Mention Taiwan, and you’ll naturally think of advanced production and cutting-edge technology. But, as I found out after being invited to their country to experience their Double 10 National Day celebrations last month, there’s so much more to the Asian island, home to almost 24 million people.
The Taiwanese people are friendly. The hustle and bustle of everyday life – particularly in Taipei – is electrifying, and the food is simply brilliant. The quick pace of the capital city of Taipei makes you feel alive, but I also found Taichung, the second biggest city in Taiwan and home to many manufacturers and innovators, a wonderful mix of culture and style.
Taiwan is westernised but its deep ties to its intriguing history, which involved Chinese and Japanese rule, is still evident everywhere you go. To say that I love food is an understatement – my growing belly is testament to this. In Taiwan, the food is to die for … whether you are sitting down and eating Xiao Long Bao (little dumpling in a basket) at the legendary Din Tai Fung Dumpling House at the base of the famous Taipei 101 building, enjoying any of the delectable dishes at one of the many restaurants at the Grand Hotel or eating sashimi at Northern California Inspired Sushi, you are in for a treat.
Xiao long bao soup dumpling buns with chopsticks in restaurant (Traditional Chinese food) in Taipei Taiwan. iStock
It’s difficult to say no to any of the dishes, even when the ninth and 10th courses arrive at the table. All meals finish with fresh fruit, which provides a light end to the meal, while Taiwan Beer is a must-have, and rivals the best.
Taiwan is known for its night markets. Locals say you haven’t experienced the country until you have visited one of their many night markets. We visited the Shilin Night Market – just a stone’s throw away from the Grand Hotel where we were staying. Even though it was packed because we went on a public holiday, it was a wonderful experience. The strong, not so pleasant smell of stinky tofu dominates the market streets, but should not put you off because once you taste it, you are left craving more.
Keelung, Taiwan – August 05, 2018 : Keelung Night Market in Taiwan. Keelung is one of the major Night Market in Taiwan. iStock
Everyone enjoys a story shrouded in mystery and the Grand Hotel, my home for the majority of the visit, certainly provided that. The Grand Hotel is an impressive 14-storey structure situated against the backdrop of the Yangming Mountain. It faces the Keelung River and overlooks Songshan in the east and Danshui in the west. It says so much about their culture … it is a building steeped in tradition and history, while the views of Taiwan from the balcony when you wake up, or just before the sun goes down, will forever be etched in my memory.
Watching the aeroplanes negotiate their way over the Taipei skyline and between the buildings to the Taipei Songshan Airport was mesmerising. The bright red columns and golden roof at the Grand Hotel make the landmark impossible to miss when travelling past, while the reception area is out of this world, with the meticulously-crafted ceiling and the magnificent golden dragons keeping watch – a sight to behold.
So, why the mystery? The hotel – established in May 1952, with the main building completed in October, 1973 – has two secret, underground tunnels on the east and west side. The east tunnel, 67 metres long, leads to Beian Park, while the west tunnel, 85 metres in length, leads to Jiantan Park. Both tunnels are sound and explosion proof, and can evacuate thousands of people in an emergency.
For many years there were plenty of rumours where the tunnels led to, with some suggesting the east tunnel went to the presidential palace. A fire at the hotel in the ’90s laid bare the rumours, revealing the tunnels were built to provide an escape route for VIPs in case of aerial bombardment from Taiwan’s enemies. The west tunnel, equipped with a slide for the disabled, is now open to the public.
The Grand Hotel is built on the location of a Taiwan shrine, which during World War II was badly damaged by American bombers during the Raid on Taipei after claims the Japanese were hiding arms inside the temple. It was demolished afterwards. The hotel has played host to many foreign dignitaries, including the late South African president Nelson Mandela in the early ’90s, while Dwight D Eisenhower is the only American president who visited the hotel while still in power in the ’60s.
“People ask me what the best aspect of Taiwan is. I say our people,” said ambassador Henry MJ Chen, director-general of the department of international information services. He’s not wrong. The Taiwanese people fall over themselves trying to help you, even when the language barrier is vast. They’ll always find a way, or introduce you to someone that will help.
Entrance of Raohe Street Night Market in Taipei.
Taiwan is also home to many museums. We visited two – the National Palace Museum and the National Taichung Theatre. The National Palace Museum, which shares its roots with the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, has almost 700 000 pieces of ancient Chinese imperial artefacts and artworks, built upon the imperial collections of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Our tour guide says you need a few days to take in the collection, which encompasses 8 000 years of history of Chinese art from the Neolithic age to the modern. We only have a short period one morning, and she does her level best to expose us to as many historic pieces as possible.
The National Taichung Theatre, designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, is a work of art. Based on the “sound cave” concept, elements such as curved-wall units and air holes are used to build this space which is home to three theatres. His saying that “if you see the entire world as a river, then I want my buildings to be like a whirlpool”, certainly hits the mark.
You are spoilt for choice when it comes to transport, with Taipei buzzing with scooters and motorbikes. We caught the Taiwan’s High Speed Rail from Taipei to Taichung, which was a wonderful experience as you reach speeds just shy of 300km/h in less than an hour city to city. It’s efficient and punctual. Cabs and buses are easily accessible.
I would have loved to explore more of the night markets, the east coast of Taiwan and gone up the Taipei 101, an impressive structure and the world’s tallest building between 2004 and 2010. But I got to see, witness and taste so much in my few days in Taiwan. I’m left with lasting, fond memories.
Xièxie (thanks) Taiwan. It was an honour.
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