Learning to expect the unexpected on a tour of Taiwan

By David Patten
This article appears on page 6 of the April 2016 issue.

Taiwan was not a country I had expected to visit. I was planning a trip to South Korea, but when I saw a tour from Adventures Abroad (Blaine, WA; 800/665-3998, www.adventures-abroad.com) that included Taiwan, I thought, ‘Why not include another country?’ So I chose the Oct. 7-22, 2015, “Taiwan and South Korea” tour.

A bumpy start

Booking the trip proceeded flawlessly with Adventures Abroad agents Christine and Charlene. They also booked all of my domestic and international flights, and, for once, the airlines canceled no flights, didn’t lose or damage my luggage and created no delays resulting in missed connections.
However, the Taiwan portion of the trip did not begin auspiciously. My primary reason for visiting Taiwan was to visit Taipei’s National Palace Museum. As an art history graduate student in the 1960s, I studied under Chu-tsing Li, a noted Chinese-American scholar and an authority on Yuan dynasty painting. From him, I knew of the Palace Museum’s reputation as one of the foremost repositories of Chinese art.
The museum visit was a huge disappointment for me. First was the museum’s policy forbidding photography. Then we had only a few hours for a guided tour that included, primarily, the galleries devoted to jade.
While the museum building was grandiose, it was woefully dated. Dimly lit galleries were overcrowded with visitors and noisy school groups. The displays were poor and provided little explanatory text.
When I inquired about the section devoted to paintings, I was informed that what we were permitted to see was at the discretion of our local guide.
In marked contrast, the nearby Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines was well worth a visit. We virtually had the entire museum to ourselves and found ethnographic objects and works of art by Taiwan’s original inhabitants beautifully displayed. At the museum’s entrance was a large, granite totem pole, while inside were displays of colorful, primitivistic paintings depicting the lives of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.

Soldiers standing in front of a statue of Chiang Kai-shek in his memorial hall.


Our tour of Taiwan began and ended in Taipei. Without a doubt, the highlight of our time there was the visit to Taipei 101. When opened in 2004, this skyscraper was the tallest in the world. (It was surpassed in height by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, opened in 2010, and by the recently opened Shanghai Tower.)
It was a very impressive experience. Riding the world’s fastest passenger elevators, our group ascended from the tower’s fifth level to the observation area on floor 89 in only 37 seconds. While en route, we were even entertained by an LED light show on the elevator’s ceiling.
In addition to the absolutely stunning view of the metropolitan area of Taipei far below, we were privileged to be able to see the huge wind damper hanging between floors 87 and 90. The size of the gigantic sphere painted gold and weighing over 650 tons was truly amazing.
Two additional sites visited in Taipei were the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine. The latter, essentially a Confucian temple, impressed me with its long, axial, processional walkway flanked by small, pagoda-like structures ending in a monumental main hall in which were housed tablets with the names of the 390,000 people who were killed in various wars and uprisings. During our visit to the shrine, we witnessed the solemn changing of the guard as soldiers marched up the long walkway.
Although much of Chiang Kai-shek’s memorial was shrouded in scaffolding, it still impressed me. It is a very strange combination of a nondescript, bunker-like lower structure topped with a series of more traditional, pagoda-like roofs.
The central main hall reminded me somewhat of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, with its seated presidential statue and its being open to the out-of-doors on the opposite side. In addition to the large, seated image of Chiang Kai-shek was a very realistic statue of him seated behind a desk in a very careful reproduction of his presidential office. Also on display in an adjacent hall was his long, gleaming, black Cadillac.
By far, the best guided tour of the entire trip was that led by a Chan Buddhist nun, with a shaven head and clad in a long, maroon robe, at the Chung Tai Chan Monastery in Puli. The large, obviously well-endowed monastery complex boasted a temple with a spire rising 446 feet, one of Taiwan’s highest.
Several images, among the many seen within the temple that were identifiable as Bodhidharma, the founder of this Buddhist sect, were evidence of its designation as a Chan, or Zen, Buddhism institution.
In spite of her outstanding presentation in nearly impeccable English, when I attempted to compliment her, our guide all too modestly said she needed more practice.

More city sights

After returning to Taipei via high-speed train, we visited two more temples before leaving Taiwan for Seoul, South Korea. Both were very much working temples and were thronged with local worshipers.
The first, the Dalongdong Baoan Temple, was honored by UNESCO with its Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Conservation for the renovations and repairs carried out there in 1995.
The second, the Mengjia Longshan Temple, was dedicated to the Buddhist deity Kuan Yin. One of Taipei’s busiest and most popular temples, Longshan Temple attracts worshipers of a mix of Buddhist, Taoist and folk deities.

Taipei 101 has 101 stories above the ground<br />
and five below.

I found the Dutch ruins visited in Taiwan, such as those of Fort Zeelandia in Anping, of much less interest. On the other hand, the Anping Tree House, with its old, very ruinous walls overgrown with banyan trees, caused me to think what a great place it would be for a Halloween party. The old salt warehouse had interesting displays and wooden walkways that led through the eerie, ruined buildings and up into the banyan trees, themselves.

A few surprises

Very unexpected was how scenic I found much of Taiwan to be. After our departure from Taipei, much of the trip by bus along the eastern coast entailed traveling through very mountainous areas and driving on twisting highways with hairpin curves and numerous tunnels cut through the rugged mountains.
Also unexpected was how heavily forested the mountainous areas were and how much of Taiwan’s primeval forest has been preserved. On the other hand, most of our travel through the mountainous areas was plagued by dark, gloomy weather.

The scenic coastal Qingshui Cliffs.

Since our visit coincided with Taiwan’s National Independence Day (Oct. 10), the long weekend meant that the Taiwanese were out celebrating by visiting many of the scenic areas. As a result, most sites were thronged with local tourists, and many traffic jams were encountered.
The Qingshui Cliffs, which plunge hundreds of feet into the Pacific Ocean, were one of the more scenic areas we visited. Undoubtedly, the most scenic was Taroko Gorge. Not only was the white marble gorge, itself, impressive, but the narrow roadways cut into the nearly perpendicular cliffs were all that allowed access to the spectacularly scenic region.

Rooms and restaurants

The hotels used on this trip exceeded my expectations. All were clean and modern with en suite bathrooms that often had heated toilet seats. Complimentary bottled water and dishes of fresh fruit were also usually provided in the rooms.
There was no porter service, though, and we were responsible for transporting our own luggage between the hotel lobbies and our rooms.
Our first two and last two nights were spent at the Landis Taipei Hotel, and one night was spent in the scenic Taroko Gorge area at the Silks Place Taroko. On beautiful Sun Moon Lake, we stayed overnight at Hotel Del Lago.
Memorable dinners included one featuring dumplings at a very busy restaurant on a lower level of Taipei 101 and an evening at a restaurant featuring indigenous Formosan cuisine.
The most memorable dining experience was at the Five Dime Driftwood Restaurant in Taipei. While not that notable for its food, the ambiance was mind-boggling. The creation of its owner, Hsieh Li-hsiang, the restaurant is decorated in a style somewhat reminiscent of Polynesia or Melanesia. Words fail to describe this bizarre, multistoried, reinforced-concrete building with its winding entrance ramp and an atrium featuring a pool complete with a rowboat and live fish.
I was surprised that, at most of the restaurants where we had dinners, only bottled local beer was available; there were no soft drinks or tea. Western-style tableware was usually available for those having trouble using chopsticks.
Lunches were not included in the tour price, and we were expected to “forage” for food entirely on our own. I often found it necessary to forgo having any lunch whatsoever unless I could find a convenience store selling prepackaged snacks.

Visitors gather along the road carved into the cliffs of Taroko Gorge.

A world away

It’s a very long way to and from Taiwan, and getting there from Tampa, Florida, involved three long flights each way, crossing the International Date Line. I discovered that Taiwan is actually on the opposite side of the planet, so I didn’t even have to reset my wristwatch as long as I remembered that a.m. was p.m. and p.m. was a.m. (EDT).
I found the trip much more strenuous than expected, and I often wondered if it was worth enduring all the hardships and disappointments. But, after decades of travel, I’ve found it’s always best to remember the highlights, to overlook the disappointments and to expect the unexpected.
Would I recommend visiting Taiwan? Definitely yes. It’s a fascinating island country and worth a special trip.