From non-stop Taipei city to a majestically mountainous interior, Wanderlust explores the island that's more Chinese than China
Taipei City never sleeps. On boulevards of neon-lit skyscrapers I could eat noodles all night or browse Parisian catwalk fashions until sunrise. And if my energy levels dipped, I could grab a midnight espresso at a 24-hour café-bar and listen to Mozart’s ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ played by musical dustcarts cleaning the streets. Quirky and unceasingly energetic, Taipei was everything I’d imagined of a trip ‘Made in Taiwan’.
The Taiwanese work long hours to maintain the economic miracle that has transformed this small north-east-Asian island from agricultural backwater to manufacturing superpower in just a few decades. In the process, they’ve filled our households with everything from televisions and stereos to the plastic toys that pop out of our Christmas crackers.
So, before arriving, it was easy to imagine Taiwan as one gigantic factory: an island of electrical wholesalers, ripe for an extended shopping trip. Well, sure enough, it is a shopper’s paradise. Sterling is strong against the Taiwanese dollar and the myriad super-sized shopping malls and silicon souks crammed with electrical goodies are wickedly tempting.
Yet, peeling away its technocratic veneer, I quickly discovered that the Taiwanese aren’t all workaholic drones. Better still, Taiwan retains elements of authentic Chinese culture no longer found in mainland China.
Unlike its Big Brother neighbour, the island never endured a Cultural Revolution that throttled the living daylights out of its customs and traditions. In 1949, after losing a power struggle to Mao Zedong’s communists, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang army and more than two million migrants fled from China to Taiwan. In the process they brought with them the values and beliefs of a traditional Chinese society – now long-banished memories in today’s People’s Republic.
Part of that cultural heritage arrived in 4,000 crates. When the nationalists arrived in 1949 they brought with them (for ‘safekeeping’, of course) the greatest collection of Chinese art ever amassed. Taipei’s stunning National Palace Museum now houses this collection.
Johan, my guide, explained that the collection was secretly put together throughout the 18th-century reign of Chinese Emperor Chi’en-lung, yet only discovered in 1911 by revolutionaries entering Beijing’s Forbidden City to end Imperial rule. The collection is humungous. We were whisked from sublime 8,000-year-old jade axes and grave artefacts (from an era when, I imagined, my own ancestors were still grunting and thumping each other with wooden clubs) to decorative bronze ware. My favourite was a 1,000BC salver calligraphically inscribed with 350 characters reciting the terms of a peace treaty.
Not all such engravings were so welcome. “Chi’en-lung had this habit of covering precious artefacts with his awful poetry,” lamented Johan. Mercifully the emperor spared the museum’s fabulous ceramic collection from too many of his woeful rhyming couplets. Johan wouldn’t put a price on the most iconic piece: a Sung Dynasty ceramic pillow shaped like a chubby child, of which only three remain. But pausing at a diminutive Ming tou-ts’ai dipping bowl decorated with cockerel motifs he revealed – to a collective gasp – that a private one had sold recently for $14 million.
I wanted one – but had to make do that evening with browsing reproduction Ming vases at one of Taipei’s many night markets. If anything proves the Taiwanese aren’t all-work-and-no-play it’s evenings on the streets. Shopping and eating are their passions. Crowds flock to futuristic retail outlets like Xinyi District’s multi-storey malls and food halls which encircle the world’s tallest building, Taipei 101 – at 508m, it’s like a leviathan lighthouse, warning credit cards they’re about to hit the rocks.
Nowhere, though, are such hedonistic pleasures easier to digest than around Snake Alley, Taiwan’s most famous night market – named for its many restaurants serving bowls of snake soup.
Besides jade and ceramic shops, herbalists and tea bars, food stalls around the alley offer more appetising meals than sautéed serpent. OK, maybe not the crispy-fried bird (beak and all), but generally Taiwan’s cuisine is a mouth-watering synthesis of regional dishes. Cantonese migrants brought dumplings and noodles while spicier recipes hail from Sichuan. Native cooking uses heartier island ingredients of fish, taro leaves and sweet potato, while the Japanese (who occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945) left sushi and the popular shabu-shabu hotpot.
The Taiwanese also retain a strong affinity for traditional medicine and healing – not least in Snake Alley, where I found rows of tired soles being kneaded by white-coated reflexologists in numerous foot massage salons. I couldn’t resist.
Mrs Li, my masseuse, welcomed me with the typical flattery that is part of the Taiwanese greeting. If I’d had a pound for each time somebody called me “handsome” I could’ve afforded a plastic surgeon so they’d have been less wide of the mark. However, she wasn’t quite so complimentary about my feet, tut-tutting at assorted calluses.
“Look at this chart,” she ordered. “If somewhere hurt when I press you have problem with organs.” See-sawing between ecstasy and agony as she squeezed my feet, the chart appeared to indicate that both liver failure and impotence were imminent, though judging by fellow patient’s contorted faces a few coronaries were actually in progress. Nonetheless, I departed rejuvenated and walking on air towards Lungshan Temple.
Taiwan’s widely practised spiritual beliefs are unique to the Chinese world, combining an extraordinary spiritual soup of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism with ancestral worship. A Taiwanese proverb claims ‘a temple can be found every three steps’, and indeed there are thousands across the island, thriving with religious practises that were all but eradicated in atheist China during the Cultural Revolution.
At night, with attendance swollen by homeward-bound commuters, Lungshan becomes a thrilling spectacle. Built around 1738 by immigrants from southern China’s Fujian Province, I’d only ever seen such rainbow colours and unrestrained carving in Indian Hindu temples. Lungshan’s pagoda roof is crowded with serpents and demonic-looking deities while inside, amid a fog of incense, are red- and gold-gilded beams and columns wrapped with multi-headed dragons. Devotees bow before deities, cymbals crash, candles smoulder and priests chant.
Most Taiwanese temples are hybrids. Lungshan was once solely Buddhist but has accumulated dozens of Taoist deities over the years and is now dedicated to Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy. Taoism – literally ‘the way’, a religious philosophy centred on the 6th-century writings of Lao-tzu – is complex but I liked the refreshingly pragmatic way the Taiwanese utilise its pantheon of deities. Devotee Winnie told me she’d called in to give thanks for a wish that came true.
“What was that?” I pried.
“I can’t say,” she blushed, yet I’d already seen other young women praying before a deity offering prospective Mr Rights. I also chatted to a businessman seeking better career prospects and a gaggle of students beseeching the God of examinations for A-pluses.
“There’s much crossover between religions here,” confirmed the venerable Hue Shou, my guide the next day at Foguangshan Monastery. “Taiwanese people choose the bits they like but see no contradiction in being Buddhist in the morning and Taoist in the afternoon.”
I’d travelled 300km south from Taipei by train to Foguangshan near Kaohsiung City, the island’s industrial powerhouse. It’s Taiwan’s largest Buddhist monastery and allows visitors to join the 400 monks and nuns for an overnight stay with meditation, t’ai chi and chanting ceremonies.
I’d expected pious austerity, yet found the complete opposite. The modern monastery is the size of a small city and imbued with extravagant lavishness. The main shrine’s three 7.8m-high seated Buddha glittered in the glare of 14,800 lit Buddha statues arranged around the walls. During our tour Hue Shou showed me golden-roofed pavilions, expensive gift shops, an opulent new hall housing one of Buddha’s teeth and eventually my own comfortable en-suite room with cable TV featuring Beautiful Life – Foguangshan’s very own television network.
I’d timed my visit to witness one of the monastery’s most important yearly celebrations. Taiwan has many colourful festivals and, that day, large crowds had gathered to revere ancestors at the Land and Sea Dharma Service. “The festival is based on superstition, and not very Buddhist,” confided Hue Shou (an enjoyable old cynic at heart). “But if we didn’t host it people would go and celebrate it at the nearest Taoist temple,” he added, explaining Foguangshan’s bums-on-seats philosophy.
After a procession of pilgrims and much collective chanting, a volley of firecrackers initiated the burning of a wooden boat and its cargo of scrolls containing the names of deceased loved ones. A blazing inferno showered ash into the assembled ranks; suddenly there were screams in the crowd. Someone was burning!
But no, devotees were turning and pointing feverishly into the sky at sunrays that for the first time that day had sneaked beneath the clouds.
“It’s a miracle, look at it!” shrieked a hysterical pilgrim next to me; a monk grabbed my notepad and scrawled: ‘The sun has turned.’
Not expecting such superstitious fervour in a country so grounded in science and technology, I was taken aback. Hue Shou, however, wasn’t impressed. “Oh, they do this every year,” he chided. “Last year the clouds resembled lotus leaves.”
Beyond the cities Taiwan’s wild countryside is completely at odds with its industrialised reputation. In the 16th century Portuguese mariners christened the island Formosa, meaning ‘beautiful’, and along the rugged eastern coastline it’s easy to see why. Some 65% of Taiwan is mountainous; peaks scaling 3,500m fall away onto the Pacific Ocean shelf of black-sand beaches, lime-green paddies and banana groves.
It’s to these mountains the Taiwanese flee the city’s stresses and strains to pursue the popular weekend pastimes I was keen to sample myself: hiking and hot-spring bathing.
Taroko Gorge, just outside Hualien on the east coast, is the most famous of Taiwan’s six national parks. Visitors can hike inside the 1,200 sq km park along the River Liwu’s tributaries through subtropical forests of mulberry, maple and camphor trees inhabited by macaques – or join busloads of Taiwanese photographing each other in front of misty waterfalls and plunging marble cliff faces. It was when hiking the park’s 9km-long Shakatang Trail, however, that my understanding of what exactly it means to be ‘Made in Taiwan’ was once again shaken.
Two men passed me on the riverside track carrying machetes and bundles of edible bird’s-nest ferns cultivated in semi-wild gardens. We exchanged nods but nothing else. I had no idea how to address them. They were native Pacific islanders (Austronesians, to be anthropologically correct), the original inhabitants of Taiwan. With distinct languages, Taiwan’s aboriginals have more in common with the indigenous tribes of Polynesia and Indonesia, arriving on Taiwan thousands of years before the first 17th-century waves of Chinese immigration began.
Years ago this would have been a troublesome encounter – their ancestors were headhunters. These particular Atayal tribesmen (one of 12 officially recognised island tribes) had a fearsome reputation heightened by blue facial tattoos. Today, other than cultural shows in hotel foyers, it is rare to come across any of the island’s indigenous communities. They’ve dwindled to less than 2% of the population and are struggling to stave off cultural assimilation into mainstream Taiwanese life.
After my day’s hiking, with the revitalising effects of my foot massage fading, I was ready for a hot spring. Taiwan’s location on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ means that volcanically hot and mineralised water spurts from just about every crevice along the mountainous east coast. There are many luxurious spa resorts on Taiwan, but I could live without hot-rock massages and seaweed face packs; Beitou’s simple natural springs, a 40-minute metro journey from downtown Taipei, were perfect.
Before even dipping a toe, I called in on Beitou’s hot springs museum. The lovely two-storey wooden bathhouse was built by an Osaka businessman in 1896 and is Taiwan’s earliest example of the occupying Japanese transporting their hot bath culture to the island. The interior still has original shoji sliding screens and was used during the Second World War by convalescing Japanese soldiers fighting in the Pacific.
Five further minutes’ walk brought me to Beitou’s outdoor public baths. Built over a century ago by the Japanese, its unique green-sulphur pools, enriched by a rare (and mildly radioactive) mineral called hokutolite, are famous for treating skin disorders. The hottest pool is a sizzling 42ºC.
“These baths are the only good thing the Japanese left our culture,” a fellow bather told me. Good indeed. It was a blissful way to spend my final morning – relaxing in the silky waters and wondering if my credit card would stand one final foray into Taipei’s hi-tech temptations.