Friday, 6 November, 2015
When travel guides failed Jesse Duffield, he did what any imaginative vegan would do and created his own.
When I began travelling a decade ago it didn’t occur to me to buy a guidebook, or to search for travel resources online. After much trial and error, and plenty of missed opportunities, I discovered the merits of guidebooks, and quickly settled on the Lonely Planet as being the best available. I carried it religiously, and, as far as I was concerned, all the best things to see and places to go were just a matter of turning to the right page.
But after settling in Taiwan I soon realised how little effort had been made on behalf of vegetarian and vegan travellers. I spent my first two weeks living on Subway sandwiches, and I remember one Friday night trekking across Taipei in search of what I now know would have been at best a typical buffet of the type found in every neighbourhood, if it had been there at all. And little did I know that I was walking past vegetarian restaurants every day on my way to work, but just didn’t recognise them. It became clear that the authors of my trusted guidebook hadn’t even had a five-minute conversation with a local vegetarian before penning the “Vegetarians and Vegans” paragraph, as the most basic information such as how to find vegetarian restaurants was incorrect. And none of the city’s top vegetarian restaurants were recommended (they still aren’t). In Taiwan faux meat is very common, but unfortunately most of it contains dairy and egg products, and in 2009 a government survey found that over half of the samples they tested contained real meat. But unfortunately most foreign visitors and residents believe the Lonely Planet’s claim that it’s all vegan, as I did for many years. Worse still, the paragraph titled “Vegetarians and Vegans” in the Lonely Planet Japan begins with “Travellers who eat fish will have no problems in Japan” and doesn’t get much better.
It was around this time in 2009, inspired by Herwin Walraven’s Japan Vegan Pocketguide (now out of print) and his associated blog, that I started a small blog of my own, where I introduced readily-available vegan food, notable restaurants and some popular outings which combined city attractions with top vegan restaurants. I also put together a similar blog while living in Japan.
As I travelled more I found it easier to combine travel itineraries from guidebooks with restaurants from HappyCow and vegan blogs. But this need always frustrated me, especially for short trips or when I had limited time to prepare. After all, isn’t that what guidebooks are for in the first place? I also wanted my blogs to do more than just help vegans survive in the countries that I’ve come to think of as home: I wanted to introduce their cultures, their histories and their top travel destinations, all from a vegan perspective. Thus the concept of Vegan Travel Guides was born: Vegans shouldn’t need to choose between a hungry Lonely Planet walking tour of city attractions or the top vegan restaurants from HappyCow, or spend hours in preparation combining the two.
So in 2014 I left my international teaching career to begin writing my first guidebook, starting with Taiwan, which has recently developed into the vegan heart of Asia. Over a dozen vegan restaurants have opened in Taipei in the last five years, and in 2009 (in response to the ‘fake meat scare’) the government introduced the world’s most comprehensive vegetarian food labelling system, making it easy to find vegan food even in the country’s ubiquitous convenience stores. And in built-up areas there’s usually a vegetarian restaurant within walking distance. Taiwanese are also very friendly and welcoming to foreigners, and travel here is safe, convenient and inexpensive. Taiwan is widely considered Asia’s most underrated tourist destination, even among omnivores.
Unlike traditional ‘vegan guides’, most of which are directories of vegan businesses designed to supplement other guidebooks, Taiwan, A Travel Guide for Vegans covers every aspect of travel to this country, including planning, preparation, sights, activities, restaurants, accommodation, safety, public transport and everything else a traveller needs to know in order to get the most out of their holiday. Much of this information is the same as in any other guidebook, except that it’s all written from a vegan perspective. Attractions and nearby vegan restaurants are listed on the same itineraries, and are presented together on the same offline maps, which can be clicked through to open in Google Maps. A complete offline map of all restaurants and attractions is also available (for Android devices only) but must be set up in advance. My first edition for Taiwan covers Northern Taiwan, including all the common attractions that most first-time travellers are likely to reach in up to around ten days. A more condensed edition, Taipei in Four Days, is also available. If this project is successful I intend to expand the first edition to cover the rest of Taiwan.
I have been a HappyCow fan for many years, and am currently the ‘Ambassador’ (volunteer contact) for Taipei, so I’ve added or updated the restaurants I’ve visited during my several months of travel and research for this guidebook. Vegan Travel Guides are designed to integrate with Happycow, not compete with it. Restaurant recommendations include the name and address (in English and in Chinese), price range, cuisine style, a photo, and a brief review and description. They also include links to the restaurant’s own website or Facebook page, and Happycow, so trusted reviews from the vegan community are just a click away.
Vegans come from all walks of life, and have different interests and different purposes for travelling. Of the first two emails I received about my guidebook, one visitor wanted to study Buddhism and the other wanted to know about Taipei’s gay night-life scene. Of course these interests needn’t be mutually exclusive, but the two travellers will probably have quite different experiences in Taiwan. It’s unlikely, however, that either of them will go to Hualien Ocean Park, a dolphinarium recommended by most conventional travel guides which abuses dolphins captured in Taiji, Japan (made famous by The Cove). There are dozens of guidebooks available for most travel destinations, all catering to different interests, budgets and styles of travel, and I believe that it’s time for one which is based on respect for all sentient beings. Compassion for animals shouldn’t cause the traveller any inconvenience or require extra preparation.
When I travel to a new country I like to learn a little about its history, culture and religions, especially if they promote vegetarianism or veganism. I have always enjoyed reading this section of guidebooks while travelling. But again vegetarians are let down here: the third largest religion in Taiwan (I Kuan Tao), for example, is hardly mentioned in most guidebooks, yet they run most of the country’s vegetarian restaurants, and also many ‘Chinese vegetarian’ restaurants around the world. And in Asia, where most vegetarians belong to religious or spiritual groups, being able to identify the religion (if any) of a restaurant owner often helps to ensure a vegan meal, especially in Taiwan where unfortunately many chefs turn a blind eye to dairy or egg ingredients in food. I explore common misconceptions about what’s vegan in my guidebook, but the majority of restaurants I recommend are completely vegan.
The travel industry is in a state of flux, and guidebook sales are plummeting as increasing numbers of travellers forego guidebooks altogether in place of free, crowd-sourced websites such as Wikitravel and Tripadvisor. Understandably, this preference appears to be even stronger among vegans, who have accepted the necessity of using at least one source of information to plan where to go, and another to choose where to eat.
But I still believe that there’s a place for the humble guidebook, and I hope that mine will save the visitor to Taiwan many hours of planning, and make travel easier and more convenient. I have taken into account the opening hours of all attractions and vegan restaurants, and considered crowds, weather and even top restaurants which have limited weekday menus. This makes it possible to plan a trip on the plane (please check the Taipei weather forecast first) or skim an itinerary over breakfast and then set out for the day. I have also included Chinese names and addresses for all restaurants and attractions, as these are essential when asking for help in Taiwan. (English is widely spoken here, and Taiwanese are very helpful to visitors, but addresses are not well understood in English.)
In light of climate change, there is a compelling case to be made against non-essential international travel, and vegans who travel regularly can have carbon footprints comparable to omnivores. But we also support the growth of veganism around the world, and (as well as obvious benefits for animals) nothing can have such a positive impact on the climate and the Earth as a whole than the rise of veganism. This is especially so in Japan, where many top vegan restaurants serve more foreign customers than locals, and few vegetarian restaurants survive longer than a year or two. The vegan population is growing, international travel is becoming more affordable and vegan travellers are everywhere. There are guidebooks especially for tourists and backpackers and birdwatchers and skiers and cyclists and LGBTQ+ travellers. It’s time that there were guidebooks for vegans too.
By Jesse Duffield
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