While each travel is unique, some are surprisingly different. Taiwan is a multilayered country with contrasting elements.
There is the cosmopolitan Taipei and then the traditional town of Shifen. At the northern cape of the island-country is the sea-eroded Yehliu Geopark while along the length runs Chung Yang Shan mountain range. And between the indigenous cultures in the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village and the touristy trails of Sun Moon Lake, the only thing that remains consistent was the striking landscape of the lake, cherry blossoms and dense forest valleys.
No amount of research could have prepared me for what I witnessed in northern Taiwan. A healthy mix of the Chinese culture with Japan’s infrastructure, this Asian country is the best of both worlds while maintaining its individuality.
Faces and Words
In the capital, I noticed people across generations. There were the young professionals, trendy university graduates, middle-aged shop owners and eatery managers, and seniors who manoeuvred along the city on their bikes or on foot. Taipei gave me the impression that it is a city for everyone.
Communication, however, isn’t for everyone. I realised this on my first day here. As I attempted to buy food, we walked along Linsen North Road, a street dotted with eateries and stores. Spotting English sentences under Chinese on the menu of Ba Fang Yun Ji, a dumpling bar, we decided to eat here. I took my time to choose my meal. The man behind the counter waited patiently. At the end of a successful transaction, I realised that neither of us spoke a common language. And yet, with a smile (and many gestures), we got through it.
This style of communication I used with everyone I met in the following week. And they happily obliged. Polite, enterprising and complying, I observed how most of them were conscientious.
Unlike the city people, the aboriginals add a contrasting layer to the Taiwanese crowd. A short distance away from Sun Moon Lake, the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village replicates the customs and practices of the Han Chinese immigrants. My guide Nika (anglicised to Michelle) shared anecdotes and stories of growing up as an Amis tribal woman. Though now, she explained, how most tribes have moved out for better work and life prospects.
Places and Spaces
Sun Moon Lake’s panorama was the first sight to completely captivate me in Taiwan. This is the largest water body on the island and the home to the Thao tribe. There are many facets to this locale. A solar boat ride around the lake showed me how beautifully the town rested on Yuchi Township. Walking past curio shops, I admired the local handicrafts, varieties of black tea and food items like oats and mushrooms in many outlets. I stopped to savour a visual—light mist rising above the lake while the bright pink Sakura flanked the wooden pier.
And then I met the earthy tones of Yehliu Geopark. At a distance of 40 kilometres from Taipei, this is a sea-eroded landscape. The Queen’s Head is the most famous rock formation here, though others like the Leopard, Dragon’s Head Rock are equally striking. Amazed at the textures made by the constant corroding of sea water, I touched to believe the porous circles of the sedimentary deposits.
Adding another colour to the country are the ubiquitous green parks. I observed how each block in and around Taipei had designated green pockets. Just a few kilometres away from Chiang Kai-Shek Shilin Residence Park is the Shuangxi Park and Chinese Garden. With Chinese artistic pavilions, shaded corridors and Zen-like bridges, this has to be the best I have seen in the country.
Merging all the colours of Taiwan was Shifen. Only 50 kilometres away from Taipei, this small town in Pingxi district is the centre for launching sky lanterns. People from all over the country flock here to paint their life-size lanterns and release them to the sky. Each colour signifies an emotion— red for health, blue for success, green for growth and pink for love.
Flavours and Fragrances
The night markets in Taipei are quite an attraction. These were predominantly made for late night workers who came here after their night shift jobs for food. A haven for seafood lovers, the Raohe Street night market surprised me constantly. Apart from the boiled and raw shell fish, pork ribs, oysters, duck’s head that the food stalls sold, I saw Chinese buns being baked at lightening fast speed, and squeamish-looking jelly desserts. My constant companion through the market was the aromatic mix of fish oil, soy and rice steams.
Contrasting the tastes (and scenes) of the night market was the fine-dining restaurant called Shi Yang. Located in Xizhi district, about 25 kilometres from Taipei, I experimented with vegetarian food in the fish-loving country. My 8-course meal in this organic restaurant began with a vegetable soup and concluded with a customary fruit bowl. The homemade tofu with peanut, mash apple and sweet corn drink as an appetiser was unbelievably fresh. The carrot roe served with orange soy sauce and black date vinegar and a vegetarian replica of a sushi platter was what sated my palate.
While most of my meals were accompanied by an element of surprise, the Taiwanese tea was a natural welcome. Rich in flavour and fragrance, the many varieties can be mystifying. The tea tasting at Taichung’s Qiu Shan Tang Boutique Teahouse introduced me to the traditional rituals. From brewing to consuming, tea is an important part of social interactions.
Perhaps the most popular tea garden in Taiwan is the Alishan High Mountain Tea. Though my favourite has to be the long leaves of Sun Moon Lake Black tea. I watched the long leaves open as they infused with boiling water. With light aromas and smooth taste, this one gets stronger if steeped for long. Also close to my heart are Jing’s Blackcurrant and Hibiscus and The Palace Tea House’s Chamomile Oolong.
Read: Eating out in Singapore
Beliefs and Traditions
The Wenwu Temple near Sun Moon Lake was a space used to worship both the Confucius and Taoist deities. The architecture follows the lines of the Northern Dynasty, visible from grand grey-green gates, imperial yellow and red roof tiles and the golden details. Dating back to 1938, this temple is guided by the philosophy that if we do good in life, we achieve god-like death.
The heart of Taiwan’s annual Lantern Festival is a small town only 40 kilometres away from the capital. Dotted by numerous shops and small restaurants on either side, Shifen Old Street is a popular place to light sky lanterns. The story behind this tradition goes back to the Han Chinese settlers who would hide away in the nearby mountain to escape the bandits. No sooner the bandits were away, the village guard would signal them. These ‘fire balloons’ sent out in the sky indicated that the settlers could return home safely once again.
Sifting through the many layers of Taiwan, I realised how contradictions can come together so beautifully. Much like yin and yang.
Note: I was invited by Taiwan Tourism Bureau on this trip.