Tai­wan Ease

Taipei is a city with a his­tory – and a per­son­al­ity – all its own

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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.

Taipei 101

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

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