Taiwan is a blend of ancient cultures amid cutting-edge cities. It offers stunning mountains and temples that are perfect for slow travel.
Taiwan is an ultramodern nation known for its high-tech industry and stellar growth rate. There are massive shopping malls and amazing light installations in a vibrant downtown. But there’s also a rich heritage seen in the shrines tucked away on sidestreets. And the line between these two worlds is blurred.
Taiwan is an island where space is used wisely and where the old and new worlds coexist with a compact efficiency.
I arrive in Taipei late at night after a long flight. I’m here on a business trip and the packed itinerary starts tomorrow. But I can’t sleep. I’m in Asia, for the first time in my life. In a capital with night markets full of ingredients I’ve never tasted and shop signs in a script I can’t understand.
My hotel is in the trendy Ximending district, and I quickly unpack and head downstairs for a walk. It’s late but the street vendors are still out, calling “yummy yummy” to entice tourists to sample the street food Taiwan is famous for. There are oyster omelets, bite-sized tropical fruit served in plastic baggies and hot sugar cane juice with ginger. And even though it’s past midnight, I feel perfectly safe as a woman wandering alone.
Ximending is a fashion hub filled with boutiques, cinemas, hip cafes, pubs packed with young people and alleys lit up with lanterns and colorful murals. Known as “little Tokyo,” the district is a haven for fans of Japanese culture. Posters of the scantily-clad women of anime decorate shop windows, and Japanese magazines are sold inside.
At the end of Cinema Street stands the small but colorful Jin De Temple, one of the district’s historical sites. It’s lit by bright red lanterns and smells of the incense visitors burn to honor celestial beings.
The temple is dedicated to the Taoist deity General Zhushun, a military leader renowned for his scholarly work. But there are also other gods, heroes and figures in a lavishly decorated array. The temple is topped with a roof spilling over with layers of carvings, dragons and bright flowers.
Seeing a Taoist temple for the first time is a beautiful and disorienting experience, all at once.
Early the next morning, I cross the island in a three-and-a-half hour bus journey past cities and green fields of rice, to the harbor city of Kaohsiung on the Taiwan Strait. I’ve always had a weakness for cities on the water, and if you only have one night in Kaohsiung then I recommend you spend it on the waterfront. There are boat cruises on the Love River that offer scenic views of the city’s dazzling skyscrapers and the illuminated flowers and trees lining the way.
As our boat glides along the black waters, and the mandarin script hover above the night in neon, I glimpse sidestreets and wonder how they end. I pass neighborhoods and wonder about their atmosphere. Who lives in that apartment where the TV light flickers? What’s the local vegetable market selling?
I sometimes have dreams that I’m in a foreign land where unfamiliar scenery rolls our before me. Sometimes I’m walking through a city on the water, other times through a lush mountain range filled with banana trees. This feels a bit like those dreams, and not quite real.
When I get off the boat, there are cafes with river views and a shop that sells local specialties like dried fish snacks and fish floss, a popular topping that can be sprinkled on tofu or rice.
A temple parade
I walk back to my hotel and smell thick smoke. I follow the deafening noise and stumble into a temple parade. There are larger-than-life performers on stilts, musicians sounding gongs and huge drums, and crowds carrying tit-up palanquins, or sedan chairs, to a nearby temple.
Along the way, shops and households burn joss paper and put out tables of flowers and fruit to honor ancestors and gods in the traffic-stopping ritual. A petite man clasps his hands together and bows respectfully to a figure walking on stilts.
I follow the parade and end up on a sidestreet, where I spot a small temple nestled between shops. Inside, idols with their faces covered behind strings of gold beads tower over offerings of fruit and flowers.
The art of porcelain
The next day, I visit the workshops and showroom of 1300, an incredible artist-run brand that aims to preserve this dying craft.
The pieces are crafted in unglazed white porcelain, a far more demanding technique in which artisans can’t mask small imperfections with glaze. The pieces are fired to temperatures of 1,300 degrees before they’re finished off with touches of 22K gold.
They’re made to look gorgeous at any angle, even when viewed from the back. Many feature a horizonal design that’s different from traditional upright porcelain – and harder to execute and maintain its shape while the clay dries.
The pieces are stunning when viewed in person, flowing with an ethereal lightness in lines as smooth as ocean waves.
Many pieces have taken years to get right. They’re supported by arches or curves instead of a standard flat base.
Different collections include beasts from Oriental myths and traditional Chinese mythology or classical European aesthetics and Western goddesses. The prices are in the thousands of dollars, though the brand also has some entry-level pieces like the small figurines of the Chinese zodiac.
Founder Henry Shen discovered clay after taking some courses at Parsons in New York. He returned to his native Kaohsiung in 1997 and, after some soul searching, established his own studio.
Porcelain enjoyed a great revolutionary period 1,300 year ago during the Tang and Song dynasties. But what remains of the once rich history of Chinese porcelain now lays in museums and cheap dollar shops. Shen saw the opportunity to bring back the prestige of this demanding craft.
The next day takes me to Taichung, a cultural and artsy city that’s also home of bubble tea, a milky tea-based drink with chewy tapioca balls.
I’d read online reviews about the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts saying it contains a small collection with little content. But it largely depends on whether you’re an art lover. A colleague who wasn’t much into art spent an hour walking through, but if you love art then I’d recommend at least a few hours.
Several pieces in the permanent collection are stunning, like Daniel Lee’s mixed media Nightlife. It imitates the composition of The Last Supper but shows a seedy nightclub scene with human faces taking on animalistic features.
The museum is one of Asia’s largest at 102,000 square meters. There’s also a spacious outdoor sculpture park and a branch of the famous Chun Shui Tang Teahouse, the inventors of bubble tea.
I was lucky enough to visit during a biennial, which featured many modern pieces that were a great compliment to the traditional Chinese brush paintings.
I spend the last days of the trip back in Taipei, with its skyscrapers and bustling night markets.
I arrive late at night and head to Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest building until the Burj Khalifa opened in Dubai. The 508-meter, 101-story skyscraper recalls the shapes of an Asian pagoda and has two observation decks with views of the city.
I pack in one more exhibit on my last day in Taipei: the Taiwan Design Museum inside Songshan Cultural and Creative Park. The museum has a fascinating selection of Taiwanese and international designs, from the famous French Chanel no. 5 bottle to a set of 1990 Taiwanese blades forged from bomb shells. The park also includes beautiful gardens, cafes, a boutique and a theater.
My next stop is Treasure Hill Artist Village, a former squatters’ community where war veterans fleeing mainland China sought refuge. It’s now repurposed into an eco-friendly art village full of open studios, street murals and galleries.
The once illegal settlement was developed into a community of artivists and reopened as an artist village in 2010.
The grey houses clinging to the hillside are a maze full of hidden passageways leading to hip cafes and open studios.
There are arts-in-residence programs where international creatives can leave their mark on this historic site. The space also hosts occasional farmers markets and music events. Steep stairs lead up to the rooftops or down passageways in a maze of flights. Once used as an air raid shelter, the village is a mix of hard concrete and vibrant art.
My last stop is Longshan Temple, one of the city’s most famous temples. I’m expecting Buddhist minimalism to contrast the colourful Taoist temples I’d seen.
But the Taiwanese have a different approach to faith.
Some Taiwanese practice pure Buddhism or Taoism, but the majority follow a mix of both along with various folk beliefs. Longshan was built as a Buddhist temple and later many deities of Taoism were added without much controversy. They can be found in the numerous shrines adorned with purple orchids.
Buddhism is reportedly the fastest-growing religion in Taiwan and still attracts the young generation. I spot a girl in fishnets and a bright orange top with sticks of burning incense in her hands. Proof that the industrial powerhouse that’s forging ahead in technology hasn’t forgotten its roots.