The best description I’ve ever heard of Taiwan was from a Canadian friend who spent over a year on the island teaching English. After spending time in Japan and Southeast Asia as well, he said that Taiwan was his favourite place to live and work. Because, as he described, the island is the combination of modern, reliable transportation and telecommunication networks of a country like Japan and has the relics and rural beauty of a historically agricultural society like Vietnam and Cambodia.
My friend’s words echoed in my mind as I set out on a cross-island road trip with seven other travellers and Jerry Chen, an English and Mandarin speaking tour guide, starting from Taipei. Sometimes, it takes someone on the outside to notice what those on the inside have become immune to. After many trips to the island, those observations from my friend gave me a new appreciation for why this place is the most convenient and diverse destination in Asia for an inexpensive road trip. My only regret is not spending more time in Tainan and a few other unforgettable stops along the way.
For first time travellers to Taiwan, Taipei offers a slew of ‘must-see’ attractions, among them are standing on top of the world’s fifth tallest building, the Taipei 101 Observatory deck and trying some of the ‘most famous dumplings on Earth’ at Din Tai Fung. With access to a van, I strayed from the typical city tourist spots and ventured 40 minutes east outside of Taipei from Regent Taipei to a small, mountainous town of Pingxi, which used to be a coal mining spot.
The nostalgic ambiance of a bygone, industrial era is enshrined by the houses and buildings lining Pingxi Old Street. Most symbolic of them is arguably the Ching Tung Station, a low wooden structure with black tiled roof—one of the distinct remnants of Japanese colonial rule. The mystical setting has become a capsule of people’s hopes and dreams. Hand-written messages adorn pieces of bamboo tokens dangling from canopies of vines and beside walkways. Before arriving in town, signs of old lanterns strewn the hills and even in the middle of the road causing activists to raise concerns over the lanterns’ impact on the environment.
Taking advantage of Taiwan’s high speed rail allows for a flexible and customized itinerary. From Taipei, I chose an hour and a half train ride instead of three hours driving to Tainan—one of the most authentic experiences on this trip. Tainan is the soul of Taiwan, and the origin of Taiwanese culture, trade and progress. The most accessible and lively district is near the Cheng Kung University campus on University Road. For a splurge, the Shangri-La Eastern Plaza Hotel located within campus vicinity and within walking distance from the hip cafes, restaurants, shops tailored to the university community.
The highlight of my trip was walking down Shennong Street, considered the most well-preserved street in the city. The vintage atmosphere brought me back to the insightful observation of my friend. Unlike anywhere else in the world, one minute I can be walking in an urban district and unexpectedly, a decorative temple appears out of the blue. I could have easily spent three days lounging in the studios, bars and cafes lining Shennong Street (many of which are started by ambitious entrepreneurs and artists), and strolling the historical Anping District charting the paths of early settlers and Dutch occupiers since the 17th century.
From Tainan, my route continued into Zhushan District in Nantou, Sun Moon Lake and eventually back in Taipei. Taiwan’s travel accessibility is becoming well-known within the region. For instance, The World Trade and Tourism Council estimates that the number of visitors from Hong Kong has risen sharply over the last decade with an increase of 16 percent from 2014. The Tourism Bureau estimates and increase of 18 percent from Europe since February of last year and a three percent increase of American visitors.
Since the biggest costs of any travel experience is flight, the easiest way to reduce costs is choosing a stopover on the way to the final destination. From Vancouver, I flew on Air Canada with a stopover in Hong Kong connecting via Hong Kong Airlines to Taiwan. On average this saves around $150 US dollars.
There is quote by novelist Aldous Huxley that goes, “to travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” Not only should you expect to be surprised travelling around Taiwan, but whether you’ve never been or have been many times, chances are there are more to discover. Or you’ll find yourself, like I did, seeing a familiar place with new eyes.