The Perfect Blend of Asian Characteristics in Taipei

A Pavilion within the 228 Peace Park in the center of Taipei

When traveling the world and visiting any number of varied countries, far-flung destinations, and unique cultures, one can’t help but evaluate each destination on its own intrinsic value, balancing this against the effect of any negatives or difficulties present, and ultimately (even if it is only subconsciously) forming an answer to the question that they will inevitably be asked of them, “How was your trip to (blank)?”  Obviously, the final grades that a given city or country will receive are as varied as the people who visit them, meaning that this is a fully subjective exercise for whose results apply only to the individual casting the judgment, but nonetheless, it is fun to ponder and pontificate on the relative merits of a country’s livability index, whether the cuisine, culture, and climate all mesh to create a must-visit scenario, or whether that particular country or city gets slapped with the “I’m glad I went, but I won’t be rushing back any time soon” tag.

My travels haven’t yet taken me across the entire globe, but I do feel as though I’ve ascertained a fairly thorough understanding of Southeastern and Eastern Asia – being able to evaluate what aspects of each country’s culture appeal to me personally, which aspects turn me off, places that I’m dying to visit again, and those for which the chances of future exploration is unlikely.  Through these investigations, and though my time there was brief, I feel I’ve found the goldilocks’ standard of being “just right” for my taste – that of the country of Taiwan.  Due to its geographical location (an island with plenty of access to the sea) and humid, tropical climate, it’s practically a wonderland of fruits and vegetables, fresh fish and seafood, plentiful rice harvests and varied culinary influences, but without either the lofty expense that this sometimes entails.  There is an excellent culinary tradition present, where bustling night markets and modern restaurants alike hawk tasty goodies, both original to Taiwan and composed of influences from China, Japan, Korea, and many others; yet the place doesn’t have the dirty, gritty feel from which many shy away.  It possesses the same arching history and heritage of any of the surrounding regions, with serene temples and shrines and a variety of architectural styles, but without the caricature feel or overwhelming crowds of many over-touristic locations.  The warm-hearted people are polite, respectful, and welcoming to travelers, without the claustrophobic crush and impersonal feel of some of the nearby mega-cities.  The streets, subways, and transportation veins are easy to navigate, yet there isn’t the ever-present threat of thousands of buzzing motorbikes or dilapidated roads.  The heart of the country is the city of Taipei, offering any of the metropolitan comforts that modern city-dweller craves, yet only a short bus ride away lays the astonishing beauty and isolation that any mountainous island brings with it.

As a bit of background on Taiwan — as I wasn’t too familiar with it before adding it to my itinerary — it is a relatively small island off the Southeast coast of China.  The country is managed by its own multi-party democratic government, but its official name is “The Republic of China.” Its independence (or lack thereof) from the mainland, however, is often a subject of political debate, where the answer you’ll receive depends upon who it is that you’re asking.  Ethnically, the majority of Taiwanese are descendants of the Han Chinese and the primary language spoken is that of Mandarin (also often referred to as simply “Chinese”).  There are certainly several other distinct influences, however, such as a strong Japanese influence (leftovers from the period of Japanese occupation running from 1895 to the early 1940’s), pockets of Korean culture (due to the proximity to the Korean peninsula), Western influences resulting from early Dutch settlements (when Taiwan was known as Formosa), and a variety of other subcultures and ethnic populations that have emigrated here from the likes of Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and many other Southeast Asian nations — all leaving behind a subtle effect on Taiwan that results in a harmonious blending of the best of each country.

Taiwan’s “best of all worlds” appeal was a much-needed breath of fresh air for me, and a perfect punctuation point on another long but successful leg of my round-the-world voyage (though, I technically do still have one more stop after this).  Ultimately, when faced with the questions, “In which places could you see yourself living?” and “For which places will you be yearning to return?” at the top of my list will the small island country of Taiwan.  Have a look:

The colorful streets of Taipei

Red paper lanterns, how I love you so…

The Presidential Office with its mid-century, Japanese-style architectural style

An abstract exhibit utilizing mixed media as its medium at the Museum of Contemporary Art

The neon-charged atmosphere of Taipei at night

Street Art in the historic Bopiliao District

The city of Taipei is as modern and developed as any other major metropolis that I’ve encountered so far on my trip

A retreat into a pleasant green space of Da’an park

A sharply-uniformed soldier watching over the bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek

Another unique characteristic of Taiwan is that — in contrast to nearby China, where religion is largely pushed to into the background — the spiritual side of things is a dominant force and an everyday part of life.  Boasting one of the highest concentrations of religious temples and shrines, you’ll rarely be far from a site where you can calm your troubles by burning joss sticks and tossing around a few moon blocks (known as bwah bwey).  Similar to other Asian countries, however, religious life in Taiwan doesn’t focus on one single religion or philosophy.  Instead, each individual tends to create their own blend of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and other folk beliefs that have survived the modernization of the last few centuries.  But regardless of which god, deity, or altar you choose to pray at, the temples of Taiwan are as vibrant and colorful as anywhere else I’ve had the pleasure of visiting:

The front entrance to the popular Buddhist Longshan Temple

Prayers being whispers to the heavens

Although it is smack-dab in the center of the city, a corner of the Longshan Temple is still allotted to achieving a sense of the natural world

The facade of the Taoist Bao’an Temple

Each candle on these lighted walls and columns represents a family that has made a donation for a loved one

Detail of a dragon motif at the Confucious Temple

What first springs to mind when one mentions the city of Taipei is the iconic profile of the Taipei 101 building, a 508 meter tall skyscraper in the shape of a bamboo stalk that formerly held the “World’s Tallest Building” title (until the Burj Khalifa in Dubai was completed in 2010, that is).  Given its extreme height and the relative lack of other nearby skyscrapers, there is hardly a vantage point within the city limits when the 101 building isn’t visible, standing out as a beacon by which all below can navigate.  And conversely, by ascending the tower’s 101 floors to the observation deck (technically on the 97th floor), there is a hardly a hiding place below that can’t be observed, too:

The Taipei 101 building — created to imitate a stalk of bamboo — as seen from street level

If you’re lucky and the wind isn’t blowing the day you visit, the open-air viewing platform will be another option, allowing you to observe the city below without the blue-ish tinted windows (see above pictures)

Taipei 101 lit up against the night sky

Due to the fact that my time in the country was brief and my energy reserves have all but been depleted due to the onset of travel burnout, my venture in Taiwan was largely confined to the city of Taipei itself.  I did, however, manage to venture into the mountains via a 20-minute gondola ride to the hillside region south of the city known as Maokong, an area dedicated to the growing, preparing, brewing, and consumption of all things tea and tea related, a particular treat as Taiwan is known for some of the best High Mountain Oolong teas in the world.

The gondola ride traversing the contours of the mountainous terrain

The view back towards the outskirts of Taipei

The streets of Maokong

There are a few tea plantations, but the Maokong area is now largely occupied by some 3-4 dozen tea houses, perfect places to sample the local teas and enjoy the gorgeous view

The many utensils you’ll receive upon ordering tea service at any of the tea houses

After properly heating all of the porcelain cups, the brew kettle, and the tea-pot with hot water, brewing the tea, and then serving, you’ll finally be able to enjoy the end product. The tall, skinny cup on the left is meant for enjoying the tea’s aroma, while the larger, wider one on the right is the one from which you actually drink

As mentioned above, my time in Taiwan was brief, but I can say with confidence that this is a destination that I’ll be sure to visit again in the future.  After all, I still have the entire remainder of the island to visit, complete with all of its scenic lakes and gorges, fantastic hiking trails, laid-back vibes, and a variety of regional eats waiting to be sampled.  Speaking of food, by the way, I’ve got another whole post in the works dedicated to the legendary night markets of Taipei, complete with a slideshow of fantastic street foods that I was able to find.  Until then, cheers from Taipei!

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About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

13 Responses to “The Perfect Blend of Asian Characteristics in Taipei”

  1. Hey Andrew!

    Welcome to Taiwan! How long are you going to be in town? I’m traveling but will be headed to Taipei on Friday. Let me know if you need a local to show you around and meet a few buckeyes here!

    Best!
    Belle

    • Ahh!! I didn’t know you were in Taipei, else I would have made of point of trying to meet up! Unfortunately, my posts are running about a week behind at the moment, meaning that i’ve already left Taipei. As I mentioned in my post, however, I didn’t spend nearly enough time in Taipei (or Taiwan for the matter), so it is going to pop up again on my itinerary at some point in the future. It would be really cool to hang out again, so I’ll be sure to drop you a note before coming back into town!

  2. Another great post. I felt like you allowed me to travel there. But I’m missing some of your usual food photos 🙂

  3. Hope you tried the smelly tofu??? Taiwan is a super destination. Lots of buzz….even in the areas further from Taipei. And the scenery…..gorgeous….

    • I was blown away by how much I enjoyed the week or so I spent there. It isn’t a common destination for many travelers, but I’m certainly going to be recommending it to everyone I talk to. And oh yes, I sampled the aromatic fare of fermented tofu. It smells…interesting…but actually tastes really good. 🙂

  4. Andrew, it seems like you’re always one or two steps ahead of me. Remember when I used your posts on Laos as my reference for dishes to try and places to visit in the country on my visit a few months after yours? Now there’s this post on Taiwan. As a matter of fact I’m going there in March 2013. So, again, I’ll use your post for my reference among other sources. Thanks!

    • Glad to hear that I can still help out, though I’ll admit that I didn’t explore as extensively as I would have liked. I will, however, have a food post out in the next few days, too, so you’ll also have a list of dreat dishes to try!

      And I’ll be able to return the favor as I’m going to be using your posts on Indonesia (and the Philippines, for that matter) pretty much as my travel guide when I finally make it there, as I’ve promised to do several times in the past!

  5. Ah, Taiwan – it seems to be one of Asia’s most underrated destinations! Apparently the island can be classified as ‘alpine’, I’ve been told it has more mountains of over 3,000m than even Switzerland! Did you try the sweet soy milk when you were there? I went some 15 years ago and even today I can still remember just how wonderful it tasted.

    I’ll be returning there next spring (with Bama, no less) so it will be interesting to see how much things have changed. Looking forward to your food post now… can’t wait to introduce Bama to the secret joy of stinky tofu!

    • I did try the sweet soy milk, which was really good. They had an almond version, too, that I’d recommend. And you and Bama are going to have a great time. As I mentioned in the post, I didn’t know much at all about the country before making my way there, but was pleased all-around with what I found. And best of luck getting Bama to try the stinky tofu! I’d say start him off with the fried version and work you way up towards to still-wet-and-still-very-stinky variation!

  6. Taiwan sounds and looks like a great place to visit. If I manage to see Asia outside of Japan, I’ll take your advice and check it out!

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