Taiwan: Small island, big heart
Driving in from the airport on the outskirts of Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, it was hard to know what to expect.
The undulating hills and dense forestation gave little away as to what lay in store as we made our way towards where I assumed the city lay. And then it appeared, quite literally, as we rounded a bend on the motorway, spread out in the valley below with the Taipei 101 - once the world's tallest building - master of all it surveyed.
My first impressions as we made our way to our hotel - the Ambassador, located in the heart of the shopping district where all the world's leading brands are queueing up to sell you their wares - were of a clean, modern, vibrant city. As you might expect, it appeared well organised, easy to navigate and there was no shortage of taxis or underground stops to make your way round.
Taipei is a wealthy city, and a world leader in the production of high-tech goods and parts. It's located on the northern tip of Taiwan, a small island off the coast of China, about the size of the Netherlands.
Taiwan has a long and chequered history - but has also a long history of punching above its weight, especially with its high-performing export-driven economy.
It has been colonised by the Dutch and the Spanish, and been ruled by the Japanese and the Chinese, and has seen all sorts of upheaval, perhaps none so dramatic as that in the late 1940s when political unrest in China led to 1.2m people relocating to Taiwan.
In recent decades, Taiwan has been on a journey to re-establish the significance of its indigenous peoples, something which had become eroded through time with the governance of foreign powers and colonisations. A total of 16 indigenous tribes have been identified - each with its own distinct language, songs, dances and festivals - and efforts are being made to broaden understanding across the population of these distinct cultures.
And this awakening, if you want to call it that, is very much at the heart of its modern-day tourism industry.
As a case in point, our first port of call was the 80-year-old Long Life cigarette factory which is now the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, where native craft and fashions are showcased through year-round exhibitions and performances.
The one-stop shop for learning more about the varied history of Taiwan is the National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei's Liberty Square.
But perhaps nowhere is the island's diverse history better illustrated than in its food, with the Chinese and Japanese influences being notable.
The food in Taiwan was excellent at all times. At no time did we step away from a table feeling even a little disappointed. Granted, a meal can take up to three hours, if you have the time and the inclination.
The Taiwanese enjoy the experience of meal time - everybody shares, and they are fond of many courses modestly apportioned.
One night we decided to go all out and had an eight-course extravaganza which included pork, chicken, shrimp and duck - all cooked at our table with an assortment of oriental spices... it was an unforgettable food experience.
That was in the E-Da Royal Hotel in Taiwan's second city, Kaohsiung, where we spent an enjoyable few days. It's a measure of the food we ate that I was still able to go up on the giant ferris wheel beside the hotel. Yes, there's a ferris wheel at this hotel - and a theme park, and a shopping mall, and a cinema...
As is my wont, if there's even a whiff of a roller coaster wherever I fetch up, I'll find it and so it was that I had my first fling on the i-Ride, a unique 3D flying and sensory experience which I'd heartily recommend (so long as roller coasters are your thing that is!).
Kaohsiung is on the south of the island, and it's an experience in itself to travel between the two cities on the high speed railway. With its large harbour, Kaohsiung is of vital importance to the island's burgeoning economy but it is also a popular haunt for tourists because of its large number of historical sites and monuments.
The city also hosts a lot of museums, while its night markets are another popular attraction.
An interesting quirk in how Taiwan has evolved is how many of its traditional structures and architecture have survived and been revitalised as part of the modernisation of its cities for use as community centres, cafes, boutiques and so on.
Another interesting fact is that it is widely held that many aspects of traditional Chinese arts and crafts are better preserved in Taiwan than anywhere else. For instance, the National Palace Museum in Taipei has one of the biggest collections of ancient Chinese artefacts in the world.
Not far from Kaohsiung, you will find the Taiwan Indigenous Peoples Cultural Park, one of the highlights of the visit. It is here where you will learn all about the different tribes. There are special shows on each tribe, plenty of activities and opportunities to join in the fun, including an option to stay overnight and immerse yourself in the experience.
The spine of the island is dominated by mountain ranges, some reaching over 3,000m, including Jade Mountain, which is the highest peak in east Asia. Despite being such a populous island (home to 23 million), Taiwan remains a beautiful one with one-fifth of its land protected. The mountain ranges and the forest foothills occupy more than half of its area.
Taiwan is also blessed with an almost magical climate which has made it an agricultural paradise where almost any fruit or vegetable can be grown. Its location means it is a melting pot for a wide range of climatic zones. On the same day, you could ski in one part of the island and swim in positively balmy conditions in another.
Back in Taipei, a pleasant surprise was the Pinglin Tea Museum, which proved a fascinating morning's outing. It details the history of the country's tea industry and how it began trading with Britain and the rest of the world. The joke goes that to be successful in the tea business you had to be called Thomas, as in Lipton and Twining.
Ximending is the trendy part of Taipei and well worth a visit. It's notable for its street food, fashionable boutiques and cafes, bookstores and so on. There is just a generally relaxed vibe. It is also the city's theatre district while there are several historical sites which attract attention.
Despite all I experienced and managed to soak up in Taiwan, on both the north and south of the island in its two most important cities, my abiding memory is a simple one, but apt I think for the kind of place it is.
Early on in the trip, as I adjusted to the time difference, I accidentally discovered Taipei City at its most captivating. I went for a run at 6am in the beautiful Rongxing Gardens and I was struck by the calm and tranquillity all around. There were plenty of people around, but few were going to work at this time. Most of the early risers were going through their own exercise and meditation regimes and I was struck by how peaceful they looked as they did so. With traffic yet to get going I felt I was really seeing Taipei at its best. Here I was, in a city of more than 2.5m people - one of the world's most populous in terms of its size - and yet there was a calm which belied its place as an economic powerhouse.
And maybe that's the secret: Yes, there's chaos, but before the chaos there is calm; and after the chaos there is calm... the small island with the big heart.
Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, is in East Asia and has a population of over 23m friendly, easy going people living in an area half the size of Ireland.
Taiwan offers many famous tourist attractions, including the National Palace Museum, Taipei 101, Taroko Gorge, Sun Moon Lake, Jade Mountain, hot springs, temples, night markets, gourmet food, cycling and hiking.
For more information, visit the Taiwan Tourism Bureau: https://eng.taiwan.net.tw/; and the Taipei Representative Office in Ireland: taiwanembassy.org/ie_en/index.html
China Airlines (www.china-airlines.com/tw/en) and EVA Air (www.evaair.com/en-global/index.html) provide scheduled flights all over the world with links to Ireland.
David travelled on Emirates flights from Dublin to Dubai and then Dubai to Taipei.
TAKE TWO: Top attractions
This was once the tallest building in the world. Its lift was also once the fastest in the world (reaching a speed of around 60kph) and the viewing deck, on the 88th floor offers a 360-degree view of the city.
High speed train
OK, so I have a thing for speed. Fast lifts and even faster trains, like the 292kph train from Taipei to Kaohsiung City. We were asked to put our phones on silent and speak softly. It worked for me...
Sunday Indo Living