Taiwan is a large island located where the South China Sea joins the North Pacific Ocean and is a political, social and geographical enigma.
Formerly simply an island off the coast of China and ruled by the mainland; civil war in China after the defeat of Japan in World War Two led to the legitimate Nationalist government decamping to Taiwan whilst the Communists took over the mainland. Refusing to acknowledge the authority of the mainland, Taiwan’s leader Chiang Kai-shek dictated that the mainland was ruled by the Republic of China which was centred on Taiwan.
The country is a vast maelstrom of scenery; from densely packed cities, huge industrial sites to uninhabited mountain ranges and beautiful tropical beaches. In places you’d find it hard to believe that Taiwan is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet.
Best known for its electronics industry, many visitors to the country are business travellers arriving for meetings or contract talks but an increasing number of people are visiting purely for tourism and the vast majority are Japanese who see the island as an isolated northern extension of the Japanese archipelago and feel at home in a similar landscape. With the relaxation of controls on the mainland, an increasing number of mainland Chinese are visiting for vacations and hotels are springing up in the more popular resorts. Visits to Taiwan can be split into three categories; business and city breaks, beach holidays and walking breaks.
The three main cities are of course, Taipei, the capital; Kaohsiung and Taichung whilst the central mountain range isolates the cities of Hualien and Taitung.
Taipei and the new city that surrounds it, aptly called ‘New Taipei’ is the capital and a densely populated, often pollution choked metropolis. There you’ll find the memorials to the country’s great leaders; Chiang Kai-shek and Dr Sun Yat-sen. More typical of a communist run country than the fiercely independent one it is, the monuments are shrines visited by thousands of Taiwanese each year keen to revere their leaders despite the brutal and repressive regimes they controlled. Both memorials have massive statues watched over by motionless guards 24 hours a day and are surrounded by immaculate formal gardens.
Taipei is also home to the world’s second largest building Taipei 101, which held the record for the world’s tallest for six years in the 21st century, a remarkable feat given that so many building projects vie for the title. Despite being deposed from the number one slot, it still has the world’s fastest lift taking 37 seconds to climb 89 floors, a total of over a thousand feet.
Yangmingshan National Park is just outside the city and for fresh air and exercise; many Taipei residents steal away in their cars to hike the dozens of trails on Elephant Mountain. Beaches are not far away either for the dramatic coastline outside the city hides picturesque sandy coves.
Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second biggest city is less of a draw for tourists but has an attractive island called Cijin where you can relax in a hotel or eat at one of the many fine seafood restaurants. Cijin is also a popular place to join the thousands of Taiwanese who cycle everywhere, perhaps visiting the Dome of Light, the world’s largest area of stained glass.
Taichung, the third largest city, is popular for the hiking opportunities found outside the city as well as its fabulous science museum and host of night markets where amidst the hustle and bustle you can buy just about anything and enjoy delicious Taiwanese cuisine from street vendors.
It’s not the cities that are the main attraction for tourists to Taiwan but the varied scenery that comes from its geographical position. The mountain range of the island’s centre, particularly near Alishan, is a dream for those who want to get away from it all and spend days in unusual scenery. Alishan’s giant cypress forest, reached by narrow gauge railway is a perfect example.
Kenting National Park on the southern tip of the island is a complete contrast with golden sandy beaches and dense jungle, home to thousands of creatures, its tropical climate make it a big draw for tourists.
You shouldn’t miss Lalashan either where the trees are dedicated as ‘divine’ and are up to nearly 3,000 years old. Thousands of peach trees grow there and springtime, when the blossom opens, or midsummer when the air is heavy with the scent of peaches are the best times to visit.
Wherever you go in Taiwan, you must try the local food. A derivative of Chinese, it has many specialities based on local products, none of which should concern you as stomach turning. The Taiwanese version of beef noodles is excellent and the island is fonder of desserts than the mainland cuisine so you’ll find fig jelly served on ice or rice puddings and various custards.
Getting to Taiwan is relatively straightforward with EVA Air flying direct from several European cities including London Heathrow to Taipei’s Taoyuan Airport. Many country’s citizens are required to have a 60 day entry visa but all member states of the EU are exempt.
Once in the country, domestic flights are popular as the island is a lot bigger than you would imagine looking at it on the map. The terrain, especially when crossing from west to east makes journeys long and arduous so if travelling any great distance within Taiwan, consider air travel as many locations are served by local airports.
Taiwan has its own version of the Shinkansen, a high speed bullet train which travels along the west coast cutting journey times dramatically from Taipei to Kaohsiung. Elsewhere, standard trains operate which are clean and comfortable as well as reasonable priced and efficient. On both forms of transport you can use the Easycard method of paying.
Buses are commonly used in Taiwan, especially within cities and again are air-conditioned and clean but often packed. Buses don’t automatically stop at bus stops; you need to hail them as you would with taxis.
Driving in Taiwan is easy, especially if you’re already used to traffic jams in cities back home. Once on the open road, the traffic gets lighter and you’ll have little problem, apart from road signage on which the English can vary dramatically, mostly to hilarious effect with examples such as ‘no way’ for one way streets; ‘no bassing’ for no overtaking and ‘curvature ahead’, for the expectation of a tight bend. Tolls are charged on many roads with stations along the route where you can expect to pay around £2.50 for fifty miles of travel. International licences are fine for trip durations up to a month and hiring a car is easy and cheap with all the major names represented throughout the country.
Not high on everyone’s list of places to visit, Taiwan can certainly make for a varied and unusual holiday destination. It has everything you might want from a holiday and more and a multi-centre holiday is probably the best way to enjoy it. With many travel options to get you around the country, you’ll have a good chance of enjoying most of it within a two or three week stay and will have enjoyed a taste of the Far East in a concentrated package.