‘The foot was relaxed. The human was happy too.’ There is something unarguably lost in translation, but this sign outside a massage parlour in Taipei on my last evening was quite apt. I had set off for Taiwan with a sense of jumping in with my eyes closed, but I came back with a sense of an adventure had.
Taiwan is a smallish country — off the southeast coast of China — measuring less than 400 kilometres tip to toe. Most of this distance you can cover in about ninety minutes thanks to the High Speed Rail that runs along its west coast from the capital, Taipei, at the northern tip, to Kaohsiung in the south. While that might be an exciting, if expensive, trip, in Taiwan you are overwhelmed by an urge to stop and stare.
If there are three things you must do here, they are: visit a night market (and make good use of those bargaining genes); eat as much as you can (local street food and real Chinese food); and drink lots of tea. Of course, feel free to do all three at the same time.
Taiwan is a tea-drinker’s paradise. Or not. It all depends on how you approach it. It helps if you’re ready for an adventure, and especially if you don’t think of it as tea at all.
They take their tea very seriously in this part of the world — that much is evident from the sheer variety available. Green tea, black tea and, of course, oolong tea — familiar names for anyone with an antenna out for the life-giving brew. But the chrysanthemum green milk tea with honey that I picked up at a 7-Eleven outlet in a moment of madness had a surprisingly happy ending too.
Anyhow, witnessing a Taiwanese tea ceremony is a good way to scratch the surface of the tea culture. And there’s nowhere better than the Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea House (next to the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts) in Taichung. Some people credit Taichung as the place where the tea-drinking tradition has its roots, and this particular teahouse prides itself on reviving the ceremony the way it was done during the period of the Song Dynasty. Traditionally, a tea ceremony might comprise up to seven serves, the first being tea only, followed by tea with pastries, but carefully selected so as not to clash with the flavour of the tea. Incense, flower arrangements and painting or calligraphy would round it off as an eclectic, intellectual experience.
The ceremony for our benefit was conducted by tea master Feng Kuo Chung using high mountain tea, a first flush, grown at about 1,200 feet, and very expensive. But of course, there are any number of teas used, each with its own ‘personality’. The brewing and pouring was a precise and elaborate affair, and the tasting itself no casual matter either. Step one, inhale the aroma; step two, drink it; and finally, step three, finish off with another deep sniff. The taste: a woody, flowery one with a whiff of the high mountain.
The Chun Shui Tang teahouse is allegedly the birthplace of a phenomenon currently also sprouting in Delhi — bubble tea and its offshoot, pearl milk tea. If you’re up for a spot of DIY, the people at the Chun Shui Tang teahouse will let you make your own. The story goes that founder Liu Han Jie was intrigued by a cold-coffee shaker in Japan in the early 1980s and brought one back with him to shake tea and ice together to ‘invent’ a frothy (bubble) iced tea. A few years later — likely a result of serendipitous experimentation — pearl milk tea was born, a mixture of tea, milk, sugar and gelatinous tapioca balls (the ‘pearls’). You are offered an obscenely thick straw to drink with in order to accommodate the pearls. Rumour has it that you get some of the best bubble tea at this teahouse, but it is otherwise commonly available in Taiwan. P.S.: pearl milk tea is an acquired taste.
Taichung has plenty of options for the tourist keen on do-it-yourself culture. We followed the pearl-milk-tea-making with a lesson on how to bake our own suncakes at the Pao Chuan bakery. Suncakes are a well-known Taiwanese delicacy, also originating in Taichung, and popular for its low-sugar and low-oil recipe. It is essentially pastry dough with maltose fillings, wrapped and rolled together in a specific way, and baked. It goes without saying that eating it was far more fun than making it. Other fascinating ways to spend an afternoon in Taichung include roasting your own coffee beans, creating art out of towels (!) and making sculptures from cardboard.
It was typhoon season when we were visiting — though the western part of the island, where Taichung is, is blessed by being on the leeward side — and we had fair warning that the weather might be unpredictable. Indeed, the usually pleasant Taichung was uncomfortably warm as we took a walk along its ‘green lung’, the Calligraphy Greenway. This 3.6-kilometre stretch is a network of green walkways linking some of the city’s major cultural landmarks, and gets its name from being inspired by a particular form of calligraphy. Likened to Paris’ Champs-Élysées and New York’s Fifth Avenue, the Calligraphy Greenway can be enjoyed as an aimless but picturesque stroll, an opportunity to admire some local contemporary sculpture — including the Glass House built from recycled bottles — or pop into the many shops, restaurants and boutiques that line the Greenway.
It is a picturesque drive from Taichung to the heart of Taiwan — the Sun Moon Lake, in what is more or less the geographic centre of the island nation, in Nantou County. This is Taiwan’s largest lake, nestled in the central mountains at about 750 metres above sea level. We were lucky to arrive on a slightly overcast day, which left a floating mist along the emerald green surface. It wasn’t much of a flight of fancy for a gaming nerd like me to imagine I was in the middle of an Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim in particular.
A small island called Lalu bisects the lake in two — one part round like the sun, the other shaped like a moon; hence its name. The area around has been home to the aboriginal tribe, the Thao, since the time of the Qing Dynasty, though there are not many of them left. Sun Moon Lake is a popular attraction for travellers, and the local tourism authorities have taken great pains to maintain its cultural integrity as well as develop it as a tourist hub. You can easily spend a couple of days here — there are boat trips, a ropeway ride, an aboriginal cultural village, bicycle paths and bikes on hire, a hike around the lake, excursions around the area — in short, something to tingle every taste.
We took the ropeway to Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village, whose most fascinating appeal was the open-air museum of living history showcasing the aboriginal culture of China and Taiwan. The exhibits and relics whisk you back in time for a glimpse of the lives of the nine different tribes featured here. You can walk into houses, try your hand at traditional activities like pottery and sculpting, admire the life-like exhibits, or just stroll, eat and buy souvenirs.
Whereas the aboriginal museum lives up to the best traditions of open-air museums as conceptualised in Scandinavia, the Formosan Village on the whole perhaps takes it a step too far. There are two other sections to this complex — an eyesore of an amusement park and an incongruous European garden. In sum, the good, bad and ugly rolled into one package.
There are plenty of excursions around Sun Moon Lake, one of them being the place we stopped at for lunch — Checheng, once a prosperous township known for its coal and lumbering industry. There is a wood museum harking back to its logging era, complete with an old sawmill and a logging pool. Worthy of mention is the Cedar Tea House next door, which does a great boxed lunch — vegetarian soup, salad, sticky rice with greens, chicken, fish or vegetarian options. It comes in a wooden bucket-like box that you can keep as a souvenir.
Sun Moon Lake — both the lake and the area around it are referred to by this name — is undoubtedly beautifully maintained, and offers a heady mix of nature and culture. It is even more significant when you are reminded that the earthquake of 1999 which devastated Taiwan had its epicentre in these parts and takes its name from Jiji, the smallest township in the country, about fifteen kilometres from Sun Moon Lake.
Apart from the earthquake, Jiji’s claim to fame is Jiji Branch Railway Station, the oldest train station in Taiwan, which was lovingly rebuilt piece by piece after 1999. However, the site that we headed to was something very different, though it had to do with the quake, too. The 7.6-magnitude devastation had brought down the Wuchang Temple in Jiji, but instead of pulling it down and rebuilding it, the local authorities decided to leave it as it was as a monument to the natural disaster. Macabre? So I thought, too, till I saw it for myself.
The collapsed temple overshadows the grand new one built next door. The unusual nature of the quake thirteen years ago resulted in the columns of the building collapsing, making the structure fold in on itself in an almost diffident manner. Words don’t do it justice.
Jiji also happened to be the hometown of our guide, Francis, and he recommended trying some of the locally grown fruit. The area is known for its agricultural products, and in the small market opposite the ruined Wuchang Temple — one of many that dot the town — there was local produce for sale: tea, preserves, dried fruit, soaps and so on. But the one item that caught my eye was an alarming-looking sliced egg, where the white was black! After some desperate signing and, later, some help from Francis, it turned out that it was a Chinese speciality called thousand-year egg, made by marinating the egg in a specially prepared mix. I steeled myself to sample some — and survived to tell the tale. In fact, I brought some back home with me.
Back in Taipei, our next move was to head to the northeast of the country, to Yilan County for some — hold your breath — whale-watching! About a dozen private tourist companies run excursions that take tourists out to sea, past Turtle Island, the only active volcano in Taiwan. However, what should have been the trip of a lifetime turned to out be a fizzle. To cut a long and painful story short, our trip in the afternoon was absolutely the wrong time to try to spot whales and dolphins. Also, the company of dozens of strangers being sick in plastic bags or over the edge of the boat didn’t make for a memorable trip; nor the fact that the lifejackets were not very clean. Needless to say, we were very glad to head back to the capital.
Taipei is, of course, the commercial and political hub of Taiwan. If one has to pick one touristy thing to do here, the National Palace Museum would easily top the list, including standing in line to see the Jade Cabbage. Rated one of the top museums in the world, the museum has had an eventful existence — parts of its collection have been moved in and out of Taiwan multiple times, and there is reportedly a long-running feud with the Chinese government about the ownership of certain artefacts. At the moment, the museum has almost 7,00,000 pieces to its name — paintings, sculptures, calligraphy, porcelain and more. Only about 60,000 artefacts are displayed at any given time, though the displays change every quarter. Even then, it would take you twelve years to see everything.
From history to hilarity — those of us not easily queased-out were amused at the thought of dinner at the Modern Toilet Restaurant in Ximen Plaza, Taipei’s main shopping area. Sitting on toilet seats, with a bathtub as a table, and food served in toilet-shaped plates — you need a certain type of humour to appreciate this. And irrespective of how hardy you believe your stomach to be, it is advisable to steer clear of chocolate ice cream here.
If pretending to eat sitting on a toilet is unpalatable, it is hard to come up with a word to describe the Five Dime Boathouse, where we had lunch on our last day. Designed and built by self-taught architect Xie Li-xiang, this building almost rips the eyes out of your head. It has been described as an ‘architectural marvel’, ‘deranged’ and ‘avant-garde’, but none of these phrases come close to pinning it down. The Five Dime Boathouse — there are three others apart from the Taipei outlet, each different — is in a class and category of its own. Outside, there is a giant statue of a woman doing a sort of undulating dance by the staircase that leads up to the entrance. Inside, it is a sort of insane shipwreck theme with psychedelic upholstery. But what’s special about the place is that the construction is all driftwood, trees and ceramics — and some berserk creativity.
In the sixteenth century, Portuguese sailors were charmed by this little island and called it Ilha Formosa — Beautiful Island. It’s not hard to see why. But apart from its scenic location, Taiwan has another treasure — its people. So what if the language barrier is as thick as a dragon’s hide? In the smaller places, where the street signs are in Chinese only and even the old joke about Indians not being able to read maps becomes moot, all you have left are the ready smiles and the greetings.
China Airlines flies direct twice a week from Delhi to Taoyuan International Airport, Taipei. An economy-class Delhi–Taipei return trip costs about Rs 55,000. There are plenty of other options from Delhi and other metros for a more pocket-friendly trip — via Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Bangkok, Singapore, etc — Air India, Jet Airways, Thai Airways, China Southern, Cathay Pacific and others. Prices start from Rs 39,000.
Indian passport holders with valid visas for the US, UK, Canada, Japan, Schengen countries, Australia and New Zealand are eligible for visa-exempt entry into Taiwan for up to 30 days. You will, however, need to obtain a permit online. Others need a visa (a single-entry tourist visa costs Rs 2,500). Visit taiwanembassy.org/in for details.
Need to know
English is not spoken widely in Taiwan. Big cities and tourist spots do have information in English. It helps to know some basic Mandarin and to take the help of a travel agency. Try Think Strawberries (thinkstrawberries.com) in Delhi.
Taiwan's currency is the New Taiwanese dollar (NT$); NT$ 1 = approx. Rs 1.98.
Taiwan enjoys decent weather year-round, though November to February is the best time to travel. June to October is typhoon season, so expect unpredictable weather then.
Taiwan is well connected — your options include air, rail, high-speed rail, bus, car rental, taxi and even sea. Visit the Taiwan Tourism Bureau website (eng.taiwan.net.tw) for further information.
Taipei is well connected by a mass rapid transit system (MRT) — a day pass for unlimited travel costs NT$ 150 and single-journey tickets start at NT$ 20. Other options are metered taxis, though you’re unlikely to find an English-speaking driver.
In and around Sun Moon Lake, you can get around on foot, by boat, ropeway and bicycle.
In Taichung, there is a bus service, but unless you’re familiar with the routes and know some Mandarin, taxi is the best option.
Where to stay
Taipei: There are hotels to suit every budget, with budget options such as the Shanglin Hotel (+886-22-3711247) starting at NT$ 1,680 to luxury hotels like The Regent (regenthotels.com/EN/Taipei) for NT$ 12,000.
Sun Moon Lake: The Lalu Hotel (NT$ 15,500; thelalu.com.tw) is great if budget is not a constraint. Otherwise, try the pretty Country Life Hostel (+886-49-2899132) with rooms from around NT$ 2,000.
Taichung: Accommodation here is cheaper, with a five-star hotel like the Evergreen Laurel (evergreen-hotels.com) offering rooms from NT$ 8,000. Budget options like Fu Di Hotel (+886-42-3726855) for around NT$ 1,000 are available, too, as well as B&Bs — such as the Moon Lake House Inn (+886-42-5819203), starting at NT$ 2,000.
Refer to the Taiwan Tourism Bureau website for extensive listings.
What to see & do
Taichung: The National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts houses an excellent collection of art. Entry is free. At Fengjia Night Market, pick yourself some delicious bargains — and the food is good too. Learn to make suncakes, bubble tea and lavender oil; towel art and cardboard sculptures at the DIY workshops in the centre of Taichung. Prices vary; see lohaspot.com.tw for details. The 921 Earthquake Museum of Taiwan conserves the damage done by the quake as well as the fault line of the quake. Entry is free on Wednesday mornings, and at all times for children and senior citizens; NT$ 50 otherwise.
Sun Moon Lake: A boat tour is the best way to enjoy the Sun Moon Lake, and don’t miss the floating gardens from close up. (NT$ 300 per adult, NT$ 250 per child, and for larger groups a boat can be chartered). The ropeway gives you a fantastic view of the lake and the mountains around it and is also the best way to get to the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village. Tickets are NT$ 300 per adult. Visitors to the village can use the ropeway for free. Entry is NT$ 700 (adult) and NT$ 550 (child) for a one-day pass. For a reminder of Checheng’s logging history, drop by at the Checheng Wood Museum. Also stop for a meal at Cedar Tea House. It’s worth driving down to Jiji — do visit the train station here, one of Taiwan’s oldest, and reconstructed after the 1999 earthquake. The Wuchang Temple here is a must-visit.
Taipei: Plan a day trip to Turtle Island for some whale-watching at Yilan County, or stay overnight and catch an early-morning boat ride to spot whales. There are many private tour operators (prices start from about NT$1,200 per adult and NT$1,000 per child). Don’t miss the Lin Liu-Hsin puppet workshop–museum–theatre if puppets interest you (NT$ 80 for adults; NT$ 50 for kids). If you're shopping for gadgets, go to Guang Hua Digital Plaza. Bargains of all other sorts can be had at Shilin Night Market, one of Taiwan’s largest night markets. A ride up to the top of the dizzying Taipei 101 is also recommended (about NT$ 400 per adult and NT$ 370 per child). Finally, it would be a travesty to not visit the National Palace Museum (entry is NT$ 160; students and groups of 10 or more have a rate of NT$ 100).