Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Highlights of Taipei, Taiwan

On the surface of it, Taipei is a difficult city to love. It’s a noisy, often traffic-clogged place where recent architectural heavyweights such as the giant Taipei 101 tower don’t really disguise the concrete uniformity of the city streets. However, once you start poking your nose down the laneways rather than spending hours trying to cross busy intersections, a different, more human picture emerges. It’s also a city where the big attractions are unquestionably worth seeing – and here are just some of them.
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall
Chiang Kai-Shek was the former Premier of China, who was forced to retreat to Taiwan in 1949 after the civil war with the communists. Over two million followed him, and it was the start of turning Taiwan into what it is today. Taiwanese attitudes towards Chiang Kai-Shek are somewhat mixed, and a recent government renamed this giant monument to him as the “National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall”. A change of government in 2008 brought a reversal of the name, and restoration of much of the pomp and ceremony.
It’s not so much a hall as a buildings complex.  From the outside, it looks like a network of traditional Chinese temples, and indeed the National Theater and National Concert Hall within the grounds have clearly got their architectural inspiration from such temples. But aside from the sprawling gardens, the main attraction is the hall itself. A huge, 70m-tall marble building with a blue roof, there are only four floors inside – which makes for some spectacularly high ceilings. Much of the hall is used as exhibition space, but the 4th floor is devoted to a rather Lincoln Memorial-esque tribute to Chiang kai-Shek. The huge statue is smiling, surrounded by marble and gets to watch a torturously over-elaborate changing of the guards ceremony every hour.
The Martyrs’ Shrine
You can get another changing of the guard fix at the Martyrs’ Shrine, a war memorial that looks like (you guessed it) a temple complex. The ceremony seems to drag on for months, but it’s visually impressive, and the guards never slip out of synchronisation. The complex is fabulous, however – the level of detail in the decoration of the various buildings is incredible. You could spent hours staring up at the roofs and eaves, spotting something different with each glimpse. The colours and the dragons are what stand out.
Martyr's Shrine
Martyr's Shrine in Taipei
The Bao-An Temple
One of the joys of walking around Taipei is that you’ll suddenly stumble across a cute little back street temple with joss sticks burning outside. The two most visited temples are admittedly less hidden away, but can be found opposite each other on DaLong Street. The Taipei Confucius Temple is the less stirring of the two, although it’s still worth a look. Check out the major shrine and the roof over the main gate.
The Bao-An Temple has the wow factor – it’s a Taoist temple dating back to 1805 (although it got an extensive makeover in 1967). The sheer number of people walking around with incense sticks is impressive enough, but when you start looking up at the carvings on the eaves, you realise that you could end up gawping all day. The joy is in the detail – dragons curve around pillars, Chinese script runs down glass cases, the roof beams are ablaze in multi-coloured patterns and seemingly nothing is left bare.
National Palace Museum
The National Palace Museum is rightfully regarded as being one of the very best museums in the world. Only a fraction of the 650,000-plus exhibits are ever displayed at any one time, but the treasures that do make it to display are extraordinary. As with the Martyrs’ Shrine and Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, the National Palace Museum is included in Viator’s Taipei Half-Day City Tour, although the visit of roughly an hour is very much a taster. To properly do the place justice, you’ll need to make a return visit.
Many of the exhibits come from the Forbidden City in Beijing, and have been stored up by dynasty after dynasty of Chinese Emperors. Some of the jade carvings are phenomenal, and good guide will be able to tell you the symbolism of many of them. For example, the green and white of a carved jade cabbage represent virginity and purity, while the grasshoppers on top represent a queen and her baby.
There are also sculptures made from the horn of a rhinoceros species that has long since died out in China, nine story ivory pagodas (nine being the number of the emperor in China) and bronze cauldrons that are over 3,000 years old.
The lacquered treasure and curio boxes are particularly fascinating. The way the numerous components carefully fit together is a triumph of design to go alongside the beauty of the craftsmanship.
Taipei Temple
Taipei Temple
The Night Markets
For many, the night markets are what the Taipei experience is all about. From about 5pm onwards, a number of them crop up around different areas of the city. The most popular is the Shilin Night Market – a short train ride over the Keelung River from Taipei Main Station. Be warned – when I say it’s the most popular, it’s arguably too popular. The crowds ensure that even walking through at a snail’s pace is a challenge while, in all honesty, the quality of the goods on offer isn’t much to get excited about. Go to see how popular it is, grab a bite to eat from one of the street carts, then head to one of the less frenetic night markets for a more relaxed experience.
Where to Stay
The Palais de Chine hotel, a member of the Preferred Group, is visually an absolute stunner. The décor seems to be somewhere between an Imperial Chinese Palace and a dark, fevered Hollywood dream sequence. With a top notch restaurant, breakfast spreads to kill for and all manner of high tech gadgetry in the rooms, the Palais de Chine offers a luxury stay with a distinct sense of identity.