Taipei: Asian paradise revisited

By Rob McFarland

Rob McFarland visits the Taiwanese capital and discovers a city that has changed dramatically.

Taipei's Longshan Temple dates back to 1738. Photo / Thinkstock
Taipei's Longshan Temple dates back to 1738. Photo / Thinkstock

Taipei 20 years ago wasn't a very appealing prospect. Dirty, smelly and often choked with traffic, it wasn't the obvious choice of overseas holiday destination.

Taipei today is a very different proposition. In the space of two decades this adaptable Asian city has cleaned up its act and completely reinvented itself.

Where it was once home to some of the world's largest manufacturers of cheap consumer goods (think "Made in Taiwan"), Taipei is now a leading technology powerhouse.

Taiwan is now the second biggest producer of semi-conductors in the world, which isn't a bad effort for an island half the size of Tasmania.

As a result, Taipei is now exceptionally prosperous and at least some of this newfound affluence has made its way into projects to make the city a more appealing prospect for tourists. Sure, you can still duck down a side-alley and be hit with the confronting aroma of rotting rubbish but, on the whole, the city is a clean, orderly and exceptionally welcoming place.

What it does suffer from is an image problem. Most New Zealanders know nothing about it. It seems Taipei's residents have been so busy making money they've forgotten to tell the rest of the world what they have to offer.

For a start, there's the National Palace Museum containing the largest collection of Chinese art in the world. Rated as one of the top four museums in the world alongside the Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it only has space to display one-twentieth of its 700,000 piece collection.

The pieces on display range from bronze, bone and jade treasures from the Bronze Age through to exquisite artwork and ceramics from the Ming and Qing Chinese dynasties.

I'm normally overcome with lethargy the minute I set foot in a museum of this scale, but some of the craftsmanship on display is outstanding. One incredible piece containing 17 independently moving spheres was painstakingly carved from a single piece of ivory by three generations of the same family over a 50-year period.

At the other end of the scale, but equally fascinating, is the small but perfectly proportioned Miniatures Museum of Taiwan. The collection of dolls' houses and tiny room interiors feature some unbelievably intricate handmade furnishings including a fully operational stamp-sized TV.

Taipei 101 is the city's best-known attraction and while it won't remain the world's tallest building for much longer (the Burj Dubai will surpass it by several hundred metres when it's completed at the end of this year), it's still an astounding engineering achievement and the outdoor observation deck provides inspiring 360-degree views of the city.

Many of the guide books list the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall as a must-see but I found it rather unengaging. The 70m-high building erected in honour of the country's former dictator is an impressive enough monument, but it's hard to get excited about its contents and an eerily lifelike statue of him sitting behind a desk.

What no visitor should miss is a selection of Taipei's beguiling temples. They're scattered all over the city and are often wedged rather unceremoniously between shops or fast food eateries.

By far the most popular is Longshan, a multi-denominational temple that dates back to 1738 and contains shrines to an amazing 165 different deities. During the day it's a hive of frenetic activity with people bowing, praying and depositing burning incense sticks in one of seven giant golden urns.

A quieter and more sedate option is Tien-ho temple in the Ximending district. A narrow entrance leads to a small but serene Buddhist temple that provides a welcome respite from the retail madness that surrounds it.

Ximending is an interesting district to explore precisely because of this clash of the new and the old. There's no bigger contrast than emerging from the peaceful serenity of Tien-ho temple and being confronted with the bustling eight-street Times Square-style intersection that is the heart of this pedestrian shopping district. In every direction there are streets lined with familiar Western brands while huge billboards advertising the latest phone or fragrance soar skyward.

For a more traditional shopping experience, check out one of the city's many night markets. Often covering several blocks, these collections of stalls are atmospheric with unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells. The eating options are varied - from freshly caught seafood and bubbling cauldrons of soup to worryingly unrecognisable roasted animal parts.

Many visitors head for the city's Huaxi St market because it contains the infamous Snake Alley, a narrow covered passageway where snakes are cruelly skinned alive so that people can drink their still-warm blood. Watching a freshly-skinned snake wriggling violently on a hook is a stomach-churning sight and I'd recommend boycotting it and heading to the snake-free Shilin night markets instead.

It can take a while to get your head around the layout of Taipei's 12 districts, but getting between the major sights is a doddle. The subway system (the MRT) transports you for about 80 cents a trip and has English announcements.

In addition, most signs in the city have an English translation and a number of Taiwanese - particularly among the younger generation - speak excellent English.

It's little wonder that over the past few years Taipei has emerged as a popular stopover choice for those on their way to Europe.

It has all the benefits of many of its better known Asian neighbours but with few of the logistical challenges.

Rob McFarland travelled to Taipei with China Airlines and Taiwan Tourism.

- Herald on Sunday

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