Taipei’s cityscape is somewhat dull from a distance until your eye lands on the Taipei 101 tower, a massive structure that symbolizes the ideals of finance and technology. The tower, in the center of the capital city, is an icon of modern Taiwan.
On New Year’s Eve 2004, Taipei 101 was inaugurated in a grand ceremony with then-President Chen Shui-bian snipping a red ribbon before the skyscraper exploded with fireworks to bring in the new year.
Standing alongside the president was the legislative speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, and Ma Ying-Jeou, who at the time was the mayor of Taipei. Now president, Ma is seeking a second four-year term in office with his Chinese National Kuomintang Party (KMT) in today’s presidential and legislative elections.
Taiwan, covering about 36,000 square kilometers and with a population of approximately 23 million, has been an autonomous country for close to six decades. China, though, still regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that should eventually be reunited with the mainland.
Since the 1950s, Taiwan has pushed through many different economic, political and social phases and has emerged with a powerful economy, democracy and its own identity. In recent years, Taiwan has achieved great economic growth, and the island’s image as one of the world’s leading manufacturers of computer technology continues to impress.
In line with President Ma’s 2008 campaign promises, cross-strait relations and trade have improved, as have international relations.
Tourism has been transformed and is a strategic part of the Taiwanese government’s growth and economic development plan, which has included travelers from mainland China ever since tightly controlled and limited tourist groups have been allowed to travel to Taiwan.
In late December, the Tourism Bureau welcomed the six millionth international visitor to the island for the year, reaching a historic high. Tourism in 2011 increased 9.34 percent from the previous year, bringing in revenues of approximately $9.98 billion.
International arrivals to Taiwan are mostly from mainland China, Japan, Hong Kong and Macau. The number of visitors from Singapore increased the most last year, by 24.14 percent.
Tourism is a proven generator of revenue, and it has bettered international relations and outside perceptions of the once-isolated island. This can be attributed in part to the Tourism Bureau’s marketing campaigns, which generally focus on a few types of tourism: Cultural, environmental, gourmet, romantic, shopping, healthy lifestyles and sustainability.
Despite its image as a high-tech manufacturing country, Taiwan is popular among eco-tourists and outdoor adventurers. Two-thirds of the island is covered in rugged mountains, making it a popular destination with those who enjoy scenic vistas, hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. These mountainous areas are also inhabited by “native” Taiwanese, and organized tours to these indigenous areas are popular.
Taipei is the kind of city where you must venture deep into its guts to find its true excitement and color. But despite being well-lit, Taiwan can be a little difficult to navigate without a friend or guide who speaks the language and knows her way around.
There are tons of tiny streets with restaurants and bars, but it might take a few tries before you find a restaurant that has pictures on the menu.
Fortunately, public transportation is workable and signs have English translations. The underground Metro will get you to almost all of the city’s major tourist attractions.
At the night market, people pack themselves into the area and play games, shop for counterfeit goods and eat. It’s a great place to experiment with new and bizarre foods.
Outside of the main marketplace are alleyways jam-packed with shops where young men sell everything from shoes to umbrellas. There are also dimly-lit stores filled with exotic lizards, frogs and beetles under the watchful eyes of men whose welcoming smiles show few teeth.
For something a little more sophisticated but equally fascinating, the National Palace Museum in Shihlin district has a collection of almost 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese artifacts and artworks, encompassing more than eight centuries of Chinese history.
The priceless collection is clearly one reason people are drawn to Taiwan. For history buffs, there are few collections to rival it. But don’t expect a sterile and quiet museum atmosphere, because there are people arriving by the busload and they will fight with elbows to win a spot against a glass case.
And if it’s the Jadeite Cabbage that you’re hoping to see, be prepared to wait your turn. Carved from verdant jadeite into Chinese cabbage with two locusts hiding among its leaves, the Jadeite Cabbage is the museum’s most famous possession.
While the sculptor of this iconic piece is unknown, the museum says: “This work originally was placed in the Forbidden City’s Yung-ho Palace, which was the residence of the Kuang-hsu Emperor’s (r. 1875-1908) Consort Chin.”
For this reason, some have surmised that the piece was a dowry gift for the Consort Chin to symbolize her purity and offer blessings for bearing many children. It is the crown jewel of the museum, so savor the moment when you finally do lay eyes on it, as you will be ushered along quickly by the crowds built up behind you.
Outside of glass cases and out in the open air, there are numerous historical and significant landmarks to see in Taipei. The National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall attr acts a lot of attention. Built in 1975, the hall was constructed after the passing of President Chiang Kai-shek. Inside, there is a museum with artifacts of Chiang’s life, while outside, a large bronze statue of the late statesman is guarded by two motionless ceremonial guards. Every hour, there is a changing of the guards in a lengthy ceremony that draws quite a crowd.
Almost all tourists to Taiwan will visit the Confucius Temple in Datong district. It is a grand example of Chinese history, customs and beliefs, and a fascinating piece of architecture. An English-speaking guide is available to explain the story behind Confucius. Every detail — the wooden carvings, the number of steps and the direction in which things face — is deliberate and meaningful.
Tourists are increasingly aware of Taiwan as a destination, and they are curious. In 2012, Taiwan expects close to 6.5 million people from around the world who aim to satisfy that curiosity.