A surprisingly glowing review of Taiwan in the Sunday Washington Post Travel section:
Of course, the author was only here for a brief visit; she hasn’t had time yet to turn into the jaded expat.
A surprisingly glowing review of Taiwan in the Sunday Washington Post Travel section:
Of course, the author was only here for a brief visit; she hasn’t had time yet to turn into the jaded expat.
Registration required…lazy, can’t be arsed…might not be worth it…could some kind soul quote the highlights to save us all having to register?..much appreesh.
Here’s the article in its entirety. Considering it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a travel article on Taiwan in a US newspaper, I think it’s worth the bandwidth. :uhhuh:
And Now, Taiwan
With a historic vote looming, this tiny island is poised for change – and ready for travelers.
By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2004; Page P01
The smells of gunpowder and sweet incense mix with the pungent smoke from piles of ghost money being burned for ancestral spirits. Strings of exploding firecrackers compete for sound waves with metal gongs and kettle drums.
A troupe of “devil boys” in bright Chinese opera-like costumes, their faces intricately painted in evil-looking designs, perform martial arts moves as other worshipers dance or weave through the crowds, swinging the palanquins that once carried emperors or gods.
The riotous religious ceremony is of ancient Chinese origin, a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and ancestor worship. But such rituals are not commonly found in the cities of China. They’re everywhere in Taiwan.
The island about 100 miles off the coast of mainland China is about the size of Maryland, but supports more than 23,000 temples and churches, mostly radiantly colorful temples. And although it’s small and densely populated, Taiwan is blessed with a diverse landscape: 970 miles of coastline, lakes, waterfalls, beaches and craggy mountains dotted with hot springs. The north is semi-tropical, the south tropical, and the mountaintops occasionally get snow.
Throughout its 55-year history as a self-governing island, Taiwan has stood on precarious ground. China claims Taiwan as its own, insists that reunification is inevitable, and makes its point by training 500 missiles at the island. Until now, Taiwan has basically gone its own way without formally challenging China’s claim.
That could change. This Saturday, while electing a president, Taiwan will also vote on a carefully and diplomatically worded referendum that China considers akin to a declaration of independence, or at least a step in that direction. Chinese officials have threatened a harsh response if the referendum is approved.
Until recently, I only saw Taiwan in the context of politics. Before I began planning a trip there, I had never even thought about Taiwan as a tourist destination. Say its former name – Formosa – and I got a rather vague Pacific island kind of notion in my brain. The word “Taiwan” conjured little more than a mental picture of Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang party fleeing China for Taiwan in 1949, with victorious Communists at their heels.
Apparently the gap in my worldview is shared with my fellow Americans: Only 63,000 U.S. tourists a year on average visit Taiwan, according to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.
The Taiwanese government, eager to replace manufacturing jobs lost to China, hopes to change that. In the last year, officials have been touring the United States, calling news conferences to promote the island as worthy of tourist eyes, and dollars.
At one such gathering in Washington, I ask a blunt question that outside journalism circles would be considered just plain rude.
“Why should tourists go to Taiwan instead of, say, Hong Kong or mainland China?”
Rather than taking offense, Cherng-tyan Su, director of the Taiwanese tourism bureau, gives an intriguing answer. "Hong Kong has a colonized Chinese culture. True Chinese culture should be in China, but the cultural heritage has been broken by 50 years of Communist Party rule, the Cultural Revolution and the interference with religion.
“In Taiwan,” he promises, “you will find the true, unbroken, traditional Chinese culture.” Here too, he says, you will find in a compact area all the regional cuisines of China and the cultures of 10 aboriginal tribes.
The Taiwanese public relations machine has invented a slogan for the tourism pitch: “Taiwan: Touch Your Heart.” The visitor’s heart, the director says, will be touched by the friendliness of the Taiwanese people. It will be touched by their perseverance in the face of a constant threat from China.
Nearly a year after the pitch, just as the Taiwanese are in the midst of their presidential campaign and the referendum that could bring China’s wrath upon their heads, I decide to test the claim that Taiwan is worthy of a tourist’s time and money.
Touching my heart is not an easy thing. But let the Taiwanese try.
Live From KTV
I plan an ambitious itinerary, doing in one week what should take two: I will spend two nights in Taipei, then drive down most of the 242-mile eastern coast. I’ll turn the corner at Kenting National Park in the southern tip and drive up the west coast.
I arrive in Taipei sleepless and jetlagged. Because a cheap ticket required two stops, I’ve been in the air for 18 hours. Yet the energy, sights and sounds of the city are immediately invigorating.
The Grand Hotel, with its glorious view of the city, helps lift my spirits. The distinct Chinese-style architecture, including bright red pillars and balcony railings topped by gold-painted lotus flowers, reminds me of something from Beijing’s Forbidden City. The hotel was ordered into being by Madam Chiang Kai-shek, because she yearned for visits from foreign dignitaries and felt they’d come if she built a worthy lodging. Intimidated by China and its hatred of Taiwan, few do.
I head immediately to the National Palace Museum, one of the finest museums on Earth, holding one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese art and antiquities.
The collection was started in A.D. 960 and added to by a succession of Chinese emperors who hunted down and hoarded the best of Chinese jade, paintings, porcelains, bronzes and what even in those ancient days qualified as antiques.
The treasures piled up in the Forbidden City until 1924, when the last emperor of China and his entourage of ladies and eunuchs were ordered to leave. Scholars finished cataloguing the items just as the Japanese began their assault on China in 1931.
China’s tangible heritage was boxed and moved around the country to protect it from the Japanese. Then, in 1948, as the Communist takeover became imminent, Chiang Kai-Shek moved the most valuable of the treasures to Taiwan. They remained hidden until 1965. Today, you can see them in the National Palace Museum for $3.
Although I have just two days in Taipei, I visit the museum twice, sacrificing a trip to the acclaimed Taipei Fine Arts Museum to do so.
One could easily spend days just in the museums of Taipei, but I use most of my time strolling. While Taipei lacks the beautiful harbor of Hong Kong, the city is every bit as lively and fascinating.
Tiny streets congested with sidewalk stalls intersect broad boulevards lined with upscale stores. You can weave among tables where vendors serve food – some mysterious – that has been prepared on grills or in caldrons on the sidewalk. Turn a corner and you’ll find glittering shopping malls filled with Louis Vuitton, Esprit and other Western brand names.
Most major U.S. cities have some kind of Chinatown. Near the Taipei 101 – the world’s tallest building, named for its number of stories – Taiwan has what I’d call its Americatown. More than four square blocks of America have been transported here. On wide sidewalks, under umbrellas, Taiwanese sip Starbucks coffee and eat Burger King or Subway sandwiches, hot dogs and “Texas-fried” chicken.
A Statue of Liberty holding a neon torch reading “New York” stands outside one mall called New York, New York. Next door, at Warner Village, you can eat at Ruby Tuesday, catch an American movie, snack on an Auntie Annie’s soft pretzel, then shop for Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger or Levi’s.
Back at the Grand, I experience some of the promised Taiwanese hospitality. I meet a woman who works in the hotel office, and she suggests we have tea with her friend after their shift. Tea leads to dinner, which leads to my favorite Taiwanese pastime: shopping in the night markets.
The city has about a half-dozen such markets, with stalls crammed with food and wares. We head to one of the largest, Shilin. The streets are jammed with shoppers buying clothes, produce, meat, live animals and sundries of every sort. The markets teeming with humanity are open past midnight on weeknights and as late as 4 a.m. on weekends.
By the end of the evening, it’s as if I’m with two old friends. The next night, we not only hit the markets, but they take me to a “KTV.”
KTV is Taiwan’s passion. Basically, it’s karaoke in private rooms, where friends gather to sing in groups large or small. The three of us, along with my just-arrived husband and daughter, enter one of a dozen soundproofed rooms to find leather couches centered before a large television screen. Using a computer to choose English and Chinese songs, we grab microphones and sing the night away.
I mention to one of my new friends that you could write a good short story based on the KTV scene, about a lonely, heartbroken person who comes alone to this place meant for friends.
“A woman I know did that after her boyfriend broke up with her,” she tells me. “She’d come to sing love songs and cry alone all day.”
I ask a cab driver what people did before KTV swept the island a few years ago.
“We’d go to each other’s houses and sing,” he says.
The Taiwanese have already favorably impressed me with their politeness and obvious love of little dogs, which I take as a sign of kindness. But a land of people who spend free time singing together really steals my heart.
California’s Big Sur is my favorite spot on the planet, and I’m immediately reminded of it as we drive the winding coastal road along the cliffs of Taiwan’s eastern Pacific coast.
Many years ago, about 450 men died building a cross-country extension of this narrow, two-lane road clinging to the mountains. About three hours after leaving Taipei, we arrive at a monument to their sacrifice: the Eternal Spring Shrine in Taroko Gorge.Two-thirds of Taiwan is covered by the towering Chungyang Shanmo mountain range. It is here, in the 227,332-acre Taroko National Park, that the mountain scenery is most dramatic.
Volcanic mountains as high as 12,000 feet drop straight to the ocean and the pounding surf below. Giant blocks of marble, heaved to the Earth’s surface millions of years ago by the movement of two tectonic plates, are worn smooth by wind and water. Streams and modest waterfalls flow through Taroko Gorge, which is as spectacular as the gorges of China, except there is not enough water flowing through them to support the cruise ships that would otherwise make the scenery famous.
I’ve been rushing through Taiwan to scout out the best place to visit if you have limited time, and this is the spot.
Hiking, bird-watching and climbing are popular here. We drive and walk around several areas of the park, climbing the rocks at the bottom of gorges, wading through the iridescent blue streams and admiring the temples clinging to high cliffs.
One of our stops is at the luxurious Grand Formosa Hotel Taroko, with its glorious views of the park. Next door we visit the majestic Hsiang Te Temple, which boasts the “world’s tallest statue of Kshitigar.” The 118-foot statue sits atop a mountain that is thousands of feet high.
An earthquake several years ago sent tons of rock and parts of the temple complex rocketing down the mountainside. Monks and laymen now work together to pull cement mixers up the mountain with ropes and move boulders by hand. The temple is seeking more volunteers.
Some things to be experienced in Taiwan can be planned – and I highly recommend that if you don’t go on a package tour, you plan well, since you won’t accidentally bump into most of the best sites, such as the hot springs.
Other experiences are serendipitous, like seeing an old woman on the side of the road chopping greens for ostriches that are wearing signs (in English and Chinese) saying, “You can dance with us and take your picture.”
Or the elderly couple illegally cooking sausages, eggs and Jiffy popcorn to sell to tourists who stop at “Nature’s Fire.” The Kenting National Park site has natural gas deposits that bubble up through fissures in shale rock and create a series of small ground fires – and an opportunity for entrepreneurship.
The hot springs are among the most delightful surprises of Taiwan. We find them in various areas of the country, including Kenting in the south, near Taitung in the east, around Tainan in the west and near Sun Moon Lake in the central region. The mountains are riddled with caves, and whales swim by the coast in spring.
Taiwan is not a destination for those wishing to cloister themselves away from the locals, but instead a place to live among them, and embrace them. The tourism infrastructure is very diverse, from camping and cheap hotels to luxurious five-star properties. No matter which you choose, you will find Taiwanese vacationing alongside you.
People and Politics
At the restaurant of a hotel in Hualien – the Parkview – I ask for food to go. After a long absence, the waiter returns. Turns out there were no takeout cartons, so he’d gone to a bakery to get something suitable.
A waitress in the countryside near Sun Moon Lake doesn’t speak English but draws us pictures of our dinner choices – a pig, a chicken, a cow and a fish – and makes appropriate sounds for three of the four, just to be sure we understand. In the cities, many people speak rudimentary English. But if a particular shopkeeper doesn’t, passersby stop to translate.
These are the sorts of kindnesses I repeatedly encounter. Only once is someone rude: A man who appears drunk says to me in a loud voice, “Do you want to dance? Why not?” Another man in the shop apologizes by saying, “He’s mainland China man, not Taiwanese.”
My daughter comments on how nice people are to us. I tell her they like Americans because we as a superpower stand between them and China, which might otherwise invade Taiwan. It’s a simplistic explanation, and she has a comeback.
“I think it’s not so much that Taiwanese love Americans; I think Taiwanese want us to love them,” she says.
Clearly, geopolitics and the threat posed by China are ever-present in the minds of the Taiwanese, particularly this month. One of the major issues of the presidential campaign is Taiwan’s relationship with China. The incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian, is in a tight race with Nationalist Party leader Lien Chan. Chen is pushing for approval of a referendum to “maintain the status quo.” China sees that as a challenge to its plan for eventual reunification.
Although I meet no one who expresses a wish to become part of China, many Taiwanese are leery of rattling China’s giant cage. It’s safer, they argue, to maintain the status quo: Taiwan is one of the most democratic countries in Asia and is de facto independent, at least for now.
The desire to remain, for all practical purposes, free is repeatedly expressed to me. Seeming to be only half-joking, one man says, “We’d like to be the 51st state.”
Heart of Taiwan
Taiwan is undeniably densely populated, with some major traffic issues, and you generally won’t see cute little villages of bamboo and thatched roofs. Charming as those are, they undoubtedly make for unpleasant living, and the Taiwanese have become too prosperous for that. Yet they are not rich enough for beautiful homes, either. Housing tends to be of the unpainted concrete and flat-roof variety. On the drive up the level plains of the west coast, the only dramatic color comes from the ubiquitous temples.
Then again, in Taiwan you find yourself unburdened by the crushing poverty of much of Asia. During my visit, I encounter only one beggar and no thieves.
Shopkeepers are eager for your business and bow their heads and politely hand you the smallest purchase with both hands. But they show none of the desperation that sometimes compels me to buy things I don’t want in other countries. The average lifespan in Taiwan is a first-world-style 74 years for men, 79 for women.
A modest prosperity is also probably responsible for the continuing availability of the exotic, and the presence of the familiar. A market in Tainan provides a convenient image: A man in a stall is selling grilled duck heads, beak and all, in front of an upscale shop selling black forest cake and other European pastries.
In the final days of my trip, I find myself in the middle of a mass rally. Between 1.5 and 2 million people gather at points across the country to hold hands across Taiwan – a symbolic message to China and the world that they wish to remain a self-governing island.
Demonstrators wear headbands with words like “justice” and “freedom” emblazoned on them. They hold signs proclaiming, “Peace, Yes. Missiles, No.” They soak their hands in red paint and make handprints on long scrolls of paper. I don’t know to whom they plan to send these petitions for freedom, but I imagine them going to Chinese leaders with the message: “You already rule a billion people, do you really need another 23 million?”
It is always somewhat moving to see a David go up against a Goliath, with nothing more than paper, hands and hope. But I’m most impressed upon hearing a group of about 100 college students singing, in English, “We Shall Overcome.”
That really touched my heart.
Cindy Loose will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section’s regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.
GETTING THERE: Most major U.S. airlines have connecting flights to Taipei from Dulles and BWI, as do such foreign carriers as China Airlines, Eva, Singapore and Japan airlines. Recent sale fares have dropped to as low as $600 round trip, but prices normally begin at about $1,000 round trip.
GETTING AROUND: A well-developed domestic air service is available, but given the island’s size, it shouldn’t be necessary unless you’re in a big hurry or want to visit the small offshore islands that are part of Taiwan.
Within Taipei, public transportation is excellent and cheap, with bus and subway fares costing about 50 cents. Or, for about $3, you can buy an all-day pass on the subway system that people proudly say is “just like Washington’s Metro, only newer.”
Train service is available on the east and west coasts, and numerous tour buses hit the best tourist spots – definitely the easiest and least nerve-wracking way to go. The budget traveler who has lots of time could use regular buses, but service is spotty in the countryside.
Rental cars are widely available, and a modern highway runs most of the length of the country. If you’re an adventurous driver who doesn’t mind winding roads and risky local drivers, you’ll find great scenery along the eastern coast. If possible, travel outside Taipei during the week, as Taipei residents heading for resort areas clog the roads on weekends.
WHERE TO STAY: Taipei has a plethora of choices, including many Western brand hotels. But if you can spend at least $130 a night for a double, go for the Grand Hotel (1 Chung Shan N. Rd., 011-886-2-2886- 8888, www.ymca.org.tw, is only in Chinese.
In Taroko National Park, a double room at the luxurious Grand Formosa (18 Tian Hsyang Rd., 011-886-3-869-1155, www.grandformosa-taroko.com.tw) starts at about $150 a night.
In Kenting National Park, the Sea View Lodge (101 Gong Yuan Rd., Alley Kenting, Pingtung Hsieng, 011-886-8861-3715, www.hotelca.idv.tw), that’s run by a local surfer who speaks perfect English. Doubles range from $18 to $60 per night.
Numerous hotels and resorts are near Sun Moon Lake, including five-star properties. I was taken with the Sun Moon Lake Full House B&B (011-886-49- 285-0307, www.fhsml.idv.tw), a charming B&B in an area surrounded by aboriginal shops. Doubles begin at about $50. Since the Web site is in Chinese, you may need the help of tourism officials to make a reservation.
Numerous hotels around the country offer hot springs baths, which they call spas. The Dong Tair Spa Hotel (147 Longchen Rd., Wenchen Village, Peinan Taiton, 011-886-89-512-290), for one, offers a series of outdoor pools with water of varying temperatures and pulsating showers. Doubles begin at $75.
WHERE TO EAT: Taipei is filled with restaurants serving regional delights from all parts of China. Two great choices for dim sum are Din Tai Fong (194 Sinyi Rd., Section 2), a crowded hole-in-the-wall with amazing food, with dishes starting at a few dollars; and the tea room at the Grand Hotel (see above). Dishes start at about $5.
For Jiangjhe cuisine, which emphasizes dipping sauces to bring out the flavors of otherwise bland food, try Shou -lan Gourmet (No. 5-5 Sinyi Rd., Section 2). For Sichuan: Chili House (250-3 Jhongsiao East Rd., Section 4). For Beijing: King Join (18 Shihwei Rd.). For Cantonese: Shang Palace in the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel (6F No. 201, Dunhua S. Rd., Section 2). For Hunan: Peng Yuan (2F, 380 Linsen N. Rd.). For Taiwanese: Golden Paradise ( No. 2, Lane 172, Jhongjhengd Rd., Section 2). For seafood, the visitors bureau recommends Really Good Seafood (84 Sinsheng S. Rd., Section 2).
Before setting off to find a restaurant, ask your hotel to write out the address in Chinese. And take along a hotel card or matchbook with an address, in case you need help finding your way.
If your hotel offers a breakfast package with the room for an extra charge, ask first if the menu includes Western choices. There is a reason that Chinese restaurants in America never open for breakfast.
INFORMATION: Taiwan Visitors Association, 212-867-1632
Thanks. You don’t need to show the whole thing, just the best bits - there may be copyright issues.
part charming, part blase, partly lacking a critical eye, partly exaggerating the exotic factor, but overall a decent summary.
Thanks, that was a nice read. At least now I know where Americatown is.
Uh, they have that “Americatown” in every major city in Taiwan.
(The Chinatown in Tainan isn’t what it bills itself as…it’s just another old building complex with clothes and food stalls. I don’t know how it got its name to be considered so special. But luckily Europetown, all half a block of it, is just a block away.)