So, after 12 years in China, I finally made it to Taiwan. The four of us flew into Taipei for a day and a half, then went to Hualien for 2 days and back to Tapei for 2 days.
For Chinese people, the main purpose of visitng Taiwan, it seems, is to go to the night markets. The Chinese love the Taiwanese food and particularly the large variety of snacks that are now popular across the Mainland too. For us westerners, some of that is nice, but it often involves deep frying, putting food on sticks or into balls, and so on - and sometimes its really not a big deal. So we visited a couple of night makets and certainly enjoyed some of the grilled fish, excellent fruit juices, great dim sum and dumplings, and some other bits and pieces. Night markets are always fun of course: there may be the odd person playing music, there are bright lights, there is a nice atmosphere, and you can pick and choose different foods to eat at tables or whilst standing up.
I think the Taiwanese are fairly innovative food-wise; they have more options for breakfast than the standad Chinese breakfast (I'll be honest, I am not much of a fan of the standad Chinese breakfast which consists of vegetables, deep fried dough, boiled eggs, steamed bread and rice porridge which only has any taste if you load it up with sugar!) with the incorporation of eggs and even bacon in various omelete and sandwich type dishes.
I had known of seveal Taiwanese cafe chains that were popular in China--and I have always been a fan of the Taiwanese shaved ice dessert (topped with mango for example), but had not quite expected such a large variety, supply and high quality of other more western deserts in Taiwan: things like doughnuts, tortes, and other things chocolatey (even the haagen das was cheap). Let's just say this was not a holiday where we lost any weight....
So, now that the food part is over with, I can reflect on other aspects of Taiwan: though it is much more than just Taipei, Taipei itself might be compared alongside Singapore and Hong Kong - both city-states of Chinese heritage. It has a very modern infrastructure and is very convenient and civilized. It almost seems one step up from Hong Kong, though of course still below Singapore. There are breastfeeding rooms; there are separeate queues for elevators for priority passengers (I.e. the disabled, those with buggies) and general passengers. There are playgrounds dotted around the place, plenty of public toilets, very good English signs etc. Hong Kong has much of this too, so maybe I am being harsh on Hong Kong. But I was probably not expecting Taipei to be as advanced as it is and thus I was impressed.
Whereas Hong Kong speaks Cantonese and reads traditional Chinese, Taiwanese speak Mandarin and read traditional Chinese, so at least it was easier for me to communicate with local people (though to be honest most people in Hong Kong now speak Mandarin too since there are so many Chinese tourists there) but I can't read traditional Chinese very welll (Mainland China uses simplified Chinese) so menus were more challenging.
Taiwan has gone crazy on cycling with fantastic facilities, bike lanes and even international advertising campaigns attacting cyclists to tour Taiwan. Not something we could fully benefit from wth 2 small kids, but we did do some near Tamsui on the northern coast of Taiwan that can be reached by subway from Tapei... it is a nice town with some interesting temples and buildings founded by a missionary including a school, clinic and university as well as some impressive houses. There is a nice cycling path alongside the river which goes through wetlands. A laid-back and relaxed place... from the subway we saw several companies seem to have large offices nearby and I can see why their employees may want to live out here instead of downtown.
We walked around various parts of Taipei: some parks, momuments, "gates", government buildings and the like... some Japanese influenced buildings (Taiwan was run by Japan for a while) and some French themed design with wide boulevards. Taiwan's economy is closely tied to Mainland China's for both good and bad--though many Taiwanese companies are doing well in Mainland, many of the manufacturing and high-tech jobs have moved to the Mainland, so Taiwan is having to find new gowth opportunities (though it is larger than a Hong Kong, so it does at least have more domestic resources and a lager domestic market).
One of those is around cultural and creative parks being developed in old warehouses and factories. We visited two in Taipei: the 1944 Huashan park is buzzing and a lot of fun with outdoor entertainers and some wonderful craft shops that are genuinely interesting. The Songshan park seems mostly still under development but there was one building that had a whole series of arts and crafts activities for adults: from pottery to glass blowing; from making purses to painting and all the while whilst sipping on a coffee (the Taiwanese love their coffee).
We also visited the cultural park in Hualien - struggling somewhat I think but we did find some nice stuff. Hualien is generally a stopping off point for the nearby Taroko Gorge and the town itself has a mixture of modern shopping streets and run down back streets... it doesn't have much else to do there. We did a day trip to the gorge - many of the hiking paths were closed due to a recent typhoon making them dangerous, though we were not likely to do much hiking anyway with the kids. It was pretty, though I feel like I have seen a lot of gorges and was not as spectacular as guide books make it out to be.... maybe we need to go back another time and hike more to appreciate it better, rather than taking the bus up and down different points, with just a few kilometeres of hiking possible.
Probably the most memorable part of the trip for the kids was the visit to the Ocean Theme Park outside of Hualien: only around 6 or 7 rides, but enough for the kids, and since it was a weekday the whole place had less than 300 visitors (we counted them when they all congregated for the dolphin show) which meant 10 rides of the rollercoaster (no need to get off, just stay on and go around again) and even a few rides of the spinning cups and spinning balls (kids seem to like being dizzy, adults don't!). Leah didn't quite know what to make of the dolphin show, but Hannah enjoyed it. The park is nicely done, but is mostly for kids under the age of 8... perfect for us anyway.
On one of the last two days in Taipei we took a day trip out to some villages in the hills accessble by a local train. Strangely the little 3 carrriage train only runs hourly and is packed (even on a weekday) wth tourists which is a bit inconvenient. The villages and the scenery were nice enough. The Shifen waterfall was impressive, but the rain put a bit of a dampener on the trip so we didn't see as many of the villages as we wanted, nor did we let off the lanterns as is customary. Mostly tourists seem to go there for that, the snacks, and to see the little train line running through the center of the villages. That night, back in Taipei, we went to the Shifan night market which was more about clothes than food, strangely, and ate at a fantastic middle eastern restaurant in the student area.
On the last day we enjoyed the wonderful Miniatures Museum which was packed full of interesting doll houses and miniature replicas of houses, castles, street scenes and other scenes (Alice of Wonderland etc). It was fun for the kids, but adults probably enjoy it more: the incredible intracies and the thoughtfulness that go into many of the scenes, like tiny working TVs, actual oil paintings or newspapers alongside glasses, slippers and everything else that you'd find in a bedroom; or a scene of a street caught in a downpour with everyone running from the rain, paint spilling, and even raindrops on the telephone wires. I can't recommend visiting enough. Andrea took more pictures in there than the rest of the trip combined!
After spending a few hours with an old friend, Primrose, we flew back to China (via a simply insane border crossing from Hong Kong into the Mainland since there were millions of Chinese who were also coming back home at the same time as us after the 7-day public holiday).
A sizable island it should be higher on the list for tourists since it is easy to get around (its only a few hours by train from one end of the island to the other) with plenty of nice things to see, and some good food. If you enjoy cycling or cafes, you'd love it! If you have kids, it's a good place to visit (we even found hotel rooms for all 4 of us) too and can keep both kids and adults entertained.