How Taiwan surprised a first time visitor

Two  students were spending their summer break in India, an Engineer was just winding up his work holiday at Singapore, a Marketer had taken up a job in Philippines, a fresh college grad was on his first solo trip to Japan and a senior professor was preparing for his second innings in Australia.

I met all these people in different parts of the world. Besides carrying the same passport what bonded them was that none of them recognized themselves as Chinese but as Taiwanese. They shared their stories of how they were different from Chinese. I heard them but never understood what they meant until I experienced it myself. I was prejudiced to think that a powerhouse economy and aesthetic beauty rarely sleep together. For me, Taiwan was a mini version of China, which offered nothing unique. There’s no Great Wall of China. No Terracotta Army. No Tiananmen Square. No Avatar Hallelujah Mountain. Basically there was no reason for me to visit Taiwan. And that’s what worked for me – no expectations led to wonderment.

taiwanese-kids-at-juifen-taiwan

‘COMPLICATED’ TAIWAN

There’s so much confusion about the identity of Taiwan. China says it owns Taiwan, Taiwan says it’s a sovereign nation. China is a dictatorship, Taiwan is a democracy. China shows aggression, Taiwan shows compassion. China is known as the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan is the Republic of China. China is deeply rooted to the Chinese culture, Taiwan is a melting pot of cultures - Chinese, Aboriginal, Dutch, Portuguese and Japanese. Taiwan competes at the Olympics not under the name of 'China' but 'Chinese Taipei.' And lately Mr. Trump added to the complication by being the first President elect to speak to the President of Taiwan since 1979.

Cutting the long story short, Taiwan has a complicated past and an unclear present. Come on-board and experience how Taiwan surprised a first time visitor who spend a week exploring it:

  1. TRAVEL FRIENDLY

The latest Expat Insider 2016 index by InterNations named Taiwan as the friendliest country in the world and I am not surprised at all. Easy visa process, cheap flights, world-class infrastructure and a variety of unique experiences have made Taiwan hit among the travelers.

locals-at-chiang-kai-shek-memorial-hall-taipei-taiwan

Taiwanese are polar opposite of Chinese – they are warm, friendly and extremely hospitable. They’ll go out of their way to help you. Unlike China, where language barrier is a huge issue, English signs are ubiquitous in Taiwan – MRTs, trains, buses, National Parks, Museums, Hotels, restaurants, markets and all kinds of places. Once when I was struggling for vegetarian food in a very small restaurant of Wulai, the restaurant who didn’t understand English pulled a school going kid to translate what I was saying. I had not expected this kind of hospitality in a Chinese region.

  1. CUISINE OF FUSIONS

The best way to feel a place is to smell it. ‘Stinky Tofu’ would be the most recognized smell of Taiwan but labeling Taiwan as a ‘Chinese Cuisine Only’ place would be wrong. The Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and Japanese have all landed here at one point or another, and their foods combined with local flavours had created a unique Cuisine of Fusions.

Being a Vegetarian I couldn’t experiment a lot with the food but whatever I ate was truly amazing. The flavours of the aboriginal food at Wulai and the Spicy Hotpot at the Xemending are still so fresh in my memory. The rice cakes which came with different kinds of inside fillings and outer coatings reminded me of the Japanese cuisine. Seafood, sweet potatoes, red bean, taro root and green vegetables made the Taiwanese cuisine so fresh and flavourful.

I observed that small and frequent meals is a big thing in Taiwan. Famous for its Xiao Chi (snacks), Taipei has 20 streets dedicated to snacking. Let me give you a food tip. The longer the queue at a stall better the food is. As per my friend,

Taiwanese beef noodle is unlike the beef noodle you find anywhere else. Slow cooking of the meat in spices, dark soy sauce and garlic for hours makes it extremely juicy and soft, while the broth leaves an orgasmic after taste.

Aboriginal food at Wulai local market, Taiwan

Aboriginal food at Wulai local market, Taiwan

  1. PARADISAICAL LANDSCAPES

Visually stunning Taiwan is photographer's delight. Before arriving in Taiwan, I had always visualized it as a Typhoon battered country with a typical South East Asian coastline. What I completely missed was Taiwan is a mountainous island with Central Mountain being its spine. There are 286 mountain summits above 3000 m sea level height and Yushan, soaring at 3952 m, is the tallest peak in Northeast Asia. With panoramic views, deep gorges, lush tropical greenery, 9 national parks, mesmerising sunsets and sunrises; Taiwan is an ideal place for nature lovers and adventure seekers.

wulai-taiwan

Thousands of mountain peaks were piercing the sky. Climate changed from subtropical to alpine. Thanks to my ignorance, I packed summer wear and was thus forced to do an emergency winter wear shopping in Taiwan.

During my one week in Taiwan, I could only visit few places but what blew my mind was the unimaginable Taroko National Gorge. Five million years ago the Luzon Arcs of the Philippines and the Eurasian continental plate collided to form this extraordinaire piece of Nature’s art. It's an impossibly sheer drop of hundreds of metres, with marbled walls and the turbulent blue-green waters of the Liwu River racing across the bottom. The 90% mountainous Taroko National Gorge is extraordinary not just in looks but in habitat too – it represents all of the bio-geographical zones in Taiwan and is a sanctuary for half of the island's plant and animal species.

Taroko Gorge, Taiwan, Asia

Taroko Gorge, Taiwan, Asia

Taroko Gorge, Taiwan, Asia

Taroko Gorge, Taiwan, Asia

  1. COUNTRY OF CONTRASTS

In Taiwan, within an hour you can either be at the top of teapot mountain enjoying the godlike vistas or find yourself throwing moon blocks on the grounds of Longshan temples predicting your future. You could be visiting the old street of Juifen or strolling in the purrdise of Houtong Cat Village. You could be hiking a 3000 m peak in the North or taming the waves in the South. Taiwan is a country of contrasts where modernity, history, culture and nature co-exit.

Juifen is just an hour away from Taipei, Taiwan

Juifen is just an hour away from Taipei, Taiwan

Unlike China, Taiwan offers artistic freedom. You can spend all day wandering around artistic alleyways like Huashan 1914 Creative Park or restored heritage buildings converted into art places like Red House and Bipiliao Historic Street.

The oldest street of Taiwan, Bipiliao Historic Street, is now a hub of artists, Taipei, Taiwan

The oldest street of Taiwan, Bipiliao Historic Street, is now a hub of artists, Taipei, Taiwan

Taipei is abound with quirky cafes. Basis your quirk you can choose a café – Cafe & Cats 1998 if you are a cat lover, Modern Toilet Restaurant if you like Shit, Rilakkuma Café if you are still in love with stuffed Bears and Hello Kitty Kitchen and Dining if you are a Hello Kitty fan. Here's a piece of trivia for you. Did you know the Cat café culture started from Taiwan before taking off in Japan and elsewhere?

If you are skyscraper lover, Taipei 101 is for you. It held the record of being tallest in the world until Burj Khalifa came up in 2009. It has the fastest elevator going from 5th floor to the 87th floor in 49 seconds. Watching the 101 Skyline in sunset hues from Elephant Mountain is an experience that I’ll remember for my life.

The landmark Taipei 101 skyline as seen from the Elephant Mountain, Taipei, Taiwan

The landmark Taipei 101 skyline as seen from the Elephant Mountain, Taipei, Taiwan

The landmark Taipei 101 skyline at sunset seen from the Elephant Mountain, Taipei, Taiwan

The landmark Taipei 101 skyline at sunset seen from the Elephant Mountain, Taipei, Taiwan

This was how Taiwan surprised a first time visitor like me, who could only manage to spend a week there. It's a beautiful country that will amaze you at every turn and you would not be able to help yourself from falling in love with it. What are you waiting for? Go explore Taiwan NOW!

TRAVEL TIPS:

  1. Getting in: You are exempted from visa application process if you have a valid visa for USA/UK/Japan/Schenzen/Aus/Nz/Canada/Singapore. All you have to do is get an online authorisation certificate, which takes less than a minute. And you don’t even need thatif you are from any of the above mentioned countries.
  2. Getting around: Get the EasyCard, which can be used in MRTs, Trains and buses. Public transport is safe, cheap, clean, quick and well connected.
  3. Use Free Wi-fi: Taiwan was one of the first countries to embrace widespread free internet usage. You can find free Wi-Fi at all train stations and most major tourist attractions.
  4. Accommodation: Stay near Taipei Main Station or Ximen area. I stayed at Meander Hostel at Ximen, which was centrally located and just 7 minutes from the MRT station. It came loaded with facilities like free breakfast, city tours, clean rooms, hygienic bathrooms and spacious living area among others. I could explore the offbeat parts of Taiwan, thanks to its ever helpful staff.
    Living area of Meander Hostel, Taipei, Taiwan

    Living area of Meander Hostel, Taipei, Taiwan

    Lounge area of Meander Hostel, Taipei, Taiwan

    Lounge area of Meander Hostel, Taipei, Taiwan

  5. Eat & Drink: Pineapple cake, beef noodle soup, Braised pork rice, soup dumplings, oyster omelets, milk fish, Gua Bao, Mango Shaved Ice cream, Spicy Hotpot, Taro balls and Pink Guavas. Must have Bubble tea with tapioca pearls and Oolong tea.

    spicy-hotpot-taipei-taiwan

    Spicy Hotpot, Taipei, Taiwan

  6. MUST SEE:
    • In Taipei: Longshan Temple, Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, The National Palace Museum, Taipei 101 skyline from Elephant Mountain, Maokong Gondola,  Shilin Night Market, Ximending and Tamsui district
    • Outside Taipei: Taroko Gorge, Juifen, Yusan National Park, Lanyu (Orchid Garden), Sunmoon Lake, Wushanding Mud Volcano
Tamsui district, Taipei, Taiwan

Tamsui district, Taipei, Taiwan

Juifen, Taiwan

Juifen, Taiwan

Disclaimer:

I was hosted by Meander Hostel at Taipei. All the views expressed here are mine. All the pictures clicked were taken by me during my stay in Taiwan.

27 Comments

  • Amazing. Loved all the pictures. I am sure you had a great time. I would wanna go there.

  • Antonina says:

    Thanks for the comprehensive post and beautiful photographs. A nice guide for someone who hopes to visit Taiwan one day (me, for sure :))

    • Hey Antonina,

      Thanks a lot for the lovely words. I am so glad you liked it.

      Taiwan is beautiful and unique, you must visit it.

      Looking forward to hear you stories.

      Over to you 🙂

      Cheers!

  • Sapna says:

    Lovely photographs.

  • Deepika says:

    I love love love this article, all the more interesting read in the light of Mr. Trump. Beautiful photographs as well. Any idea on Visas for Indians? And how long were you in Taiwan?

    • Hey Deepika,

      I am so happy to know that you liked the article. Getting a Taiwanese visa is very easy. In fact you don’t even need a visa, if you have a valid visa for any of the the following countries – USA / UK / Japan / Schenzen / Aus / Nz / Canada / Singapore.

      In case you don’t, then just apply for a visitor visa, which takes just 3-4 days. You can check all details here: https://taiwan.visahq.in/#!taiwan-tourist-visa

      Hope it helps.

  • Katherine says:

    I love that you went in with no preconceptions, that makes it so much easier to be pleasantly surprised. And it looks like there is so much to enjoy in Taiwan! To be honest, I’ve never been drawn to Asia, but reading this and looking at your pictures is making me rethink that.

  • Amanda says:

    I never really considered Taiwan as a place to go but I’m reconsidering and not just because of the food pictures! Lots of good info here. I look forward to doing a bit more google searching about it and who knows, Taiwan might be next on the list!

  • Gracie says:

    It’s good to read more about Taiwan. You informed us about their difference from the Chinese. And your photos are amazing! You did well introducing more about this country, which in all honesty, I thought was not as tourist-y as China. But now you’ve showed me their culture, I would gladly visit in the future! Thank you!

  • Julianne says:

    Hi Archana,

    Like others here, I really loved your post! I have travelled in this region before (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia, and Macau), but I never got to Taiwan. My dad travelled to Taipei for work a lot about 15 years ago, and always stressed how warm and friendly the people were. I’m planning a trip to Asia later on this year, and your post is seriously making me consider Taiwan — especially because it sounds like the visa process is pretty easy for Americans. Really great info – can’t wait to see more of your posts!

    PS: I went to the Modern Toilet restaurant in Hong Kong, which was HILARIOUS. The staff there all said to visit the one in Taiwan, because that was the original one. 🙂

  • danik says:

    Oh wow, love this in depth view of Taiwan and now you got me looking at flights to this island! Loving the photos. Great post 🙂

  • Kristof says:

    Great post, you provide a lot of useful information and the photos make the article shine!

  • Mike Cotton says:

    Taiwan seems to be a surprising choice (to me at least) for a lot of travellers and bloggers. I have to say, the infrastructure seems ideal. The photograph of the gorge is beautiful, it definitely piqued my interest in the area.

  • Micki says:

    You had me at “20 streets dedicated to snacking.” I love street food, food trucks, and local cuisine. I also want to go to elephant mountain and get a shot of the skyline now!

  • totally agree! been to taiwan on a work trip and totally loved it! such a surprising destination

  • Only By Land says:

    The Spicy hot pot looks delicious, I love those the large noodles! Free WiFi is various locations is a plus too. I’m looking forward to visiting Taiwan. Does it count as another country visited though?

  • Paulina says:

    Wow i never thought of traveling to Taiwan. Now I definitely do. This place looks amazing

  • Taiwan looks amazing! I would love to go there and see that beautiful gorge. And I didn’t realize the Taiwanese were so friendly to tourists! Now I want to go visit.

  • Ana Ojha says:

    I didn’t know that Taiwan is such a beautiful destination. It truly looks like a photographer paradise for landscape photography. Also, the Taroko National Gorge looks breathtaking. The food looks delicious. Though I’ve never heard of rice cake before. Is that sweet in taste?

  • Have been reading so much about Taiwan these days … Would love to visit someday and devour on rice cakes and all the local food. have read that they don’t like being called as Chinese.

  • Sounds like Taiwan is a really great place for a holiday. I was impressed by how helpful people were what you needed help like in the restaurant. It sounds like you had a bad experience in mainland China which is too bad but glad you enjoyed Taiwan.

  • Erin Leigh says:

    Really great tips! I love how you distinctly separated the differences from China and Taiwan – I think a lot of people think they are very similar and your post proves they’re not. I also had no idea the Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish had such an influence here! Really interesting stuff, I’ve been seeing a lot about the area lately, it’s definitely been moving further & further up on my bucket list!

  • Cliodhna Ryan says:

    Wow I never realised that Taiwan is such a melting pot. I also never realised there was such a difference between Taiwan and China. It seems like an interesting place definitely worth visiting.

  • Harsh Gupta says:

    Nice article, Archana. I have been longing to visit Taiwan since a long time and hearing your amazing story and lovely narration about the country, would love to visit super soon! Good to know that the wi-fi conditions are pretty great! 😉

  • Carola says:

    Wow! I knew Taiwan mostly for Taipeh and looking at the map had thought that most of the island was just overgrown with residential development. But those landscapes look fantastic. I might just spend 3 months there this summer…

    Happy continued travels!
    C

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