On a recent trip to Hong Kong and Taiwan, it was Taiwan that completely took me by total surprise. I was not expecting a mountainous interior, the tastiest dim sum I’ve ever savoured, or rural adventures like learning how to make fire with an Indigenous tribe.
Typhoon Manghut kept me delayed for a few extra days during my visit, so I had even more time in the country than anticipated, which ended up being one of the most memorable trips of my life. Here are five reasons why Taiwan will completely take you by surprise.
Taipei is a big city, but it’s not congested
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Hong Kong was a jaw-dropping jungle metropolis, but I often felt hemmed in by the giant skyscrapers and the mass movement of people. Taipei was the opposite: a sprawling metropolis that was light on congestion.
Population-wise, Taipei is a lot smaller than Hong Kong (2.6 million people compared to 7.4 million). So it makes sense that it doesn’t feel as crowded, but the overall atmosphere was different too. It was just calmer.
I did not find Taipei to be an especially attractive city; it’s a lot of grey concrete and steel. But some of its architecture, like Taipei 101, makes up for it. The 508-metre high skyscraper is meant to resemble a stalk of bamboo; it’s a glittery beacon that serves as a focal point from anywhere in Taipei. Take the ultra-fast elevator to the observatory at the top for an unparalleled view over the city.
On my first day in Taipei, my guide Michelle took me to the Songshan Culture and Creative Park. This is Taipei’s largest arts space, located on the grounds of a former tobacco factory. Inside the building: exhibition halls, art shows, shops selling crafts and original artworks, a bookstore, and spaces for DIY workshops. Outside the building: a large park and Ecology Pond where one can temporarily escape the city hubbub. It’s a brilliant use of space, and the perfect place to do some souvenir shopping.
The dim sum is life-changing
My very first meal in Taipei was my favourite of the whole trip. Since returning from Asia I have reflected on this moment so often that it even haunts my dreams (in the best way possible, of course).
Located in the basement of Taipei 101, Din Tai Fung restaurant is famous for its dim sum (small portions of food served in steamer baskets or on plates meant to be shared with others), and you’ll have to book well in advance to get a table. Trust me, it’s worth it.
While seated you can watch the chefs at work in the kitchen, assembling the dumplings with care. There’s a dozen of them bustling around tables at breakneck speeds. The xiao long bao (soup dumplings) here are life-changing. Michelle showed me how to properly pick up each dumpling with chopsticks and place it on my spoon. As I popped a full one into my mouth, salty, savoury hot soup burst all over my tongue. I'll admit, I ate several baskets worth.
Taiwan is mostly mountainous
Nearly 70 per cent of Taiwan’s landmass is mountainous. The Hualien area is a whole world waiting to be explored by foot, bike, or kayak. From tea plantations to gorges to terrifying winding cliff-side roads, Hualien was the perfect introduction to rural Taiwan.
Taroko Gorge is Taiwan’s most popular tourist destination. The bright blue Liwu River cuts right through the gorge, leaving behind deep valleys and marbled canyons. It’s lush here, and over half the island’s plant and animal species are found within Taroko National Park.
Typhoon Manghut had sent a lot of heavy rain to the area on the day I set out to hike the easy 4.4-kilometre Shakadang Trail that hugs the river. The rain did not diminish the hike. The trail meanders along the bank with overhangs sometimes so low, you have to duck. It was thrilling being able to stretch my legs and soak up (quite literally) the nature around me.
The Changchun Trail is another easy one (just 1.5 kilometres) that’ll take you to the Eternal Spring Shrine. On this trail there were fewer people, and I had some rare alone time in the shrine. With the rain cascading down outside, the shrine served as a blissful little reprieve.
Taiwan has a rich Indigenous history
Taiwan is home to 14 aboriginal tribes, including the Amis tribe - numbering around 200,00 people, they are the largest group - who traditionally live by the water. But like aboriginal communities worldwide, they’ve struggled to keep their culture and traditions intact.
That’s why the Hakka village was set up. It’s a hands-on, interactive learning experience for visitors who are completely unfamiliar with the tribe.
My day at the village started with some arts and crafts. The Amis guide - with the aid of a translator - showed me and the other participants how to decorate burlap bags in true Amis fashion. We roamed around the village picking out flowers, leaves, and other bits of flora to mash into our bags with heavy rocks. We sat for at least an hour, pounding away at our bag, until some sort of inspirational artwork took form.
Next we learned how to make fire using two pieces of bamboo. Leaning into one piece of bamboo driven into the ground at an angle, I used a shorter stalk to rub vigorously against the long stalk. I managed for two minutes until I could smell smoke, but at that point my arms gave out. The Amis guide had made it look so effortless. Alas, I am not Amis material!
Taipei has a love affair with a cabbage
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The National Museum of History in Taipei has some of the most impressive arts and cultural artifacts in Taiwanese history. You’ll need to clear a full afternoon for your visit; the place is enormous. Here you’ll find oracle bones, porcelain, rope-pattern pottery, Han ceramics, and more. If you’re short on time, it helps to do a tour.
Originating in Beijing, the jade cabbage is a perfect replica of a bok choy with white stalks, green leaves, and a locust and a katydid. The detail in this piece of work is so incredibly delicate and specific, it’s hard to believe it’s carved from jade. And that’s what draws people in.
The jade cabbage is easily the most popular display in the museum, and apparently it attracts sightseers in the same numbers as the Mona Lisa does. I had to really push through the crowd to see it up close for myself, and although the size of it is underwhelming, it really is a marvelous work of art.
Even the museum’s gift shop is chock full of jade cabbage souvenirs, including fried egg shapers and bottle openers. The restaurant has an edible replica (with shrimp being used as the insects). You’ve just got to love a country so devoted to a jade cabbage.