Taiwan and I got off to a rocky start. It didn’t help that I was already loathe to leave Vietnam, where I’d finally figured out how to order coffee the way I like it. Or that we landed in Taipei on a (typically) gloomy afternoon.
Or that our first AirBNB resembled a room in a college dorm, right down to its remotely accessible bathrooms of questionable hygiene.
It was such a rocky start, in fact, that I googled flights back to Hanoi the day we arrived.
Fortunately, Greg talked me off the ledge. We had contacts here, after all (not to mention a dwindling budget.) The month we planned to spend in Taipei would fly by fast, like it had in Istanbul.
Taking in this wisdom, and a few deep breaths, I decided to give Taiwan a chance.
I’m so glad I did.
Why? The country’s hospitality, for starters. And its endless variety of delicious food, easy navigability, ridiculous abundance of hiking trails, and jaw-dropping scenery.
Taiwan’s lack of tourists is also a plus, and a bewildering one. That’s because, among all of the places we visited, the country was one of the most accessible, affordable, and ultimately livable. Basically, it’s a dream come true for two broke Westerners who love themselves some street food and urban infrastructure.
And did I say Vietnam was beautiful? Feast your eyes on Taroko National Park.
And if you’re thirsty for fascinating, twentieth-century political history? Taiwan does not disappoint. It continues to make waves worldwide for its status: one ranging from “independent democracy” to “China’s backyard shed,” depending on who you ask.
So, without further ado, let’s talk Taiwan, her magic, and how she got to today. (Gratuitous food shots will, of course, be included.)
Boasting Asia’s seventh largest economy, at just a fraction of the size of its neighbors, you’d think Taiwan would get some respect.
Unfortunately, it gets far less than its 23 million citizens might like.
Consider that the world’s most powerful nations don’t even recognize Taiwan as a country. It no longer has a seat at the United Nations. Even the island’s Olympians have to compete under the banner of “Chinese Taipei” or be excluded from the games.
So why the global cold shoulder? In a word, China.
Taiwan and its northern neighbor have been locked in a tortured relationship for decades. (More on that later). The colossus views Taiwan as a rogue part of its empire, despite the fact that the island has its own constitution, military, and democratically-elected leaders.
But for all its trappings of nationhood, Taiwan leans heavily on China–over 70% of its investments and 40% of its trade go north. Taiwanese companies have invested 60 billion in China and over a million Taiwanese now live and work there, taking advantage of China’s economic power.
Despite this integration, the majority of Taiwanese want to keep or expand their independent status. And Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen recently denounced Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s claim that unification was “inevitable,” earning praise across the world, the island, and even the political aisle for her boldness.
Whatever happens in the future, mainland China’s influence on Taiwan is deeply rooted. Most Taiwanese speak Mandarin, and 95% of the population is ethnically Han Chinese.
The majority of Taiwanese people trace their roots back to Fujian and Guangdong provinces, with their own unique languages, customs, and food.
Delicious, delicious food. Like hujiao bing. Derived from Fujian province, these buns are usually stuffed with scallions and pork, before being topped with sesame seeds and baked to perfection.
Or gua bao. Also from Fujian province, these steamed white buns are filled with soy-sauce braised pork belly, pickled mustard veggies, sugar, cilantro, and peanut powder.
Or pork rice. Also from Fujian province. (Notice any trends?)
Pork is ubiquitous in Taiwan (it consumes the most per capita in Asia). But it’s far from the only thing, from China or otherwise.
Clear proof of this can best be found at night markets. They are a Taiwan highlight and are NOT. TO. BE. MISSED.
Our favorite in Taipei was Raohe Street, which is one of the city’s oldest. It’s situated in the Songshan District beside Songshan Temple, which was originally built in the 1700s and dedicated to the goddess of the sea. The temple has since been rebuilt a reported seven times and is one of Taiwan’s most popular destinations for locals and tourists.
But back to the market. Along with every kind of fried, breaded, and sweet snack imaginable, it’s chock-full of clothes, jewelry, hats, accessories, stuffed animals, and gizmos you never thought you needed. It’s also jam-packed as soon as the sun goes down.
Hualien’s Dongdamen Night Market was less intimidating for its crowds…and more for its sheer size. The country’s largest, it takes up multiple blocks. Its highlight is seafood (including massive oysters) and unique fare from local indigenous groups.
Regardless of which one you visit, Taiwan’s night markets (and its street fare in general) are an incredible way to taste the country’s diversity. Along with mainland-inspired dishes, you’ll find those from Japan. Like kǎo huāzhī (grilled squid on skewer).
Sushi, ramen, tempura, and takoyaki are also abundant.
And Taiwan has plenty of its own island specialities (including regional ones). Countrywide, you’ll find beef noodle soup, which was adapted from its Sichuan origins. You’ll also find fish balls, shaved ice, and radish cakes, the latter of which is part of the standard (and stupidly delicious) Taiwanese breakfast menu.
Oh, and this. Perhaps you recognize it?
Boba tea was born in Taiwan. And it is everywhere. You can get a cheap boba fix at any 7-11 (which are also ubiquitous here, and where you can, conveniently, also ship packages and pick up a spare pair of underwear along with sweet and salty snacks).
Or you can opt for the higher-end, organic, and/or ultra-lux Instagrammable boba options, including “Tiger’s Milk.” When flipped upside down, the beverage’s brown sugar streaks give it a “feline” edge (guaranteed to claw off your tooth enamel).
Less sweet but no less delicious are Taiwan’s bean-based desserts. Red bean soups (hong dou tang) with sesame-paste-stuffed mochi balls were one of my unexpected fave finds.
And these? Are just a handful of food photos and recs from our month in Taiwan. Needless to say, I was grateful that our Taipei AirBNB shared the block with a gym.
Tasting Taiwan’s top street eats is a delicious way to experience its multi-cultural history.
So too are walking tours. (Which are also a great way to work off all those gua bao.)
Greg and I did a few self-guided jaunts through parks and districts, including Beitou. The northernmost of Taipei’s twelve districts and one of its most mountainous, it is often shrouded in mist, giving it an ethereal quality.
Beitou is most famous, though, for its hot springs. It boasts one of the highest concentrations of spas and springs in the world. The rivers flowing through the area bring abundant steam and hot sulfur water, which is diverted into both public and private baths situated just off the main district park.
The Japanese, who ruled Taipei from 1895 to 1945, recognized Beitou’s potential. They brought popular Japanese hot spring culture to the area, establishing hotels and bathhouses–including the largest bathhouse in East Asia at the time.
This is now the site of the Beitou Hot Spring Museum. Completed in 1913, it retains Victorian-era trappings of red brick and wooden weatherboards, following a significant restoration in the 1990s. The interior features exhibitions on the area history, along with artifacts from Taiwan and Japanese culture.
While most of our walks were self-led, we did opt for a guided tour one evening. This one took us through Longshan Temple and the surrounding area. It was led by a group of local university students, including Vincent, who specialized in history and architecture.
Of particular interest was nearby Bopiliao historic block, with its beautifully-preserved wooden-and-brick buildings (held together by rice paste). In the 1800s, it was the city’s busiest commercial district, but has since become a much quieter outskirt.
Bopiliao’s paved, curved streets, designed so that rival immigrant factions from China didn’t have to see (and consequently spar) with one another, led us past multiple refurbished shops, exhibition centers, and a few dorm-style rooms. The government owns all the buildings in the area and offers cheap rent to students and entrepreneurs, so long as they uphold the historic value and cultural draw of the area.
Other areas of interest were the herb-heavy street stalls nearby, where vendors sell bitter digestive and “virality” teas. These were meant to serve consumers headed to the adjacent red-light district, where we wandered to next. This relatively quiet area features a row of “tea houses” and tired-looking proprietresses out front smoking cigarettes. Apparently, opaque windows signal that the establishment is “open for business” beyond the oolong-sipping kind.
The highlight of the tour, though, was undisputedly our time in Longshan Temple. It’s quite stunning. Built over 200 years ago, it was twice destroyed by typhoons and once by U.S. bombs, dropped during WWII on the then-Japanese territory. (Fortunately, the mosquitoes conspired to keep residents out of the temple that day. No one was killed.)
The temple’s Lady Buddha survived, and is now who visitors pray to when they visit. (But because she gets so many visitors, you’re advised to “tell the Buddha your name and social security number, so she knows who you are,” according to our guides).
For more specialized requests, you can visit the Taoist area on the backside of the temple, where you can pray to specific gods for all your academic, matchmaking, or procreation needs.
You can also throw the jiaobei and find out your fortune. Of Chinese origin, these crescent-shaped blocks are painted red on one side. Throwing both tells you whether or not you can move to the next step (which is drawing a fortune stick from the nearby jar).
Once you draw a fortune stick, look on the bottom to find its number, which will be between 1 and 100. Then, head over to the dresser and pull your fortune from a drawer with the corresponding number.
Learning about local rituals like jiaobei–and getting to partake–is one our favorite parts of travel. Especially when those rituals involve food.
Taiwanese hot pot is a tradition I can get behind. Originally from China, which has its own regional variations, hot pot is ubiquitous in Taipei (and, because it’s open late and involves big portions, is best enjoyed with a group.)
Our friend Brian invited us out with his colleagues for an all-you-can-eat version, which topped most of the gluttonous experiences I’ve ever had.
Broths come in several varieties, and are boiled in a pot on your table. Then come the plates. They arrived in courses: vegetable (taro, mushrooms, baby corn, greens, tofu), meat (slices of beef, pork), and seafood (shrimp, fish filet, fishcake). You use the long chopsticks to put your food of choice, which arrives raw on a plate, into your broth of choice, fondue style. You leave it for however long it might need to cook. And then repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
We traded dishes across the table, and compared notes on sauces we’d fashioned from the buffet (where one could theoretically whip up thousands of concoctions from the sesame, ginger, chili and other oils and bases available). We washed down each course with some rice and a delicious frozen apple juice.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so full in my life. But, of course, there is always room for dessert. (And Taiwan’s hot pot restaurants know this, which is why there’s self-serve ice cream at most of them. Bless.)
Less filling but also fun was another Taiwanese tradition, imported from Japan: karaoke. Karaoke TV (or KTV), with its on-screen imagery and graphics supplementing the beats and lyrics, is HUGE here.
We stumbled on a streetside version one evening. Pop into the booth, pay a few TND (Taiwanese New Dollars), and pick your song. Then pick up the mic, put on your headphones, and hit those high notes.
For a melting (hot)pot of cultural influences, Taiwan is a pretty peaceful place. But she wasn’t always that way.
Much of Taiwan’s unrest started as it typically does: with foreign rule. For centuries, indigenous and mainland-born islanders have dealt with colonizers, including the Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, and government of mainland China. This has inspired internal revolts, many of which were led by indigenous Taiwanese fed up at being subjugated and stripped of their land and cultural heritage.
The biggest revolts were under the rule of the Japanese, who took over Taiwan per treaty terms following the defeat of China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). Taiwanese wishing to remain under Chinese rule were given two years to sell their property and move to the mainland. Pro-Chinese officials protested, leading to on-again off-again guerilla fighting that took over 14,000 Taiwanese lives.
Fighting continued as the Japanese attempted to “civilize” and subjugate the indigenous Taiwanese, whom a Japanese researcher classified into eight specific groups (which is still the basis of aboriginal taxonomy used in Taiwan today). They also enforced Japanese loyalty and customs while still encouraging indigenous dress and rituals (so long as they didn’t conflict).
This isn’t to say all Taiwanese hated their colonizers. The Japanese industrialized Taiwan and significantly developed its public education, transit, and telecommunications sectors, leading to significant acceptance among much of the population. Yet conflicts continued throughout the early 20th century, especially with indigenous groups, as the Japanese continued to impose their language, government and even military service on unwilling Taiwanese in WWII.
Modern discontent in Taiwan, however, can be traced to General Chiang Kai-Shek’s arrival from mainland China in 1949. There, Chiang vowed to “regroup” his troops and then head back to the mainland, where he’d beat the communists once and for all.
This didn’t happen. What happened instead was the permanent exodus of two million of Chiang’s followers to Taiwan. This led to huge tension between the newly-arrived Chinese “mainlanders” and locals. While both were largely Han Chinese, the latter had occupied Taiwan for centuries, and viewed the new arrivals with suspicion and hostility.
It’s no surprise why. Chiang’s mainland-based Republic of China (ROC) government hadn’t been popular since taking over the island from Japan in 1945. Locals had grown frustrated by the ROC’s centralization of authority, corruption, and failure to tackle unemployment.
The final straw came on the night of February 27, 1947, when two Tobacco Monopoly Bureau agents struck a widow selling contraband cigarettes. Witnesses to the event formed an angry mob and the agents fled, but not before one shot into the crowd and killed a bystander.
News of this incident traveled fast. The next day, the island erupted in violence. Locals took over government offices while ROC forces shot and killed protestors. By evening the the government had declared martial law, arresting or shooting curfew violators.
Over the next few months, ROC troops imprisoned and executed between 3,000 and 4,000 Taiwanese suspected of conspiring against the government. This included many elites, but also a disproportionate number of high school students, and anyone suspected of being a communist sympathizer.
From the late 1940s through the 1980s, the ROC sent many of these political prisoners to Green Island. On this tiny volcanic speck off Taiwan’s southern coast, inmates faced “re-education” programs that included torture.
Martial law continued for decades under General Chiang’s rule, which lasted until 1975. Of all the figures in Taiwan’s history, he’s the most fascinating, inspiring cult-like worship and bitter resentment in equal doses.
Positive views of Chiang’s legacy have much to do with his WWII victory chops and his fight against mainland (and communist) influence. (As mentioned before, most Taiwanese still support independence).
Chiang also oversaw rapid economic growth and gave Taiwan its democratic constitution.
Yet Chiang’s legacy is far from democratic. Taiwan remained a one-party KMT state under Chiang’s rule, led by his mainland loyalists.
And let’s not forget that he led an administration that imprisoned and disappeared thousands. Right to assembly and publish were also strictly limited under martial law. Citizens weren’t even allowed to speak Taiwanese in schools or print it in media.
Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-Kuo, took over when his father died, instituting some democratic reforms and bringing martial law to an end in the mid-1980s. Taiwanese-born Lee Teng-hui continued with reforms upon Ching-Kuo’s death in 1988. Yet real multi-party democracy wasn’t fully realized until 2000, when Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party was elected as the first non-KMT President of Taiwan.
Internal disputes over rights continue in Taiwan, as they do in any functioning democracy. Today, same-sex marriage is a big topic, given a deadline affecting its legalization at the end of this month. The rights and representation of indigenous people (who comprise around 2% of the population) are also less than ideal.
Yet the island has made a lot of headway since the days of colonization, martial law, and a guy named Chiang. (It now tops the US in Freedom House’s annual democracy index).
And there’s a lot that the rest of the world could learn from Taiwan, for that matter. The Taipei metro system is seamless, and stations have spotless public restroom facilities.
Those facilities include breastfeeding rooms. Which fits in with Taiwan’s progressive (by American standards) approach to birth. National leave policy entitles 8 weeks off, fully paid, for new mothers, many of whom opt to spend the first month with their newborn in well-deserved luxury.
Taiwan may be small, but there are plenty of reasons she’s been so coveted and popular. Her natural beauty, for one.
Passing Portugese sailors dubbed her “Isle Formosa” (beautiful island) in the 16th century. The name made its way onto European maps, where it remained for centuries.
It’s easy to see why.
I have been to 14 countries on this trip. And I’ve seen several wonders of the world, natural and manmade. But I don’t know that I’ve seen anything as stunning as Taroko.
One of nine national parks in Taiwan, Taroko sits a couple of hours south of Taipei. The easiest jumping-off point is the city of Hualien, which is a 40 minute drive by motorbike.
Motorbike is how we spent three days tooling around Taroko. It was the perfect way (as a passenger, at least) to see the park, where wide, winding roads and bridges lead you past one panoramic vista after another.
Going by motorbike also lets you split your time between driving and hiking. There are several trails in Taroko, many of them taking only an hour or two. This allowed us to hit several of the most popular sections of the park in two days.
The stunner of the park is Taroko Gorge. It’s 19-km long and features steep cliffs of metamorphic rock descending down to the rushing Liwu River.
Shifts in tectonic plates and erosion from riverwater reveal stunning strata of rock along the gorge walls, while descending mists add to its ethereality.
Beyond the gorge, there are canyons, coniferous forests, coastal cliffs and even some of the highest peaks on the island, which reach over 11,000 feet. Given this variety of habitats, it’s no wonder that 144 kinds of birds and 30 large mammal species, including the elusive Formosan bear, call the park home.
It’s hard to believe that all of this was threatened not too long ago. The ROC government revoked Taroko’s National Park status once it took over from the Japanese. It wasn’t until 1986 that the park regained recognition and with it, government protection.
While Taroko is mostly about natural beauty, it has some beautiful manmade structures too. Including Eternal Spring or Changchun Shrine, which commemorates the 212 veterans who died building the Central Cross-Island Highway in the late 1950s.
There’s also a magnificent bell tower above it. We climbed up and gave it a ring. (Hopefully not disturbing the local monks too much.)
We kept our hikes relatively short, seeing as most of the longer ones required a permit. But we did do a bit of “offroading” to get to Wenshan Hot Springs.
The park website will tell you its closed. But plenty of locals and adventurous travelers will tell you otherwise.
We found advice online about how to reach the springs, which were discovered in the 1950s by a Japanese military officer. Subsequent rockslides and typhoons swept away much of their infrastructure in the early 2000s, but a few small pools remain, and are reachable with a bit of grit (and rope).
Greg and I made our way down the steep ledge as slowly and carefully as possible, using the rope to lower ourselves onto the remaining bit of rocky outcropping. Just around the corner were the springs, and a couple of other occupants who had settled in for the afternoon. One guy lived in the area and made regular trips to Wenshan. He also found it refreshing to cool off in the rushing river after spending time in the scalding springs. (But he couldn’t convince us to join him. That current looked ROUGH, and our travel insurance only goes so far.)
The hot springs were our last stop in Taroko. We headed back to Hualian, but not before taking some time to appreciate the coast (along with some Sapporo and shrimp chips from 7-11).
Fortunately, Taroko isn’t the only place to get in some scenic trail action. Taiwan, two-thirds of which is mountainous, is huge on hiking.
Consequently, its hiking infrastructure is unparalleled. Over 20% of its land has protected status. And nearly all hiking trails are paved and have signs every quarter kilometer or so, telling you whether you’re still on the right path. (Along with some fun info about the local flora and fauna).
Hiking in and around Taipei is pretty fantastic too. Aside from Taroko, all of our hiking took place on day or morning jaunts around the capital.
The most epic of these hikes was the Seven Star Mountain Hike at Yangmingshan National Park. Just an hour and change outside of Taipei by public transit, Yangmingshan was formerly known as Caoshan (‘Grass Mountain’), as there were no trees for miles. Planning for the modern-day park started in the 1960s, leading to an excellent array of trails.
No matter your fitness level, there’s something for you at Yangmingshan. Stairmaster junkies will love Seven Star. (For the rest of you, be warned).
The hike takes you to the top of Mt. Qixing, which, at 3,600 feet, offers some great views of Taipei and the coast. (Or so we’re told. It was so foggy we couldn’t see much!)
We were famished after the ascent. Luckily, we soon stumbled on a mountaintop pavilion, where we indulged in our staple Taiwan hiking lunch (rice balls from 7-11).
We even found a communal hot spring pool at the end of the trek, which was perfect for resting our feet after a long day on the trails. (We didn’t realize how necessary this would be until we had to stand for another 45 minutes on the minibus back to the city.)
One of our favorite in-town hikes was Elephant Mountain. Located just off one of the central metro stations, it ended up being the first and last hike of our trip. We only made it up so far on our first attempt, led by Brian, before the rain caught us.
Greg, Brian and I made it up to this fabulously colorful Buddha before the rain made us call it quits.
We got to the top the next time around. The hike was fairly short but really steep at the end. The views, though, were totally worth it.
If views (and photo opps) aren’t hiking reward enough, there’s also delicious tea. Wenshen, the southernmost of Taipei’s twelve districts, features plenty of trails and tea plantations nestled on its lush mountains.
Turns out that those mountains that make for such epic hiking also make for excellent oolong production. Twenty percent of the world’s oolong is grown in Taiwan, where it’s traditionally harvested five times per year.
If you’re not familiar, oolong is a semi-oxidized tea, with a depth and richness somewhere between green and black tea.
Taiwan’s foggy, tropical mountain climate is where some of the world’s best oolong is grown, including Oriental Beauty, Alishan High Mountain, and Iron Goddess (also known as Tieguanyin). Like wine, climate and soil affect tea, as does post-pick production, meaning that the variations here are endless.
They also ain’t Lipton. These teas, which have won worldwide competitions, command over 1000 USD per kilo in some cases.
Since my husband is a tea fanatic, we made a pilgrimage to Wang Tea Shop. Founded in 1890, the company moved in 1907 to its current location in the Dadao Cheng district, where it set up a refinery. You can still see remnants of the old (and current) production facilities today.
Along with a tour, we were treated to a tasting of Wang’s teas. They included Wenshen Pouchong, a green-gold oolong tea that is lightly fermented. We ended up with a box of 4th run (though they range from 5th up to 1st. The latter has the highest concentration of perfect leaves, and also the highest price).
With so much to do (and see, and eat, and drink) in Taiwan, there’s much to document.
The country upped our photography game significantly over the course of the month, in no small part to its photo-snapping culture.
And in no small part to the wacky wonderfulness that emerges at random in Taipei.
Staying put for a month also gave us the chance to make friends. Thanks to our dear friends Caroline and Marshall, we got connected to Karen and Patrick, who’ve lived in the country for the past few years. They treated us to tasty Taipei stir-fry and tickets to the Taipei baking expo, where we stuffed ourselves full of Taiwanese treats. (Including their brand-new microwavable KP Kitchen cake mix, which is DELICIOUS).
They also invited us to visit them in Yilan. The county is southeast of Taipei and is incredibly scenic, with several coastal attractions, trails and quaint towns. It also has hot springs and several established baths. (The one we visited was my favorite yet in our travels. It had small pools and steam rooms scented with lavender, rose, mint, milk and tea. Glorious).
We also got our seafood fix thanks to Daxi’s fish market. Clams, shrimp, squid, and fish, any way you want them, freshly caught from the boats just outside.
The hiking. The nature. The food (and tea). And new friends.
We left Taiwan richer than when we came.
Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t buy that ticket back to Hanoi.
Thanks to Brian, Karen, and Patrick for making our stay so memorable (and delicious!) And thanks to Caroline and Marshall, who made it all possible.
We’ll definitely be back before too long!
Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan. Fiction, but gives deep historical background about the era of authoritarian rule in Taiwan.