You know those evenings, when you’ve decided you’re going to watch a movie that’s long since on your bucket list. You settle down, make popcorn, set down the wine within reach, turn on Netflix. Then you find out your membership has expired. The internet is fried. And then your house burns down. So you’re forced to realign, regroup and find a suitable alternative. And turns out that the alternative was what you needed all along.
That sums up how we chose to go to Taiwan. We went with it as Plan B, with barely any expectations, and were pleasantly surprised by the variety packed into an area that would fit ninety times in India.
The second reason why this trip was significant, was because this was our first holiday, just the two of us, and it did not end with one or both persons maimed.
NORTHERN TAIWAN - TAIPEI
It is impossible not to fall in love with the charm of Taipei, even when the city is veiled by constant, floating, powdery rain like it was during our entire stay. It in fact, adds to the appeal, especially when you take the MRT, emerge from the Taipei 101 station, and get the first glimpse of the Taiwan’s iconic building, wearing a ruffled collar of clouds.
Designed to resemble a bamboo stalk (A friend observed it more closely resembles boxes of Chinese takeout piled on one another) Taipei 101 held the title of World’s Tallest Building till Burj Khalifa came along. You can ride up to the observatory deck and get a lovely view of the capital.
Taipei is backpacker paradise – deep-fried food, affordable transport and accommodation. Most convenient are the dorm style hostels -neat, comfortable and functional matchboxes good for a night or two, but not recommended for longer stays . Be prepared to share space with 20 pairs of stinky feet and common bathrooms where atleast one person will feel the need to blast a hairdryer at 3 AM.
It is also a shopaholic’s paradise – cheap fashion rubs shoulders with the biggest fashion labels in the heart of the city – Ximending. And finally, it is opium for those who have even a mild interest in electronics. We spent hours in Guanghua Mall – 6 floors of electronics and enthusiastic shopkeepers, and right next door, in the glamourous Syntrend, where each category of products has its own floor. And then there’s camera lane, where you can pick up lenses, accessories for very very good prices.
Taipei boasts of quite a few museums, but if you have time for just one, head to the National Palace Museum. Originally built as the Palace Museum, within the walls of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the museum’s artefacts were later moved to its present location ahead of looming war with Japan The museum is the largest of its kind, and faithfully chronicles 8000 years of Chinese history in ceramics, paintings, artefacts. The exhibits are on constant rotation, and it’s said that at any given time, a mere 1% are actually on display.
After the museum, drift gently towards the city’s biggest night market. There are many night markets in the city, Shilin is the most diverse and the most touristy (sometimes that’s a good thing, isn’t it?). Bring your bargaining A game, and your Oscar statue pose to deal with crowds especially after 8 in the evening when vendors spread their wares right in the middle of the narrow streets. Take some time to explore, if not actually eat at, the food stalls. Shrimp balls, tempura, steamed molluscs, and infamous stinky tofu. A big thank you Miss Tam Chiack for leading us to Prince’s Potatoes! Deep fried potato, molten cheese, and all sorts of toppings, including more cheese.
Day trips from Taipei – Shifen and Jiufen
Shifen has two major attractions – a 10-minute trek that culminates in a modest waterfall, and the Old Street.
The Shifen old street, which has a train track running right through the middle, has rows of shops that sell just paper lanterns. Paper lanterns are an old Taiwanese tradition, and they are believed to bring good luck. Come rain or train, you’ll see tourists and locals lining up to buy lanterns of different colours. Each colour represents a particular “kind of luck” – health, prosperity, love ; you can even paint on extra wishes. We spent a long time indulging in lantern-voyerism – Spotted on lanterns: “A+ in Math”, “Puppy” and “No-Brexit”
Jiufen was once upon a time gold mining town under the Japanese regime. It is now a labyrinth of crooked streets, banked by shops, restaurants. The shops sell all manner of odds and ends, prepare to be delighted (or frightened) by something unusual. We saw a store selling only paintbrushes, one dedicated to teacups and teapots and another to Occarina – clay wind instruments, shaped like everyday objects and animal figures. The most crowded food stalls are the ones with the best food, and there are two things you must try. Pineapple cake – because it’s like biting into clouds of butter that melt in your mouth and taro balls served in a choice of sweet or savory accompaniments – because… well it’s just one of the things you’re supposed to. Try to stay past sunset, so you can watch the classic red lanterns lit, crisscrossing the streets, casting a magical quality over the dark walls and sloping roofs of the local teahouse. If this scene starts to now appear familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.( Or so it’s rumoured)
Central Taiwan – Taichung
We spent a day at the Sun Moon Lake. It was long and twisted journey, Taipei to Taichung by bus, and a second bus to the lake. I wish I could say it was worth the hassle. The beautiful lake, with a few patches of cherry blossoms is quite picturesque. It is however terribly commercialised, ruined by hordes of people, souvenir stores, restaurants jostling for space. You can give this one a miss unless you’re spending more than 10 days in Taiwan
East Taiwan – Hualien
The shy and sleepy town of Hualien was our absolute favourite. Its crescent shaped Qixingtan beach is a scene out of a science fiction movie. Tall, imposing blue waves crash into a colourful and soft pebble beach, and a line of mountains rolls up to meet the ocean. The beach is perfect for a lazy lounge – a smattering of un-interfering vendors, few locals and fewer still tourists.
As the sun sets, the streets grow quiet, almost deserted. But it's only because the action has shifted to the sprawling night market.
The market is divided into three distinct zones – Taiwanese, Chinese and Aborigine. You will see an assortment of food vendors, garishly lit clothing and shoe shops, game stalls and even the odd dusty store stacked to the ceiling with queer, hand-made knick-knacks.
We tried the famous tea eggs – boiled eggs cracked just a bit and boiled again in a brew of tea and spices. Stuffed bread – fat slices of bread, scooped out in the middle and stuffed with the choicest fillings. And the Taiwanese signature, scallion pancakes. If there is one dish, that I have tried in a foreign country, and then had separation anxiety over, it is this. Flaky pancakes bathed in oil, peppered with shallots. If you should please, some extras – a handful of cheese, some egg or even shredded chicken. Another delicacy, one that we quite didn’t have the stomach for, literally, was pig’s blood cakes, made from sticky rice, broth and pork blood.
ust when we thought we were done eating, we came by a quiet stall run by an octogenarian couple. Light music played from a tiny recorder set on one of their wobbly, plastic tables. Unconcerned by the lack of customers, our host enthusiastically fried for us wild boar meat tossed with onions and traditional spices with orchids tucked into her neat grey hair. Meanwhile her husband chatted to us about Hualien and served up a speciality – sticky rice cooked inside a bamboo stalk.
Taroko National Park
Taroko is unique because of the topography, crafted by the river Liwu tearing in its path through limestone gradually turning it to marble. There are more than 20 walking trails, of varying difficulty. Some require days of preparation and permits and others so relaxed, you could do them in Louboutins (and I saw TWO different women doing just that). The walking trails take you through different terrains. You will be surprised at how diverse this 900 odd sq km park is. Some paths run along the river through the astonishing marbled gorge. The Swallow Grotto trail runs ON the main road, right through a mountain.The forest trails take you through tunnels and even past aboriginal settlements.
On the drive back from Taroko we discovered Taiwan , or atleast the truckers in Taiwan run on betel juice. Betel leaf stores on the highway are numerous. They’re marked with a distinctive neon signage – like half of a multi- coloured sun. They are usually run by young women called binlang girls who have grown to garner notorious fame.
Taiwan is as yet unspoilt and is the perfect choice for a holiday off the beaten track. It is affordable, has plenty to do to hold the attention of the most diverse groups, and most importantly is not yet overrun by tourists. Some of our favourite memories of the trip involve chatting with the lovely locals – their stories, their opinions on everything from the Ambani wedding, Aquaman to Taiwan’s relationship with China. Please give their tourism a boost! (Not that they need it. Taiwan is the 18th largest in terms of GDP- I just want someone to bring me back scallion pancakes. Please! Please?)