Tremendous Taipei

A Short Visit to Taiwan's Capital

Text/Richard Saunders
Photos/Tourism Bureau, Taiwan High Speed Rail, Vision Int'l, Beitou Hot Spring Museum
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It's home to nearly three million, it's the seat of the national government, it's one of the island's main transport hubs, and it's the northern terminus of the Taiwan High Speed Railway (THSR). Taipei City, the capital of Taiwan, is close to the island's main international airport, and the usual place for foreign visitors (both business and leisure travelers) to start a trip to Taiwan. After a quick visit to the city's main tourist attractions, travelers often head for renowned tourist attractions further afield such as Taroko Gorge or Sun Moon Lake . Spend a little longer in the Taipei area, however, and there's an extraordinary variety of things to see, along with a remarkably efficient and comprehensive network of public transportation giving convenient access to enough attractions to keep visitors happy for a week or more.

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Taipei City sits in a bowl surrounded on three sides by mountains, and has two main centers. The modern, high-tech part of the city in the east, around Taipei 101 and the wide boulevards of Xinyi (Sinyi) Road and Renai Road , is on every visitor's list, and a day could easily be spent here admiring the view from the top of the world's tallest building, shopping in the many exclusive shopping malls, and eating at one of the many excellent restaurants. Taipei's older city center lies several kilometers to the west, in the area around the main railway station. This area remains Taipei's principal transport hub, and most travelers will probably pass through this area at some time during their visit. With the opening of the Taiwan High Speed Rail service between Taipei and Taiwan's second largest city, Kaohsiung, this year, virtually the entire island of Taiwan is now within easy reach of the capital city. The fastest trains make the full trip in just ninety minutes (just forty minutes more than by air), and buying tickets for the service is simple and convenient: an English-language section of the THSR website (www.thsrc.com.tw/en/) is available for reserving tickets on the Net, and phone bookings can be made in English on the THSR hotline ([02] 4066-5678 or [02] 6626-8000), although bookings can also be made in person at Taipei's main station on the day of travel.

Taipei's Main Station

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Conventional trains, both express and local, pass through Taipei Railway Station every couple of minutes bound for stations along the east and west coasts, and are a great way to explore the historic towns and beautiful countryside around Taipei. The station also lies at the intersection of two of the city's MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) lines: the north-south Danshui (Danshuei) line and the Bannan line, which runs the length of the metropolis from east to west. Three underground shopping malls extend west and north from the station complex, one leading to the city's main long-distance bus station, offering fast, regular, and comfortable services to cities and tourist resorts all over the island.

The imposing Taipei Railway Station building was opened in 1989. It houses the main railway station for conventional trains, the MRT station, the terminal station of the THSR (opened in March 2007), a second-floor shopping and food mall, and the headquarters of the Taiwan Railway Administration. The cavernous, marble interior with its powerful air-conditioning is a popular escape from the heat and dust of the Taipei summer. Several small exhibitions line the corridor walls, offering a glimpse of the treasures on display in the city's museums, of Taiwan's beautiful arts and handicrafts, and into the history of the island's railroad service.

Around the Station

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The square outside the main station is a pleasant area of marble walkways, fountains, and flowerbeds, with the 51-story, 244-meter-high Shin Kong Life Tower , Taipei's second-tallest building, dominating the view. This area is also a good place for shopping: dive into the maze of side streets to the south of the station to find all manner of stores selling everything from CDs to clothes, traditional Chinese foods to high-tech computer software. A 20-minute walk away (or a 3-minute MRT ride from Taipei Railway Station) is the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall , until recently known as Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall , an imposing building in classical Chinese style set in huge grounds and fronted by a great square of white marble. This, one of the 'must-sees' of Taipei, is worth a visit anytime, but during the cool, balmy evenings of summer it's especially popular, the pleasant breezes attracting many local residents, including several groups that gather here to practice ballroom dancing and youths who move to more recent sounds. Just a short walk away, on Xuzhou (Syujhou) Road , the Chinese Handicraft Mart of the Taiwan Handicraft Promotion Center is one of the capital's premiere places for buying gifts for family and friends back home.

Banciao Station

For a far older relic of traditional Chinese architecture, ride the MRT from Taipei's main station (or leave the THSR one stop earlier if coming from the south) to Banqiao (Banciao) Station , then take a short taxi ride to Lin Family Mansion and Garden , one of the finest Cing Dynasty houses (built in 1853) surviving in Taiwan, surrounded by a very fine Chinese-style garden. Banqiao Station is both a convenient transportation hub and something of a sight in itself: a huge edifice topped with tall twin towers, with a palatial interior of high ceilings and marble floors. The stations for the conventional railway, THSR, and MRT services (it's just ten minutes to Taipei Railway Station) are here, while an adjoining bus station has regular, comfortable, and safe bus services to all parts of the island.

Taipei in One Day

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It would take three or four days to see even the main sights of Taipei, but the convenience of the THSR and the MRT network allows residents and visitors based in southern Taiwan cities, such as Kaohsiung or Tainan, to spend a day in the capital and be back at home in the evening. After a visit to the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall, it's just a short MRT ride north to the city district of Shilin (Shihlin), then five minutes on a bus to Taipei's top attraction, the National Palace Museum , which recently fully reopened following an extensive renovation lasting four years. It would take a full day to fully appreciate the riches on display in this, one of the world's great museums, but a good, still-educational compromise is to take one of the guided tours in English given several times a day for an introduction to some of the more distinctive and famous works of art on display.

This is as good a place as any in town for lunch: the San Hsi Tang Tearoom on the fourth floor offers authentic Chinese food, a fine oriental ambience, and great views!

Back at Shilin (Shihlin) MRT station, a five-minute walk from Exit 2 leads to Shilin Official Residence , erstwhile home of late president Chiang Kai-shek, and today one of the best places in this part of Taipei for a midday siesta. The gardens here make a fine and surprisingly peaceful temporary respite from the big city; there's even a flourishing wetlands-conservation area in the rear.

Back on the MRT heading north, change at Beitou station and ride the one-stop Xinbeitou (Sinbeitou) branch line to access Taipei City's own hill-area hot-spring resort. There's a great selection of hot-spring opportunities within a stone's throw of the station, from the simple but old and atmospheric Japanese bathhouse called Lung Nai Tang ( beware, the baths here are scorching hot, as per the Japanese taste!), to much newer luxury establishments such as Spring City Resort and SweetMe Hotspring Resort . Even if a hot-spring bath doesn't appeal at the height of summer (though it's actually surprisingly refreshing), be sure to pay a visit to the nearby Beitou Hot Spring Museum , housed in another old Japanese bathhouse, which is a beautiful and well-preserved relic in its own right. Inside stands a huge block containing Hokutolite, an extremely rare (and mildly radioactive!) mineral formed by the evaporation of hot-spring water. Apart from a deposit in the stream behind the museum, the mineral is known to exist only in solitary sites in Japan and Chile.

Follow the road ahead for another five minutes to the huge, bubbling pool of near-boiling hot-spring water known as Di-Re Valley . This extraordinary place is a rare sight indeed outside the thermal wonderlands of Yellowstone or New Zealand's Rotorua. Some of Beitou's hot-spring baths are fed by this source, but watch out - this water is of the 'green sulfur' variety, which although apparently beneficial for arthritis, skin disease, and gout, stings like crazy if it gets into the eyes or an open cut!

Before heading back to the THSR station for the short trip back down south, take a southbound MRT train to Jiantan station. Right opposite the station is Shilin Night Market , which every evening around dusk turns into an incredible, seething mass of humanity, delicious local food, cheap clothes, toys, beauty products, shoes...you name it.

Around Taipei

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A single day in Taipei could never do justice to the city, let alone the wonderful surrounding countryside. If a leisure trip here can be stretched to two or three days, try to get out of the city and see a little of the hinterland. One of the loveliest day-trips in the Taipei area is a ride along the historic and scenic Pingsi branch-railway line. Take a conventional train east from Taipei to the town of Rueifang , and change here to one of the brightly colored, two-carriage trains that set off along the branch line every hour or so.

Laid about a century ago to transport coal dug from mines in the valley of the infant Keelung River to port, the area has long left its industrial past behind and is a place of natural beauty. Buy a day-pass for the line and stop off at several stations, pausing to admire the peaceful wooded hills and river, the spectacular Shihfen Waterfall ( the 'Niagara of Taiwan'), or visit the Taiwan Coal Mine History and Culture Exhibition Hall nearby. Get off at the penultimate stop, Pingsi itself, for perhaps the most unforgettable activity of all.

Several small workshops in this tiny, very traditional village make (or, even better, teach visitors how to make) sky lanterns, huge Chinese paper lanterns with paper 'ghost money' fastened in the base, which when lit, turns the fragile orb into a miniature hot-air balloon. The best time to send off your own sky lantern is on the night of the Lantern Festival, two weeks after Chinese New Year, when hundreds of these beautiful, ghostly creations float into the darkened sky.

However, they've become a year-round activity, and making and setting one free is a memorable and unique way to spend an evening. Before releasing your lantern, however, be sure to write a wish on the side. When the lantern is released, it ascends to the heavens where the gods, if so inclined, will grant your request.

Here's wishing you'll have the chance to come back for a longer stay sometime, for there's a great deal more of Taiwan still to see!