Taiwan + Savouring the Sweet Potato

Ubiquitous scooters in Taipei. These "small sheep" (locally called) are used by all ages for all imaginable purposes. According to some sources, there are 4 million scooters in Taipei, a city of 8 million population.

To some, having visited Taipei alone would quite satisfactorily put a tick on having covered Taiwan. Understandably, Taipei is a wonderful city, always filled with such joy and vibrancy that could very well represent the urban and pop Taiwan we often see on TV. The amazing night markets, energetic shopping and entertainment districts, scenic harbour and extraordinarily friendly sales girls in the capital alone would easily fill our hearts with such delight, or melt our hearts in the case of the sales girls, and forget about the rest of the country.

In fact, two-thirds of Taiwan's main island is covered by rugged mountain ranges from north to south on the eastern side, with only one-third of flat plains hosting most of its population and the familiar capital we know. The whole island has so much more to offer, ranging from breath-taking peaks and gorges, poetic countryside of mirror lakes and hot springs, and to romantic islands of volcanic formations and sandy beaches. Easily, they would have made the loud and bright Taipei we know appear muted and retreat in modesty.

Confusing communication: My first challenge upon arrival - trying to read the chaotic signs and getting a bus ticket to my hotel at the airport. Sometimes, I really wonder if I should be reading the Chinese characters from left to right or top to bottom, if I could recognise them in the first place.

Simple communication: Just one letter says it all. Managed to take the right bus and arriving at my hotel finally.

Interesting way of redefining concierge.

Congesting architecture of the congested Taipei city through multiple exposure.

Congesting traffic of the congested Taipei city through multiple exposure. Do play with this feature if your camera has one. Quite fun at times. 

View from hotel room.
I decided to revisit Formosa and find out
why the Portuguese had named her the
"Beautiful Island" some five centuries ago.

My first Taiwanese trip was only to Taipei. For five days, it was mainly a photography trip with friends and colleagues, bundled with all the sinful food fare and glitzy entertainment. Several years later, I decided to revisit Formosa and find out why the Portuguese had named her the "Beautiful Island" some five centuries ago.

My second visit, a 9-day trip, had covered Taipei, Jiufen (九份), Hsinchu (新竹), Miaoli (苗栗), Penghu (澎湖) and back to the capital. Not exactly luxurious in time but priority was given outside Taipei to see the countryside. Sadly, there wasn't enough time to cover the south and eastern areas, perhaps on another trip in the future.

The best way to get around the island is to rent a car. The highways are well built and traffic is good, not forgetting the awesome sceneries one can enjoy and stop by along the way. And in fact, the whole island of Taiwan is relatively small and manageable by driving distance. A trip from Taipei (northern city) to Tainan (southern city) along the west coast is only about 300 km, shorter than the Singapore to KL drive we are used to.

Collected my rental car from Carplus Auto Leasing, Jhongsiao East Rd branch in Taipei. A bit of adjustment and adaptation required having seated on the passenger side.
Beautiful rest stop along the way en-route Yehliu Geopark. No, I wasn't drunk and my camera wasn't slanted, the outdoor refreshment area was. What a great place to chill out.
Seven Mile Fragrance.

Hoodoo stones at Yehliu Geopark.

Yehliu Geopark.

Beautiful act of nature at Yehliu Geopark.

A typical drive in the countryside. Quaint and charming small towns with windy roads that sew the mountains together.

Arrived at The Adagio, accommodation in Jiufen. Trying to give my camera a break and "capturing" part of the beautiful scenery outside the room.

Breath taking view of Jiufen countryside from Adagio's balcony.

Indulging in little pleasures - appetizer in real gold dust. At Adagio, the food they served were rather poetic. There were lengthy explanations about the source of ingredients, method of preparation and how they should be appreciated before one could dig in.

Juicy duck meat.

Seafood soup. Small in portion but great in taste.

The Adagio is located on the hill in Jiufen, and surrounded by a wonderful world of flora and fauna.

Common sight during the morning walk around Adagio.

The Lavender Cottage (薰衣草森林) near Taichung. Different post boxes for different recipients, including yourself. The locals do have ways to add little pleasures to simple things in life.

Nice illustration at the toilet entrance at the Lavender Cottage.

Beautiful fella in the gardens at the Cottage.

Everything in purple.

The main building in the Lavender Cottage. A great place to spend the afternoon.

Interesting installations that add colours and pleasures to life.

View from the restaurant in the main building. A great place to have an afternoon tea.

Aplenty at the Lavender Cottage, obviously.

Suspended bridge across a river near Hsinchu (新竹).

Greeted by a wild rabbit outside our room at Teng Mei B&B at Hsinchu.

The hotel is surrounded by dense vegetation and lush greenery, including many beautiful animals and insects.

The main reception and restaurant building of Teng Mei B&B at Hsinchu.

Morning dew at Hsinchu.

Local houses at Hsinchu. Interesting sight of bricks laid on the roof tiles, probably to prevent them from dislodging during the high wind season.

A welcoming shower. Arriving at the Green Ark (綠葉方舟) in Miaoli (苗栗),

The Green Ark is a restaurant built in a forested valley. A great retreat and perfect stop along the way.

The Green Ark and its beautiful valley setting. Take some time to walk around the restaurant building to appreciate the wonderful natural environment.

A resident at the Green Ark.

The gorgeous Taiwan countryside. Beautiful windy roads framed by layering mountains and pebbled rivers.

Arrived at our hotel in Miaoli (苗栗), the Onsen Papawaqa (泰安觀止).

The hotel building blending in with the mountains of Miaoli in harmony.

The entrance to the hotel.

The hotel sits right on the edge of a river in the Taian Hot Spring Area at the foot of the Xueba National Park. Absolutely beautiful setting and environment.

The infinity pool at the edge of the hotel, facing the river.

Material, texture, pattern, light and shadow. Wall of the bathroom in Papawaqa.

The bathroom shower screen.

Poolside overlooking the river. Lie down, soak in the pool and close your eyes. You could hear the river and feel every bit of the environment with all senses.

The outdoor hot spring in Papawaqa.

The all nude (male) outdoor hot spring area in Papawaqa. I guess no other hotel guest was keen to do so.

Spotted the infamous betel nut girls along the way. No, I didn't stop.

Also called the Pescadores Islands
(Portuguese for "fishermen"), Penghu is well known for offering the tastiest and freshest seafood one could get in Taiwan.

Surprisingly, driving in Taiwan was quite easy and relaxing despite having to steer from the passenger seat and feeling topsy-turvy at junctions. Traffic was manageable in the capital and pleasurable in the countryside. However, the greatest challenge was in getting directions. Chinese is primarily the language for communication in the country, more so outside Taipei. This includes all traffic and directional signs. Roman alphabets may appear on some signs but they are often small and hard to read. If you think a GPS navigator in the car would help, yes it does but in Chinese as well.

Despite the journey of endless road signs in Chinese, assisted by an electronic voice of Chinese-speaking lady by the name of Garmin, we managed to reach our destinations without fail everyday. Although some sights and hotels were located in rather rural and hideaway parts of the countryside, getting there wasn't difficult with some patience, common sense, and definitely a sense of adventure.

After returning the rented car in Taichung, we took a short flight to the islands of Penghu, an archipelago off the western coast consisting of 64 islets, showcasing impressive basaltic rock formations, coral reefs, white sandy beaches and beautiful historical villages. Also called the Pescadores Islands (Portuguese for "fishermen"), Penghu is well known for offering the tastiest and freshest seafood one could get in Taiwan.

Propelling from Taichung airport to Magong, Penghu (澎湖).

Welcome dinner in Penghu. Expect some of the freshest seafood on these islands.

It's not a lighthouse, neither is it a theme park. It was our hotel - La Mermaid Hill.

View from hotel room at La Mermaid Hill, Penghu.

Smell the freshness in the morning.

The Tongpan Basalt, Penghu.

The "Mini Taiwan" at the north side of Tunghu Village, Chimei Village.

Yes, this is Taiwan. Breath-taking panoramic view at Penghu.

Beautiful houses at the historical Jhongshe Village.

Form, functionality and beauty. Elegance and in perfect harmony.

Withstanding the test of time. Many of these houses date back to the Qing Dynasty.

Roof gable end detail.

Art and architecture.

Many houses were built with corals, a common building material in Penghu.

Beautiful historical houses.

Traditional and indigenous constructions have never failed to amaze me. One could learn a lot just by looking at them.

The historical Jhongshe Village on the Wang An island.

The main fishery port and warehouses at Makong.

Vernacular architecture.

Vernacular art. Children's playground and art installation made from local logs and plastic buoys.

The Baoan Temple (保安宮) in Tongliang Village. A very old banyan tree covers the entire compound, yes, only from one tree.

Visiting the Erkan Traditional Village. Again, ancient but beautiful. Gorgeous proportions, colours and detailing.

The Yuwongdao lighthouse was originally named Siyu Lighthouse, located on the south-western tip of Yuwongdao.

Not forgetting the snazzy capital decorated with flashing neon lights and advertisement billboards, a visit to the Shilin Night Market (士林夜市) to sample all the great local food was a must. While some dishes might not exactly be of my liking, the overall street ambience and incredible variety of local hors d'oeuvre had made every visit to the night market a rewarding multi-sensory experience.

Another popular destination is the Danshui Fisherman's Wharf (淡水漁人碼頭) - a leisure fishing port developed by the New Taipei City Government. The Wharf offers magnificent views of floating piers and a bridge spanning across the harbour. It's a perfect place to have dinner by the river, or simply to watch the sun sets with cool seabreeze constantly kissing your cheeks. Not forgetting the standalone Starbucks by the promenade where one could get gorgeous views of the river from its second storey balcony.

If night markets and shopping are not your cup of tea, why not take a day trip out to enjoy a hot spring bath in Beitou (北投) or appreciate the art of ceramics at Yingge (鶯歌). A short MRT ride to the Xin Beitou station would take you far from the hustle and bustle of the city. Escape the screaming sales girls with loud hailers and streets of flashing neon signs. Soak into one of the many hot springs to recharge in peace and isolation.

Alternatively, if art and culture is what makes your heart beat faster, more than hot springs do, head down to Yingge. About 30 minutes train ride from the city centre, Yingge offers an ideal place to connect with the arts, crafts and heritage. Both Yingge Old Street and Yingge Ceramics Museum are noteworthy destinations.

A short taxi ride from Yingge is the charming Sanxia Old Street (三峽老街). Rows of old shophouses in red bricks line the Old Street, dating back to the early 1900s. Interesting shops, trades and eateries occupy the street level spaces, all connected by a narrow walkway under the eaves of these beautiful architecture.

Ximenting (西門町) in 360.

Hello SpongeBob and Patrick!! Shops and sights that would put a smile on your face at Ximenting.

Street vendors at Ximenting.

Street artist at Ximenting.

An obedient dog belonging to a street vendor at Ximenting.

A lovable retriever at the Prince Love Princess Fairy Food Restaurant (小王子,小公主,童话美食茶坊) at Ximenting. He's the icon of the restaurant and customers are able to interact with him. 

Devotees at the Longshan Temple in Taipei.

Beautiful roof details at the Longshan Temple, Taipei.

Signage war. A common sight along the streets of Taipei.

Signage war beyond the city centre. At Beitou (北投區), a popular hot spring district north of Taipei - Xin Beitou to be exact.

A typical hot spring facility at Xin Beitou. Many hotels are also available with better hot spring facilities.

Steamy hot water at the Geothermal Valley at Xin Beitou.

Entrance gate to Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall.

Saw the group Energy in Taipei, promoting their latest (and last) album in 2007.

I was more interested in the street food vendor than the boy band on stage.

A day trip out of the capital city to Yingge - a small town south of Taipei famous for its ceramics.

Cool cyclist at Yingge.

The Yingge Ceramics Museum, dedicated to preserving the history of ceramics in Taiwan.

The Sanxia Old Street (三峽老街) is a traditional district located south of Taipei. Lined with charming old architecture and interesting shops and eateries.

Three sparrows at Sanxia Old Street (三只燕子,三峽老街)

Superbly soft, cold and tasty beancurd dessert. Craving for one while writing this.

The delicious beancurd dessert shop at Sanxia Old Street.

Shilin Night Market. It's really hard to decide and prioritise what to eat.

Settled for a delicious bowl of beef noodle soup.

My adorable breakfast.

Taipei had a little lamb.

Going local, drinking local.

The vibrant street of Danshui (淡水). Plenty of snacks and bites to keep you (and your mouth) occupied along the way.

The Lover Bridge of Danshui during sunset.

Street artists at the Danshui promenade, Lover Bridge in the background.

Lovers at Danshui.

Panoramic view of Danshui from Starbucks. Probably the best place to enjoy a cup of Frappucino.

Panoramic view of Danshui. Always a nice walk along the promenade in the evening, rain or shine.

Danshui lovers.

Danshui family.

Danshui homeless.

SpongeBob and family in pancake.

And no visit to Taipei would be complete without a visit to Luxy, probably the best club in the capital. Often viewed as the 'to-go' entertainment venue with superb ambience, great music and (very) beautiful people, a trip to Luxy would definitely be an eye opening experience; and definitely for us when we were there as Armin van Buuren took the stage for the night.

It's a country so naturally beautiful and culturally charming that words can hardly describe. I hope that these selected photos from both my trips could tell a colourful story and distil the true beauty and rich essence of Formosa; and allow one to see and savour this sweet potato-shaped island of such diverse, memorable and magnificent flavours.

Inside LUXY, possibly Taipei's best and most glamorous club.
Armin van Buuren at LUXY, the world's top DJ.
A visit to Taipei 101.
View from Taipei 101 observatory gallery at 391m.

Facts and Figures:
  • Accommodation: W Hotel, Taipei; CityInn Plus, Ximenting, Taipei; The Adagio, Jin Gua Shi; Teng Mei B&B, Hsinchu; Onsen Papawaqa, Miaoli; La Mermaid Hill, Penghu.
  • Equipment: Nikon D700, AFS 17-35mm f2.8, AFD 50mm f1.4, AFS 24-120mm f4, Sony HX5V

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