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2 Days in Taipei: Hitting the highlights and the highpoints in Taiwan's Capital

The spectacular view at night from the 89th floor of Taipei 101, Taiwan's tallest building.
The spectacular view at night from the 89th floor of Taipei 101, Taiwan's tallest building.
© 2014 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Day 1: A Visit to National Palace Museum Lays Foundation for Understanding Culture, History of Taiwan

Taiwan's National Palace Museum is one of the highlights of a visit to Taipei.
© 2014 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our two days in Taipei bookend a six-day trip spent mostly out of Taiwan's capital city, mostly in smaller villages and towns and what can be called the countryside.

The first day lays the foundation, in fact, sets out the entire timeline for Taiwan's history, stretching back thousands of years to mainland China. We see before us a bustling, modern city, but one built on bedrock of tradition, and can draw on this foundation as we travel around, observing landscapes and architecture, the structures of human society.Two Days in Taipei: Hitting the Highlights and the Highpoints in Taiwan's Capital City

Though Taiwan (originally named Formosa, "Beautiful Island" by the Portuguese) was first settled by the Dutch in 1623, and later by Han Chinese and then by the Japanese who occupied and controlled the island from 1895-1945, most of what we see in Taipei connects to Chiang Kai-shek's arrival in 1949.

Day One in Taipei

With only 30% of the island nation habitable, Taipei City is where about 10 percent of Taiwan's 26 million people live. The city is very built up but designed in such a way as to mitigate the congestion - for one thing, as many people seem to be on mopeds as in cars and there is an excellent mass-transit system of subway (metro) and buses.

But clearly, the citizens prize what bit of outdoors and waterfront they can get - we start our day renting bikes to ride along a riverfront bikeway, which also gives us perspective on the city. On one end we can see a tower where the city has built up an industrial park; along the way we see the Grand Hotel, built on a hillside perch as grand as when it first opened in 1952.

The Grand Hotel was Taiwan's first five-star hotel, and one of the world's top 10 hotels from the 1950s to the 1960s.

It was the tallest building in Taiwan from 1973 to 1981. Still imposing, the main building of the hotel at 285 feet high, is one of the world's tallest Chinese classical buildings,.

The hotel, with 490 rooms, is now owned by the Duen-Mou Foundation of Taiwan, a non-profit organization, and has played host to many foreign dignitaries who have visited Taipei.

Chiang Kai-shek wanted to build an extravagant hotel that would cater to foreign guests. His wife Soong May-ling suggested it be built on Yuanshan Mountain, the site of ruins of a Shinto shrine during Japanese rule. Chiang wanted the architecture to promote Chinese culture.

The vermilion columns of the roof make the hotel a visible showplace of Chinese architecture and culture. Dragon motifs are woven throughout the various, earning the hotel the nickname "The Dragon Palace". Beside dragons, lion and plum flower motifs also make a significant presence in the hotel.

Each of the eight guest levels represent a different Chinese dynasty, as reflected through the murals and general decor. The presidential suite, the hotel claims, has former President Chiang Kai-shek's desk and Madame Chiang's dressing table

The Grand Hotel was built by Chiang Kai-shek to host foreign dignitaries. Among its notable guests: Richard Nixon (1965), Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Warren Christopher (in 1978, his crowds protesting President Jimmy Carter's decision to break relations with Taiwan as he opened relations with mainland China delayed Christopher's arrival); Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, King Hussein of Jordan.

Ever since the hotel opened, there were rumors that it had secret passages to the Shilin Official Residence (Chiang Kai-shek's home) and the Presidential Office Building. But after a devastating fire in 1995 that destroyed the roof and upper floors, the secret passages were revealed to actually be air-raid tunnels - with a capacity for 10,000 people - that led to nearby parks; the western passage had a slide for the disabled who could not get down the spiral staircase.

Other fun facts: The Taipei Grand Hotel was featured in the 1994 film, "Eat Drink Man Woman," by Taiwanese film director Ang Lee and a level in the 2010 videogame Alpha Protocol is set here.

After about an hour biking, we head for lunch - a chance to experience one of the many styles of cuisine and an opportunity to explore one of Taipei's neighborhoods.

We experience Taiwan's Japanese culinary legacy at the Fen Shen Restaurant on Yong Kang Street – a lovely district of small shops, coffee shops.

Our meal is served family style with a Lazy Susan so we can sample all the items: Milk fish, an ocean fish that when cooked, turns the liquid white, served fried; vegetables with clams; Bird nest fern with dried fish; three-cup squid (prepared with three cups of wine and ginger); oyster omelet; and a green bean soup served as dessert.

We take a brief walkabout the neighborhood - there is a “Cram School” (test prep) center; tea-shops, a Mango ice stall which sends its cool breezes and aromas out onto the street to draw people, a variety of shops.

Then we are off to take in the major attractions, the main ones, the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial (they do changing of guard on the hour); the Martyrs Shrine (where there is a more picturesque and even more elaborate changing of the guard on the hour), Sun Yat Sen Memorial - are like key historic markers.

National Palace Museum

Leave two to three hours for the National Palace Museum, housing some 650,000 treasures that span the full length of Chinese history, to Neolithic times, and down through the dynasties more than 8000 years.

The basis for the collection at the National Palace Museum are thousands and thousands of artifacts brought out from the Forbidden City in Beijing by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Chinese in 1949.

"Chiang brought two million soldiers and families and 7,000 kilos of gold bricks from Chinese banks, and his officers reminded him to take the antiques from the Forbidden City, established 600 years ago during the Ming Dynasty, our guide Michelle Cheng tells us using a wireless radio system. "They were conveniently packed up going back to the 1930s because of the China-Japan hostilities and remained boxed during World War II."

The National Palace Museum opened in 1965 - it houses some 650,000 items, but not all of them are from the Forbidden City.

Here in the Museum, you see artifacts that span the 8000 years of Chinese Civilization.

The museum is crowded, largely with tour groups. People queue up to enter some of the halls with the most popular items.

What is the most popular item? A jadeite cabbage - a single piece of the semi-precious stone with colors going from white to dark green and texture that mimics exactly the pattern and line of bok choy. It dates from the Qing dynasty, 250 years ago. It is in a gallery called "Nature and Human in Unison: Smart Carvings of Jade and Beautiful Stones." The line seems to be a block long.

Other astonishing works are in the gallery aptly called "Uncanny Feats and Celestial Ingenuity: The Carvings of the Ming and Qing Era". Among the most popular (and intriguing) items here is an ivory ball made of concentric ivory spheres carved in openwork with cloud and dragon motifs (Qing Dynasty) -when it was x-rayed, it was shown to contain 17 tiny balls inside – it took 30 years to make.

This is my favorite room, I must say.

Here you see (in the flesh!) something I had only heard about: an olive pit carved to be a boat, with 8 people inside, and on the bottom of the "boat," 300 Chinese characters (remember, it is the size of an olive pit).

Also, an 11-piece set of nested miniature boxes of carved ivory, made in 1739.

Finally, and most exquisitely, an ivory basket, carved so think, it looks like lace, and has eight levels (symbolizing the 8 Immortals, commonly used for a birthday gift).

In "The Magic of Kneaded Clay - A History of Chinese Ceramics" gallery, Michelle points out a porcelain figure of a polo player from the T'ang Dynasty, 1400 years ago. It is during the T'ang dynasty that you get the glazed horses and figures and the look of a Geisha (a look that was exported to Japan).

"1400 years ago, during T’ang Dynasty, ladies were liberated – wives could divorce, they didn’t bind females' feet. Then in the Song dynasty, they took freedom away, they bound feet. The concept of 'beauty' was to be skinny, weak."

She points out a porcelain with bluish green glaze – an unusual color, "like sky after rain." It looks fairly plain and I would not have considered it at all, except she explains that this is called Ru Ware and was only produced for 10 years, when the special kiln that was used to make it was destroyed. "For 1000 years, no one could make it again – the remaining pieces so rare, a single small piece was purchased for $26 million."

There are galleries devoted to Rare Books and Documents; Splendors of Qing Furniture (1800-1911); Compassion and Wisdom: Religious Sculptural Arts; Painting and Calligraphy; and an entire gallery of snuff boxes -a symbol of social status.

Outside the museum, you can explore the traditional gardens.

Visiting the National Palace Museum is a must, but I must say I found something lacking. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has better presentation of Chinese culture and the national museum in Tokyo also has more impact. Still, I find that visiting the museum has left an impression and a foundation for understanding what I will see throughout our journey (www.npm.edu.tw).

The View from Taipei 101

From the old, to the new: once the Grand Hotel was the tallest building in all of Taiwan. Next we visit Taipei 101, a 101-story high building that reigned as the tallest in the world from 2004-2008, topping out at 509 meters high, and still the world's tallest "green" building.

It is a stunning attraction - an impressive modern architecture that pays respect to tradition - and engineering marvel. It boasts the world's fastest elevator - to the 89th floor, 382 meters high, in just 37 seconds, up to the Indoor Observatory. From here, you get a magnificent view of the city and Taipei Basin (beautiful at night), and walk around to various stations for an audio tour (there also was a superb photo exhibit - green with envy over the photos the New Year's Eve fireworks, which explode from the tower).

You can also see the world's largest wind damper, 5.5 meters diameter, and heaviest (660 tons), which is designed to keep the building stable against typhoon-force winds.

We climb a set of stairs up to the roof for an even higher view.

The elevator, a pressurized cabin that rises at a rate of 1010 meters/minute, takes slightly longer, 45 seconds, to descend, using an advanced braking system and the same kind of ceramics as the Space Shuttle.

(Open 9 am to 10 pm daily, last ticket entry at 9:15 pm; it's worth the admission price of NT$500/adult, or $17).

Taipei 101 offers a variety of restaurants, many with a view from the 86th floor, but the restaurant that has achieved world renown is on the main floor, Din Tai Fung, offering the "ultimate" in Xiao Long Bao - Shanghaiese dumpling (dim sum is the Cantonese dumpling).

After we dine here, we readily appreciate why (see story and slideshow).

Dintaifung Restaurant Co., www.dintaifung.com.tw.

Prepare for the trip in advance: The Tourism Bureau of the Republic of China (Taiwan) website: www.go2taiwan.net (also eng.taiwan.net.tw). Taiwan Visitors Association, 1 East 42nd St., New York, NY 10017, Tel. 212-867-1632/4, Email tbrocnyc@gmail.com.

Next: Day 2: Confucius Temple, Fine Arts Museum, Night Markets

See also:

Bikeways lead to more personal discoveries of Taiwan and slideshow

Travel to Taiwan: vibrant, modern society built on bedrock of tradition and slideshow

Taroko Gorge tops Taiwan's natural wonders and slideshow

Dining on Xiaolongbao at DinTaiFung at Taipei 101 is savory experience and slideshow

Two Days in Taipei: Day 2: Confucius Temple to Fine Art Museum to Night Market and slideshow

Chinese Arts Dancing Ensemble and slideshow

Karen Rubin, Eclectic Travel Examiner

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