I did the biggest no-no in travel. (No, I didn’t get caught bringing contraband at the airport.) I made everybody else wait on the tour bus. And I did it on purpose.
We were at Lugang on the way to Taichung, the third largest city in Taiwan and halfway between the harbor city of Kaohsiung and the capital Taipei, to stroll the streets and see for ourselves the Taiwan Lantern Festival. But the irony was that we were all expected to be back in the bus by six in the evening—just as darkness would fall and the lanterns would light up. If I were to follow this part of the itinerary strictly, I would miss out on the spectacle—the very reason we were here.
So I bided my time savoring spicy street food and washing it down with Taiwan Beer as well as hot tea, while the wind made the cold truly chilly.
True enough, at six o’ clock, the multitude of lanterns that lined the street, seemingly unimpressive when they were unlit in the daylight, began to illuminate as dusk gave way to evening. Lanterns depicted palaces, arches and people in imperial costumes. There was an entire platoon of towering robots as well as aliens and spaceships. There were pandas, turtles and dragons as well Sponge Bob Square Pants and a plethora of anime characters. There were even lanterns depicting the indigenous aboriginal people of Taiwan. But most impressive was what towered in the middle of a sports stadium’s field – a gigantic dragon some three stories high, colored dull gray in the daylight, suddenly illuminated the night sky with a spectacular display of changing colors as it rotated on its pedestal. The crowd surged and I took my time taking pictures of its ever-changing hues. I made my way back through a sea of people surging the other way, only to find the people in the bus still in good cheer. Taiwan has that effect on people. It was all worth it, if only to catch sight of a dragon light up the night.
It is after all the year of the dragon—the only mythical beast on the Chinese zodiac and one that combines the parts of nine animals: a snake’s neck, a stag’s horns, a camel’s head, a carp’s scales, an eagle’s claws, a tiger’s soles, a cow’s ears and a clam’s belly. Hence, it is a wondrous and exceedingly rare creature, but one that is vaguely familiar, defined not by any unique singular feature, but by the fantastic amalgam of what can be found in others.
Such a magical creature is Taiwan—a land whose balmy climate to the south resembles that of tropical Southeast Asia and yet whose snow-capped mountains and chilly north remind one of Europe; a people whose ethnicity and culture are without doubt Chinese but whose work ethic, reserved demeanor and astute sense of style bear close resemblance to those of the Japanese. There is a little bit of somewhere else everywhere in Taiwan and yet there’s nothing like its unique combination.
There are a few things to know that can deepen one’s appreciation of Taiwan. It is home to a rich indigenous aboriginal
and native Taiwanese culture that predates the mass migration of mainlanders that followed the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalists) and its leader Chiang Kai-shek into the island, after defeat from Mao Zedong’s communist forces during the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Lately, Taiwan has emphasized their indigenous culture to differentiate the country from the mainland. Also, Taiwan underwent Japanese Imperial rule from 1895 and 1945. Besides building railroads, ensuring drinking water and implementing vaccination, the Japanese left their mark on Taiwanese culture. From work ethic to cuisine, traces of Japanese influence can be found.
Taiwan, being a young country, has constructed modern architectural wonders. Yet a discerning eye will appreciate the traditional Chinese accents that characterize its vision of modernity. One of the 21st century’s industrial powerhouses, Taiwan makes many of the world’s computers components—local brands include Acer and Asus—and manufactures most of the world’s bicycles—home as it is to leading global brands Giant and Merida. Hence, Taiwan’s scenic rice paddies, mountains and city parks have extensive bike paths to promote bicycle tourism, while its cities are the place to shop for high tech gadgets.
Once named Ilha Formosa or “beautiful island” by Portuguese explorers, Taiwan attracts tourists from across the globe. But a casual glance will not reveal this instantly. Many of the people who hunt bargains at its night markets or stroll along its posh luxury malls are not locals but mainland Chinese and ethnic Chinese from across the globe. Taiwan’s appeal to the global Chinese alone is enough to buoy its tourism industry. Outside hotels, few speak English. Thankfully, many street signs are now Romanized and hotels do give out cards with the hotel’s name and address in Chinese that one can present to taxi drivers. Regardless, Taiwanese are a friendly and warm people eager to help travelers.
Starting with love
We began our five-day tour of Taiwan at Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city from which we would proceed with a bus tour that would culminate at our arrival at Taipei, the country’s capital. Naturally, the first choice was China Airlines, Taiwan’s national carrier, which has its hubs located at Kaohsiung International Airport and at Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport. Setting a precedent for this auspiciously timed tour, the flight on board China Airlines was smooth and relaxing.
Kaohsiung, the second busiest cargo port on Earth, is also the country’s industrial hub. Our guide Tim Huang of Taiwan Visitor’s Association revealed that many years ago, despondent workers from the surrounding factories would sometimes drown themselves in the polluted river. But that was a long time ago. Since then, Kaohsiung has successfully transformed itself. Today, well-manicured bike and jogging paths meander through sculpted gardens. Most impressively, it cleaned up the city’s artery, turning its banks into picturesque riverside parks and renaming it the Love River. It is a name well-earned. Today, it is a place for lovers as well as families and tourists to stroll and enjoy fresh air.
During our stay, we went on a river cruise to witness an awesome fireworks display on the riverside. The waters reflected all the colors in the sky, doubling the spectacle.
Another must-do is checking out the Liuhe Night Market that attracts throngs to walk entire street lengths. For ladies, there are shoes, clothes, bags, stockings and even wigs and eyelashes. For men, there are seemingly endless rows of stalls selling street food ranging from large octopus tentacles and humongous crab claws dusted with spices, to beef jerky, sausages and the sweetest sweet potatoes. All these go well with Taiwan Beer, a smooth concoction that is curiously sweet.
For more substantial fare, there is Liu’s Traditional Juancun Food where our group ate lunch beforehand, savoring hotpot and other signature Taiwanese dishes. Taiwan’s brand of hotpot employs dipping sauces as well as its own blend of spices and herbs.
Other points of interest in Kaohsiung include the Kaohsiung National Stadium and The Dome of Light at Formosa Boulevard Station of Kaohsiung Metro Rail Transit—both ultra modern structures. These contrast with the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas that rise above Lotus Lake, twin structures by the riverside that are everything you come to expect from traditional Chinese architecture.
At Kaohsiung, we stayed at the Grand Hi-Lai Hotel which, besides its resplendent rooms and delicious buffet, also offered a suite themed after the anime character Hello Kitty. It even came with its own Hello Kitty-themed car.
The next day, our group took the tour bus to Taichung. On the way, we visited several locations, such as the Sun Moon Lake at Nantou. Nestled among mountains at 748 meters above sea level, it is Taiwan’s largest lake, so named because the eastern side is shaped like the sun while the western side is shaped like the moon. Tranquil waters reveal a tiny island called Lalu situated at its center like a pearl. Perched to overlook the lake is the Wenwu Temple, built in 1938 to replace two temples submerged by rising waters caused by hydroelectric power plants built by the Japanese. Also of interest is Taiwan Glass’ factory showroom where one can buy souvenirs and marvel at glass sculptures and ornaments. And then there was the aforementioned Taiwan Lantern Festival, this year held in Lugang.
Upon our arrival at Taichung, we ate dinner at the quaint Gulu-Gulu Aboriginal Music Restaurant while listening to folk music. With its wood carvings and furniture made from logs and driftwood, brightly painted walls, organically shaped lamps and sea-shell festooned lavatory, Gulu-Gulu possesses a bohemian vibe. Again, the food here highlights the hotpot and aboriginal dishes executed with a nouveau cuisine flair. Gulu-Gulu is located at the Art Museum Parkway, where similar artsy venues are clustered together.
Another place worth visiting in the area is La Pioggia where luthiers handcraft violins and where even non-musicians can enjoy creating decoupage clock faces shaped like violin bodies. By carefully gluing cutouts of designs printed on paper onto wooded clock faces, people can make their own unique designs. After another foray at the city’s own night market, we retired at the trendy Hotel One.
The next day, our bus sped on its way to Taipei, which, in contrast to Kaohsiung’s balmy weather, is windy and chilly with temperatures below 13 degrees Celsius. Everywhere, there are women clad in daisy dukes, cut offs and miniskirts—as women in warmer climes are—but paired with designer stockings, stilettos and matching hairy warmers or calf-high equestrian boots. Theatrically long false lashes flutter in the icy breeze and fur-trimmed hoods and collars hem many a pretty face. Here, the cold is just another reason to be trendy.
Past and future
At Taipei, two monoliths epitomize Taiwan’s past and future.
There is the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a hulking edifice of white marble walls and glazed blue roof tile towering some 76 meters high above an uncluttered plain. The closest buildings, the National Concert Hall and the National Theater, mirror each other at the Memorial Square’s main gate and seem almost a kilometer away. The two matching stairs that lead to the entrance have steps that number 89—the Generalissimo’s age at his time of death.
The Generalissimo is still revered with an honor guard that changes every hour with pageantry and pomp. The precision with which the soldiers move is both martial and balletic. Witnessing this event is the main attraction.
After six decades of unparalleled economic success known as the Taiwan Miracle and the flowering of Taiwanese democracy in the 1980s, a new monument now stands to celebrate this prosperous and peaceful country—Taipei 101. The world’s tallest skyscraper from 2004 to 2010, it pierces the clouds like a sword. The 101 floors celebrate the new millennium and the future that follows.
But Taipei 101’s best attraction is a humble dim sum elevated to Michelin star status. Din Tai Fung’s dumplings are unique—its delicate steamed wrappings are not only with savory fillings but also with a broth that explodes flavor in one’s mouth on the first bite. Din Tai Fung, originally a cooking oil retail shop, transformed itself into a restaurant in 1974 serving xiao long bao (steamed dumplings). In 1993, The New York Times listed Din Tai Fung as the only Asian entry among the top ten restaurants of the world. In 2010 and 2011, the Michelin Guide—the undisputed guide to the world’s very best restaurants—bequeathed Din Tai Fung the rare honor of one Michelin Star.
From cruising a river of love to ascending a tower of the future, there is so much to explore in Taiwan. There are bargains at night markets and designer labels at skyscraper malls for the shopper. There’s hot pot dinners and street food at the stalls for the gourmand. There are gigantic monuments and pagodas for the architecture buff. And there are riverside fireworks and illuminated lanterns for those seeking wonderment and awe. One only has to follow the dragon in Taiwan.