Time Out in Taiwan: My holiday in a small island with a big heart
Taiwan is half the size of Ireland, but it's a deeply intriguing destination says Aoife Carrigy
The night air is warm as velvet as I watch the crowds below me dance and drum and parade their way through the last night of the annual lantern festival.
It's soothing to watch, this slow-flowing river of performers and perambulators side-lit by a quayside tableau of multicoloured lanterns (below).
It's been a long day since my breakfast of seafood congee and pickles washed down with green tea. I've been whisked through Tainan's National Museum of Taiwan Literature for a whistle-stop tour of this country's complex evolution from the oral culture of its aboriginal communities to one in which the written word is worshipped at 24-hour bookshops, complete with cafés and wine cellars.
I've clambered the dusty Fort Zeelandia at Anping, which the Dutch East India Company established as a 17th-century trading post before being thrown out by Koxinga, a Ming-loyalist whose dynasty began Chinese rule of this much beleaguered island off the south-east coast of China.
I've craned my neck and donned shades to take in the mellow belly and 40 metres of golden bulges of the world's highest sitting buddha - or 108 metres including 36 floors of the Fo Guang Shan Buddha museum on which he perches.
I've eaten crunchy shrimp rolls for lunch and grazed on an epic buffet dinner. (That glistening fresh-cut sushi! And that Sichuan-spiced beef noodle soup!)
I'm feeling full in every sense, and my hotel bed looks tempting. But the city below is calling so down I go to snake along through that river of families and friends who have gathered for one last night of new year celebrations.
Down on the street, there are kids everywhere. And dogs... so many dogs. Most of them are as tall as you or me, wrought of wire and paper into colourful lanterns, larger-than-life creatures that have sprung straight from a 3D cartoon onto the quays of Kaohsiung's Love River. These Lunar New Year celebrations herald the start of the Year of the Dog, and many of this year's lanterns embrace that canine theme.
Sweetheart couples join shoals of teens to pose for selfies under one weaving tunnel of head-height lights. At several spots along the teeming quays, leather-faced couples croon into microphones with a casual professionalism that comes from years of performing together. Wherever I look, there is another street stall selling something delicious: every kind of shellfish, fresh from the natural bay of this port city, or local chestnuts from the Alishan highlands. Some folk are sampling cool bottles of local honey beer but the Taiwanese aren't big drinkers and most seem more interested in indulging their sweet tooth, maybe with fat heart-shaped waffles hot from the griddle or skewers of candied cherry tomatoes.
Scenes like this are playing out across Taiwan's towns and cities, most of which are strung along the east coast of an island half the size of Ireland. The official Taiwan Lantern Festival started in Taipei in 1990, the year democracy came to Taiwan (or the Republic of China as its administration prefers, despite continued challenges from the People's Republic of China) and now moves from city to city each year.
This year's Lunar New Year holiday culminated in an official inauguration in nearby Chiayi city, where I joined thousands gathered under a full moon to hear Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speak, watch elaborate performances and wander through sprawling parklands of lantern displays. Think Riverdance meets Bloom In the Park via an Asian Disneyland. With dogs. Lots of dogs.
The next morning, I get another chance to be wowed by that 40-metre Buddha, this time from above. I'm not in a light aircraft, though I feel remarkably airborne: instead we're strapped in at the iRide developed by Brogent, a local Kaohsiung tech company which supplies immersive flying theatres to theme parks. Feet dangling, we soar past Buddha's happy head, speed over local hilltops and whizz down to a nearby river where we're sprayed by a gentle mist as a group of whitewater rafters wave us by.
Three-quarters of the population of 23.5 million live in cities like Kaohsiung. These views remind me just how close those urban hubs are to a very different Taiwan: one of hill-walking treks into deep gorges or through forested highlands, of cycle routes around mountain-top lakes, of surf beaches and remote snorkelling spots.
Even in Taipei, a capital city of seven million people, it's surprisingly easy to escape the high-rise metropolis with its chic boutiques and innovative Creative Parks, pungent night markets and incense-hazed Taoist temples. Within city limits lie calm havens like Nung Chan Monastery, a refuge for urban souls. A 20-minute train ride takes you to Beitou, a spa town developed by the Japanese during their short colonial rule, where you can soak in hot springs flanked by green hills, or to Taipei Zoo, where you can jump the Maokong Gondola cable car up to one of many teahouses overlooking the city.
Portuguese explorers named this place Ilha Formosa ('beautiful island'). Much of it remains unspoilt and - as far as visitors go - largely undiscovered, making this an intriguing and friendly destination.
1. Eat like a local
Taiwan aces the buffet, reflecting a culinary culture which itself mix-and-matches influences from local aboriginal diets with those from various Chinese regions and an early 20th-century Japanese colonial period. And don’t miss street food xiaochi (‘small eats’) like stinky tofu, a local fermented favourite that tastes way better than it sounds or smells.
2. Treasure troves
When Mao’s Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the defeated Nationalists retreated to Taiwan (declaring Taipei the new capital of the Republic of China). They took with them a vast collection of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts, now displayed between Taipei’s unmissable National Palace Museum and its Southern Branch in Chiayi.
3. Know your lantern festivals
Coinciding with the annual lantern festival (February/March), several local festivals light up the night in unique ways. Crowds flock to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival outside Taipei to release sky lanterns inscribed with their wishes, while Tainan’s Yanshui Beehive Firecracker Festival sees revellers kit out in helmets and protective body suits for a fully immersive firework experience.
What to pack
Pack an unlocked smart phone and grab a cheap sim card from the airport, or download the Taipei WiFi Alliance APP for single-entry access to free WiFi in many public areas. Use the EasyCard and iPASS as an e-wallet for convenience store purchases, MRT (metro) fares and YouBike rental.
Aoife travelled as a guest of Dublin's Taipei Representative Office and Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Fly to Taipei on one-stop connections with Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com), China Airlines (china-airlines.com) or with Emirates (emirates.ie). See https://eng.taiwan.net.tw for a useful introduction to its charms.
Where to stay
In Tainan, Silks Place (silksplace-tainan.com) is a tasteful hotel reflecting the former capital's culture and charm. Hotel Royal-Nikko Taipei (royal-taipei.com.tw) is a smart and convenient downtown hotel within walking distance of many of Taipei's cultural and culinary highlights. Irish citizens can visit without a visa.