Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017
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Raise the red lantern

From a festival of lights to dramatic dining, Taiwan’s unexpected beauty soars

When friends invited me to attend the opening ceremonies of Taiwan’s Pingsi Heavenly Lantern Festival, held each year in February, I had visions of schoolchildren walking serenely in single file through the snow, each holding a small glowing lantern.

What to make then of the scene before me at the Festival’s opening in the wide courtyard of Pingsi Junior High School in the mountains above the capital city of Taipei? Fellini-esque was the word that came to mind. Rain falling, thousands of schoolchildren and other spectators soggily milling, the President of Taiwan on the dais making presidential noises, a pop-star in a sequined red dress belting out a ballad, a thousand cameras flashing, the light from the arc lamps of TV crews prismatically streaking the rain magenta, chartreuse and orange, drummers thumping away on tribal tom-toms.

The lanterns themselves? Definitely not hand-held. I’d seen them elsewhere in Asia, rice paper cylinders closed at the top, about the size of a grown man, with a candle at the base that, when lit, fills the lantern with heat, causing it to rise into the air and float across the night sky. At least that’s the theory.

In other countries you make a wish first but here there was no time for that because, when the President gave the word, thousands of lanterns lifted into the air. Or most of them anyway. Some, aflame yet lacking thrust, fell back to earth, nearly landing on concession stands and the thronging schoolchildren, all of whom, clothed in transparent gold rain ponchos, glowed like lanterns themselves.

A real lantern, its bottom edges aflame, dropped from the sky, right above my head. I stepped aside and it landed on the TV cameraman next to me, neatly enveloping him. There was a softshoe shuffle from within the lantern as he stamped out the remnants of the flames.

The indigo sky streamed with lanterns now, climbing higher and higher, sweeping out over the mountain ridges. It was the kind of festival that in the old days might have been done to divert or propitiate the gods, but the Taiwan lantern festival is a secular invention, aimed at increasing winter tourism to Taiwan.

Taipei for a day

Taipei looks like a Japanese city but smells like a Chinese one — on some streets the chili fumes emanating from the restaurants make your eyes water. The Japanese occupied Taiwan from 1875 until the end of the Second World War, industrializing the nation but also decimating its aboriginal population and attempting to turn Taiwanese of Chinese extraction into good Japanese-speaking colonial subjects.

Greater Taipei, with a population of six million, features the requisite skyscraper wonders; the pagoda-on-Viagra of the Taipei 101 building which, when finished in 2004, was briefly the tallest building in the world. The glamourous section of the city features smart cafés, posh boutiques and Japanese department stores.

Centrally located Lungshan Buddhist Temple (211 Guangzhou Street, Wanhua District; www.lungshan.org.tw), high on incense smoke, rocks with fervour — the Taiwanese appear to be a voluble, passionate people. At Tamsui Old Street Market street vendors sell “Grandma’s iron eggs,” spicy chewy quail eggs that once tasted are not soon forgotten.

History comes in layers here, the most recent being the one constructed by two million anti-communist followers of General Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang) who fled to the island — then called Formosa — after Mao took power on the mainland in 1949. They brought with them the mainland’s gold and currency reserves as well as the stunning artifacts that now fill the capital’s National Palace Museum (221 Chih-shan Road, Section 2; tel: 011-886-2-2881-2021; www.npm.gov.tw), surely one of the greatest collections of imperial Chinese art in the world.

Dumplings and palaces

Standing in front of Din Tai Fung Dumpling House (194 Xinyi Road, Section 2; tel: 011-886-2-2321-8928; www.dintaifung.com.tw), it was clear that not everyone comes to Taipei for the history. Instead they all seemed to be lined up for lunch at the city’s hottest dumpling emporium. The Japanese arrive here by the salivating tour-bus full — their presence confirming the quality of the food inside, for the Japanese know their dumplings.

A tour of the spotless white kitchen revealed tight clusters of young men in white baseball caps, white shirts, aprons, trousers and gloves, huddled over sheets of off-white noodle dough with the concentrated intensity of brain surgeons. Small wonder The New York Times rated Din Tai Fung one of the 10 best restaurants in the world.

We also dropped into Silks Palace (221 Chih-shan Road, Section 2; tel: 011-886-2-2882-9393; www.silkspalace.com.tw), a large, opulently designed $13-million restaurant at the National Palace Museum. Silks Palace’s “Imperial Treasures Feast” creates dishes that replicate some of the museum’s finest gems.

For instance, a Ching Dynasty bok choy carved from jade with a katydid and a locust resting on its leaves, in its edible form became a miniature bok choy, the insects reproduced by two tiny sergestid shrimp (a deep-dwelling crustacean). Although each course had the look of fine art, when we dug in, it didn’t take long to notice that the dishes didn’t taste quite as imperial as they looked. My friends put this down to the restaurant’s elaborate decor: “The rule in Taiwan is, the uglier the restaurant, the better the food.”

Inspiration Point

That saying proved to be true the day we stopped at an unpretentious roadside restaurant called Shen Yen (326 Hebin Road, Luodong, Yilan; tel: 011-886-3-965-2628) in the northwestern city of Yilan, 55 kilometres from Taipei. When most people think of teppanyaki, images of steak sizzling on an iron griddle and chefs whirling their super-sharp blades arise. But here the young chef does his sword work with seafood: slices of cold tuna are enrobed in a hot Parmesan shell; grilled lobster Thermidor and velvety pork liver are topped with a slice of green onion and a dollop of wasabi-flavoured fish roe, the whole concoction wrapped in a thin but succulent slice of beef.

We had been careening along the coastal highway that loops over the top of the island and down its eastern coast. Taiwan’s a compact place — all the major attractions are no more than a few hours’ drive from Taipei. Arthur, our driver, has swept-back black hair, mirrored sunglasses and a constant cigarette clutched between his teeth, looking like a hitman from an Asian gangster film, but he was actually a retired cop.

We wanted to reach Taroko Gorge (about 180 kilometres south of Taipei) before sunset, and we just made it. Sheer blue and white marble walls rose hundreds of metres above our heads, ghostly in the twilight and carved by the cobalt waters of the Liwu River surging far below us. The gorge is the central masterpiece of Taroko National Park, a marble Grand Canyon that over the centuries has drawn Chinese painters and poets to limn its otherworldly beauty.

We pulled over at a lookout point and continued for a couple of kilometres on foot, entering the Tunnel of the Nine Turns, which was variously dynamited and carved out of the marble. As the light dimmed, it was hard to distinguish the rushing water below from the blue- and white-striated marble.

Village Roots

Situated on the high Bruwan Plateau and bounded by mountains, the Liwu and the gorge itself, Leader Village Taroko (231-1 Fu Shih Village, Sioulin, Hualien; tel: 011-886-3-861-0111; www.leaderhotel.com) was like no other hotel I’ve ever stayed at. Thirty wood cabins circled a wide grassy area, green peaks rising up behind them and air so clear and thin it acted like a wonderful drug. My room was simplicity itself, two narrow mattresses on a raised wooden platform, a strip of windows giving onto the central courtyard and stout looking wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling.

On closer inspection the beams weren’t wood at all but steel painted brown. At first I assumed these heavy-duty reinforcements were to guard against tumbling boulders, but later learned they’re for earthquake protection — Taroko Gorge is geologically unstable and seismically very active. Nothing like a whiff of danger to whet the appetite.

Village Taroko is built on the site of and imitates the look of an aboriginal tribal village, the guest rooms and circular dining room featuring contemporary weavings, wood carvings and other artwork created by the Taroko tribe, who also staff the hotel. The native chef here — breakfast and dinner are included in the extremely reasonable room rates — skillfully blends aboriginal, Chinese and French gastronomic traditions.

The set evening meal, called “When Wild Boar Met the Eiffel Tower,” is served on a rough-hewn wooden tray. Its 12 courses include a wild vegetable salad made from mountain greens, a bamboo tube stuffed with fragrant glutinous rice, a tangy purple potato salad and a shank of baked wild boar so perfectly done it slid off the bone and so tender you could cut it with your fork.

The next morning, emerging from my cabin after the most profound sleep I’ve experienced in ages, I found my friend relaxing on the front veranda of her cabin. The sun was rising over the mountains that sheltered us, birdsong vibrated the air (there are more than 150 avian species at Taroko National Park) and the pellucid light guilded every blade of grass and all the wild flowers, so that the setting seemed hyper-real, even magical. I asked her what “Taroko” meant. “Magnificent and beautiful,” she answered, with what was surely the understatement of the year, if not the century. Taroko is a very hard place to leave.

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