The festivities would begin with speeches at 6 p.m., followed by lanterns illuminated at 7. Thus, at about 5:00 in the evening in the lobby of the Jafusun Prince Hotel (www.princehotels.co.jp/janfusun-e) in nearby Koo-Kung Hsiang, I met up with a group of four other Americans and our bi-lingual guide, Johnson Hu–a former Taiwanese journalist–and proceeded by chartered motor coach to the festival.
Upon arriving at the century-old Chiayi Park, we jumped out of the bus and made our way through the dense tourist crowds, past street vendors and a sea of lanterns created by school children, corporations, tourist attractions and even foreign governments. In fact, mainland China sent a magnificent lantern–a replica of the Confucius temple in Nanjing–for the first time. I had assumed the lanterns were made of paper, but I touched some of them and realized that these “professional lanterns” were actually made of stretch fabric over intricate wire-shaped designs enclosing electrical lights.
There was so much to see, but we were rushing to a very special introductory performance–the lighting of the main lantern–entitled “Blessing Arrives in the Treasure Island.” The “Blessing” was an enormous, revolving tiger lantern leaping over a rainbow-like bridge. The Chinese believe the Tiger to be vivid, auspicious, lively, engaging and very brave. Since 2010 is the Year of the Tiger, this tiger lantern was illuminated to backdrop of music and fireworks. It was dramatic and spectacular beginning to my amazing eight-day journey around the beautiful and mysterious island the 16th Century Portuguese sailors called “Ihla Formosa.”
Struck by Taiwan’s Natural Beauty
After my dramatic introduction to Taiwan’s “beauty in light,” our small group drove further along the southwest coast, exploring some Portuguese seafaring history and the Fokuangshan Buddhist Monastery (www.fgs.org.tw) on the way to Kaohsiung. From here, we took a flight to Hualien in east-central Taiwan along the Pacific Ocean. After landing, we drove north and then east through the mountains across the Taroko Bridge to explore the magnificent 3,000-foot-high marble cliffs of Taroko Gorge (www.taroko.gov.tw).
Taroko Gorge is a geological phenomenon caused by the Great Eastern Rift. The Philippine Sea plate sub-ducted under the Eurasian continental plate about 6.5 million years ago, forcing up the mountains that today so captivate visitors from around the world. In the 1950’s, some 6,000 workers, including prisoners, cut a road into the gorge with hand axes. The Eternal Spring Shrine, above a waterfall a short distance into the park, is a memorial to the 212 men who lost their lives building what is today part of the Central Cross-Island Highway that connects Taiwan’s east and west coasts.
The serpentine drive through Taroko Gorge–one of the country’s six national parks–takes visitors along swift-rushing streams, past waterfalls and up and down dramatic hills. The Central Mountains offer the lush vegetation of a sub-tropical forest like trumpet lilies, crocus, and azaleas as well as hemlocks, spruces, and firs at higher altitudes. At its narrowest point, the part of the Gorge road called the Tunnel of Nine Turns is pressed so tightly between sheer cliffs that only a slice of sky is visible above. Well-marked trails offer hiking opportunities that range from easy to difficult throughout Taroko National Park. We hiked up stairs to a small shrine, but realized after huffing and puffing that we were only 1/5 the way to the top, so we came back down before going on to lunch. There is also a 20-kilometer bike route from the village of Tianxiang down through the Gorge that takes about three hours and brings riders up-close-and-personal with nature’s magnificence.
We spent an evening in Taroko National Park at the luxurious Silks Place Taroko (www.silksplace-taroko.com.tw), where 80 square meter deluxe guest rooms with complimentary WiFi offered sweeping views of the mountains, king-sized poster beds and walk-in closets leading into an expansive bathroom with deep soaking tub. Their buffet dinner offered select-your-own fresh meat, fish, and fowl, which was prepared in front of us. At 8 p.m., to celebrate the lunar New Year, we assisted the staff in lighting cylindrical red paper lanterns that, when released, soared off into the night sky to become dancing specs of light like sparkling satellites in the distance.
From the Taroko area it was a two-hour express train ride northwest back to Taipei. Upon arrival, we checked into the Grand Formosa Regent Taipei (www.grandformosa.com.tw), which was our home-base for four nights. From here we made day trips to numerous Taiwanese natural wonders. We visited Yang Ming Shan National Park (www.ymsnp.gov.tw/HTML/ENG/INDEX.ASP) with its dormant Mt. Datun volcano and its geothermal natural hot spring baths and separate hot spring bath facilities for men and women.
We also drove northeast about 30-minutes to Yehliu Geopark (www.ylgeopark.org.tw/ENG/info/YlIntroduction_en.aspx), a cape on the north coast between Wanli town and Keelung City renowned for its “sea erosion landscape.” The Yehliu Promontory stretches slightly more than one mile into the ocean and was formed as geological forces pushed Datun Mountain. The area is scattered with exotic-looking hooddoo stones and rock formations that are also fun to touch and walk through. The most famous structure is The Queen’s Head (supposedly Queen Elizabeth). It’s an iconic image in Taiwan and an unofficial emblem for the town of Wanli. Other formations include The Fairy Shoe, The Bee Hive, The Ginger Rocks and The Sea Candles. Others are yet unnamed, and there was a sign up in English and Chinese requesting visitors to submit their suggested appellation for one particular unnamed stone sculpture.
My last few days in Taiwan were spent on urban pursuits – visiting museums and monuments, eating, and shopping. I couldn’t wait to visit the National Palace Museum (www.npm.gov.tw). Its collection of more than 650,000 pieces of Chinese artifacts and artworks spans 8,000 years of history, from the Neolithic age to the late Qing dynasty. It is one of the largest and most visited museums in the world. The collection was brought from the Palace Museum in Beijing to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Government in order to save them from China’s cultural revolution. Its most famous work is a Qing dynasty jadeite “smart carving” of a cabbage hiding a large and small grasshopper within its leaves. The carving embodies a perfect three-in-one union of intrinsic nature, human creativity, and symbolic significance. It also claims the unique provenance of having been a special gift to the king from his concubine’s father. So revered, it is reproduced in hundreds of items in the museum gift shop, and like so many other visitors, I couldn’t resist.
Speaking of hours, Taipei 101 (the former tallest building in the world, surpassed by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2007) is open until 10 p.m. I was thoroughly impressed with the view of the sprawl of Taipei city from 89 stories up, even though the elevator ride took less than a minute! At a speed of 55.22 feet per second, it is the fastest elevator in the world. That in itself is worth the experience. The 89th floor is not just a series of chachka-filled gift shops. There is an incredible display of art, including permanent installations and a changing exhibition gallery that showcased contemporary Taiwanese ceramics and leather crafts. There was also a short movie on the history, construction and engineering of the building that was quite astounding, especially given that just the day before I had experienced a 6.45 Richter Scale earthquake from the 19th Floor of my hotel room! Fortunately, the Grand Formosa Regent Hotel’s construction allowed the room to just sway back and forth. In fact, Taipei 101 takes technology to the max, incorporating the world’s largest spherical steel mass damper system (1.765 million lbs.) to insure it withstands even the most severe earthquake shocks.
I was also impressed with how much the building’s modern design borrows from traditional Chinese culture. Both the interior and exterior incorporate the pagoda form and the shape of bamboo flowers. The lucky number eight, which means blooming or success, is represented by the eight “cup-like” sections or “flowers” on the exterior of the building. The only disappointment was that we didn’t have a clearer day on which to view the city from the 91st floor outdoor observation deck.
Dim Sum and Yum
I can’t leave Taiwan without telling you a little something about the food. Even for a non-pork eater like myself, I enjoyed superb fish, fowl, noodles, and vegetables all around the country. At the world famous Ding Tai Fong Dumpling House in Taipei (www.dintaifung.com.tw/en/index.asp), they even prepared special vegetable and fish dumplings for me. At the historic Wistaria Tea House (www.wistariahouse.com), a bastion of tea culture and former literary and artistic gathering place, I had some incredible oolong tea picked fresh from the mountains of Taiwan. At Sit-Fun Shih Tang (www.sit-fun.com.tw), I enjoyed health-conscious local Taiwanese dishes and spoted some local celebrities. About half-an-hour out of the city, in the mountain village of Jiufen, my American colleagues and I shared sweeping vistas of hills and valleys from the terrace of Kunohe Restaurant (www.kunohe.com.tw), where we dined on salad, whole grilled fish, thick crab soup with a pyramid of rice, a spicy chicken and peanut dish and about five other dishes that just kept coming before the final dessert fruit arrived. In addition to these restaurants, we also had fun browsing the Night Market at Shilin near the Jiantan metro station, where the fried chicken stand near the Yang Ming movie theatre draws a large crowd.
Before We Go...
It was the last day, and we were now en-route to the Taoyuan Airport to return home. However, we still made a couple of final stops in the outlying regions of Taipei County. First we visited Zushih Taoist Temple, which was originally built in 1767 by Fukienese immigrants from Quanzhou but reconstructed several times, most recently in 1947 by the masterful Western-educated Taiwanese artist Li Mei Shu. A special feature of this temple is that all the walls and columns are sculpted from stone in a variety of period styles.
Next we toured the Yingge Ceramic Museum (www.ceramics.tpc.gov.tw/en-us/Home.ycm). We arrived just a day after the opening of the Fifth Taiwan Ceramics Gold Awards exhibition, which showcased the extreme variety and quality of Taiwanese ceramic artists. The exhibition was wonderful and I wished I had had more time.