By Archana Singh
Two students were spending their summer break in India, an engineer was winding up his work holiday in Singapore, a fresh college graduate was on his first solo trip to Japan and a senior professor was preparing for his second innings in Australia. Besides carrying the same passport, what bonded this diverse group of Taiwanese people was that none of them recognised themselves as Chinese. They shared stories of how they were different from the Chinese. I heard them but never understood what they meant until I experienced it myself.
I expected Taiwan to be a mini version of China, a place that would offer nothing unique. There was no Great Wall of China. No Terracotta Army and no Tiananmen Square. Basically, there was no reason for me to visit it. Ironically, that is what worked for me – no expectations led to wonderment.
Why is Taiwan ‘complicated’?
People are often unsure about the identity of Taiwan. China says it owns Taiwan while Taiwan says it is a sovereign nation. While the former is a dictatorship, the latter is a democracy. China is known as the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan is called the Republic of China.
China is deeply rooted in the Chinese culture but Taiwan is a melting pot of cultures including Chinese, Aboriginal, Dutch, Portuguese and Japanese. Taiwan competes at the Olympics, under the name of ‘Chinese Taipei’ instead of ‘China’. Recently, Mr Trump added to the complications by becoming the first President-elect to speak to the President of Taiwan since 1979.
Taiwan, thus, has a complicated past and an unclear present. To understand it better, come onboard and experience how ‘complicated’ Taiwan broke my prejudices.
It is travel-friendly
The latest Expat Insider 2016 index by InterNations has named Taiwan as the friendliest country in the world. I am not surprised at all. An easy visa process, cheap flights, world-class infrastructure and a variety of unique experiences have made it a hit among travellers.
Taiwanese are polar opposites of the Chinese – they are warm, friendly and extremely hospitable.
They go out of their way to help you. Unlike China where the language barrier is an issue, English signs are ubiquitous in Taiwan’s restaurants, markets, hotels and public transport. Once while struggling for vegetarian food in a very small restaurant of Wulai, the waiters who could not understand English got hold of a school-going child especially to translate what I was saying for them.
Cuisine of fusions
The best way to really understand and feel a place is to smell it. ‘Stinky Tofu’ is probably the most recognisable smell of Taiwan. However, labelling Taiwan as a ‘Chinese Cuisine Only’ place would be wrong. The Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and Japanese have all landed here at one point or another. Hence, their respective foods combined with the local flavours has created a unique ‘Cuisine of Fusions’.
Being a vegetarian, I could not experiment a lot with the food but what I did eat was truly amazing. The flavours of the aboriginal food at Wulai and the Spicy Hotpot at the Xemending still linger in my mouth. The rice cakes which came with different varieties of fillings and outer coatings reminded me of Japanese cuisine. Seafood, sweet potatoes, red bean, taro root and green vegetables made Taiwanese cuisine taste both fresh and flavourful.
Eating small and frequent meals is a big thing in Taiwan. Famous for its Xiao Chi (snacks), Taipei itself has 20 streets dedicated to snacking. The longer the queue at a stall, the better you can expect the food to be. My non-vegetarian friends claim that the Taiwanese beef noodle is unlike the beef noodle you will find anywhere else. Slow cooking of the meat in five spices, dark soy sauce and garlic for hours renders it extremely juicy and soft in texture, with a wonderful aftertaste.
Visually stunning Taiwan is a photographer’s delight. Before arriving, I had visualised it to be a Typhoon-battered country with a typical South East Asian coastline. What I completely missed was that Taiwan is actually a mountainous island with the Central Mountain as its spine. There are 286 mountain summits above 3000m sea level height. Yushan, soaring at 3952m, is the tallest peak in Northeast Asia. With panoramic views, deep gorges, lush tropical greenery, nine national parks, breathtaking sunsets and sunrises, Taiwan is an ideal place for nature lovers and adventure seekers.
I could visit only a few places but what blew my mind was the unimaginable Taroko National Gorge. It is an impossibly sheer drop of hundreds of metres, with marbled walls and the turbulent blue-green waters of the Liwu River racing across the bottom. Extraordinary not just in looks but in habitat too, it represents all of the bio-geographical zones in Taiwan and is a sanctuary for half of the island’s plant and animal species.
Country of Contrasts
In Taiwan, within an hour you can be at the top of a mountain enjoying the godlike vistas or find yourself throwing moon blocks in Longshan temple seeking future answers. You could be visiting the old street of Juifen or strolling in Houtong Cat Village. Hiking a 3000m peak in the North or taming the waves in the South.
Taiwan is a country of contrasts where modernity, history, culture and nature co-exist.
Unlike China, Taiwan offers artistic freedom. You can spend all day wandering around artistic alleyways like Huashan 1914 Creative Park or restored heritage buildings converted into art places like Red House and Bipiliao Historic Street.
Taipei is also bustling with quirky cafes. Based on your quirk you can choose a café – ‘Cafe & Cats 1998’ if you are a cat lover, ‘Rilakkuma Café’ if you are still in love with stuffed bears and ‘Hello Kitty Kitchen and Dining’ if you are a Hello Kitty fan. I was really astonished to learn that the Cat café culture started from Taiwan, before taking off in Japan and elsewhere.
If you are a skyscraper lover, Taipei 101 is for you. A landmark building, which was the tallest in the world until the Burj Khalifa was built. It has the fastest elevator going from the fifth floor to the 87th one in only 49 seconds. Watching the 101 Skyline in sunset hues from Elephant Mountain is an experience that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Taiwan is a place which will amaze you at every turn. It will break your prejudices like it did mine. Now is the time to simplify the complicated. Go explore Taiwan.