Seeing Taiwan from the Basket of a Balloon

Taiwan is an island of spectacular landscapes, and many of the best are found in the eastern counties of Hualien and Taitung.

Hualien has long been known as the gateway to Taroko Gorge, where tourists look up and gasp at vertiginous walls of marble. Luye Highland in Taitung is a different kind of natural attraction, a small plateau from which visitors can gaze down at the verdant East Rift Valley.  Created by the convergence of two tectonic plates, the 150-kilometer-long valley is squeezed between the Central Mountain Range in Taiwan’s interior and the Coastal Mountain Range, which shelters the valley from Pacific typhoons.

Much of the country’s best farmland can be found in this well-watered region. From the seat of a bicycle, it is lovely. Seen from Luye Highland, it is gorgeous. But for views that will truly take your breath away, book a flight in a hot air balloon.

Since its first edition in 2011, the Taiwan Taitung International Balloon Festival has developed into a pivotal fixture on the tourism calendar. The 2020 event, which will open on July 11 and run until August 30, is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors. Luye Highland’s association with aerial sports actually predates the Balloon Festival, as it has long been one of Taiwan’s leading paragliding centers.

During the festival, tickets for untethered balloon flights lifting off from Luye Highland are in huge demand. Spots must be reserved well in advance. While it is possible to book crack-of-dawn untethered flights in other seasons, the experience – though by all accounts tremendously enjoyable – is not quite the same.

When they arrive at the launch site at 4:30 a.m., ticket-holders will see multiple balloons of different dimensions and colors slowly filling with air. Later, as the balloons rise together into the clear morning sky, those aboard gain an eagle’s perspective, first over the area’s tea plantations, then much farther afield.

The sight of the balloon-filled sky is also deeply impressive for those who stay on the ground. Whether you are a dedicated photographer or content to snap away with your smartphone, you can be sure of leaving with delightful images and memories.

If you are unable to book an untethered flight, or if such an early start does not match your idea of a vacation, consider buying tickets for a tethered balloon ride, which do not have to be purchased in advance. These are far briefer (typically seven minutes, compared to up to an hour when flying untethered) and much less expensive. In previous years, they have been available between 5:30 and 7 a.m. and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Children under the age of 10 are not allowed on any flights.

In fact, the majority of people who attend the festival never leave the ground. Simply finding a comfortable spot on the hillside to sit and watching balloons as they come and go is blissfully relaxing.

Not all of the balloons are designed to fly any distance. Several of the most unusual in terms of shape or decoration are kept close to the ground after being inflated. Visitors hoping to take selfies with a balloon replica of their favorite cartoon character are advised to arrive early, before the summer heat kicks in.

Full details of the 2020 Taiwan Taitung International Balloon Festival can be obtained from the event’s official website. The website has pictures and videos of some of the wonderful balloons that starred in previous festivals, a venue map, pilot credentials, and other useful information.

Getting to the venue has never been easier or quicker. Taroko and Puyuma express trains zip between Taipei and Taitung in as little as three and a half hours, and the East Rift Valley Tourist Shuttle bus takes around an hour to get from Taitung Railway Station to Luye Highland. Travelers happy to dawdle on a somewhat slower train can disembark at Luye Railway Station, a 15-minute drive from the Balloon Festival venue.

For train fares and schedules, go to www.railway.gov.tw. For details of Tourist Shuttle bus services, see taiwantrip.com.tw. Renting a car or motorcycle brings more flexibility, of course. Two wheels are often better than four, and not merely because parking is cheaper (usually free, in fact) and more convenient, but  also because you are able to pause wherever the view is suitable to stop and take photos.

For tourists planning to fly in a balloon at daybreak, it makes sense to stay as close to Luye Highland as possible. Fortunately, that is easy to arrange. There are two accommodation options on the plateau itself, and more than a dozen very nearby. Booking well in advance is advised.

If you make a last-minute decision to attend the Balloon Festival but cannot find anywhere to stay in Luye itself, look at hotels and homestays in Guanshan, the next township to the north. Guanshan earned its place on the tourist map by creating a 12-kilometer-long bike path that shows off the area’s best scenery.

Guanshan

For tourists who prefer urban bustle to rural calm, Taitung City offers more excitement, as well as a wider range of eating options. The city has significant attractions of its own, such as a 21-kilometer bike trail that links the Seaside Park, Taitung Forest Park, and Liji Badlands.

On the outskirts of the city, the National Museum of Prehistory introduces the peoples and wildlife that thrived in Taiwan thousands of years ago. Among the objects on display are ancient arrowheads and ceramics, skillfully chiseled jade knives, and delicate shell ware.

When Taitung’s railway station was moved from the downtown to its present location in the suburbs, part of the old site was reinvented as Tiehua Village. Local musicians and artists – many of them members of Taiwan’s Austronesian indigenous minority – come here to perform and exhibit. Mid-afternoon is the best time to arrive if you want to browse the market, which sells everything from locally grown organic vegetables to handicrafts. Later in the day, live music is performed.

To learn more about the highlights of Taitung County, go to tour.taitung.gov.tw. Additional information about parts of Taitung and Hualien can be found on the website of the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area. For all kinds of travel information about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website, or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).

Chishan

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