Asia

Taipei & Beyond

written by | Posted on April 1st, 2009

You might call it China Lite. Taiwan is like a China in miniature—full of the grace and culture but without the crowds and concerns. And as an island less than 100 miles off China’s southeast coast measuring around 14,000 sq. miles rather than a continent of 1.4 million sq. miles, Taiwan is ultimately travel friendly. In fact, you can see it, know it, experience it and learn to love it in less than a week.

Starting with its clean, contemporary and efficient transit system, everything in this country is within a few hours of Taipei. Road systems, too, are safe and modern with road signs in English. What you don’t have in Taiwan is overcrowding, trash on the streets, throngs of homeless, overbearing traffic congestion and a concern for crime.

“Tourism is easy in Taiwan mostly because we have so many must-sees and must-do’s and also because our people are particularly friendly and hospitable,” says Trust Hsin-Jan Lin, director, Taiwan Travel Section, at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles. “Our whole foundation and history is based on tolerance and helping each other, otherwise we would not have survived. You can go anywhere in Taiwan—look at our night markets—and feel safe and welcomed.”

Indeed, Taiwan has survived and adapted to continuous colonization over the past 500 years, from the Portuguese to the Dutch to the Japanese, and then the waves of Nationalist Chinese from the mainland who have taken the country to the present.

They took with them some of the finest treasures of China and created one of the top must-see’s in Asia: the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The Chinese fleeing Mao’s revolutionary forces smuggled more than 650,000 of China’s most revered artifacts across the lands on the backs of donkeys and inside the folds of clothing and into a collection that, at the rate of rotating the items every three months, would still take more than 30 years to see in its entirety. Among the exhibits are collections of miniatures that defy the human eye, or carved layers of balls, inside of balls, inside of balls that defy human reasoning. Visitors can take a 90-minute tour in comprehensible English offered by scholarly docents and get a rounded and awe-inspiring experience of the museum in what will no doubt be one of the highlights of a visit to Taiwan.

Taipei, the country’s capital, is a thriving frenzy of neon and night markets, culinary poetry, Confucian and Taoist temples, coffee bistros, fashion boutiques and glistening malls. It’s as traditional as centuries-old temples and Japanese onsens shrouded in nature, or snake parts and odd herbal elixirs served up in steamy alleys selling all manner of cures, backed by nefarious betel nut stands and tea parlors. And it’s as forward as the Taipei 101 building, now the second tallest building in the world, standing over a gleaming modern metropolis as busy and buzzing as any business capital in the world.

A few days in Taipei can shower new experiences on visitors eager to know Asia in all its authentic grace. A venture to the north side of the city brings the historic mountain area of Yang Ming Shan National Park with its roiling rivers of soothing warm mineral waters and its lineup of Japanese bath resorts preserved and offering sybaritic services along with creative dining and stunningly simple period decor. A stop for lunch at Din Tai Fung, a Japanese bath resort in the bamboo woods, brings a lunch like no other with creative Japanese-influenced Fujian cuisine.

Clients will appreciate the fact that Taipei is blessed with a modern and efficient metro system that takes visitors to city hotspots with ease and simplicity. English is included in all signage and announcements. Passes are purchased on site for fares of 60 cents to $1.80 depending on distance, and most hotels, markets, business and shopping districts are within easy walking distance to an MRT stop.

Among the must-do’s in the city is a tour of the Taipei 101 building. A ride to the top takes you above the clouds and visitors get a chance to orient themselves in the unparalleled views as well as learn why the building does not topple over during earthquakes. A visit to Longshong Temple is in order as it is full of stories painted and preserved in the walls—from the story of the site, signaled by a shining amulet in 1738, to the stones in the courtyard that once served as ballast for ships crossing the treacherous Taiwan Straits and the good luck gods monitoring the crowds from every crevice. The area is a fun one to explore both day and night. Here, travelers will find storefront reflexology shops, electronic stores, hole in the wall cafes and famous Snake Alley, where they can have their noodles with a serpent or two.