You might call it China Lite. Taiwan is like a China in miniature – precious, colorful and full of the country’s 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 square miles rather than a continent of 1.4 million square 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.
Indeed, Taiwan has survived and adapted to continuous colonization over the past 500 years, from the Portuguese to the Dutch to the Japanese over the first half of the 20th century, and then the waves of Nationalist Chinese from the mainland who have taken the country to the present.
But they took with them some of the finest treasures of China and created one of the top must sees 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 comprehendible English offered up by an army of scholarly docents and get a rounded and awe-inspiring experience of the museum in what will no doubt be one of the highlights of the visit.
Today Taipei 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 manor of cures, backed by nefarious betel nut stands and tea parlors. And it’s as forward as the Taipei 101 building maintaining the title as tallest building in the world for now, 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 décor. The summer home of Chiang Kai-Shek along these winding roads can be toured for its historic value – seemingly untouched since the early 1960s – and great views of the city. A stop for lunch at Din Tai Fung, a Japanese bath resort in the bamboo woods, brings a lunch like no other with dish after dish of creative Japanese-influenced Fujian culinary prowess. (http://www.dintaifung.com.tw)
The city of Taipei is blessed with a modern and efficient metro system that takes visitors to city hot spots 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-dos” in Taipei is a tour of the 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 spot, 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 to the good luck gods monitoring the crowds from every crevice. The area is a fun area to explore both day and night. Find storefront reflexology shops here as well as electronics stores, hole in the wall cafes and famous Snake Alley where you can have your noodles with a serpent or two.
Art buffs can check out the Taipei Museum of Modern Art, located in the north side of the city near the historic Grand Hotel. This building is as modern as its contents and, unlike other museums, is open until 9:30 pm.
You can also find Asia’s largest collection of “miniatures” at the Miniatures Museum of Taiwan. With more than 150 doll houses and all manor of recreations of such icons as Buckingham Palace and palace rooms, a Colorado mountain street scene circa 1912, the ruins of ancient Rome, the salon of the French King Louis XV, even a scene from the Phantom of the Opera, the displays do not hail from China or Taiwan but warrant a visit none the less.
Taipei is not the best stop when it comes to shopping. Prices at malls and boutiques go toe to toe with their counterparts in the US in quality and pricing. The Saturday Jade Market should not be missed for those looking to pick up a suitcase of souvenirs at basement prices. Offer a quarter of the asking prices and move up from there. If it is jade you want, scrape it first. Assume precious stones are plastic. Get there early and enjoy the fun.
Hotel choices? Consider the Grand Hotel, a ghostly and atmospheric hold over from the days of Chiang (ave rates start at $100 night). Westin and Hyatt have properties in Taipei and Eva Airlines’ Evergreen Laurel operates a 100-room, non-smoking hotel in downtown Taipei with a health center and spa. The plasma television comes with 24 free movies to watch and the tubs in most rooms are Jacuzzi tubs. Ave. rates start at $200 per night.
The centrally located United Hotel is a cost-effective option with clean and modern rooms, all with Internet and marble bathrooms. Although many of the rooms do not have views, the convenience and comfort of the property more than make up for that. Rooms start at around $132 per and that includes breakfast.