The Peace Park sculpture.
The Peace Park sculpture. Joanne Leslie

Taiwan is a surprise package

Republic of China (Taiwan). It sounds like the island is a mini China - an offshoot from the mainland. But names can be misleading. In fact, Taiwan is one of the world's enigmas.

With a land mass half the size of Tasmania and a population of 23.5 million people, it has the dubious honour of being one of the planet's most densely populated areas, yet it is clean, green and the air quality is good.

The cities and countryside are full of surprises, with sight-seeing marvels at every turn, easy and efficient public transport, affordable living, quality shopping and a rich diversity of delicious food.

Just a hop across the strait from the might of China, the Taiwanese are a peace-loving people with a stable democratic government, low unemployment, freedom of religion and a deep commitment to human rights.

Without diplomatic recognition from most of the world's countries or the UN, Taiwan has built its economic credentials, excelling in quality design and innovation, particularly in information and communication technology.

And its new government is keen to do business with the world, opening its doors to new markets and tourists, with a focus on regions to its south.

But the best thing about Taiwan is its huge heart.

I arrived in Taipei knowing little of the island or its people. Seven days later I left with a determination to return to see everything I had missed and a deep love for this gentle land and its warm and welcoming people.

 

Taipei's Peace Park offers a green respite from the busy streets.
Taipei's Peace Park offers a green respite from the busy streets. Joanne Leslie

Often I set off on foot to investigate Taipei. Often I was the only European on the busy streets - but I always felt safe and welcome.

In Peace Park, a memorial space dedicated to a darker time in the island's political history, two Taiwanese women showed me how to walk the stone footpath.

With no English between them, they had me barefoot on the protruding stones, breathing deeply from my gut, walking slowly to stimulate healing in my body through the soles of my feet.

Taipei's Peace Park turned out to be one of my favourite places. With small shrines, peace sculptures, green spaces and its resident squirrels and turtles, the park is used by families, students, the elderly, anyone looking for respite from the busy streets.

In the crush of humanity, peaceful spaces abound.

Up behind the mighty five-star Grand Hotel, an imposing classical Chinese building in the Zhongshan district, steps lead away from the bustle to the hilly scenic area of Yuanshan.

 

Taipei's mighty Grand Hotel.
Taipei's mighty Grand Hotel. Joanne Leslie

Tucked into the hillside are countless covered spaces where people meet to do tai chi or chat, play music, even to sing. Small vegie plots bloom wherever there's room. And, of course, there's a temple.

Taiwan has more than 15,000 temples, places where locals and visitors can drop in and have a one-to-one chat with gods of many shapes and sizes.

On a mission to find "bubble tea", an island invention from the 1980s shared with the world, I look for a vendor. Down a narrow laneway I find the "pearl milk tea" and hand-sign to its maker to get a medium-sized, not-too-sweet version of the icy drink laced with chewy black tapioca balls. Delicious and filling, it's a refreshing meal in itself.

Wandering out of the maze of streets I stumble on an oasis, Longshan Temple. Built in 1738 and dedicated to the bodhisattva of mercy, this cool retreat is where people chat to more than 100 gods and goddesses about everything from love and study problems to business success.

It's a personal, daily ritual for many. People of all ages light incense sticks, do a half-bow to the god, silently say their name, age and where they're from, then ask their question.

Most temples are Buddhist or Taoist. All contain magnificent art and sculptures. All radiate a sense of calm and peace.

With the light fading, I enter a closed section of the street to find stalls of every shape and size, with fresh produce, steaming pots, old and new knick-knacks.

There are more than 100 night markets in Taiwan and everyone comes to sample the wares or meet family and friends.

And it's a taste sensation. Traditional dishes are on the menu, such as steamed dumplings, boiled noodles and local delicacies such as oyster omelette, squid soup, minced pork and rice.

If there's one thing the Taiwanese know, it's how to eat and their food is delicious and nutritious. Though I often have stomach problems at home, my digestive system is at peace on this island and I don't stop eating.

On Taipei's skyline, one building stands out against the night sky. Taipei 101 is designed like a stalk of bamboo, reaching up to connect heaven and earth. Built in eight sections it reflects the Chinese number of abundance and its 101 floors add to the perfect and auspicious 100.

 

Get your cultural fill at Taipei's National Palace Museum with a permanent collection of nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese artefacts and artworks.
Get your cultural fill at Taipei's National Palace Museum with a permanent collection of nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese artefacts and artworks. Joanne Leslie

The $1.8billion tower rises 508m and has a state-of-the-art wind dampener to provide stability, even during typhoons and earthquakes.

The tallest green building in the world, it has built-in energy efficiency and water conservation and features one of the world's fastest elevators, at 1010m a minute. And the views are extraordinary. A glassed deck on the 89th floor offers 360-degree views of the city, with an outdoor deck two floors up to catch the breeze.

Taipei Public Library, Beitou Branch, is another must-see. Set against a green backdrop, with a running stream, it was the city's first green building. Built from sustainable timbers, no tree was felled during its construction.

The triangular shape mimics a ship sailing into the landscape, its western side at the point cutting the sun's heat. With natural ventilation, windows let in soft light and low shelves give bookworms a green outlook wherever they sit. Slanting rooftop gardens capture water and run-off for toilet systems and solar panels contribute to power needs.

The clean, green theme surprised me in Taiwan. Battered by typhoons, Taiwan's rainfall is three times the global average but the mountains down its centre and the impact of climate change make water scarce.

So every drop counts. As a "Sponge City", Taiwan is diligent in its goal to be sustainable and liveable.

Water-permeable surfaces allow rain to soak into the soil. Gardens atop roofs, rainwater collection systems, extensive ponds, drainage and pumping stations allow the city to channel and use excess water.

LED streets lights have replaced mercury and bike stations dot the city. Most goods are packaged in paper carry bags. There are few bins but the streets are spotless, rubbish is packed into big bags for recycling. From the vantage of the MRT, Taiwan's high-speed rail, built-up areas are flanked by rice and vegetable fields. Plants and vegies are cultivated in every available space, under bridges, beside highways, in empty lots.

Beside the four-star Sun Moon Lake Hotel terraces are planted with food crops.

 

The ever changing face of Sun Moon Lake.
The ever changing face of Sun Moon Lake. Joanne Leslie

Sun Moon Lake is Taiwan's largest alpine lake. Set in the foothills of the central mountain range, it is shrouded in mist from early morning and its magical face changes throughout the day. Every vantage is mysterious and beautiful.

But it doubles as a giant battery, generating hydro-electricity. Once a small natural lake, it was expanded during Japanese rule to cover nearly 8sqkm.

Grab a bike, car or bus and travel 30km around it, view it from an aerial cable car or hop aboard a shuttle boat and breathe in the fresh air.

There is so much to see in Taiwan - the National Palace Museum for your cultural fill, Chung Tai Chan Monastery (a Buddhist marvel), the wondrous rock sculptures of Yehliu Park, the grandeur of Taroko Gorge.

The island's famed 100 mountain peaks offer world-class trekking or grab a bike and tent and cycle the 968km around Taiwan in 10-12 days.

My tourism bag carries the logo Time for Taiwan. It truly is - go and see for yourself.

The writer was a guest of the Taiwanese Government.



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