TAIWAN: It’s different from the mainland

Written by  Roberta Sotonoff

If you think Taiwan is just like China, then you haven’t dined at the funky Five-Dime Restaurant, visited Taipei 101 (one of the world’s tallest buildings) or toured the National Palace Museum. Each place gives Taiwan a unique personality. But there are still similarities. Think of it like difference between the U.S. and Great Britain.
Taiwan is small, about the combined area of Maryland and Delaware. The high steel and glass bamboo-like Taipei 101 stands 1,671 feet above it. Outside Taipei, verdant mountains often shroud themselves in mist and envelop Buddhist monasteries and chasms that dig deep into the earth. In between are rice paddies, tea farms, Starbucks and 7-Elevens.

Taipei City and Vicinity
Though Taipei is quite modern, antiquities rule at the National Palace Museum. Chang Kai-shek handily helped himself to Forbidden City treasures on his way out of Mainland China. In case you don’t know Chinese modern history, Chang, one-time Generalissimo of the Republic of China and his KMT party lost to the communists in 1949. They escaped to Taiwan.
The museum has over 600,000 relics including dazzling baubles, jades and porcelains. There’s an ivory, oval-shaped picnic basket, so delicately carved, it looks like lace. And you need a magnifying glass to appreciate a carved olive stone that has eight people on a boat.
Besides all his bling, the National Chang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, located on Zhongshan Road is a stark white tribute to Chang. It resembles Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. Flanking it are the National Theatre and the National Concert Hall. Taiwanese often practice their Tai Chi at these two classic Chinese structures. Quite impressive.
So is Madam Chang Kai-shek’s legacy, the Grand Hotel. Built in 1952 to house visiting dignitaries and styled after China’s Forbidden City, it is now a pagoda-styled inn. Walking through the red and gold lobby with its crimson pillars, stunning ceiling, marble dragon-carved balcony and dramatic staircase, one feels quite regal. All accommodations open to drop dead panoramas, but accommodations are quite ordinary.

Just as elegant, but uniquely Taiwanese, is the 270-year-old Lungshan Temple on Kuanzhou Street. It reeks of ritual. For example, it is bad luck if you don’t enter from the right - the dragon mouth - and depart from the left - the tail end of the tiger.
The dragon’s mouth, whose foggy breath smells of incense, opens to a courtyard that overflows with worshippers. Crackers, cookies, fruits and cereals are offered up to the god of education. I have no food but light an incense stick and bow to him in hopes of becoming smarter.
The courtyard leads to the Main Hall and the mercy goddess, Kuan-in. I crane my neck and gape at the swirling, seven-layered, carved wooden ceiling and delicately chiseled balconied walls.
After seeing all those food offerings, I visit Din Tai Fung Dumpling House near Chang Kai-shek’s Memorial Hall to satisfy my hunger. I feast on some yummy meat, seafood, and veggie filled dumplings and leave feeling like a stuffed dumpling myself.
There’s also good food at the traditional Sanxia district in New Taipei City, as well as 100-year-old Japanese baroque-style buildings that brim with boutiques and craft shops. Architect/artist Li Mei Shui (1902-1983) designed the amazing Zu Shih Temple to be so exact, the building contains no nails. Carved columns are entwined with gold serpents. Delicate carvings, reliefs and black Buddhas are stunning. Legend has it that a monster tried to burn the Buddhas so they would become black monsters. The tables were turned and the monster became a Buddhist.

Travel east from Taipei to Jiufen to see Shengming Temple. It perches on the side of a 1,929-foot mountain. Vivid, porcelain dragons and phoenixes sit on its rooftop while skillfully, sculptured reliefs adorn the walls. Be forewarned: the 300-step ascent is like climbing to heaven. Crowded with people, kids, dogs and cats, the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, is rimmed with shops and food stalls that are heaped with sausages, stinky tofu, candies and ice cream.
A mask maker shop’s walls are blanketed with masks of famous personalities like Jackie Chen and Ang Lee. Ghost masks are a result of the artist’s imagination. Some are downright scary while others supposed to be idioms, like “blank expression” and “nosey” (a face with lots of noses).
Jiufen is also known for its spectacular sea views. From the veranda of the A-Mei Tea House Restaurant at dusk, the twinkling lights of the mountain shimmer and slide into the Pacific Ocean. The sounds of Beethoven’s Fur Elise waft through the air. The sounds are coming from a garbage truck that plays music.

The Boonies
Escape from the city. Take time to experience Taiwan’s stunning countryside and indigenous peoples. Places like Kaohsiung City, Sun Moon Lake, Alishan National Forest Area and Taroko National Park are all “must sees.”
Just outside of Kaohsiung City, golden roofs, undulating greenery and 500 Buddhas of Fo Guang Shan Monastery dot the landscape. Visitors can practice calligraphy or wander the temples and grounds for hours. Lumbini Garden, a tribute to Buddha’s birthplace, is filled with chunky baby Buddhas. The sloping walk, bordered by the gods, leads to the Great Buddha Land where a giant gold Buddha shimmers at dusk.
Another beauty, Sun Moon Lake, boasts gentle breezes and moderate temperatures. Its left side is shaped like a crescent moon. The right side is circular and sun-like, hence the name. Calm waters reflect emerald mountains. Visitors can hike, fish or take a cruise to see one of Chang Kai-shek’s former homes.
Alishan National Forest Area, located in central Taiwan, is accessible by bus or train. The narrow gauge Alishan Forest Railway begins in the rice paddy lowlands, rises past hillside tea farms then reaches Alpine forests. Hike the trails where legend has it that the mountains are filled with spirits. If it is raining, you might explore the little hamlet where there are plenty of souvenir and noodle shops, a Starbucks, tea shops and of course, a 7-Eleven. Note that tea sampling can be never ending, so make sure you know the whereabouts of a restroom.

Another beautiful spot is Taroko National Park. Fly southeast from Taipei to Hualien. Then, drive a short distance to this gorgeous gorge. Located on east side of the island, the steel-colored, marble-lined chasm swoops down to the slithering Liwu River. It is a hiker’s paradise. Get a guide to show you around.
The busiest part of the canyon is Hsien Village. It bustles with a Buddhist monastery that is chiseled out of the side of the mountain and a five-star hotel. The canyon is home to the Truko people (Taiwan has 13 such indigenous tribes.) Their craft shop is a good place to see traditional loom, bamboo and rattan basket weaving.
Taiwan has style. Even if you are headed for China, consider the island located just on the other side of the Taiwan Straits. And when in the 7-Eleven, buy a package of Hi-Chews. Those addictive Starburst-like candy have become my favorites.

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