Formerly known as Formosa, Taiwan is a small island nation 180km east of China known as being one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The country has a colourful history and fraught relationship with its superpower neighbour. Taiwan is now governed by the Republic of China, maintaining independence from, and not under the jurisdiction of, the mainland People’s Republic of China.
While the political status of Taiwan remains a contentious issue, the country has established itself as a world player in its own right. There was a time when the ubiquitous “Made in Taiwan” label appeared on everything from toys to textiles. Competition from cheaper Chinese manufacturing forced a reinvention and Taiwan is now an acknowledged leader in the technology industry. Around 75 per cent of the world’s production of PCs is done in Taiwan.
While the country has its fair share of contemporary cities and modern shopping malls, it offers, as I discovered, so much more. This is a country of contrasts from bustling night markets to beautiful countryside with dramatic waterfalls, mountains and hot springs.
Even better, it’s easy to get to from Oman, with Cathay Pacific operating two daily flights from Dubai to Hong Kong, with an easy connection to the Taiwanese capital of Taipei.
A five-day stay didn’t do it justice and I can’t wait for the next opportunity to go back and explore Taiwan further.
My favourite place:
So many to choose from, but the standout was a visit to the town of Shifen, easily reached on a day trip from the capital. A small trek gets you to the stunning 40m-wide Shifen Waterfall, where water cascades down 20m. Cool, refreshing and surrounded by lush greenery, it reminded me of Wadi Darbat in Salalah during Khareef. Afterwards, we headed to Shifen Old Street and released sky lanterns. At one time, the lanterns were used as a signaling system for those living and working in rural areas to let loved ones know they were safe. Now, it’s a huge tourist attraction with visitors painting wishes on lanterns and releasing them into the sky in the hope their prayers will be answered. Shifen is an old gold rush town and has been restored with narrow, lantern-lined streets. Taking tea – a Taiwanese tradition with an elaborate making process – overlooking the East China Sea was magical.
A browse of the famous night markets in Taipei is an absolute must. You’ll find anything from clothes to tech, all at rock bottom prices. Most start at dusk and continue into the early hours. The largest is Shilin, where you should take time to sample some of the delicious street food. Vendors are everywhere, cooking up noodles or frying quails eggs. Some – such as eggs cooked in tea – are an acquired taste, but Taiwanese food, in general, is fantastic. Whether it’s a simple bowl of beef noodles or an elaborate feast (we had an outstanding nine-course meal at a restaurant, the Formosa Pearl, in Yilan, in the northeast of the country), it won’t disappoint. Picking the local Oolong tea at an organic plantation in Yilan was also a memorable moment. In Taipei, go shopping (huge Japanese store Mitsukoshi is fun) or discover Chinese imperial art at the National Palace Museum. Check out the view from Taipei 101, a 509m-tall bamboo-shaped skyscraper, which used to be the tallest building in the world, but is now dwarfed by Dubai’s 829m Burj Khalifa. A real thrill was seeing panda bear, Yuan Zai, at Taipei Zoo, the first panda cub born in Taiwan when she arrived on July 6, 2013. We also had a great morning at theme park Leofoo Village, a sort of Taiwanese Disney World, with its rides, safari trips and “Arabian Kingdom” zone. The Taiwanese hospitality is also legendary. Learn a few words and you’ll be rewarded with a huge smile.
English is widely used in Taipei, but less so outside the cities. Make sure to carry a translation book or download an app on your smartphone. It’s friendly and safe to travel around, but sometimes a guide is advised to help navigate and translate.
Textiles, fabric and artwork are good buys. I also loaded up with tea and pottery from the famous Yingge Ceramics Street.
Where to stay:
Accommodation ranges from exquisite high-end hotels to budget lodgings. In Taipei, we stayed at the five-star Palais De Chine, where you can have a bath looking out across the city, and the luxurious Regent Taipei, with stunning views from floor-to-ceiling windows. At the other end, you can find rooms for RO18 and dorms in hostels for RO4. If you want to try Taiwan’s famous hot springs, the Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi spa retreat in Yilan is excellent.
TOP FIVE THINGS TO DO:
1. Release a sky lantern in Shifen
2. Shop at a night market in Taipei
3. Visit a traditional teahouse
4. Check out the pandas at Taipei Zoo
5. Try the street food