Update from Taiwan – Who are we? Where are we going? What are we doing?

On this rainy Sunday afternoon, we finally decided to write a short recap of last year. It has been a while, but what can we say? The life of a PhD student can be  busy…especially since we try to get everything out of our life abroad and travel to all corners of Taiwan in our precious free time😉

Fortunately, we found a great way to do that! Last year we bought our own sweet rusty ride; a minivan which we could buy very cheaply from a surf dude who left Taiwan and needed to get rid of it. It was a very Taiwanese minivan, which people here affectionately call xiao mianbao (little bread loaf), after the small vans that sold bread around Taiwan. Now it was time for us to create sweet memories, but first some paperwork to get the van in our name. We quickly learned that it’s way easier to pay someone to do all the difficult Chinese paperwork when buying a car and that these helpful individuals somehow always get your car through the mandatory inspection  (while ours looked like it could fall apart any day). So you got the idea that it wasn’t in the best state, but that made it all the more adventurous. The fact that it was a campervan made it very easy to travel wherever we wanted to go. The van had character and definitely some quirks, but nothing that herbal mosquito repellent (left by the previous owner) couldn’t fix; an excellent fix for rusty brake pedals or seat belts that won’t open anymore and works way better than WD40. It was always an adventure to go out for a ride (will it drive or not?/ will it go up this hill or do we need to push?/what part will we lose today?) but besides these small obstacles, it truly gave us more freedom and opened up a whole new world of possibilities for weekends away from Taipei. Unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to our van life a couple of weeks ago; it let us down on the highway after a repair the day before. We decided that we were done fixing it, and that one ride on the back of a tow truck per week was more than enough. Luckily, we had friends nearby that helped us with scrapping the van. Our van life ended when we took off the number plate and said farewell to the car in the middle of the rice fields, abandoned to be picked up by the scrap company we contacted.

Our rusty companion for nearly 6 months

Since we haven’t been able to travel to the Netherlands over the past few years, we actually had some time on our hands to discover more of Taiwan. Last summer was more challenging due to the strict facemask regulations, so we are glad there are many rivers and waterfalls around Taipei to swim in. Our friend Ira introduced us to river tracing; an excellent way to cool down during the hot and humid summer. We can’t get enough of the diverse landscapes that Taiwan has to offer, even after 3 years. Last year we explored some more outer islands, like Penghu, Xiaoliuqiu and Green Island (Lanyu). Penghu island definitely has the best beaches of Taiwan, as most of the island is surrounded by white sandy shores. The local cuisine is based on fish and cactus dishes and you can visit traditional houses built out of fossilized coral stones.  Xiaoliuqiu is a very tiny island south of Taiwan, but regardless of its size it is the ultimate weekend getaway for many people living in the big cities along the West coast. We soon discovered why; the island has a super relaxed atmosphere, and the main attraction are the green sea turtles; as soon as you put your goggles on and dive underwater you are greeted by these amazing sea creatures, floating around agelessly. In addition, Green Island is a whole different world with amazing volcanic formations that reminded us of Iceland and the Isle of Skye in Scotland. It is also a small island and perfect to cycle around in one day, with many viewpoints and hidden beaches to discover. We definitely need to come back here, as snorkeling & diving is also highly recommended. Besides our travels around Taiwan, high mountain hiking and cycling are our favorite activities. Below we’ll share a few short stories from our rides and mountain adventures from last year.


Some highlights have been our rides up into the high mountains, like Taiwan’s Wuling pass (the highest road at 3275 m). You really notice the lack of oxygen and the different types of vegetation when you ride up to these higher elevations when you start at sea level; from tropical forest to pine forest that turn into high mountain shrubs. Another trip to the southern mountains via Alishan resulted in a close wildlife encounter: monkeys. We are already a little scared of them, especially  because many people feed them, which leads to aggressive behavior. They are very focused on bags and jumped on Viola’s back when she walked to the toilet during a break. There was no food in her bag, but still they tried to open it and we couldn’t get rid of them; we screamed at them, they screamed at us, we hit them, they hit back…until they saw our bikes and realised that saddlebags are bags as well. It was freaky how skilled they are in opening zippers even of a saddlebag, and we rushed out after they decided we didn’t have any food on us. The road signs warning us for monkeys with rabies were not very comforting either …

…we screamed at them, they screamed at us, we hit them, they hit back

On the road you also meet many fellow cyclists, who are always very friendly and interested in foreigners riding around in the middle of nowhere. We learned some new habits from our fellow partners in crime, especially  pineapple cakes, weird salty candy, isolated bidons for the scorching heat and sleeves to prevent sunburns. A habit we cannot get used to however, is eating sausages that are sold along the road. Taiwanese sausages have a very distinctive sweet taste and most people even appreciate them more with a fresh clove of raw garlic, especially at  8 in the morning. We pass…but we are now brave enough to eat stinky tofu! We can appreciate the fried stinky tofu, or the ones that are soaked in a nice broth, but we still turn away from some types of stinky tofu; there are definitely different levels of stinkiness. 

Especially in Hsinchu County, we met many nice people who were eager to share their cuisine with us. With our limited Chinese and their limited English, we are still able to have conversations and got some great invitations: during one of our rides, we met a friendly camping owner and talked about all the wildlife he encountered on the campsite. Then, out of the blue, he said; ‘I am a vegetable’. First, we were a bit confused, but we soon found out that he’s a vegetarian. Next time we come over he promised to make his specialty dish for us with local mountain vegetables; can’t wait! Something which is harder to look forward to is the invitation of another friendly camping owner, he sent us; ‘Let us know when you come next time. I will make a dish for you to try. It is not available in the market. Only a few friends and aboriginal people have eaten it. I named it “Evil Rotten Tofu” because it looks like vomit’. He sure knows how to sell his stuff…how can we refuse this? When we left his campsite to continue cycling,  this guy also rushed down to his shack to pour us a nice draft of local beer; that was at 7 in the morning; a great start of the day and safe cycling! 😉


Often, it’s hard to get to the trailhead of high mountain hikes and without our van we sometimes need to rely on hitchhiking. For example when we did the Jiaminghu trail with our dear friends Erica and Russ. While it was not necessarily difficult to arrange the rides, even with the four of us, there is a stinky twist… After two rides in the back  of the infamous small blue pick-up trucks (local worker pickup trucks) we were dropped at a spot where the previous driver arranged a large truck to pick us up. The truck driver was more than happy to take us, and was heading exactly where we needed to go. So we got excited, but that did not last long…when we noticed the huge pig in the back of the trailer, the place where Russ, Erik and the bags would be marinated in pig urine, faeces and dust for the hour to come; not the best choice if your next shower is 5 days away. Halfway the pig even broke out and gave his fellow riders quite a scare. While the driver was definitely not driving carefully, he claimed that he took it easy, this might have something to do with the vast amount of betel nuts he was chewing, according to the  spit collection in his cup that almost toppled over in the hairpins. He pointed out hot springs along the road, not for bathing, but because they are so convenient for making noodles…food is always the main attraction in Taiwan;).

…not the best choice if your next shower is 5 days away

We had to be careful with the food we brought on the hike though, because there are many bear sightings in this area; the Formosan black bear that is overly cutified and used everywhere as mascot for Taiwan tourism promotions, is actually a real thing! When camping along this trail you have to hang your food far away in a tree and going to the toilet at night becomes a real nightmare. Making loud noises and singing songs to chase the bears away while carrying pepper spray for possible bear attacks, makes you think twice if you really need to pee at night. On the way back from our hike we also needed a ride, but to our surprise an elderly couple with a way too fancy car, was willing to take us together with the pig odour. They wanted to get us lunch, we must have looked hungry after 4 days in the woods! They insisted on taking us all the way down from the mountains, and it turned out they wanted to take us to Kenting. This place, all the way down south, was not necessarily where we needed and wanted to go, but there seemed no choice in the matter. So we just went along and had a great extra day at the beach in Kenting, before heading back to Taipei. As our poetic friend Russ would say: ‘Life is an unending expanse of chaos and I am just a rowboat being tossed on the waves of the tempest’.

Another epic hike is the Daba peaks trail; starting with an easy 20 k mountain road before going steep up in the last 4 k. It is a beautiful trail and once you get to higher altitude you can see the iconic Daba peak looming in the distance, you can not climb the main peak, but you can climb your way up via ropes to the small rocky xiao Daba peak for the best panoramas in Shei-pa national park. But walking back on the third day every sign post reminds you exactly how far you still have to go… after a while you start to hate those posts, especially if you know you have to hike 25k with heavy backpacks. But we all made it! And hiking Snow Mountain at the beginning of this year was very refreshing. Finally we saw some snow; we never thought we would have a snowball fight in Taiwan!

Last year Viola also discovered wildlife at night around Taipei during  multiple night hikes which were led by the enthusiastic James Osborne. However, Erik doesn’t want to know anything about these critters coming out in the dark, so we will not elaborate on this topic….But there’s great wildlife around Taipei! (In case you want to know more, you can check out his YouTube channel, where the hikes are recorded.

Furthermore, we can now both say that we are PhD candidates, after successfully passing our qualifying exams. Lots of new opportunities came our way (like working as teaching assistant, research assistant, collaborating on a social responsibility project and writing publications) and our research has taken many spin offs. But we realize that in order to finish sooner rather than later, we will have to shift our focus on our main research topics and collect data to write our dissertation thesis. We’ll get there!

Lastly, we need to mention as well how happy and lucky we are, that we have made so many great friends. We learned a lot from them, about their countries, cultures and adventures, while creating new ones in Taiwan. Unfortunately this also means that we will miss our 2 close friends that moved back to the US, members of the illustrious Formoscateers. But then again, we will all get lost, ask where we are, why we’re there, what we are doing, but also always will find our way back!

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6 Responses

  1. Thanks for the update. Amazing how you are doing and all those adventures you are on. It is sad to say goodbye to good friends but hopefully you will see each other again somewhere in the world.

  2. Mieke says:

    Genieten van jullie avonturen en ervaringen! Weer een keer bijpraten in Kudel zou ook heel leuk zijn.😘

    • Viola & Erik says:

      Haha ja, we kijken er naar uit om in de zomer die kant weer eens op te komen en gezellig bij te kletsen!

  3. Joland says:

    Hoi erik en viola, dank weer voor jullie geweldige update, zo leuk om te lezen! Jullie hebben zo’n beeldende schrijfstijl, ik heb genoten! Krijg zefs zin om ook naar Taiwan te gaan😆. Geniet nog een poos en succes met de Phd klus! Groetjes uit Tanzania.

    • Viola & Erik says:

      Dankjewel, leuk om te horen! We hopen jullie hier ook een keer te verwelkomen, in de tussentijd heel veel plezier in Tanzania!