Monday, May 16, 2011

The Best of Taiwan

From time to time, friends and family members asked me for suggestions on where to go and what to do when they visit Taiwan.  While it is close to impossible to address different needs and preferences, I thought I would offer a summary list, completed with reference links that could help one formulate his/her own itinerary before delving into detailed tour guides or making arrangement with a travel service.

Before we start, it is useful to get oriented in both geographically and historically.  Taiwan is a large tropical/subtropical island in East Asia about 100 miles southeast of mainland China. It is within 3-4 hours of flight time from Japan and Korea at north, and 1 hour from Hong Kong at its southeast.  The island is about 1.5 times of the size of New Jersey or one quarter of the size of the New York State.  The longest and widest parts of Taiwan are measured to about 250 miles by 100 miles.  It is mountainous with over 100 peaks rising 3,000 meters or 10,000 ft or more within tens of miles from the shore at sea level. Taiwan currently has a population of 23 million (New York and New Jersey have approximately 19 and 9 million people respectively) with a quarter of them residing in the greater metropolitan area of Taipei, the capital city at the north of the island. 

For thousands of years, Taiwan have been inhabited with Taiwanese aborigines who are Austronesian peoples.  While there had been sparse visits and settlements in the area by Chinese across the Taiwan strait, the island first attracted the attention of European colonial powers when Portuguese sighted it in 1544 and named it Formosa (means "Beautiful”).  Dutch started their settlements in southern Taiwan in 1624 and later made Anping (a part of today’s Tainan city) the colonial capital.  Two years later, Spanish landed and occupied northern Taiwan.  The Spanish Formosa did not last however.  It fell to Dutch’s hand who took control of the whole island in 1642.   In 1662, 18 years after the fall of Ming Dynasty of China, the former Ming commander Zheng Chenggong 鄭成 defeated the Dutch and claimed Taiwan as the base in a attempt to reclaim mainland China and restore the Ming Dynasty. The name Taiwan is believed to have been originated from the Taiwanese aborigines who resided then in Anping area.

In 1683, Taiwan fell into Qing Dynasty’s hand and was formally annexed and eventually became a province of China in 1885.  It was ceded to Japan a decade later however when Qing Dynasty was defeated by Japan in First Sino-Japanese War.  By then, there were about 3 million people in Taiwan with the majority being Han immigrants from mainland China occupying coastal lands. It was returned to China (governed by the Nationalist Party) in 1945 when Japan lost and surrendered at the conclusion of WWII.  A short four years later in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government retreated to Taiwan when Communist Party won the civil war and overtook the mainland and formed the People’s Republic of China.

In the subsequent 60 years, Taiwan has evolved and transformed into a significant economic power and one of the most developed countries in Asia with a head start out of the involuntary modernization through the earlier Japanese colonization.  Yet, it has managed to retain its root in Chinese culture which was further strengthened and infused with imperial treasures, the elites and survivors-alike through the exile of the Nationalist government.  Indeed there is no better place to see and to experience more completely what a modern instantiation of Chinese culture can be.  Today, it is possible to do a visit of Taiwan in less than a week or just the Taipei area in say 3 days by escorted tours.  However if you’d like to explore places in your own pace and customize to your preferences, it is possible to do so on your own or with helps from various travel services.

Chances are you will arrive at Taiwan by plane at the TaoYuan Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport which is less than one hour away from Taipei, the capital city with a taxi/limo fare at about $40-50 dollars (or around 1300 NT dollars).  Note no tipping is expected for any services including taxi and for those who do (like in some restaurants), service charge is explicitly included in the bill that saves you from the anxiety of determining what is a reasonable tip.  Of course, I am assuming that you have already found a place to stay before you depart.  Like most fully developed modern cities, Taipei offers a wide range of lodging from apartment, hostels, to 5-star International chain hotels that you can find from many of the Internet traveling services.  What perhaps less known is that some of the universities do offer hotel and guest house services on campus in good value. 

When in Taipei, you can take advantage of its wonderful and convenient public transportation system.  Its excellent Metro Taipei and extensive bus routes and frequent bus services makes possible for one explore most of the spots listed below (often without transfers) safely.  If you don’t mind to spend a little more money and want to cut down the time of travel, you can always hail a metered-taxi on the street – one would be available almost instantly in most parts of the city during regular hours.  

For interesting places to see or things to do in Taipei and neighboring area, a good online source in English (and Chinese) is the maintained by the Department of Information and Tourism of the city government. Below are my picks grouped in geographic proximity so that you can visit each of them in one trip within a half-day or one day journey. Some of them are within walking distance to each other such that you can do people watching and window shopping as you get to the next stop. Many of them are also accessible by Metro.

1.      Southern, Central and Western Districts: Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park, 2-28 Peace Park/National Taiwan Museum, Xi-Men Ding, Taipei Botanical Garden, Longshan Temple & Hua-Xi Night Market/Snake Alley
2.      Northern Districts: National Palace Museum, Chiang Kai-Shek Shilin Residence, Shilin 士林night market
3.      Northern Districts and excursion to DanShiu: Mattyrs' Shrine 臺北忠烈祠 (there is an hourly changing of guard ceremony), Taipei Fine Arts Museum, DanShui Old Street and ferry terminal area, Danshui Fort San Domingo
4.      Eastern Districts: Taipei 101 (one of the tallest building in the world, shops, restaurants, with a panoramic view of city on the top floor), nearby shopping malls, book stores, movie theaters.
5.      Full Day excursions
·        Historical towns and Ceramic and Pottery arts and crafts: Yingge pottery street, pottery factories and museum, Sansia Ching Shui Tsu Shih Temple and Old Street
6.      Overnight excursions from Taipei
·        JiaoSi Hot Spring and YiLan city

Leaving Taipei city, you can explore the rest of the island in one to two weeks on your own or with assistance by travel services without escorted large group tours. In the following, I describe a clockwise around the island itinerary that allows you to explore Taiwan in-depth by staying 2-3 nights at each cluster.  You can reverse the direction and/or go straight to any of the cluster and skip some of them if you’d like.

·        Cluster A: Take a train or flight to HuaLien city in eastern part of Taiwan.  Stay at HuaLien or TaRoKo Gorge National Park to explore the city and the neighborhood.  TaRoKo Gorge National Park is one the most beautiful parks that offers abundant hiking opportunities to see the marble and limestone mountains with streams cutting through them.  You can also soak yourself in natural outdoor hot spring or rafting on the nearby Siouguluan River.
·        Cluster B:Take a train to TaiTung City in southeast of Taiwan.  If you have some extra money to spend, you may want to stay at the one of the nicer ZhiBen resorts like the Hotel Royal 老爺大酒店 to relax in upscale hot springs and water park.  Take your time to tour the neighboring towns and enjoy activities like GuanShan biking tour 關山環鎮自行車道.  Take a ferry or short flight to either Green Island or Orchid Island (LangYu) and spend at least one night there.  These two islands are small enough that you can rent a bike or scooter or hike around the island.  The latter offers a unique opportunity to visit the aboriginal Yami village and see their arts/crafts.  The former used to house political prisoners by the Nationalist government before martial law was lifted in Taiwan.
·        Cluster C: Take a train/bus to Kenting, a seaside town near the southern tip of Taiwan. When you are tired of the beach activities and water sports like snorkeling and diving, you can visit the nearby Kenting National Park and see tropical vegetation and the traces of undersea, or spend an evening in town strolling down the bustling main street and check out the night market and bars.  You can also make a loop around the southern tip to see fascinating landscapes including coral tablelands, limestone caves, sand rivers and sand waterfalls etc. while stopping by the fortified Erluanbi light house and the HenChun Old Town 恆春古 before returning to Kenting.  A little northwest of HenChun town center off the shore is the National Museum of Marine Biology & Aquarium.  South of the museum is a popular scenic spot for seeing the famous GuangShan Sunset 關山夕.
·        Cluster D: Heading north by bus from Kenting, you reach KaoHsiung City, the 2nd largest city of the island in 2 hours.  When in Kaohsiung, you can reach pretty much all the major attractions by KaoHsiung Rapid Transit (KRT), including Sizih Bay/Former British Consulate, Love River cruise and river bank cafes, Dream Mall, Dome of Light at the Formosa Boulevard Station, and the 2009 Kaohsiung World Game Stadium designed by the famous Japanese architect Toyo Ito.  North of Kaohsiung is the Tainan, the oldest city of Taiwan and the Dutch colonial capital in Taiwan four hundred years ago.  You can visit the historical sites such as AnPing Fort, ChiKan Tower, Eternal Golden Castle, Confucius Temple, and the Flowers Night market.
·        Cluster E: Take Taiwan High Speed Rail to Taichung station and then a bus to Sun Moon Lake, the largest lake in Taiwan.  You can explore the lake area by bus or bike around the lake and take a boat tour.  You can also take a bus to Puli to visit the town and the nearby Chun Tai Chang Monastery by taxi.  Traveling back to the Taichung high speed rail station by bus, you can catch a train to return to Taipei.

When traveling to Taiwan, the first and last thing you should be concerned about is food.  It is the last thing you would worry about especially in Taipei, because there is a such a wide range of choices from any number of the inexpensive but delicious Chinese eateries around the corner to many of the gourmet or upscale Chinese and international restaurants.  It is the first thing you worry about because there are simply way too many choices in any dimension you can think of!  Here are a few suggestions for you to start with if you want to try some of the very best but reasonably-priced Chinese specialities that are not easily available elsewhere including China or Hong Kong.  

·        Tien Hsiang Lo 天香樓in Landis Hotel亞都麗緻 serves a upscale delicate and creative HangChow (Shanghai region) cuisine
·        Dian Shui Lou 點水樓serves excellent Shanghai regional cuisine don’t miss the Jade Buns 絲瓜小籠包 (filled with minced Taiwanese Okra and shrimp)
·        Sung Chu Restaurant 宋廚菜館 is famous for its Peking duck that one person can’t finish alone.  You can try to drop in but chance of getting seated without advanced reservation is slim to none.
·        The Peng’s 彭園 One of the best and most creative Hunan cuisine found anywhere at a good price
·        Ding Tai Fun 鼎泰豐 Most people come here for one thing - Steamed pork dumplings小籠包 but other entrees are excellent too
·        Beef Noodle Shop 川味老張牛肉麵店  Yes, you are here to have a bowl of delicious beef soup noodle and hope to run into Jackie Chan
·        Ice Monster冰館its Jumbo Mango Ice is a wonderful desert treat with fresh mango in hot days which is most of the time in the year

Of course, without advanced planning, you may not be in the neighborhood of these restaurants during your tours and visit.  That is not a problem.  To begin with, top tourist spots outsourced their in-house food services to famous restauranteurs (for example, the Silks Palace 故宮晶華 at the National Palace Museum).  The easiest way to find clean, inexpensive but tasty food with a large number of choices is the food court in large department stores and in the main Taipei Train Station.  Night market is an excellent place for bar-food hopping if you are more adventurous and want to try many of the unique local light delights and snacks.  If you are a vegetarian or like to try some tasty vegetarian food, you may want to go to some of the vegetarian restaurants such as the popular Spring Natural Vegetarian Restaurant 春天素食 that offers an impressive array of choices in buffet style. 

Bon Voage and Bon Appetit!

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