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 the 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.
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 in 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 spends a week exploring it:
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 travellers.
Taiwanese are the polar opposite of Chinese – they are warm, friendly and extremely hospitable. They’ll go out of their way to help you. Unlike China, where the 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 the Chinese region.
2. 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 labelling 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 are 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.
3. PARADISAICAL LANDSCAPES
Visually stunning Taiwan is a 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.
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 a 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 marble 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.
4. 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-exist.
Unlike in 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.
Taipei abounds 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 a 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 the 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.
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!
If you are looking where to go next, try backpacking in China.
1. Getting in: You are exempted from the 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 that 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.
5. Eat & Drink: Pineapple cake, beef noodle soup, Braised pork rice, soup dumplings, oyster omelettes, milkfish, Gua Bao, Mango Shaved Ice cream, Spicy Hotpot, Taro balls and Pink Guavas. Must have Bubble tea with tapioca pearls and Oolong tea.
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
- Fun activities: Do check out the fun things to do in Taipei
Tamsui District, Taipei, Taiwan
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.