March 2023: As part of a larger “Baby Moon” Pacific Island trip, my pregnant wife, Paula and I visited Taiwan for three days. In the past I had visited Taiwan on layovers to other places, but I never had a proper visit. A big motivation for my visit is the escalating tensions with China and I really wanted to visit Taiwan before tension becomes conflict. During our Taiwan trip Paula and I visited Taipei and a few other mountain villages. This is the story of our trip.

 

 

About Taiwan

After World War II, China erupted into civil war between communist forced under Mao Zedong and Kuomintang   non-communist forces under General Chiang Kai-shek.  The civil war ultimately led to millions of deaths in China and Kuomintang forces retreated to the island of Taiwan taking with them many of Beijing’s riches and gold reserves where they established a separate country, the Republic of China. The early years under General Chiang Kai-shek saw the country being led under martial law and authoritarian rule and thousands suspected as being un-loyal or spies for China were arrested or killed. Eventually, Taiwan did become a democracy and an industrial and technical economic powerhouse.  China’s views Taiwan as a renegade province and has threatened to retake it by violence if necessary.  Taiwan’s existence largely depends on the deliberately vague promise by the USA to protect it in the event that China invades it. Recent decades have seen Taiwan attempting to build international support for its independence. China has blocked any attempts by Taiwan to seek U.N. country recognition and use its economic influence to isolate Taiwan. Many global military experts agree that conflict over Taiwan is inevitable.

The small island of Taiwan despite having one of the largest population densities in the world is rugged and full of beautiful mountains, hot springs and lush verdant forest. It doesn’t have the ancient history and old buildings that its much larger neighbor has but it has incredibly kind people, food, and scenery.

 

 

Location of Taiwan

Paula and I flew into Taipei, the capitol of Taiwan which would be the base for our trip. I had initially wanted to do all kinds of adventurous mountain hikes but with the rain and my wife being pregnant, I decided to forego the hiking for another visit. I also wanted to visit the Matses Islands, which although part of Taiwan, are as close as 8 miles to mainland China and located on the front lines of the tension between the two countries. But this would have added another airport to our trip and more time in an airplane, so I also put this idea off for another day.

Instead, I decided to book a comfortable hotel, “Royal Biz Taipei Hotel,” near a urban outdoor market-Dongmen with traditional stalls of Chinese food, venders, and restaurants. We would also be within walking distance to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square. This would allow us plenty of time to explore the city, immerse ourselves in the food at the market, see the memorial square and have easy access to the underground metro and trains to explore further outside of the city in the surrounding mountain villages.

Flight into Taipei on United Airlines

Chiang Kaishek Memorial Square

Despite General Chiang Kai-shek authoritarian ways, ruthless governance over Taiwan during his reign that saw 140,000 people imprisoned or executed, and a cult of personality that he created around himself that was almost North Korean like with thousands od statues of himself being built all around the country, he is still respected as Taiwan’s founder and the massive square in the middle of the city with ornate traditional Chinese palaces is named in his honor. Overlooking the square in one of the palace buildings, is a large, throned statue of the general with Taiwanese soldiers standing sentry by his side and once every hour, there is a changing of the guard ceremony.

View of Chiang Kaishek Memorial Square

Chiang Kaishek Changing of Guard Ceremony

Chiang Kaishek Changing of Guard Ceremony

Day Trip to Shifen Village Waterfalls  

I had planned some waterfall hikes, but I decided to play it safe since it was raining and visit the more accessible Shifen waterfalls that can be visited via a paved trail. To reach the falls, er traveled 3 hours via underground metro in Taipei. Covid face masks in most parts of the world are a remanent of the past but in Taiwan they are legally required in all areas of public transit including the metro. Regardless even in areas where they aren’t required, it was uncommon in Taiwan for anyone in public to be seen without a mask. Most people even om motorbikes and driving solo in their vehicles were wearing a mask snuggly over their nose and mouth. From the central Taipe station, we took a trail to the mountains outside of Taipei. At the last station before the tracks made a steep incline through the mountain river gorge, we switched to an old diesel trail that filled the cabin with faint diesel odors. The view of the incredible mountain scenery more than up for the odors. 

Shifen was clearly a popular destination for Taiwanese during the weekend and the town was bustling with local tourists. The main attractions are the waterfalls, hiking trails in the mountains and many traditional restaurants in town. It was drizzly but this didn’t stop us from walking all over the town and exploring and from the train station the waterfalls and entire town is accessibly by foot.

Shifen bridge over the river

Shifen Falls

Forest Reserve

Small Buddhist Temple

Chinese Lanterns

Small Buddhist Temple

Sending Off a Chinese Lantern for Our Daughter

When we first exited the train in Shifen, we immediately noticed the dozens of beautiful Chinese lanterns rising up into the skies. Shifen is famous for its lanterns. The lanterns are a traditional Chinese art of requesting good luck or good wishes on a person or for yourself from the heavens. For a small fee, locals in town help tourists make a lantern and and send it off into the heavens from the train tracks near the train station. The little lanterns are lit and the heat from the ignition sends the lantern up in the air like a hot air balloon until the lantern rises so high it disappears from view. Paula and I wrote a message in English and in Chinese characters of love and good luck for our future daughter, currently almost 4 months old in Paula’s belly and we set the lantern off while one of the lantern shop owners took oir photos releasing it. We were so excited about the idea of doing this beautiful and traditional activity for our daughter that we forgot about the pollution that these balloons cause to the environment. I realized this when I spotted several fallen lanterns lying in the riverbed.

Both Paula and I wrote several messages to our future daughter on the lantern before sending it up

Paula and I sending our lantern up into the sky that is dedicated to our daughter with messages of love to her

Our Lantern in the sky

Taiwan Traditional Chinese Market

Taipei is known for having several traditional food markets and we had plans to visit a few different ones but, in the end, we just kept returning to the one-Dongmen Market that was only a 10-minute walk from our hotel. The market located in an old industrial building had expanded beyond the enclosure of the building and into an outdoor market in the streets around it. The market contained a wide range of cheap eateries and for us it was like being at the state fair where you can sample so many different types of curious foods for cheap. There was meat, pork, exotic fish, desserts, fruit drinks, noodle dishes, egg sandwiches, and all kinds of hole in the wall venders and restaurants with a small mom and pop comfortable feeling to them. One morning we decided to avoid the sterile and overpriced hotel breakfast and get breakfast at the market. For the price of a few dollars each we bought coffee and a fried egg sandwich from a vender, and we sat in small plastic chairs in the alley to eat our sandwiches soaking in the atmosphere all around us. This was the kind of traditional Chinese marketplace I had grown to love during my previous visits to China and I was happy to see it was still alive and well.

Entrance to Dongman market

Dongman Market

Paula in the Dongman Market

Fruit Drink vender

Butcher

Food vender

Dongman Market

One night we decided to try and find a nice dinner in the Dongman Market. The market was closing so we weren’t hopeful. But we did find a small sushi restaurant that was open with a few lively patrons, who immediately started chatting with us. One of the patrons spoke English well and he helped me to translate the menu. Next thing I knew we were being treated to free Taiwanese beers and shots of Taiwanese whiskey with my sushi. When Paula declined because she was pregnant, the owner of the bar, the sushi chef who worked behind the bar with his wife and was drinking heavily with his patrons, shook our hands and congratulated us. He began to show us photos of his young son, who he said was studying at home for school even though it was Friday night. Then he did something that truly touched Paula and I. He pointed to a framed pair of wooden shoes hanging on the wall of his restaurant and said they were his son’s shoes when he was a baby and he wanted us to have them now. We tried to politely decline not sure if he was just being kind because he was slightly intoxicated. I glanced at his wife to read her reaction, and there didn’t seem to be one but I also discovered that she was just shy and didn’t speak any English. The chef insisted we take it and he even posed for a photo with us presenting the shoes to Paula. It was so heartwarming to receive this present from our new Taiwanese friends that we carried around the framed gift for the next two weeks during our trip and it managed to make it back to our home safely.

To Our new friends in the small sushi restaraunt 

The chef presenting his sons shoes to paula and our future daughter as a gift

Paula and I even found a cheap massage stall in the market and together we had a nice relaxing massage. We loved Taiwan and its kind people and hope to someday return and explore the ret pf the country with our daughter and return to the sushi restaurant with a photo of our daughter holding the wooden shoes of the chef’s son.

 

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