I don’t think I can ever forget “Penguin’s” laugh. The Taiwanese name of this six-year-old girl sounds rather similar to the word “penguin”, yet the language barrier was rendered irrelevant by her hearty, resounding laughter that reverberated through the corridors of the magnificent Fo Guang Shan monastery in Kaohsiung.
The largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, it was our final major sightseeing halt in the week-long sojourn before we wound down for the day and geared up for the flight back home.
Ageless in Taiwan
In essence, she was everything that Taiwan stands for: Young yet steeped in ancient cultural legacy, while being infectiously genuine with a powerful, all-embracing attitude to the world.
Despite all my research and preparation for the trip, I was pleasantly surprised at how this island is actually a bit of a time machine. It is a young economy that straddles rich heritage dating back centuries on the one hand, and world-famous ultra high-tech modernity on the other. One may say that this feeling of balancing the ancient with the futuristic is typical of the region, with countries like China and Japan leading the pack. Yet, Taiwan’s geographical, historical and cultural lineage coupled with its unique political landscape gives it a distinct identity.
As we make our way through the stunningly picturesque West coast of Taiwan from Taipei to Taichung and then Kaohsiung, we soak in the local flavours and understand why Taiwan is the enduring gem that the world of travellers is yet to discover.
Architecture — creating eternal designs
Buildings and constructions bear witness to history and are representative of a people and their influences. While Taiwan’s historic architecture draws cultural influences from the Chinese, the Japanese, the Americans as well as indigenous tribes, the building designs of today defy convention and set records to create a landscape that freezes time.
In its inimitable way, Taiwan tempers its mixed heritage with its quirky persona. On the drive from Taipei to Taichung, we stopped at the psychedelic Rainbow Village. Its happy appearance is a result of former soldier Huang Yung-Fu’s efforts to save the houses in his settlement from demolition. Today it’s a major cultural hub with colourful paintings and graffiti luring tourists to visit the area and meet 96-year-old Huang, who is lovingly called Rainbow Grandpa.
While the Rainbow Village has a technicolor hippie vibe to it, some of Taipei’s high-rises are the stuff of action films. Housed within the staggering post-modern marvel, Taipei 101, is a coral museum that’s home to the world’s tallest gemstone coral. At 1,410 years old, this coral comes from 200 metres below the Pacific Ocean, North-East of Taiwan. While I soaked in the splendour of this 141-centimetre tall coral, I was made acutely aware that it takes the coral 10 years to grow one centimetre. The dizzying height of Taipei 101 notwithstanding, I realised that as I looked at a millennium-old national treasure, I was within the confines of an earthquake-proof, 101-storeyed futuristic building that once held the record for the fastest elevator! It was like being in a Christopher Nolan film where you can bend time and it remains an essential character in the plot!
The idea of being non-linear is heightened at a place like the National Taichung Theatre, a vortex of sound and structural design sitting amid typically modern skyscrapers. Designed by Tokyo-based architect Toyo Ito & Associates, the National Theatre houses three different spaces of varying capacity, all within the same catenoid structure. Curves, not lines, define the arena, and at one point made me feel like a mouse going through the various holes in a big block of cheese. The rooftop garden is a sight to behold: Against the backdrop of a financial centre-looking suburb, a walk through this garden was like strolling on a Tellytubbies set!
Spirituality — keeping life's pendulum in check
The fluidity of the National Theatre stands in stark contrast to the reinventing nature of the Donglong temple in Pingtung county. First built in 1706, it was destroyed by a tsunami in 1894 before it was rebuilt to be the intricate structure that it is today.
We had time to kill before a cruise down Dapeng Bay and our enchanting guide Francis from the Taiwan Tourism Board, quickly squeezed an unscheduled trip to the temple that he said nonchalantly “is powerful and can fulfill your wishes if you’re lucky enough”. Sold!
Risking the impression that I may have lost my mind there, I have to admit that the vibrations in this temple, where the great Wen-wang-ye deity is enshrined, are unique. Ever since I set foot under the gold-steeped pailou of the temple, something about this place seemed different. Were Francis’ words playing in my head? I don’t know… would you not be a little inquisitive when someone says: “Your wishes will come true”? The only other time I’ve been to a Chinese Tao temple was to the one in Mumbai that enshrines warrior deity Kuan Tai Kwon. At that time, I didn’t get an opportunity to ask my question.
As luck would have it, after following the rituals of the temple in Pingtung, I found myself lucky enough to ask the deity my question while placing the incense stick and have his oracle transcribe his answer to me. He obliged with a note from the oracle board that corresponded with my prayer stick. The note said something to the effect that: “Something which you have longed for, will finally see fruition. But not without obstacles and tension. Be patient and it will be yours. Do not give up hope even when it gets difficult.”
It seemed like some rather generic advice to me. So, I humbly nodded my head and moved on… it hadn’t been realised in 15 years, what could possibly happen now? As I write this several weeks later, that 15-year-old wish has come true.
Culture — a meridian through generations
How the Taiwanese live their lives is a wonderful window into how they traverse timelines seamlessly.
Generations of Taiwanese Chinese revel in the traditional lighting of the sky lanterns at Shifen village. I was thrilled to release flaming paper lanterns into the sky, although I imagined it to be more like Tangled. Writing messages and scribbling graffiti onto the four sides of the lantern, it was an absolutely thrilling experience to then stand on the defunct railway tracks and bid farewell to the lantern with scores of others. Only to find out that the tracks weren’t defunct after all!
On the other hand, the Lantern Festival 2019 at Pingtung saw some of the most cutting-edge technology and eco-friendly measures to celebrate this traditional festival of lights in the world of today. I would strongly recommend planning your trip in February when the weather is great, and the atmosphere is carnivalesque. Traditional lanterns were replaced with modern LED ones, arranged to celebrate various themes and causes.
Repurposing is a big part of the environment-friendly Taiwanese ethos. A defunct, desolate sugar factory has been reoccupied by a branch of the Grammy-nominated Ten Drum Village in Kaohsiung, where traditional percussion instruments are made and sold, workshops are conducted for drummers from around the world to brush up on their basics, and where visitors get a chance to try their hand at the instrument. It is also a realisation of how drumming is a full-body workout that can quickly turn tiring! It is definitely worth a visit, particularly the 30-minute mind-blowing (and I don’t say that lightly) performance of traditional percussion instruments in a tech-savvy presentation. I returned to Mumbai with a small timpani-shaped wooden drum, traditionally used to announce the arrival of protagonists in Taiwanese theatre. Yes, so now I don’t need to toot my own horn, I can drum up my existence instead!
It isn’t the only musical shopping one can do on the island though. While the glossy night markets house everything from major brands to competitive deals and street food, they jostle for space with traditional street markets like the one on Jiu-fen that offers everything from a fresh Taiwanese lager to a carefully crafted ocarina (ancient vessel flute with roots over many millennia). The lilting sound of the ocarina players lure you through the congested streets where you could even sample the traditional kaoliang liqueur (sorghum). Kaoliung holds its own against the world-famous new age single malt Kavalan — the toast of the whisky world — and growing craft beer scene in Taiwan.
No matter what your choice of tipple is, what their traditional roots are or where you come from, the cheerful Taiwanese are always ready to draw from their Japanese heritage and say “Kampai!” to life. Little Penguin’s laughter was doing just that.
Updated Date: Apr 16, 2019 10:01:54 IST