Taiwan, the place the Portuguese once called the “beautiful island”, has long been Asia’s forgotten country. And yet it is home to a trove of national parks, historic cities and far-flung islands. Mike MacEacheran travels cross-country to find out what we’re missing out on.
In the great Buddhist monastery of Fo Guang Shan in the tropical hills outside Kaohsiung, where Dutch colonisers once mixed with Chinese immigrants, I meet one of Taiwan’s great masters of calligraphy.
She wears the light brown robes of her faith and sits in contemplation at an aged desk. I have to call her The Venerable Yijih Shih and amid the forbidding temples and pagodas, the magic kingdom of gold statues, the silent retreats and teahouses, she is a quiet, committed presence.
“A drop of ink has a lifespan and understanding this is key to calligraphy,” she says, offering a few sage words of advice. She repositions her metal-rimmed, circular spectacles before pressing pen to paper.
“Relax, breathe in and feel at one with each stroke and the paper. Calligraphy is connected to mindfulness: it’s part of a larger commitment to the Buddhist faith. You know, people once wrote using their own blood.”
My first introduction to lesser-known Taiwan, in the country’s southwest, some 360km from the more familiar Taipei, is an eye-opener. An antidote to the uber high-tech capital, life in the Fo Guang Shan monastery is pure, slow-paced and more considered.
The sprawling complex – one of the largest on Earth – is an elaborate temple to things that are not there; empty, yet richer in so many ways. Few places offer such a stark contradiction to all that we think we know about Taiwan.
A relatively uncovered destination for British travellers, Taiwan, or the Republic of China as it’s officially known, is on the up. Tourists from the UK have been steadily increasing year on year since 2013, and last year the number peaked at 60,000.
Most are interested in a Taipei transit before heading elsewhere, but there’s now a strengthening argument they should loiter in the country for longer.
There are nine national parks (more than in either England or Ireland), and the country is knitted together by a spine of one hundred jungle-tangled peaks.
More surprises – and further evidence of Taiwan’s understated appeal – can be found down the coast in Kenting National Park. Located at the extreme southern tip of the country, the Hengchun Peninsula is made up of clifftop rises, sieved-sand beaches and geologically anomalous mountains, all a habitat for endemic butterflies, birds, macaques and reptiles. To the east is the Pacific Ocean, to the south the Bashi Channel, to the west the Taiwan Strait. It’s astonishing that life has found a way to prosper here.
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“This is a special place,” says tour guide Lily Chuang who I meet at the national park visitor centre. “All of Taiwan was squeezed up by tectonic movement, which explains why two thirds of the island is hills, mountains and coastal ranges. The park embraces both land and ocean – right now you’re standing on a confluence of fault lines and tectonic plates.”
As Lily leads us down a jungle trail, towards Mt Dajian, the park’s most prominent landmark, she explains the area’s elemental interplay. Only 80m deep, the fringing Taiwan Strait is so shallow it hides skeletons from when elephants migrated freely between mainland China and Taiwan.
On land, and up close, Mt Dajian is a volcanic barb of rock, made from rock pushed up from the earth’s undersea crust. Adding to the puzzle are valleys of hanging banyan trees and fantastic caves lit by fairy lights. All around, tropical jungle bulges onto the coast.
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.
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.