We really enjoyed our ten days in Taiwan. It’s the perfect introduction to East Asia, like a bite-sized piece of China. The terrain is beautiful, the weather was cool and refreshing, the transportation was for the most part easy, and the people were helpful and friendly. Taiwan makes a great vacation spot.
We started off with two full days in Taipei. We visited the Longshan Temple, the Confucious Temple, and the Baoan Temple. Relaxing places to spend some time, and full of Chinese people praying, meditating, and asking for auspicious signs. We went to the National Palace Museum- 500,000 bronze, jade, writings, and paintings from all eras of China’s history- and the National Museum of Miniatures- dozens and dozens of models, miniatures, and dioramas. The Chiang Kai-Shek memorial is beautiful, a white and cobalt blue building set in a spacious plaza, and the Taipei 101 building is tall and stunning. Until 2009 it was the tallest building in the world. Meeting up with the son of a friend of mine, Zak and his friend Kate took us on a hike up Elephant Mountain to see Taipei from above, and then to a night market to try some tasty street food such as grilled squid and a really yummy peanut- brittle and ice cream kind of burrito. Mm mm.
Taking a bus/train combo to Hualien on the east coast, we spent a day hiking and busing around Taroka Gorge, a beautiful gorge that cuts through the mountains dividing the east of Taiwan from the west. The eastern side has some stunning scenery, tree covered volcanic cliffs ending in black sand beaches, but this side of the island also suffers more from typhoons, so there are fewer cities.
Continuing our train journey, we headed south to the bottom of the island and then looped back up, this time on the southwest side. In the city of Tainan, we sensed a tiny bit of the old Dutch and Portuguese history of the island (Taiwan used to be known as Formosa, from the Portuguese “Ilha Formosa”- “beautiful island”). We visited the old Dutch fort, Fort Zeelandia, built in1604, as well as the “tree house”- which I thought would be a house up in a tree, but is actually an old salt warehouse from the 1800s that has been completely overtaken by the roots and tendrils of a giant banyan tree. Nature at work.
Heading north, we took a bus up to the Alishan Mountain Forest, home of Taiwan’s tallest mountains. It was cold and misty up there, but it made hiking around the old cypress forest kind of spooky and interesting. We found a tree that’s over 2300 years old! It was cherry blossom season, so lots- I mean hundreds- of mainland Chinese tourists were up there visiting for the day, but we spent the night up on the mountain, and after the day trip buses departed around 4 pm, the area quieted down. A beautiful sunset, when the clouds cleared up a bit and sank below the mountains, and a clear sunrise the next morning. By 10 am, over 150 tour buses had arrived- I counted- so we took the century-old, historic logging train down the mountain. A picturesque ride, as the red train wound down the mountains, through the green bamboo, cypress, and cedar tree forests.
And then back to Taipei. I love train travel. We walked into the train station and discovered the next train to Taipei was leaving in six minutes. Twenty dollars and three hours later, we were there. You just can’t do that with air travel. And I love how on Asian trains there’s always a boiling hot water faucet, so you just bring your ramen noodles, or cup-O-soup, or your 3-in-1 coffee mix with you, and snack your way along the journey. So cheap and easy!
We are learning so much about other cultures on this trip. For example, Asians have a very different idea of personal space than us. We might, when waiting to ask a question from a tour guide, step back and wait for that person to finish the conversation they are having with someone else, and then approach. An Asian person, however, would see that space as an empty space, and step past us into it. This happened to us many times, waiting to buy bus tickets, stepping into an elevator, or waiting in a buffet line. I guess when you live in such a populated country, you learn to grab your spot while you can. Although they are also very orderly, such as when lining up to get on the subway. For us, it’s all part of the process, learning to adapt to new countries and their ways!