The city of Hsinchu in northern Taiwan is famous for it’s cutting edge science park and it’s windy weather. Most people wouldn’t think of the city as a place to visit, and many guide books just skim over the area mentioning it only in passing. I’m not a big city person, so I wasn’t really looking forward to my trip there, but I was pleasantly surprised, particularly by the things that I really wasn’t expecting to find there.
I arrived in Hsinchu by train and walked out of the train station to head into the oldest part of town. This area was pretty much as I expected the whole city to be – a little grimy, lots of cars and scooters and narrow streets will little or no sidewalks. My first stop was the Central Market, and upon walking into the vast, but crammed full building I didn’t know where to look. Everything you could imagine was packed under this roof. Foods that I couldn’t name, animal parts that I didn’t even know were edible hung from the stalls as elderly women with hands full of bags bartered over the cost of a pig’s trotter. It was too early in the morning to test my stomach out on any of the delicacies that everyone else was getting stuck into, but I did find a stall that sold bagels and fresh cuts of meat – not what you’d expect from such a traditional market.
I eventually found my way out of the maze that is the market area, only to find that I had walked full circle and had to back track to get to my next destination – the City God Temple. I have seen a lot of temples in the last seven years, so it does take something really special to arouse my interest these days. But the City God Temple did. I actually walked right past the entrance before finding my way in through the food stalls at the front of the temple, but after squeezing through the hordes of diners I made my way inside. The temple is dark, noisy, and a little bit intimidating. Throughout the temple rooms, there are huge figures staring through glass panes at you with contorted faces. At the back of the temple there are leaflets available explaining the different areas and history of the temple. This is something that I wish was more readily available, learning about the place you are visiting makes it so much more interesting.
From the temple I decided to head over to the Hsinchu Art Gallery as I had been told that it was a good place to pick up information about the attractions in the city. The gallery is free to visit, but it is pretty small. The first floor has an interesting exhibit about the history of the area and I was also able to pick up a tourist map here. After leaving the gallery I continued up the old district where my map told me there was a lot of old buildings and fascinating architecture. This area was pretty disappointing, the whole area was really grimy and none of the heritage sites had been looked after very well. After a brief walk around, I headed back into town via the East Gate.
I did contemplate making a dash over the four lane roundabout to get the East Gate, but just in time I spotted the entrance to the underground pathway. Back home these underpass are scary, sketchy places to walk through – even during the daytime. However here I was just greeted by the shy smiles of a group of high school kids practicing their hip-hop moves in front of the wall to wall mirrors in the underpass. The East Gate has been preserved well, and recently lights have been installed all around it so that it lights up at night. The traffic going around the roundabout and the lit up gate make for fantastic photographs.
I made a few quick stop offs at the Hsinchu Image Museum (which was closed for lunch!?) and the Glass Museum, which was actually pretty interesting. The entrance fee is only $20NT and there are some really cool pieces of glass work inside. The Glass Museum is in the same big park as the Hsinchu Zoo (looks fantastic for kids) and the Confucius Temple (currently being renovated). By now, I was yearning for a bit of piece and quiet so I decided to head out to the 18 Peaks Mountain Park. There are two main entrances – I took the entrance on Baoshan Road. The park was described in my map as been the Yangmingshan of Hsinchu, though I didn’t explore that much of the park I can tell you that is a bit of an over-exaggeration . But don’t get me wrong, it is a really quiet, pretty little spot and so close to the city, too. I was running short of time, so I didn’t have time to go hunting for all the Guanyin statues that are hidden throughout the park – but I imagine that would be a fun activity for kids.
After leaving the park I was in two minds whether to find a taxi to my next point – Gufengqi – or just walk. In the end I decided it was a nice day, so I would try walking. I regretted it soon after. The road is steepish, but also very narrow and not the most attractive road I have ever walked along. On the way I did come across a cool little temple, that had two dragons for staircases. You walked inside the dragons mouth and then up it’s neck via a spiral staircase to the temple above! It took about an hour to reach Gufengqi (which is a temple high on the hillside famous for having the biggest Guan Gong statue in Taiwan), and madness was ensuing as I arrived. A tour bus full of temple goers just arrived, bells were ring, fire crackers going off, and a group of men were flagellating themselves with a variety of swords, axes and maces. It was pretty surreal, blood trickled down their backs and faces, and every now and then one of the women in the group would clean it up with a towel before they continued. I watched for a while before heading down into the garden area below the temple.
The garden area is a bit of a mess frankly, I’m not sure if it is something that wasn’t ever finished or something that has just been left to ruins. It isn’t that attractive down here, but it is kooky. Dinosaur bones, a huge cave, a ‘beast that cures 100 ills’ and many other weird statues are in this dark and dank park that would certainly be spooky late at night. Continuing round it doesn’t get any less weird as you reach the sculpture park which is filled with copies (some comical in their poorness) of famous statues from around the world. It had quietened down by now, and the tour bus (whatever they were doing) had all left, with only the remains of their blood and firecrackers left on the floor. The Guan Gong statue is really imposing, but I was a little disappointed to learn that you can no longer walk up the stairs inside of the statue.
From Gufengqi, it is a nice downhill stroll to Qingcao Lake (about 30 mins), perhaps if I did this again I would take a taxi up to Gufengqi and then walk down from there. The lake is really pretty, and it was very quiet when I visited on a Sunday afternoon. There is a path leading all around the lake and even a bridge to a small island in the middle. I was in need of a break by this point so I went to the far side of the lake to the Lake House Restaurant. This stunning restaurant sits on the lakeside with a lovely open deck looking out over the lake. The food is also great here, and though it is a bit pricey, you are not just paying for the view as is so often the case at these places.
After leaving the lake I tried forlornly to flag down a taxi and ended up walking the 3km back to the train station. It seems taxis are a bit of a rarity in the city, as I only seen a handful in the whole day. I got back on the train at about 5pm and with it being Sunday, it was a mad crush all the way back to Taipei. But Hsinchu surprised me, and one day was really not enough to see all the sights in the city alone.