Taiwan’s frenetic, modern capital city is one of the most populous urban areas in the world. With its skyscrapers, neon-lit streets, karaoke bars and historic Chinese temples, it is a study in contrasts. The city is a business and technology hub, and is a melting pot of cultures, with Japanese, South East Asian and even American influences. With an efficient system of public transport, this is a city that is a pleasure to explore.
WALK DOWN HISTORY
I began my Taipei odyssey by exploring the gargantuan public square called Liberty Square, which houses the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, dedicated to the erstwhile president of the country. I loved the neo-classical architecture of the buildings in the square, with ornamental gardens and sculpted trees, including the National Theatre and the National Concert hall. The square had a lively vibe, with locals practising music, flag throwing, march pasts and group exercises. I watched the hourly change of guards inside the memorial hall, through a sea of cameras and selfie sticks.
A GLIMPSE OF TREASURES
A visit to Taipei’s National Palace Museum is mandatory. It holds one of the largest collections of Chinese art and artefacts in the world, including the iconic Jade Cabbage – a piece of jade carved like a head of cabbage. The museum is a treasure trove of bronzes, jade, ceramics and lacquerware, which were spirited away by China’s nationalist party from Beijing’s Forbidden City when the Communists were winning the civil war. From a bronze cooking vessel with three legs with Chinese inscriptions from 771 BC to a jasper sculpture resembling a local pork dish called Tung Po meat, this museum is full of exquisite treasures.
A VIEW FROM THE TOP
Taipei’s show stopper is Taipei 101, a skyscraper which was the tallest building in the world before it was unseated by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Built to resemble a giant bamboo stalk, this engineering marvel was constructed in accordance with Feng Shui, and has references to Chinese culture, from the huge coin-like indentations on its side to the eight sections of the building ( 8 is a lucky number for the Chinese). The building houses some of the best luxury shopping, offices and restaurants. A super-fast elevator whizzed us to the 89th floor in 36 seconds, for a panoramic view of the high rise city. Don’t miss seeing the damper (a huge golden iron ball) that helps the skyscraper resist strong winds and earthquakes.
A DOSE OF CULTURE
My next stop was the ancient Longshan Temple, an ornate Buddhist Temple in red and gold, with roofs of wood, ceramic and porcelain, decorated with dragons and huge golden urns. It was founded in 1738 and is dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Mercy, alongside a hundred other deities that are also worshipped there. It was a mesmerizing scene, watching locals chant prayers together, light incense sticks and candles and drop divination blocks near their feet to read their fortunes. Long tables, lined with offerings from biscuits and sweets to purple orchids and even cans of beer, stood nearby. The temple, a bastion of local culture, has survived bombings, earthquakes and typhoons and has been lovingly restored.
No visit to Taipei is complete without a trip to Din Tai Fung, a pilgrimage for lovers of dim sum. This restaurant, which started in Taiwan, now has branches around the world. Like surgeons in white uniforms and masks, I saw a team of chefs craft the famed soup-filled buns (Xiaolongbao) with exactly 18 folds. Our dinner table was laden with a variety of eats, from dim sum to beef noodles, soup-filled buns, braised vegetables, tofu and bubble tea.
From old world Taipei, we moved to modern Ximending, which is a crowded shopping and entertainment district with huge digital billboards and pedestrian-only streets, modelled on Japanese shopping streets. It was the theatre district under Japanese occupation, and even today, movie theatres dot the district. From small, trendy boutiques to pubs and restaurants, themed cafes and street food, this is an area that stays awake till late at night. There is even a whole street devoted to tattooing and nail art. Watch the street performers, have a bite and shop till you drop.
For a glimpse of the old Taipei, away from the glitz and the skyscrapers, we headed to the Dadaocheng locality and Dihua Street, which is Taipei’s oldest street. It was developed by merchants from Fujian and Guangdong in China and was the centre of the tea trade. Dihua Street is today a mélange of architectural influences, from Chinese Baroque to Victorian brick buildings and teahouses. Shops here sell everything from dried spices to pungent medicinal herbs. I visited the Tia Hai city temple, known for its God of matchmaking; many young people come here to pray for a loving relationship. Small carts sold everything from peanut brittle-topped ice cream to fish balls and stinky, fermented tofu. We walked up to Wang’s tea in the same area, which is a hundred-year-old tea factory and store. Jason Wang, the fifth generation owner, walked us through the stages of processing tea and took us through a tea tasting ceremony with precise instructions about heating the water, time for brewing and number of infusions.
TAIPEI FOR NIGHT OWLS
I finished the day at a unique Taipei institution, the gigantic 24-hour Eslite Book store at Duncan Street. This store, with over 2 lakh books in Chinese, Japanese and English over five floors, has a relaxed policy of letting people read without having to buy anything. I saw young couples, families and children crouched in corners, sitting on steps and on the floor, absorbed in a book or magazine. The store is also a venue for live concerts and book readings and also has a wine bar and café attached.