Taiwan + Savouring the Sweet Potato
Updated: Aug 20, 2019
To some, having visited Taipei alone would quite satisfactorily put a tick on having visited Taiwan. Understandably, Taipei is a wonderful city, always filled with such joy and vibrancy that could very well represent the urban and pop Taiwan we often see on TV. The amazing night markets, energetic shopping and entertainment districts, scenic harbour and extraordinarily friendly sales girls in the capital would easily fill our hearts with such delight, or melt our hearts in the case of the sales girls, and forget about the rest of the country.
In fact, two-thirds of Taiwan's main island is covered by rugged mountain ranges from north to south on the eastern side, with only one-third of flat plains hosting most of its population and the familiar capital we know. The whole island has so much more to offer, ranging from breath-taking peaks and gorges, poetic countryside of mirror lakes and hot springs, and to romantic islands of volcanic formations and sandy beaches. Easily, they would have made the loud and bright Taipei we know appear muted and retreat in humility.
My first Taiwan trip was only to Taipei. For five days, it was mainly a photography trip with friends and colleagues, bundled with all the sinful food fare and glitzy entertainment. Several years later, I decided to revisit Formosa and find out why the Portuguese had named her the "Beautiful Island" some five centuries ago.
My second visit, a 9-day trip, had covered Taipei, Jiufen (九份), Hsinchu (新竹), Miaoli (苗栗), Penghu (澎湖) and back to the capital. Not exactly luxurious in time but priority was given outside Taipei to see the countryside. Sadly, there wasn't enough time to cover the south and eastern areas, perhaps on another trip in the future.
The best way to get around the island is to rent a car. The highways are well built and traffic is good, not forgetting the awesome scenery one can enjoy and stop by along the way. And in fact, the whole island of Taiwan is relatively small and manageable by driving distance. A trip from Taipei (northern city) to Tainan (southern city) along the west coast is only about 300 km, shorter than the Singapore to KL drive we are used to.
Surprisingly, driving in Taiwan was quite easy and relaxing despite having to steer from the passenger seat and feeling topsy-turvy at junctions. Traffic was manageable in the capital and pleasurable in the countryside. However, the greatest challenge was in getting directions. Chinese is primarily the language for communication in the country, more so outside Taipei. This includes all traffic and directional signs. Roman alphabets may appear on some signs but they are often small and hard to read. If you think a GPS navigator in the car would help, yes it does but in Chinese as well.
Despite the journey of endless road signs in Chinese, assisted by an electronic voice of Chinese-speaking lady by the name of Garmin, we managed to reach our destinations without fail everyday. Although some sights and hotels were located in rather rural and hideaway parts of the countryside, getting there wasn't difficult with some patience, common sense, and definitely a sense of adventure.
After returning the rented car in Taichung, we took a short flight to the islands of Penghu, an archipelago off the western coast consisting of 64 islets, showcasing impressive basaltic rock formations, coral reefs, white sandy beaches and beautiful historical villages. Also called the Pescadores Islands (Portuguese for "fishermen"), Penghu is well known for offering the tastiest and freshest seafood one could get in Taiwan.
Not forgetting the snazzy capital decorated with flashing neon lights and advertisement billboards, a visit to the Shilin Night Market (士林夜市) to sample all the great local food was a must. While some dishes might not exactly be of my liking, the overall street ambience and incredible variety of local hors d'oeuvre had made every visit to the night market a rewarding multi-sensory experience. Another popular destination is the Danshui Fisherman's Wharf (淡水漁人碼頭) - a leisure fishing port developed by the New Taipei City Government. The Wharf offers magnificent views of floating piers and a bridge spanning across the harbour. It's a perfect place to have dinner by the river, or simply to watch the sun sets with cool sea breeze constantly kissing your cheeks. Not forgetting the standalone Starbucks by the promenade where one could get gorgeous views of the river from its second storey balcony.
If night markets and shopping are not your cup of tea, why not take a day trip out to enjoy a hot spring bath in Beitou (北投) or appreciate the art of ceramics at Yingge (鶯歌). A short MRT ride to the Xin Beitou station would take you far from the hustle and bustle of the city. Escape the screaming sales girls with loud hailers and streets of flashing neon signs. Soak into one of the many hot springs to recharge in peace and isolation.
Alternatively, if art and culture is what makes your heart beat faster, more than hot springs do, head down to Yingge. About 30 minutes train ride from the city centre, Yingge offers an ideal place to connect with the arts, crafts and heritage. Both Yingge Old Street and Yingge Ceramics Museum are noteworthy destinations.
A short taxi ride from Yingge is the charming Sanxia Old Street (三峽老街). Rows of old shophouses in red bricks line the Old Street, dating back to the early 1900s. Interesting shops, trades and eateries occupy the street level spaces, all connected by a narrow walkway under the eaves of these beautiful architecture.
And no visit to Taipei would be complete without a visit to Luxy (closed), probably the best club in the capital. Often viewed as the 'to-go' entertainment venue with superb ambience, great music and (very) beautiful people, a trip to Luxy would definitely be an eye opening experience; and definitely for us when we were there as Armin van Buuren took the stage for the night.
It's a country so naturally beautiful and culturally charming that words can hardly describe. I hope that these selected photos from both my trips could tell a colourful story and distil the true beauty and rich essence of Formosa; and allow one to see and savour this sweet potato-shaped island of such diverse, memorable and magnificent flavours.
Facts and Figures:
W Hotel, Taipei
CityInn Plus, Ximenting, Taipei
The Adagio, Jin Gua Shi
Teng Mei B&B, Hsinchu
Onsen Papawaqa, Miaoli
La Mermaid Hill, Penghu
Equipment: Nikon D700, AFS 17-35mm f2.8, AFD 50mm f1.4, AFS 24-120mm f4, Sony HX5V