Travel With Diplomatic Connections

Tourism meets Politics, Technology and Culture in Taipei

As the political and cultural heart of Taiwan, Taipei is a modern, bustling city eager to show the world its resolve. For worldwide travelers, it's a haven of peace and natural beauty.
By Monica Frim
Photography by Monica Frim

We arrived in Taipei in the dark of early morning, which seemed the perfect time to ease into a country that is still feeling its way into the limelight. Although the island of Taiwan is ancient, with evidence of human life going back at least 20,000 years, Taiwan remains surprisingly undiscovered by international travelers.

Yet Taiwan is no backwater. In fact, this tiny, island nation of less than 14,000 square miles is heavily urbanized, and a leader in transportation, architecture, manufacturing and design. In addition to cutting-edge technology, the country is blessed with spectacular natural beauty: mountains, forests, waterfalls, beaches, national parks, hot springs and roughly 4,000 kilometers of cycling trails through both wilderness and cityscapes. According to Business Insider, a British financial media and technology news website, Taiwan is Asia's best kept secret, one of 12 emerging destinations travelers must visit this year.

We drove into the city as night thinned into a gossamer dawn. Slowly the sky turned orange, then bronze, as the sun kindled the clouds and etched a purple outline of the mountains surrounding the Taipei Basin. The highway curved and dipped among hills that grew progressively greener with the onset of dayspring. As the mountains receded, the jagged rooftops of concrete highrises emerged, scattered like stones on a greensward. In the distance Taipei Tower pierced the sky then suddenly loomed close as lines on a ledger as we entered the city. We scooted along the leafy boulevard that harbored our hotel just as the sun burst fully through the clouds. It ignited the city with subtropical brightness and initiated a daily pattern that, during the week of our visit, consisted of sundrenched mornings followed by leaden afternoons. I would soon learn that in Taipei, photography, like breakfast, is best taken in the morning.

Taipei is a modern city, largely grey but with pockets of color, owing to the various architectural styles that emerged from its complicated history. Aboriginal, Chinese, Japanese and Western influences collide in the streets, infusing the city with a variety of landmarks and green spaces that may not be quite cohesive, but nevertheless serve to explain the Taiwanese identity. It's a wonderful city for walking around and simply drinking in the atmosphere, watching the people scurry about the streets, shopping in the old medicine stores and dry good shops that line the streets of the old Da-Dao-Chang neighborhood on the west side of the city, now run down but once the richest section of the city. Here large round vats of wrinkled black mushrooms are laid on the streets to sun-dry in the empty spaces among parked cars and motorcyles. A puppet theater and museum share the street with a tea house whose owners practice calligraphy and provide a free scroll with your purchase of tea. A variety of architectural styles from western baroque to Japanese to traditional southern styles stand side by side, their cultural or historical identities divulged in the crests and decorative reliefs that grace their facades. Everywhere are sacks of dried somethings–many unidentifiable to western sensibilities–wrinkled squid, lacy mushrooms, pungent herbs and spices, dried hibiscus flowers, sacks of beans and bins of nuts... the list is as long as the contents are colorful and whiffy.

Contrasting with the old and enduring neighborhoods, Taipei 101 is a contemporary ziggurat, the tallest tower in the world before the Burj Khalifa and a few other skyscrapers usurped the title. Built to resemble a bamboo stalk, Taipei 101 is known for its eco-friendly construction and the luxury shops that grace its lower floors. It was designed as a fusion of Asian traditions and the evolution of technology. No visit to Taipei can be considered complete without a ride to the top of the tower in its fast-speed elevator where you will be rewarded with 360 degree views over the city and onto the surrounding mountains. Afterwards you can treat yourself to some of the best Chinese dumplings in Taipei at the Din Tai Fung Dumpling House at the base of the tower. Here you can also watch the dumpling making process through a glass partition.

Formally known as the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan is not to be confused with the People's Republic of China (PRC) with whom it shares ethnicity but not ideology. The distinction is important, for Taiwan became a true democracy in 1996 with a freedom of both press and religion that is almost unheard of in other Chinese‐speaking countries. A high degree of openness permeates the island not only in terms of space, but also thought.

We visited two of Taiwan's newest digital news agencies, Storm Media, which was begun in 2014 and The News Lens, started in 2013, to get the scoop of the state of the news in Taiwan. Both agencies claim to offer a non-partisan and independent alternative to traditional newspapers in Taiwan, which tend to align themselves with one political party or another. And both have attained admirable success within a very short period. At the time of our visit early in summer, the News Lens boasted five to six million unique monthly visitors; Storm Media had a monthly reach of 20 million. The company also recently ranked first in independent media in Taiwan.

Taiwan's current President, Tsai Ing-wen and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) see membership in international organizations such as the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) as strategic and economic necessities and are working hard to bring domestic regulations in line with TPP standards. As Taiwan's ally and 9th largest trading partner, the United States could play a significant pro-active role in making that happen, although it would require a delicate high wire act given the current tension between Taipei and Beijing. Above all, the US wants to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait.

So what, if anything, does Taiwan's political stance have to do with tourism? For one, the economic link is significant. Almost three percent of Taiwan's GDP or $16 billion US dollars come from tourism, with most visitors arriving from the neighboring countries of China, Japan, Hong Kong and Korea. According to Eric Lin, Taiwan's Director of International Affairs, Ministry of Transportation and Communication, Taiwan is hoping to increase tourist traffic by 15 to 20 percent a year, which would raise the total number of tourists to 15 million per year within five years. It's an optimistic prediction given that the number of tourists from the mainland declined as much as 30 percent in the last year. The ROC is counting on other nations to take up the slack. New routes were recently added from Chicago and Houston, and promotions that combine visits to Taiwan with visits to Hong Kong, were initiated in efforts
to put Taiwan on the agenda of those traveling to more than one country in Southeast Asia. Recently the ROC also eased visa restrictions for citizens of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Citizens of the United States, Canada and most European countries already did not need visas to enter Taiwan.

Most visitors get their first taste of Taiwan in Taipei–a bustling city of beautiful landmarks and sensational eateries. The pun is intentional as food plays an important role in Taiwanese society. The variety is astounding–from cheap eats in night markets to fine dining in high-priced restaurants. High-end hotels feature buffets loaded with signature dishes and gleaming assortments of high-quality meats and seafood. These buffets are not low-key spreads like many of their North American counterparts, but trend-setting culinary displays prepared by masterly chefs with artistic leanings.

Whether at a simple canteen or an elaborate roundtable sit-down, the crux is variety and "little eats." One can feast on as many as 12 courses at a single meal because the dishes are small and often arrive in sequence with various soups and vinegary palate-cleansing potions served in between courses. I am not exaggerating when I say that in a single week, our group must have sampled a hundred different dishes, from plain to textural works of art you almost wish you could take home and preserve in a display case. With so much variety, Taiwanese food is difficult to define, especially as it's been influenced by other cultures. Western, Italian, Japanese, Hakka and Aboriginal dishes are served up in various combinations that make for truly unique dining experiences. Where, but in Taiwan, can you eat octopus and squid pizza with pesto? Or stinky tofu (it tastes better than it sounds–or smells!), and bouncy things like jellyfish and lacy mushrooms served with a mélange of noodles, savory meats and seafood? Less adventuresome eaters can find all the usual staples–from western fast foods to typical Asian dishes of Cantonese dim sum, Beijing duck, Mongolian barbecues, spicy Sichuanese meats, and Japanese teppanyaki. But if you have the wallet to indulge in a truly hedonistic dining experience, the variety of exquisite delicacies served in the major hotels and specialty restaurants with private dining rooms
are alone worth the trip to Taiwan.

The adage, everything from soup to nuts, applies literally to Taiwan's creative kitchen. Outstandingly, that same artistic flair underscores all aspects of Taiwanese life and culture–from manufacturing to visual and performing arts. The Songshan Cultural and Creative Park is Taiwan's largest platform for showcasing, inspiring and nurturing creativity and cross-disciplinary innovation. The center occupies a space the size of six football fields, with plenty of product, performance and gallery space. It is Taiwan's most creative hub–an "industrial village" that also provides marketing and branding assistance to innovative products–from soaps that spiral out of tubes like lipstick (great for travelers) to the reinvention of papers and inks of a dying industry. The facility first opened in 1939 as the country's first modernized tobacco factory. It was a pioneering design of Japanese Early Modernism with cheerful quarters for the factory workers who lived on the premises. Large windows, bathhouses, and geometric parks and gardens full of fountains, and leafy paths, made it one of the most pleasant environments that an industrial space could occupy. It's still an enchanting place with large open spaces and a variety of protected fauna and flora that sprout among statues that were reputedly modeled on the female workers of the plant. The gardens, old warehouses and offices now serve as multifunctional spaces that host banquets, fashion shows, film shootings, conferences seminars, and art and design exhibitions.

Similarly, the Taiwan Excellence Pavilion showcases 120 of 523 award-winning products that have been marketed worldwide–from IT and telecommunications to sports and leisure to cultural and creative products. But it's really hardware and software integration that's putting Taiwan on the forefront of technological innovation. One can see firsthand how this plays out in the smart scooters at the Gogoro Global Experience Center whose aim is to tackle the problem of urban density with smart technology. Scooters are outfitted with 80 sensors that are continually monitored by a central control system, and power up using a battery swap system. With a population of 23 million people and 15 million scooters, Taiwan is the ideal incubator for literally setting smart technology in motion.

There's something about travel that opens the mind and brings growth, engagement and connectivity to the venture. It's not always about simply seeing things but about learning new things and engaging with people and in activities you might not normally do. I had no intention of riding a scooter but there I was listening in rapt attention to the story of Gogoro and thinking I am enriched for having come to this country.

I was traveling with a group of journalists–largely political commentators–so our days were filled with meetings, but we also made time for cultural endeavors. One day we found ourselves walking among thousand-year-old cultural artifacts in the Palace Museum, on another engaged in a long, steep climb through a subtropical forest full of sun-dappled ferns to an outdoor theater that incorporated the sounds and sights and smells of nature into the performances. The droning clicks of cicadas were almost louder than the drums of the U-Theater performers who also include meditation rituals in their acts. Another day we stood on Liberty Square looking in one direction onto the dazzling white memorial that houses the statue of Chiang Kai-shek, and to our left and right, the National Theater and Concert Hall. Taipei was all about color and sound and struggle for identity.

Midweek, we took a break and left Taipei for Sun Moon Lake in the mountains of Nantou near Taiwan's geographical center. It's Taiwan's most visited vacation spot, popular with honeymooners and other vacationers. Boat tours circle the lake, gondolas whisk visitors to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village high up in the mountains, and bicycle and walking paths wend through villages with meditative views of the mountains and their reflections in the clear green lake. The area is known as the heart of Taiwan and is seen best in the early morning before the day melts off the mist and mood.

Taiwan is like that–generally best before breakfast.

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