Although having travelled extensively around the world, Alan Hill and Anne Taylor had never been to Taiwan. They recently enjoyed a 3-day ‘stir fry’ of what Taipei has to offer. Here they describe their impressions.
By Alan Hill and Anne Taylor.
My local (Sydney) doctor, Hong Kong born, was pleased when I told him we were going to Taiwan. He had recently returned from his first visit to ‘the Beautiful Island’, and was highly enthusiastic.
“It’s like Hong Kong was years ago,” he said. “The pace is slower, the people are really friendly, there is some splendid natural scenery – and the food is better.”
I never expected to hear that last commendation from a Hong Kong native!
We arrived in Taipei (from Sydney via Bangkok) late at night and it was midnight before we checked into the Ambience Hotel, conveniently located mid-way between two Metro stations. We were warmly greeted (having advised the hotel of our expected late arrival) and shown to a bright, modern room decorated by Phillip Stark, whose design store is just around the corner.
With only three days on the island, we had already decided to concentrate on the capital, leaving for another visit other areas of interest recommended by my medico. Taipei is also the home of my cousin Stuart and his friend John, both of whom were eager to show us around and explain some of the city’s fascinating history and culture.
Our first day, as usual on our travels, was one of orientation, an exploration of our immediate neighbourhood. Taipei Main Railway Station is a busy place, with a Visitor Centre giving travel advice in many languages. In the basement is a large shopping mall and food court. We purchased our Easy (stored-value) Cards for the Metro (MRT) and hoped that one of these days Sydney would have such a simple system.
Taipei’s Metro stations and trains are clean, efficient and air-conditioned. The trains are rarely as crowded (during peak hours is a different story! – Ed.) as the city services in Hong Kong and Bangkok, but on occasions when there were no vacant seats, polite locals always jumped up to offer theirs to these obviously aged visitors – sometimes we were spoilt for choice!
At Taipei City Hall station we alighted to admire the 101 storey Taipei International Financial Center (Taipei 101). No longer the world’s tallest building, it is nevertheless an amazing engineering feat, especially as Taipei is earthquake-prone.
Very close to our hotel we found the small Su Ho Paper Museum, where visitors can see paper sculpture and installation art, make their own sheets of paper in its workshop and buy some of the loveliest paper articles we have ever seen.
At dinnertime we found a delightful little restaurant, ‘Syongmeigoose’, just across the road from our hotel, and enjoyed a simple meal – slices of cold goose with rice and vegetables, accompanied by Taiwanese beer.
Next morning we set off early by taxi (pleasantly inexpensive) to Taipei’s National Palace Museum, to see what is billed as the world’s largest and finest collection of Chinese art. We wandered from room to room, admiring precious jade, ceramic and bronze vessels, intricately carved wooden furniture and other treasures. After buying souvenirs and books in the museum’s shops we took the lift to Sanxitang Teahouse on the fourth floor for yum cha and delicious Taiwanese tea.
For contrast we visited Taipei’s modern Fine Arts Museum, housed in a vast high-ceilinged building completed in 1983. It has a permanent collection of more than 4000 pieces by Taiwanese and international artists, and we were fortunate to see a special exhibition of artworks by the past ten winners of the annual Taipei Arts Award.
The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is something else again, a ponderous monument to the ‘Great Leader’, or ‘great dictator’ as many now call him. Six chambers house his personal effects, including uniforms, medals, manuscripts and two black, belligerent-looking bullet-proof 1960s Cadillacs. The extensive grounds include a National Concert Hall and National Theatre.
One day, accompanied by Stuart, we took the red Metro line all the way to its northern terminus, Danshui. Once a busy port, the town is now a popular riverside destination for Taipei residents and tourists.
Stuart took us to a waterfront restaurant where we had a delightful kebab lunch of meats, vegetables and fruit grilled and then served on a vertical framework. We drank cold tea with limes in tall frosted glasses.
It was Monday, so Danshui’s most famous site, Fort San Domingo, was closed. The original fort was established by Spain in the 17th century, then fell under Chinese control until the British made it their consulate in 1891. The Brits severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1972.
The inscription on a statue of Dr George Mackay informed us that this Canadian Presbyterian missionary established the first Western-style university in Taiwan just up the hill from the Fort. We strolled along colourful Gongming Street, lined with local shops, eating houses and food stalls, and explored a new gallery displaying striking contemporary Taiwanese art.
On our last evening John and Stuart drove us to Maokong, high in the hills of southern Taipei. Once famous for its tea plantations, Maokong is now dotted with teahouses where you can enjoy the cup that cheers with or without a meal. A gondola provides access from the city for those who don’t have a car.
At a window table on the second floor of the ‘Big Teapot’, a panoramic view of Taipei below us, we enjoyed a feast of Taiwanese dishes – stir-fried noodles with tea oil and shallots, three-cup chicken, lamb and water spinach with sate sauce, deep-fried sweet potato and yam – and a ‘tea ceremony’ with a tasting of several teas in tiny cups. It was a fitting farewell to our brief visit to ‘Ihla Formosa’.