The Tasty Charms of Taiwan
We once had an elderly friend who made the first of his many visits to China way back in 1939 - and who routinely, repeatedly, shared with us that "once you see China, once you have visited the culture, your perspective on life on this planet will be forever altered." Mark my words, ducky.
Or as the ancient Chinese proverb has it, "Don’t listen to what they say. Go see."
Seeing is believing, as the Portuguese explorers determined in 1544 - and their first sighting of Taiwan caused them to re-christen the island "Formosa" for "beautiful island." A tropical paradise with its own indigenous culture and cuisine, Taiwan, much like Hawaii, retains a special place in the heart of those who visit.
Centrally located in East Asia, less than 75 miles off the eastern coast of mainland China, Taiwan (also known as Republic of China, which is not to be confused with mainland People’s Republic of China) attracted more than six million visitors in 2011 (an increase of more than 100% over the past decade).
One of Asia’s most progressive countries for LGBT rights, Taiwan has enacted legislation that prohibits discrimination against LGBT people in education or in the workplace, and, since 2011, the nation’s school textbooks have included LGBT topics. With more than 30,000 attendees, Taiwan’s Pride Parade in Taipei is the largest LGBT event in Asia. Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city, also hosts a pride parade. And then, of course, there’s Ang Lee, the Taiwanese director of such gay-themed films as "Brokeback Mountain," "The Wedding Banquet," and "Taking Woodstock."
A country with the world’s tallest building from 2004-2010 (Taipei 101), Taiwan is home to five cities of more than two million residents each, whose citizens are increasingly accustomed to the sleek, glass towers rising seventy and eighty stories into the clouds. One of the Four Asian Tigers (along with Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea) - or Dragons, as some of the locals prefer, given the legendary dragon’s more propitious associations - Taiwan is one of the world’s most advanced, high-income economies. And in keeping with Taiwan’s rapid urbanization, it’s fitting that Chinese architect, Wang Shu, was this year’s winner of architecture’s most prestigious award, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which marks the first time since the award’s inception in 1979 that the award has been given to a Chinese citizen.
One part "Blade Runner" and another part "Hello Kitty," Taiwan’s urban nightscape is a mesmerizing reminder of the accelerated pace of technological change. Massive cable-stayed bridges dot the horizon, illuminating the Taiwanese night with resplendent light displays in purple, fuchsia, and blue. 24-hour stores sell bubble teas and consumer electronics while LED billboards scale the sides of 50-story buildings in urban landscapes where 50-story buildings are rapidly the norm rather than the exception. High-speed trains race from city to city at speeds above 180 mph - and Taiwan’s sleek new airports are a reminder that aviation is the future and the future is now.
Born of a collision between the Eurasian tectonic plate and the Philippine Sea Plate, Taiwan is the world’s fourth-highest island. Rugged mountains on the eastern coast give way to plains to the west, which is home to the majority of the island’s population. The island’s towering mountains and dramatic coastlines are bisected by the Tropic of Cancer, resulting in a profusion of sub-tropical vegetation, ferns, for example. More than 700 varieties of ferns flourish on the island of Taiwan - versus 200 in all of Europe.
Taiwan’s tropical climate and its topography of seacoast, mountains, plains, and fertile valleys promote a specialty agricultural industry that befits the breadth and complexity of Taiwanese cuisine. Colonialist culinary influences from the Dutch, Portuguese, and Japanese mix with indigenous Chinese and aboriginal traditions to create a gastronomy that is sui generis to Taiwan.
Eating your way through Taiwan is an excellent means of appreciating Taiwan’s myriad charms. A first-time visitor to Taiwan will be immediately drawn to the numerous night markets that exist in every city throughout Taiwan - and one way to prepare one’s nose (and stomach) for the onslaught of "stinky tofu" is to imagine a wheel of Camembert set out in the noonday sun to ferment for three days. Toss the odiferous mass into a deep fryer and serve with kimchi - and even then, you’d have only the palest imitation of one of Taiwan’s most popular night market treats.
Breakfast in Taiwan is an immersion into Taiwanese gastronomy. Picture a buffet that includes fresh tofu, seaweed, spicy edamame, papaya, pineapple, croissants and rice congee, dried fruits and nuts, pickled vegetables, taro, guava, passion fruit, broiled tomatoes and fried potatoes, sesame seed mochi, miso, watermelon, skinless pepper, sweet potato, peanuts, pickled gourd, blue cherry jam, pineapple and black tea marmalade - and yellow tomato juice and strong coffee to wash it all down.
After a meal like that, you’ll probably want to rest up - for the night markets, where you might partake of water spinach with garlic, ox tongue cake, mungbean cake, dragon-eye cake, deep-fried glutinous rice balls, phoenix-eye cake, oyster omelet, pig head rice, carambola juice, sweetened peanut soup, sweet beans, and jelly fig.
And if, at dawn, you’re still walking the city, walking off your gustatory sins and still seeking to placate a wayward hunger, there is the incongruity - and ubiquity - of the Taiwanese 7-Eleven. Located at nearly every second block in every Taiwanese city, 7-Eleven in Taiwan is unlike 7-Eleven in the American suburbs - and is, instead, a veritable cornucopia of comestibles so fascinating that you probably wouldn’t mind being locked in after-hours for a nightlong feast.
Our elderly friend was correct: after a day in Taiwan, your perspective and palate are forever altered - for the better. Don’t speak Mandarin or Taiwanese? Fear not, for the universal language of Taiwan is the smile - and the famed Asian hospitality is in abundance throughout Taiwan.
Since World War II, Taiwan’s economic rise has been designated the "Taiwan Miracle" - and while there’s no question that the Taiwanese people work hard, they revere hospitality as much as industry and they work to present their best to their guests - and even then, wish to do more.
This is a country where a business card is proffered with protocol: held between two hands and offered ceremoniously, with a slight bow. And this is a country with a river named Love and a lake named Lotus. Consider also a glimpsed billboard advertising "Affectionate Construction." And consider the national slogan of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau: "Taiwan. Touch Your Heart."
One morning at breakfast in Kaohsiung, overlooking the harbor on the 39th floor, we watched as an elderly woman took out her sketchbook and pastels. Alongside her, her husband sat silently, proudly, as the scene through the windows materialized on the page in front of them.
Oh, the industrious Chinese! To see that woman, so calmly and purposefully sketching her view of the feats and marvels of Chinese engineering, is to remain a bit in awe of a culture that has witnessed - and made so much of - human history.
Taiwan is a country in rapid transition. What you see today will, in all likelihood, be vastly different in another ten years. Our elderly friend who first visited in 1939 would be astounded at the changes. And yet, the indigenous people of Taiwan still live in the mountainous terrain, as did their ancestors from approximately 8,000 years ago - still drinking the water from the cool, clear mountain streams by using a vessel made from the elephant ear plant. Even the addition of cell phones in their pockets seems to underscore their dexterity in honoring ancient traditions in a modern world.
According to the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Dragon is the most propitious in the 12-year cycle of animals. As the only legendary animal, the dragon represents good fortune and great power. At the opening night of the 23rd annual Taiwan Lantern Festival, this year held in Lukang, a 65-foot silver dragon was illuminated with more than one million LED lights as fireworks exploded in the sky.
The resplendent spectacle was accompanied by a propulsive soundtrack and a song whose lyrics proclaimed, "Taiwan. Formosa. The heart of Asia. The time for Taiwan is now. Taiwan opens its heart to you." Regardless of the lyrics’ profundity, in the ensuing jubilation, no other words would have been closer to the truth.
(Travel feature continues on next pages: What to See, What to Do, Where to Stay, Where to Eat, Where to Shop, Getting There...)