Off the beaten track in Taiwan

Off the beaten track in Taiwan

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Jan 18, 2017

You sir, you’re a photographer? The lady to your left is an adventure seeker? The person behind you is a history buff? The gentleman assessing the view is an artist who fills his sketchbooks in every country he visits? And the new graduate on your right is looking for a fresh twist on the essential travel experience?

If all of you are concerned that you have little or no common ground, don’t fret. We have the perfect mix for all of you as we visit three cities — Taipei (台北), Kaohsiung (高雄) and Taichung (臺中市).

As our Cathay Pacific captain tells us we are about to descend, we, your travel planners, can reveal that we have a separate theme for each of these cities. Starting in Taipei, we embrace the theme of Experience.

EXPERIENCING TAIPEI

Accordingly, it’s full steam ahead – yes, literally – as we set our sights on Qixing Mountain (七星山), the tallest peak in the vicinity of Taipei. The geothermic steam vents are a recurring feature as we climb its slopes. You’re concerned about that odour? Don’t worry – it’s not caused by any of our travelling companions stepping into something unsavoury – it is actually the smell of the sulphurous components of the steam vents.

The views during our climb are largely defined by the prevailing weather, and as the clouds drift past, there are opportunities to stop and admire the sun’s rays as they pierce the clouds in a manner that seems almost cinematic.

Xiaoyoukeng, Taipei, Taiwan

Xiaoyoukeng (小油坑), Taipei
Photo: Wei-Te Wong

But the most arresting sight awaits us at Xiaoyoukeng (小油坑), about 800m above sea level. Here, it looks as if a giant hand has scooped a prehistoric crater out of the mountainside, where the constantly billowing smoke looks like a film set.

Afterwards, it’s chill-out time. No matter whether your preference is coffee or something a little more bracing, the Shida (師大) café-culture precinct has something for everybody. The fact that the best coffee houses are located here is endorsed by the mix of university students and after-hours coffee aficionados who frequent the area.

Each of the cafes here has its own distinctive ambience, and if your preference is to check out the variety of beer, there are plenty of opportunities to do it here. Ready to taste? Cheers!

If you hanker for a quick cocktail or whisky, we have just enough time to detour towards places with delightful names such as Ounce, R&D Cocktail Lab, Wootp, Beau, Mr. 83, Bar Z or China Pa. Or you can even track down a mixologist whose judgement you trust when it comes to the best ingredients of an after-dinner glass of something compelling.

Next stop, there is plenty of treasure. Ready to move on to the Treasure Hill Artist Village (台北國際藝術村)? This former squatters’ colony is a judicious mix of history, ecology and – you guessed it – art.

Here, one little patio displays a large, slim vertical sign that bears white Mandarin letters on a red background. Beside it are two armless, folding wooden-slat chairs, one daubed in blue and yellow, the other in pink and red. They completely overshadow the fact that the patio is bare concrete, such is the power of judicious art.

If the architecture seems cramped and haphazard, even the artists realise that specific aspect of their surroundings and celebrate it with aplomb. On one tall concrete exterior wall are displayed dozens of lamps in a tightly-knit embrace. It seems each lamp is distinct from the other as a variety of styles and sizes can be seen in a memorable outdoor display. Enlightening in every way.

Jiufen, Taipei, Taiwan

Jiufen (九份), Taipei
Photo: Taiwan Tourism Bureau Singapore

If you want a meld of Chinese and Japanese cultures, we must set aside enough time to visit Jiufen (九份), an old Qing Dynasty-era town. Once known for its gold mine, this hillside settlement retains its historic flavour. For those who appreciate architecture, there are traditional sloping roofs alongside red and white striped roofs that mimic the style of awnings.

The cobbled laneways and the cheek-by-jowl atmosphere where the signs are in dual languages take on an added charm after dark, when the multitude of lanterns are lit, forming a glow of red and gold above our heads, like some ethereal, priceless hand-crafted necklace.

DELVING DEEPER INTO TAICHUNG

Now it’s time to move on to the next of our three cities. In Taichung, our theme is Delve Deeper, to linger and to find the true meaning of stories. What better place to start than the distinctive Rainbow Village (彩虹眷村), where seemingly random art on exterior walls is really a story of how one man saved his neighbourhood from demolition.

Rainbow Village, Taichung

Rainbow Village (彩虹眷村), Taichung
Photo: Taiwan Tourism Bureau Singapore

Even if we are not fortunate enough to find the nonagenarian Huang Yung-fu (黃永阜), it is worth trying to distill the essence of his story and how this area came to prominence.

Of the many versions of his story, it is agreed that Huang Yung-fu, a former soldier, lived in a small village set aside for onetime military personnel. When he heard that the settlement was to be redeveloped, he spurned the compensation payment, and began to paint the inside of his home. When he ran out of interior space, he daubed simple paintings on the outside walls, then the walls of other dwellings whose occupants had already moved out.

His artistic impulse saved the remaining homes and today the area is awash in his colourful vision. Every wall bears the basic but striking art of “Rainbow Grandpa” (彩虹爷爷,) and even the narrow pathways show evidence of his prowess.

Today we must try and find our own interpretation of his story and perhaps – if we are lucky – we might even find this frail man who can tell us how his passion for art saved the area he loved so much. If we do find him, don’t expect him to rise swiftly from his chair, for his knees, according to local legend, have taken the brunt of his desire to keep painting, even if it meant kneeling for long periods at a stretch.

Our next stop is Calligraphy Greenway (草悟道), but just as we did in Rainbow Village, remember that we must delve below the surface once again to divine the whole story. The best description of this area is that it is a planned green belt that celebrates not just the rediscovery and celebration of the environment, but an area that has its origins in ancient art.

Calligraphy Greenway, Taichung, Taiwan

Calligraphy Greenway (草悟道), Taichung
Photo: Taiwan Tourism Bureau Singapore

You see, the area was actually inspired by the brush strokes and pinpoint accuracy synonymous with calligraphy. Like an artist putting his or her own imprint on a classic bamboo scroll, the city planners embarked a decade ago on a programme to integrate the various components of a 6.5ha area.

Much like an artist celebrating the freedom of brush strokes, the project introduced harmony to seemingly disparate elements of the city. It brought innovation and sustainability to a prime area in order to emphasise the links between recreation, leisure and entertainment.

Now it’s time for a couple of all-embracing experiences. We are heading first to the Mutou Wood Tourism Factory (老樹根魔法木工坊) to get each one of you in touch with timber. Here, some of the seats are shaped like exotic birds and the outdoor games are a test for visitors of all ages. Even if you are not confident enough to work with chisels and planes to create DIY items out of wood, you can try the puzzles, experiment with the puppets or simply don an apron and just spend your time painting objects that have already been crafted by others.

Our next stop is included for those who have a yearning for “the grape Gatsby” – a trip to a fruit farm where you can literally roll up your sleeves and get involved in the proceedings.

There are plenty of farms to choose from, such as Xinfeng Farm (新峰農場) which offers grapes, peaches, loquats and tangerines at different months of the year. Picking your own fruit here is such a different experience from buying fruit at supermarkets or from street vendors. Here, you are even encouraged to try the fruit before or while picking – so that you thoroughly enjoy the fruits of your labour.

PICTURESQUE KAOHSIUNG

Next, we fly to the city of Kaohsiung and it is time to reveal our next theme — photography. Consequently, all of you — whether you carry SLR cameras with multiple lenses, or you just want to Instagram a visual record of your journey through your smartphones — can relate to your surroundings.

Love River, Kaohsiung

Love River, Kaohsiung
Photo: Taiwan Tourism Bureau Singapore

We begin at Love River (爱河), an hour or two before dusk. Yes, you may photograph the Venetian-inspired white gondola moored beside a jetty as the sun begins to descend. Yes, you can frame your shots, be they vertical or horizontal, to best capture the essence of the river that forms an umbilical cord connecting both north and south.

But as blue hour approaches and the lights come on in the commercial and residential buildings, you see a different side of the river’s attraction. Now, as one bridge is illuminated in orange, gold and silver, its doppelganger is reflected in the shimmering water of the river below. Another pedestrian bridge, in green, becomes a double emerald necklace as the darkness descends on this port city and we go on to explore the cafes and restaurants that look out over the river.

As night gives way to morning, it’s time for us to head to neighbouring Kending (墾丁), where tropical surf awaits and where each of us is going to have the opportunity to use an underwater camera. What’s that you say? You won’t need one? Oh yes, you will.

This morning, after walking across sandy beaches and admiring the beautiful blue and aquamarine tinges of the water, we must don a snorkel or scuba gear and explore the rainbow-like range of coloured fish that swim leisurely around the coral reefs.

Our next stop is Cijin Island (旗津島), not just to continue the nautical theme but to visit the Tienhou Temple (媽祖廟), named after the goddess who protected fishermen. You can light a joss stick, admire the architecture, notice the beautiful patterns on the flagstones as the sun creates its own interpretation of the myriad lanterns above the courtyard.

While we are in the vicinity, we must explore the aptly-named Seafood Street (廟前路). Here, the displays are almost artistic in style, in a way that each of you will find visually enticing as you look through your lenses.

Apart from the seafood restaurants, there is an array of shops and street stalls offering a bewildering array fresh produce. This, above all, is not the time to clam up.

 

Getting there:
Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon offer flight deals to Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung with seamless connections via Hong Kong. Find out more.