Reason #1-20: Fascinating Customs
Reason #21-40: Unique Cultures
Reason #41-60: Incredible Food
Reason #61-80: Exhilarating Adventure
Reason #81-100: Breathtaking Nature
- Buddhist Education at Dharma Drum Mountain
- Visit Dajia Mazu (Mother of Ship) at Chen Lan Palace
- Zhongtai Zen Monastery Tour
- Visit the largest monastery in FoGuangShan
- Discover the true spirit of Buddhism and the world of Tzuchi at Jing-Si Jing She
- Visit the largest Yi Guan Dao Practice Center in Southeast Asia: Shenwei Tiantai Mountain
- Quite contemplation at Confucius Temple
- Make a wish at LongShan Temple Tour
- East meets West: Wutai Catholic Church: catholic church go native
- Visit the first organic rural village in Taiwan at the Sixty Stones Mountain
- Sleepless Taipei: City Night Tour
- Hit and Bat with the locals at LA Dodger's Hong Chi Kuo and Washington Nationals' Chien-Ming Wang's home country
- Tai-Chi Lesson with the Master
- Dare-you-not: a visit to the Snake Alley
- The Holiday Jade and Flower Market the largest in Asia
- Learn Chinese calligraphy
- Indulge yourself in a full-body Chinese massage and acupuncture
- Foot massage in Dihua Street
- Health check-up with Chinese medicine doctor
- Visit the largest wind damper in the world in Taipei 101
- Experience the traditional Taiwanese Puppet Show in Yunlin
- Take a Tour at Miaoli Syanyi: the town of wood sculpture
- Trace the footprints of early ethnic Hakka culture within the Neiwan Beipu old street
- Visit the Chiang Kai-Shek's mausoleum in Daxi Taoyuan
- Lose yourself in the "skyless streets" in Lugang Village
- Tour the historical sites of the ancient capital: Tainan
- Experience the real-life battlefield scenes in Matzu and Kinmen
- Visit the world's 5th largest museum: National Palace Museum
- Lost in Translation: Taiwanese Opera
- Mandarin for Beginner: Mandarin class
- Visit the historic mining town of Jiufen
- Chinese Fortune Telling
- Explore the world of Ami tribe in Hualien Mataian
- Unravel the mysteries of the prehistoric Amis village in Dulan Taitung
- Trace the steps of the Tsou Tribe in Alishan
- Join the Tao Tribe and legendary Flying Fish in Orchid Island
- Enjoy the traditional performances at the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village
- Pay tribute to the aboriginal struggle of the Japanese occupation at the Mona Rudao Memorial Monument
- Experience the Hakka culture in Meinong Folk Village
- Experience the Taiwanese pop culture in Ximending
- Taiwanese cuisine at its best: Aoba Restaurant
- Venture into Taiwan's largest night market: Shilin Night Market for a culinary adventure
- Yilan Lotung Night Market
- Indulge yourself at the national capital of street food: Tainan
- Experience a spiritual and culinary dialogue at Shi-Yan Culture Restaurant
- Keelung Night Market
- Aboriginal feast in Taroko Gorge
- Jiayi Night Market
- Fresh seafood feast at Cijin Island
- World-famous dumpling restaurant Din Tai Fung
- How hot are you: Spicy hot pot at Ding Wang Hot Pot Restaurant
- Kaohsiung Liuhe Night Market
- Taichung Funjia Night Market
- National dish: beef noodle soup
- Tea tasting and cuisine at Tea House
- Challenge your taste bud: Stinky tofu
- Medicinal cuisine experience
- Stir-Fried par Excellence, Taiwanese stir-fried restaurant
- Ethnic Hakka cuisine at Tung Flower Restaurant
- Vegetarian's paradise
- Hike along the high mountain tea plantation in Alishan Shizhao
- Rock climbing in Long Dong: world's premier costal climbing
- Ancient trial in National Park
- Climb the highest peak in Taiwan: Jade Mountain
- Trekking through the waterfall in Baiyang Trail
- Snorkeling in Green Island
- Ride along the abandoned railway tracks in Taichung Shuangfeng Bikeway
- Ride along the Pacific Coast
- Experience Paragliding at Luye Gaotai
- Cycling through Sun Moon Lake
- River-tracing in Taroko Gorge
- Test your limit at the river rafting in Hualien
- Wind-surfing in Penghu
- Scuba Diving in Penghu
- Soak in Beitou Hotspring
- Pamper yourself at the sacred black hot spring bath in Guanziling
- Experience hot and cold spring at Jiaoxi Spring Spa
- Stroll through the hot spring street in Wulai
- Experience the salt-water hot spring by the sea in Green Island
- Hike along the Mt. Maolan Trail with the view of black tea farm
- River Cruise on Love River
- Whale watch at Gueishan Island
- Bird watch in Cigui: Black-faced spoonbill
- Bird watch at Yilan Swamplands: water birds
- Bird watch at Kenting National Park: Grey Frog Hawk and Buzzard Eagle
- Eco-friendly visit to the Butterfly Valley
- Visit the cat-friendly town of Hotong
- Dolphin watch in Hualien
- Boat ride on the Sun Moon Lake
- Tunnel of Nine Turns: the most scenic route of the Taroko Gorge
- North-East Coast and Caoling Historic Trail
- Evening walk with the fireflies in Carp Pond in Hualien
- Breathtakinf view of the Bagua tea field
- Walk through the Lion's Head Mountain Trial
- Escape to the mountain: Maokong Gondola
- Yehliu "Queens' Head" Rock Formation
- See the volcanic eruption at Siaoyuken Yangminsan
- Salt field in Tainan
- Island-hoppings in Penghu
- A zen meditation on the Pacific Coast
Five Reasons Why Taiwan should be on your bucket list...
10th October 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China. Although deposed from mainland China in 1949, the ROC government still controls Taiwan (as well as a few off-shore possessions). Despite having an immensely rich cultural and spiritual heritage, amazing food, world-class hot-springs and stunning scenery, Taiwan is normally thought of more for its exports than as a place to get into. We think this is a shame, as the island has enough going for it to make any traveller’s bucket list.
Visually stunning, Taiwan is a shutter-bug’s paradise. Running down Taiwan’s spine is the Central Mountain Range, a magnet for mountaineers looking to scale East Asia’s tallest peak, Yushan (Jade Mountain). Photographers are drawn daily as Yushan’s peak is the perfect spot from which to catch a shot of the ‘sea of clouds’ sweeping over the mountains at dawn. Taiwan’s beaches are beautiful as well, offering some of East Asia’s finest surfing and windsurfing spots.
SEE: Running along a thin strip of land between the Central Mountains and the Pacific, Taiwan’s East Coast Highway is easily one of East Asia’s most beautiful spots for cycling.
Taiwan draws much of its culinary heritage from China, but to label it ‘Chinese food’ is an oversimplification. When the first Han settlers came from China, the recipes and cooking styles they brought along met the ingredients and culinary traditions of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples and became something new and different. This new cuisine was further modified, first by new immigrants from other areas of China, and later by the Japanese who ruled the island for 50 years. Seafood, sweet potatoes, taro root and green vegetables cooked very simply are at the heart of many traditional Taiwanese sit-down meals, while roadside stands and night market stalls offer variety worthy of its own story to those who enjoy eating al-fresco.
EAT: Perhaps the best place for foodies to taste what Taiwan has to offer is at the local night market. Which one is best is a source of heated debate, but for our money the Keelung Night Market (about an hour from Taipei) is tops, offering both an excellent selection and plenty of signs in understandable (and sometimes amusing) English.
Being located on top of the geologically unstable ‘ring of fire’ has one major upside – no matter where on the island you go, you’re bound to be within shouting distance of an amazing natural hot spring. Taiwan is home to one of the globe’s only accessible seawater hot springs, the Sunrise Spring on Green Island (a small island off the southeast coast). You don’t even need to leave Taipei to soak: a quick hike from Taipei’s Xin Beitou metro stop is where you’ll find hotels and resorts offering piped-in sulphur hot springs, said to be the all-around healthiest for the skin. There’s also an excellent public hot spring.
SOAK: Two hours by train or bus from Taipei, the east-coast town of Jiaoshi draws hot-spring lovers from around the island. (There’s even a hot-spring fed fountain outside the train station that folks soak their feet in). Jiaoshi’s Art Spa Hotel has one of the town’s best public spas, with multiple pools and Taiwan’s only hot-spring waterslide.
Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples abound throughout Taiwan, not merely as static tourist attractions, but as active centres of culture and worship. Must-see temples in Taipei include Longshan & Guandu temples (both of which have their own metro stations). The southern city of Tainan is a must-visit for temple lovers, and if you’re willing to take a 40-minute flight to the windswept penghu archipelago, you’ll be able to explore dozens of East Asia’s most gorgeously ostentatious – and least visited – temples.
EXPLORE: Past a small gate in the heart of Taipei’s ultra-fashionable Ximending district at 51 Chengdu Rd lies the small but utterly fascinating Tien-ho temple, complete with statues of Matsu (the Empress of Heaven) and ancient Chinese generals, a bell tower and a small dragon-shaped pond filled with huge carp.
Taiwan offers no shortage of activities for the erudite, and the capital’s vibrant museum scene is yet another of its understated attractions. The most famous of these is the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which houses a sizable chunk of China’s artistic heritage (taken – or rescued, depending on who you ask – by Nationalist troops fleeing China in 1949). So voluminous is this collection, which ranges from paintings and scrolls to ancient porcelain and statues, that only a fraction of it is ever on display at once.
LEARN: Taipei has dozens of other excellent museums catering to a wide variety of interests from modern art (The Museum of Contemporary Art) to religion (The Museum of World Religions) to very, very tiny things (The Miniatures Museum)
Tao Temple in Taiwan
You don’t need to know the history of the Catholic Church to appreciate a cathedral. And you equally don’t need to understand 5000 years of Chinese culture to take something away from a visit to a Taoist temple. The incense smoke may never clear inside but that doesn’t mean the experience should make your eyes glaze over. A little connoisseurship can be picked up rather easily.
House of worship, community centre, marketplace and front for organized crime: a temple can be all these things and quite a lot more. But it’s also simply a building, in essence a raised platform atop which sits a collection of halls. Each hall has a wood post and beam frame (joined without nails), a gabled roof with overhanging eaves, and a sweeping roof that tapers out like the tail end of a swallowtail (and is indeed called a swallowtail roof, or ridgeline).
The collection of halls is arranged in a predictable manner. First, a main gate opens onto a stone courtyard, at the back of which stands (remember a temple is always raised) the aptly named front hall. This hall will always feature two stone lions, at least two stone pillars carved in the shape of dragons, and three to five doors, all of which serve to both welcome human visitors in and keep unwanted spirits out.
Beyond the front hall will be a series of alternating courtyards and halls aligned in a straight axis. A statue of the main temple god sits enshrined in the second hall, while adjoining rooms to the left and right – and a rear hall if there is one – contain shrines to secondary deities, Buddhas, or more mundanely, office space. The latter may seem out of place at first, but someone has to manage affairs. Most temples in Taiwan are now in fact incorporated and play a central role in community life, including influencing local and national politics.
Every Taiwanese temple is a variation on this basic outline and no two are exactly alike. Sleuthing about for the differences is one way to keep interest levels high when touring multiple sites.
Taiwanese love to beautify their temples (some might say over-decorate). In the past master craftsmen could hardly keep up with demand for fine stone and wood carvings, door paintings, glazed tile and ceramic work, and the striking jiannian, a type of 3D mosaic found on rooftops. Jiannian is unique to Taiwan, and often overlooked because of this, but when approaching any temple look up. Often the roof will be so laden with mosaic dragons, tigers, flowers and historical tableaux it will appear ready to topple over.
As with the temple layout, look for variety to sustain interest. Short pillars for example are often carved in the shape of melons, but they can also be elephants, lions, flower baskets, and even human figures bent over as if truly bearing a load.
There are 15,000 official temples around Taiwan, dedicated to hundreds of gods, folk heroes, animals, and even a pair of 17th-century Dutch Admirals. The most commonly worshipped deities include Matsu, the Empress of Heaven (and something like the patron saint of Taiwan); the Wang Ye, former plague demons now considered guardian spirits; Tudi Gong, the earth-god (and Santa Claus look-a-like); and Guanyin, not a god but the well-loved Bodhisattva of mercy.
Avoid evil and secure good luck. Those are the basic aspirations of most temple goers. And it doesn’t matter which god is their focus, everyone performs similar acts of baibai (worship) to help get what they want.
Common offerings include food, candles, prayers, opera performances, and birthday parties. While commonplace, burning incense is among the most sublime and mystical of temple rites; ash and smoke from the main censor are believed to embody the very divine force of the resident god.
Moon blocks, found on the altar of every temple, are cast (bwah bweh) on the floor to divine the yes-no answers to personal questions. Should I take this job? marry this person? see this doctor? and can I please make more money? are all fair requests.
And how should the non-believer act during all this? Natural. No one is bothered in the least by visitors.
Most of Taiwan’s best temples (defined by age, beauty and popularity with worshipers) can be found in major urban areas, or easily accessible smaller towns. They include Taipei’s Bai'An & Longshan Temples, Tainan City’s Matsu & Confucian temples, Hsinchu’s City God Temple, and Lukang’s Matsu and Longshan temples.
Kinmen Island, Taiwan
There’s nothing like decades of martial law to make a community long for the good times. For the residents of Kinmen Island, a frontline in the defence against a communist invasion of Taiwan, those were the days of handsome brick villages, a thickly forested landscape, raucous festivals to protective deities, and tens of kilometres of sandy beaches free of terrifying landmines.
However, recovery had to wait till 1995 – the year the island was turned into a national park – but the islanders have been largely successful in turning back the clock, and even giving it a good polish.
It helped that they had the heritage to work with. Take the villages. For most of the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644-1912), Kinmen had grown wealthy with trade, and clan competed with clan to display status with their homes. While a number of yanglou mansions fuse eastern and western styles, a typical dwelling is more traditionally southern Chinese in appearance: one-storey with a red-brick facade and topped with overhanging eaves. It’s a good rule of thumb that if the roof sweeps and tapers out like a dainty swallow’s tail, the family who built it was wealthy. Other decorative touches on posher homes include recessed lintels with ceramic figurines, glazed tiles, stone relief, and detailed carvings on exposed wood brackets.
Folk events, such as grand smoky festivals for the gods, have also regained momentum. Or, more accurately, funding. The ‘Welcoming the City God’ parade, a mass pilgrimage of costumed and merry-making devotees across the wooded countryside, is centuries old. But it was only two years ago that anyone outside Kinmen had heard about it (through some well-placed advertorials no less). It would be easy to write that the event is now in danger of losing its authenticity, but for a Taiwanese community, when the times are good, the festivals should be even better. And the gods themselves wouldn’t settle for anything less.
Residents are understandably less excited about the opening of former military sites such as the tunnels they used to huddle into on thrice-weekly drills (Kinmen is one of the most dug-into places in the world). But most will admit that the military presence wasn’t all bad. Idle soldiers were usually put to use maintaining roads, building parks, planting trees, landscaping and even collecting trash. And without landmines under them, Kinmen’s fine-sand beaches would surely not have remained undeveloped for so long
The island’s numerous lakes and ponds are also largely military creations. Willow-lined Lake Tai, for example, was created when a causeway had to be built across the mouth of a lagoon to facilitate tank traffic. The tanks are gone, but today the lake is a migratory bird habitat, and the daily sight of black cormorants coming to rest on the waters in the late evening has become one of Kinmen’s iconic images.
In short, the islanders are a content lot these days as they re-familiarize themselves with the tranquil routines of country life. Their absolute isolation has long ended, but with their homeland still just remote enough, touristy crowds are unlikely to ever become a second force to snatch away the peace.
How to: Kinmen is a short flight away from most major cities in Taiwan, or an hour ferry ride from Xiamen, China. Traffic on the island is light and car, scooter and bicycle rentals are available and easily arranged through homestays in one of the old villages.
Buying Jade in Taiwan
Valued throughout Asia for its beauty and elegance, jade is an especially desired keepsake for visitors to Taipei, which has hundreds of stores specializing in jade as well as the colossal weekend Jade Market. As a long-time resident of Taiwan, I’ve been asked on more than one occasion to accompany visiting friends to purchase jade, always declining due to my lack of anything even approaching expertise. So it was good fortune indeed to be invited to take a brief course in jade identification given by the gracious Roxanne Tu, Senior Gemologist at Taipei’s Museum of Jade Art.
Roxanne brings out a velvet lined box of nine jade bracelets and announces that we’ll be starting with a test. ‘Only three of these are real jade. The others are fake. Can you tell them apart?’ The bracelets passes from hand to hand, and are held to the light, examined by five pairs of eyes. When we have separated them, using nothing more than beginners instinct (disqualifying ones that look too real to be true, for example), Roxanne smiles. She does not tell us whether we’d chosen wisely or not. Instead, she asks us if we are ready to learn about jade.
‘In the jade world, we use a special machine to scan a piece, a machine that measures the spectrum of light as it goes through the jade.’ Roxanne shows us two documents of jade authenticity, each of which has contains a boxed line graph. ‘The lines represent light passing through the stones.’
One line is a smooth arc. The other a jagged line, like the edge of a steak knife.
‘The first graph, this is the spectrograph of a piece of true jade. And the second, that’s a fake. It might look pretty to the eye, but it isn’t real jade. If you are looking at a certificate belonging to a piece of jade, it is the first line that you want to see.’
‘Fair enough,’ I say, ‘but what should the casual shopper be looking for?’
Roxanne takes a second black velvet lined box out, one containing several pieces of translucent jade of different shapes, colors and sizes. She takes one jade bangle, a light piece clearly designed for a woman quite slim of wrist, and dangles it from a string.
‘Listen,’ she says, and strikes the piece gently but firmly with a 10NT coin. The resulting sound is a light plink. She then dangles and strikes a second bangle. The result is a dull thud. Our group voices the conclusion that the first bangle, with its lighter sound, must be the better quality one.
‘This is a common trap. The fact is that neither of these pieces is of very good quality. It isn’t the pitch you need to listen for, but the length of the sound itself. This is what real jade sounds like.’
Roxanne picks up a third bangle by its thread and strikes it. The resulting sound, while only slightly longer, resonates.
‘It’s not that the tone is high or low. It’s the last second that you want to listen for. You should be able to hear the vibration at the end.’
But not all jade bracelets resonate – only translucent jade, which comes from the water, will produce a vibrational frequency. For jade bracelets made from mountain stones, another method must be used.
Roxanne takes two similar looking bracelets, both containing varying shades of light and dark green. She shines the light through the bracelets from behind, and as she does, the difference becomes apparent. On one, the light has caused the line between the varying shades of green to become more distinct. On the other, the place where light and dark green had merged becomes blurred, diffused by the light itself.
‘On real jade, the light will heighten the difference between the shades of green. But with fake jade, the light will only make it blurry,’ she tells us. ‘This method is useful for different articles of mountain jade, not only bracelets.’
Roxanne offers other sensible tips as well. Always buy from a licensed dealer who’ll provide a certificate of authenticity. (The Jade Market, in her opinion, is best suited for trinket shopping rather than high end purchases).
Our group is now ready for our own examination. The box is brought back out, and using the methods that we’ve been taught, within a few minutes we’ve come to a collective consensus as to which three of the nine bangles are of genuinely high quality. We don’t get them all correct, but – as the Meatloaf song goes – two out of three ain’t bad.
But before our newfound semi-expertise can go to our heads long enough to make us consider any serious purchasing, Roxanne informs us what the asking price might be for the genuine article.
‘This one, for example,’ she holds one of the dark green bracelets we’d correctly identified as real, ‘is worth around 30,000.’
‘That’s a lot,’ I say. ‘Most casual tourists aren’t going to spend 30,000 NT on a keepsake.’
‘NT? No. I mean American dollars. A real jade bracelet such as this can cost that much, or even more.’
Duly schooled in the value, complexity and precious nature of this very precious stone, we thank our teacher and exit the museum to shop for what we now know will be mere baubles at the weekend Jade Market.
Ilha Formosa – Beautiful Island. This is what a group of Portuguese sailors, said to have been the first Westerners to lay eyes on the island, uttered upon seeing Taiwan for the first time. We imagine they must have been pretty enamoured. While not every Westerner has the same love-at-first-sight reaction to Taiwan, our Portuguese seafaring friends were just the first of many. With the lush mountains of Wulai, pulsating cities like Taipei, the stunning basalt cliffs of Penghu , excellent hiking in Taroko Gorge, not to mention some of the world’s best hot springs (we especially like the Tainan Hot Spring), Taiwan cuts a figure as one of the most diverse destinations in Asia.
True, Taiwan hasn’t yet made it to the top of everybody’s ‘to visit’ list, but we think this is partially a result of people not quite knowing what Taiwan has to offer. But within the borders of this small, sweet-potato-shaped island barely the size of many American states lies a world of contrasts and a melange of cultural influences you’re not likely to find anywhere else on the planet.
In the first decade of the 21st century, Taiwan is increasingly drawing travellers of all stripes: from spiritual seekers looking to experience the island’s religious heritage to gourmands in search of the perfect night-market meal to computer geeks scanning the horizon for the latest high-tech gadgets. Taiwan offers visitors a hypermodern skin, an ancient Chinese skeleton and an aboriginal soul. And more than that, Taiwan has some of the world’s warmest people, affable to a fault and so filled with rénqíng wèi (which, roughly translated, means ‘personal affection’) that few who come to Taiwan a stranger leave that way.
Much has changed in the centuries since the Portuguese first saw Taiwan. Still, we think if the same group of sailors came back in the present day, they’d call it Ilha Formosa all over again.