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Saturday December 17, 2011

Lil’, diverse Taiwan

Even when it rains and the place looks drab, Taiwan’s mixture of rustic and city charms shines through.

Taipei, the capital of the Republic of China (or more popularly, Taiwan), is a metropolis with diverse attractions.

Due to its complicated, love-hate relationship with China, for example, Taiwan came to build a lot of bunkers and air bomb shelters to prepare for any eventuality. I thought these might make interesting places to visit.

Unfortunately, I could not find the time.

The capital city is very clean, which is surprising for a Malaysian. Apart from outside a shopping mall where I saw some plastic cups and lunch boxes strewn about, the place is very well-kept. You’d be hard-pressed to find a cigarette butt or paper littering the streets.

Whistle: Standing at a towering 508m, Taipei’s landmark skyscrapper is a must-see.

Be that as it may, my first impression of Taipei was that it was made up of boring residential and office buildings – boxy and lacking in character. It would seem the pioneering batch of Kuomintang members who fled here from the mainland built these simple structures as temporary shelters. It had always been their intention to return to China.

But they never had the chance. As the years stretched to decades, their descendants settled down on this tiny island and came to call it home.

I wondered aloud why the Taiwanese didn’t build more colourful or fancy buildings, but even the Taiwanese tour guide had no answer. Its drabness notwithstanding, Taipei has almost everything to offer, from scenic spots, historical sites and shopping areas, to culture, gadgets, hot springs and organic food fair.

Our first stop upon landing at the Taoyuan International Airport was to visit the popular skyscraper, Taipei 101. This tower, the world’s tallest building from 2004 to 2010, is an unmistakable landmark in Taipei and can be seen from far away. We went to the indoor observatory way up on the 89th floor, but I could see nothing from this vantage point because the mist from heavy rain had conspired to obscure the view.

The outdoor deck, located two floors above, was also closed.

A tea cup displaying at Yingge Ceramics Museum. The infuser is in the shape of Taiwan island.

The skyscraper adjoins a shopping mall that houses hundreds of fashionable stores and restaurants, but our schedule did not permit us to check out the shops. Instead, we headed to Shilin Night Market, the biggest in Taipei.

Shilin is divided into two parts, with one being a food court with 50-odd stalls that hawk all the famous street foods of Taiwan. You can get oyster vermicelli, beef noodle, braised pig organs, stinky tofu and blood cake. The last was voted one of the most disguising food on earth by Caucasian tourists.

The other part of the night market, about five minutes walk from the food court, is the shopping streets. Here, you can find all sort of things, from electronic devices, shirts and shoes, to toys, DVDs, feminine accessories and more

The place was not so packed when we visited due to the rain. Still, most of the outlets were crammed full of merchandise, leaving only a small space for customers to walk.

On the second day, we went to the National Palace Museum (NPM). One of the top five museums in the world, it has the largest collection of Chinese artifacts and artwork. To me, this place is a must-visit attraction in Taipei. You could spend a whole day looking at the treasures it holds.

The museum was originally founded in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, in 1925 and stocked with artefacts of the highest quality from the imperial treasury. War and strife plagued the country in the ensuing years, and in 1949, when the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan after losing in the Civil War against the Communists, they brought with them the 600,000 masterpieces of Chinese art.

This explains why the collections here are more valuable than those in the Beijing Palace Museum. The three most famous items are the Jadeite Cabbage, the Meat-shaped Stone and Mao Gong Ding. Due to the long queue and tight schedule, I only managed to see the Mao Gong Ding – a three-legged bronze vessel that is inscribed with 491 characters on the inside. It’s the longest inscription on any known Chinese bronze.

Dating back to the Western Zhou period (1,046BC–771BC), the vessel was unearthed in 1850.

As a memento of my visit to the museum, I bought a postcard with the Qing Dynasty version of the Qingming Shanghe Tu (Along the River during the Qingming Festival) painting and a printed-version of the Fuchun Shanju Tu (Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains) from the souvenior shop.

In the afternoon, we proceeded to a mosque located near the National Taiwan University. While waiting for the Muslims to conduct their Friday prayer, I bought a cup of black coffee from a nearby convenience shop and marvelled at the food stalls, restaurants and coffee houses that seem to occupy every corner of Taipei.

I also noticed that Taiwanese seldom use the lift. They would take the stairs and walked a few floors up or down to save energy in order to protect the environment.

“It’s good exercise,” our tour guide Vincent Chiang said.

Then we went to Muzha, a town about an hour by bus from the city center. From there, we took a gondola lift to Maokong, some 300m uphill. The gondola spans 4km, connecting Taipei Zoo to Zhinan Temple and Maokong. The cabin had a glass bottom that gave passenger a vicarious sense of danger, but the glasses were fogged up due to – yes – the rain.

Maokong is popular with city folk who want to get away to enjoy a rustic setting and some Chinese tea for a change. It’s like Taiwan’s version of our Cameron Highlands.

We settled down at the Chef A-Yi’s restaurant, where tea consultant Wu Jien-Fu demonstrated the art of Chinese tea to us. Later, we tried the restaurant’s special tea cuisine. The dishes, flavoured with flowers or tea, included Shrimp with Roses, Smoked Chicken Legs with Rock Tea, and Fried Rice with Tei Guan Yin Tea.

On the third day, we went to Yingge Ceramics Town, a ceramic lovers’ paradise about two hours from the city. We spent an hour at the Yingge Ceramics Museum, looking at masterpieces made by Taiwanese artists and sculptors. The museum has sister galleries in Italy, South Korea, Japan and France.

There are also dozens of ceramics outlets in Yingge. Apart from shopping, you can also try your hands at making a ceramic masterpiece of your own.

The next morning, we rushed to Beitou to enjoy the hot springs before flying home. Beitou has been famous as a hot spring destination since the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945). Influenced by the Japanese, the locals have made visiting the hot springs a family activity.

The hot springs in Beitou are acidic, between pH 2.5 and 6.5, and the temperature varies between 37°C and 40°C.

There are two types of hot spring on offer: the public pool and the private rooms.

It rained throughout my four days in Taiwan, but this did not put a dampener on things. In fact, I enjoyed the trip very much.

Travelog AirAsia’s segment on Taiwan airs on TV3 at 7.30pm this Sunday. Air Asia flies between KL and Taipei daily on Airbus A330 with 12 flatbed (premium) seats and 365 economy seats.