Taipei is a city with a history – and a personality – all its own
The island of Taiwan is an elongated body of land, roughly the shape of a football, that lies across the straits that bear its name 110 miles off the southeastern coast of Mainland China. Both geographically and politically, the football analogy has been appropriate for much of the island nation’s history, controlled in turn by the Dutch, the Chinese, the Japanese, finally becoming the home of the Republic of China.
In 1949 at the end of China’s civil war, the victorious Communists forced the Kuomintang, the ruling party of the ROC, to retreat to Taiwan from the mainland. Setting up shop on the other side of the Taiwan Straits, the island set about turning itself into a global manufacturing center.
Despite its often contentious relationship with its across-straits neighbor, Taiwan has seen sustained economic growth since the 1960s, thanks mainly to its huge success as a manufacturing hub for electronics and other consumer goods. Although the People’s Republic still maintains that Taiwan is rightfully part of Mainland China, the two seem to be finding common ground in their mutual economic interests.
In 2010, Taiwan signed a pact with China, the most significant act of reconciliation since the split. The Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement saw the lifting or reducing of tariffs on many Taiwanese mechanical tools, equipment, chemical materials, automotive components and agricultural products, as well as on Chinese goods.
As the island made the move from Cold War flash point to hot industrial pivot point, there’s every indication that its skyrocketing prosperity is likely to continue. And nowhere is that evidence more manifest than in the burgeoning skyline of its capital city, Taipei.
Founded in the early 18th century, the city of Taipei grew to become an important center for overseas trade in the 19th century and for much of its history has been the administrative, cultural and economic heart of Taiwan. Recent years have seen great changes here that have polished the city up and given it a 21st century shine.
The entire metropolitan area is often referred to as Taipei, while the city proper is called Taipei City. Taipei City proper is surrounded by another city called New Taipei, home to over 7 million people. On the eastern side of the city, the Xinyi District has become a robust business center, and home to the landmark Taipei 101, which for a time was the world’s tallest skyscraper and is still a pretty imposing edifice, standing guard over the city.
The building is an engineering marvel, designed to withstand earthquakes and the typhoons which batter the city regularly each year. Inside you can see the world’s largest tuned mass damper with a diameter of 18 feet, weighing 660 metric tons. The pendulum is integral to the mechanism that keeps the building upright in the face of all that comes against it.
Tickets cost NT$500 ($17); viewing is available from 9:00 AM to 10:00 PM.
Taipei 101 is also a good starting point for your look around Taipei. Not only are the views fabulous but from here, you can get your bearings. Once you are done admiring the view and studying the engineering, head down to the 86th floor to ShinYeh 101 for some excellent Taiwanese cuisine in elegant surroundings
and more panoramic views. While you munch, check out your map and plan your Taipei intinerary.
Off in the distance to the southwest, you’ll find Sanxia. The two main attractions here are the Zushi Temple and Minquan Old Street. Once home to coffin shops, Minquan Old Street features cobblestone pavement and shophouses framed by multiple brick archways and ornate details. Today instead of coffins, there are outlets selling ceramics and a range of inexpensive souvenirs.
Originally built in 1769, the intricately carved and ornately decorated Zushi Temple has survived all kinds of calamities. The first time was an 1833 earthquake that seriously damaged the temple. Since most of the restoration is funded by private donations, the work is ongoing. Unlike many temples in Asia there is an opportunity to get close to the upper levels, which make for some great photo opportunities.
With 200 years of history behind it, nearbyYingge is Taiwan’s pottery center. The restored Old Street, also known as Pottery Street, is lined with ceramic shops and art galleries. The Ceramics Museum, a modern, airy building, is home to permanent and temporary exhibits, a workshop, a gift shop and an outdoor area that is part park and part outdoor gallery. The museum is closed on the first Monday of the month and major public holidays.
Temples and Shrines
Heading back toward Taipei City, you’ll find one of the oldest temples in Taipei and a classic example of temple architecture. The Longshan Temple was originally built in 1738 by craftsmen from China’s Fujian province who had settled in the area. Over the years, parts of the temple have been rebuilt to repair damage, both natural and man-made.
Now in the heart of Taipei, you can’t miss the Presidential Office Building; it occupies a full city block. Built in the early part of the 20th Century, the building is noteworthy for its classic symmetry and Baroque detail. As the name implies, it is the office of the president, and its central location means it is only a few blocks away from the Ximending shopping district and an even shorter walk to the Chiang Kaishek Memorial Hall.
This impressive landmark honoring the former ruler of the country is one of the most visited sites in the city and is part of a larger complex that is also home to a memorial park, the vast Liberty Square, the National Theater and the National Concert Hall. The four-sided white structure is topped by an octagonal blue glazed tile roof that rises 250 feet above the pavement. The pair of matching stairs with 89 steps represents Chiang Kai-shek’s age when he died on April 5, 1975.
Farther to the north, the National Palace Museum is home to more than 680,000 art treasures and artifacts brought to Taipei when Chang Kai-shek and his supporters fled mainland China. Such an extensive collection will need more time than anyone could devote in a single visit, so make plans to return.
As with many museums, audio guides in English are available for NT$100 ($3.30), and there are also free guided tours in English at 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM; basic printed guides are free. General admission is NT$160 ($5.30) (exhibition area 1 – the main building – is free on Saturdays from 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM) and opening hours vary depending on the exhibition area, but the museum itself is open from 8:30 AM to 6:30 PM. Backpacks will be checked and photography is not allowed. There is also a store for picking up gifts and books and an extensive garden area to be explored that costs NT$20 ($0.66) or free with a museum ticket, open from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM.
Any visit to Taipei requires a trip to one of the city’s many night markets. Possibly the best known is Shilin. While the market offers a range of bargain clothing and shoe stores, another big draw is the wide variety of street food. Find one of the vendors with long lines – popularity is usually a good sign – but fear not, you’ll be at the front of the queue before you know it.
With its glowing neon signs, street food smells and surging crowds, Shinlin is the perfect place to seal the deal on your memories of Taipei. BT
Taipei 101 for a time was the world’s tallest skyscraper and is still a pretty imposing edifice
Clockwise: National Palace Museum, Zushi Temple, Shilin Market, Yingge pottery workshop