Taiwan beyond Taipei: venturing off the tourist trail

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Mike MacEacheran
3/30/2020

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Then we drive north to the remarkable city of Tainan, the oldest in Taiwan, once a trading post for the Dutch East India Company. Nowadays it is a jumble of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian temples and ornate pillars.

Here, at first light, the Confucius Temple is alive with tai chi part-timers and lycra-clad OAPs practising routines that balance the ancient Chinese martial art with holistic therapy. Breaths are held. Joints crack.

Nearby a gardener nets mangoes from an overhanging tree with an outrageously long bamboo butterfly net. On impulse, I sit in the shade of a pavilion to watch the spectacle; a tangle of loose-limbed merrymakers in what was first the foremost educational institute in the country. Just what would Confucius think.

If you crave sunshine and the outdoors, there’s a bounty of concealed coves, beaches and almost-unheard-of islands two hours off the coast of Tainan in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Penghu archipelago.

By mid-morning we are on course for the main township Magong City, and the swelling waves of the moshing sea underline a thrill few other boat trips in the region can match for drama. It is a bone-jolting ride, a wild cruise into the unknown.

A further excursion the next day takes us into calmer bays, past sea caves, columnar basalt cliffs and sand-edged atolls to the outlying reefs of the South Penghu Marine National Park. At times, we pass pinnacles of rock emerging from the sea like ghost ships looking for a port.

Beyond the expected, Taiwan is unpredictable. You just need to know where to look.

Our boat anchored soon after, we land on an island edged by a coral beach, making an easy entry point into the shallows. Before long, we are blubbering below the surface where parrotfish play and psychedelic-blue staghorn coral emerge from the murk.

There is history on these islands, not just borne out from the tales of the local fishermen who have charted these waters for thousands of years. The islands were once called the Pescadores, named by the Portuguese after they seized the archipelago from the Dutch, built forts and threatened further raids on Chinese ports across the water in Fujian.

Later, at the southern tip of Xiyu Island, we pass Yuwengdao Lighthouse, a whitewashed totem built in 1778 during the Qing Dynasty, then refashioned by the British in the early 19th century. All of it – from the battery strongholds to the Chinese temples – sits at the nexus of where east meets west. Yet all the same, it feels a world apart.

That’s the thing. For all Taipei is high-speed, busied with street food, shopping malls and sky-high towers, the rest of the country slows towards an ambulatory pace. Beyond the expected, Taiwan is unpredictable. You just need to know where to look.

Mike MacEacheran flew to Taipei with China Airlines, which launched the first non-stop London Gatwick-Taipei service in December 2017, upped to five flights a week in March 2018. The Taiwan Tourism Bureau is a useful resource for trip ideas.

Photos from left–right (top–bottom): Lotus lake, Tainan Park © Krishna.Wu / Shutterstock; Fo Guang Shan © Sirada Wichitaphornkun / Shutterstock; Kenting National Park © HTU / Shutterstock; Tainan salt flats © Sebastian Tai / Shutterstock; Confucius Temple, Tainan © Robert CHG / Shutterstock; Penghu © HTU / Shutterstock; Yuwengdao Lighthouse © Philos Chen / Shutterstock; Penghu basalt cliffs © Rocket Photos - HQ Stock / Shutterstock; Taipei after dark © Bule Sky Studio / Shutterstock.

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