By Kaye Albyt
When I told people I was heading to Taiwan, they were - without exception - intrigued.
I scratched my head and realised that despite having been to several countries in Asia, Taiwan simply hadn't been on my radar in the past. Perhaps it's because I didn't know of any clear air links, but that's changed now with China Airlines flying there via Brisbane and Air New Zealand planning to touch down in Taipei later this year.
So, now was a great time to strike.
We hit the ground running when we landed in Taipei after an overnight flight.
The fast train from the airport got us to our hotel, the Amba Taipei Songshan, in no time. We donned shorts and T-shirts as our bodies adjusted to coming from a New Zealand winter with daytime temperatures of around 12 degrees, to a balmy 32 degrees.
Our first stop was a temple. Oh no! Would our Taiwan travels be the equivalent of churches and cathedrals in Europe? Well, this temple was different.
The Confucius Temple turned out to be an interactive experience. With its colourful, sweeping and ornately decorated roofs and a pond outside (to provide water in the old days, in case of a fire), we stepped inside and were soon recruited to twist, fold and bend red paper to make Confucius scholar hats.
The next challenge was a 4D animated movie that explained Confucius teachings. Now, I know about 3D, but 4D? Turns out the 4D part of it came just as we started relaxing in the dark, air-conditioned auditorium.
The eyelids became heavier and we began to slip into a state of blissful slumber when... well, I won't tell you what happens next! Suffice to say that I was jolted back into wakefulness with an unexpected technical blast coming from the back of my seat!
It made me laugh and I spent the rest of the movie bracing myself for another cunning surprise.
The day was ticking on by this stage and we headed to Elephant Mountain to see the sunset over Taipei. They say it's good to exercise before and after long flights and the climb up the steps to the lookout point certainly would have helped to keep potential blood clots at bay. But if you take it at a slow pace, you don't have to be particularly fit to reach the top.
From the lookout, the orange setting sun glowed on our next destination, the Taipei 101 Skyscraper, which dominates the city skyline. The building was once the world's highest and there's a Guinness Book of Records certificate to prove it.
At 508m, it's currently the eighth highest skyscraper in the world and is credited with numerous engineering feats, including the speedy elevators that get passengers to the 89th observation deck in just over 30 seconds.
You then take the stairs another two flights to reach an outdoor area, where the colourful lights of the huge city twinkle and flash below. An attraction for the mechanical-minded is the huge steel suspended pendulum that offsets movements when strong gusts hit the structure.
All this activity works up a mighty appetite and it's time to experience a culinary highlight of Taiwan, a steamed dumpling or two, or three or four, at a restaurant near the base of the tower.
We had intended to visit one of the many night markets, but by this time, we'd been on the sightseeing beat for hours and needed sleep to do justice to the rest of the week.
Over the next seven days in Taiwan, we saw an ancient Egyptian stone queen, visited a rainbow village, contorted pastry into dumplings and had dinner on a toilet seat.
I touched down in Taiwan not really knowing what to expect, but found a country of warm-hearted people, a plethora of interesting places to visit and the best Asian food I've ever tasted. Taiwan is now firmly on my radar of destinations.
THINGS TO KNOW:
- English is presented everywhere in Taipei, including on road sign posts. Children start to learn the language in pre-school and we found someone always came to our aid when as we stood on the street hunched over the GPS on our mobile phones debating which direction we needed to head in.
- Getting around: The Taipei MRT, or metro train system, makes it easy to get out and about. Either buy your ticket via a real person at a station kiosk or at one of the machines which take you through the process in English. Travel is cheap too.
- Tipping: In general, it's not expected.
- Night Markets are everywhere and easy to reach via the metro. Stall holders don't barter, but will do a deal if you're buying more than one item. They also don't chase you down the road, tugging at your shirt in an effort to get a sale as they do in some other countries!
- Transit Taiwan: Taiwan offers an amazing free half day tour for passengers who are in transit for several hours or on an overnight stopover in the country. Free is good!