Story and photography by Barbara Penny Angelakis
TAIWAN - NO LONGER THE OTHER CHINA
Taiwan is a country with one foot anchored in China and the other foot planted firmly in the West. The Taiwanese people are culturally devoted to traditional Chinese values as evidenced by the frequented temples and places of worship - Buddhist, Taoist, Confucius - the adherence to Feng Shui philosophy, family ties and ancestor devotion, but their heart belongs to Western ideology and technology. When in 1949 Chiang Kai-Shek fled Communism and the Chinese mainland and located his government in exile in the small offshore island of Taiwan, he began the transformation of the “beautiful island” - Ile Formosa named during the Portuguese occupation - into a major player in the high-tech world. Taiwan’s successful stride into the 21st century casts a reverse shadow across the Taiwan Strait towards China. Taiwan is no longer the other China, politically or economically, it stands proudly on its own and like King Kong holding on to the Empire State Building, pounds its chest in triumph.
Taiwan’s achievement is reflected by Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest - and most beautiful - buildings at an astounding 509 meters - just shy of 1670 feet high. The building is an engineering marvel, yet built with strict compliance to the principles of Feng Shui. Its functional design resembles the strong and resilient bamboo stalk with 8 distinct levels growing out of the base and its edifice incorporates auspicious iconography, i.e. lucky 8 for good fortune; clouds for heavenly intervention; money dropping from the sky for financial stability. Plus, the building is earthquake and typhoon safe thanks to the mighty wind damper set in the center of the building (between floors 87 to 92) and exposed for viewing like a huge modern sculpture painted a bright sun yellow to represent the center of the building as the Sun is the center of our galaxy. Noteworthy also are the elevators that whisk you upward at a staggering speed of 1,010 meters per minute in a darkened cabinet with a sparkling celestial ceiling. It takes only 40 seconds to reach the observation deck on 89th floor. But for pure sybaritic indulgence a visit to the three floor shopping mall is a fashionista’s dream. The mall features the world’s top designers and fashionable shops dreams are made of. www.taipei-101.com.tw
In Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, 101 is just the crowning glory in a city replete with elegant skyscrapers, splendid bridges, remarkable museums, chic shopping arcades, an extensive metro and above ground state-of-the-art public transportation system, broad tree and flower lined boulevards, and landscaped parks. That all this high-tech modernism exists alongside traditional Chinese style buildings and temple complexes simply boggles the mind and delights the eye.
And if all that wasn’t enough, Taipei has some of the best food around; original, fusion and in combination that makes this capital a go-to destination for all foodies looking for a “new” gastronomic blowout. Taipei is a true epicurean paradise where you will find a great variety of not only Chinese regional and Asian fused styles, but also cuisine merged with the ingredients and preparations of the various nations that at one time or another occupied this tiny island: Japanese, Netherlands, Portugal, France, and England. Enhancing the already exotic mix with Aborigine cuisine - developed out of the superb quality of locally grown produce and the abundance from a sea teaming with fish and seafood - chefs arriving in Taiwan from different Chinese immigrations, including the provinces of Hunan, Sichuan, Beijing, Canton and Shanghai; and most recently emigrants arriving from Thailand, Indian, Korean, and Malaysian; all contributed to the culinary scene and influenced one another causing an explosion in gastronomic creativity. These elements all together have fashioned a unique culinary expression found only in Taipei.
For eclectic eating possibilities you can explore Taipei’s renowned night markets – we visited Shilin but there are numerous others - or, for the more timid, try the food court at the basement of Taipei 101. Never have I seen such a plethora of exotic dishes alongside mainstream fast food items. This is a perfect mouth-watering stop for lunch, snack, or dinner. More fun for me though than the night markets, was a daytime excursion to Danshui, a historic street fronting the Danshui River (also referred to as Tamsui) that winds through Taipei. Reachable by the metro red line or surface transit, Danshui attracts locals and tourists alike. Here you can have a walk along the river all the while sampling traditional and exotic snacks from one stall after another. And if you are feeling the need for a little culture, check out Fort San Domingo just across from Danshui Street. Fort San Domingo was built by the Dutch in 1644 and later refurbished by the British as a consulate office. Next to the fort is the red brick colonial-style Former British Consular Residence originally completed in 1877.
But no visit to Taipei would be complete without tasting the ultimate in what is known as soup dumplings or juicy little buns (Xiao Long Bao) at Din Tai Fung. This famous restaurant was rated by The New York Times as among the top ten restaurants of the world and it was the only Asian one to make the cut. There are several branches so there is no excuse for missing out on this gem. At the location I visited on Zhongxiao East Road, the center of the restaurant is devoted to an enclosed glass kitchen where you can watch a bevy of master bun makers twist 18 folds into each packet of tasty goodness. www.dintaifung.com.tw
We also had lunch at Cha for Tea, a much calmer environment and with a greater variety of choice but where the food was just as delicious. I ordered Wontons and Green Tea Noodles in a flavorsome broth with Shitake Mushrooms and my only regret was that I could not finish the bowl which looked like it could have served the table. www.chafortea.com.tw
Another not to be missed experience is the tea ceremony. No less serious than the Japanese tea experience but far less formal. The hostess, seated at a wooden platform, prepares the tea in a small glass pot on a burner in front of you, and sets out the tiny tasting cups with great flair. Taiwan is a major grower and exporter of Formosa Oolong fragrant tea and a vast variety of orchids, thanks to the rich volcanic soil that supports such superb quality tea, fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
Taipei is a very large city and covers an extensive area with roads and rivers meandering helter-skelter and sightseeing opportunities in virtually every direction. The fast, efficient, clean, silent, metro makes reaching many of the far-flung neighborhoods easier then surface travel due to the upsurge in cars and motor bikes; employing an experienced local guide to maneuver the confusing hodge-podge of streets, alleys, and boulevards cutting across each other in the down-town area, is a must. Thankfully we had Lilly who confidently navigated the bewildering city layout making sure we got a good overview of Taipei’s history and culture.
We began our tour at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, a monumental edifice befitting the first, and longest reining, President of Taiwan. This imposing structure is flanked by the Opera House on the left and the Concert Hall on the right. Optically the two buildings are identical but there is a 5 meter height difference between them making the view - or viewer - seem slightly askew. If you want to put Chiang Kai-Shek and his movement into historical relevance or are simply interested in this colossal shift in Chinese fortunes, by all means visit the monument, but with so many places and things to see, we were content to move on and experience the results of what his move to Taiwan produced first-hand.
Top of the list is a visit to the National Palace Museum, the repository of thousands of ancient art and artifacts from the Neolithic to the end of the Qing dynasty that were brought from the mainland with Chiang Kai-Shek and his army. Exquisite samples of Ming and Tang pottery, furniture, decorative items, jade and other precious stones, are laid out in a handsome high-tech building, built just to house these treasures. It is best to go early to avoid the crowds but if you find yourself in a mob-scene do not panic since the Chinese are disciplined tourists and tend to move in the prescribed direction and not monopolize the showcases as often happens in the west.
Religion has traditionally been one from column A and one from column B in Chinese culture, with disparate religious complexes existing sometimes side by side and worshipers following tenets from several belief systems. So that it was not surprising to find Baoan Temple, the foremost Taoist complex (originally built in 1760 and reconstructed in 1830) around the corner from the National Class Three Historic Site Confucius Temple (built in 1925 over the original 1879 site). The Baoan complex is replete with brightly colored ornate paintings, carvings, sculptures, decorated columns, and roof tiles, and provides eye candy galore, while the more sedate and refined Confucius building complex presents an ambiance conducive to reflection and contemplation. Understandable because simply speaking, Confucius was the great teacher while Taoism is renowned for healing arts. While similarities exist in layout and decoration in the two complexes the feeling is very different and both deserve much more than just a passing glance or photo op.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen is considered the Father of the Nation of the Republic of China. As a revolutionary he was instrumental in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty based on his Three Principles of the People: nationalism, democracy, and the people’s livelihood. He is revered on both the mainland and in Taiwan and our next visit was to his memorial hall in time for the daily changing of the guard ceremony performed with great pomp and circumstance. Afterwards we visited the galleries that described his life and times.
In keeping with the international flavor of Taipei, a number of new 5-star hotel properties are on tap to open by year’s end. Watch for the Le Méridien Taipei which brings French savoir-flair (sic) to center city and the trendy and trend-setting W Taipei to make an entry on the hotel scene with a themed (very hush hush) destination style hotel. My stay in Taipei was broken up by the Taroko Gorge visit so initially I stayed at the Sheraton Taipei near the Railway Station and on the return, the Westin Taipei on famous Nanjing shopping street. Both properties are conveniently located in the heart of the city with easy access to sightseeing, shopping, and mass transportation, and are state-of-the-art modern luxury hotels catering to an international business and tourist clientele. Every convenience and service is available including large comfortable bedrooms or suites, efficient bathrooms with luxury amenities – let us not forget to mention Toto commodes and separate shower stalls and bathtubs - butler service on the Executive floors, pool and exercise facilities, and international restaurants for your dining preference. I found the staffs to be polite, efficient, multi-lingual, and eager to welcome you to their country. In other words whatever you need for home away from home is provided with a smile and a friendly greeting. www.sheraton-taipei.com and www.westin.com/taipei
Transportation was with Taiwan’s own EVA Airlines serving Gateway destinations world-wide. EVA has direct service to Taipei through most major cities in Europe and North America, with connecting service to all of Asia. For a complete list visit www.evaair.com EVA’s Laurel Garden VIP Lounge at Taipei Airport is wonderfully equipped and provides a great respite for their Diamond Card holder members. A complimentary bar and freshly prepared treats, both hot and cold, are available and refreshed frequently.
For information on Taiwan visit www.taiwan.net.tw
© August 2010 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.