After endless prevaricating, numerous work issues, a booked then aborted trip to Thailand, extensive research, countless e-mails to hotels and infuriating late-night tussles with Chinese websites, my girlfriend and I finally made it to Taiwan last week. It was my second and her first visit to this much ignored corner of “Greater China,” and despite dodgy weather, we both had a great time.
As a long-time resident of Korea, and a sometime student of East Asia, I’m always struck by the parallels between Taiwan and South Korea:
- They’re both former colonies of Japan.
- They were two of the four “Asian Tigers” that went from grinding poverty to affluent, high-tech economies in a little over 30 years.
- They’re both thriving democracies in a region with very few.
- They both live in the shadow of sometimes menacing neighbours.
- Despite their success, they’re both still largely unknown in much of the West (or at least, in much of Europe), and, perhaps not unrelatedly…
- In a KTO survey a couple of years back, Taiwan and Korea were respectively ranked the least attractive and second least attractive tourist destinations in Asia.
The second last point comes with some caveats: Korea is certainly getting better known, and it’s had a fair bit of coverage recently because of its stirring recovery from the world’s recent economic woes. But still, not too many people back home, I suspect, could tell you the name of a Korean city besides Seoul, nor what the country is best known for (apart from perhaps Samsung), nor even who the protagonists were in the Korean War. As for Taiwan, without even the big brand power of the LGs and Hyundais, it is known, if at all, as that place (a country? A city? Part of China/Japan?) that makes electronics stuff and occasionally has spats with China.
Another similarity is in Taipei and Seoul themselves. As their economies soared, both were obviously built at a blistering pace, but without too much regard for the people actually living there. As a result they are both huge, bustling places, but without the obvious charms and world-famous landmarks of a London, Beijing or Sydney (Taipei 101, above left, notwithstanding). But both are improving and, at least for me, the fact you have to search out the little nuggets in each city is a big part of what makes them both so interesting.
Though it’d be a bit of a stretch to describe many of the places we visited in Taipei as “hidden gems,” by mere dint of their being in Taiwan, they aren’t so well known among non-Taiwanese. Some of the highlights were Spot (above left), an arthouse cinema set in a beautiful former residence of the US ambassador, the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall (above middle), and Villa 32, one of Taiwan’s many hot spring resorts, which are a partial legacy of Japanese colonial rule. Though I’d been there on my last visit to Taiwan, I definitely wanted to see the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall again. With its staggering scale, historical amnesia, and fawning exhibits of Chiang cosying up either with his family or world statesmen, it is a surreally detached portrait of an often brutal, always corrupt military dictator. But in yet another parallel with Korea (in this case, with the far less violent and corrupt Park Chung-hee), there is still sufficient affection for this “bulwark against communism” that attempts to remove his enormous statue or tone down the hagiography have, as yet, come to nothing.
In a completely different vein, I also wanted to make sure I paid another visit to Taroko Gorge, a magnificent canyon on Taiwan’s east coast. Before going there during my first visit to Taiwan, I’d heard it referred to as “the Grand Canyon of Asia,” but assumed that to be the kind of hyperbole often applied by overzealous tourist authorities to regions of Korea (the Santorini of Busan, anyone?). In this case, however — and while I’ve never been to the real Grand Canyon — the hype is largely justified. Comprising vast, sheer marble cliffs, much of which are covered in lush forest, Taroko Gorge is a spectacular sight. As the road to the top covers a distance of 19km, most visitors take either bus or taxi tours, which stop off at famous spots along the way, including the Eternal Springs Shrine (above middle). You can also, as we did, stay at the lovely, aborigine-run Leader hotel (above left) around halfway up the gorge.
Finally, a quick word about the food. Though Taiwan is famed for having excellent, diverse cuisine, I have to say I’ve grown progressively less fond of Chinese food since the glory days of lemon chicken and pork chow mein served up in foil containers back home. My main quibbles — the peculiar seasoning and pools of fat — were certainly in evidence in Taiwan, and nowhere more so than at a fry-up vendor at the Shilin Night Market, where the flavours of our beef, cabbage and egg roll were all drowned out by melted butter. We did have some fabulous food as well, though, including the aboriginal fare at the Leader hotel (below middle) and a bona-fide Swedish meal at a cosy little restaurant on my birthday (below left).