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A WARM WEL­COME AWAITS ON ONE OF THE PLANET’S MOST DENSELY POP­U­LATED IS­LANDS

Life & Style Weekend - - ESCAPE - WORDS AND PHOTOS: JOANNE LES­LIE

Re­pub­lic of China (Tai­wan). It sounds like the is­land is a mini China – an off­shoot from the main­land. But names can be mis­lead­ing. In fact, Tai­wan is one of the world’s enig­mas.

With a land mass half the size of Tas­ma­nia and a pop­u­la­tion of 23.5 mil­lion peo­ple, it has the du­bi­ous hon­our of be­ing one of the planet’s most densely pop­u­lated ar­eas, yet it is clean, green and the air qual­ity is good.

The cities and coun­try­side are full of sur­prises, with sight-see­ing mar­vels at ev­ery turn, easy and ef­fi­cient pub­lic trans­port, af­ford­able liv­ing, qual­ity shop­ping and a rich di­ver­sity of de­li­cious food.

Just a hop across the strait from the might of China, the Tai­wanese are a peace-lov­ing peo­ple with a sta­ble demo­cratic gov­ern­ment, low un­em­ploy­ment, free­dom of re­li­gion and a deep com­mit­ment to hu­man rights.

With­out diplo­matic recog­ni­tion from most of the world’s coun­tries or the UN, Tai­wan has built its eco­nomic cre­den­tials, ex­celling in qual­ity de­sign and in­no­va­tion, par­tic­u­larly in in­for­ma­tion and communicat­ion tech­nol­ogy.

And its new gov­ern­ment is keen to do busi­ness with the world, open­ing its doors to new mar­kets and tourists, with a fo­cus on re­gions to its south.

But the best thing about Tai­wan is its huge heart.

I ar­rived in Taipei know­ing lit­tle of the is­land or its peo­ple. Seven days later I left with a de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­turn to see ev­ery­thing I had missed and a deep love for this gen­tle land and its warm and wel­com­ing peo­ple.

Of­ten I set off on foot to in­ves­ti­gate Taipei. Of­ten I was the only Euro­pean on the busy streets – but I al­ways felt safe and wel­come.

In Peace Park, a memo­rial space ded­i­cated to a darker time in the is­land’s po­lit­i­cal his­tory, two Tai­wanese women showed me how to walk the stone foot­path.

With no English be­tween them, they had me bare­foot on the pro­trud­ing stones, breath­ing deeply from my gut, walk­ing slowly to stim­u­late heal­ing in my body through the soles of my feet.

Taipei’s Peace Park turned out to be one of my favourite places. With small shrines, peace sculp­tures, green spa­ces and its res­i­dent squir­rels and tur­tles, the park is used by fam­i­lies, stu­dents, the el­derly, any­one look­ing for respite from the busy streets.

In the crush of hu­man­ity, peace­ful spa­ces abound.

Up be­hind the mighty five-star Grand Ho­tel, an im­pos­ing clas­si­cal Chi­nese build­ing in the Zhong­shan dis­trict, steps lead away from the bus­tle to the hilly scenic area of Yuan­shan.

Tucked into the hill­side are count­less cov­ered spa­ces where peo­ple meet to do tai chi or chat, play mu­sic, even to sing. Small vegie plots bloom wher­ever there’s room. And, of course, there’s a tem­ple.

Tai­wan has more than 15,000 tem­ples, places where lo­cals and vis­i­tors can drop in

and have a one-to-one chat with gods of many shapes and sizes.

On a mis­sion to find “bub­ble tea”, an is­land in­ven­tion from the 1980s shared with the world, I look for a ven­dor. Down a nar­row laneway I find the “pearl milk tea” and hand-sign to its maker to get a medium-sized, not-too-sweet ver­sion of the icy drink laced with chewy black tapi­oca balls. De­li­cious and fill­ing, it’s a re­fresh­ing meal in it­self.

Wan­der­ing out of the maze of streets I stum­ble on an oa­sis, Long­shan Tem­ple. Built in 1738 and ded­i­cated to the bod­hisattva of mercy, this cool re­treat is where peo­ple chat to more than 100 gods and god­desses about ev­ery­thing from love and study prob­lems to busi­ness suc­cess.

It’s a per­sonal, daily rit­ual for many. Peo­ple of all ages light in­cense sticks, do a half-bow to the god, silently say their name, age and where they’re from, then ask their ques­tion.

Most tem­ples are Bud­dhist or Taoist. All con­tain mag­nif­i­cent art and sculp­tures. All ra­di­ate a sense of calm and peace.

With the light fad­ing, I en­ter a closed sec­tion of the street to find stalls of ev­ery shape and size, with fresh pro­duce, steam­ing pots, old and new knick-knacks.

There are more than 100 night mar­kets in Tai­wan and ev­ery­one comes to sam­ple the wares or meet fam­ily and friends.

And it’s a taste sen­sa­tion. Tra­di­tional dishes are on the menu, such as steamed dumplings, boiled noo­dles and lo­cal del­i­ca­cies such as oys­ter omelette, squid soup, minced pork and rice.

If there’s one thing the Tai­wanese know, it’s how to eat and their food is de­li­cious and nu­tri­tious. Though I of­ten have stom­ach prob­lems at home, my di­ges­tive sys­tem is at peace on this is­land and I don’t stop eat­ing.

On Taipei’s sky­line, one build­ing stands out against the night sky. Taipei 101 is de­signed like a stalk of bam­boo, reach­ing up to con­nect heaven and earth. Built in eight sec­tions it re­flects the Chi­nese num­ber of abun­dance and its 101 floors add to the per­fect and aus­pi­cious 100.

The $1.8 bil­lion tower rises 508m and has a state-of-the-art wind damp­ener to pro­vide sta­bil­ity, even dur­ing ty­phoons and earth­quakes.

The tallest green build­ing in the world, it has built-in en­ergy ef­fi­ciency and wa­ter con­ser­va­tion and features one of the world’s fastest el­e­va­tors, at 1010m a minute. And the views are ex­tra­or­di­nary. A glassed deck on the 89th floor of­fers 360-de­gree views of the city, with an out­door deck two floors up to catch the breeze.

Taipei Pub­lic Li­brary, Beitou Branch, is an­other must-see. Set against a green back­drop, with a run­ning stream, it was the city’s first green build­ing. Built from sus­tain­able tim­bers, no tree was felled dur­ing its con­struc­tion.

The tri­an­gu­lar shape mim­ics a ship sail­ing into the land­scape, its western side at the point cut­ting the sun’s heat. With nat­u­ral ven­ti­la­tion, win­dows let in soft light and low shelves give book­worms a green out­look wher­ever they sit. Slant­ing rooftop gar­dens cap­ture wa­ter and run-off for toi­let sys­tems and so­lar pan­els con­trib­ute to power needs.

The clean, green theme sur­prised me in Tai­wan. Bat­tered by ty­phoons, Tai­wan’s rain­fall is three times the global av­er­age but the moun­tains down its cen­tre and the im­pact of cli­mate change make wa­ter scarce.

So ev­ery drop counts. As a “Sponge City”, Tai­wan is dili­gent in its goal to be sus­tain­able and live­able.

Wa­ter-per­me­able sur­faces al­low rain to soak into the soil. Gar­dens atop roofs, rain­wa­ter col­lec­tion sys­tems, ex­ten­sive ponds, drainage and pump­ing sta­tions al­low the city to chan­nel and use ex­cess wa­ter.

LED streets lights have re­placed mer­cury and bike sta­tions dot the city. Most goods are pack­aged in pa­per carry bags. There are few bins but the streets are spot­less, rub­bish is packed into big bags for re­cy­cling. From the van­tage of the MRT, Tai­wan’s high-speed rail, built-up ar­eas are flanked by rice and veg­etable fields. Plants and ve­g­ies are cul­ti­vated in ev­ery avail­able space, un­der bridges, be­side high­ways, in empty lots.

Be­side the four-star Sun Moon Lake Ho­tel ter­races are planted with food crops.

Sun Moon Lake is Tai­wan’s largest alpine lake. Set in the foothills of the cen­tral moun­tain range, it is shrouded in mist from early morn­ing and its mag­i­cal face changes through­out the day. Ev­ery van­tage is mys­te­ri­ous and beau­ti­ful.

But it dou­bles as a gi­ant bat­tery, gen­er­at­ing hy­dro-elec­tric­ity. Once a small nat­u­ral lake, it was ex­panded dur­ing Ja­panese rule to cover nearly 8sq km.

Grab a bike, car or bus and travel 30km around it, view it from an aerial ca­ble car or hop aboard a shut­tle boat and breathe in the fresh air.

There is so much to see in Tai­wan – the Na­tional Palace Mu­seum for your cul­tural fill, Chung Tai Chan Monastery (a Bud­dhist mar­vel), the won­drous rock sculp­tures of Yehliu Park, the grandeur of Taroko Gorge.

The is­land’s famed 100 moun­tain peaks of­fer world-class trekking or grab a bike and tent and cy­cle the 968km around Tai­wan in 10-12 days.

My tourism bag car­ries the logo Time for Tai­wan. It truly is – go and see for your­self.

WITH NO ENGLISH BE­TWEEN THEM, THEY HAD ME BARE­FOOT ON THE PRO­TRUD­ING STONES, BREATH­ING DEEPLY FROM MY G U T. . .

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