Sunday, January 29, 2012

Getting To Know Taipei (101)

Taiwan is a country that's determinedly hard to pigeonhole. For instance, while Taipei has enough skyscrapers to fill any night's horizon with glimmer and gold, the maze-like laneways and hidden side streets belong to a different era.

The pungent aromas of incense, street food stalls and traditional Chinese herbs bombard your senses, while the lack of a single English letter on display reminds you of the international borders you've just crossed. At first glance, Taipei's modern international airport is welcoming and modern with the majority of signs written in both Mandarin and English. This leads many (myself included) to believe that Taiwan is a bilingual country - a dangerous mistake.

Navigating the city's modern metro system is a breeze, but finding an individual restaurant or address will prove difficult as the majority of locals don't speak English. Your best bet is either an expat or young person - but even then it's still hit and miss. The language barrier won't hinder the friendly nature of the locals though, who really will try everything they can to get you where you need to be!

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is a perfect example of Taiwan's ability to merge the old with the new, to forge tradition with the future and yesterday with tomorrow. The elaborate mausoleum also showcases the similarities between our world's oldest civilizations, India and China, in particular - their reverence for the dead.

On the ground floor, visitors are given the choice of two options. If you choose to turn right, the amount of paintings featuring majestic landscapes and symbolic animals will make your head spin. It is here that you can acquaint yourself with the Taiwan of yesteryear.

However, if you choose to turn left instead, there is an exhibition on what awaits this island nation in the near future. Futuristic technology is already at your fingertips here, with high-speed trains that need no driver and wi-fi at every 7-11!

There's no better example of Taiwan's progress in recent years, than Taipei 101 - the building which held the record for the world's tallest building from 2004 - 2010 when it was taken over by the Burj Al-Arab. While it may no longer hold the top-spot in terms of height - the elevators are still the world's quickest. In a fraction under 37 seconds, 20 gobsmacked tourists are whisked from level 5 to level 89. 

While one can find modern amenities in every corner of Taipei, elements of the past are still on proud display. Longshan Temple is the oldest in all of Taiwan, built in 1738, it was damaged during WW2 but somehow remained intact. The building itself is elaborate in structure, with dragons on the rooftop and a myriad of colors to catch the eye of those passing by. Stepping into the complex, the art of zen is attempted with manicured gardens and a man-made waterfall.

Especially popular on weekends, those seeking zen would best pursue it on a weekday morning. To appreciate the somewhat frenzied state, just lean back on a pillar and watch the buffet of offerings given up to the gods. Some donate fresh fruit or decorative flowers, while others carry with them enough burning incense to make your eyes water. I watch a man meditate, seemingly oblivious to the dancing prayers of devotees beside him. Religious monuments adorn the building's facade, with everything from Buddhism to Taoism represented in style.

Home to more than just temples and modern buildings, Taiwan is known the world over for the bizarre food items and restaurant themes. Made famous in recent years by TV chefs like Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain, Stinky Tofu is a local delicacy that's hard not to notice. Like the durian fruit of Malaysia, you either love it or hate it - there's no middle ground. Opinions on how to describe the odor differ, but in my opinion it's a little like rancid garbage meets rotten milk.

If you can battle through the aroma though, it's actually delicious. Best served deep fried and rubbed with hot peppers, it differs from regular tofu in both texture and flavor. It must be the three months of fermentation underground in a salty solution that give it a meat-like texture and sharp flavor - almost like biting into aged cheddar.

Shilin Night Market is world famous with tourists from across the globe stopping by to check out some bargains. Like most of Asia, this marketplace is home to pirated DVDs, jewelery, cheap t-shirts and more food stalls than you can shake a skewer at. Besides Stinky Tofu, some other local specialties involve Oyster Omelets and Scallion Pancakes.

Why anyone would think that a toilet-themed restaurant would work is crazy, but what's crazier is a chain of toilet-themed restaurants that's spreading like wildfire throughout Asia! Modern Toilet Restaurant is proof that no idea is too crazy. From modest beginnings in 2002, this franchise has now spread throughout China with three outlets and counting.

The sight and sound of someone slurping green tea out of a urinal, or eating soup out of a small-scale toilet bowel may not sound appetizing, but it makes a discernible difference to your usual dining experience! I wonder why this concept would work, but looking around the restaurant, I notice more locals than tourists. Seeking answers, I ask my waitress, Joanna, to explain the polarizing popularity.

"Weird is good. You must remember, Taiwan is abnormal - not normal!" she laughs, cheerily. "It's fun and different. Where else can you watch your food cook in a toilet?"

I look around and concede that she's right. Everything inside, although clean and sanitized, can be found within your average restroom. One wall is adorned with urinals, while another is decorated with toilet lids - even the chairs are recycled toilet bowls. If that wasn't enough, you can pick up a signature poo poo key chain from the cashier on your way out!

National Palace Museum is home to a wealth of Chinese artifacts, playing host to more oriental antiquities and artwork than any other place on Earth. While I'm not much of a museum buff myself, I found myself lingering in the calligraphy and rare book section. You're also able to leaf through treaties between China and America, while the real deal is kept behind thick glass.

Intricate works of art are made from jade or coral, such as tablets dating back thousands of years.Chinese characters are painstakingly etched onto carved jade, making the tablets that Moses used seem feeble.

It doesn't happen often, particularly inside a museum, but I'm well and truly speechless. The only downside are the hordes of tourists brought in by the busload, which can make viewing some of the famed objects a test in patience.

Din Tai Fueng!

At last! A chance to dine at a Michelin star restaurant, without having to take out a second mortgage. Din Tai Fueng was named one of the top ten restaurants in the world and at the time, it was the only Asian entry on the list. Little has changed since and with fresh ingredients and friendly staff - expect a memorable meal each time!

Famed for their traditional Taiwanese dumplings, there is also a wide range of traditional Chinese food on offer.