by Victor Block
It’s true that not long after arriving in Taipei I found myself stewing in traffic jams as maddening as any back home in the United States. And yes, locals lined up at the same fast-food restaurants and wore pretty much the same clothes. At times I felt I could’ve been in a Chinatown in any western city.
And yet…both here in the go-go capital of Taiwan and in its countryside, I also discovered an abundance of sites reflecting a rich history and culture stretching back five millennia. Not just a wealth of ancient artifacts and artworks, but hundreds of active traditional temples where even in the 21st century, worshippers still pray, burn incense, and perform ancient rituals, such as burning fake paper money for deceased loved ones to spend in the realm beyond.
Nor are traditional ways of life totally a thing of the past. On the southern tip of Taiwan, I spotted laborers bent in the hot sun, planting tender rice shoots much like their ancestors thousands of years ago. Many of the aboriginal people still cling to their old way of life (the first Han Chinese didn’t reach Taiwan until the 17th century, driving its Polynesian/Malay inhabitants into the high mountains in the interior; the influx from the mainland continued for two centuries).
Treasures of Chinese Culture
Han immigration was given a huge boost in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek and some two million followers fled here as mainland China fell under communist rule. In the process of definitively turning the island into a Han country, they also endowed it with many priceless treasures from Peking’s Forbidden City. Today, those gorgeous antiques are on display at Taipei’s National Palace Museum, Taiwan’s single most important tourist attraction and one that by itself practically justifies a visit to the island; ranked with the world’s A-list museums, it houses the largest collection of Chinese artifacts anywhere. Strolling through room after room, I was awestruck by displays teeming with treasures including precious jade, bronze and porcelain artifacts; rich tapestries and embroidery; and books and scrolls filled with mesmerizing ancient calligraphy.
There’s plenty else just in Taipei to fill several busy days, too. Exhibit A: an imposing monument to Chiang Kai-Shek which includes a vast memorial hall, and the palatial National Theater and National Concert Hall. Both share a 62-acre (25-hectare) city-center compound where I spotted a number of couples, drawn by the picturesque and tranquil setting, posing for wedding photos.
Not surprisingly, traditional gardens abound. The most outstanding for me was the Lin Penyuan family garden, employing classic Confucian principles to embody a harmony of man and nature; I found it a masterpiece of serenity, reminiscent of a serene village from a bygone era.
Far less tranquil is the hustle-bustle on Hwa Hsi Street, better known as Snake Alley. Here I found myself introduced to a very different and colorful aspect of local life. Tiny, crowded sidewalk restaurants and busy shops proffer live fish and crabs, shark fins, and countless unidentifiable animal parts. The hottest action takes place at stalls crammed with cages that give the place its nickname, a-swarm with writhing serpents, and passersby are subjected to a loud and constant singsong by the vendors. The oddest thing I found was one hawking the fresh-drawn blood of snakes, touted as greatly beneficial to both libido and general health. I passed.
Riches Beyond the Capital
Away from Taipei, I greatly recommend Tainan, the island’s oldest city and its first capital (1663-1885). One key feature here: more than 300 intensely atmospheric temples enshrining a variety of gods – Buddhist, Taoist, folk, and animist. These range from huge imposing structures striding broad boulevards to tiny neighborhood shrines tucked away on side streets and alleyways. The Confucius Temple, built in 1665, is the oldest in Taiwan to honor the renowned philosopher. For me, even more moving was Wufei Miao (Temple of the Five Concubines), erected in the 17th century beside the tombs of a prince’s mistresses, who committed suicide when he fell in battle.
When it comes to nature, also Taiwan shines. It’s dominated by the towering mountains that bisect the island, and the rest consists of terraced flatlands, bamboo forests and coastal plains rimmed by magnificent beaches (Fulong Beach on the northwest coast is a local favorite). You’ll find most of the most impressive settings in parks like Yangmingshan National Park near Taipei, where volcanic craters, bubbling hot springs and breathtaking mountain scenery are the top draws. At the nearby Northeast Coast National Scenic Area, I was fascinated by the restored ancient walking trail and fanciful rock formations.
There’s a reason 16th-century Portuguese explorers named this island Formosa (“beautiful”). Touristically as well as politically, it may sometimes seem overshadowed by its enormous neighbor across the strait — but I’m here to assure you that Taiwan is a classic case of “good things come in small packages.”
More information: Taiwan Tourism Bureau.