First-time travelers to Asia often make the mistake of thinking they can hit more than one or two countries in a single short itinerary. Even allowing for a couple of months, trying to border-cross or puddle-jump in order to “take in all the sights” would be insanity — if not because of time constraints, then simply because such a strategy would undermine the richness and depth of all that can be seen.
Asia, as we all know, is a big place: it’s home to the majority of the world’s population (including, obviously, its two largest nations), several of history’s oldest civilizations, and a breathtaking diversity of cultures, languages, foods, religions and ideas. Any itinerary to the region is bound to be jam-packed and overwhelmed with eating, shopping, temple-viewing, museum-going, nightlife and R&R.
Instead, let me propose an alternative method: just visit Taipei.
A charming, smart, cosmopolitan city that manages to be simultaneously contemporary and traditional, this tight conurbation of under three million brings together a wonderful taste of some of the best you can expect from anywhere within the region. Whether it’s food or shopping, religion or arts, getting down or merely chilling out, this town’s got it all. Here, five ways to whet your Taipei appetite. Just be forewarned: visitors tend to experience more than a hint of city envy.
1) Cuisine: Its location means that Taiwan, historically a crossroads of cultures, is home to an incredible variety of international cuisine, not to mention diverse Chinese cooking. It was once colonized by the Japanese, and to this day welcomes to a strong Korean and U.S. influence. For over 300 years, southern Chinese have been bringing their culinary chops to the island; when the Communists forced the Guomintang out, mainland Chinese from every province flocked this way as well. Ergo one of the richest collections of the best Chinese food to be found, anywhere. Did I mention that street food is king, with some of the most vibrant night markets in Asia? Shilin is one of the largest, known for sausages and stinky tofu. I mean it: dig in.
2) Congregate: Unlike its big brotherly next-door neighbor, Taiwan maintains not only a vibrant democracy and a sometimes astoundingly vitriolic free press — it also upholds freedom of religion as a matter of fact (and not just theory). Christians, Muslims, Jews congregate freely. And while the People’s Republic of China claims Buddhism as a state-certified religion, in fact it’s near death — or should I say, on its way to reincarnation?
In the Republic of China (ROC), aka Taiwan, every village, town and city — Taipei included — supports vibrant Buddhist temples, which foreigners are welcome to pass through as any local would. Likewise, Taoism is still riding the river of life here, and counts itself as a viable counterpoint to Buddhism. Even then, Chinese and Taiwanese folk religions add a layer of nuance and color to religious interpretations.
3) Culture: Taipei’s National Palace Museum boasts one of the most important — and probably the largest — collections of Chinese art in the world. Urban legend has it that there are enough treasures (taken from the Mainland by the Guomindang in 1949) stored up for there to be continually rotating exhibitions every single day of the year.
It’s not all mummified behind glass vitrines: performance art, especially contemporary dance, is cutting edge. In addition to the world-famous Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Taipei’s “Lab” enables top dancers and choreographers to come together and create new works. Chou Shu-yi, a locally born-and-bred dancer, recently won the first-ever Sadler’s Wells Global Dance Contest and participated in last summer’s Eliot Feld Mandance festival in New York.
4) Chill: Taipei’s fall will soon lead into the cold, damp winter months, which, perhaps surprisingly, are the perfect time to visit the city. A natural abundance of volcanically activated hot water springs up throughout the newly upscale Beitou, formerly known as a red light district.
While governing Taiwan during the early twentieth century, the Japanese developed hot springs resorts that reminded them of home. The area around Beitou, supplied naturally by the geothermal energy of the neighbouring Yang Ming Shan volcano, became an obvious location for the beer halls, tea gardens, bathhouses and intimate hotels so beloved of the era.
Now, thanks to the opening of a local MRT stop, the Beitou of today is characterized by its high-quality spas, good hotels, excellent living accommodation and green and lush environment. A quick soak in perfect 60ºC waters — cool beers at hand and a massage in mind — is right around the corner. Public transport awaits.
5) Karaoke: What single cultural phenomenon better unites Asia’s myriad cultures than that of gathering religiously with friends to drunkenly sing out-of-tune and out-of-tempo outdated ‘80s American pop? Denizens of Taipei do this perhaps more fervently than anyone else, often paying homage at the temple called Cash Box, or Qian Gui in Mandarin. Warning: Taiwanese sing like rock and opera stars, so bring your best game.
Originally published in the September 7, 2010 edition of TabletTalk, the weekly blog from TabletHotels bringing you updates on global living.