Taipei embodies philosophy of yin and yang
Jason Volker, Contributor, Taipei
The blade glistened in the soft light of dawn. A lone swordsman gracefully whirled through ancient postures in a mesmerizing display of agility and power. On sheathing his sword, he quickly checked his cell phone for messages then purposefully strolled from the tranquil surrounds of Da An Park into the awakening din of downtown Taipei.
Taiwan's bustling capital is a boisterously modern metropolis of six million enterprising residents, with a robust heart and soul of ancient Chinese traditions. Sky-nudging office towers and new-world shopping centers intermingle with centuries-old Taoist temples and family-run herbal medicine clinics.
The city perfectly embodies the timeless philosophy of yin and yang: Peking Opera theaters neighbor neon-lit karaoke bars; the peaceful ambience of traditional tea houses contend with the rowdy convenience of Western fast-food outlets; high school students study the 2,500-year-old teachings of Confucius along with macroeconomics and computer technology.
I've made my way to this leaf-shaped island in the East China Sea, referred to as Ihla Formosa (Beautiful Island) by early Portuguese sailors, at the invitation of my brother, Darren, an English teacher and long-term Taiwan resident, and his Taiwanese wife, Lulu. Guided by their extensive local knowledge, ahead lay an enlightening week-long slice of Taipei life.
While little good has ever eventuated from civil war, an exception to this rule from the Taiwanese viewpoint is the National Palace Museum. This treasure-trove of 720,000 items is the largest compilation of traditional Chinese artifacts in the world. Formerly housed in Beijing's Forbidden City from the 1400s to 1933, the entire collection was shipped to Taiwan by the retreating Kuomintang army as they fled Mao Zedong's Communists in 1949.
Taipei's National Palace Museum was built in 1965 to display and safeguard this invaluable array of China's cultural and artistic heritage.
Due to space restrictions only 15,000 pieces are on display at any given time; the vast majority of works are stored in air- conditioned vaults hidden in secure caves deep in the mountains behind the museum. As exhibits are rotated once every three months, it would take nearly 12 years to view the entire collection.
I had only one day, but this was still sufficient to glimpse the unquestionable genius of Chinese artisans from the past seven millennia.
Decorated cooking vessels from China's Bronze Age, exquisite porcelain, oracle bones, silk weaving, silverware, solid gold statues ... the list goes on. In short, an overwhelming parade of Oriental creativity and refinement.
The following day, in an effort to preserve the cultural spirit raised by the museum visit, I decided to experience the elegant art of Chinese tea drinking. The Wisteria Tea House, Taiwan's oldest and most celebrated establishment, was deemed the perfect setting.
This chic haven of minimalist decor and traditional art has a richly flavorsome past. Built 100 years ago, the Wisteria Tea House has served insurgent political leaders, celebrities, millionaire businessmen, the nation's elite literati, poets, painters and artists of every ilk. Indeed, the cream of Taiwanese society over the past century has partaken of tea and snacks in this humble wooden edifice.
Today, it is frequented by dedicated connoisseurs of the national beverage and me, a complete novice in the Tao of the tea leaf. As we whiled away the afternoon, I came to understand the difference between Black Dragon and Dragon Well tea, I learnt the proper savory accompaniments to order with various brews, and I was taught the "Old Man" style of tea preparation involving several rounds of steeping and pouring using a tiny red-clay pot and thimble-sized cups to achieve subtle distinctions in consistency and flavor.
Having tasted Taiwanese high society, it was now time to return to earth with a visit to the city's most exotic market. Huahsi Night Market is better known to travelers as Snake Alley, and a few minutes wandering the crowded lane quickly reveals why. Beside the fortune tellers, tattoo parlors and herbal potion hawkers, myriad stalls sell caged live snakes of various species to hungry clients.
I watched queasily as a fearless vendor reached into a cage and fished out a death-giving cobra, then adroitly strung it from a wire, pulled taut and proceeded to slit the unfortunate reptile's belly with a sharp knife.
The dripping blood was added to a glass containing Chinese whisky and herbs believed to have aphrodisiac qualities, then served to an eager paying customer.
"Snake blood brightens the eyes, strengthens the kidneys and greatly increases energy. It was used in ancient China as a general tonic and also to improve male sexual stamina," explained stall owner Yuan Hai. As I listened to the translation, he paraded a few nutritional supplements before me: powdered snake gallbladder, snake penis pills and a bottle of Chinese wine complete with a very pickled whole snake.
We politely made our excuses and moved on, for Lulu had other gastronomical pursuits in mind. An apparent aberration in the Taiwanese national psyche is their inexplicable fondness for a snack fittingly called Stinky Tofu. Within seconds we had smelt out a vendor.
This worryingly popular dish is such an olfactory insult it makes the stench of durian seem altogether fragrant. After much cajoling by Lulu, I took my life in my hands and tried a bite. I pinched my nose, gulped, gagged and swallowed. And how did it taste? Exactly as it smelt.
No trip to Taipei would be complete without a respectful pilgrimage to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. Along with his mentor, Sun Yat Sen, the Generalissimo Chiang is a dearly loved national hero for leading the Kuomintang exodus from mainland China across the narrow 160-kilometer strait to Taiwan. The plan was to speedily return to China, defeat the Communists and reclaim the motherland, but it appears following decades of economic success and political freedom that strategy has now been placed on hold.
The memorial is located in an expansive public square surrounded by lush parklands in the heart of the city. The white marble traditional Chinese building is a shrine to the historic achievements of Chiang and Sun, chronicling an era of tumultuous politics and warfare that divided the most populous nation on earth.
And now back to the important subject of gastronomy (everything eventually comes back to food in Taiwan).
"Chi fan le mei-yo? (Have you eaten yet?)" was the first Mandarin phrase I learnt in Taipei. The second was "duo chi yidian (eat some more)."
The Chinese' love of eating has evolved a rich tradition of cooking styles and philosophies. According to the universal principles of yin and yang, all dishes must embody an appetizing balance of flavors, colors, textures and aromas to satisfy the senses and maintain optimal health.
In a week of truly memorable meals, the one that invoked the greatest delight was dinner at the exclusive Fa Hua Vegetarian Restaurant. The evening was noteworthy for three reasons: The food was bordering on sublime, I got to meet one of my brother's English students who introduced himself using his Western name - Robocop Chen, and the menu was mysteriously meaty.
Vegetarian diners could select from Shredded Pigeon, Spicy Shrimp, Noble Ham and Five Item Cold Cuts. I was slightly puzzled to learn that all these dishes -- seemingly animal protein in name and appearance -- were in fact an inventive assortment of mushrooms, tofu and wheat gluten.
But of course this failed to explain why vegetarians would pretend to eat dove, seafood and pork in the first place!
I really went to market on my final day in Taipei. A short distance from the curiously named Taiwan Normal University, we toured two of the city's most popular weekend markets: Chienkuo Flower Market and Chienkuo Jade Market.
The flower market is a perfumed rainbow of color specializing in all things botanical. Blossom lovers flittered like bees between enticing stalls of orchids, peonies and chrysanthemums. The heady scent of pine added a medicinal aroma to the atmosphere, helping to lull visitors into a floral reverie as they jostled around tables of deftly sculptured juniper, bamboo and azalea bonsai.
But it's jade that really gets Taiwanese hearts fluttering. Near the flower market, in the unlikely location of under a busy highway overpass, one of the world's largest jade markets convenes every weekend. More than 900 stalls brimming with jade jewelry of every description proffer the creations of artists from throughout Asia.
The most expensive items on offer were antique pieces from mainland China. Their delicacy of craftsmanship commanded astronomical prices that wealthy Taiwanese jade enthusiasts seemed more than willing to pay.
Of course, one minor detail that slightly takes the gloss of these exquisite antiques is jade was an integral component of funerary rites in ancient China and it is highly probable many of these pieces lay resting in dank coffins buried below the Chinese countryside for the past few centuries. But hey, to each his own.
As my time in the capital of the Beautiful Island came to an end, I realized one week in such a diverse and intriguing city was only sufficient to stir desires of another visit. A friendly metropolis of inexhaustible attractions, the contradictions and charisma of Taipei only serve to heighten its appeal.
If you go
Where: Located in the far north of this small nation off the east coast of China (the maximum length of the island is 395 kilometers and the maximum width only 144 kilometers), Taipei is easily the most populous city in Taiwan.
Getting there: Malaysia Airlines has regular return flights from Jakarta to Taipei. Phone the airline's Jakarta office on 522 9701 or visit www.malaysiaairlines.com.my for details.
When to go: Taiwan is at its absolute best in October and November when the weather is most inviting and tourists are relatively scarce.
Lodging: Budget travelers should try the Taipei Hostel (6th Floor, Lane 5, Lin Shen North Rd, Taipei, phone 8862-2395 2950, fax 8862-2395 2951, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.TaipeiHostel.com) where clean, simple rooms start at US$7 a night.
A more upmarket option is the centrally located Cosmos Hotel (43 Chung Hsiao West Rd, Section 1, Taipei, phone 8862-2361 7856, fax 8862-2311 8921) where three-star rooms start at $81 a night.
Dining: For delicious inexpensive meals visit Tan Hua Tou restaurant (143 Xin Yi Rd, Section 4, Taipei, phone 8862-2704 3301).
If you'd like to sample Taiwanese aboriginal food try the Tai Ya Po Po Restaurant (14 Wu Lai St, Wu Lai Hsiang, Taipei, phone 8862-2661 6371).
Getting around: Taxis are the way to go in Taipei, but as drivers rarely speak English it's best to have your destination written in Chinese.
Currency: One New Taiwan dollar (NT$) is equal to Rp 264.
Reading: Lonely Planet Taiwan takes a definitive look at this island nation. For Taiwan travel tips in cyberspace visit www.roc-taiwan.org, www.taiwanfun.com and www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations
More information: Taiwan Visitors Association, email email@example.com or visit www.tbroc.gov.tw