Note: We are currently in Alentejo, Portugal, where we are settling after four years travelling. As a break from covid, the below piece is a happy flashback to our time in Taiwan in July 2018. It feels like it was more than two years ago - practically a different world. We have a few unopened bags of Taiwanese oolong that we are saving for when we want to travel back in time to our glorious two weeks in this beautiful, kind land that feels so far away right now.
So, without further ado, let's go to Taiwan...
Our first night in Taipei: warm, somewhat dry, a much-appreciated break from the 40-degree Celsius 88% humidity that had depleted us in Vietnam. After a dinner of silky soup dumplings washed down with bottomless pu’erh tea, we wandered. We were on the idle hunt for a whisky bar, and after that if we were awake enough, a bakery so we wouldn’t have to forage for breakfast the next morning.
On the corner, a soft serve ice cream shop glowed like light pouring into a cave. A queue stretched out down the pavement. As we approached we saw a few words in English: Soy ice cream! Soy! All soy! Inside were enormous glass tubes packed with soya beans, and the six jostling employees made the prep space seem even smaller. Next to this glowing beacon: a closed shop front with old mail piling up inside - our intended whisky bar, long closed.
Turning to go, a young man came up to us and, in beautiful English with a tinge of American, asked us to stop. The shop had a soy ice cream deal: the second cone was 30% off. Did we want one? He was getting a cone anyway, and it seemed a waste… He said he had learned English from TV and was glad to help. In a few short seconds, he ordered his and our soy ice creams, paid for his, and left. We didn’t even have a chance to ask his name.
This set the tone for our visit, and the generosity of the Taiwanese kept us company everywhere we went. As we alighted from the Hop On Hop Off bus at Taipei 101 (the tallest building in the world for much of our lives), the tour manager had a basket of bananas and said they were a good healthy snack before heading up 88 floors. At the train station in Chiayi, as we headed up to Shizhau in the Alishan Mountains, the throng of taxi drivers standing right out front all agreed we shouldn’t hire them, and should instead take the bus because it was cheaper. Or at our first meal in Taichung in a dumpling house outside a grocery store: we ordered two plates of dumpling that we loved, and conveyed this to the waitress using smiles and thumbs up. A few minutes later she returned with another plate of dumplings, gifted to us by the chef as he was happy we liked his food so much.
We have been told that Taiwan is what happens when the best parts of China and the best parts of Japan are combined into one culture and country. Of course it’s understood as with all war, the acts committed on the island for it to ‘become’ Japanese are far from pleasant reading, in this blog though, we are simply reflecting on the current state of things. The food is superb and varied, the people friendly and polite, the country clean and well-maintained, the tea extraordinary. The architecture also has a distinct Japanese flair, though temples tend to be Taoist or Buddhist rather than Shintao. This combination is due to Japan’s possession of Taiwan from 1895-1945, as Japan fought for its own piece of the colonial pie that European nations had been hoarding for so long. If the East couldn’t be accepted into the Western elite, then it would damn well prove it was a force to be reckoned with.
On an important historical side note: Ten years after Japan defeated China in 1895 and won Taiwan, it went on to defeat Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. This was the first defeat of a Western power by an Asian power, and it stunned the West (front page news, everywhere). It was a turning point in the history of colonialism and the world, one of the sparks that led to the collapse of the Russian Empire with the Russian Revolution of 1917. It proved to the Western powers that this once subjugated and controlled country suddenly had teeth, and wasn’t afraid to use them.
Japan’s colonisation ended with its unconditional surrender at the end of World War II and Taiwan was returned to the Republic of China. This was in the midst of the Chinese Civil War, a twenty-year-long power struggle between equally-Soviet-funded political parties to fill the power vacuum left by the death of China’s last monarch. The ruling party, the Kuamintang of China/the Chinese Nationalist Party, initially espoused Communist ideals, but in 1927 declared that for the Nationalist Revolution to succeed Communism must be abandoned.
The Reader’s Digest version is that the KMT/CNP government’s fierce suppression of the Chinese Communist Party, and brutal crushing of peasant rebellions, was a mistake. The KMT government had badly misjudged the charisma and logic of the Communist party, especially when it came to the rural populace. They had been voiceless and abused for centuries, labouring with minimal pay and under backbreaking conditions as emperors and empresses came and went. And so the KMT government of China was shocked to find itself losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949 (after nearly twenty years of struggle) and evacuated itself to Taipei to continue ruling in safety – along with two million pro-Nationalism refugees.
The new People’s Republic of China, run by the Chinese Communist Party, also claimed Taiwan, as it was within China’s borders, and the standoff continues today. No peace treaty or armistice has been signed, meaning that the Chinese Civil War never ended.
If Japan’s colonisation had lasted beyond World War II, the balance of power would likely be very different with the PRC justifying an invasion as an end to colonisation. For now, though, both sides run endless adverts showing how great their militaries are and carefully fly over contested waters.
What this meant for us, though, had nothing to do with military manoeuvres and everything
to do with whisky and tea. We visited the remote and sprawling Kavalan King Car Whiskey Distillery an hour outside of Taipei and discovered where all the mainland Chinese tourists were. (The distillery had been on our list since sampling Kavalan in Hong Kong the year before.) Despite the busloads of Chinese and Japanese visitors, though, the flight of whiskies was not being advertised at all. After asking numerous staff members, we discovered it *did* exist, upstairs, and so we had a private tasting of rounded, sweet and rich whiskies that tasted similar to what we’ve enjoyed in Japan. We bought a few small bottles, and regretfully rejected several others - damn baggage weight limits...
The distillery offered to call us a taxi for the twenty-minute drive back to the bus station, and while we waited we walked into the surrounding fields and watched the day end. Around us the interior mountains towered in a semi-circle above the coastal plain and the smell of fresh-cut hay floated in the evening air. A classic summer’s twilight, with glimmering insects, birds soaring in the foothill gyres, the light and clouds like the golden whiskies we’d just tasted. I’m sure our multiple drams had nothing to do with my romantic memories of that summer evening haze either.
A few days later, when we headed up into the mountains for the most peaceful week of our lives, we discovered misty slopes carpeted with tea bushes and not a word of English. Except, fortunately, for our AirBnB hosts who had lived in rural Pennsylvania for 15 years. That was indeed lucky. Ocean and Lotus not only spoke English, they toured us around the mountains (feeling sorry for us as we didn’t have a car), translated for us when buying and tasting tea directly from the tea plantation offices, made us incredible and varied breakfast and dinner and gave us free Chinese lessons so we could recognise crucial characters relating to tea.
Ocean even picked us up in the pouring rain after we had gotten lost on a very long walk back from dinner: The night was thick, and the country roads were dark with no streetlights or houses to light our way. The roads on Google Maps did not line up with reality, new roads having been built since Google last checked. We could hear our sandals on the tarmac, a small sound amongst the dripping of the leaves and sky. Then the thunderous approach of another cloud emptying itself on the mountains, rain and sudden streams racing towards us on and leaping off the precipice that lined the mountain road. A typhoon was sweeping through, and everyone sensible was dry at home.
The rain stopped. We switched our torches off to listen to the water as it rushed off the mountains down to the brown river incising the valley below us. Utterly dark. And then suddenly, light: fireflies, everywhere, flickering in the forest. We heard the rain start again, first far away and then closer, tip-tapping across the jungle towards us. We were still a few kilometres away from home, and after another kilometre or two, were very grateful when Ocean miraculously found us and ushered us into his warm dry minivan.
Ocean and Lotus also helped us make our very own tea that we picked from the bushes outside their home, marvelling at our excitement about withering and rolling a few little buds, and digging out their table-top oven so we could dry our leaves. Although we all agreed the taste wasn’t quite right, they were gracious enough to say it was a good first-ever brew!
When we were out and about on our own, we were offered a ride home by the woman running a local restaurant where we dined on outdoor terraces on the mountaintop. She left her husband, baby and an obese cat behind to drive us back. At another, we were given enormous quantities of food - Taiwanese tribal barbecues are generous to say the least, with portions far larger than the price would imply. For clarity, this cuisine being neither Chinese nor Japanese but of the indigenous people of Taiwan who still live in the mountainous centre of the country.
Some of this of course was due to us being odd foreigners visiting in the off-season, but then again the generous spirit was clearly not just for us: there was also the Fruit Pavilion nearby that was a resting place for anyone and contained free bananas. (That being said, we went to the fruit pavilion and the banana season had obviously ended a long time ago; the hornet population was delighted with the remaining stacks of brown bananas however.)
For our last stop in Taiwan, we headed down to the industrial second city of Taichung for a tea trade show. The city is unlikely to ever rank on a list of ‘lovely’ places, but friendly with excellent dumplings. It also happens to be the original home of bubble tea and every other shop front has a mini production line of tapioca pearls and forty tea types. At the tea show we met dozens of tea producers and explored their wares, and became rather ‘tea drunk’ on all the oolong! Everything free, and endless cups of tea.
For the sake of length, I’ve omitted another dozen or so examples of Taiwanese generosity but could easily go on. The few cities we saw may have felt a bit gritty and dated (although certain parts of Taipei do glitter and gleam), the trains may have always been booked up, the earthquake risk is not nothing, and lodging may be shockingly poor value in the cities, but the people, scenery, dumplings, vegetarian food, history, cleanliness, organisation and kindness of spirit are as just as intoxicating as its oceans of tea and whisky.
We are already Taiwan dreaming of our return.
To learn more about the fascinating political history of Taiwan, Wikipedia goes into impressive detail here and you can learn about the Chinese Civil War here. Read more about the Russo-Japanese War here – it’s so interesting! To stay with Ocean and Lotus, you can book through Airbnb here.
And if you need tea while brushing up on your Taiwanese history, head to our very own tea shop for some delectable loose leaf: