Taipei touchdown

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    Grounded on faith – Baoan Temple

    FEATHER-LIGHT
    touchdown – on the dot – at Taoyuan International Airport marked the arrival of the maiden Clark-Taipei flight of Philippines AirAsia, presaging the lightness of being in Taiwan’s capital city.

    Lasting impressions from two previous visits instantly reaffirmed: the graciousness of the locals, the greenness and cleanliness of the city and the countryside. So, now as then I write:

    Green. That is the color of Taiwan. From the air, and on the ground.

    Clean. That is the order of things in Taiwan. From its streets and squares to its creeks and rivers.

    New generation forests fill the hills and mountains. Rice paddies, vegetable patches, herbal gardens and orchards blanket the plains. Pristine blue rivers shine blinding bright in the sunlight. And glow in the moonlight.

    Can’t help but wax romantic here. And weep when we think of home.

    On this last visit, Taiwan’s green has become even greener. Its clean… well, cleaner.

    Four-lane city streets abounding with all sizes of trees – not only on the roadsides but in the median strips as well. So who says trees have no place by roadways? DPWH – shame, shame, shame.

    The trees well blending with the high rise buildings. Aye, the epitome of urban environmental planning.

    So did you know that the structural framework of Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest building at 509 meters, took after the bamboo?

    The “nodes” at eight-floor intervals rendering – as the bamboo – “flexibility in strong winds yet enough rigidity to prevent large sideways movement.” Learning from nature taken to the highest levels – literally – there.

    Man-made wonder, Taipei 101 is an attraction all by itself. Its exterior is replete with symbolisms of the bamboo, the pagoda, with curled ruyi figures standing for “heavenly clouds” and Chinese ingots appended all around the structure.

    Heaven, to the shopaholics indeed are its first five floors – all the priciest brands from Dior to Louis Vuitton, Burberry to Hermes, Prada to Armani, to name just those instantly recalled.

    On the fifth floor is the elevator to the indoor observation deck at the 89th floor which the Guinness World Records certified as the World’s Fastest Elevator with a maximum speed of 1010 meters per minute.

    It took us 37.7 seconds to go the distance. From where one beholds magnificent Taipei and beyond, 360 degrees.

    Down at the basement of Taipei 101 is Din Tai Fung restaurant and its signature dish of xiaolongbao, a steamed small bun like a dumpling but with soup inside. Really the “ultimate” as the restaurant blurb says.

    Earning for it the distinction as one of the world’s Top 10 restaurants by The New York Times and awarded a star by Michelin Guide.

    Food – glorious food – is more than enough reason to go to Taipei. The streetfood hawkers, countless restaurants of all tastes, the food stalls at the Shilin Night Market with all the noodles, dimsum, dumplings, seafood, sausages, pao, make a most delightful, if fattening, gastronomic tour.

    Museums

    The culture vulture will not find the city wanting in attractions too.

    The volume of artefacts and art pieces at the National Palace Museum – “saved by Chiang Kai-Shek from the communist takeover of Mainland China” – is so great that it would take over 100 years for each set of display to have a repeat, so our tour guide Johnnie Chien-Chen said.

    Pieces de resistance at the museum are carvings of jade and semi-precious stones made in the 18th and 19th centuries – one in the shape of a green-leafed and white-stalked Chinese pechay; a bronze bell inscribed with 123 characters and a cauldron with 500 characters with undetermined origins but already much prized in early Qing Dynasty (1600s); and the ivory, wood, and bamboo carvings of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

    There is Discovery Center at the Taipei City Hall, an interactive museum detailing the evolution of the city from its “sighting” by the Portuguese to its colonization by the Dutch, its occupation by Japan and its development as prime cultural and financial center.

    Temples

    Reputedly the oldest in the city, the Baoan Temple – established in 1742 but its present structure dates back to 19th century – draws its own pack of pilgrims, seeking favors from its resident deity, Baosheng Dadi, a 9th century doctor famed for his healing powers.

    Baoan merited honorable mention at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award in 2003.

    Across the street from Baoan is the Taipei Confucius Temple which celebrates the six arts taught by the “Supreme Sage and Venerated Late Teacher.” A 4-D multimedia theatre presents the life and wisdom of Confucius complete with the feel of earthquakes, rains, winds and snowfalls.

    Shrines

    As popular and packed with tourists and locals as the temples to the gods are the shrines to Taiwan’s great men and heroes.

    Magnificent with its white-marbled four sides and blue-tiled octagonal roof is the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall at the end of vast Freedom Square. Directly opposite the memorial hall across the square is the main gate, as magnificent with its five archways.

    A most interesting memento for Filipinos at the memorial hall’s showroom is the 1950s Cadillac sedan given by Filipino-Chinese to the Generalissimo whose massive statue sits at the grand hall at uppermost floor.

    Less impressive is the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall far removed from Freedom Square. More Mainland Chinese tourists though flock the shrine to the first president and founding father of Nationalist China whom they revere as the “forerunner of democratic revolution” in the People’s Republic of China.

    Chiang, to them, remained the “enemy.” So Johnnie told me.

    At the Taipei Martyrs’ Shrine, the changing of the guard is a most awaited event.

    Across the square from the Presidential Palace stands a nondescript memorial to the “Victims of the White Terror” – the thousands of dissidents who perished during Taiwan’s own martial law regime from 1949 to 1987.

    Spas

    Previous Taipei visits afforded me some spa experiences – but in hotels at the city center. This time, I got the real deal – at the hot springs of Beitou.

    The tour started with a visit to the tree-shaded Plum Garden, dubbed in the brochure as “once the summer getaway home for famed Chinese calligrapher Yu You-ren.” The all-wood Japanese house of 1930s vintage showcases various calligraphy scrolls.

    A short walk from the garden is the Beitou Hot Springs Museum, once a public bath, now the repository of “hot springs-related historical gems.”

    Farther down the road, across a steaming creek is the Sweet Me Hot Springs Resort where we had our dip – au naturel – in steaming hot, hot pools.

    And the body refreshed made a fitting completion to the nourishment Taipei’s temples, museums and shrines provided the soul.

    Taipei makes a total experience. No wonder then that the third time around, I still want for more.

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