The Portuguese used to call Taiwan Ilha Formosa, which means ‘beautiful island’. A melting pot of cultures, Taiwan’s largest cities of Taipei and Taichung offer the traveller a platter of unusual experiences—from modern architecture to ancient temples and exotic cuisine. Whenever you decide to visit this delightful country, carry this guide along to make sure you don’t miss out. By Kalpana Sunder
Rise To The Top
Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world for a period of nearly five years from
2004, until it was unseated by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The towering building, which looks
like a stepped pagoda, pays homage to Chinese culture with its eight sections (eight
being a lucky number in China) and the discs on its facade that represent old Chinese coins. Home to luxury shopping, restaurants, and offices, it also has the fastest elevator, which whizzes you up from the ground floor to the 89th in merely 39 seconds. A 660-ton damper (a huge golden iron ball) counteracts the effects of strong winds and stabilises the building in the event of an earthquake. You can actually see this on the 89th floor. From the outdoor observatory on the 91st floor, you can get a panoramic view of the city.
Sip On Tea
The Japanese ruled this island for over a century and gave it the tea ceremony, which continues to the day. I headed to the 100-year-old Wang Tea in the Dadaocheng area
of Taipei, which once had as many as 200 factories processing tea. Jason Wang, the fifth-generation owner of the tea shop and factory, showed us the traditional processing of tea with bamboo baskets and coal heated in brick fires. He also took us through the process of brewing tea with scientific precision—heating the water to a certain temperature, warming the little cups, and making five brews from the same leaves. The whole process, which is
meditative and Zen-like, is worth the trip. But we sampled the tea too; the woody Oolong tea was redolent of ancient rituals.
Admire Taichung’s Showstopper
With a glass and concrete facade made up of hourglass-shaped sections, fronted by dancing fountains and manicured lawns, the National Taichung Theatre is a unique building that defies all conventions of concert halls. It has organic flowing spaces where the walls and the ceilings seem to merge seamlessly; there are no beams and its design was inspired by primitive dwellings like caves and rock shelters. Designed by the Pritzker-Architecture-Prize-winning Japanese architect Toyo Ito and built over 11 years, it has a Grand Theatre, a Playhouse, and a Black Box theatre, as well as retail spaces. High ceilings elevate the ambience, colour pops of marine blue and maroon enliven its white walls, and decor elements like metal cut tables, lamps, and glass elevators look like artworks. The foyer features a flowing stream and open spaces for small pop-up design shops. Take a one-hour
architecture tour of the building for ₹237.
Walk back in Time
A counterpoint to Taipei’s glitzy skyscrapers and night markets is the atmospheric Dihua Street, Taipei’s oldest street. It was first populated by merchants from Fujian and Guangdong in China, and was at the heart of tea trade. Today, Dihua Street is a melange of architectural influences — from Chinese Baroque to Victorian brick buildings and teahouses. The streets are lined with nameplates written in the Chinese script, and shops selling a variety of items from dried spices to pungent medicinal herbs like ginseng and exotic fungi and mushroom. Sandwiched between the old buildings are new enterprises like hip cafes, and craft beer and ice-cream shops. Taking centrestage is the famous Xia-Hai City God Temple, reputed for its matchmaking powers! Many young people come here to pray for a loving relationship. Visitors burn incense sticks and bits of paper, sending their wishes up to the gods. Small carts sell everything from peanut brittle-topped ice cream to fish balls and stinky tofu. A walk in these streets is a stroll back in time.
Spend The Night At A Bookstore
One of the biggest retail bookstore chains in the country, Eslite Bookstore has many branches all over Taiwan, but the one in Dunnan is the 24-hour flagship store that
attracts bookworms and night owls by the dozens. The attraction here is not only its
wide selection of books in Japanese and English, but also the store’s relaxed and friendly
policy of letting customers read at leisure. When I visited the bookstore late at night, I found kids, parents, and couples alike sitting on the wooden floors and on the stairs, poring over a book. In the era of smartphones and e-readers, it’s heartening to see people choose a bookstore over a bar for their night-time hangouts. Eslite stores are also artistic hubs, often hosting music and dance performances and film screenings. There is also a cafe
and wine bar attached to the Dunnan store. Opened in 1989, the only 24-hour Eslite store is reported to be closing in May 2020; there are two more months to experience its night
Dine At Din Tai Fung
Din Tai Fung is a Taiwanese success story that started in 1958 as a producer of cooking oil and grew into a chain of restaurants with branches across Australia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore. The original shop in Taipei is the ultimate place for a dim sum meal, and is most famous for its steamed, soup-filled buns (xiaolongbao). You can watch a team of chefs in white uniforms and masks, who look like surgeons, pinching and twisting the dough to make the famous buns with scientific precision. “Each bun is a work of art it has to have exactly 18 delicate folds and has to weigh 21 grams,” our guide explained. The dinner table was laden with braised cucumber
and vegetables, noodles, dim sum and buns with freshly grated ginger and soya, along with bubble tea.
Pray at Lungshan Temple
This beloved temple was built in 1738 for Chinese settlers from Fujian. The temple is a fusion of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian faiths—with almost 100 deities. Rebuilt several times, having suffered the wrath of fi res and earthquakes, the temple is a survivor of time. People come here with all sorts of beliefs; some light incense sticks, others drop small wooden divination blocks, looking under their feet for some sign of good luck; yet others shake bamboo sticks and look for omens in the stick that falls out fi rst. Long metal tables spill over with offerings—baskets of fruit, purple orchids, dried snacks, biscuits, and even beer. Large brass urns stand in the courtyard, smoke curling out of them. The devotees’ recital of prayer in unison creates an aura of spirituality that should not be missed.
Revel in Colours at the Rainbow Village
On the outskirts of Taichung is the Rainbow Village, a cluster of small houses etched with brilliant colourful images. I was enchanted by the maze of small alleys plastered with pictures of birds, cats, monsters, and blooming flowers. Once these were military quarters for war veterans and their families. When the government wanted to raze it to the ground and build modern housing, an old soldier called Huang Yung-Fu took up brushes and a can of paint and started painting his home. Slowly, he started painting the abandoned houses next to his. Word spread about his evocative images, and some students petitioned the government to preserve the enclave. Today, 98-year-old ‘Grandpa Rainbow’ continues to live in the unique village and meets the throngs of tourists who visit his walk-in gallery, which is reported to draw around one million visitors per year.
Have A Drink At Pier 5
The old Dadaocheng Wharf was where ships were loaded with tea, sugar, rice, and camphor
for export. It fell into disuse because the Tamsui River had a silt build-up problem. Recently, however, it has gained new life as a strip of waterfront pop-up bars, with cycle tracks, food carts, and live music. During the evening, Pier 5 becomes a stage for cultural events. Have a glass of champagne or craft beer, and tuck into a pizza or fresh seafood or noodles as you gaze at the rippling water. Or, hire a bike and go for a ride along the river at sunset.
Fly Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong and connect to Taipei. Taichung is a two-hour drive from here. You can also take a high-speed train.
The quirky amba Taipei Songshan has great design custom-made bamboo lanterns, a
lobby peperred with quotes, and a fun social space with recreation games and loungers.
The rooms offer great views of the city. From ₹ 5,635 per night, plus taxes.