It wasn’t until college that I had Taiwan recommended to me as a destination. Honestly, I barely knew its political status related to China, let alone its location on a map. But Christopher (my good friend and former roommate) talked about how amazing it was, how much he enjoyed traveling there. So when we were booking flights through East Asia and added Taiwan to the mix, I had positive associations with it already.
During the four months traveling through Japan, Hong Kong, and southern China, we met dozens of travelers who had been to Taiwan already – and every single one of them LOVED it. We heard almost nothing negative about the entire island, which was a first (every destination has lovers and haters) and I began to pay closer attention. What about Taiwan makes it a place that all kinds of people enjoy?
We’re now in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, looking back at six weeks spent exploring Taiwan’s cities, coasts, and national parks. Here are some thoughts (in no particular order of importance) on the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name).
In every city we visited, we found museums and cultural centers dedicated to promoting the cultures of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Exhibits on history, lifestyles, and practices filled huge buildings; we saw shows on traditional dancing and singing. At every tourist stop, mentions of the tribes local to the area were included in pamphlets and gift shops.
While I appreciate my elementary’s school’s lessons about the Chumash Indians, it’s pretty well-known that native peoples in the United States rarely get their history included in the education system or in local museums. Seeing Taiwan’s determination to share the lives and stories of indigenous tribes was a breath of fresh air, but brought up some difficult questions.
By promoting these cultures in museums and shops, there was a heavily commercialized aspect to it: “Buy these recreations of traditional clothes!” “Take your picture with an attractive female dancer!” “Join us on a tour through a ‘real village’!” It felt very uncomfortable and exotify-ing, as if this was just another tourist trap rather than a way of life for thousands.
I recognize that travel is often like this – going to another country to see how “others” live, and commenting on it as if your own way of life is superior/natural/default. So perhaps I’m not the most qualified individual to talk about the commercialization of a group of which I’m not a member. At least it’s made me a bit more aware of my actions as a foreigner in another country, and how best I can respect/appreciate other ways of life while avoiding fetishizing them.
Within an hour of arriving in Taipei, I turned to Ethan and accused him of tricking me into coming back to Japan. The basic similarities were striking – the prevalence of convenience stores, the cleanliness compared to mainland China, the amount of shopping everywhere – and I noticed it immediately. Through traveling the island, I learned a lot more about Taiwan’s history and relationship with Japan, and just why the Republic of China felt so Japanese.
One comment quite a few travelers made about Taiwan was as follows: “It’s like the best of both China and Japan in one place.” That did feel true a lot of the time. The organization, infrastructure, and ease of travel felt like the streamlined experience of Japan, while the delicious food, diversity of people (in terms of race/class/clothing) and the language, of course, was thoroughly Chinese. But there also developed a distinctly Taiwanese feeling after spending a few weeks meeting people and studying the island. There’s a sense of pride in being Taiwanese, excitement about their own history and struggles, and a friendliness in wanting to share the love of their country with visitors. There seemed to be a greater feeling of community that I hadn’t experienced in either Japan or China, though, a kind of camaraderie that felt refreshing and unique. It certainly made me miss my fellow Californians.
How to talk about the night markets… They were another aspect of Taiwan I was told about by many travelers. Similar to other open-air markets I’ve experienced – lots of people, mix of games, food and shopping, in a specific neighborhood in the evenings – but there were dozens of them throughout the island. I tried to find out more about what makes them so popular in Taiwan specifically, but haven’t found too much online. If you have an answer tell me in the comments?
My favorite dishes were barbecued corn (coated with four layers of sauces and spices, yum), giant pieces of fried chicken (as big as my head, and I have a large head), xiao long bao (I could eat ten dumplings a day for the rest of my life), and spiced beef skewers (returning to a primarily vegetarian lifestyle in California is going to be next to impossible). I realize I’m courting heresy with this next comment, but I don’t like boba tea. Feel free to yell at me about this controversial opinion when you see me next.
And maybe this is because I am a weak Westerner, but I cannot stand the smell of “stinky tofu” (臭豆腐) and I do not understand its popularity. Why? For what reason? How is this a thing?
I’ve always been drawn to the water – pools, lakes, hot springs – and being in east and southeast Asia has certainly been a treat. (There’s water everywhere!!! As a Californian, I can’t figure out where it all comes from??? Why don’t these regions run out???) Taiwan was particularly lovely for this reason.
At Taroko Gorge (north of Hualien), we scootered through the winding roads of the mountains, along the route of the Liwu River. At one point, we parked and hiked off the main road, climbing around a fence to get to a natural hot spring area. We found a couple of other travelers and a few Taiwanese locals there, sitting in the hot water along the edge of the roaring river. Stripping down to our underwear, Ethan and I jumped right in (while Nancy soaked her feet like a lady) and climbed around the calmer points of the river. The color of the water was a beautiful blue-grey, and being surrounded by marble cliff faces was awesome.
In Taichung, we stayed at a hostel that offered a trip to the “Double Dragon” waterfall, closer to the interior of the island (Taichung is on the west coast). After hiking a ways through thick forest on a tiny trail, we reached Taiwan’s largest suspension bridge – which had pretty much no solid railing. With our Taiwanese leader and four Malaysian travelers, Ethan, Nancy and I traversed the bridge, stopping to take pictures and/or swear. (Nancy helped a particularly fearful teenager conquer his fear of the bridge, while the rest of us pretended not to be frightened as all hell). When we reached the end of the bridge, we found the Double Dragon falls right above us, crashing down the cliff face. One pool nearby was deep enough to jump in off a boulder, and we were able to wade all the way in under the waterfall, an exhilarating experience.
South of Taipei, Ethan and I took a rickety bus all the way up to Wu Lai, a small village with a mining history, and now a tourist attraction for its beautiful waterfall and natural hot springs. Similar to Taroko, we shimmied down to the hot spring area where a ton of locals had set up their own spa, piping water from the hillside to fill large plastic tubs and cement pools. They even hung blankets above and around a rocky area to make an indoor sauna! While Ethan enjoyed the hot water, I took it upon myself to explore the river. The current was incredibly strong, but a rope was set up on one edge to allow you to swim while still connected to the bank. After playing around with that, Ethan and I both followed the “footsteps” of the locals and jumped in upstream to swim to a calmer spot downstream, allowing the current to push us quickly along the edge of the village. Relaxing at the end of a long day, I laid on the bank with my feet in the river, and was treated to an impromptu pedicure by some tiny fish, who enjoyed nibbling the dead skin off my feet (free spa treatment!) Definitely my favorite part of the trip.
On one of our last days in Taipei, Ethan and I went to two museums dedicated to the 2/28 Movement, as well as the 2/28 Memorial Park. For those who don’t know, this commemorates a huge protest in 1947 by the Taiwanese people against oppressive censorship measures of their government, which resulted in the death and imprisonment of thousands. In the past few decades, the government has begun to recognize the tragedy of this time in history, and have begun working with activists to set up museums and memorials to educate the public.
It’s something that greatly impressed me about this place, that the leaders were willing to admit past political wrongdoing and take steps to apologize to the public and make sure the tragedy isn’t swept under the rug. I wish the United States were better about admitting mistakes/errors of judgement/etc in their past, and were willing to make reparations to the groups wronged. To be proud of your country is one thing, but to refuse to admit that your country has ever hurt its own people is another. For me, the only reason to be proud of a place is to see it progress over time, to see it continually get better for all of its citizens. Otherwise, it’s like a stagnant pond that keeps filling up with mosquito larva and pond scum (see our current state of affairs).
That’s all I got for now. Message me to chat about Taiwan 🙂