan camping: despite popular belief, you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere you deem appropriate.

Our original plan was to utilize the free campground at the Dulan police station (yes, the police station), but because all the sites were claimed we end up with having to find another place to put our tent.  We ask around at the nearby sugar can factory turned art studio, and are told by an elderly fella to just set up our tent in a grassy area next to one of the factory buildings. We do as such, but are eventually told (rather harshly) by a young girl outside of the Dulan Cafe that if we wanted to camp there we would have to pay a fee to the owner of the property. We decide to take down our tent and set it up across the street in area where a  few other tents are already set up. This time we take no chances and ask permission at a nearby house before unpacking. The other tents just so happen to belong to some friends from Kaohsiung and we lay waste to a few beers 7-11 before taking in some live music at the Dulan cafe.

The "campsite" we got booted out of.

The “campsite” we were booted out of.

Further north in Shihtiping I began to understand that when camping in Taiwan, it’s better to do with than to do without.

In the states  it’s perfectly acceptable–encouraged even–when camping, to go a few days without bathing properly, or having decent facilities to use the bathroom. You haven’t lived until you’ve had to drop a deuce in a 2-foot hole  that you dug yourself. Still, it appears that most Taiwanese campers don’t share this sentiment and many insist on having as many comforts as possible when enjoying the outdoors.

Despite its ill sounding name, Shihtiping was the nicest campsite we stayed at during the entire trip. Each individual site has a raised wooden tent platform with shelter and and an accompanying picnic table. Bathrooms and showers are just a stroll down a footpath lined with night lamps. Theres also electrical sockets just in case you decide to bring along a blender for beachside margaritas. The entire campground faces the ocean and some pretty funky rock formations. There’s a small pebble beached cove near the center of the main row of campsites–perfect for a sunset swim after everyone retreats to their campsites for dinner.

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Shihtiping campsite at sunrise.

The place is stacked with more than enough amenities, but you also come out of your pocket for it. At $NT 1,000 a night ($NT 800 on weekdays) it is just as cheap or cheaper to crash at a hotel. I wouldn’t mind giving up the use of electricity and the sheltered platform in exchange for a few hundred NT off the bill. Still, given the gorgeous setting, we couldn’t pass up a chance to camp here regardless of the price tag. Shihitiping also has the advantage of a nearby fishing harbor with a few seafood restaurants worth checking out.

After getting gouged in Shihitipeng, Taroko National Park ushered in the truth that camping in a nice location doesn’t have to break the bank. Being the biggest tourist draw in Taiwan, you’d think camping here would cost a fortune. Instead NT$200/night gets you onsite bathrooms with showers and wooden platforms (unsheltered), and it’s in the middle of the gorge. Taroko was also the only place where we were able to build a campfire. There’s a fire pit and barbecue grate at every site. Because we were so close, we were able to explore most of the gorge early in the day, before it got overran with tourist buses. It was easy enough to find a site midweek but, I’ve heard that you need to get there early on the weekends to stake out a spot.

Sun Moon Bay campsite at Sun Moon Lake was the last campground we stayed at before heading into Tainan and it’s a perfect example of a place that should probably give up and close shop. It’s right on the lake, but you can barely see the water because of the boardwalk leading to the gondola that crosses right in front of the campground. During the day it can get a tad noisy with all the people strolling past and there’s little to no privacy. There’s bathrooms and showers, but no wooden platforms. Instead they’ve cleared an area at each campsite and covered it with jagged rocks so you know where to put your tent. If you’re lucky enough to have thick sleeping pads (we were’t) you might not feel the rocks stabbing you in your gut as you sleep. We were the only ones at the campground, but it didn’t look like the place had been used in while. That being said, the bathrooms were still clean and the showers (mostly) bug free.

Campsite info

Kenting $NT 100/person/night

Look for this sign on the right side of the road.

Look for this sign on the right.

Besides Dulan (where the camping was free) this was the cheapest campsite on the trip. To get here follow the main strip in Kenting south past the parked van bars. Look for a sight that has with a picture of a cow on an ATV and turn right toward the water. If you’re on a scooter it’s about a  3-5 minute drive past the van bars. There’s showers and electricity on site.

Dulan Free
Again, the police station in town provides free camping so if you’re not planning anything crazy, this should be your first option. If not Head to the field across the street from the sugar cane factory and Dulan cafe. turn right out of the parking lot of the factory then take your first left. The field will be on your left and it has a ring of wooden benches around a fire pit, I believe. Watchout for snakes. I’ve heard there is another paid campsite in the area but we never found it.

Shihtiping $NT 1,000/night 
2 km north of Fengbin in Hualien county, The campsite is a part of the Shihtiping recreation area, but the camping itself if ran by a private company. Book your site at the building just above campsite 25. I’d suggest walking around the campsite and choosing a site to your liking before going to book. There’s a store across from the park entrance for munchies and as I mentioned above, trying the seafood at the nearby fishing harbor is a must. The place we went to had no English menus so pointing at dishes that look good on other tables might be the preferred strategy.

Taroko $NT 200/night
There are actually two campsites in Taroko, Heliu and Lushui (free). Heliu is across from the Lushui-Heliu eastern trail head and is the better of the two (fire ring, showers, etc). Showers are cold water only. Luishe is 600 meters or so down the road near the Lushui service station. Each site has a fire ring, but there are no tent platforms. There are no showers but you could easily use the showers at Heliu. The campsites are inside the park, 20 mins buy scooter from the main entrance.

It’s important to mention that it’s worth it to stock up on food before getting into the park. There are a couple food stalls and a small store in Tianxiang, but the selection is paltry.

Sun Moon Bay (Sun Moon Lake) $NT 200 for the site and and additional $NT 200/person/night
Should you actually want to camp here you needn’t only find the Sun Moon lake gondola. If your’e facing the gondola entrance there is driveway to the left that leads down to the water. Head down it and inquire about camping at the coffee shop. We didn’t encounter any English speaking staff so be prepared to point and mime if your Chinese skills are shitty.

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Bang Bang–(Surviving)The Yanshui Fireworks Festival

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It’s Saturday night and we have our friends Simon and Tina over for dinner. In between bites of tacos we’re discusing our plans for the rest of the weekend. I have to turn down Simon’s invitation to a pick-up game of ultimate frisbee on Sunday because Kay and I have made tentative plans with some other friends to visit a town north of Kaohsiung in search of a fireworks festival. Tina says she’s been to the festival before, but that she probably doesn’t need to do it again. She also tells us that if we go we’ll need to wear motocycle helmets.

“What for?” I ask. I’d heard very little about the festival and was putting off doing a web search until I knew for sure that we were going, but  certainly didn’t anticipate needing a helmet to attend.

“For protection against the fireworks,” says Tina.

Now I’m confused and thinking about all my previous firework  experiences: numerous Fourth of July celebrations, carnivals, the Minnesota State Fair, the Busan International Fireworks Festival in Korea. I don’t recall needing protective head gear for any of them.

Maybe the Taiwanese have different, more sinister versions of fireworks than what I’m used to. Maybe the festival is a town-wide Roaming Candle war pitting visitors and tourist against the locals. Maybe “fireworks” is an incorrect English translation and the meaning is closer to “gunpowder” or “dynamite.” Who wouldn’t want to visit a Taiwanese dynamite festival?

The next day I do a quick web search and discover that every year on the 15th day after Chinese New Year visitors flock to the town of Yanshui to be repeatedly shot by hundreds of bottle rockets.

The Yanshui Fireworks Festival (widely considered to be one of the most dangerous festivals in the world) stems from a cholera outnreak  in the late 19th century that nearly wiped the small town out. The citizens of Yanshui called upon the Chinese god of war, Guan Dong (also called Guan Di) to help fight the the disease by carrying his statue around town on a palanquin while shooting off  fireworks every step of the way. The epidemic receded and the locals have been paying homage ever since by annually reenacting the pyrotechnic exorcism.

The highlight of the festival revolves around the sporadic lighting of “beehives” –large structures built with wood or steel, laden with thousands of bottle rockets connected to a single intertwined fuse. Once lit, rockets fire in all directions and festival goers donned in motorcycle helmets and coveralls gather around and allow themselves to be pelted.

Positioning the beehive.

Positioning the beehive.

Kay and I decide to visit the festival with some friends, but opt out of being bombarded with fireworks. In fact, of the four people in our group only our friend Jenna (author of the blog Nomad Notions) is brave enough to join the rocket fodder. We hop a train to Tainan City then continue by taxi to Yanshui. We don’t make it more than 5 feet out the car before  hearing the rumble of fireworks in the distance.

The streets are lined with food vendors and local shops have tables set up with scooter helmets, gloves, safety glasses and other rocket protection gear for sale. the air smells like rotten eggs and the entire town is under a heavy blanket of smoke. Dim pulsating lights can be seen flickering through the smoke overhead and groups of people wearing matching coveralls with burn stains are roaming around–no doubt in search of the next beehive explosion.

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We stroll towards the center of town stopping sporadically to sample street food and buy beer. There’s not a lot to do for those uninterested in pyromania, but families still gather for photo ops near a creek littered with glowing ornaments of different sizes, and to send  the occasional prayer lantern floating into the sky. It’s been about two hours since we arrived and we still have yet to witness the lighting of a beehive. We’d gotten word that a large one was set to go off at 10pm, but when that was pushed to 11 (and later, 11:30) we followed others who claimed to have knowledge of one being lit a few blocks away.

Anticipation mounts as the large contraption is rolled into the middle of the street and a fellow who’d clearly been chewing betel-nut all night encourages all the foreigners who want to get blasted by the bottle rockets to be doused with water beforehand to avoid their clothes catching fire. As with many small towns in Asia, the large group of foreigners draw a lot of attention and many of the locals are taking pictures with several expats who have added themes to their protective gear (big shout-out to Captain America).

Waiting for the Beehive to be lit.

Waiting for the Beehive to be lit.

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Participants have water sprayed on them to avoid catching fire.

I snap as many photos as I can then retreat to what Kay and I think is a safe  distance–20-30 yards from the beehive, behind a parked car. They parade the palanquin of Guan Dong around the premises and the crowd quiets as the fuse is lit.

When it starts the first few shoot straight up into the air and rain down sparks onto the entire scene. Then row after row of the rockets fire directly into the crowd, causing those in the front to dance and turn away in an attempt to dampen the force of the barrage. As the fuse travels through the frame the smoke thickens and only long streaks of light left in the wake of the rockets are clearly noticeable. None of them have shot in our direction yet so I rise from the hiding spot (fully exposing my head) to take some photos. By now everyone close to the beehive is hopping around trying to cover the more sensitive areas of their bodies and the entire street looks like an astronaut rave in the middle of a meteor shower.

I whip out my iPhone and begin recording video hoping not to catch a bottle rocket to the face, and a Taiwanese gentleman appears at my side gesturing for me to follow him to a better vantage point. I crouch down and scurry behind him, feeling like a solider scrambling into a foxhole for cover. As he ushers me into a nearby tent (turns out it’s the same tent where they were storing the beehive) two rockets go off near my head and I give up on the recording. I’m way too close. 

 Luckily I end up next to a couple who have gotten ahold of some cardboard and together we hunker down behind it.  After a few minutes the barrage of rockets shifts to a different direction and I’m able to make my way back to the previous shelter behind the car. It’s been ten minutes since they lit the damn thing and it’s still going strong. Some people emerge from the crowd to take a breather and bat out the flames on their clothes before retuning to the onslaught.

When it’s finally over we emerge from our shelter and search for Jenna and some other friends to inspect for injuries. There’s a few burn holes and a mangled umbrella, but no one is hurt and everyone is wearing a wide grin. Beers are drank and we take some time to enjoy the fireworks that are being shot overhead instead of into the crowd.

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Captain America took one for the team.

We watch a couple more beehives explode (one made to look like Sponge Bob and the other shaped like a tea pot) before calling it a night and heading back to Kaohsiung. It’s 1 a.m. but some people are just arriving as the festivities will continue until 4. I’m secure in my decision not to join in on the action, but pledge to partake next year. It’ll be two hours before we make it back home–plenty of time for my ears to stop ringing.

Peace

*Author’s note: If you’d like to read about Jenna’s recount of her experiences on the front lines, you can do so here.