Taipei, Taiwan

by - February 27, 2014

The first of what I hope to be a variety of trips into the countries surrounding Hong Kong, a group of six of us headed off to Taiwan for a couple of days.  The capital, Taipei, is well connected to Hong Kong with regular flights making the one and a half hour trip across the South China Sea.  Despite being a brief trip, we managed to not only see Taipei, but also got into the countryside to visit the Taroko Gorge, supposedly one of the most impressive gorges in Asia.

Day One: Longshan Temple, Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, Taipei 101

Longshan Temple, Taipei
Arriving in the capital around early afternoon at our hostel (Mango 53 Inn), we headed straight over to the the nearest temple, Longshan Temple, which is one of the more impressive holy places within the city.  It was pretty crowded with worshippers when we arrived, but it was still okay for us to look around and get some photos as religion is very much a personal thing over here (it is normal to turn up at a temple by yourself, pray, then leave - as opposed to the set ‘service’ routine of Christianity).  From here we went to the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall on the east side of the city.  The MTR in Taipei is very comprehensive in scope (though doesn’t extend to the airport) and is also reasonably priced so is really the only way to get around the city.  Exiting from the station at the memorial we found ourselves in a large crowd of anti-government protesters.  It was difficult to decide quite what they were campaigning against - somebody told us it was something to do with a pay dispute, but there was also a lot of anti-nuclear stuff going on. The memorial itself is dedicated to Sun Yat Sen, known to many as the founder of modern China.  He was one of the leading anti-Imperialist campaigners at the turn of the last century and travelled the world gathering supporters to his cause.  On a personal note, I was interested in him as there is a small plaque in the nearby village of Cottered in the UK, about 10 miles from Ickleford which says that Sun Yat Sen always used to live there when visiting Britain - and I had been intrigued to know a bit more about him.  The memorial is a concert venue amongst other things.

Sun Yat Sen Memorial and Taipei 101

The counterweight
Next to the memorial is Taipei’s newest major monument, the Taipei 101 tower which spent six years as the tallest building in the world.  The structure is meant to look like bamboo and is definitely one of the more elegant modern skyscrapers.  At 509m tall, it is about two thirds of the size of the mighty Burj Khalifa, but is still two thirds taller than London’s Shard.  Considering that Taipei sits in both an earthquake and typhoon zone, the structure is extremely ambitious and uses some novel engineering concepts in order to provide its stability.  Key amongst these is a giant 730 ton iron orb that hangs at the top of the building and acts as a three dimensional pendulum that counters earthquakes and typhoons.  The orb itself is open for public viewing and there are lots of videos on YouTube of it swinging fairly considerably in adverse weather conditions (  Of course, the main attraction of Taipei 101 is the view over the city.  The skyscraper is a bit of an oddity compared to the rest of the city, which is on the whole fairly low rise (especially compared to the vertical living in Hong Kong).  The next tallest building must be a third of the size at most, meaning that the photos look like they were taken from a helicopter rather than the top of a building.  There is an outside area for the public to visit at the very top, which gives the best photos and also gives an indication of the intense forces that the structure has to withstand.  It didn’t seem particularly windy when we entered the building but the roof was extremely blustery.

View from the top of Taipei 101
It was now getting fairly late so we ambled towards the MTR station and from there went over to the Shillin district of the city which is famous for its night markets.  Unfortunately it had started to rain, meaning that we perhaps didn’t get the full effect of the markets, but from what we saw it was a great place to buy clothes and street food.  'Made in Taiwan’ is obviously a fairly common site back in Europe, so as you might expect the clothes were very good value - it would be a good place to get a totally new wardrobe on the cheap.  After eating food at a slightly strange but very tasty steak place, we made our way back to the hostel via a milkshake shop.

Day Two: Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial, 228 Peace Park, Guandu Temple

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial
Our second day in Taipei (having spent a day in Taroko in the middle) started at the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial which, along with Taipei 101, is probably the leading tourist attraction in the city.  Chiang Kai-Shek was the president of Taiwan until his death in 1975 and is a key figure in the modern history of the whole of China.  He was leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) during the civil war on the mainland against Chairman Mao’s Communist Party.  After losing the civil war, Kai-Shek fled to the island of Taiwan (which was then a relative backwater) and declared it to be the rightful heirs to the mainland.  He was followed by many businessmen and others who were set to lose out to the communists.  Having essentially imposed a new government on the island and turning it from an island to a nation, there were obviously frictions with the locals so depending on who you talk to, Kai-Shek was a tyrant or a hero.  Many know him by the name 'General Cash My Cheque’ - referring to his alleged corruption.  Hero or not, he is definitely an important figure in Taiwanese history and his memorial is enormous.  His statue is still guarded by two armed soldiers and visitors are told to assume an adequately sombre attitude.  In addition to the memorial itself, the park contains the National Theatre and National Concert Hall as well as a museum about Chiang Kai-Shek containing uniforms, medals and other bits and pieces from his life.

National Theatre

228 Peace Park Memorial
The memorial is in the centre of the city and is surrounded by a few other sites that we were able to walk past, including the Presidential Palace and the 228 Peace Park.  The peace park is a memorial garden to the people who died during a major government crackdown on protesters in 1947 - on the 28th February (hence the name).  It is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 people died and the massacre was the start of a long period of martial law known as the 'white terror’ in Taiwan.  The park has been really nicely done and there is a museum that we unfortunately didn’t have time to enter.  Our last stop of the day was a fair journey to the north of the town and was a great example of the virtues of listening to Lonely Planet.  Based entirely on the book’s recommendation we travelled 16 MTR stops north to a suburb of Taipei called Guandu.  The suburb is situated on the banks of the river and is home to a really special temple that looks back over the water towards the city.  It was a little tricky to find - a 15 minute walk from the station, but was really worth it when we got there and I have to say it is one of the best temples that I have come across in Asia.  The detailing on some of the wood and stone was really astounding (see below).  After grabbing a coffee and some cake we made our way back to the airport for the late flight back to Hong Kong.  All in all a really excellent few days - with a bit of luck I will get another opportunity to visit Taiwan next semester.
Guandu Temple
Woodwork at the temple

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