Taiwan: Beyond the Industrial Exterior
For many Westerners, all knowledge of Taiwan comes from labels-our mind's eye conjures the city as a giant industrial hub packed with factories, stores brimming with cheap plastic souvenirs, and narrow streets jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with day laborers. Taiwan's identity beyond a manufacturing center is something of a puzzle. Few people think to peek behind its hazy veil to the verdant mountains and dramatic river gorges, the cartoon-decorated streets and priceless art collections.
Once you do look though-and now is an ideal time, since the International Flora Exposition is in full swing through April-you'll be reluctant to take your eyes away. This island confounds expectations and over-delivers at every opportunity, often with Lite Brite-inspired special effects.
By Lena Katz
Dragon Float | Taiwan Lantern Festival, Miaoli
During Taiwan's annual Lantern Festival, celebrated at the end of Chinese New Year, thousands of lanterns and countless twinkly lights create a vivid, playful after-dark world where mythological creatures, cartoon figures and oversized fruits glow in the moonlight.
Decorated Truck at Dusk | Taiwan Lantern Festival
Walking the streets before dark, it's possible to see exactly how much effort has been put into decorating the cars, trees, lanes and dozens of murals and art installations around the Lantern Festival area.
Lantern Canopy at Dusk | Taiwan Lantern Festival, Miaol
After dark, the festival park takes on an otherworldly air, and many tableaux seem to have been created by magic, not merely technology.
Dragon Pagoda | Lotus Lake, Kaohsiung
The animals of the Chinese zodiac are favorite design motifs around Taiwan-particularly the dragon, which is a very auspicious and powerful creature. At Lotus Lake, a historic preservation area built out to host the 2009 World Games, twin pagodas are placed over large, brightly painted dragon and tiger installations. Visitors are encouraged to walk into the "mouth of the dragon," through the pagodas and out the mouth of the tiger for luck.
Dragon Pagoda and Pier | Lotus Lake, Kaohsiung
The Tiger and Dragon Pagodas are only two of a dozen or more art installations and temples scattered around Lotus Lake. This cultural preservation zone draws a lot of local families out to take in some weekend sun.
Tricycle Cabs | Kaohsiung
Behold one of Taiwan's many colorful idiosyncrasies: Though Kaohsiung is one of the busiest port cities in Asia-and is Taiwan's second largest city-it's not at all the gritty industrial zone one might expect. Right at the ferry wharf, in fact, a group of colorful tricycle cabs wait to take visitors around the bustling market streets. This is the only city in Taiwan that allows tricycle cabs.
View From Lighthouse Lookout | Qijin Island, Kaohsiung
A 10-minute ferry ride from Kaohsiung Harbor, Qijin Island is an outpost of sunny cheer. Walk through the harbor village up to a popular lookout point that affords views of the harbor, the village and the sea. It's hard to believe you're smack-dab in the center of one of the most populous parts of Asia. There's even a walking path down to a pretty, uncrowded beach.
Interior of Fo Guang Shan | Kaohsiung
Taiwan has thousands of temples, primarily Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist. One estimate says there's one temple for every 1500 people-and certainly there seems to be a temple on every square block of most cities. These spectacular Buddha statues are in the Main Shrine at Fo Guang Shan, which is Taiwan's largest Buddhist monastery, and the center of one of the largest monastic orders in the world.
Gardens at Chung Tai Chan | Puli
Another major Buddhist center is Chung Tai Chan Monastery in Puli. Art and architecture aficionados are engrossed by the three central Buddha halls which house priceless works and are crowned by a golden dome. However, the gardens outside, with this peaceful Buddha and topiary art, are just as beautiful in a quieter way.
Fountain at Chung Tai Chan | Puli
Upon arriving at the monastery, the first sight to greet your eyes is this placid, picture-perfect pond with foot bridges, lily pads and burbling fountains.
Collapsed Temple at Earthquake Memorial | Jiji
The second-deadliest earthquake to hit Taiwan in modern times occurred in 1999 and collapsed Wuchang Temple, a large and ornate Taoist structure at the quake epicenter. Though its foundations are too unstable to rebuild or for visitors to enter, it's been preserved as a memorial to the 2,415 lives lost. A new temple is currently being built across the courtyard, while regular worship takes place in a temporary site adjacent to the memorial and the local market.