Is Taichung worth visiting? This is a question I’ve been grappling with for years—I never managed to set foot in the city in my near-decade of traveling Taiwan.
My first impression upon arriving this morning was a good one. After stopping for a moment to marvel at Taichung’s futuristic new station building juxtaposed with its historical facade, I walked through several streets filled with friendly immigrants from Southeast Asia, then passed the city’s eponymous central park to my hotel.
My room wasn’t yet ready. The clock had just struck 11, however, so I made my way over to Fu Din Wang to try the eatery’s famous lu rou fan.
The Unapologetic Sort
Taichung doesn’t have an MRT system (or at least it won’t until November of this year), so I took advantage of its bike share network (which, like most public transport in Taiwan, uses EasyCard) to begin ticking items off my Taichung bucket list. After a brief stop at Taichung Confucius Temple (which was much better than the one in Tainan, but not quite as impressive as Taipei’s), I stood under the massive Buddha of Paochueh Temple, where I was literally the only human being.
It was difficult not to chalk this up completely to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, although I can’t say that for sure. Certainly, most Taiwanese friends of mine had cast doubts about Taichung’s potential as a tourist destination.
“Is Taichung worth visiting?” my friend Sean (who hails from Tainan) had asked my question back to me when I sought his opinion. “Of course it’s not,” he laughed, first explaining why his hometown was superior, then dismissing Taichung as a smaller and less cosmopolitan version of Taipei.
Certainly, one could conclude that with only a superficial look at Taichung, a case in point being the Taiwan National Museum of Natural History. Although the recipient of much acclaim, it’s housed in a mammoth 1980s monstrosity, the unapologetic sort you can only find in Taiwan.
Prehistory Was Next
This sounds dismissive. Certainly, I was prepared to walk away from the museum without having gone inside, especially once a tubby rent-a-cop threatened to call the actual police on me for riding my bike on the sidewalk he was patrolling.
However, once I entered the museum and began to grasp the painstaking detail work that went into curating each of the dozens of exhibitions, I felt a deep sense of gratitude and humility. The thing about the question of whether Taichung is worth visiting is that you need to be prepared to dive deep.
In spite of the museum’s low-tech, even grungy exterior (and the fact that many of its sections, at least physically, gave off this impression), it surprised me more the longer I stayed inside. The focal point of a thoughtful exhibition on the human life cycle, for example, was a video montage dedicated to a random Taiwanese man who chose to donate his organs (and had to do so relatively early on in his tragically short life).
“Death might become an obligation” read the placard inside the easy-to-miss final work of the collection, which speculated about problems that might arise if humans ever discover immortality. In the distance, I could hear the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” playing—I guessed prehistory was next.
Once you answer the question “Is Taichung worth visiting?” for yourself, do yourself a favor and book a room at the Cloud Hotel. This is easily the nicest place I’ve stayed at in Taiwan outside of Taipei—it’s not close.
After checking into my 11th floor room, which offered a lovely panorama of the unruly Taichung skyline, I biked to the city’s second-most famous museum. The Taiwan National Museum of Fine Arts, to be sure, is housed inside a building much more befitting of its reputation than the Natural History one.
(I can’t say the same for the art, unfortunately. The most interesting aspect of “Sensory Yoga”—scent, and specifically scratch-and-sniff portraits—was inaccessible due to good old Aunt Rona.)
Next up (well, after my longest unbroken stretch of biking—6.7km) was the famous Rainbow Village, which was shockingly uncrowded (almost certainly because of the virus) and about as small and understated as I anticipated. Is Taichung worth visiting? Yes, but only if you know how to temper your expectations upon arriving at Instagram-famous destinations.
On paper, the highlight of my evening was to be bubble milk tea at what might be the birthplace of Taiwan’s national drink, or maybe my stop just before sunset at the ornate Wenchang Temple.
In reality, however, a random slice of pizza at a stall in one of Taichung’s not-so-famous night markets stole the show. It stole the show, and it took me back in time 30 years to a mall pizzeria I used to eat at with younger versions of my mother and siblings, the way only gustatory receptors can stoke memory.
Stoke memory, and pull at heartstrings: I actually felt compelled to send a message to my Mom, whom I’ve been speaking with a lot more as the world burns anyway. Is Taichung worth visiting? Yes, if only for the instant my present linked up with my distant past.