Friday, February 27, 2009

RetroTravel: Taipei

My first taste of a Chinese atmosphere is the opportunity to visit to Taipei, Taiwan last 1995. It was a very short trip so I only get a few sights to see in this very high-tech city that has hints of the mainland China. Currently, Taiwan Republic of China has disputes over the mainland China as the mother China wants to incorporate the island territory to itself as one like Hong Kong and Macau. The recognition of the country name is one of the issue especially in Olympics and beauty pageants that has been affected by the political issue. Those who recognizes the one China policy recognizes Taiwan ROC in the name of "Chinese Taipei." But no matter how controversial and sensitive is the political status of Taiwan, it is still one of the great places to explore in East Asia.

Taiwan is an island nation of about 36,000 square kilometers located off the coast of southeastern China, southwest of Okinawa and north of the Philippines. The island is governed by the Republic of China (Zhōnghuá Mínguó) or ROC. Shaped roughly like a sweet potato, the nation is home to more than 23 million people and is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Besides its crowded cities, Taiwan is also known for steep mountains and lush forests. In addition to the island of Taiwan, the Republic of China also governs the Pescadores (Penghu), Quemoy (Kinmen/Jinmen), and Matsu.

Taipei is the capital of Republic of China. It is the seat of the government as well as it is the largest city of Taiwan. It is located in the northern part of the island in a basin between the Yangming Mountains and the Central Mountains.

Taiwan is not usually high on the list of destinations for Western tourists. Perhaps this is because the island's international reputation has been shaped more by its IT prowess and longstanding political disputes with mainland China than its culture or tourism, and so many assume that there is very little, if anything, of interest for the casual visitor. However, despite this general perception, Taiwan actually boasts some very impressive scenic sites, and Taipei is a vibrant center of culture and entertainment. The island is also a center of Chinese pop culture with a huge and vibrant entertainment industry. Taiwanese cuisine is also highly regarded among other Asians.

As we of know, Taiwan (particularly the Tawainese celebrities) has been popular in the Philippines due to its distribution of Asian television series in the entertainment industry that has captured the hearts of many Filipinos. Who would not forget that Taiwan is the land of those Asian series that popularized Tawainese celebrities like Barbie Hsu and The F4 in their series "Meteor Garden." It was a massive hit in the country that the stars even visited the country to grant the fans wish to see them in Philippines soil. I myself watch the series.

Taipei is the city where we stay. In this travel, I am with my mom. During the flight, most of the passengers are Filipino overseas workers bound to the country. Taiwan is popularly known as the center of manufacturing industry in computer hardware products and assembly of its internal parts. Most overseas Filipino workers are bound to work in those factories. We stay in Ms. Bing Go's residence. She is a Filipino resident married to a Taiwanese husband. She is also running a Filipino store in the city with the help of another Filipino friend. And of course Filipino workers and residents frequents here store for the local goods that are not available in the country.

Downtown Taipei.
During my time of visit in Taipei, weather is cold maybe becuase of the winter December season. I used my jacket most of the time. But the cold weather are bearable at night but additional blows of wind makes it feel more colder. By day it is temperate cold.

Taipei is a very progressive city. There are many skyscrapercity around the city. The city is very urbanized with so many establishments around and up to date technology gadgets in the market. The city has an efficient Mass Rapid Transit system or MRT and bus services with signs and announcements also written in English to make it accessible for non-Chinese speaking visitors. Taxi is also common for transportation. Taiwanese are just like Chinese people. But its quite hard to interact with because of the language barrier and most of them are not fluent in speaking in English. But just like other Asians, they are friendly and warm.

One of best experience I won't forget in Taipei is eating a local soup. We went to Tomson Plaza to eat and also to see shopping items. It was my first time to use chopsticks! The soup was in a wide bowl with veggies and meat balls (but it looks fish balls to me) for individual serving. And the restaurant doesn't provide any other utensil except chopsticks and a plastic spoon with a wide dish (which I think used for the water part of the soup). Though there's a plactic spoon it doesn't look like one because it has a short neck and the dish is wide. Plus it is not suitable to eat the noodle part as it so I am really force to use the chopsticks. I gave it a try. I was hard to eat but I learned how to deal with it (in a hard and fun way hehe ^^).

Other attractions around Taipei are...
Taipei 101 - Officially known as the Taipei International Financial Center, this 101-floor, 508-meter high skyscraper is located in the Xinyi District of Taipei. It is the tallest completed building in the world. The tower is rich in symbolism. It was designed to resemble bamboo rising from the earth, a plant recognized in Asian cultures for its fast growth and flexibility, both of which are ideal characteristics for a financial building. The building is also divided into eight distinct sections, with eight being a number associated with prosperity in Chinese culture. The internal architecture of Taipei 101 is similarly awe-inspiring. Pay attention to ornate details on the structural beams, columns, and other elements. Taipei 101 is perhaps most notable for its feats of engineering. It has been the world's tallest building since 2004, as determined by three of the four standards designated by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. It also boasts the world's fastest elevators, which will zip visitors up to the 89th-floor observation deck in a mere 37 seconds (cost: NT$400 for adults, NT$370 for kids under 12). It's worth taking a ride up, as the views are stunning. The best time to visit would be in the late afternoon when you spend a couple of hours and see both day and night views of Taipei. For an additional NT$100, you can also go up to the outdoor observatory on the 91st floor. Don't forget to look toward the middle of the building, where you'll see one of the massive gold dampers that keep the building steady. Attached to the tower is a large, up-scale mall. While the stores are unremarkable in that they offer the same brand-names as stores in other major cities around the world, the open and spacious design of the structure itself definitely makes it worth a visit.

Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall - constructed in the memory of Dr. Sun Yat-sen who is the founding father of the Republic of China. The construction of the Memorial commenced in 1965 in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of Sun Yat-sen's birth. It was opened in May 16, 1972, with the majestic architecture and placid landscape covering an area of some 115,500 sq. meters. The park named Zhongshan Park marks the front yard of the Hall. On the inside, there is a 19-foot bronze statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, watched over the day by motionless military honor guards, along with a library of 400 seats storing over 1.4 millions books. The 100 meter long Zhongshan corridor links the main hall to the four large exhibition buildings where contemporary arts and historical articles are frequently on display. The Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall has grown into much of a community center, and is much less touristy than the newer and larger Chiang Kai-shek Memorial. There is an auditorium which has weekly lectures and seminars on aspects of art and life. It is also a popular site for public concerts.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall - controversially renamed the "National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall" by the DPP, this building is the symbol of both Taipei and the Republic of China. It is here that the nation's flag is raised every morning, and the huge court yard in front of the memorial serves as a place for both national celebrations as well as a platform to voice one's disapproval of the government. The memorial consists of a large bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek, watched over by two motionless honor guards who are replaced every hour in a rifle twirling ceremony (though this ritual has been suspended due to political wrangling). Downstairs, there is a museum of Chiang's life, complete with his sedans and uniforms. Even if you are not into memorials, the gardens, with their Chinese style ponds, are definitely worth a visit.

Day and night drama of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
National Theater Hall and National Concert Hall - located in the grounds of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, it is an are excellent place to see performances of a Taiwanese play or a dance troupe. They also host many international events. The building's neo-classic Chinese architecture is especially stunning when flood-lit at night.

The National Palace Museum - the world's best collection of Chinese historical artifacts and antiquities. The museum is located in Shilin. The nearest MRT station is Shilin, with frequent buses from Shilin heading for the Palace Museum. Look for the displays on the buses. Some are written in English. It's a must-see for first time visitors.

Taipei Botanical Garden – The gardens are nearest MRT station 'Xiaonanmen' on the green line between the MRT Ximen station and MRT C.K.S Memorial Hall station. This beautiful garden has inspired the citizens of Taipei for over one hundred years. The lotus ponds are a hallmark of the park and are especially captivating when the these symbols of peace are in full bloom and swaying in the summer breeze. The gardens are close to the National Museum of History.

Longshan Temple – This temple is where countless generations of Taipei citizens have come to pray and seek guidance at times of trouble. As the temple is dedicated to Guanyin (the Buddhist representation of compassion) it is officially defined as Buddhist, but there is a great amount of folk religion mixed into the fabric of the beliefs at this temple. However, if you want to feel the real heartbeat of Taipei, one that is far removed from the skyscrapers and shopping malls of East Taipei, this is the place to come. It just oozes with character, although don't come expecting to find teachings on meditation. The area around Longshan Temple, Wanhua, is one of the original districts of Taipei. And, while much of the traditional architecture has been lost, the area still maintains a traditional feel. It is here that the blind masseurs congregate to offer their skill. Likewise, this is the area where the Taiwanese come to learn who they should marry or what to name their children by consulting one of the many fortune tellers that set up shop along the roads and alleys around the temple.

Dalongdong is at the Datong District's north end, north of Dadaocheng and is one of the oldest communities in Taipei. Baoan Temple and Confucius Temple are both famous historical sites located in this area. Baoan Temple - Baoan is a Taoist temple and one of the leading religious sites in Taipei. The temple's main deity is the emperor Baosheng, the god of medicine. The mural paintings and sculptures that adorn the the building are considered some of the most impresive in Taiwan, and the temple won acclaims in the 2003 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards. Confucius Temple - Just next to Baoan Temple, the Confucius Temple was built in 1879 when the Qing Court changed Taipei into a prefecture of the Province of Fujian, China. It was established to serve as the largest educational center in northern Taiwan. Every September 28th, a large number of people from Taiwan and abroad come here to watch a solemn Confucius birthday ceremony and eight-row dance.

In addition to these landmarks and temples, Taipei also offers bath in hot springs and hosts numerous festivals throughout the year like the The Lantern Festival and Dragon Boat Festival. There are also a number of theme parks in Taipei like Taipei Zoo and Leofoo Village Theme Park. I wish I have visited those places I have mentioned. I hope in another opportunity to visit Taiwan I will be able to visit those exciting places.

Taipei also boasts of large shopping districts and areas. Xinyi District is the seat of the Taipei mayor's office and the Taipei city council. The Taipei Convention Hall, the Taipei World Trade Center, Taipei 101, Taipei City Hall, and various shopping malls and entertainment venues make Xinyi the most modern cosmopolitan district of Taipei. Xinyi District is also considered the financial district of Taipei. Xinyi District is anchored by a number of department stores and malls. In addition, numerous restaurants are located in the area, especially American chain restaurants.

Shilin Night Market has stores selling good, hand bags, clothing, and more. Most of the merchandise consists of imitations. Miramar Entertainment Park is a standard shopping center with the usual merchandise. It houses the only IMAX theatre in Taiwan as well as the Miramar ferris wheel which offers great views of Taipei city.

Ximending - is the trendy shopping area just west of Downtown. It's popular with local students. If it's pink, plastic, and imported from Japan, you can probably find it on sale in a store here. The Core Pacific Living Mall - reportedly Asia's largest shopping center under one roof, has many stores open 24 hours a day. It also has a large food court, cinema complex, and the nightclub Plush.

Other destinations outside Taipei that are worthy to see are: Kaohsiung - the second largest city in Taiwan and is located in the south of the island. Kaohsiung is known for its harbor, although more for commercial than tourism reasons. Hence it is also known as the Harbor Capital of Taiwan. Its year-round fine weather and the low cost of living makes Kaohsiung a must for visitors to Taiwan. Alishan - misty forests of giant cypresses and amazing sunrises at the center of the island, reached by a scenic narrow-gauge train. Kenting National Park - located at the extreme southern tip of the island, this park is famous for its beaches and lush vegetation. Sun Moon Lake - nestled at 2,500 feet in lofty mountains in Nantou County, this lake is famous for its clear sparkling blue water and picturesque mountain backdrop. Taipingshan - a historic logging area and one of Taiwan's most scenic spots. Located in Yilan County. Taroko Gorge - an impressive gorge located off the east coast. Yangmingshan National Park - spanning a mountain range overlooking. Taipei. Yushan - at 3,996m the highest mountain in not just Taiwan, but all East Asia.

I wish to learn and explore more about these places and landmarks of Taiwan and Taipei as an overnight trip is not enough to see everything it offers. There is more than information technology prowess and center of industrial manufacturings which the country is popularly known for. There is more than its Taipei 101. There is more than about its Asian TV series. It has a charm like what Barbie Hsu and F4 has that made everyone in Asia craze for. It is a country with wonderful culture and sights to experience. Discover those wonders and charms of Taiwan. 

For more information about Taiwan visit Wikitravel: Taiwan and Wikitravel: Taipei.

RetroTravel: Taipei is part of my RetroTravel series where I recall my past travels and old adventures  in pre-digital era of pictures. My travel date to Taipei, Taiwan happened in December 1-2, 1995.  Photo credits from by jaqi & peony, skimvision, elqui, orandajin, oxone and yeowatzup.

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