For most Indian tourists, beginning to discover China, Taiwan may be an unknown destination. But the tiny island packs enough punch to attract tourists.
A charming young attendant ushered the tourists inside the lift and welcomed everyone. The lights went off and the stars came up on the ceiling simulating a night sky. We took off and in 37 seconds, arrived at the observation deck on the 89th floor, a record in the Guinness book. Standing tall at 509 metres, Taipei 101 is an architectural marvel and the fifth tallest building in the world. Built in an earthquake prone region, Taipei 101 is a metaphor for resilience, an example of what a tiny island nation with just 23 million people can do.
The skyscraper is akin to a bamboo plant rising from the earth. The shape of a bamboo plant has been used as it represents fast growth and flexibility, a tall indicator for Taiwanese financial prowess. A ticket for the vertical ride costs 500 TWD (Taiwanese Dollar) or about 1025 INR. It is worth on a clear day when the views are stunning. It is better to time your trip accordingly so that you enjoy the views during evening and night. It is located close to the World Trade Centre and easily accessible by the local metro’s red line. Taiwan is a pack of surprises consisting of hot springs, resorts, dramatic mountains, marble cliffs, long coastlines and a night markets with a hundred and one things to do. It is easily an underrated travelling destination primarily because of ignorant tourists whose name, location and status is still shrouded in mystery. Once a hotspot only for Western tourists, now it teems with tourists from Asia and around the world.
Shaped like a leaf or a slanted weaver bird’s nest, Taiwan is easily accessible from India, China, Japan and the Philippines. It lies across the Taiwan Straits from mainland China on the southeastern coast from Fujian province.
A modern capital
The capital city, Taipei, where the Taipei 101 is located, is a stunning modern city where the Japanesestyled old lanes meet swanky malls, IT parks and world class academic institutions. Unlike Beijing, Taipei speaks English and for travellers who don’t know Mandarin, it is a welcome relief. Taipei is also headquarters of some of the world’s most reputed brands in the world including Acer and Asus. Taiwan holds a monopoly over the global marketshare in computers and semiconductors.
After arriving in Taipei by China Airlines, the official airline carrier of Taiwan, I drove to the Grand Hotel. More than anything else, The Grand is an architectural splendour and a four-star property. Tourists flock to this hotel on their routine day sightseeing trip to take photos. If you were on a guided tour, you may not want to miss the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, honouring the person who battled Chinese communists, led by Mao Tse Tung to give birth to an independent Taiwan.
It is a popular icon in the city and the national flag is raised every morning. Its huge courtyard is home to all public functions, ceremonies and national celebrations. Outside, two guards stand besides a huge bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek and a change of guard takes place every hour in a rifle twirling ceremony. Inside, it is filled with Chiang Kai-shek’s personal artefacts, uniforms and sedans. This might get a bit boring if you are not the museum or the memorial variety, but outside, the gardens punctuated with Chinese ponds may enchant you.
All Night Long
The night markets in Taipei are a star attraction. They are open way past midnight and a few well into the crack of dawn. Not just tourists, even the locals throng the night markets because the choice is unlimited and there is better value for money. Most street food markets are safe and my favourite is the Shilin night market. It is easily accessible by the MRT and has other shops that sell clothing and knick-knacks. The pan fried pork buns, the sweet version of tempura, oyster omelette are my favourite.
Taipei is also home to some of the finest restaurants serving Asian and world cuisine. If you are a foodie, you can join one the walking food tourists where you get to taste local and international flavours as you walk along, perhaps a better way to eat more.
The Sun Yat-sen memorial hall is another iconic landmark in Taipei named after the founding father of modern China. This one is less touristy than the Chiang-Kai-shek memorial. Illuminated at night, the building looks spectacular. The Zhongshan park marks the countenance of this hall. Inside is a huge library with about 500 seats and the Zhongshan corridor links the main hall to the four large exhibition buildings. This is a popular site for public concerts particularly during weekends.
Trekking in Taiwan
After sauntering around Taipei for a few days, I left for Hualian, home to the famous Taroko National Park. You can plan your trips depending upon the time you have at hand. Many tourists do a full-day trip from Taipei to Taroko gorge. I decided to spend a couple of days walking and cycling around the east coast. If you like enjoying the silence of nature, the roar and the mist of the waterfalls, spectacular views where the mountains kiss the beaches along the Pacific Ocean and walk along the canyons, Hualien is the place for you.
I took the train from Taipei to Hualein. The Taroko gorge is a 20 km section that runs from Taroko to Tiansiang. It is known for its sheer marble cliffs, deep and meandering tunnels. The Liwu River runs through this beautiful landscape. You can travel through 38 tunnels of Nine Turns, with its series of turns. The Eternal Spring Shine is equally photogenic and a popular rendezvous for travellers. The little temples you see here were built in memory of those who lost their lives in the construction of the highway. You will be spoilt for choices. You can go down to the Chi Hsing beach, Hualien stone sculptural park, go whisky tasting or visit a marble factory, or do it all. Among other things not to be missed are the Sun Moon Lake surrounded by lovely walks, cool breeze and its banks brimming with activity. Kinmen Island is the front line of Taiwan and a stone’s throw away from China. If you are in mainland, you can take the ferry to Kinmen from Xiamen in Fujian province. Kinmen combines tradition and modernity. It has preserved some impressive Chinese monuments and other souvenirs from the battlefield.
I happenned to be in Taiwan during the lantern festival. This is considered as one of the most spectacular and romantic festivals in the country. I travelled to Taitung to witness hundreds of thousands of lanterns go up in the night sky ushering in spring and celebrating long daylight.
Because it enjoys a subtropical climate, summers can get really hot during the day punctuated with showers. You will enjoy your visit if you travel from October onwards though this is the season for the northeast monsoon that lasts till March. But it is much coolers. The northern parts of the country are much cooler. Typhoons are common and batter the eastern coast during the fag end of the monsoon.