Taiwan remains largely undiscovered and seriously underrated by Western travellers, but those that make it here are in for a real treat. In the 1990s Taiwan became the first true Chinese democracy, developing a sense of civil society bewildering to its giant neighbour across the Taiwan Strait. Since then, popular culture has blossomed on the island, an eclectic mix of Chinese, Western, Japanese and indigenous influences. It has sensational food, traditional Chinese and aboriginal festivals and exuberant temples, yet the biggest surprise is Taiwan’s hinterland: think towering mountains, eight national parks, a selection of alluring offshore islands and numerous hot-spring resorts.
Taiwan’s perception problem stems in part from its astonishing economic success. The Taiwan Miracle, the island’s transformation into one of the world’s richest countries in less than fifty years, created images of endless manufacturing plants and overcrowded cities. The long struggle to establish a distinct political and cultural identity in the shadow of its big brother on the mainland hasn’t helped – for years its rulers insisted that Taiwan was the “real China”. Not any more: Taiwan has preserved much of the civilization and many of the traditions lost on the mainland, but while its political future remains uncertain, Taiwan has developed a dynamic culture all of its own.
One of the most endearing things about the island is the overwhelming friendliness of its people – Taiwan is one of the most welcoming countries in the world, and you are bound to encounter numerous acts of generosity or kindness throughout your travels, whether it’s a taxi driver rounding down a fare, a stranger helping with directions or a family providing a bed for the night. Eating in Taiwan comes a close second, with a vast array of Chinese food and local delicacies on offer. Travelling around the island is relatively straightforward, though the lack of English can make things a challenge at times, particularly as most timetables tend to be displayed solely in Chinese. Taiwan is a relatively rich country compared to China or southeast Asia, but prices are generally lower than in most other developed nations, and the willingness of almost everyone you meet to help means it’s almost impossible to get stuck.
Where to go in Taiwan
Most visits to Taiwan begin in Taipei, the capital and largest city, home to Taipei 101, the National Palace Museum and some of the island’s best restaurants, bars and night markets. It’s also surrounded by a host of worthy day-trips including the cable car to the teahouses of Maokong, the hot springs at Beitou and the volcanic peaks of Yangmingshan National Park. The storm-battered North Coast and Guanyinshan National Scenic Area is a short ride away, as is the wonderful night market in Keelung, the intriguing Pingxi Branch Line Railway and picturesque Shifen Falls. Nearby, the old mining towns of Jinguashi and Jiufen are deservedly popular for their historic streets and teahouses, while the Northeast & Yilan Coast National Scenic Area contains some of the most rugged coastline on the island. Southwest of Taipei, Hsinchu makes an excellent base for trips to Hakka country, the primary home of Taiwan’s small but influential Hakka minority, while Shei-Pa National Park provides an opportunity to tackle some of Taiwan’s largest and most memorable peaks. Nearby, Taian Hot Springs is perhaps the island’s most alluring hot-spring resort.
Central Taiwan is home to some spectacular scenery, though it pays to spend a couple of days in vibrant Taichung, renowned for its teahouses and lively nightlife. Not far from the city, Changhua is noted principally for its Great Buddha Statue, and atmospheric Lugang is celebrated for its craftsmen and classical architecture. East of Taichung, picture-perfect Sun Moon Lake makes a fitting introduction to Taiwan’s mighty central ranges, a place for languid lakeside walks and gorgeous views. Just outside Puli, to the north of the lake, Chung Tai Chan Monastery is a man-made wonder, a remarkable blend of modern architecture and Zen Buddhism. Heading south, Chiayi provides a staging post for the cool valleys and Tsou villages of the Alishan National Scenic Area. Beyond this lies Yushan National Park and the scintillating hike up Taiwan’s highest mountain, commanding awe-inspiring, cloud-capped vistas.
South Taiwan is the most traditional part of the island, with Tainan making the obvious introduction to the region, a modern city crammed with historic sights, particularly temples, complemented by superb food. Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s second city and an earthy counterweight to Taipei, its smattering of sights enhanced by a growing number of parks, outdoor cafés and bars. Nearby is the elegant monastery at Foguangshan, while the dramatic Southern Cross-Island Highway heads east across the mountains to Taitung, slicing through the northern end of Maolin National Scenic Area, rich in Paiwan and Rukai culture. The southern tip of Taiwan is dominated by Kenting National Park, with its popular beaches and surf spots.
The east coast is a world apart, isolated from the rest of Taiwan until very recently and still home to the greatest concentration of its indigenous tribes. Most visitors make for Taroko National Park, with spectacular Taroko Gorge at its heart, in parts an incredibly narrow gap between lofty walls of stone. Hualien is the largest settlement on the east coast and makes the ideal gateway to Taroko, with plenty of opportunities to buy its famous marble, tasty dumplings and sweet-filled rice cakes. From here there are two routes south: the East Rift Valley is noted for its hot springs and rafting on the Xiuguluan River, while the coastal road twists past isolated beaches and Ami villages. Both end up at the laid-back town of Taitung, location of the National Museum of Prehistory and base for trips to Ludao (Green Island) with its exceptional outdoor springs.
Taiwan’s offshore islands have their own distinctive cultures and histories. Penghu, in the middle of the Taiwan Strait, is an archipelago of magnificent beaches, old temples and crumbling fishing villages, a haven for windsurfing and other watersports. Just off the coast of China’s Fujian province, the Matsu Islands provide a rare taster of traditional northern Fujian culture, as well as Taiwan’s recent military history. The theme is continued on Kinmen, literally within sight of the now booming mainland city of Xiamen and rapidly remodelling itself as an open-air museum.
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Betel nut beauty
Betel nut, the seed of the Betel Palm (Areca catechu), has almost iconic status in Taiwan, where chewing it is often viewed as stereotypically Hoklo or Taiwanese behaviour. It’s also big business: some estimates claim the industry nets annual revenue of around NT$20bn. In Taiwan it’s particularly popular with truck drivers, who prefer its stimulating effects to coffee: the nut is wrapped in areca leaf, topped with slaked lime paste and chewed without swallowing. Its most celebrated by-product is the betel nut beauty (bīnláng xīshī), scantily clad girls hired to sell the nuts from glass-encased booths on roadsides all over the island. More ominously, betel nut is a known carcinogen: Taiwan has one of the highest rates of mouth and throat cancer in Asia, primarily as a result of chewing the nut.
With over 150 locations scattered all over the island, Taiwan has the world’s second highest concentration of hot springs after Japan – many were developed commercially during the Japanese occupation and offer the same quality, scenery and therapeutic effects at a fraction of the cost. Many of the most famous springs are piped directly into hotel rooms and spa pools, where you can sample the waters via public baths or private tubs, but there are still places, usually in the mountains, where springs gush naturally from rocks or rivers and can be experienced for free. It’s important to acquaint yourself with hot-spring etiquette before having a dip: unless the pools are mixed sex, you’re expected to be naked, and you should shower before getting in.