Everyone who visits Taiwan invariably says the same thing: “I never knew Taiwan was so beautiful”. For many Americans like myself, the perception of Taiwan often falls desperately short of reality in this complex and enchanting country. Taiwan is so much more than even the most seasoned travelers realize, with a rich history seasoned by civil war, colonial occupation, political revolution and economic prosperity; home to an incredible diversity of culinary and cultural influence, and an unforgettable juxtaposition of ultramodern urbanity, remarkably preserved nature, and ancient tradition.
An island nation, home to over 20 million people– Taiwan has known many rulers in the last millennium. Occupied in turn by the Dutch, Spanish, Qing Chinese, and Japanese; Taiwan’s colonial past can be seen clearly today in sites like the ruins of Fort Zeelandia, where the Dutch first landed in the 17th century. The Japanese colonial era extended well into the 20th century, only officially terminating at the end of World War II, and the evidence of Japanese influence on an otherwise ethnically Han Chinese country is endemic throughout, with much of the foundation for Taiwan’s modern infrastructure having been laid down by the Japanese colonial government, including the thousands of kilometers-long national railway system.
Taiwan experienced rapid development in the 20th century after the end of the Japanese occupation, the period of greatest prosperity coming with the transition to a more liberal multi-party democratic political system in the 1990’s, facilitating the proliferation of international business and industrial development. Today, Taiwan is a sophisticated modern metropolis that lists among the greatest in Asia, home to some of the largest and most successful consumer electronics companies in the world. Similar to what one might experience in Japan, getting around on public transit is easy and inexpensive thanks to the ubiquitous rail system. Taiwan is a mountainous country, as can be seen throughout one’s travels in the grand swells of emerald green forest skirting the edges of its bustling cities, and leaving the glittering cities behind for a time is imperative if one wishes to see all that Taiwan has to offer.
Getting Out of Taipei
Travelling along the mountainous east coast and into the more rural inlands reveals another image of Taiwan, one of unprecedented natural beauty. Some of the most incredible natural parks in the world can be found here, such as the Japanese-named Taroko Gorge; which with its soaring fog-draped granite pillars is unequaled in its grandeur. Sun Moon Lake is famous for its serene beauty, and as such is a very popular honeymoon destination for romantically-minded travelers across the globe. Perched atop the Fleur De Chine hotel’s exclusive observation deck, contemplating the singularly lovely rose-gold sunset over the calm waters of the lake, it’s easy to find oneself swept up in such romantic thoughts.
Taiwan’s rich history is on display on every street and in every alleyway, in the architecture of every building and the flavor of every dish. This can be seen especially well in ancient towns like Jiufen; home to steep, winding staircases, countless temples, and sprawling, magical night markets. Some of the greatest treasures Taiwan has to offer travelers can be found in the National Palace Museum, which houses over half a million artifacts collected by the Royal Family over 10,000 years of Chinese history.
Treasures of the Ancient World
Now housed in a cyclopean structure in Taipei, this incredible collection of artifacts was brought over from the mainland after the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) retreated to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War. Many of the most famous artifacts in this collection are elegantly hand-crafted omages to traditional Chinese foods– indicative of the Taiwanese people’s immortal dedication to cuisine that is sure to delight those fortunate enough to visit.
Taiwan is an old country with deep roots, high hopes, diverse influences, and a fresh modern face. Its’ singularly enchanting blend of old and new, China and Japan, and of East and West is something that no traveler can afford to miss.