Time for a confession. This place was never on my bucket list, but I was so glad when I unexpectedly made my way to this tiny East Asian island country. My visit here was a heady experience of a nation where timeless traditions merge effortlessly with the cosmopolitan buzz of the 21st century, where the spectacular countryside is never far away and where your dinner could be a plate of flowers. No guesses: its Taiwan of course, where I landed up for the Lantern Festival. If you want to explore the island from north to south, follow my itinerary. It’ll be hectic for sure, but the fun is unlimited. Remember that in the sixteenth century, Portuguese sailors, charmed by this little island, called it Ilha Formosa — Beautiful Island.
Day 1 & 2: Taipei
Capital cities are predictable, but there’s a lot to explore, experience and relish in Taipei, whether it is a slice of history in its museums, bustling night markets, the tallest building in the country to delicious street food.
We start the day with the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a grand structure that’s a great place to get a first-hand lesson about the country’s past. Erected in memory of Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, it was renamed Liberty Square in 2007. If history is not your thing, watch the grand Changing of the Guard ceremony which takes place each hour near the statue.
And however tired you are, don’t miss the night market, where after a touristy day, you can indulge in some retail therapy. Keep your bargaining skills handy and when hunger pangs strike, get a taste of local food like stinky tofu, steamed dumplings, oyster omelettes, shrimp rolls at the many stalls here. There are many night markets in the city, but Shilin, Liouhe and Keelung are the most popular ones.
Next day was my date with the country’s highest building, which by the way was the world’s tallest till Burj Khalifa in Dubai dethroned it. That did not bother me, there’s something about me and views, especially when there is a gorgeous sunset involved. My first glimpse of the soaring structure of Taipei 101 reminded me of a stack of Chinese food take-out boxes piled on top of each other. Whizzing up at the speed at 1010 meters per minute inside one of the world’s fastest elevators, I reach the observatory to behold the glorious sight of the the city spread out before me. I take my time to wander around and soak in the sight of the sun going slowly down over the city.
In Taiwan, you are always criss-crossing between the new and the old and soon I head to the more than century old Wang Tea boutique for a tea tasting ceremony. As in several other Asian countries, tea is serious business in Taiwan and this ritual is not to be missed. The one we experience is not as elaborate as Japanese tea ceremonies but it gives you a sense of the ancient tradition as you learn to inhale the aroma, then drink it slowly and finally take another deep sniff. To be honest, I am not much into tea, I prefer coffee or a strong cup of masala chai, but this ceremony could have me converting back to those aromatic teas.
Next I walk down the bustling and charming Dihua Street, lined with shops selling traditional Chinese medicines, clothes, dried food, tea, spices. If you want to soak in a spiritual ambience, there are few temples in this area. Hit the night market again – these are famous in Taiwan — and call it a day.
Day 3: Taichung
A picturesque drive from Taipei gets you to Taichung. If you have kids they will love you for taking them here, but whatever your age, the great, wild rides at this amusement park Lihpaoland are worth the experience. What gave me an unmatched adrenaline rush was the fierce and exciting Gravity Max, the only roller coaster in the world that tilts at a 90 degree angle. Excited like a child, I wanted to go on each ride, but of course that wasn’t possible so I satisfied myself with a handful, and before I knew it the day was over.
Day 4: Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village & Sun Moon Lake in Yuchi, Nantou County
Next day we went ahead to yet another theme park which was home to a European Park and an Aboriginal Culture Village where you glimpse the culture of the country’s 16 aboriginal tribes and get to see dances and special performances each afternoon.
Another highlight is the Sun Moon lake, nestled peacefully in the mountains, with a gentle mist floating over it. Accessed by cable car, this is one of the country’s most scenic but touristy spots, so it is a good idea to get away from the crowds by picking up a bike or hiking along the lake.
I spent that night at Tai Yi Red Maple Resort, an ecological farm surrounded by mountains with an abundance of flowers and fruits that in a fanciful moment give it a touch of paradise. No surprise then that our dinner was a serving of flowers.
Hot springs are quite common in Taiwan but if you cannot go to one for a dip, they come right till your bathroom – if you book the Maple Room at this resort. I was pleasantly surprised to see a large tub in my bathroom which had hot spring water trickling in. It was the most relaxing experience to soak there and had time stood still, I would have not complained. But there was still more to see and experience.
Day 5: Yunlin
Next day was my date with picking strawberries at the resort. I was there during the most appropriate season, when they were ripe, juicy and just ready to be plucked. Like a little kid in a candy store, I filled my boxes with the freshest and most succulent strawberries I’ve ever had and then begged everyone I met to eat some because I had more than my fill.
Keep the best for the end they say and I was lucky that happened. There was a buzz in the air in the town of Yunlin, which was hosting the Taiwan Lantern Festival for the first time. The highlight of the spectacular inauguration was a dazzling display of fireworks — a show like nothing I’ve seen before. Three thousand glittering light installations of all kinds, shapes and sizes presented a beautiful spectacle and lit up the sky. As during Diwali, people in Taiwan light up their homes during this festival, which is celebrated on the first full moon night of the lunar year to seek god’s protection and good luck.
Day 6: Yanshui
Later we made our way to Yanshui, where we experienced the raucous Beehive Fireworks Festival, when exploding fireworks are literally thrown into the crowd, which turns up in non-flammable clothes and even helmets. The ancient custom is believed to bring good luck. I participated in that custom, there was no way I would not, and returned home with a million memories and good luck.
Published in April 2017