Beautiful, dusty, historic Tainan

A 399-year-old city of 1.8 million, established by the Dutch, just 30 minutes from Kaohsiung by train…

Heart-shaped padlocks attached to rusty metal bars, with a city view in the distance.
View from the observation tower at Anping Old Fort, Tainan. Photo: Zhen-Kang.

Tainan is the oldest city in Taiwan. And it feels old. It’s hard to say why—it has some new buildings and plenty of life—but beautiful, dusty, historic pretty-much sums it up.

Think of languid summers. Rocking chairs on a creaking porch. Intriguing second-hand shops. Warm hues, good smells, bad wiring. Banyan trees. Lanterns. Rust. Tainan!

Last week, I joined a friend for a day trip to this special city. We caught a train from Kaohsiung Station to Tainan Station, where we rented a scooter for the day…

Passengers queueing to board an orange-and-silver railway carriage. A sign on the carriage says “Mountain Line – 6 – To Qidu”.
We boarded the train at an underground platform at Kaohsiung Station. Around 15km of track through Kaohsiung has been undergrounded and replaced with trees, grass, and cycle paths at ground level. It’s an impressive green corridor through the busiest parts of the city.
Interior of a train carriage. All seats appear to be taken. There are four seats in each row; two either side of the aisle.
A man was in one of our allocated seats. My friend showed him our tickets and he moved without issue. (Local protocol allows anyone to take any seat, so long as they’re prepared to move if asked.) The train carriage was very quiet. People spoke softly, and I could barely hear the quintessential train sounds.
People standing on an outdoor platform at Tainan Station. The train is visible to the left. The platform has a older-style wrought-iron roof structure.
Thirty minutes later, we were in Tainan. The platform’s open-air wrought-iron structure contrasted sharply with Kaohsiung Station’s designer ceilings and LED lighting.
A motorbike with the licence plate MHC9881 in the foreground, with dozens of other scooters parked either side of the road.
We crossed the road to rent a scooter from one of many rental businesses outside the station. MHC9881 was our ride for the day. It cost NT$200 (NZ$10) for 12 hours, including fuel. The speedo didn’t work but the cellphone holder was excellent.
Rows of motorcycle helmets stacked against a wall.
I selected my helmet from the big-head section, and then we were off!
People queueing outside a local take-out breakfast shop.
First stop was this local breakfast shop, about 15 minutes from the station.
An outstretched hand holding a paper bag labelled “thank you, it’s delicious”. A pastry snack is protruding from the bag.
I ate this traditional breakfast pastry: a clay oven roll and fried bread stick (燒餅油條). It comprised a slightly sweet, churro-shaped-but-soft bread stick, wrapped in the crispy sesame-flavored clay oven roll. I agreed with the “thank you, it’s delicious” sentiment.
The soya milk was hǎo hē (a delicious drink).
Scooters parked alongside a road in Tainan. A historic-looking wall is visible on the far side of the road.
Next, we parked up…
An adult and child buying tickets from a small window. Signage is in Chinese.
…Bought NT$50 (NZ$2.50) tickets from a hole in the wall…
…And entered the gates to Fort Provintia / Chihkan Tower (赤嵌樓). It was built by Dutch colonists 370 years ago, but destroyed during an earthquake in 1862. It was then rebuilt by a local magistrate in 1886, who envisaged using it as an education space. But it was converted to a military hospital during the Japanese era (1895–1945), before being restored in the second-half of the 20th Century.
Dozens of large koi swimming in a fish pond.
There were many koi in this pond beneath the tower.
Nine statues of bixi (half-dragon, half-tortoise) creatures carrying upright stone tablets on their backs.
Also beneath the tower were these nine “bixi carrying imperial steles”. They were comissioned by the emperor in 1786, after he composed five poems about the governor-general’s suppression of a local rebellion. The bixi are half-dragon, half-tortoise, and especially suited to carrying heavy weights. The steles (standing blocks) on their backs include engravings that translate to “made by the emperor”, plus the emperor’s original five poems. Local legend says there were originally 10 bixi at the fort, but for unknown reasons, one ran away. If I was half-dragon, half-tortoise, I might also have better things to do.
An archway in the grounds of Fort Provintia / Chihkan Tower.
We proceeded through this archway and climbed the steps to the tower. Note the group of cyclists on the balcony—one of many tour groups moving through the grounds.
A group of approximately 20 cyclists looking at the view from the balcony, above some stone tablets and a stone staircase.
Steles, steps, and cyclists.
Cyclists entering Chihkan Tower.
We followed them into the tower…
Inside the top floor of Chihkan Tower. Two people are looking at wooden models of historic ships in a glass case.
…Where the quiet upper level featured models of historic ships.
View of the park-like grounds around Chihkan Tower, through a silhouetted wooden window frame.
I liked this view out the window.
A hexagonal wooden container full of pencils, and an instruction sheet alongside it labelled “How to ask for Lord Kui Xing Pencil”. Step 1: Cast the divination blocks until you get a ‘yes’ answer with oine block flat and the other block round. Step 2: Make a donation as you please. Step 3: Take only one pencil at a time. Below the instructions, a diagram shows the combination of blocks that indicate “Yes”, “No”, or “Smiling”.
Back downstairs, the cyclists had left so I was able to follow these instructions to “ask for Lord Kui Xing Pencil”. Others were waiting behind me so I didn’t get a photo of the divination blocks—but they’re essentially wooden blocks shaped like segments of an orange. You drop them on the floor and interpret their alignment per the instructions. I was denied a pencil on my first attempt, but good fortune shined on me when I tried again. I’m very happy with my Lord Kui Xing Pencil.
Inside the ground floor of Chihkan Tower. A statue of a god is at center, with tourists standing around. A rack of wooden handing cards is on the right.
This was the divination area. You could also buy wooden tags on which to write wishes (at far right), but my wish for a Lord Kui Xing Pencil had already come true so I didn’t want to be greedy.
Two cans of Cheng Gong beer.
I saw this beer in the gift shop. Emperor approved. But it was 11:30am so I bought a God of Literature bookmark instead.
Bags of Fort Zealandia French Fries, with Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ panting on the packaging.
I also saw but didn’t buy these Girl with a Pearl Earring french fries.
Touchscreen order system for iced tea.
We left the gift shop and bought some tea across the road. We were required to order on this touchscreen.
Two hands holding two cups of iced tea.
It was around 27ºC and very humid. The iced tea was great.
A local temple in Tainan.
Wandering the lanes and alleys, we came across Tainan Grand Matsu Temple. It was fine for us to carry our iced teas inside.
Two people praying inside a temple.
A steady stream of people arrived to pray at various points in the temple. They seemed completely unbothered by two outsiders walking around with iced tea. It was a peaceful and inclusive space.
People burning hoss paper in a decorative incinerator-type structure outside a temple.
Back outside, people were writing wishes on joss paper and burning them for good luck.
A typical side street in Tainan.
We explored more side streets…
A narrow alleyway, paved in red brick with scooters parked on the left side. A mess of tangled electric cables hangs overhead.
…And laneways. Note the tangled cables overhead.
Customers eating outside a restaurant. The counter opens on to the street, with open-air stools and tables around the building.
Tainan is the food capital of Taiwan. We tried a couple of local dishes for lunch, but both had challenging flavors that were too strong for me to enjoy. This was the first—extremely popular—restaurant we stopped at, where we queued a long time for a table.
A steel bowl of taro glutinous rice smothered in a rich brown sauce, with wooden chopsticks resting on the bowl.
This was the second dish I tried, at restaurant #2: taro glutinous rice, with super-salty sauce.
A Pujei Bakery paper shopping bag, hanging on a scooter.
We then went to the super-famous Pujei Bakery, and queued perhaps 20 or 30 minutes to get inside. It was packed, and we shuffled through selecting items off the shelves, as they were repeatedly replenished fresh from the oven. The smell was incredible. Between us, we bought five loaves of their most famous bread, sharing one as soon as we left the shop.
A loaf of bread from Pujei Bakery.
Literally the nicest bread I’ve ever eaten. There are no words.
A roofless brick room with tree branches and roots growing through the window and along the walls and floor.
Our next stop was the extraordinary Anping Tree House (安平樹屋). Like the Chihkan Tower, it was just NT$50 (NZ$2.50) to enter. The building had been deserted in the middle of last century. Banyan trees subsequently grew through and around the house. This is an inside room…
Exterior wall of the Anping Tree House, with banyan trees smothering the structure.
…And here, an exterior wall.
The Tait & Co. Merchant House, a whitewashed concrete mansion with wide arched verandahs on both levels.
Next door, the Tait & Co. Merchant House (1867) housed a museum of trade; charting Taiwan’s economic activity and trade patterns over the past 400 years. My inner econ grad was singing.
People walking along Anping Old Street in Tainan.
We took a walk along nearby Anping Old Street, which was quiet on a Monday. We bought some dried mango and dried kiwifruit from the famous Chycutayshing shop. Delicious.
The grounds of Anping Old Fort, with the fort structure visible in the distance.
Around the corner, we explored Anping Old Fort (Fort Zeelandia / 熱蘭遮城). Also just NT$50 (NZ$2.50) to enter. It built by the Dutch in the 1600s. The original three-story stepped structure, which still stands, was built with bricks imported from Java. (The white tower is a more recent addition.) According to “The Dutch ruled most of Taiwan until 1661 when they were defeated by Ming Loyalists lead by Koxinga. Koxinga sieged fort Zeelandia, for nine months, killing 1,600 of the Dutch people there before they surrendered due to lack of water. The victory at Zeelandia proved to be the end of 38 years of Dutch rule in Taiwan.”
The layered brick walls of Anping Old Fort.
A closer look at the restored walls of the fort.
The mansion house atop Anping Old Fort. It is a single-level concrete structure with a wide arched verandah.
On top, there was a museum in this mansion built during the Japanese era (1895–1945)…
…This canon built during the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912)…
Viewing tower at Anping Old Fort.
…And the viewing tower, restored in 1975.
Looking down the tower staircase, from near the top.
We climbed to the top…
View across Tainan from Anping Old Fort Tower. Rusted metal grates cover the opening, with heart-shaped padlocks and paper notes attached.
…And enjoyed evening views across the city, through rusted grates adorned with heart-shaped locks. A charming end to a day in beautiful, dusty, historic Tainan.