East Asia’s is­land na­tion pro­vides the per­fect mix of his­tory and moder­nity

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

Avast car­toon dog in glow­ing 3D il­lu­mi­nates the night sky – along with a lu­mi­nous gi­raffe, gi­ant pur­ple or­chids, a psy­che­delic horse and char­iot, trains, planes, ab­stract art, a ra­di­ant walk-in tem­ple… and more dogs, many more dogs. It is Chi­nese Year of the Dog and Tai­wan is cel­e­brat­ing, as it does each year, with its spec­tac­u­lar Na­tional Lantern Fes­ti­val.

A very Tai­wanese mix of an­cient tra­di­tional and ul­tra-con­tem­po­rary, fun and func­tion, the event at­tracts half the pop­u­la­tion of the na­tion across its three weeks, and – one of its raisons d’être – thou­sands of for­eign vis­i­tors. Most tourists to Tai­wan are Asian but num­bers from the West are grow­ing – and UK vis­i­tors now have eas­ier ac­cess than ever be­fore. A fifth di­rect flight per week from Gatwick to Taipei was in­tro­duced by China Air­lines this week; by the end of the year the ex­pec­ta­tion is that the con­nec­tion will be daily.

Few peo­ple in the UK know much about Tai­wan, ex­cept per­haps that it’s that long thin is­land off the south-east coast of China that is both Chi­nese and not Chi­nese. The pop­u­la­tion is more than 95 per cent eth­nic Chi­nese, China claims the ter­ri­tory and a few in Tai­wan still claim China, but what­ever the pol­i­tics, for tourists, Tai­wan is a dis­tinct coun­try. It has its own gov­ern­ment – demo­cratic since 1996 – visa rules (none re­quired by Bri­tons stay­ing up to 90 days), air­line, lo­cal life and cul­ture. Tai­wan is keen to at­tract more Euro­peans and is sell­ing it­self as “an easy slice of Asia”.

I start in the cap­i­tal, at the top of the town. Whisked up in the fastest lifts in the world I ar­rive at the 89th floor of Taipei 101, the tallest build­ing on Earth when con­structed. It now stands at num­ber eight but still lords it over the city like a modern hill­top pagoda. The views are spec­tac­u­lar – patch­works of coloured rooftops with lit­tle New York City-style yel­low taxis beetling along be­tween. The scene is punc­tu­ated by modern ar­chi­tec­ture projects (one stalled by cor­rup­tion, an­other about to be clad in 23,000 trees) while around the edges, as if de­fend­ing the cap­i­tal, crouch the densely green Four Beasts Moun­tains – Ele­phant, Tiger, Leop­ard and Lion. Down the cen­tre of Taipei 101 hangs the damper ball – a mas­sive weight, oddly el­e­gant and, thank­fully, still. It is state-of-the-art tech­nol­ogy pre­vent­ing this 1,670ft tower from sway­ing ex­ces­sively in tor­na­does and earthquakes, not un­com­mon on this Ring of Fire is­land. I de­cide to buy into the Chi­nese love of tal­is­mans and pur­chase a dinky red plas­tic “Damper Baby” in hopes of ward­ing off tremors dur­ing my trip (it seems to work!).

Back at ground level, I wan­der the trendy pedes­tri­anised streets of Xi­mend­ing, where layer upon layer of brightly coloured posters, ban­ners, store­fronts and signs sweet-talk the crowds milling around on the che­quered pav­ing. Cute vies with Kung Fu, food with fash­ion, car­toon kitsch with gen­uine arts. “Creative en­trepreneurs” (a favoured class in to­day’s Tai­wan) show off their wares in re­pur­posed his­toric build­ings and a crowd watches open-mouthed as a young male dancer rolls round with sub­lime flu­id­ity in an over­sized hoop.

One mo­ment I feel as though I am in Tokyo, the next in Bei­jing – but Taipei is more re­laxed than ei­ther. Peo­ple are friendly but not in­tru­sive, po­lite with­out be­ing for­mal, it’s clean but not pris­tine. Men and women co­a­lesce, as do young and old.

On an early morn­ing out­ing to Democ­racy Square (or Lib­erty Square) I watch a young hip­ster strug­gle to copy his elders at tai chi, while in colour­ful tem­ples tucked be­tween apart­ment blocks and con­ve­nience stores, Tai­wanese of all ages and styles crowd in to bow, pray and wave their be­long­ings above the burn­ing in­cense.

Most tourists to Tai­wan are Asian but num­bers from the West are grow­ing Food is one of its strengths, and it’s never far away, whether you opt for fine din­ing or night mar­kets

For any­one vis­it­ing “the Ori­ent” for the first time, Taipei – and in­deed Tai­wan – is a great in­tro­duc­tion.

There’s world-class art. The cav­ernous Na­tional Palace Mu­seum is home to one of the great­est col­lec­tions of Chi­nese art. When Chi­ang Kai-shek fled to Tai­wan in 1949 hav­ing lost China’s civil war, he brought with him 600,000 pieces from the Im­pe­rial col­lec­tion. Most of the rest re­mains in the Bei­jing’s For­bid­den City – and China has never been happy that 20 per cent of the em­per­ors’ proud­est pos­ses­sions are in Taipei.

With so many re­mark­able arte­facts, the mu­seum ro­tates its col­lec­tion, but some things are al­ways on view in­clud­ing the Qing jadeite cab­bage. Ev­ery­one queues up to see this won­der, but I find the mil­len­nia-old dec­o­rated bronzes and beau­ti­ful Chi­nese paint­ings more com­pelling. That said, I do en­joy eat­ing the cab­bage at the restau­rant next door with sev­eral amus­ing (and tasty) dishes mim­ick­ing star ex­hibits in the mu­seum.

Food is one of Tai­wan’s strengths – and it’s never far away, whether you opt for fine din­ing or night mar­kets. From tra­di­tional noo­dle or dumpling dishes to squid and cheese; tofu pud­ding (like ve­gan crème brûlée) to ice cream pan­cakes with peanut and co­rian­der, the choice is vast.

I wan­der the night mar­kets munch­ing sweet potato balls, brows­ing trin­kets, and watch­ing games of Mahjong, pin­ball and shoot-the-bal­loon at the won­der­fully ana­logue fair­ground-style sideshows.

It is time to go be­yond the cap­i­tal and Tai­wan’s High Speed Rail whizzes me south. Along the coastal plains there is barely a break in the ur­ban sprawl, but be­yond the cen­tral moun­tains rise steep and ver­dant. These are home to out­door ac­tiv­i­ties such as trekking and moun­tain bik­ing, to abo­rig­i­nal tribes (two per cent of the pop­u­la­tion) and to Tai­wan’s tea plan­ta­tions. The is­land pro­duces aro­matic oo­long teas, which I sam­ple in some­thing akin to a wine­tast­ing in a wooden tea­house in Tainan.

Tai­wan’s first cap­i­tal, Tainan, re­mains its his­toric heart. Though much of the city is modern, there are rows of tra­di­tional Chi­nese shop­houses around Shen­nong Street (named for the God-King of Medicine whose tem­ple guards the road).

Tainan has a tem­ple around every cor­ner. I stroll around the calm, spa­cious court­yards of Tai­wan’s old­est Con­fu­cian tem­ple, be­fore im­mers­ing my­self in a bus­tle of Taoists. Night­time vis­its are at­mo­spheric, par­tic­u­larly to the re­mains of Dutch Fort Prov­in­tia (the East In­dia Com­pany briefly ruled Tai­wan) now sub­sumed into a flood­lit tem­ple com­plex.

Stand­ing be­fore the ter­ri­fy­ing-look­ing “Ed­u­ca­tion God” who bran­dishes a cal­lig­ra­phy brush like a samu­rai sword, I throw div­ina­tion blocks which land in the con­fig­u­ra­tion that means “yes”, and I am in­vited to help my­self to a branded pen­cil.

Across the road is the im­pres­sive Grand Matsu Tem­ple, with a 13ft statue of the sea god­dess, this is­land na­tion’s favourite de­ity. She looks benign, but the tem­ple has a lessthan-peace­ful his­tory. It started life as the palace of a 17th-cen­tury Ming prince who re­acted to im­mi­nent over­pow­er­ing by the Qing by killing him­self, pre­ceded by his five con­cu­bines who hung them­selves from the beam in his cham­ber, now the tem­ple’s back hall. Chi­ang Kai-shek’s, it seems, was not the first Chi­nese “gov­ern­ment in ex­ile” to look back at the main­land from Tai­wan.

Chi­ang was, though, more suc­cess­ful at hold­ing on to his life and – at least lo­cal – power. Though his qual­i­ties are much de­bated, he is cen­tral to the foun­da­tion of modern Tai­wan.

When Chi­ang ar­rived in 1949 he brought with him not only Im­pe­rial trea­sure but some two mil­lion peo­ple, many of them sin­gle sol­diers. To house them he built walled com­pounds of iden­tikit bun­ga­lows. As the oc­cu­pants have aged and died these “Mil­i­tary De­pen­dents’ Vil­lages” have mostly been de­mol­ished. One, though, has taken on a new life.

In a non­de­script sub­urb of Tai­wan’s se­cond city, Taichung, an elderly vet­eran (now 96) has painted all over his set­tle­ment. Known as Grandpa Rain­bow Vil­lage, every inch is brightly mu­ralled with fig­ures, an­i­mals, colour­ful pat­terns and in­no­cent sym­bols of love.

Rain­bow Vil­lage has the same typ­i­cal Tai­wanese mix of artistry, func­tion and fun that per­vades the Lantern Fes­ti­val. As the tow­er­ing 69ft main lantern throws beams of light into the night sky, a troop of tra­di­tional drum­mers re­minds me mo­men­tar­ily of the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Bei­jing Olympics – but they are dif­fer­ent, too. The Bei­jing drum­mers were so minutely in time they were al­most scary. Tai­wan’s drum­mers are bril­liant, but they are hu­man.

Tai­wan is Chi­nese and not Chi­nese; en­joy­ably, in­ter­est­ingly dif­fer­ent from the West, but not alien. It is in­deed “an easy slice of Asia”.

MIX OF OLD AND NEW Taipei 101, above; Grandpa Rain­bow Vil­lage, be­low

THE MAIN AT­TRAC­TION A lantern on dis­play dur­ing Tai­wan’s an­nual Na­tional Lantern Fes­ti­val

SAVOUR­ING HIS­TORY Democ­racy Square, be­low; a night mar­ket ven­dor, top right

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