Ask people what they know about Taiwan and you are likely to get more than a few surprises. I did. “President Ma Ying-jeou’s policies are headed to change cross-straight (China-Taiwan) relations,” said the foreign policy wonk. “It’s the best place in the world to shop for quality sports products,” said the compulsive shopper. “You get the world’s best dumplings in Taiwan,” said the foodie. “It’s the only place in the world where you can get vodka shots spiked with snake blood,” said the dipsomaniac globe-trotter. “Go up the 101. It is the world’s tallest building with the world’s fastest elevators,” said mechanoman.
I managed to do all this and more during a four-day whirlwind visit to Taiwan for President Ma’s swearing-in ceremony. I heard his inaugural speech emphasising better relations with neighbouring China, went up to the 101 and felt on top of the world, got great bargains at the Nike store across the road, had several dumplings at a restaurant ranked among the world’s top 10 by The New York Times, and visited Snake Alley, hunting for the vampire menu. There were several snakes and even a mongoose on display at Huasi Street Night Market near Longshan Temple, but there were no vendors offering to slit their throats and offer tourists blood-spiked booze.
The locals dismissed the snake-spiked booze as a tourist myth, much like the snake charmer in India, saying the city’s oldest night market is a place where tourists go to watch snakes being milked of venom.
Frequent travellers in the group, however, assured me soup and dinner made of snake meat and blood were delicacies sought by many, but no one could guide me to the blood-letting barman. Perhaps I did not look hard enough. Apart from street food, the six major night markets in Taipei have little else to offer, but one visit is a must.
Instead, we went for dinner to the Din Tai Fung in Taipei, which has been ranked as one of the world’s top 10 restaurants by The New York Times. Despite booking a table, the queues outside indicated that it was easily Taipei’s favourite eating place. The dumplings more than made up for the disappointing McAmbiance and McDelivery. Steamed and boiled in different sizes, they came filled with meat, seafood, cabbage, sweet rice, meat, sesame paste, sweet bean paste and endless other unidentifible stuffings. It’s easy to polish off a dozen or more accompanied by nothing stronger than Chinese tea.<b1>
Those who like novelty dining must eat at the quirky Marton, the world’s only toilet-themed restaurant. Diners at Marton (Matong is toilet in Cantonese) sit in toilet-seat shaped chairs and eat food in toilet-shaped bowls. You can choose between bowls shaped after Asian squat-toilets or Western cisterns.
The 1,667-feet, 101-story building in Taipei, unimaginatively called the 101, deserves an evening to itself. The two world’s fastest elevators zoom visitors up to the observation deck on the 89th floor in 39 seconds at a peak speed of 1,010 meters per minute, which is over three times faster than an airplane’s climb or descent rate. Unlike the ear-popping that accompanies most air travel, these elevators come fitted with pressure control systems to cut down the whistling sound and vibrations that accompany the incredible speed. That apart, the National Palace Museum, National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall and the Lonshan Tempel are a must-see.
Off city limits
Getting out of Taipei is a good idea, especially as the country’s high-speed rail system has dramatically reduced travel time across the island. Taroko Gorge on the east coast of Taiwan — four hours drive and two hours by train from Taipei — has the largest marble gorge in the world. In a single afternoon, you can travel from rugged coastal cliffs through a maze of subtropical-forested canyons to high sub-alpine coniferous forests. Within a distance of a little over 20 km, the landscape rises from sea level to some of the tallest peaks in Taiwan at over 3,800 meters.
The steep gorge is part of the Taroko National Park with high mountains and the river Liwu, which together create breathtaking waterfalls. The most spectacular parts of the gorge are the narrowest points at the Swallow’s Grotto and Tunnel of Nine Turns. The Eternal Spring Shrine was built to commemorate the 212 workers who lost their lives building the cross-island highway that runs along the gorge. Ironically, the Eternal Spring Shrine has already been rebuilt three times because of rockslides and storm damage!
The rest of the landscape is much like Taroko, stunning visitors with the diversity of experiences available on an island smaller than Haryana. Over one weekend, you can travel to windy Yeliou in the northern coast for its natural rock formations — the Queen’s Head being the best known — to ski slopes in the Hehuan Mountain in Nantou, and then go 200 km further south to Pingtung for scuba diving among the coral reefs in the country’s southern tip.
I was told skiing in the Alishan Mountains and hiking in the Jade Mountains, which is the highest peak in East Asia, are popular among tourists, though I did not have the time for energy for either.
A visit to Taiwan is very do-able for travellers flying over the Pacific to the US or Canada. With visas available on arrival, travellers can easily choose to break their journey here for a short holiday that promises comforts of the West with the natural beauty and quirkiness of the East.