My Paradise: Taipei more than OK

by Ed Kelin
Stripes Korea

A trip to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, should be on everyone’s second-tier to-do list. There are enough differences from other big cities like Tokyo and Seoul to make the trip a unique experience. It’s easy to get there, not too expensive and very English-language friendly. You can cover the highlights on a three-day trip, four if you cannot get convenient flights.

Taipei is located on the Tamsui River near the northern coast of the island. Like Seoul and Tokyo, Taipei has an older, smaller airport close to the city center. China Airlines, a Taiwan-based carrier, offers several flights a day from Gimpo and Haneda to Songshan airport. There are also direct flights from Okinawa, Fukuoka and Hiroshima. Flying in and out of the smaller airports not only means less travel time, it’s also less expensive. It takes about three and a half hours to get to Taipei from Tokyo. China Airlines serves a meal and you get your choice of movies. On my flight to Taipei I chose to watch the movie “Lucy” (I didn’t know that at the beginning of the movie the title character is kidnapped and drugged in Taipei). The No.1 subway line is right outside Songshan Airport. There are many inexpensive and mid-priced hotels in the city center, most within walking distance to a metro stop. My door-to-door trip from Japan was quick and convenient.

Taiwan was for hundreds of years a forgettable large island off the coast of mainland China. In fact, Chinese people did not come to Taiwan in any numbers until the mid-19th century. Today 5 percent of Taiwan’s population is still indigenous. For many years the indigenous people lived peacefully, until first the Portuguese and then the Dutch came to set up trading posts. They also brought Christianity. Besides Korea, Taiwan is the only East Asian country to have a significant Christian population.

Being a pretty new city, Taipei has little to offer in terms of historic buildings. On the other hand, there are huge museums honoring the two key founders of the Republic of China – Dr. Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek. Dr. Sen, who lived in Honolulu for part of his life, joined the radicals in China that were trying to remove the Emperor from his throne, as well as the warlords that controlled much of the rural parts of China (for details, go rent “The Last Emperor”). Chiang was a military officer, trained in Japan – as was the custom of the time. After Dr. Sen’s death, Chiang became the leader of the movement. Trying to fend off warlords, communists and the Japanese military invasion, Chiang consolidated power by becoming a dictator. He received backing from the Western world because he was not a communist and he was fighting the Japanese. After World War II ended and there was not much financial funding from outside powers, Chiang was unable to defeat the Chinese communists. Looking for a safe haven for himself, his followers and the national treasures, Chiang moved the government to Taiwan. The rest is modern Asian history.

Speaking of history, the National Museum of History should be one of the first stops on your visit. You get a very good understanding of the country. The museum also contains many of the items brought over from the mainland before the communists took over. It only costs $1 to get in, but please note there are no toilet seats in the rest rooms (I didn’t check the ladies’ room, however).

Today, Taipei is most famous for having one of the world’s tallest buildings. Now called Taipei 101, at one time this was the tallest building in the world (it’s now No.3). The building has won many awards for being energy efficient. Intrigued as to why they decided to build such a tall building in an earthquake region, I rode “the world’s fastest elevator” to the top. Although it was a bit hazy out, the views were quite impressive. Because Taipei is surrounded by mountains, this high view was nicer than visits I had to Seoul Tower and Tokyo’s Skytree. Also, there is a minimuseum near the top that shows the innovative design to thwart high winds and earthquakes. It has something to do with a ball that weighs several tons being suspended near the top of the building. If you remember your high school physics, you’ll understand.

If you have at least half a day, take the Metro to the northern suburbs on the outskirt of Taipei. In Beitou you can visit the Ketagalan Culture Center, featuring exhibits on the original natives of Taiwan. Beitou is also famous for its hot springs and gardens. After the hustle and bustle of the city it’s a great, quiet getaway.

Farther north, the last stop on the Metro, is the city of Tamsui. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Taipei area. Being so close to the sea, there are many seafood restaurants right on the waterfront. There are also lots of arts and crafts stores, as well as places to buy cheap souvenirs. There is less English spoken here than in the central city, but for the most part that should not be an issue. I went to a ramen restaurant featuring “gourmet Taiwan cuisine” that did not have an English menu. Even though there were pictures, I couldn’t tell much difference between any of the options. When I asked, they could only tell me “very good, very good”. I had to make animal sounds to let them know what I wanted. By the way, the food was very good, very good.

Because Taiwan is typically hot and humid, stores stay open very late so people can shop in cooler weather. In fact, there are several outdoor “tourist nighttime shopping districts” where the streets are closed for pedestrian traffic. Food vendors set up in the middle of the street – mostly something deep fried and put on a stick. Besides stores pushing tables onto the sidewalks, other entrepreneurs set up tables to sell their wares – clothing, crafts, etc. Taipei is no longer a low-cost manufacturer, but there are still factories churning out things for Japanese, European and American brands. Since many stores in Taipei offered low-cost Hello Kitty merchandise, I’m guessing this is where they are made.

I felt very safe walking the streets and riding the subways. In the main city center, English was very common; in fact, after awhile I stopped asking people if they spoke English. For those who might suffer from withdrawal, there are plenty of Starbucks around (McDonald’s, too). Taiwan’s currency is the Chinese Yuan, which was then trading between 30-33 Yuan to a dollar.

On the political scene, Taiwan has gotten closer to the Republic of China. Many businesses have set up their manufacturing plants on the mainland. China has never given up the desire to bring Taiwan back to a united Chinese nation. Much like with Hong Kong, they have promised Taiwan that they not impede on their current democratic freedoms. However, since Beijing has recently reneged on similar promises to Hong Kong, the relationship between China and Taiwan has gotten frosty. Last year there were a number of protests. The November mid-term elections saw the Beijing-friendly ruling party lose their leadership of the legislature. It is almost a done deal that the anti-Beijing party will win the presidency in 2016.

In summary, if you want to experience Chinese culture without the hassles (and smog) of going to the mainland, Taipei is a great destination.

Motorcycles and scooters

Taipei is a southern Asian city, which means more motor scooters and small motorcycles than in Japan or Korea. In Taipei, these vehicles are allowed to park on the sidewalks. So, in addition to driving on the streets, drivers take over the sidewalks, too. I was never able to figure out who had right-of-way. Although Taipei is a relatively new city, with wide roads, traffic is still pretty bad. There are limited left hand turn lanes. To help reduce some of the backup for left hand turns Taipei does something very interesting for motorcycles. Instead of waiting to make a left, riders stay in the right lane, pulling over and stopping in a special “box” in front of the cross traffic waiting at the red light. Then, when the lights change riders can complete the left turn.

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