Ben Lerwill, The Daily Telegraph, July 26, 2013
Sometimes, small is everything. In Taipei’s exceptional National Palace Museum, I chanced on a case containing a carved olive kernel. It was an unlikely exhibit, the kind that had people tilting their heads one way, then the other, before peering in closer. Shaped by the evidently steady hands of a master craftsman more than 250 years ago, it portrays a miniature boat, complete with exquisite awning, passengers and rigging. For a tiny piece of fruit matter it is a near-miraculous piece of art.
The sculpture was created for the Chinese emperor of the day and, like so much in the museum, it is intricate enough and unfathomable enough to bring browsing tour groups to a juddering halt. And there was me thinking Taiwan was all about modern technology.
Comprising thousands of artworks collected by generations of emperors in Beijing, the pieces in the museum are well travelled. There are Ming vases, millennia-old bronzes and ivory wrist rests. It was Chiang Kai-shek – the nationalist leader and Mao’s great foe during the Chinese Civil War – who had the best of them boxed up and packed off from the Forbidden City, in the hope of keeping them from the clutches of the communists. The treasures were spirited first to Shanghai, then Sichuan, before crossing to Taiwan with Chiang and more than a million of his followers in 1949. And there they remain, to the chagrin of China but much to the benefit of those visiting Taipei.
Next year marks the 65th anniversary of Mao’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China and, by consequence, the Kuomintang’s retreat from the mainland to Taiwan. Only around 220 miles of water separate the two lands, although the differences between their respective cultures remain considerable.
Visitor preconceptions of Taiwan tend to rest on its reputation for manufacturing, but you don’t need to be there long to realise the destination remains defined by Chiang’s arrival, a time when the island was figuratively ripped from the mainland and declared the last outpost of the Republic of China. Beijing still views the island state as part of its domain; Taiwan sees itself as autonomous. Only a handful of nations officially recognise it as a country in its own right, although the destination remains both self-governed and self-confident, with an economy to match. The end result is that tradition and technology vie for top billing, a pleasing tussle for visitors.
Although a highly developed nation, Taiwan offers a picture of what China might be like if it hadn’t become communist, according to Chris Moore, a Taiwan specialist at the tour operator Audley Travel. Traditional culture is less diluted than on the Chinese mainland. “It’s got an off-the-radar quality which appeals to people who have seen a fair bit of the region and are curious about what Taiwan holds,” he says.
What Taiwan holds – on the surface, at least – started to become evident from the top of Taipei 101, where I stood, nose to nose with a small cloud, on my first morning in the capital. Named for the number of floors it holds, the skyscraper was the tallest structure on the planet until 2009, when a Dubai mega-project relegated it to second place. More than twice the size of Taipei’s next highest building, 101 provides an eyrie over the metropolis. On the rim of the urban basin, meanwhile, belts of humped woodland hinted at what the rest of the island held in store.
From 1,450ft up, Taipei looks efficient and grid-clustered if enormous, an overall impression that continues down at ground level. The traffic is fairly jam-free, the pavements are swept and the neon is heavy. Before Chiang and the nationalists arrived, Taiwan spent half a century under Japanese occupation, and an eye for design seems to have endured as a legacy of this period. So while the chanting and Buddhism-meets-Taoism of Mengjia Longshan Temple in the afternoon was pure China, my evening visit to Shilin Night Market – full of sharp energy, hipster stalls and kitsch gadgetry – could have been straight from a Tokyo manga comic.
Everything I’d read declares the National Palace Museum as the city’s sightseeing highlight – and with good reason – but there is verve elsewhere in Taipei too. It would be a hard sell as a destination in its own right, but as somewhere to top and tail a week exploring a neighbouring Asian country it holds great appeal – particularly at sundown, when its crowded dumpling restaurants and light-festooned side streets seem to come into their own.
I’d read that there’s no guaranteed month for perfect weather – an accurate warning, as it turned out. I travelled a short way south from Taipei (the main island of Taiwan being half the size of Scotland) to Taroko Gorge and heavy rain came too: rainfall surged down the 2,640ft-high marble cliffs that tower over the banks of the Liwu River, which itself was frothing and wild from the downpour. The gorge is widely regarded as one of East Asia’s top natural attractions and even with visibility reduced by the deluge it was easy to comprehend the hype.
Next morning dawned bright to reveal a wraparound panorama of silvery rock faces, clifftop waterfalls and hanging forests. Setting off along the hiking paths that cling to the walls of the canyon was akin to stepping inside an antique Chinese painting: a barely real world of swallows, cypresses and sky-high peaks. The gorge and its surrounding national park were for centuries inhabited only by the Truku – an indigenous group of hunters and weavers whose idyll was interrupted when the Japanese painstakingly constructed a set of footpaths – today’s hiking trails – along the gorge’s 12-and-a-half-mile length, which allowed occupying Japanese forces ultimately to subjugate the tribe.
Mandarin is Taiwan’s chief language, but indigenous dialects thrive. The Truku, many of whom live in the gorge region, are one of 14 indigenous tribes that still exist in Taiwan. Together these groups have inhabited the island for millennia, and while they comprise only two per cent of the overall population, their cultural traditions remain intact. This much was evident from the Truku’s home district, where a roadside restaurant yielded a lunch of mountain pig with mahogany-leaf omelette.
The east and west of Taiwan are very different. While much of the west holds industrial zones and urban settlements, the opposite coast is far quieter. The last portion of my trip was spent in the Eastern Rift Valley, a deep green landscape sliced in two by the Tropic of Cancer, marked by rice paddies and a continuous wall of enormous broken ridges. It is countryside crying out to be explored, a fact aided by a comprehensive network of cycle trails. I spent hours circling the farming town of Guanshan on a hired bike, disturbing little other than flocks of egrets and the occasional water buffalo.
The east is also prime territory for indulging in one of Taiwan’s other key attractions – its hot springs. The result of being located on a tectonic join, the springs come in various colours, temperatures and mineral make-ups, and their popularity among visitors is another legacy of the Japanese. I visited the Ruisui springs, which were warm enough to boil me into an afternoon-long submission. I wallowed until the stars came out.
A week was never going to be enough to do the country justice. After a final day spent sampling the xiaochi (“little eats”) from the food carts in the laid-back southern city of Taitung, it was back to Taipei for departure. But my introduction to the island gave a good insight into why this culturally alluring destination is so hard to pigeonhole. It has a host of competing flavours – where else would you find bullet trains, betel nut-chewing aboriginal groups and brazen anti-Chinese posters declaring “Falun Gong is Good?”
Like the hand-sculpted olive kernel in its showpiece museum, Taiwan might be small, but it’s big on character.
Far East touring ideas
The Orient has long captured the attention of those seeking a more adventurous holiday. Improved air connections and the inclusion of rail and riverboat journeys have seen China, Japan and the beach stalwarts of Thailand and Malaysia joined by Vietnam and Cambodia as well as emerging nations such as Laos, Burma (Myanmar) and Tibet.
Such is the demand for China that the specialist Wendy Wu Tours ( wendywutours.co.uk ) is now offering winter itineraries in addition to spring and autumn visits, meaning fewer crowds at the major sites.
An eight-day “China Impressions” trip including the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors costs from £1,490. There are also tours that tie in with Chinese New Year (January 31 2014) and a slightly longer holiday that visits the Panda Conservation Centre.
Solo travellers make up a healthy minority of escorted tour groups, and One Traveller ( onetraveller.co.uk ) has beefed up its 2014 China tour to offer a comprehensive 15-day overview. As well as key sights, the trip, from £2,840, (single occupancy) includes a visit to Guilin, popular for the scenic Li River, and a night at the Peking Opera. If you’re seeking something last-minute, Archers Direct ( archersdirect.co.uk ) has a new “Road to Shanghai” tour, 11 days from £2,149, allowing plenty of time to take in the sights.
Japan is best explored by rail. Great Rail Journeys ( greatrail.com ) offers a 13-day “Discovering Japan” holiday that has several trips on the Bullet Train, along with visits to Mount Fuji and a host of temples; prices from £3,598. A comprehensive 11-day Japan itinerary is offered by Virgin Holidays Journeys ( virginholidaysjourneys.co.uk ) from about £3,000 per person.
Its vast collection of pagodas has made Bagan, in Burma, a big draw. The luxury operator Audley Travel ( audleytravel.co.uk ) includes this remarkable place on its “Classic Burma” tour. The trip includes a two-night river cruise and costs from £5,495 next February. Saga ( travel.saga.co.uk ) has a 14-day “Unveiling Burma” holiday from £2,699, with departures in the first half of 2014.
Should you be looking to see as much as possible during a trip to the Far East, then Travelsphere ( travelsphere.co.uk ) has a 14-day “Jewels of Indo-China” tour that covers Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, with two days at Angkor Wat. It costs from £2,249. Alternatively, Titan has a 16-day “Grand Tour of Asia”, from £2,645, that takes in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711; regent-holidays.co.uk ) offers an eight-day Gorgeous Taiwan escorted tour from £650 per person. A 13-day national parks of Taiwan tour visiting Taroko National Park and hot springs costs from £2,065 per person. Both tours exclude flights.
A return flight from London Heathrow to Taipei with Eva Air ( evaair.com ) costs from £680 per person including taxes. Average flight time 13.5 hours.