A whistle-stop tour of Taiwan

By | Category: Travel destinations
the National Palace Museum in Taipei

the National Palace Museum in Taipei

Most visitors to the island of Taiwan start their explorations in capital Taipei and I was no exception.  The city, of just under 3 million people, is home to several of the country’s best museums and for some insights into Taiwan’s history, culture and heritage I decided my first stop should be the National Palace Museum, housing the treasures brought over by Chi’ang Kai-Shek, fleeing the Maoists on the Chinese mainland in 1949. Han Chinese have lived on the island since the 17th century and since 1945 Taiwan has officially been known as The Republic of China (as opposed to The People’s Republic of China, across the strait). In a more distant past, the island was known as Formosa, named by Portuguese sailors in 1542 and there were Dutch and Spanish settlements here too in bygone days, contributing to the nation’s chequered past.

The National Palace Museum, an extensive and attractive building in traditional style, houses almost 700,000 objects in its permanent collection and how Chi’ang Kai-Shek, then chairman of the Chinese government, managed to transport all this across to Taiwan is beyond me. One can only imagine what a hefty excess luggage bill he had to foot in the end. Unfortunately the museum was also packed out with Japanese tourists – Taiwan’s very popular with its northern neighbour – and a few hours of jostling for space with the headphone-wearing crowds proved enough. Through the throng I had caught glimpses of some truly gorgeous pieces of jade, porcelain, paintings and calligraphy, making the elbowing worth my while. 10,000 years of Chinese history all rolled into one morning.

Taiwan isn’t enormous by any means – only some 250 miles from north to south – but it’s mountainous and not always that easy to get around. After starting in Taipei, I was giving myself a few days to look around the island and hopefully see some of the highlights, despite a typhoon warning… My next stop was just outside Taipei, an hour north, almost on the coast, at Jingshan and what with the jetlag and all, I was getting awfully sleepy. Next thing I knew, someone was asking me, “How can we be free from bondage?” Had I nodded off after all? Well no, it turned out it was Master Sheng-Yen talking about the bondage of life and I was in fact inside the Buddhist Temple at Dharma Drum Mountain.

the Dharma Drum mountain bell

the Dharma Drum mountain bell

A vast centre of Chinese Buddhism, Dharma Drum Mountain was inaugurated in 2001 as a world centre for Buddhist education. It’s a mixture of monastery and educational centre, open to the public and even if you’re not that interested in Buddhism per se, it’s a beautiful spot with extensive gardens (the Chan Garden), close to a national park. There was, however, no way of avoiding the 20-minute educational video, before exploring the grounds and buildings. The fact that I was surrounded by happily smiling, clean-shaven monks and nuns wherever I went only added to the otherworldly feel of the place. Buddhism is hardly best known for its commercial side, but this place had something of an evangelical zeal, spreading the “word of Buddhism for the greater good”. All in all the experience felt more jarring than serene, but still interesting.

The drive to and from Dharma Drum Mountain went via Yangmingshan National Park, a scenic area of hot springs and good hiking trails, home to Taiwan’s tallest, but luckily dormant, volcano. I was heading back to Taipei for the night to try out one of the city’s highlights, the night market at Shilin. It’s the best and certainly the most famous, with an enormous food court, housing almost 550 stalls, selling all manner of tasty titbits. Food in Taiwan in general is of a very high quality and very varied with all the different Chinese regional cuisines represented. That night I tucked into a lightly spiced pork dish, of course with the ubiquitous rice and, more unusually, an oyster omelette.

a temple in Jiofen

a temple in Jiufen

Heading out of Taipei for good the following morning, I travelled to Jiufen (pronounced “joe fun”), an hour or so northeast of the capital, for a Taiwanese homestay and a visit to the Gold Museum. The Jinguashi gold mine closed some 35 years ago, but tunnel no. 5 is open to the public and can be visited, along with the museum. There is a total of 410 miles’ worth of tunnels running through the mountain, not open to the public, but despite all the past activity here, it’s a very peaceful spot. The sunset behind “gold mountain” with the mist rolling in from the sea was giving everything a timeless feel, as though man had never set foot on this island before and dug his way through the mighty mountain. The town of Jiufen is worth a visit in itself, not just for the surroundings. The streets are a maze of tiny alleys full of quirky little shops, restaurants and tea houses and there’s a large covered market selling a myriad of useful and useless things.

sunset in Jinguashi

sunset in Jinguashi

Heading south the following morning, to the town of Pinglin, I was getting ready for a Taiwanese tea experience. The whole region is famed for its teas, especially oolong tea, so what better place to visit a tea plantation and try its brews. A walk around the Pinglin plantations took in a variety of tea plants before the heavens opened and I had to seek shelter in the Tea Museum – interesting and well laid out with information in English – finishing off with a tea ceremony. Conclusion after several hours: I’m not too keen on oolong tea. Luckily I soon found another way of enjoying said beverage – in my lunch. How about a starter of orange with prawns and green tea sauce, followed by a whole variety of dishes with tea leaves as part of the ingredients, including pork, chicken and fish dishes? The tea leaf taste was very subtle, but enhanced the flavours of the dishes they accompanied beautifully.

the Tea Museum in Pinglin

the Tea Museum in Pinglin

After a drive through changing, verdant scenery of tea plantations and lofty peaks, I arrived at my afternoon stop, Yilan, on the east coast, home to the National Traditional Arts Centre. The centre does a wide variety of performances of traditional song and dance, as well as comic opera, some of it very pretty and entertaining, some more tedious and lost in translation. The craft shop proved a good place for Taiwanese souvenirs. My stop for the night, the Royal Hotel at Jiaoxi, also on the east coast, was a pleasant respite from the hectic sight-seeing. A Japanese-style hot springs and spa hotel, all its rooms were equipped with mini-spas and I enjoyed a fantastic soak with sea views without leaving the comfort of my abode.

The next day I hopped on a flight south, to the last stop on my Taiwanese tour, the country’s second city Kaohsiung, a large port city with the romantically named Love River running through it. It was already quite late when I arrived, so I decided to hit the city’s night market for a feel of the place. The market was already bustling in the early evening, all the stalls and nearby shops open. Although I can’t say I was tempted by the “Bog Tea Shop”, I did spot a rather nice lingerie shop in a tiny street off the market. No sooner had I picked up a bra before an eager shop assistant approached, swiftly brought out a measuring tape and wrapped it around my chest, proclaiming my size in English with a great, big smile. You certainly couldn’t say that they weren’t friendly in Taiwan, especially in Love River city and although that typhoon never did materialise, I was quite blown away by this country.

For further information, click here.

Images by Anna Maria Espsäter

First UK Rights

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tags: , , , , ,