I’m sorry to hear that Petrichor had a frustrating experience at Taroko navigating the transportation system. It can be tough to get information on the ground. But I think if you are prepared with some basic information in advance, you can enjoy this beautiful area easily using public transportation or a bicycle.
Here is a page on the park website has all of the information you need in English for the public bus and the tourist shuttle bus (download the excel file).
It clearly explains that the drivers do not make change. This is the case on every bus I have ever taken in Taiwan. Yes, you need to keep your ticket for when you get off. This is the rule on all buses in Taiwan outside the city. If you lose your ticket, apologize profusely and the driver will rarely if ever make you pay again.
According to the schedule, you can only by tickets for the shuttle bus at Hualien Railway station. This seems incredibly stupid. So just take the regular public bus.
It is much more convenient to get off in Xincheng (Taroko) near the gorge rather than 20km away in Hualien.
Consider renting a bicycle from the Giant shop next to the station. Ride up early in the morning (6am) before the tour buses arrive.
Lukang is similar to Tainan. I would choose Tainan. Consider doing the City Paddle with Barking Deer. barking-deer.com/citypaddle.htm
The town of Alishan is a grotesque tourist trap. Avoid at all costs. However, if the Alishan train is running up to Fenqihu, it would be well worth taking. It is one of the most spectacular train rides in the world. Fenqihu is touristy but pleasant compared to Alishan.
You should also consider a stop in Dulan near Taidong for chilled beach vibe. Saturday nights are especially good for the music at the Sugar Factory Cafe. Tiehua Music Village in Taidong is also good. Check the Friday Taipei Times for listings.
You could also consider going to beautiful Orchid Island.
You should really also go to one of Taiwan’s many hot springs. Beitou (Taipei) is very accessible. Zhiben in Taidong and Guanziling in Tainan are also possibilities. There’s an incredible amount to to do in Taiwan. I’d suggest a day in Taipei, followed by a couple of days in Taroko, a couple of days in Dulan, two in Tainan and a side trip for a hot spring.
My experience of the tourism shuttle bus in Taroko is that it’s still dodgy. You can’t buy day tickets on the bus (might be able to buy them at the visitor centre at the entrance to the Gorge? I don’t know. The only other place to buy them is in Hualian), and the driver won’t give change. On the buses we caught the drivers didn’t stick to the timetable, which will come as a very inconvenient surprise to many tourists from developed countries. The drivers also speak absolutely zero English. Not surprising for rural Taiwan, but again this could be difficult for Western tourists, and even non-Western ones - I found myself translating for some Japanese tourists. I seem to remember they have some weird system where you have to give the driver your ticket back when you get off. As probably Taiwan’s number one tourist attraction, the transportation and general infrastructure in Taroko has a way to go yet, sadly.[/quote]