Is it possible to feel at home in a place you’ve never visited before? Not just settling into a relaxed happy spot, but feeling a shared identity and understanding with a country’s people. It’s much more bizarre when that feeling strikes after arriving alone in a corner of the world where you have no relatives left.
But here I am on my first day in Taipei at a streetside dessert specialist, hunched over a steaming bowl of sweet tofu pudding, and everything seems familiar. The no-frills setup dictates a no-nonsense customer service that feels all very apropos. “Soft tofu pudding with taro dumplings” jumps out at me from the menu board in a marriage of independent ingredients I know well, remixed in a new way.
Such new presentations of habits and cultural elements from growing up Chinese-Canadian would become a theme of my trip tracing Taiwan’s west coast from Taipei in the north to its southernmost point in Kenting National Park. A familiarity and novelty of things that struck me for the first time on visits with family to Hong Kong and through Guangdong.
Whether you’re the first generation out, or the second generation born away from your family’s roots (like me), a trip to Taiwan is sure to bring you feelings of being lost and feelings of being found…
A Week in Taiwan
Day 1 – 3: Taipei
My first impression of Taipei is one of commercial amazement. On my walk from the bus stop to the hotel, I’ve already picked out four food stands I’d like to try and a few bars with cachet in between. My vision, after staring at the back of an airplane seat for the better half of a day, is brought back to life by the multichromatic signs shouting out clinical services, hotels, and the ubiquitous betel nut.
As most traveler’s gateway to Taiwan, the sartorial first impression on arrival in Taipei is simply impressive. From the minimal yet practical ensembles to the fashion-forward head-turners, the Taiwanese manage to rock a full wardrobe of carefully-chosen clothing. I catch myself regularly considering new looks from an oversized cross-body fanny pack to rolled up slacks.
One such place to take a bit of Taiwan’s style home — Sculptor Barber. Set in the trendy Da’an neighborhood and around the corner from Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza, this second-story hair salon may be understated in decor but keeps its chin up with “cool kid” flair. Smartly-suited barbers in crisp white oxfords trim and sculpt away, taking facial angles, hairline contours, and personal dress into account. I leave the studio with a spring in my step and an evolving souvenir of Taipei, atop my head, that would follow me for the rest of my travels — all the way home.
It’s by Day Three when I am grabbing a breakfast fàntuán (a self-contained rice burrito) and a soy milk, that I realize this country has a disposable plastic epidemic. Everything you touch can be single use (the soup spoon, the toilet seat cover, the rice bowl), and in the case of this two-piece breakfast, three different plastic bags and a disposable cup with a plastic-wrapped (plastic) straw. In a massively consumerist city, unfortunately, material reusability doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
The “Do This, Not That” List of Things to Do in Taipei
- When climbing Elephant Mountain, take the turnoff to the left towards the Fireworks Platform (煙火平台) for a calmer view of the city, Yangmingshan and Taipei 101
- With a very strict door policy as to what is considered a bathing suit at the Beitou Public Hot Springs, locals relax instead in their birthday suits at the Longnai Bathhouse (瀧乃湯)
- Forego the queue at Din Tai Fung (odds are you’ll get the chance to try this chain elsewhere) and eat xiăolóngbāo in Ximending at Liang Shanpo’s (梁山泊小籠湯包)
- Veto Shilin Night Market and go to the much-closer and less-crowded Ningxia Market
- If you are left feeling like a prisoner of the malls and department stores, try out one of the city’s outdoor creative parks instead (Huashan 1914, Taipei Artist Village and Songshan Cultural & Creative Park are good to start)
- Corny souvenirs be gone! Stalk the Rixing Type Foundry, with the largest living collection of traditional Chinese characters used for typesetting, for a “fresh off the letterpress” gift to bring home
Accommodation: When booking into Taipei, don’t take a window in your guestroom for granted. Such is the case with hostels and budget lodging where rooms are often found in the dead-center of the building. Luckily the O2 Hotel M12 in Zhongshan is an affordably-priced apartment hotel where the sun will wake you up every morning (if you want).
Day 4: The THSR and Tainan
It’s time to slip into Taiwan’s second city, Tainan. I grab a pork floss bun for breakfast, refill my reusable bottle at one of the widespread water stations outside most Taiwanese washrooms and take a seat in the Taiwan High-Speed Rail departure hall at Taipei Main Station.
In an era with increased consciousness around indigenous issues in Canada, I was particularly impressed by how prominent linguistic and cultural diversity figure into Taiwanese life. Transportation announcements come in four languages: Mandarin (the clearest and foremost), Minnan (a.k.a Taiwanese), English (any guess of which level of language mastery you’ll get) and Hakka (unfailingly with the most unfortunate audio quality as if it was shouted into a metal can). A stroll through Taipei’s Yanping Riverside Park is a stellar example of this rich language mosaic, too. Amateur singers belt out pop beats in native Amis spilling into the neighboring line dance session in Minnan.
By the time I catch the Hakka translation of my train departure to Tainan, it’s time to line up on the platform. The high-speed train takes off and in an hour and forty-five minutes, I’m in Tainan.
Tainan as a Day Trip
- Bus out to Anping and sample your way through Anping Old Street before visits to the old Dutch and British colonial buildings like the Tait & Co. Treehouse and the Anping Old Fort
- Contrast those two historic sites with the Confucius Temple and Japanese colonial Tainan Butokuden near Zhongzheng Road
- Indulge in some souvenir shopping at the Hayashi Department Store for private label snacks and artisanal handiwork
- Marvel at the hand-painted movie posters outside of Kin Men Theater (全美戲院)
- Give your DSLR a workout at the 321 Art Alley Settlement or come back by dark for the Nan Guo Mini Night Market
Accommodation: If you’re looking to channel Tainan’s artistic vibe from morning through night, the Wikid Design Hotel will do the trick. Whether it’s robots smashing through the concrete walls of your room or musical instruments scattered around — the decor here is one of a kind.
Day 5: Kaohsiung’s Waterfront
Never would I have imagined associating the billowing aroma of lŭwèi mulling spices (star anise, cinnamon, clove and other friends) with a cue for a public bathroom. How so? Convenience stores here, as across East Asia, are deluxe. 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Hi Life (new trip motto?) proliferate and serve their neighborhoods beyond late night snacks and packs of smokes. Printing off train tickets, stocking up on an aloe face mask, and using the washroom without judgment are some of life’s necessities that a pristine Taiwanese corner store can help you with. Wash those hands, for everyone’s sake, then dig into those 7-Eleven tea eggs you smelled on the way in.
The Best of Kaohsiung by the Water
- The Pier 2 Art Center is now firmly a part of the city’s identity — pass through these reclaimed warehouses with stops at Taiwan’s favorite bookstore Eslite, and for postcards at Bandon Huei Huei (本東倉庫與灰灰商店)
- Hop across Kaohsiung Harbour to Cijin where you’ll find an old military tunnel dating back to the Japanese Occupation, the modernist Rainbow Church and the Qihou Market that specializes in umami-rich dried seafood
- The city’s Love River is worth checking out by day and by night with no shortage of installations and people-watching opportunities
- Should you be making a transfer at Zuoying Station for the THSR, don’t pass up a walk around Lotus Pond from the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas to the Confucius Temple at the north end
Accommodation: Sleek common spaces and cozy rooms are a hallmark of Hotel Dua near Formosa Boulevard station, a major transport hub for the city.
If business amenities, a small price tag and a walkable location matter most, try Citysuites Kaohsiung Pier2 just up the street from the city’s art district.
Day 6 – 7: Kenting National Park
Time to take on the real ruggedness of Taiwan’s landscape. Kenting National Park, reachable by direct bus from Kaohsiung, is a favorite beach spot for sunseekers. With tropical blue waters lapping at rockfaces and sugar sand beaches, the “summer getaway” feel here is undeniable. I rent a bike, while electric scooters are also popular options, to link myself between the sashimi purveyors in Baishawan and the southernmost point of Taiwan at Eluanbi.
On a rest day from swimming, surfing or hiking, explore the landscaped grounds of the Kenting Youth Activity Center. Styled after a Tang Dynasty Minnan town, this picturesque complex and hostel appear to be ready for a film shoot at all times. Finish up your visit here with a wander down to Lover’s Beach (情人灘).
Accommodation: For a lush stay dressed in villas made from natural materials, escape to a spot of Southeast Asia at Caesar Park Kenting. Then for a contemporary stay that frames the landscapes outside, you’ll want to book into the Gloria Manor.
Day 8: Catch the HSR back to Taipei
As I come to learn, veganism here is everything but novel. Even if you don’t tire yourself of meat and seafood, it’s worth checking out the numerous Buddhist vegetarian eateries around Taiwan. From self-serve lunch buffets to solemn dining rooms, expect some clever mock meat reinterpretations of your favorite Chinese dishes and plates of brimming greens. For vegetarians and other travelers with dietary restrictions, keep an eye out for the identifying characters sù 素 and zhāi 齋 on restaurant signage. Taiwan’s long history of meatless eating makes it one of the most accessible destinations in all of Asia for veg heads.
So then it comes as no surprise that the Taiwanese High-Speed Rail service offers an eye-catching vegan bento on the train up to Taipei. Mock goose beancurd rolls snuggle up with a garden patch worth of carrots, wood’s ear mushrooms and greens — all packed atop a bed of purple rice. Heck, go ahead and order two boxes, when eating your greens are this much fun, you’ve got to indulge.
Back to my tofu pudding and I’ve now reached the bottom of the bowl, save for two taro dumplings and a few boiled peanuts. I mangle the intonation in Mandarin to convey my compliments to the auntie behind the counter. She immediately picks up on my uneasiness with the language and asks, “Where are you visiting from?” I reply Canada. She doesn’t push any follow-up question. She knows from the polished out bowl that I am no novice to the world of Chinese dessert soups.
As I would experience throughout my week in Taiwan, visitors from abroad (from the diaspora and otherwise) are welcomed with unwritten hospitality here.
Soak up the bubble tea (but not too fast, we’ve all had a near-miss with the tapioca pearls), spoil yourself silly with the night market shopping and dive deep into the spiritual hodge-podge of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Chinese folk beliefs. Few things in travel could leave me with as profound of an impression as engaging with a part of my roots so geographically removed from my hometown.
Don’t overthink the opportunity to engage with ancestral travel.
Just bring your curiosity — and, of course, your appetite.
This article was originally published on Room5 Canada. All photos by author.