Wednesday 26 April 2017

Taiwan: Full of Eastern promise...

Peaceful scene at the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, built in memory of the former president and home of the National Theatre and the National Concert Hall
Peaceful scene at the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, built in memory of the former president and home of the National Theatre and the National Concert Hall
Food court in a Taipei night market
The 509m high Taipei 101 tower dominates the capital
Willy Brennan at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei
Mud bath at hot springs spa in Siraya area near Tainan
Din Tai Fung was the favourite of the dumpling restaurants
One market specialises in various dishes featuring snake

Willy Brennan

It's 7.30 in the evening and it's still very hot (35 degrees) and humid outside, and my glasses steam up as I step out from my hotel into the teeming streets of Taipei, capital of Taiwan, Republic of China.

I am in search of food, and as I pass Taipei Main Railway Station, I decide to duck inside to take advantage of the air conditioning.

On the station concourse, as well as all the usual signs for platforms and ticket offices, there are several signs for shopping malls.

I follow the signs for the Taipei City Mall and two floors below the station I emerge into a labyrinth of wide avenues housing colourful shops that are selling every type of goods imaginable, and many things that I could not identify.

The mall stretches for miles below the city streets and although all the signs are in Chinese, the shopkeepers are all smiling and friendly. You can buy anything here, from high fashion to base metals.

I was hungry, however, so I headed back to street level and found myself in a narrow street lined with small noodle houses.

I had arrived at a popular time and the street was teeming with noise and people and the mingled aromas of diesel fumes and frying noodles.

Most of the tiny noodle shops looked - and smelled - quite inviting, if appearing a little basic, but there were so many that I found it impossible to choose one and as all the signs were in Chinese, I realised I would have difficulty ordering so I headed back to the Main Station where I had spotted a sign for a Gourmet Food Court.

"You must try the stewed beef noodle soup," I had been told by a Taiwanese colleague in Dublin, and this was the dish I was seeking.

The food court had all sorts of eating places, from gourmet restaurants to sushi houses and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

But I soon found what I was looking for - a whole row of noodle houses devoted purely to beef noodles.

Each stall had about seven or eight different versions of the dish, so with the aid of graphic pictures and 3D models, I selected the No 1 option from the Champion Noodle House and boy was I not disappointed.

The meal tasted like a cross between the best Sunday roast you've ever had and the best stir-fry noodles you've ever had. A huge bowl cost only about €6.

The following day I took a trip to the Baoan Temple. Dating back 270 years, this is one of the oldest and biggest temples in Taipei. It has been rebuilt and renovated many times over the years, and in 2003 it was granted a UNESCO award for conservation.

"You enter by the dragon side (right) and leave by the lion side (left)," explained our guide as he led us past the temple's elaborately carved pillars.

The traditional-style roof is festooned with colourful carvings of dragons, birds and various other creatures.

Inside, there are many altars devoted to different deities and there's even one dedicated to Confucius, for those seeking wisdom.

To understand Taiwan, it is necessary to understand some of its history.

It is a small island (about half the size of Ireland) lying just 180km to the south-east of mainland China.

It has a population of some 25 million people and is one of the most densely populated places on the planet.

Originally inhabited by indigenous tribes (about 2pc of the current population is made up of indigenous people), the island was colonised by the Dutch for a short period in the 17th century (who called it Formosa) and then ruled by China until 1895 when the Qing dynasty government ceded the island to Japan. In 1945, Japan had to cede the island back to China as part of their World War II surrender terms, but in 1946, the revolution took place on mainland China.

Mao Zedong eventually took power and established the People's Republic of China.

After losing control of the mainland, the Kuomintang (KMT) government under President Chiang Kai-shek, withdrew to the island and established Taiwan, Republic of China in 1949.

They ruled the island as a single-party state until democratic reforms were introduced in the 1980s and opposition parties were established.

Today, Taiwan has become a modern democracy with free healthcare for all its citizens and it is a world leader in manufacturing and technology.

In January the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected and party chairman Tsai Ing-wen became the first female president of Taiwan, and the first from an opposition party.

With Prime Minister Lin Chuan, Tsai has promised major political reforms and new initiatives to stimulate business and trade. Tsai's election however, has not proved popular with the leaders of mainland China who have cut off official contact with Taiwan.

Part of the history of the island is encapsulated in The National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall which was built in the late 1970s in memory of the former president.

The large concourse also houses the National Theatre and the National Concert Hall, but the blue octagonal-roofed memorial is the most interesting.

Two stairways of 80 steps (the president's age when he died), lead to a massive statue of Chiang. At ground level there are exhibits relating to the history of the island and the former president, including several of his classic cars.

For anyone interested in modern design and innovation, the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park is a great place to visit.

Established in 2012 to stimulate creative talents, the former tobacco factory now houses studios, exhibition spaces and galleries, libraries, creative labs, performance spaces and the Taiwan Design Museum.

The park is open to the public and just across the road there is a large gallery and shops where you can find a huge range of artisan foods, fashion, crafts and goods designed by young up-and-coming designers.

No visit to Taiwan would be complete without a train journey, so we took Taiwan High Speed Rail's service to Chiayi to visit the southern branch of the National Palace Museum and stay in the charming southern city of Tainan.

From the train, you really get a sense of how densely populated the country is. There appears to be virtually no countryside, just a continuation of the vast urban sprawl - although there are some areas of outstanding natural beauty, particularly in the Siraya National Scenic Area.

The National Palace museum (Southern Branch), which opened only last year, is housed in a striking, ultra-modern building surrounded by artificial lakes.

Exhibits include a Buddhism gallery, which explains the history of the religion and how it came to China, a textile gallery and an area devoted to tea culture and the history of tea.

There is also a fantastic ceramics exhibit with fabulous pottery from all over Asia, including many examples from the Ming dynasty.

The highlight when we visited was the display of the Jadeite Cabbage.

Described as The Mona Lisa of Asian Art, it is a six-inch high piece of jade that has been exquisitely carved into the shape of a Chinese cabbage, and it was receiving much admiration from locals and tourists alike.

Next we headed for Tainan city. Smaller and much more relaxed than Taipei (pei means north and nan means south) this is the most historic city in Taiwan and was the original capital under the Dutch and early Chinese settlements.

At the Chihkan Tower in the centre of Tainan you can still see part of the original 17th century Dutch Fort Provintia beneath the Chinese-style pagodas.

We stopped for a deliciously refreshing winter melon juice drink at a street kiosk before visiting the small Chuan Mei cinema where an elderly artist was hand-painting the movie posters outside. This is local-born movie director Ang Lee's (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain; Life of Pi; etc) favourite cinema and he is said to visit it every time he returns to Taiwan.

That evening, we had a fabulous meal in Tainan's oldest restaurant, A Xia, where we sampled some of the local specialities, including pork liver sausage, fried shrimp cake, sticky rice with crab and its dessert speciality, a red bean soup with pink sticky rice balls, taro fruit, almond tofu and ice - believe me, it tasted much better than it sounds.

Back in Taipei a few days later, we took a trip to the most iconic building in Taiwan.

The bamboo-shaped Taipei 101 tower soars 509 metres into the skyline making it the second-tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa in Dubai is now the tallest).

The high-speed elevator seemed to take just milliseconds to take us to the observatory on the 89th floor (the lifts travel at a top speed of 1,010 metres per minute and are classified as the world's fastest elevators in the Guinness Book of Records) where we enjoyed magnificent, panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains.

It's a great place to look down on the teeming city with its millions of motor scooters buzzing through the streets (Taiwan is home to 12 million scooters), the strange mixture of traditional and contemporary architecture, and all the vibrancy and excitement you would expect from such a truly unique city at the heart of Asia.

Getting there

The national carriers China Airlines and EVA Air provide scheduled flights all over the world with links to Ireland

Willy Brennan travelled on Emirates flights from Dublin to Dubai and then Dubai to Taipei

Taipei is teeming with five-star hotels. Willy stayed at the Palais de Chine Hotel in central Taipei and at Shangri La’s Far Eastern Plaza Hotel in Tainan. www.palaisdechinehotel.com and www.shangri-la.com

The local currency is the NewTaiwan Dollar (approx TWD35 = €1). The currency can be difficult to exchange in Europe. Shops, restaurants and bank machines accept all major credit cards

For general information visit: http://taiwan.net.tw or www.taiwantrip.com.tw

Taipei 101 bookings: www.taipei-101.com.tw

National Palace Museum: www.npm.gov.tw

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall: www.cksmh.gov.tw/eng/

Willy travelled to Taiwan as a guest of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan)

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Willy Brennan at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei

TAKE THREE: Top Attractions

Delightful dumplings

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There are dumpling restaurants all over Taiwan but our favourite was Din Tai Fung where they have been serving in Taipei since 1972. There is now a chain of more than 100 stores around the world and the Hong Kong branch has held a Michelin star for five years. As you enter the restaurant, you can watch the chefs hand roll and fill the dumplings in the open-plan kitchens before sitting down to taste them.

Muddy marvellous

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The mountainous Guanziling area near Tainan is famous for its hot mud springs and there are a number of resort hotels where you can pamper yourself with natural hot mud baths in the alkaline-rich spring water. The springs are reputed to be very effective in treating various medical ailments and it’s one of the most relaxing and healthy ways to spend a couple of hours. Your skin feels so refreshed afterwards.

Try a snake dish

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There are several different night markets all over the city of Taipei serving mainly local delicacies. There is even one market which specialises in various dishes involving snake. The bustling markets are vibrant and colourful and full of locals sampling their favourite dishes. There is every type of seafood, barbecued meats, soups and exotic vegetables on offer at a fraction of the cost of a restaurant.

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