Time for Taiwan
Eight Great Reasons to Discover Taiwan
Chances are if you've traveled to Taiwan, it's been on business. And there's a very good chance that you've hurried in and out of Taipei as fast as your business allowed. At least this was true for me until Michael, a Taiwanese business associate, invited me to his son's wedding and to join him and his wife May on a trip to see more of their country. My week in Taiwan was so enriching that I was moved to share the top reasons why you are depriving yourself of an unforgettable travel and cultural experience if you don't take time to see more of this fabulous island the next time your business takes you to Taiwan.
Text / Renee Farrington
Photos / Tourism Bureau, National Palace Museum
Taiwan is Beautiful
"It is best seen from the windows of a speeding limo," once announced a friend upon returning from the capital. But that was long ago, and Taipei is not Taiwan. The countryside outside the dynamic capital is filled with an amazing variety of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery in Asia. In a short period of time you can go from tropical beaches and spectacular sea-skirting cliff roads to awe-inspiring mist-shrouded peaks, warm hot springs, and tranquil soul-satisfying lakes.
When I was learning geography in school, Taiwan was called "Formosa," meaning "beautiful," a name given by Portuguese explorers passing by on the way to Japan in the 16th century. It is its dramatic and fertile beauty that has made Taiwan attractive to foreign powers such as the Portuguese as well as the Spanish, Japanese, and Dutch - all of which tried their hand at colonial rule - and more recently tourists, who are just starting to learn of its charms.
If you have time for only one visit outside Taipei, I would suggest Taroko Gorge. No guidebook prepared me for the views from my car window as we entered this popular national park. Marble-lined canyon walls towered around us and over the rushing whitewater river far below. At one viewing area, I watched Michael and May in front of me on the path, strolling hand in hand under overhanging cliffs lined by lush giant green ferns and flowers. They seemed to be worshiping at nature's cathedral.
I was delighted with the surprise imprints of human hands: red-arch bridges jumping streams and waterfalls and pagodas reached by hiking trails. Even the Chinese characters written on a distant cliff seemed to fit in, the characters looking like fine art to me.
At Taroko Gorge we stayed at the luxurious five-star Grand Formosa Taroko nestled into the mountains. The architects were so awed by the scenery they even put picture windows in the bathrooms, so you can lie in the tub and look out though your bedroom out to the craggy silver-gray mountains beyond.
You Can Relax on Pacific Shores
Go to Taiwan to relax? If you've been going on business, the proposition sounds like a contradiction in terms. That is why I was so surprised to find myself at the five-star luxury resort Caesar Park Hotel in the resort town of Kending, looking out from my balcony over swaying palms, thatch umbrellas, and a huge meandering pool. The brochure in the room for the "Being" spa was tempting. Before I turned in, May brought me some juicy papayas she had bought by the roadside. The cool, musty, sweet taste and sound of the rustling palms left no doubt we were in Taiwan's Banana Belt. The resort town is at the very tip of the island in the south, where the Taiwan Strait meets the Pacific and Bashi Channel. Kending offers the serenity of the surrounding national park (kending National Park), with its summer butterfly display, magnificent historic lighthouse, and both raucous and quiet beaches !Vtake your choice.
Learn from Age-Old Aborigine Culture
As we drove in the mountains, Michael pointed out groups of children bending under their backpacks as they trailed along the curvy mountain road. He sounded proud as he described the island's aboriginal peoples, with their distinctive large eyes and full lips. In Taroko we were surrounded by an enthusiastic troop of aborigine children practicing a ceremonial dance with wooden spears. My Western features were fascinating to them, and they took advantage of the opportunity to practice their English as each in turn gave their name, asked mine, and chanted, "You are welcome to Taroko!"
When I read about aborigines in my Taiwan guidebooks, I assumed that they were something from the primitive past, a tease for tourists and a theme for amusement parks. Imagine my surprise during our Taroko-area jaunt when Michael told me that the beautiful hostess of our Pacific-beachside bed & breakfast was a member of the aborigine Amis tribe.
Our hostess was far from the rustic aborigine stereotype, driving up on her motorbike to where we waited in front of her imposing three-story brick home decorated with ornate flower-bedecked balconies. Dressed in a white T-shirt and red baseball cap, she was a striking Polynesian beauty.
See More Traditional Culture
A widespread misconception about Taiwan, especially on the part of business travelers, is that there is no "there" there - no Culture with a capital C. Actually, the opposite is true. Thanks to the political situation during the latter half of the 20th century, you will see more of traditional culture in Taiwan than on the mainland. Taiwan never went through a revolution of cultural sterilization and has consciously preserved, unbroken, a cultural heritage arising far back in the mists of history, long before the written word arrived on the island.
If you are looking for world-class Asian art, you may be surprised to learn that 10% of the world's greatest Chinese artifacts are stored in giant catacombs in the mountain behind the not-to-be-missed National Palace Museum in Taipei. In 1949 the Chinese Nationalists, or Kuomintang, under Chiang Kai-shek brought to Taiwan crates holding over 600,000 of the greatest artistic treasures from Beijing's Forbidden City, a collection dating from the tenth century A.D.
I visited the imposing museum complex with Judy, a business associate from Taipei. She is the sophisticated, Swiss-educated daughter of a Chinese professor who came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek. Maybe it was my own feelings of inferiority at being from a country only 229 years old, but I think I saw a hint of a smile of pride and even superiority as Judy led me through some of the magnificent art from 5,000 years of what she referred to as the "Middle Kingdom".
Visit Tainan to See a Traditional Taiwanese Town
I was lucky that I had more than the museum to satisfy my cultural curiosity. I attended wedding ceremonies held in Tainan, known for its extraordinary concentration of over a quarter of the island's listed cultural sites and over 150 temples.
Tainan is a southern city and very unlike the north's Taipei. You will enjoy the more leisurely approach to life taken here and discover the spiritual and cultural roots of Taiwan. As we drove and strolled through the city, I saw myriad remnants from its rich history, vital signs of its cultural roots intertwining with modern shade-filled parks and booming commercial concentrations. We visited the ruins of an old Dutch fort, drove by the restored gates of the formerly walled city, and wandered through an alley of fortunetellers where for generations Michael's family has gone for help in deciding important dates, determining couples' compatibility, and choosing auspicious names for children.
May helped me shop for gifts in a teeming traditional market with stalls offering everything from cosmetics to jade to beaded traditional garments and wedding paraphernalia. At the popular, sprawling night market I tried my not-too-nimble fingers at games of chance, ate candy apples and exotic fruit-on-a-stick, and watched a woman stoically undergoing a facial hair-removal procedure where strings are used to pluck. Within the aged salmon-pink walls of the Confucius Temple complex I bought a delicate bamboo-dragonfly toy from the vendor, who sat on one wooden crate while he created the toys on another.
As we hopped from one wedding-day venue to another (at one point throwing fireworks from the limo at each intersection) and from one cultural site, restaurant, or shopping opportunity to the next, I was able to understand why Michael and the town powers are so proud of this, the original capital of Taiwan, the "most Taiwanese" of Taiwan's cities.
Restore Your Soul at a Taiwanese Temple
Perhaps one of the main reasons why Taiwan is such an enjoyable country to visit is its rich spiritual heritage. You will find tolerance and acceptance of a healthy blend of beliefs in all areas of life of the Taiwanese, from compassionate daily interactions to religious ceremonies that may be rooted in Buddhism, Taoism, or Confucianism - often in combination and often flavored with spiritual spices from a pantheon of deities and folk customs.
When I imagine a bird's-eye view of Taiwan I see a landscape sprinkled with spectacular temple roofs, their eaves curling heavenward to attract good fortune and repel evil, whether it be in an industrial park, commercial center, or farmers' fields, or at the end of a lantern-lined lane in a quiet neighborhood.
Echoing the exuberance of the rooftops, the temple interior, far from churchly solemnity, is a feast for the senses and a riot of animation. As you enter between ornately carved pillars and pass over the high threshold, you pass where inauspicious spirits dare not tread. Under aged, smoke-stained ceilings in the semi-dark you smell the pungent incense and burning oils, the old lacquered wood, and the musty cement floors.
As your eyes adjust, your first sight is the opulent feast on a banquet table set for the gods, with offerings of lovingly arranged fruit, plates of cake, floral arrangements, and neat, tall pyramids of bright-yellow paper "ghost" or "spirit" money.
Savor a Moveable Feast at a Taiwanese Table
To its aboriginal, Chinese, Japanese, and European occupiers and immigrants over the years, one of the most compelling attractions of Taiwan has been the fertile land, producing an abundance of foods and, in more recent times, world-renowned tea. This foodstuff fecundity, enjoyed in a variety of appealing culinary styles and settings, is a source of pride for the Taiwanese and a great boon to the hungry visitor.
On the east coast we ate seafood selected from tanks at the front of a harbor-side restaurant, and in a small family-run cafe we tried a special soup recommended in posted newspaper articles supporting the claim of its healing properties. In Tainan we sat on tiny wooden stools to savor soup at the 100-year-old noodle shop called Du Siao Yue Danzai Noodles, established by a fisherman for income during the times of the year when he couldn't fish.
At Michael's home I relished a rich bowl of shrimp soup, one of 200 bowls his mother made for friends and relatives to pass on the good fortune of the wedding. And at the new home of the bride and groom, where they posed next to their bed in full wedding attire, I shared a cold soup of what looked like shocking-pink bubblegum balls (made from glutinous rice) to "bring sweetness to the marriage."
Bask in the Warmth of the Taiwanese Welcome
The final meal on our journey was in Taipei, where the bustle and congestion, far from the tradition and calm of Tainan, made Michael and May uncomfortable. We were in a restaurant at the mall adjoining Taipei 101, currently the world's tallest building and cornerstone of an impressive district of upscale-development planning. As we dined on the many-course dinner Judy had selected for us, Michael was quiet. He asked me if I remembered quoting from an article I had read, warning that Americans should hold back on their overly enthusiastic glad-handing or other overt displays of affection when greeting the Taiwanese - particularly hugging. He told me that what I had read was wrong...whereupon he and May in turn embraced me in a warm good-bye hug.
Human feelings and generous treatment of others rank high among the priorities of Taiwanese of all ages. I had felt the warm welcome as Pony (from the hairdo she was wearing when she chose her English name) ushered me through two days of mind-fogging wedding festivities. I had seen it as the bride offered candies and thanked each of her 600 guests personally as she stood smiling in the third of the gowns she had worn for her banquet.
I took very few pictures of Taiwanese people where someone wasn't giving the peace sign, from aborigine children to whitewater rafters to the beaming bride in her finery. Perhaps there is something more for them in use of this symbol than a cheery throwback to the sixties or a simple welcome greeting. Perhaps it stands for the peace they have found in their beautiful country, which they are so willing to share. Or perhaps it is a sign of hope for the times and for a political peace that they so bravely work toward.
Go to Taiwan. Take the time to find out for yourself. You'll be glad you did. It's a great gift you can give yourself, one that will touch your heart.