Wednesday, July 10, 2013

More on Taiwan

“Bu yao!”

An ugly Mandarin phrase, it translates roughly to “I don’t want it” or “go away”.  And like most visitors to mainland China, I learned it on my first visit there and had to use it often on that visit, and subsequent ones, simply to walk from place to place though the aggressive trinket sellers who dog tourist’s steps in the People’s Republic of China.

But in Taiwan, where I was mid-February? “Xie xie” (thank you) passed my lips the most, followed by “hen hao chi” (that was delicious!). I had no need, ever, to ask for space, or sidestep persistent street vendors, or wonder why I was being summarily shoved to the side on crowded sidewalks or in front of elevator doors. Instead I found myself relaxing as we went from place to place. I felt safe and welcomed.

Taiwan is most definitely a kinder, gentler China.

Of course, no-one travels to a place just because the people smile at you in the loving way your grandmother once did (they really do!). But because this island nation offers such an intriguing mixture of classic Chinese culture, lush natural beauty and quirky Taiwanese history, the caring greeting visitors get becomes the cherry on top of the sundae—or in this case, that zesty bit of scallion atop the pillowy dumpling.

And with that metaphor, let’s start with the foods of Taiwan, which are travel-worthy in and of themselves. The island’s cuisine has a crazy quilt of culinary influences; it boasts 17 indigenous tribes, early settlers from southern China, Chinese Civil War refugees from across mainland China and a heritage of Japanese gastronomy left over from the half-century Japanese occupation of the island. That means that each meal can be totally different from the next…and yet still authentically Taiwanese.

To give some specifics, one evening I dined outdoors at a night market, inhaling a creamy oyster omelet smothered in sesame sauce and thickened with tapioca (for about $2); for dessert, it was a wispy mochi ball (50 cents) stuffed with bean paste, far more delicate than those you get in Japan. The next night brought excellent Shanghai-style soup dumpling at the famous Din Tai Fung (about $3, Taipei is where the multinational chain began and where its best outlets are).

Even the foods that scared the pants off me turned out to be swoony: at another night market I had a $1.50 bowl of pork liver soup, and though it obviously wasn’t kosher, it tasted like two great Jewish classics melded blissfully together: matzoh ball soup, with chopped liver replacing the matzoh ball.

The sites of Taiwan are equally as delish. Taipei is home, after all, to the Palace Museum, which holds all the top treasures from Beijing’s Forbidden City, spirited away by Chiang Kai-Shek’s troops at the close of the Chinese Civil War. A collection spanning some 5000 years, it ranges from austere Ming vases to objects that might be at home in the most high falutin’ of carnival sideshows, like an olive pit carved into an exquisite replica of a boat, complete with 8 rowers and doors that can open and shut to this day (you peer at it, and the other wondrous miniatures of the collection, through magnifying glasses set in the cases).

Nearby is the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, an impressive shrine to the now-controversial leader, featuring a precision, high kicking changing of the guards on the hour that would impress the Rockettes. That display takes place in front of a massive, seated statue of the former president, a dead ringer for Washington DC’s Lincoln Monument.  And for high tech sights, Taipei boasts the second tallest skyscraper in the world, created in the shape of a bamboo plant and featuring the fastest elevator anywhere (according to the Guiness Book of World records; my still popping ears will also attest to its speed).

Taiwan was nicknamed “Ilha Formosa” (beautiful island) by the Portuguese, and you’ll see why when you head out of the cities. Dotted with pristine national parks and sweeping beaches, its mountains so green they’d make Kermit blush, it’s one unusually pretty island. The government, playing on its strengths, has recently created a nationwide system of bike paths, meaning one can now pedal by the thousand-foot marble-sided gorges of Taroko National Park or to the exotic, Salvador Dali-esque rock formations of Nanya.

But it was the temples of Taiwan that caught my heart. Here in Taiwan, worship is calisthenic in its intensity, widely varied and tangibly joyful. Unlike on mainland China, where the Cultural Revolution led to the destruction of many temples and habits of ritual, here people have practiced their religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and a myriad of animist religions associated with the island’s indigenous groups) undisturbed for centuries. Visitors are warmly welcomed at the temples and even aided if they decide to ask the Gods for an answer to a pressing question, using the temple’s kau cim sticks (you shake a bucket, then randomly pick one and it leads you to a proverb for guidance). Go even if you have no desire to throw out a prayer to one of the thousands of thousands of deities that populate these temples in elaborately carved and painted effigies (often sprouting real hair for beards and head gear). These brilliantly painted houses of worship, with their large urns for incense, turning prayer wheels (in some) and intense devotees are a sight to see, and get to the very marrow of the Taiwanese soul.

I promise, you’ll utter a hearty “xie xie” for having chosen little-visited Taiwan for your next adventure.


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