Taiwan: Teas, treasures and trains
The Big Read
From night markets to Sun Moon Lake and fantastic foodie adventures, Taiwan is well worth the long journey, says Eleanor Goggin.
My father considered himself a bit of a quiz buff and regularly extended bits of information to us. Like the previous names of countries and capital cities.
One of the facts that stayed firmly in my mind from a young age was that Taiwan was formerly Formosa. At the time, it seemed miles away and too far and exotic for me to ever visit. Little did I know that I would be whisking myself off there, and given that I met three young Irish lads at the carousel in Taipei airport who had been sent to Taiwan to work for eight weeks by their IT company, it just shows how small the world has become.
It is a long trip but well worth it. The people are among the nicest I have ever met. Gracious, helpful and friendly. Always a smile and a friendly greeting.
We based ourselves in the five-star Howard Plaza in Taipei for most of the trip. It's a vast city but very easy to negotiate, with low taxi fares and a great metro system. Most people have a smattering of English, so it's not a daunting prospect to negotiate the city.
Vespas abound. Everyone appears to have one, from grannies to young people. They are 10 wide and six deep at any set of traffic lights.
On our first morning, we visited the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a tribute to the political and military leader who was head of State on mainland China for two decades, and after 1950 became leader in Taiwan until his death in 1975.The roof is octagonal to symbolise the good luck and fortune associated with the number eight, and the two sets of stairs have 89 nine steps representing Chiang Kai-shek's age when he died.
We waited, like all tourists, for the changing of the guard which occurs on an hourly basis. The gardens are gorgeous and are framed by the very traditional and beautiful buildings of the National Concert Hall and the National Theatre.
And then it was on to the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, once home to a tobacco factory. Ironically, you are not allowed to smoke anywhere in the grounds. It is now considered to be the Creative hub of Taipei, where various artistic and design presentations take place. Taiwan focuses hugely on culture. Design, hand puppetry, theatre and opera are among those applauded on the world stage.
But nothing beats the food. The choice is amazing. We stopped for lunch at the First restaurant in the Sinyi District. Truffle risotto with nutty, slow-braised ox cheek with wine, garlic mashed potato, followed by the most divine dessert of pancakes with various orange accompaniments which was to die for. Diet out the door again.
U theatre is a performing arts troupe based in a mountain setting just outside Taipei. A mix of martial arts, drums, tai chi, meditation and dance lends itself to a very atmospheric performance. They have performed on the world stage, including England, Belgium and France. We attended one of their rehearsals in the mountains and I would love to see a full performance some time. I fell in love with the sweet little new recruit who was being put through his paces.
One word - cougar.
The night markets are the place to be. There are several in Taipei but we chose to visit the one in Raohe street. It's a feast for the senses. Pigs feet, chestnuts, snails, deep fried confectionary of all sorts, dogs with red bows being pushed in prams. You name it, it's there. A chance to win a cuddly toy on various balloon or basket ball stalls. Of course, I had a go and of course I failed miserably. But I did taste crickets and grasshoppers. A great atmosphere of fun and local life. And again the people are fantastic. Need to use a loo in one of the restaurants in the market? Not a bother. A smile, and directions upstairs.
The unemployment rate is very low. I didn't see one homeless person. They are a happy, happy people. And I have a theory as to why this is. They don't really drink. We ate in a lot of 'tea houses' and you can't get beer or wine there. Just tea. There's no way I'm changing my hedonistic lifestyle but I'm just saying . . . Also, the fact that they live in a democracy helps.
Taipei 101, built to represent a huge bamboo stalk, was the tallest building in the world but has been overtaken by the Burj Khalifa in recent years. The trip in the elevator from the ground floor to the 89th floor where the observatory is, takes just forty seconds and is well worth the journey if a little touristy at the top.
Din Tai Fung dumpling house is housed in Tapei 101 and provides a feast for hungry eyes. Shrimp dumplings, shrimp and pork dumplings, sauteed shrimps, braised beef noodles, egg flower soup with tomato and tofu. The menu is vast and all divine. Our waitress, Mariona, was on a six-month exchange from Barcelona and was loving the city. Her birthday was shortly after she arrived and the local staff had surprised her with not one but two birthday cakes. She couldn't have been more positive about the welcome she had received.
I know it appears as if I spent my time eating. Well, I did. The food is so good. Another example was the Pearl Liang restaurant in the Grand Hyatt hotel. The taster menu was superb. Baby abalone, barbequed duck, marinated pig's ear and jelly fish, followed by wok fried king prawn with chilli sauce, and steamed perch fillet with preserved black bean sauce to name but a few of the delicacies.
We took a trip to Tamsui in the new city where we visited the old British consulate. A beautiful edifice, built in the 17th century by the Dutch East India Company, it was called Hong Mao Cheng by the Taiwanese which translates as castle of the red-haired folk, a reference to the fact that the Taiwanese regarded Europeans as red haired savages in that era. The British took it over as their consulate in 1867. It is now a museum.
But the piece de resistance is the National Palace Museum. The museum opened in 1965 and houses six thousand works of art with thousands more in the vaults underground. A cabbage with two insects carved out of just one piece of jade is one of the most interesting and highly acclaimed pieces. It's easy to spend hours here and it's easy to spend hours again at another time because the pieces are too numerous to show at any one time and are rotated on a regular basis.
Getting to other cities is an easy task. The high speed train travels at 300 kilometres an hour and we decided to visit Tainan and Taichung, two other vast cities. Tainan was the capital from 1683 to 1885 and is oozing with culture. We visited Fort Zeelandia. Built by the Dutch in the 17th century bricks were held in place with a mixture of syrup, glutinous rice and oyster shells. When Koxinga seized Fort Zeelandia, he renamed it Anping Township and turned the inner fort into government offices. One original wall remains, and banyan trees abound.
And then it was on to Taichung on the high speed train and a further trip to Sun Moon Lake and Nantou county. Now we were really getting around. Sun Moon Lake is beautiful. A bicycle path covers the whole 37 kilometres of the perimeter, but we decided to take a boat trip instead.
The Taiwanese are big into cycling, and men in lycra are another interesting aspect of the sights to behold. The sight of the cable cars taking you up to the Aboriginal village at the top was enough to fill me with dread, but I put on my brave face and battled the storm. My language must have been quite frightening for my fellow cable car occupiers, but I got through it. I managed to calm down on the way back down and the views were spectacular.
Altogether a brilliant trip, made more special by the gorgeous people. When chatting to the half-Irish, half-Greek air steward on my journey home, he inquired as to whether I had been to the springs in Taipei or the cable car from the zoo to the tea plantation. I told him I had missed those two attractions. He was stunned.
"Don't worry," I assured him "I'll be back to see them."
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