Imagine there was a country full of ancient Chinese culture, bustling modern cities, fancy hotels and cultural delicacies. Closer to New Zealand than China-proper and one we can visit without the visa complications of the People’s Republic.
Well, it’ll come as no surprise to you - assuming you read the title of this article - that such a place exists. It’s called Taiwan.
Fresh off our China Airlines flight, we mill about Taipei airport, distracted from finding our tour guide by a giant wall of flatscreens ready to take our photo. Post-edit options include funny hairdos, reptilian back spikes and a zoo-load of monkeys and bears. We email our creation to ourselves, just ten minutes into the journey and we already have a souvenir.
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Min, our friendly tour guide, makes rendezvous and we exit Taipei airport into a world not unlike the airport suburbs of every global city ever. Concrete bridges and flyovers carry traffic in every possible direction. Mini-vans speed along the expressways, doing their bit for the economy and air quality in one hit. Dark green mountains dominate the distant skyline, providing a semblance of unique to the outlook.
As we speed towards the city, the valley we’re in opens up to our right, revealing the modern downtown CBD, the giant pagoda-mimicking Taipei 101 glistens as the centrepiece. The backdrop is still giant, green rolling hills, though. (Where is the ocean? I thought we were on an island?)
After our hotel check-in, it’s straight out to see the sights, as it should be on any trip. The MRT metro system takes us swiftly to Xiangshan Station and we pop out beside a park. The forestry is lush, with leaves big enough to wrap a baby in.
The Xiangshan Hiking Trail takes walkers up some of the mid-to-large mountains that form the backdrop to Taipei 101. The paved path is steep at first, but follows steps, enabling most moderately fit people to reach a quality viewpoint above the city skyline. Butterflies flutter joyfully through the humid air, a constant but distant tone from the streets below lingers as old men practice tai chi in peace, while others sit on the benches under numerous sun shelters.
Eyeing up the larger Mount Nangang above us, we continue on the path. Blue skinks basque in the cracks along the path, while orange creepy-crawlies dash between the plants nearby. The paving soon runs out, leaving the path cutting through the undergrowth. It seems the quickest way up, so we follow it, despite the steepening gradient.
A few zigzags later - the low, damp foliage slapping our ankles as we walk - we reach a steep rock face. A web of soggy ropes, secured to rusting loops and by makeshift knots through exposed tree roots, are the only invitation to attempt this section. Unsure if it will lead to the summit, we give it a go, but soon turn around when doubt sets in.
Around the mountain to the north, we find another way up, with another array of makeshift rigging to assist the ascent. We have the trail all to ourselves, until a trio of climbers emerge into view from behind a rock. They’re on their way down, one dressed in business attire, apparently out on his lunch break. He grins as we give way, allowing him to lower himself back behind his desk.
The lush jungle foliage has temporarily shielded the noisy city scenes from us, but the constant tone returns with the sight of the skyscrapers at the summit’s clearing. The view is incredible, though I still can’t see the ocean. Are we sure Taiwan is an island?
Not known internationally for their zany delicacies, Taiwan has a number of fascinating items to try during your stay.
The first to come our way is a soda pop housed in a green glass bottle, with an over-engineered, plastic-wasting cap affixed to the neck, instead of a lid. Within this housing, lives a marble, which is used to seal the bottle. To open, you must first remove part of the plastic cap, which your thumb then uses as a tool to pop the marble through and into the bottle. It takes several demonstrators from the vendors before I cotton on to the system, but eventually I get it and am able to sample the sweet, sugary liquid. It tastes like sweet, sugary liquid.
After travelling to the city of Taichung, Min tells us it’s the home of bubble tea: a sweet, chilled, milky brew swimming with jellied tapioca balls. I’m given an orange, ‘low sugar’ variation to try. It tastes like 12 spoonfuls of sugar, added to a sweet, sugary liquid.
Cactus sorbet is the renowned desert of the western island of Penghu. Blood red in colour, like, err, a cactus wound, I buy a small pot in the island departure lounge and sample the sweet, sugary frozen desert. It’s not long before it starts to melt, turning into you know what.
Taiwan’s not all sweet-carbs and H20, however. They also make a mean dumpling and Din Tai Fong is the place to sample such shining expertise. In the centre of the very pleasant restaurant is a giant glass screen. Behind this, legions of masked workers roll, cut and shape the raw dumplings. Their non-stop act appears choreographed and my mind can’t help setting their laborious efforts to music, as if this was Roald Dahl’s ‘Jonny & The Dumpling Factory’. The food arrives and not a dumpling survives.
National Palace Museum
Taiwan is a bit like China, but with all the best stuff. Following the Chinese civil war of last century, the island was left as one of the few territories of the Republic of China (not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China). When fighting worsened, the decision was made to evacuate the most prized pieces from the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
The gear was wrapped up and bounced around mainland China several times. This continued throughout and post-WW2 and by early 1949 around a quarter of the collection had made its way to Taipei. The works, now housed in the National Palace Museum, are said to be some of the very best of the collection.
You can’t experience Chinese culture without seeing intricately designed cups, pots and plates and the National Palace Museum has plenty of these. See one or see them all, the museum also has an adequately stacked collection of stone carvings, clothing and weapons, meaning there’s something for almost everyone.
Once reunited with your mate who can’t stand ancient Chinese crockery, carvings, clothes and weapons, you can have a coffee and a lunch in the intriguing, decorative palace gardens. Or even head on to a more contemporary landmark, like Taipei 101.
We reach the dominant Taipei 101 tower at early evening, as the day’s warmth radiates from the concrete block puzzle of the CBD. Crowds scurry over the pavements, past colourful sculptures and a set of giant 2x2 red letters which spell LOVE.
After a brief queue for the lifts, we're catapulted up to the 89th floor and are greeted by the 360-degree view we’ve come to expect from these big-city observation towers. The sun is setting and we watch the grey skyline slowly turn black and light up. It’s magnificent, but standard stuff, yet '101 has two further tricks up its sleeve.
The first is the outside viewing deck. Two floors up, we discover the doors flung open and a gathering of people all reaching through the safety fence to snap a pic without the reflections of the glass.
Back inside, down at the 87th floor, we find the damper. The damper is a monstrous concrete ball, painted gold, which dangles in the centre of the building and is designed to take out building movements during an earthquake. TV screens around the room replay CCTV footage of the tower and its occupants during a tremor. People grip on for dear life, while the giant ball swings wildly, but the place stays intact.
Taiwan feels safe. Grungy and industrious like China, but without the big country's annoying street vendors. It's Singapore, but with just the right amount of grime.
Locals zoom around on their scooters, minding their own business. The ones you do meet are as friendly as Kiwis. The city dwellers' English is of an accessible standard, though a few words in Mandarin will go a long way if you can.
Taiwan has direct flights from Auckland and offers 90 day visas upon arrival. Save yourself the extra work and and is a bit like China, only with all the best stuff.