Want to experience the contrasting cultures of Asia in just 24 hours? Come to the Taiwanese capital Taipei, says ELISE RANA.
Clean, safe and welcoming but with enough exoticism and hustle to give that essential thrill of ‘otherness’ that warrants flying half-way around the world, the Taiwanese capital of Taipei is Asia in a nutshell. Towering modern buildings bear witness to the country’s race to the forefront of future global commerce, while the ethnic mix of Han Chinese, Japanese and aboriginal Taiwanese reflects its past, as waves of immigration and foreign occupation have resulted in a fascinating confluence of cultures.
Best of all, follow this itinerary and you can get under its skin in just a day.
9am: Pay your respects (or not) to CKS
The Taiwanese have a love-hate relationship with Chiang Kai-Shek, the Kuomintang military and political leader who in 1950 made Taipei capital of his Republic of China, while the Communists took over the mainland as their People’s Republic of China. Our guide, Tsaio Yichi, tells us of the grumbles of dissent at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall being crowned in imperial yellow, yet up close there’s nothing but reverence for this controversial founding figure (including a sign forbidding entry to those in ‘slovenly dress’). Come before the sun gets too hot and you might catch local people practising T’ai Chi or Chinese opera in the surrounding park.
10am: Talk to the gods
Chinese people are very superstitious,” Yichi tells us. “They ask the gods’ advice on everything.” So here at Long-Shan Temple (‘Dragon Mountain’) – like many in Taiwan, a Taoist temple hidden inside a Buddhist one from when Taoism was outlawed during Japanese rule – you can do the same. Modern-day Taoism is a colourful jumble of ritual, fortune-telling and philosophy, but the basics are, er, simple.
Light your incense (curling heaven-ward, this lets the gods know someone’s praying), then introduce yourself to whichever god is in the shrine you’re at and ask your question. Next, choose a numbered stick from the pots at the side, pick up an adjacent pair of crescent-shaped wooden blocks and throw them on the floor. Only when they land in the ‘yes’ position (one face-up, one face-down) three times have you chosen the right stick – one ‘no’ and you’ll have to pick again.
Once your stick is approved by the gods, take a paper from the pigeonhole with that number on it and read your answer – in archaic, long-winded Chinese. OK, so you’ll need a translator on hand, but as religions go it’s mighty good fun.
11am: Get high
From ancient tradition to gleaming modernity in the form of Taipei 101 – like a giant stick of bamboo made of steel and glass, this 508m, 101-storey building opened last year to become the tallest in the world. Pass the swanky designer stores and head straight for the top – courtesy of the world’s fastest elevator – for views over the whole city and beyond, weather permitting. Closer to ground level, the mall itself makes a decent (and air-conditioned) stop for lunch.
1pm: Art treasures
While the opening up of mainland China has taken its toll on Taiwan’s inbound tourism industry, it’s here that people must come to see the art treasures of Chinese history. Begun under the Sung dynasty, this priceless collection was moved from the mainland in 1949 and, now housed at the National Palace Museum, is Taipei’s biggest draw. From Ming vases and painted scrolls to bejewelled Imperial headresses and carved lacquer boxes, there’s plenty to marvel at, with some workmanship so intricate that it requires a magnifying glass to see the detail. Highlights include the famous ‘Jade Cabbage’ and a chunk of banded jasper carved to resemble, er, a piece of pork.
3pm: Snap the soldiers
Built to honour the ROC’s war dead, the Martyrs’ Shrine is a fairly peaceful place which comes to life every two hours for the brilliant photo-op that is the changing of the guards. Immaculately uniformed and impervious to the tourist throngs, you can get close enough to see your reflection in the guards’ spotlessly polished silver helmets as they march with (literally) military precision from the gate to the shrine and handover with an impressive display of rifle-twirling and salutes.
4pm: Shopping and a cup of tea
Whether you’re in the mood to buy or just browse, if you’re here at the weekend don’t miss these sprawling openair jade and flower markets held underneath a flyover on Chienkuo S Road. (Saturday and Sunday only). If not, go up to the Mao Kong hills to relax for an hour or two over some local brew at a traditional teahouse (see page 96 for more).
After dark: Get among the crowds
As darkness falls, Taipei’s night markets buzz into life with family groups, courting couples and showboating teens turning out en masse to shop, socialise and snack. The vendors of Huasi market, aka ‘Snake Alley’, still draw a few gastrocurious visitors with their menu of snake meat, blood and bile, but for all the macho bluff it’s a somewhat seedy and saddening experience.
Far better to head to the current hotspot of Shilin, where the glitter of consumer temptation allows you to indulge in therapy of the retail persuasion instead – or submit to a back street miracle cure (such as an earwax removal system that involves sticking a giant candle in your ear). Alternatively, just surrender yourself to the frenzy of the food stalls and feast on what takes your fancy, be it oyster omelette, stinky tofu, pearl tea or mango ice. •
• Return flights to Taipei via Bangkok start from £550 with EVA Airways (020-7380 8300; www.evaair.com). For more information on Taiwan, call 020-7928 1600 or see www.taiwan.net.tw.