Taiwan – an island waiting to be discovered

Academy Travel tour leader Robert Veel takes a closer look at an emerging destination not far from home.

20 years ago the Entombed Warriors of Xi’an captured our imagination. About 15 years ago the magnificent jungle ruins of Angkor opened up to international visitors, closely followed by the pagodas of Myanmar and Luang Prabang in the northern mountains of Laos. For the last 5 years or so it’s been Kyoto and the smaller cities of Japan. And so the list grows. No longer a ‘place you fly over on your way to Paris’, the stereotypes have fallen away and Asia is at last being taken seriously as a destination for cultural travellers interested in history, art, architecture and archaeology.

One country which has so far been off the radar to non-Asian tourists is Taiwan. Although well known to the Chinese, there are relatively few visitors from other countries, in spite of the efforts of the Taiwanese tourism authorities. While Taiwan’s sites are not all necessarily in the blockbuster league of Angkor or the Entombed Warriors, there is much to reward the inquisitive traveller. In this short article, I aim to introduce you to some of Taiwan’s chief attractions for ‘cultural travellers.’


The last outpost of old China

Over the last 30 or so years, mainland China has raced headlong into the future. Traditional low-rise neighbourhoods have been bulldozed and replaced by shimmering high rise. Outdoor markets have given way to fast-food malls in shopping centres. High speed trains take you from big city to big city at jaw-dropping speed. Taiwan has all of this too, but it has simultaneously managed to preserve many of the more traditional aspects of ‘old China’ in its social and economic fabric. It’s ironic that today one of the main charms of Taiwan for Chinese mainlanders is the nostalgia factor – Daoist temples filled with worshippers and an almost equal number of gods to choose from, night-time food markets offering an endless array of ‘small treats’, betel nut stands on busy truck routes and villages still prospering from tea-growing and fishing. Step into the narrow laneways of Tainan, in Taiwan’s south, and stroll past dozens of temples – Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian. Look for the students praying to the ‘exam god’ for success, the old ladies burning bank notes for deceased relatives or pregnant women throwing crescent shape blocks to determine the sex of their child. The sense of the past is everywhere, and it feels lived and real, not a Disneyland recreation.

A pavilion reflects on Lotus lake Tainan Park, Taiwan

Taiwan’s particular history – there was neither communist nor cultural revolution here – and its decades of isolation from mainland China have helped hold back the tide of modernisation. But it’s also the Taiwanese sense of identity and a determination to avoid the excesses of mainland modernisation that has led to an appreciation of the simple charms of tradition.

In Taipei, good places to see ‘old China’ include the busy Shinlin night markets north of the city centre and the amazing Longshan Temple, right in the middle of a modern commercial precinct – not that you’d know it once you step through the temple gates. The rampant polytheism of a traditional Daoist temple is something to behold – this must have been what ancient Rome was like too. I can’t help feeling sorry for the European missionaries 400 years back, trying to establish Christianity here. No doubt the temple custodians would have allocated a corner of the temple to this Jesus chap and waited to see if he could deliver miracles as well as the God of War and Commerce, or the Protectress of Seafarers (On Sun Moon Lake, in the central mountains, there’s still a sign pointing to the ‘Jesus temple’, presumably a Christian church).

Longshan Temple, Taipei

The mainland Chinese settled along Taiwan’s western shores about 400 years ago, so the cities and towns along this highly-developed coastal strip are the best places to get the flavour of ‘old China’. The small town of Lugang (which translates as ‘deer harbour’, thanks to the trade in deer-hide to Japan for Samurai armour), for example, contains a beautifully preserved wooden Confucian temple, several Daoist temples of note, and dozens of laneways lined with shop houses offering everything from bicycle parts to high fashion. Further to the south, Tainan is site of the original Dutch East India settlement and where Chinese general and folk hero Koxinga overthrew the Europeans and established Chinese rule. This small city is renowned for its culinary traditions (perhaps an acquired taste for many westerners) but it’s also got the largest and best preserved historical centre of all Taiwan’s major cities.


Indigenous culture

Long before the Europeans and mainland Chinese arrived, Taiwan was the home to an indigenous population closely related to Filipinos and Malays to the south. As traders rather than conquerers, neither the Chinese nor the Europeans were particularly interested in the original inhabitants. Right through to the Japanese colonisation in 1895 they were left to themselves in villages in the mountainous interior of Taiwan and on the remote east coast and outlying islands.

Taroko Gorge, whose custodians are the local Truku tribe

These regions are still the best place to come face to face with indigenous Taiwanese. One highly recommended excursion is to the beautiful limestone Taroko Gorge, whose custodians are the local Truku tribe. More adventurous travellers might consider a flight from Taipei to Orchid Island, home of the Tao ethnic minority for at least 800 years.


A Japanese sensibility

Once you’ve been in Taiwan for a few days, you can’t help noticing that it seems more orderly and, well, quieter than mainland China. This is perhaps just one of the many almost intangible remnants of nearly six decades of Japanese rule, from 1895 to 1949. The Japanese influence runs deep in Taiwan. The rigorous education system was established under the Japanese in the early 20th century. Taiwan’s post World War II economic miracle is largely attributed to the economic and social underpinnings provided by its excellent schools, technical colleges and universities. The health system and public hygiene are both excellent, public transport is efficient and there is widespread regard for the rule of law. Aesthetically, there is an understated Japanese sensibility to much of the art, architecture and design. Taipei in particular is adorned with graceful and sober Meiji public architecture, and there are many Japanese style gardens to enjoy. It creates a sense of calm and order that is a little at odds with Taiwan’s historically precarious place in the world.

The Japanese influence has not been uniformly positive. Most major industries are still in the hands of a small cartel of established families, sapping dynamism from the economy. And the Japanese attempt to ‘civilize’ the indigenous, non-Chinese Taiwanese resulted in substantial social and economic dislocation. Today Taiwan’s indigenous communities face a raft of issues similar to those faced by indigenous Australians.


Alpine and tropical

Taiwan is tropical, in fact the Tropic of Cancer passes through the centre of the island. The vegetation is lush and prolific, and in the summer the beaches are certainly inviting. At the same time, Taiwan’s dramatic geological history (it is located on the Pacific ‘Rim of Fire’ and several major fault lines cross the island) has produced a central mountain range worthy of the Swiss Alps – there are more than 100 peaks over 3,000m high! Crossing the central ranges and descending into Taroko Gorge along one of the three Japanese-built highways is one of the world’s great road trips and well worth including in an itinerary. However, it makes timing a visit a little difficult – mild in the mountains means hot and humid on the coast, whereas from November to April the mountain roads can be closed.

The tropical coastline and adjacent high mountains create a perfect environment for growing tea, and if tea is to China as wine is to France, then Taiwan is the Bordeaux and Burgundy of Asia. Formosa Oolong is one of the premiere varieties, and there are fine Alishan and Green teas to be enjoyed too. The best place to sample them is in a tea room, in a ritual that is reminiscent of a Japanese tea ceremony, but more relaxed and down-to-earth at the same time.

Oolong Tea garden at Alishan in Chiayi Taiwan

Taiwan’s long, rugged coastline makes for some dramatic scenery. The north coast is filled with rocky cliffs and inlets, which proved perfect for pirates in centuries past. Travelling down the East Coast from Taipei, one first encounters steep cliffs, as the massive central ranges face directly on to the sea. Towards Taitung, these give way to long sandy beaches, regarded as some of Asia’s best, and rolling hills. The densely populated western plain is less memorable, although it contains the best cultural sites.


Cultural treasures

For anyone who knows anything about Chinese art, Taiwan means one thing – the National Palace Museum. In his epic struggle with the Chinese communists, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek arranged that the very best of the Chinese imperial collection – 3,000-year-old old bronzes, sumptuous Song dynasty paintings, Ming and Tang pottery, intricate Qing ivory carving – was safely stored away from Beijing and the depredations of civil war. Over one million pieces made their way to Taiwan when Chiang fled there in 1949, and these form the basis of the revered National Palace Museum in Taipei. The museum is the main objective of many Chinese tourists, so you need to weave your way among groups, but the museum buildings are large enough and the collection extensive enough that you are guaranteed moments of genuine discovery and delight. A 3,500-year-old temple bell? An intricately carved olive pip? An impossibly elegant (not to mention downright uncomfortable) porcelain child’s pillow? It’s all there.

Green Mountains and White Clouds Wu Li (1632-1718)

Taiwan’s artistic treasures don’t begin and end at the National Palace Museum. In Taipei there’s an excellent contemporary art museum (home to the ubiquitous biennale) and several private collections that can be accessed. Outside of Taipei, one of my favourites is the museum of ancient Buddhist art attached to the Chung Tai Chan monastery, outside Puli in the geographical centre of the Island. The vast and very wealthy monastery is built around a startling 31-story post-modern pagoda in the form of a seated Buddha. The museum contains Buddhist treasures from China and beyond in stone, bronze and wood covering a 2,000+ year period. And the vegetarian restaurant next to the museum is a nice change from seafood.

Chung Tai Chan Monastery

Academy Travel runs a tour to Taiwan every two years. Click here to find out more about our tours to Asia.

Robert Veel

Robert Veel is a cultural historian with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, the USA, Scandinavia and Turkey. He has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, architecture and music, and is a founding director of Academy Travel. Robert holds a BA, Dip. Ed and M.Ed, all from the University of Sydney. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney before a long stint at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, lecturing in Italian history and culture and working as Assistant Director.


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