A Journey Through Tantalising Taiwan

DRIVEN

Issue 1 2014


Stunning scenery, exemplary cuisine, a rich history, a captivating culture... and markers? tatyana Leonov finds that Taiwan really does have it all, writes Tatyana Leonov

His voice gets Louder and the others slowly being to join in. A few from the group begin to smile, others start to tap their feet, the youngest begins clapping, then joins in. The girl in the corner begins to sing. Her voice is soft at first but soon she gains confidence and surpasses the leader as the loudest singer, taking everyone by surprise. They finish and laugh, clap, and pat each other on the back. And then they begin another song.

The Ami is Taiwan’s largest indigenous group, making up around 40 per cent of Taiwan’s total indigenous population (there are 14 officially recognised Aboriginal tribes all up in Taiwan). They are spread throughout the country, with many still residing between the central and coastal mountains, the eastern Pacific coastal plain to the coastal mountains and the Hengchun Peninsula.

The Ami people are also renowned for being great singers. Their singing was made internationally famous when one of their songs formed the chorus for Enigma’s Return to Innocence. The song made such an impression it was also used as the theme music for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

You wouldn’t know that this talented group are Amis if it wasn’t for their distinctive singing. Like everyone else, they’re dressed in jeans and T-shirts, enjoying a meal at a restaurant that specialises in traditional Ami tribal hot pots. I can’t help myself and approach the group asking what they were singing about. They explain the song is about nature and love, and since they are celebrating a birthday they share the birthday cake with me. This kind gesture is the first of many where I am impressed with the kindness and thoughtfulness of the Taiwanese people.

They don’t hesitate to share their cake, or their story, and an hour later I find myself still sitting in the same spot mesmerised, listening to their beautiful voices scale a wide tonal range (a distinctive feature of traditional Ami singing). I soon learn that Taiwan is all about sharing. The people of Taiwan are happy to share pretty much everything – not just cake and stories, but also their vibrant culture and rich history.

Taipei for food

The central hub of Taiwan is the lively, quirky-cool capital that is Taipei. Suburbs like Ximen remind me of bustling Tokyo – kids clad in the latest gear, flashy shops selling all kinds of ephemera, rambunctiously-furnished eateries playing pumping music, and suave-looking locals spilling out of sophisticated bars onto the street.

There’s a certain intoxicating buzz about Taiwan’s stylish capital, and it’s easy to catch. Night markets are a delight to explore. Narrow alleys filled with all kinds of culinary delicacies (like stinky tofu, turtle soup and snake cocktails), as well as clothing stores, massage parlours and everything else under the sun will keep you busy for hours – and getting lost amongst exotic food and all kinds of bric-a-brac will make for the ultimate night market experience. A recent Taipei City Government survey found that Taipei’s night markets were one of the five most popular attractions for foreign visitors.

The other four? Taipei is also a paradise for cultural connoisseurs looking to tap into Taiwan’s rich history, and understandably so, the other four attractions include Taipei 101, the National Palace Museum, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall.

Allocate a day for the National Palace Museum (www.npm. gov.tw) – the artefacts and exhibits on show are some of the best I’ve ever seen, and at any one time (like with most museums only a small percentage are on display) will feature art, ceramics, bronze items and jade pieces. The jadeite cabbage with insects is a particularly famous and popular item to view; a beautiful article that features intricate detailing.

Pair your cultural experience with a superb meal at the on-site Silks Place (www.silksplace-taroko.com.tw) restaurant. The striking five-floor eatery, fit out with smart furnishings and a mahogany- ebony-crème colour scheme makes for very pleasant surroundings. The nine-course imperial treasures feast is the meal to order, offering diners the opportunity to devour dishes that resemble items from the National Palace Museum’s signature collections. The jadeite cabbage with insects is artfully created from bokchoy sum, and the insects from the work of art are replicated in the form of miniscule shrimps.

For a more casual dining experience, visit Din Tai Fung (www.dintaifung.com.tw), the award-winning dumpling eatery chain. Taiwan is the birthplace of the original Din Tai Fung, which can be found all around Asia now (including one in Sydney). Founder Yang Bingy started off in the cooking oil-making business, but soon realised he could make more money selling xiaolongbao (small steamed buns). By the 1980s he was running a full-fledged restaurant, and the original location on Xinyi Road in Taipei still remains. The Din Tai Fung empire is now a global culinary phenomenon! Must-do experience: Taipei 101 Observatory (www.taipei-101. com.tw). The second tallest building in the world (it was the tallest until the Burj Khalifa in Dubai took over in 2004) stands at 508 metres tall from the ground to the highest structural point. On floor 89 you get supreme panoramic views of Taipei, while floor 91 (weather permitting) offers a different outdoor experience.

Alishan for scenery

Approximately two million people visited the Alishan National Scenic Area last year, an area spanning the hilly regions of central Chiayi County and the high-altitude mountainous regions of Taiwan. It’s quickly evident why – a maze of stunning wilderness wherever you look: fast-flowing waterfalls, deep canyons, and a plethora of wildlife including butterflies, birds, frogs and fireflies (April through to June is the best time to catch the fireflies glowing at night).

Most Australians haven’t been here though. In fact, many don’t even know this paradise exists. Taiwanese tourists and visitors from neighbouring countries do however do know about this gem, and it’s one of the most popular scenic areas in Taiwan for mountain climbing, trekking, or simply meandering along one of the many forest trails. Because of it sheer size and differing terrain, visitors will experience different climates depending on where and when they go. Subtropical rainforests, warm- temperate rainforests and mountain forests are all part of the natural landscape that encompasses Alishan.

Because of the mountainous surroundings, Alishan is an ideal base for tea growing, and the area is famous for its high mountain tea production. The tea grows particularly well at altitudes of 800 to 1600 metres – and in Alishan it grows all year round. Residents plant, make, brew and drink the tea, and the visitors... they drink it too. There’s an ‘Alishan Tao of Tea’ route tea-lovers can follow, where they visit tea farms, dine on tea cuisine and can rest up after a tough day of tea drinking at a tea-themed bed and breakfast.

If tea isn’t your kind of cuppa, coffee produced in the Alishan area is also delicious. The mid- to high-altitude, frequent fog and vast temperature disparity makes for ideal coffee bean-making conditions, resulting in the Alishan ultra smooth and mellow blend.

Although the scenery is spectacular, one of the most special experiences is visiting local Aboriginal tribes. The indigenous Tsou can be separated into northern and southern tribes (there are big differences between the two), and you’ll find northern Tsou Aboriginals in the Alishan area. It’s possible to visit one of the eight Tsou villages in the area as the cultural tourism department works with the village people to celebrate and endorse their rich history and culture. For this reason each of the eight villages has a theme that was developed to encourage community participation and development. You can immerse yourself in rich Taiwanese Aboriginal culture and also purchase traditional art pieces (rattan weaving and leather making are both popular traditional art forms) as well as a variety of crafts at the villages.

Must-do experience: Watching the sunrise from Zhushan, fondly referred to as the ‘roof of Taiwan’. There are a few fantastic sunrise viewing points in the area but this one is popular, not just because of the panoramic views, but also because it’s easy to get too. A narrow- gauge train will get you from Alishan station to Zhushan station in about 25 minutes, and this is an experience in itself. The train is usually full (so you may find yourself standing) and weaves along the twisting mountain at an elevation up to 2494 metres.

Tropic of Cancer for a road trip

It’s a bit of a bizarre concept. The Tropic of Cancer is a latitudinal line that crosses from east to west, through Hualien County, Chiayi County and City, Yunlin County, Penghu County, and a cluster of islands in the Taiwan Strait. Intriguingly Taiwan offers tourists the chance to follow the invisible Tropic of Cancer at latitude 23o 26 minutes north – on which only 16 countries in the world lie. There are three markers in Taiwan, which are the star attraction.

Humans have always had a fascination with dates, times and locations. It’s as if we need to prove that we exist – here and now. The Tropic of Cancer markers are designed to draw tourists to them – any day is fine, important days are even better.

Inspired by the BBC documentary Tropic of Cancer, in which Simon Reeve embarks on a journey uncovering stories from tropical locations, earlier this year the Taiwan Bureau organised several events showcasing the sun and its symbolism. Focusing on the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solstice (which refers to when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer) – which occurred on 21 June this year – the bureau put on a number of themed parties, including foodie festivals where visitors had the chance to sample traditional delicacies such as smoked flying fish in eastern Taiwan’s Rift Valley or cactus ice-lollipops in outlying Penghu County.

Sometimes the most interesting experiences are the ones that might seem unusual – and travelling to a Tropic of Cancer marker (or visiting all three) definitely makes for a quirky road trip story. Must-do experience: Take a silly photo at one of the Tropic of Cancer markers. Better still, take a silly photo at all three markers.

 

Fact file

> getting there

Scoot flies to Taipei via Singapore from Sydney and the Gold Coast. Visit flyscoot.com

> visiting there

Taiwan’s climate is subtropical. Summers (June to August) are hot and humid, winters (December to February) can be quite damp, although still offer pleasant temperatures. Autumn (September to November) and spring (March to May) are pleasant times to visit, although they can be quite hot. The climate varies in different

parts of the country so, depending on where you travel, other times can also be ideal. For example, the east coast is great to visit in the summer months, especially for outdoor activities.

> getting around

Taiwan’s High Speed Rail (THSR) is a high-speed railway line that links Taipei with a number of other destinations along the west coast. The 345-kilometre railway line is based on Japanese technology – it’s an efficient, quick and affordable way to travel in Taiwan. Taiwan’s roads are also easy to get around.

> sleeping

There are a plethora of options in Taipei. The Parisian- themed palais de chine (www.palaisdechinehotel.com/ en-us/) is a sumptuous option for those seeking luxury – think ornate interiors, plush fabrics and antique art pieces scattered throughout the grandiose building. The new Mandarin oriental (mandarinoriental.com/taipei/hotel) is another opulent option. For those seeking something a little more modern, the edgy Hotel westgate (www. westgatehotel.com.tw) offers funky, modernly-furnished rooms. In the Alishan National Scenic Area alishan House (www.alishanhouse.hotel.com.tw) is sleekly appointed and some of the rooms come with mesmerising views out to the mountains.

> eating

Taiwan’s food is delightfully fresh and flavoursome, and this is especially evident in Taipei. Pineapples are one of Taiwan’s major agribusiness exports and pineapple cakes, often referred to as ‘little gold bricks’, are sweet pastries sold almost everywhere. The Taiwanese love them so much there’s even a Taipei Pineapple Cake Cultural Festival held yearly in June!

Bubble tea is a Taiwanese tea-based drink that’s also worth trying, a distinctive drink that was invented in teashops in the city of Taichung during the 1980s. Most bubble tea recipes contain a tea base mixed with fruit or milk, and come with small chewy tapioca balls (ice- blended versions are usually mixed with fruit or syrup).

For more information visit taiwantourism.org