Taiwan: the other, quieter China
British travellers will shortly be able to fly directly to Taiwan. Michelle Jana Chan, a former resident, suggests what they should see.
Published: 8:00AM GMT 27 Mar 2010
Mainland China may possess the more monumental historical attractions, such as the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, but Taiwan, too, has alluring, if less obvious, treasures. The world's greatest collection of Chinese art anywhere in the world is housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. There are also meditative temples, traditional tea-houses and hot-spring baths up in the lush mountains.
Internationally, Taiwan does have something of an identity problem. The island seems best known for its "Made in Taiwan" label or simply as a "renegade province of China". But beyond hi-tech gadgets and a rebellious spirit, there is so much more: world-class centres of Buddhism, avant-garde dance companies and some of Asia's most tantalising cuisine.
Foremost, though, is the National Palace Museum, with that collection that outshines anything in Beijing, Xi'an or Shanghai. The migration of these treasures across the Taiwan Strait reflects the contemporary history of China in the past century. At the height of the Civil War in the Forties, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists retreated to Taiwan and left Mao's Communists to the mainland. Across the sea, they carried half a million artefacts and antiquities from the Imperial Palace Museum in Beijing. Not even a porcelain cup was damaged on the journey. In mainland China, many considered the act theft. The displaced art collection was yet another irritant to Beijing when it came to cross-Strait relations.
At the end of last year, however, there was an exhibition that featured, for the first time, artefacts from both sides under one roof – in the National Palace Museum of Taipei. That would have been inconceivable when I lived in Taiwan 10 years ago. The relationship has warmed considerably, and travel, trade and tourism are developing in both directions.
When tourists from the mainland visit, they will still find a place very different from their homeland. Taiwanese society has guarded closely its traditional Confucian values and spiritual heritage. Perhaps a trip will give mainlanders an idea of how China could evolve – towards a freer, less consumerist and more cultured future. Trips should also prove something of an eye-opener for visitors from Britain – from tomorrow for the first time connected through direct flights. Welcome to Taiwan or, to give it its old name, Formosa, "the beautiful".
The best of Taiwan
National Palace Museum
This classically designed institution houses China's most precious artworks and antiquities, including porcelain, jade, calligraphy scrolls and bronze ware, with English and Chinese labelling. The museum is open daily, with free guided tours in English at 10am and 3pm. On Saturdays, it stays open until 8.30pm. Entry is free after 5pm, when the halls are at their quietest (www.npm.gov.tw)
Some of Asia's best food is found in Taiwan, thanks largely to the waves of immigrants who went there from all over China with recipes of spicy, salty, and sweet-and-sour cuisine. A diverse array of dishes can be sampled at Taipei's night markets, such as Shilin, where hundreds of stalls serve inexpensive xioa chi, or "little eats". For refreshments, do try the bubble tea or shaved ice. For a simple, almost perfect meal, head to Din Tai Fung (194 Xinyi road, Section 2), Taiwan's most popular dumpling chain. To try classic Taiwanese cuisine up in the clouds, go to Shin Yeh, on the 85th floor of Taipei 101, one of the world's tallest buildings (45 Shifu road).
Taiwanese cuisine is heavily influenced by Japanese and fusion cooking. Japan occupied Taiwan for 50 years during the first half of the 20th century and left a mark on the nation's taste buds. Shi Yang Culture Restaurant, an hour north of Taipei, serves an exquisite nouvelle menu (7 Lane 350, Xiwan road, Section 3, Xizhi City; www.shi-yang.com)
Taiwan has excellent conditions to grow some of the world's finest tea. The hills around Pinglin, a day trip from Taipei, are covered in neat plantations and the shops downtown are stuffed with sacks of fragrant Baozhong oolong. Back in the city are tea-houses such as Wistaria House (1, Lane 16, Xinsheng S Road, Section 3), a Taipei institution and former meeting place of political dissidents and artists, and the contemporary Cha Cha Thé, which sells delicate pineapple cakes to accompany its Oriental Beauty tea (23, Alley 219, Fu Xing South Rd, Section 1).
Taipei is within striking distance of mountains and hot springs, offering an easy escape from the city. Yangmingshan national park is crisscrossed with walking trails amid misty mountains, bamboo forests, rhododendrons and azaleas. In Beitou, with its natural steam vents and sulphurous waters, there are public hot springs free of charge, as well as an exclusive spa hotel, Villa 32 (www.villa32.com/en) Taroko National park has spectacular canyons and mountains.
The Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum celebrates traditional Asian and modern puppetry with workshops on puppet carving, master classes and demonstrations. Two theatre troupes make their home in Taipei: the more traditional Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company and Nadou Theatre Company, with its more modern interpretations. Shows have English subtitles (taipeipuppet.com).
On price and variety, there may be little to choose between Taipei and other Asian capitals, but there are certainly fewer tourists in the glitzy shopping malls than in Bangkok, Hong Kong or Singapore. For souvenirs, visit the weekend Jade Market or the trendy fashion stores around Ximending. For the tech-savvy, Guanghua is a computer hardware mall selling everything from the tiniest screw to the latest Acer laptop. Do not miss the bookshop chain Eslite; its flagship store is open 24 hours.
Taiwan's Buddhist and Taoist temples are often elaborate. Two of the finest are the elegant Baoan Temple and Taipei's oldest, Longshan Temple, renowned for its fine stone sculpture, wood carving and bronze work. Confucius Temple is a tranquil place of worship, except on September 28, when it is said to stage the world's most authentic celebration of Confucius' birthday. Worth a day trip from Taipei, Dharma Drum Mountain (www.dharmadrum.org), a centre of Chan Buddhism, offers guided tours of its university and monastery, as well as meditation classes.
Dance & music
Asia's leading contemporary dance theatre, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, takes its name from an ancient ritual dance, but the style could not be more modern. Choreographed by the acclaimed Lin Hwai-Min, the haunting routines are rooted in Asian myths, folklore and aesthetics (www.cloudgate.org.tw) Equally lauded, the U Theatre is a dynamic drumming troupe performing hypnotic and spiritual shows using gigantic drums, gongs, singing and meditation (www.utheatre.org.tw)
Most prospective students head to the mainland, but Taiwan's schools have been catering to foreign students far longer, and the Mandarin spoken in Taipei is clearer than that of Beijing. Well?known programmes include the Mandarin Training Centre at National Taiwan Normal University (http://web.mtc.ntnu.edu.tw) and the International Chinese Language Programme (http://iclp.ntu.edu.tw) at National Taiwan University. Chinese characters are more complex than those used on the mainland; the advantage is the chance to practise a more classical calligraphy.
China Airlines will tomorrow start the first non-stop service between Britain and Taiwan. It will operate three times a week from Heathrow, with fares from £585, including taxes (www.china-airlines.com). From April 15, AirAsia, a low-cost carrier, will add two flights to its Kuala Lumpur-Taipei schedule, increasing frequency to nine a week (www.airasia.com). The best time of year to visit is early autumn, although typhoons are possible. British nationals need a visa for stays of longer than three months.
台北倫敦直航 英媒盛讚台灣迴響熱烈 【3/28 21:35】
10年前曾旅居台灣的記者蜜雪兒陳（Michelle Jana Chen）在文中首先介紹故宮博物院，表示「館藏讓北京、西安或上海任一座博物館相形失色」。