Embarrassingly, I knew rather little about Taiwan before my trip but most of what I thought I knew turned out to be wrong. Taiwan was a complete surprise. Although you often read or hear travellers speak of temples in Thailand, cycling in Vietnam and trekking in Nepal, no one had told me you can do all this, and more, in Taiwan. For the past week I have been learning the true meaning of hidden gem – Taiwan is this gem.
The Taiwanese culture, as well as much of the cuisine, is a dynamic fusion of Chinese and Japanese influences. Bathhouses are designed in the Japanese way; the temples are straight out of China. In Taipei you can see the adoption of Western culture and their love of modern technology, but this is never to the detriment of tradition.
(Temple in Lukang)
Take the Xinyi Public Assembly Hall, for example. Once a collection of small houses for families of the military, the historic buildings have been preserved and turned into trendy boutiques, an exhibition space and the delicious Good Cho’s café. Famous for its bagels, Good Cho’s café serves lattes and tea on a mixture of rattan and retro furniture. Every Sunday the area is host to the Simple Market, where local talent gathers to sell food and crafts they have lovingly made in Taiwan.
From the settlement’s central courtyard you have a direct view of Taipei’s engineering feat – Taipei 101. The 508 metre tall tower (with 101 floors, hence the name) was the tallest in the world upon its completion in 2004. From its lofty observation deck on the 89th floor I am struck by the building’s unique design. The key shaped symbols that decorate the tower, my guide explains, are a part of Feng Shui – they represent bringing good fortune to those inside.
(Looking out from Taipei 101)
In MinSheng, an American style residential community, the Sunny Hills café serves traditional Taiwanese pineapple cake with almost Nordic-like interior design. The modern décor of long wooden tables and simple lamps combines with the Asian style service (ladies rush to seat you, green tea is served complimentary) for a wonderfully unique customer experience. I am beginning to learn that this combination of service, respect for tradition and trendy design is a typical Taiwanese experience.
(Pineapple cake at Sunny Hills)
Taipei is a truly 24 hour city – food, massage, karaoke – everything goes all night. During my trip I gained an obsession with 7-11, the king of convenience stores found throughout Taiwan, where you can shop, pay bills, use Wi-Fi, send post or collect laundry – 24 hours of the day.
(The ultimate convenience at 7-11)
But the beauty of this convenience is that it comes without chaos. The pace of life is slower in Taipei than other Asian cities I have visited. The skyscrapers not as high, the street signs not so overwhelming. In Shilin, Taipei’s famous night market, I am reminded of the markets of Hong Kong. But although many of the goods are the same, they are not sold with as much intensity; the crowds are not so claustrophobic. People do not rush on the streets and you are not hurried out of restaurants. In Taiwan, and Taipei included, living is easy, even if it is non-stop.
(Shilin at night)
If you do want to escape the metropolis, however, the mountains are only a short journey away. Taipei is surrounded on all sides by fresh air and walking opportunities – Elephant Mountain, only a short walk from Taipei 101, offers superb views of the city in return for a 20 minute climb. Outside of Taipei, a hike to the island’s highest peak, a swim in the ocean or cycle along the coast, are never more than a few hours drive away.
(View of Taipei from Elephant Mountain)
I am completely surprised by Taiwan’s colour, if it were a gem it would certainly be jade. Like the green gem found in its rivers, Taiwan is various shades of jungle green. From the grass-covered mountains to the misty Sun Moon Lake, the aqua pacific ocean and the marble Taroko Gorge – Taiwan is as green as the ‘Emerald Isle’.
(Alishan Mountain Railway)
(Sun Moon Lake)
Everywhere we turn in the cities and towns food is being prepared and consumed on the street. Each stall has its own unique odour that mingles with the next; a fish ball baker stands besides a hot dog seller, the smell of fried chicken mingles with salty fish, a stew or stinky tofu.
(Shilin Night Market)
The night markets are a celebration of the Taiwanese love for food. Couples, families, schoolchildren and the elderly wander the aisles sharing snacks and huddled over steaming pots of spicy broth. Many of the foodstuffs are unusual to me – pig’s ears and intestines, chicken’s feet, duck’s heads and animal blood rice cakes. Whether served in soups or on sticks, it seems no part of an animal is wasted; every organ and limb makes a different dish. But there are things I find familiar too – like steak on a hotplate, beef noodle and ‘cheese potato’ (literally cheese and potato.) It took a lot of trial and error but by our last visit to the night market in Taipei I know what stand to go to – I head straight for a Taiwanese hot dog (spicy sausage in a sticky rice bun) and finish the evening with a warm custard tart.
(Ready to be grilled at Hualien Night Market)
I can’t think of anywhere I have felt more welcomed by complete strangers than I did in Taiwan. Time and time again I was blown away by the kindness the people I met bestowed on me, a foreigner. There was the gentleman I met in a sweet shop who insisted on buying rice balls for me, and doubling my original order. The taxi driver who told me it was an honour to have me visit his country,
“Please tell everyone our taxi drivers are high class. Look, we listen to classical music,” he laughed as he pressed play on Vivaldi.
(One of my best taxi journeys ever!)
The team from My Taiwan Tour, who arranged all my activities, organised a last minute KTV night when I expressed interest in karaoke, and then sang an animated rendition of happy birthday for me a week early. There was a girl in the mall who told me I was beautiful and Ivy, who runs Ivy’s Kitchen cookery school, who adapted her class to accommodate my boring taste. Ivy gave me a signed copy of her recipe book at the end of our evening, she had written a personal note:
“Always remember us. Taiwan loves you!”
I think you can see why I love it too.
(With Ivy Chen from Ivy’s Kitchen)
Visiting Taiwan was a journey of discovery for me. There is true joy in seeing a new place for the first time, a place you have no prior expectations of. One that hasn’t been written about a million times over and isn’t filled with fisherman pant wearing Westerner’s who think they have seen it all. I can count on one hand the number of non-Asians I saw on my Taiwan tour, but I doubt it will stay this way for much longer. It’s too hard to keep a gem like this hidden.
Taipei showed me that a city can combine convenience and culture without chaos. Taiwan welcomed me and charmed me; it made me feel comfortable in a place that often felt foreign. I learned to love the unfamiliar food but mostly I fell in love with the people. I look forward to returning one day and reuniting with my new friends.
I travelled to Taiwan in association with Taiwan Tourism UK. My flights were provided by Cathay Pacific, you can read more about that here. On the ground activities were organised by the fabulous team at My Taiwan Tour. Over the next few weeks I’ll be bringing you more details of my Taiwan discovery. All words and opinions are, as always, my own.