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Travel in Taiwan

Understated Splendors


Understated Splendors


With its charming mix of old and new, its stunning scenery and mouth-watering food, Taiwan has become the insider's favorite travel destination in Asia. But are the Taiwanese themselves aware how beautiful their island is?



Understated Splendors

By Yueh-lin Ma, Chao-Yen Lu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 462 )

Mt. Hehuan was shrouded in misty clouds rising up to the sky on a pleasant November day, as a bicycle snaked up the winding mountain road. Swiss mountain biker Pascale Schmied made her way up the slope to the aboriginal hot spring village of Hongsiang in Nantou County. She was not planning to visit the village's famous natural hot spring, but wanted to put up her tent on a hillside to quietly enjoy the mountain wilderness. Schmied, who hails from Geneva, is no stranger to the mountains. After all, her home country is famous for its majestic Alps. But for Schmied's taste, the Swiss Alps are overdeveloped, whereas Taiwan's central mountain range has preserved its primitive character.

A Warm Welcome

"Miss, are you sure you want to spend the night outside all by yourself?" asked a man who belonged to the Atayal, one of Taiwan's indigenous peoples, as he passed Schmied's tent on his way to the communal hot springs. He was visibly disconcerted at seeing the foreign woman camping out alone. He advised her to spend the night at his home, citing safety reasons. But the nature-loving Schmied turned him down. After finishing his bath in the hot springs, the man returned with his wife in tow, again begging Schmied to stay at their house. Thinking it would be ungracious not to accept the invitation of the friendly villagers, Schmied left her tent to stay at the couple's home.

"In the evening the kids sang songs, and the breakfast was delicious."

This is the adventure of a year ago that Schmied recounts when asked why she likes to bike across Taiwan.

On the second day of that trip, Schmied climbed to Songgang, also planning to pitch her tent near a tea plantation. Fearing that the night would be too cold, a plantation worker insisted that she move to his blockhouse, while he hunkered down at a friend's place. On the next morning the man made her breakfast. And he also presented Schmied, who is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the School of Chinese Medicine at China Medical University, with Chinese medicinal herbs from the mountains – reishi mushrooms and phellodendron bark.

"When he saw that I'd have a hard time carrying all those herbs on my bike, he decided right away to send them to me by mail," Schmied recalls. In the end she did not get to spend a single night in her tent. "That's how heart-warming and entertaining it can get when you travel in Taiwan."

Taipei: The Best City for Backpackers

This November, the number of tourists visiting Taiwan in one year exceeded 5 million people for the first time, posting a historic high. A new policy will be launched early next year allowing people from China to travel in Taiwan as individual tourists rather than on package tours. In addition to Japan, Hong Kong and Macau, which have long provided the lion's share of Taiwan's visitors, tourist numbers from Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea have also grown this year by 120, 31 and 49 percent, respectively.

In June young Singaporeans voted Taipei the best backpacker city in Asia, ahead of other popular metropolises like Tokyo, Sydney and Bangkok. In October Taiwan-based Japanese travel writer Yuka Aoki published her second travel guide on Taiwan. The book's first print of 6,000 copies sold out at Japan's leading bookstores within a week.

Among popular Asian travel destinations, Taiwan's star has clearly begun to shine more brightly.

"Traveling in Taiwan is great and very safe. Are there any problems?" muses Aoki, leaning her head to one side as she is trying to think of any problems she might have encountered on her many trips across the island. Two months ago Japan's public television network NHK visited Taiwan to shoot a "Lunch Box" special, a travel program that airs on NHK's digital mobile phone channel. Aoki accompanied the TV crew on a tour featuring traditional breakfast at Taipei's famous Dongmen Market and a lesson on how to use the iconic Tatung rice cooker that can be found in every Taiwanese kitchen.

Precisely how hot is Taiwan among Japanese travelers? Aoki notes that Taiwan is always featured on the home page of any Japanese travel agency. "Even for my book launch, people had to buy admission tickets for 800 yen, and then they still had to pay extra for the book. That's over the top, isn't it?"

What Taiwanese Take for Granted, Japanese Crave

Aoki, who got her start as an illustrator, came to Taiwan for the first time in 2002 traveling by herself. Less than a month later, she was back. The third time she decided to pack her bags for good and moved to Taipei. Aoki loves Taiwan's old streets, the small alleyways of Lugang and Beipu where one can still find traditional houses built from red brick with tiled roofs. She calls Taipei's Yongkang Street, an old neighborhood famous for its eateries and leisurely atmosphere, her backyard. The community's teahouses are her favorite hangout. "In Japan teahouses are very formal, you have to wear kimonos, and prices are high. In contrast, the atmosphere in Taiwanese teahouses is very relaxed, the owners are friendly, and we can enjoy the tea in our own way, without a care," Aoki enthuses.

It's that kind of contented, relaxed lifestyle that the Japanese crave.

"I like to watch baseball games in Taiwan. It feels a lot like a carnival. It's easy-going and great fun," says Takahiko Tsutsui as he munches away on charcoal-grilled snacks at a small restaurant inside an alley off Zhongxiao East Road in Taipei. Tsutsui, who lives in Kyoto, comes to Taiwan regularly on both business trips and private travel. The Taiwanese friend sitting next to him raises his eyebrows in surprise as Tsutsui gushes about Taiwanese baseball, finding it hard to believe that Japanese visitors find local baseball games more interesting than their world-class matches at home.

On that same weekend Y.C. Lim, a Malaysian surgeon who once performed heart surgery for Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, came to Taipei to visit the National Museum of History's latest exhibition "Imperial Treasures – Relics of Famen Temple Underground Palace and the Flourishing Tang." Since Taiwan began allowing visa-free entry for Malaysian nationals, Lin and his family have traveled to Taiwan at least twice a year.

"Now it's even more convenient, with the cheap flights on Air Asia. Half a year ago I came to tour the exhibition about the Yongzheng Emperor at the National Palace Museum," says Lim, revealing his interest in Chinese history and culture. Lim is a typical Southeast Asian of Chinese descent who enjoys exploring his cultural roots in Taiwan.

"Last year I bought The Great Beauty of Nature by (Taiwanese writer) Chiang Hsun at the Eslite bookstore. In his book Chiang very rightly points out that the Chinese character for 'busy' is composed of the two characters 'heart' and 'die,' meaning that our souls will wither away if we're too busy. So we need to come to Taiwan to relieve our stress." Lim believes that Southeast Asians like to travel to Taiwan over and over again because they love the ambience of Taiwan's guesthouses, recreational farms and rustic villages, and the island's four distinct seasons. On his current trip Lee booked the Fullerton Hotel on Taipei's Fuxing South Road, because he wants to sample the famous Taiwanese late-night snacks that are served at the nearby Xiao Li Zi porridge restaurant.

Lim, who lived in Hong Kong for more than a decade during his school years, recalls that he was never invited to his schoolmates' homes during holidays. "But in Taiwan, no matter whether it's Mid-Autumn Festival or Dragon Boat Festival, when Taiwanese friends return to the South for family reunions, they will always invite me to come with them. I think in the whole world you'll only find such friendliness in Taiwan and Thailand."

That people of Chinese ancestry feel welcome in Taiwan should not come as a surprise. But even for Westerners Taiwan's charm is not limited to its natural wonders, like Taroko Gorge. Many Europeans and Americans are fascinated by Taiwan's eclectic mix of old and new, its interesting blend of traditional culture and customs with cutting-edge high-tech and the latest trends and fashions.

Taiwanese Pop Culture Sparks Curiosity

Hungarian Andrea Sommerer, who is married to a German husband and has lived in Japan for a year, came to Taiwan in July this year to study Mandarin. Like many young Europeans in their thirties, Sommerer, who used to work as a paralegal, decided to take a "sabbatical" to see some of the world. Her curiosity for Taiwan was piqued two years ago when she saw her first Taiwanese movie, the romance "Secret," starring pop idol Jay Chou.

"I was surprised how beautiful many places in the movie were. They had a Chinese touch, but also a tropical atmosphere. And the soundtrack was great too," she recalls. From then on Sommerer began to listen to Taiwanese pop music, which completely changed her impression of Taiwan as a cheap manufacturing base.

Sommerer particularly likes Taiwan's old houses, the narrow winding alleys of the historic quarters in Danshui, Pingsi, Jiufen and Lugang. "Taiwan's beauty is more natural. It's charming and friendly. You can imagine the owners of these old houses, how they go about their everyday lives, the dog they might keep," she sums up her travel impressions. Sommerer feels that in comparison modern city life seems as sterile as a hospital. Everything is spic and span, clean and convenient, but also very cold and indifferent.

"Western travel guides rarely feature Taiwan's traditional old houses and old streets. Instead, they mostly focus on shopping malls, and tourist spots like Longshan Temple and Snake Alley. That's why I don't read Western travel guides anymore. I prefer ones by Japanese authors," Sommerer says. Pointing to the Lonely Planet travel guide on Taiwan, Sommerer says its description of Danshui did not stir her interest, whereas the scenes of Danshui in Jay Chou's movie were so alluring that she wanted to see the place for herself.

For Sommerer, there are typical smells in the streets of Taipei – the delicate fragrance of freshly brewed tea, the aromatic smell of incense wafting from temples and the pungent odor of Chinese medicinal herbs – that highlight the city's trademark mix of modernity and living traditions.

"Modern travelers want to plunge into the lives of the locals," says You Chih-wei, president of L-instyle Boutique Travel Service. "They want to explore the little residential streets and alleys. What attracts foreigners to Taiwan are the things in our immediate surroundings. It's just that we can't believe this is what they're after."

In this regard, they do not differ from the Taiwanese who fancy living in an Italian mountain village or a traditional wooden house in Kyoto, or want to ride their bicycles through Provence in southern France.

"Travelers want to clearly know what kind of place they're in," You observes.

Taipei has stylish bookstores like Eslite and bustling night markets, setting it apart from Tokyo, Bangkok or Beijing. Tainan, meanwhile, is famous for its vast variety of snacks, which highlight the intrinsic quality of the ingredients through deceptively simple presentations. In Taiwan's old capital, travelers are in for a culinary experience to astound the taste buds.

Since last year food and travel writer Yeh Yi-lan has been accompanying a string of Hong Kong media on reporting trips across the island. "The same reporter came four times in one year, saying it couldn't be helped, because travel features on Taiwan sell so well," Yeh reveals. According to Yeh's observations, Hong Kong travelers originally began to look to Taiwan when popular travel destination Thailand became too dangerous because of its domestic political unrest. Now that they have discovered Taiwan's attractions, they keep coming back.

Taiwanese Snacks a Hit with Foreigners

Yeh has a lot of interesting stories to tell about the origins and peculiarities of everyday food culture. Eateries in Tainan, for instance, are open at different hours, because they get their produce and raw materials at different times of the day. Tainan residents do not eat the local delicacy milkfish after 12 a.m., whereas the famous beef noodle soup is usually only sold from 10 p.m. until 10 a.m. the next morning. "It's because meat that has been processed while still body-temperature, within the golden four hours after slaughtering in the evening and the early morning, tastes better than aged beef. When foreigners hear this, they're shocked," Yeh relates. Having organized many culinary discovery tours, Yeh observes that many foreigners are surprised to find such refinement and perfection at Tainan's unassuming eateries and food stalls.

Tainan snacks are diverse and inexpensive. While local chefs preserve tradition, they also keep experimenting and creating new delicacies, to the surprise and delight of visitors. "Tainan people are conservative and proud. They are as proud of their own cuisine as the Europeans that I have met on my trips to Europe," says Yeh. But while European culinary culture has a centuries-long history, Taiwan's food culture has only had some six decades to evolve since a large influx of refugees from mainland Chinese brought their local cuisines to the island at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Therefore, local dining has not yet caught up with the West in terms of food presentation, also because Taiwan – a former Japanese colony – has been strongly influenced by the Japanese art of understatement. As a result, Taiwan's outwardly plain snacks surprise with exquisite taste and refinement. "As our next step, we should really give it some deep thought as to how we can create a 'Taiwanese fusion cuisine' given that we are so deeply influenced by Western values in modern life," Yeh suggests.

In Taiwan, traveling comes with a human touch and savoir vivre. Perhaps, as the Taiwanese are coming to cherish the beauty that lies right on their doorstep, the rest of the world is taking a closer look too.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz