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Culture-Rich Taichung

Most travelers to Taiwan get a taste of its urban life via Taipei, the country’s dense and dynamic capital. Few have ever had much of a reason to linger in Taichung, Taiwan’s third-largest city, beyond using it as a way station en route to hiking trails and hot springs in the surrounding’ mountains. But lately Taichung has been changing. Hop on the high-speed rail from Taipei and 45 minutes later you’ll find yourself in a city that’s emerging as one of Asia’s newest hubs of creativity and culture.

Food lovers have been flocking to the city since 2014, when chef Lanshu Chen’s French-inspired restaurant Le Mout  was first named one of Asia’s go Best. More recently, government loans have paved the way for young entrepreneurs to revitalize the old town: additions like the boutique hotel Red Dot and dessert emporium Miyahara have made Japanese Occupation-era buildings into destinations. They’ve also cast anew light on beloved institutions nearby, like the Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea House, where bubble tea was invented, and the street markets where vendors hawk oyster omelettes and braised pork over rice.

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A tea cup of goose foie gras served with coffee, lemon and marsala at Le Moût

In the Western District, the Calligraphy Greenway serves as a cultural artery, its paths and park spaces featuring art installations, a retail center lined with vertical gardens, and a museum of Taiwanese art. There are sleek new architectural gems, too: the massive, Toyo Ito-designed National Taichung Theater has curved walls that lend it a surreal vibe.

A bird's-eye view of the National Taichung Theater

A bird’s-eye view of the National Taichung Theater

Preserving Taiehung’s heritage remains apriority. A veteran’s housing complex in the Nantun District was on the chopping block until its last inhabitant covered the walls with murals, creating an attraction known as Rainbow Village.

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Rainbow Village Of Taichung

History meets retail at Fantasy Story, a collection of traditional buildings that house shops where screen printers, perfumers and bakers sell their wares. And ambitious initiatives are on the horizon—such as an improved bike-share program and a subway system— promising to make Taichung even more of a complement to the natural wonders nearby.

Pingxi Lantern Festival –  Pingxi

FEBRUARY OR MARCH.

THIS LOOKS PRETTY.

It’s a stunningly luminous sight. Close to 200,000 lanterns are released into the night sky at the start of the new Lunar Year.

BEAUTIFUL, BUT WHY? AND WHY HERE?

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According to ancient legend, the lanterns were originally lit to let Pingxi villagers, who had fled their homes under the threat of outlaw raids, know that it was safe to return. Over the hundreds and hundreds of years, the lanterns have come to represent a release of bad habits and an aspiration to achieve positive ideals.

SO WE ALL TREK AN HOUR OUT OF TAIPEI TO GET INVOLVED?

Just you and 80,000 of your closest friends. It’s an extremely popular way to see out the old Chinese year, so expect to jostle for space to release your good luck lantern.

IS IT WORTH BRAVING THE CROWDS?

The radiant light of the lanterns against the dark night is a spectacle not to be understated. Add to this beautiful sight the goodwill and optimistic vibe of the participants, and you have a night you’ll never forget.

Tasting The Delicacies of Shilin Night Market – Taipei

My first memory of Taipei as a young girl of 11 back in 1990, was of a noodle stall down the street from my Grandma’s apartment. I was just a kid, so it was cheap. I had a couple of coins in my pocket and was alone with my younger brother, so I had no parents or relatives to fund my meal. This wasn’t my first time visiting Taipei, but it was my first time venturing on the streets alone. I felt excited, empowered and, most of all, hungry.

My plan was to wander up and down the winding alleys, exploring all that Taipei’s street food scene had to offer, but I was stopped cold by the gratifying smell of my favorite childhood noodle dish oamisoir, also known as oyster vermicelli. Twenty cents (USD) bought one steaming hot bowl of this briny, umami bomb.

Oamisoir is a thick and deliciously unctuous dish featuring thin rice noodles, oysters and chopped intestines, if you are lucky. These days, many authentic Taiwanese eateries in San Gabriel Valley, California offer oamisoir, but nothing has ever beat that 20-cent bowl from my childhood.

On my most recent trip to Taipei, I was already planning my menu on my airplane ride, somewhere miles above the Pacific. After all, how often do I get to taste the food of my parents’ homeland? It had been five years since I had returned home.

One might point out that there is plenty of Taiwanese food near where I live in Los Angeles. But I would counter that the boba shops don’t even get the boba right! The boba in the States is quite chewy, even at the top-rated teahouses, while the boba you get in Taiwan is meltingly soft like the softest mochi you’ve ever encountered.

I was ready to stuff myself with shaved ice, Din Tai Fung, Taiwanese breakfast, bubble tea and more. I wanted it all, and my newly exchanged NT was burning a hole through my wallet.

We hit the streets of Shilin Night Market that first night in Taipei. Having just eaten airplane and airport food for the last 20 hours, walking into the din and aromas of the Shilin Night Market was intoxicating.

 

I was somehow able to scarf down crispy, burning hot stinky tofu, Hot-Star fried chicken the size of my head and a boba milk tea within what seemed like five minutes of stepping into this food heaven. I was ready for more. I had only spent mere pocket change at that point. My fingers glistened with oil, and the essence of popcorn chicken lingered in my mouth. I slurped down an oyster omelet and chomped on tiny soft- shell sea crabs. I was happy.

The Shilin Night Market is one of the most famous street food destinations in the world. It’s been covered on Anthony Bourdain’s “The Layover” and features over 500 vendors. It’s by far the largest night market in Taiwan, so you shouldn’t leave the country before spending a night there. Here are just a handful of the street foods that you must try when you visit Shilin Night Market.

Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival 2017 – PINGXI, TAIWAN

The loud festivities of Lunar New Year may overlook this spectacularly visual festival but the longstanding tradition of releasing floating lanterns into the sky is still gaining traction among locals from around the country and other travellers.

While the sale and release of sky lanterns are available in Pingxi throughout the year, nothing beats coming down during this particular festival to watch the mass release of sky lanterns. The tradition is generations-old and stems from villagers releasing the lanterns to warn women and children to run up the hills when the village was under attack by bandits and marauders. The lanterns are no longer used as a warning but it is a popular custom to write down a wish on the paper lanterns before sending it up to the heavens for the divine to grant them.

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MAKE IT HAPPEN

The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is set to start on 4 February and continue on over the next few weekends. Lanterns are released en masse every 20 minutes and there are also events at various venues, including Pingxi junior High, Qingtong Junior High, and Shifen Sq.

Mt It would be more convenient to stay in Taipei and make the hour-drive east to Pingxi during the day.The new Hotel PaPa Whale serves as a great base from which to explore Taipei.The boutique hotel exudes a warm, intimate charm with its minimalist style and modern facilities and amenities. The hotel is also easy to spot too with the two murals of a blue whale painted on the sides of the stark-white building (from US $55 per night; papawhale.com).