Often overshadowed by its larger Asian neighbours, this bite-sized island is ripe for discovery: Taipei is a city comfortably in the throes of reinvention, while trips beyond lead to the neck-craning wonder of Taroko Gorge, the traditional pursuits of Tainan, and southern Kenting with its beach-and-jungle vibe.
Follow our ideal itinerary across this island nation and travel from the past to the future, from otherworldly gorges to picture-perfect beaches
WORDS: RORY GOULDING
PHOTOGRAPHS: MATT MUNRO
See one of Asia’s lesser-known capitals as it takes on a confident new character, where revitalised spaces hum with inventive start-ups and there’s always time for a snack
Days into your trip: 1-3
High above the city, an elephant stands watch, with a lion, a leopard and a tiger by its side. That, at least, is what Taipei hiking maps say. The eastern hills reach four arms out towards the city, each named for a wild creature. It’s easy to imagine one appearing suddenly out of the steamy forest. Beneath Elephant Mountain, streets spread across a plain 14.5km wide, surrounded on all sides by more hills, except for a gap where the Tamsui River escapes to the nearby sea.
Taipei’s setting is a bonanza for citizens looking for outdoor pursuits. But, until quite recently, the city had the feel of an accidental capital, with not much time for leisure. Half a mile west from Elephant Mountain lies 44 South Village: a gaggle of humble, tiled-roof houses surrounded by the high-rises of the Xinyi District. Like similar settlements across Taiwan,n most now vanished, it was built for evacuated soldiers of the Chines Nationalist army, after their defeat by the Communists in 1949. For the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan was to be a temporary base from which to ‘retake the mainland’. The island had just emerged from 50 years of Japanese rule, when Taipei was a city of showpiece official buildings on grand boulevards. This vision was almost lost in the post-war years, as first survival and then economic growth took priority.
Today, the mood is different. Chiang Kai-shek’s statue sits gazing out of his mausoleum, while, in 44 South Village, people picnic on the grassed-over bunkers, browse the small Sunday market and sit down to coffee by the shelves of specialty foodstuffs in the café. Towering over it all is Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building from 2004 to 2009. Many passers-by are on YouBikes from the city’s cycle-hire scheme – still something of a novelty in Asia, but now part of the urban landscape.
Taipei has proved it can do landmark skyscrapers; reinvention today often takes thd form of giving neglected buildings of the early 20th century a second breath of life. Huashan 1914 Creative Park led the trend, turning a former wine warehouse complex into a mix of galleries, shops and cafés; it has been echoed to the east by the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park: a 1930s tobacco monopoly headquarters, now home to the Taiwan Design Museum, among others.
Both locations are tremendously popular, the institutional architecture softened by the riot of plant life outside, serving as a blank canvas for Taipei’s 21st-century passions. At Huashan Park, Edward Tseng is minding the AJ2 pop-up shop, in front of an outdoor stage where people are practising swing dance. The design firm (its name spoken in Mandarin sounds a bit like ‘love home’) specialises in small, foldable sofas, as well as more idiosyncratic goods: a geometric metal-frame letter rack in the shape of a French bulldog, say, or swivel lamps on wooden bodies with legs, to sit on ledges.
Since ‘Made in Taiwan’ became a phenomenon – even a cliché – in the 1980s, many mass-manufacturing businesses have moved to countries with cheaper labour. “In Asia’s market today, ‘Made in Taiwan’ means better quality,” says Edward. “The particular style here is multi-function, because most condos are small.”
Thoughtful design and quality coffee have joined eating out as Taipei obsessions. Night market stalls like the ones on Raohe Street hawk everything from watermelon juice to cockscombs. A huge fish market is home to Addiction Aquatic Development, where diners sate their seafood cravings under a canvas with black-and-white films projected onto it. And the local dumpling specialist Din Tai Fung has gone global with its delicate, soup-filled parcels, each hand-made with precisely 18 folds in the dough.
- TAROKO GORGE
Natural forces have shaped a wonder that slices deep into the untameable interior of this mountainous island
Days into your trip: 4-6
Just before it reaches the Pacific Ocean, the Liwu River welcomes its last tributary: the Shakadang. It curves under a red bridge to pour its uncannily blue waters into the Liwu. The current it joins is a churning slate grey, a hint of the power that has carved out the most impressive valley on the island: Taroko Gorge.
The highest peaks here top 3,000m, and the plunge to the ocean is swift. Hiking paths are everywhere in Taroko National Park’s 920sqkm – some trodden by hundreds of feet a day, others requiring a permit. Cheng Hsiao-ting is a local teacher, but, today, she has volunteered to answer questions from hikers on the Shakadang Trail. “I came here a lot as a visitor,” she says. “I appreciated the service from the staff, so now I want to give something back.”
The trail behind her is one of the easier ones, leading along a valley of marble walls and boulders huddled in river bends. The first part is a gallery carved out of the cliff face, water dripping from the rock overhead. “The park is a moody place,” says Ms Cheng. “When the weather isn’t good, many trails are shut. But, today, it is happy to let everybody get close.”
In the mountains beyond the Shakadang Trail are two tiny communities of Taiwanese aborigines: the indigenous inhabitants of the island. Their ancestors are thought to have been the origin of the world’s Austronesian peoples, who fanned out across islands as far apart as Madagascar, New Zealand and Hawai‘i. Members of the Truku tribe, which once inhabited the area around Taroko Gorge, helped blast many precipitous routes out of the rock in the early 20th century.
Beyond the foot of the Shakadang Trail, Highway 8 leads upriver through the park. It’s one of the very few roads crossing the mountains of Taiwan’s interior. Just before the gorge gets truly vertiginous at the Swallow Grotto Trail, there’s a roadside stall where visitors are encouraged to borrow hard hats in case of falling debris from the cliffs. The landscape is the result of a contest between the rock being thrust up by tectonic plate movements and water bearing ever downwards. Taroko Gorge only gets deeper.
In the 16th century, Portuguese sailors passing Taiwan named the island Formosa (“Beautiful”), a name that stuck in the West until modern times. Taroko Gorge and the Qingshui Cliffs on the seaward side of the national park are Exhibit A. On a hillside on the way to the cliffs, Dajili Tribal House is a restaurant that serves Taiwanese aboriginal cuisine and also the studio of Truku elder and artist Wen Gui Guo.
“I make sculptures from driftwood I find after typhoons,” he says. His paintings are still lifes of flowers and landscapes easily inspired by a studio that looks out onto both mountain and ocean. “In my paintings, I try never to have houses or bridges, only big nature,” he says. “If you include man-made things in a landscape, your eyes are drawn to them and you don’t think of the natural beauty.” Then, with an apologetic glance at the vase of flowers on the canvas behind him, he adds: “You need a vase there as the cut flowers have to have something to stand up in. At least it’s made from earth.”
It’s easy to take his point in the national park, where some of the most photographed scenes include an artfully-placed pavilion or small temple. At Changchun Shrine, a veil of water cascades from under a bridge into the Liwu River. A small belltower is just visible above the treetops. Reached by a rope bridge and a steep walk, it sees few visitors. A staircase inside leads to a balcony, looking out over a great bend in the river. A rope hangs loose beside the bell, waiting for pilgrims to sound it. When the bronze boom echoes out, it fills the valleys for a long moment, then all is peaceful again.