Not things you maybe associate with Taiwan, but this modest island has the lost. While the capital of Taipei is a crowded, bustling city, outside its boundaries sit waterfalls, treks and jaw-dropping scenery. We started out trip in Taipei, where two things need seeing: the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101. The museum is vast, stunning and bulges with Chinese art, along with jade, bronze and ivory pieces.
Go out the museum and turn left for 200 metres and you’ll find the aboriginal museum. It’s full of excellent exhibits, including various CDs where you can scan the bar code and it plays you samples. Clothes, instruments and cultures all discussed. In the eastern part of the city, Taipei Tower 101 gets its name from the number of floors it has, which made it the tallest building on Earth when it was completed. The elevator still holds the record for the fastest lift anywhere and climbs an ear-popping 90 floors in about 40 seconds. The ride costs 450TWN and you can expect to queue for 40-minutes when they’re busy.
The outdoor observation deck on the 91st floor is stunning; listen out for the screaming wind that whips against the metal posts.
Elsewhere in Taipei, 228 Park is named after an incident that happened on February 28, 1947. A violent crackdown on locals led to widespread unrest and martial law. After the Japanese left Taiwan following the end of the Second World War, there was hope for a new era. It turned out to be more of a new error though, as the new government, heavily backed by mainland China, was corrupt and cruel. When a woman was beaten with a rifle butt for illegally selling cigarettes, protests followed and one man was shot dead. The martial law that followed lasted until 1987.
Today, the site of the shootings has been turned into a tranquil park. The 228 Museum is staffed by volunteers who are old enough to remember the violence first-hand. Outside, in the park, is a water feature with diamond-shaped slabs that lead to the central memorial. Hand prints have been imprinted here, and the slabs are cleverly laid out, so you have to lean forward to place your hands in the same spot, thereby lowering your head and leaning forward in a sign of respect for those who died.
At the entrance to the park is Taipei Museum (20TND), a modern, interactive place with emphasis on helping the environment. Given that, the collection of stuffed pandas, polar bears and tigers does seem a tad incongruous. Longshan Temple, to the west of town, is a vibrant, bustling place of worship. Originally built in the 18th century, it was rebuilt in the 1920s. Around its edges, Taipei’s underbelly lurks; a collection of elderly folk with alcohol or mental health issues.
After a two-hour bus ride east of Taipei, you’ll end up in Jinguashi. With houses carved into the vast hillsides, it’s a strange place to put a town. At night, the golden glow of street lamps is all you can see and the only noise comes from chirping insects. Rewind 90 years though, and you’d find a very different place. Then, the golden glow came from the riches that were being mined in the hills. This was a gold town, as big as any the American west could muster. Today, the mines are closed but in their place is a new park that recreates the golden age.
Spread across the face of a hill, it gives visitors the chance to pan for gold, walk through a replica tunnel and touch the world’s largest block of gold. Panning for gold involves being handed a small plate of dirt. You then sit in front of a long pool, filled with more dirt and water. The aim is to carefully filter out all the silt and earth until only the stones are left. It’s a tricky process but, after picking out plenty of silt and worthless, black stones, a tiny, shiny speck of gold shone out.
The whole park is excellently designed, with plenty of eco-friendly features and exhibits. Inside the Gold Building, the renovated offices of the Taiwan Metal Mining Corp, tells how Jinguashi was a POW camp during the Second World War. Also of interest is a world-record 220.3 kg block of gold that you can touch. A 10-minute down the road, or rather across to another mountain, is the tourist town of Jiufen. It’s a small town that gets busy at weekends thanks to visiting Taipei folk. A handful of B&Bs can be found near the central 7-Eleven and go for around $TND1500. My room didn’t have a TV but it did have ocean views, a pink floral-patterned duvet and mosquito net. A lady with no English showed me up three floors to the room. Five minutes later I was in the shower when there was a knock at the door. My calls to wait didn’t seem to have any effect and I heard the key in the lock.
Grabbing a towel just in time, three women walked in. They muttered to themselves and walked out again. I followed and they went to the room opposite and started unplugging the TV. This wasn’t a flatscreen version, so I watched as all three grab a piece and lift it, shuffling slowly towards my room. After a little huffing, they set it down, wiggled with the aerial and suddenly a picture appeared. The three women then left again, bowing slightly by way of thanks.
The lack of a TV really hadn’t bothered me, but it seems it had bothered them. I didn’t have the heart to tell them the only English channel was showing a ‘comedy’ with Adam Sandler…
Nearby, Shuqi Street is packed at weekends with locals shopping among its labyrinth of avenues. This is snack central and prawn and tofu balls are the local specialties, filled with sliced carrot, onion and pickles. Tea shops, ornaments and curio are everywhere. The one main street stretches up and down as it follows the contours of its hill, while off to the sides are all kinds of surprises. Down one sits a narrow alleyway, with white graffiti on every spare inch that leads to an old Chinese house full of fascinating junk.
Down a few more steps and there’s Shengping New Paradise Theatre. The original theatre was built in 1914 and proved popular, but collapsed after heavy winds. A new version came to life in 1934 and came with clever contraptions, such as holes in the floor to provide ventilation via electric fans and moveable aisles to allow for cleaning. While the area’s gold rush was on, the theatre was the centre of entertainment in town with movies, puppet shows and drama. Today, the gold may have gone but the visitors are starting to return.
Visas: Arrivals from almost every country get a 30-day pass or more upon arrival in Taipei. Getting Around: Once outside the airport, look for the bus signs and head for the ticket booths. Several companies operate buses here, so just pick one that goes to your destination; signs are in English. Buses run to the centre of Taipei every 30 minutes or so and the trip takes about an hour, depending on traffic. Watch out for your stop as there are no English signs. The city is laid out on a grid so it’s reasonably simple, although the grid doesn’t always go where logic would suggest.