TAIWAN, November 2023
Taiwan has been in the news a lot recently. Just last weekend, they held their Presidential elections, and voted in the Democratic Progressive Party’s third consecutive president, Lai Ching-te. In anticipation of the elections, one of my favorite NPR journalists, Ailsa Chang, of All Things Considered, has been covering culture and politics from Taiwan- this story was particularly relatable for me. And you’ve already heard me sing the praises of one of 2023’s best new cookbooks!
I had visited the country once before, as a tiny kid, with my mom and my older brother (my mom grew up in Taipei). Over the years, I’ve floated the idea of going back with my mom, to no avail- it was “too hot, too muggy, too buggy.” Needless to say, for many complicated reasons, she has been uninterested in going back.
So, we went without her. My husband Colby and I spent two weeks in November exploring the 245 mile long, 90 mile wide island. We planned our trip to meet up with a couple of different friends along the way, which was icing on the cake. We focused our trip on three distinct parts of the island- the capital Taipei in the north, the historical center of Tainan in the southeast, and the laid back town of Hualien to the east. For reference, I speak a bit of Mandarin and can get along- our friends also speak the language, which is helpful. But, we found that strangers are very open and friendly, and I have no doubt non-Mandarin speakers would be just fine.
Colby and I spent a lot of time traveling abroad together in our younger days, and we have a real penchant for staying in hostels. As we’ve become “grown ups”, we’ve upgraded to slick, modern hostels with private rooms and bathrooms. On a friend’s recommendation, we set ourselves up at Star Hostel Main, conveniently located one block from Taipei’s Main Train Station. We breezed in directly from the airport and rolled into our clean, minimalist room.
We immediately made plans to meet our friend Cindy, who had been living in Taipei for almost 2 years and was our unofficial guide. Over the course of a few days, Cindy took us to one of her favorite soymilk+friend dough breakfast places; showed us around Dihua Street, her old family neighborhood; drank delicious coffee and tried not to stare at all the fashionable patrons at KiOSK; browsed the fanciest mall with the best food court (food courts are not to be ignored in Taiwan!); attended a 10 year anniversary party for COW Records, a hip outdoor clothing company where they had a live DJ, screenprinting, fancy hot dogs, and keg beer; enjoyed espresso martinis at a jazz bar; ate lots of small delicious dishes of food, and shopped.
Colby and I reserved an entire day to visit the National Palace Museum. When I was in college, I studied abroad in Beijing and the joke always was, “all of China’s precious art and artifacts are in Taiwan.” And they weren’t wrong. During the Cultural Revolution in China, anything with cultural significance was destroyed by order of the Communist Party. In order to preserve China’s rich history, the Nationalist Army siphoned everything they could to Taiwan. So, the National Palace Museum in Taipei is basically the most important collection of Chinese art and artifacts in the world. While the physical building lacks any charm, the collections were amazing. My favorites were the pieces that surprised me in their relevance to life today. This cool piece from the Qing Dynasty (1622-1722), could be mistaken as mid century modern, and look at these fabulous court maidens, enjoying happy hour and dancing in a Han Dynasty palace! It was well worth the trek to the museum.
We spent another couple of days racing around the city on foot, bus and metro- stopping to grab a snack at every opportunity (they are abundant) and taking in the sites. The public transportation in Taiwan is great- clean, easy to navigate, cheap and efficient. We eventually figured out how to use the city bikes, which were so fun. There are bikes and scooters everywhere, and it is totally a-okay to bike on sidewalks, in either direction. This sounds chaotic, but once you realize that everyone maintains a steady line, and follows the bike lane rules, it becomes a synchronized dance.
We took Taiwan’s famous High Speed Rail train south to Tainan in just a couple of hours. Because we didn’t plan ahead, we were only able to get a very early morning train in Business Class seats, where we were served snacks and hot Illy coffee the whole ride down, which made up for the ungodly hour.
Tainan is the old capital of Taiwan, and its historical heartbeat. Known for its abundance of Michelin-starred restaurants, it’s no wonder that the NYT Magazine featured an article about it this spring. We met our friends from San Francisco, Linda and Jason there, and shared a large, airy AirBNB on the north side of the city. We got right to work, and followed our noses to a Michelin-starred breakfast place, for their famous monkfish porridge. This spot was like many restaurants we visited- you basically wait in line and fill out a paper order form, and wait until one of the aunties seats you. Next, we hit the market where we competed with visiting high schoolers for the best treats. My favorite vendor was the bean jelly! (if you’re curious about this, try the Taiwanese dessert chain, Meet Fresh, in downtown Portland!)
Sampling all the street food delights that Tainan is known for was a big part of our agenda but I would be doing Taiwan a disservice if I didn’t mention their coffee culture. Taiwan is VERY into coffee. I was excited to have an excuse to drink tea all day long, but I couldn't resist the coffee. In every place we visited (even the tiniest town!) there was more than one option for exceptional espresso drinks in very charming spaces. In Tainan, we enjoyed coffee from a local takeaway shop called Super Ray Coffee. I had the most exquisite latte of my life… the rock sugar that they used was infused with tea leaves from the Sun Moon Lake region and had an amazing, subtle floral quality to it. Amazing!
We rode bikes along the water to the historical Anping district where we walked in, around and over the giant banyan tree that has engulfed a Japanese colonial era brick warehouse (Taiwan was a colony of Japan for about 50 years at the turn of last century, and still has a big cultural influence on the island). In the evening, we were lucky to get seats at Zyuu Tsubo, a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant where we had a decadent meal at the 10 seat sushi bar. We topped off the evening with cocktails at the hushed and smart, Swallow. Late into the evening, our cab driver took us to his favorite late night spot which didn’t open until midnight, and we were happy to have a giant bowl of beef soup.
HUALIEN and TOUCHENG
After a few packed days exploring Tainan, we parted ways with our friends and Colby and I took the train around the south of the island, and up its eastern coast to Hualien. This train ride was spectacular- we chugged along the coastline, up tropical forested mountains with high altitude tea farms, and back to the opposite coast where there were emerald green rice patties against the backdrop of the giant Yushan Mountain Range. The mountains were huge! We were already impressed with the friendliness and ease of the people we had met along the way in Taiwan, and Hualien took it another step. The east coast of the island is famously “chill”, and it did not disappoint. We stayed in another cool spot that was recommended by a few different people, called Boy Apartment, which had a Dyson hair dryer in the room (5 stars).
When we were planning our trip, we were pretty overwhelmed with options and decided to narrow our travel time as much as we could, but still wanted to go around the island. Visiting Taroko Gorge became an anchor for our journey to the East Coast. In consideration of time, we decided to do a guided tour of the park, and found a small van tour. We were a group of 8, with tourists from Australia and Canada. The van tour was a score- the winding roads in the park were tiny, and we were lucky to be visiting the park early, to avoid the giant tour buses.
The National Park itself was other-wordly. This territory had been inhabited by aboriginal communities long before the occupations of the Japanese and the Dutch before them. The scale of the mountains became very real once we got into the gorge, and it is no wonder that they provided protection against intruders for so long, and still continue to offer a sort of barrier today. The marble canyons looked exactly like ancient Chinese scroll paintings, and the river running through them was startlingly clear and blue. The enormous river boulders looked exactly like intricate agates you might find at the beach. Spectacular! Our hilarious tour guide talked to us at length about the this history of the island- we learned a lot about the Japanese occupation and the treatment of the aboriginal groups (awful, a story for another time), the history of the island itself (it’s a very “young” island and basically an active volcano), and got a lot of tongue and cheek commentary about the current state of the island’s politics (tenuous, to say the least). In certain parts of the park, all guests were required to wear safety helmets due to the constant shapeshifting of the mountains (they had just weathered a monsoon!).
After another night in Hualien, we took the train an hour north to stay in a little beach town called Toucheng. We made this plan last minute, and traveled here simply to take a break and stay in a luxe “hot spring” apartment that we found for a great price on AirBNB. While we weren’t able to visit any hot springs in the wild, we did luxuriate in the sunken Japanese tub in our apartment, complete with piped in hot spring water.
When we arrived on the island, the weather was still surprisingly warm and humid but by the time we made it to the east coast, the weather had turned into a classic, cool and moody fall. Toucheng was exactly as we were expecting in this season- sleepy. Colby and I rode our Airbnb’s bikes ten minutes to the local beach, which was vast, windy and abandoned. There were a ton of surf shops lining the road along the beach, and most were closed. We did meet a nice surfer and his dog who ran a small coffee/surf shop. He gave us a great recommendation for a local multi-generational run “chop house”, where we ate twice! They were some of the most memorable meals we had. We savored Toucheng’s famous green onion pancakes (this county is known for growing the sweetest green onions), and I was surprised (but not surprised) to find two very hip coffee shops in this small town.
BACK TO TAIPEI
After a relaxing couple of nights, we took the short train ride back to Taipei, to complete our island loop. We spent two more days in Taipei before flying through Tokyo on our way home to Portland. We packed as much as we could into those final days- revisiting places we wanted to spend more time in, and seeing some more friends. We were able to go to the opening weekend of the Taiwain Bienniel at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, which was wonderful. Colby took a day trip to another national park north of Taipei, while Cindy and I ran around the Dunhua neighborhood, where we browsed the pricey Korean shops, tried on trendy streetwear and ate ice cream.
We ended our trip with a delectable meal at a restaurant on the 85th floor of Taipei 101, as guests of my mother’s best friend from high school, her daughter and son-in-law. Although I had always been privy to their news through my mom, I hadn’t seen Auntie Sharon since we were last in Taiwan, when her daughter and I were just tiny kids. We dined on classic Cantonese dishes, including the finest Peking duck I’ve had (our servers even rolled them into the fresh pancakes for us!) and enjoyed catching up. Auntie Sharon told me stories I’ve never heard before of my mom, my grandma, and my great grandma. We laughed a lot. And today while I was looking through some old photos that I snuck out of my parent’s house recently, I texted my mom to ask her where one of them was from. It’s a black and white photo of my mom at the airport in Taipei, with a giant smile, about to embark on her adventure to San Francisco, taken by Auntie Sharon. Mom was 21 years old.
After hearing glowing reviews of our time in Taiwan, my mom has come around. I realize that she grew up in a complicated time in Taiwan’s history, and was only trying to save us any disappointment in visiting the place as she remembered it. The truth is, we can’t wait to go back, and she’s already agreed to come with us the next time.