Taiwan, Asia's underrated destination
By San Jose Mercury News
For the best antidote to jet lag in this tightly packed capital city, head directly to its streets. Always-on Taipei mixes the ancient with the modern on every corner, where smoky-sweet incense snakes out of makeshift temples and quick-stepping young people with designer haircuts grab sizzling squid off curbside barbecue grills.
Taiwan, often overshadowed by China, its much bigger neighbor across the strait, is one of the most underappreciated Asian travel destinations. This island has the shopping and sophistication of Hong Kong, but also a distinct, independent culture that has not been Westernized. Unlike sprawling Beijing, with its Los Angeles-like freeways, Taipei is compact.
In the 1990s, Taiwan evolved into a democracy whose feisty politics continue to confound and anger China, which claims the independently governed island is a province of the mainland. As a result, Taiwanese seem to work even harder to welcome those who visit their leaf-shaped island, home to some 23 million people. Known more for tech than tourism, Taiwan offers an inviting and gracious culture.
Taipei, abuzz with swarming motorbikes, is one of the most dense metropolises in the world. Yet the island also has breathtaking natural scenery — long stretches of coastal beaches and clusters of mountains full of hiking trails and native villages. It also boasts scores of hot springs resorts. You can find serenity in teahouses — Taiwanese treat tea drinking as an art. And there is sophisticated shopping in gleaming high-rise malls and bargain buys in street-market stalls.
On a recent journey East, I got reacquainted with some of my favorite places in Taipei — narrow-lane night markets, the towering Taipei 101 building, open-air restaurants. I dropped by a few cultural hot spots and hopped on the new high-speed train for a fast tour of the more languid south.
As the street lights come on, Taipei gets a jolt of energy. Taiwanese love to explore their city at night. There is always a nearby restaurant serving up delicious fish or noodle dishes at 3 in the morning. These chaotic markets, which appear out of nowhere when the sun goes down, are found in small townships, seaside suburbs and bustling Taipei.
Shihlin Night Market, located near a subway station, is the biggest and, at nearly 100 years, the oldest. The food area is enclosed, making it weatherproof during the summer rains. The aromas of exotic foods — sizzling meats, stinky tofu, candy-sweet shaved ice desserts — are only slightly less overwhelming than the clamor of the hungry hordes filling the warren of food booths. On weekends, the place feels as though half of the city's 20-somethings have decided to go shopping for fake leather wallets and sugarcoated fruits. Taiwanese walk the way they drive — bumper-to-bumper.
A more sedate side of the local culture is the National Palace Museum in the Shihlin District. Much of the artwork on display was once enjoyed exclusively by China's ruling families. Now, for 160 New Taiwan dollars, or about $5 — student prices are half that — even the groundlings can explore one of the world's finest collections of ancient Chinese art.
Every year, 2 million people flow through the museum. Its mission is to preserve some 650,000 pieces of artwork from China's dynastic past. Most of the collection traveled across the strait in crates in 1949 with the retreating nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek, who fled Mao Ze-dong's communist forces. It is often noted that while Beijing's Forbidden City, also known as the National Palace, actually contains more pieces of artwork, the most prized made their way to Taiwan — yet another issue that irks Beijing.
Among the star treasures on display in the Taipei museum are intricately carved pieces of jade and ivory from the Qing Dynasty. One, by Qing imperial court craftsman Chen Tsu-chang, is a carved ivory boat just 1½ inches long, with tiny figures, plates and cups, windows that open and a poem inscribed on the boat's bottom.
The museum, which offers free tours in Mandarin and English, is usually jammed. One viewing tip: Make sure you are in the exhibit halls from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., when lunch-loving Taiwanese head to the cafeteria.