Learn to make bubble tea at the Chun Shui Tang teahouse in Taichung. // © 2014 Shane Nelson
Speaking in what sounds like patient Mandarin, the instructor taps my arm lightly with an arrow and smiles, so I know I’m not holding the bow correctly — again.
“He’s asking you to lower your elbow a little,” says Teresa Ken. She’s been my Taiwanese guide for the past couple of days and is translating the lessons the smiling instructor has been offering me for about 10 minutes.
I do my best to comply, lowering the arm that’s pulling back on the bow’s string, and then I hold my position, aiming the bow and arrow in my hands toward a blue straw target a little more than 10 yards in front of me.
The three of us are in the grass of a rustic archery range at the Natural Way Six Arts Cultural Center in Taichung, Taiwan, the country’s third largest city and home to about two million people.
Dedicated to the six Confucius arts — ritual, music, computation, chariot riding, calligraphy, and, of course, archery — the Natural Ways facility offers residents and visitors a chance to dabble in each discipline. The compound consists of a collection of traditionally designed buildings connected by handsomely landscaped outdoor spaces.
I jumped at the chance to try a little archery, but since the last time I held a bow was as a middle school student at summer camp in the Oregon mountains, instruction was certainly required. After just 10 minutes, I was already seeing results. My last shot actually hit the target support, an improvement over of my earlier efforts that bounced off the bamboo fence behind the target.
The instructor puts his hands on my shoulders again and adjusts the height of my aim, speaking in that same calm Mandarin.
“He’s saying aim a little higher,” Ken translates behind me.
I raise the bow some, a bit more than seems appropriate, and exhale before letting the arrow fly. And bingo: I’ve actually hit the designated target this time. I’m still quite a ways from the bull’s-eye, but I’m definitely getting better.
About 2.5 hours southwest of Taipei by car, Taichung offers travelers a chance to explore another of the country’s sprawling urban centers while taking in some top-notch cultural experiences.
After my archery lesson, Ken took me over to the Chun Shui Tang teahouse, where I had a chance to make my own bubble tea. For those unfamiliar with the drink, it’s a sweetened, chilled tea that often includes what are generally referred to as pearls, or little tapioca balls.
The drink gets its bubble name from the many little bubbles produced when you shake up all the ingredients — sugar, milk, boiling tea and ice — in a little contraption similar to what bartenders use for cocktails.
There is apparently some dispute about who invented bubble tea, but I was told most stakeholders in the argument generally agree that the folks at Chun Shui Tang in Taichung came up with the idea back in the 1980s. Stopping by the shop and mixing up your own batch using the company’s high quality ingredients is certainly a great time offering lots of laughs. It’s also a fun activity for kids, who will enjoy the sweet payoff after all the mixing and shaking. Plus, it’s tough to beat any type of cool drink in the muggy Taiwan heat.
Another Taichung highlight is the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, opened in 1988 and home to an impressive collection of painting, sculpture and photography. During my visit, the museum was also showcasing a number of high-tech visual installations featuring kaleidoscopic imagery and pulsating sound, all of which seemed to be very popular with viewers.
I spent much of my time in the museum’s exhibition space for paintings, home to a striking variety of traditional landscape works and modern pieces that provided an unexpected and rich diversity of treasures. And while not all of the artwork in the museum is by Taiwanese artists, much of it is, so the institution provides a terrific contrast to the renowned National Palace Museum in Taipei, which houses primarily imperial works from mainland China.
To finish off the day, Ken took me to an indigenous Taiwanese restaurant called Gulu Gulu, which is only a few blocks from the National Museum of Fine Arts. We sampled a range of Paiwan cuisine here and enjoyed a refreshingly light millet wine drink and a tasty twist on a traditional dish known as “ah vai,” made from sticky white rice, pork and peanuts wrapped up in moist leaves and served with a spicy dipping sauce.
The restaurant owner, a chef and musician who plays traditional Paiwan tunes in the evening while folks dine, grew up in a small indigenous village in southeastern Taiwan. His restaurant is a casual, lively place decorated with a range of bright murals and artwork inspired by the culture of his indigenous tribe, who arrived long before the first Chinese settled the island and actually share a tremendous amount of genetic similarity with Polynesians from the South Pacific.