At the centre of a huge darkened hall, I gaze mesmerized, at a jadeite bok choi cabbage in a glass case, from the Qing Dynasty with translucent white to deep green leaves, a locust, a Katytid and bugs. A part of the dowry of the doomed marriage of a Chinese queen representing fertility, purity and the children that they would have! I am at the National Palace Museum (touted to be one of the world’s top four museums) in Taipei set on a dramatic hillside. It is a treasure trove of bronzes, jade, ceramics and lacquer ware, spirited away by China’s nationalist party, the Kuomintang, from Beijing’s Forbidden City when the Communists were winning the Civil War. The cache was hidden in mountain caves for years and even today there are bullet-proof vaults in the hills behind the Museum storing the collections which are said to be so vast that only one percent is displayed at a time! Our guide calls the treasures here a ‘menu spanning 8000 years’ and introduces us to the ‘Mona Lisa’ of the museum- a bronze cooking vessel with three legs called the Mao Kung Ting - inside are Chinese inscriptions from 771 BC. Another stunner is a jasper sculpture resembling a local pork dish called Tung Po meat, braised in soya sauce. There are exquisite Rhino-horn and walnut shell carvings, each with their own mounted magnifying glasses to look at the intricate details. There is an ivory ball with seventeen nestled concentric layers and an unusual porcelain pillow in the shape of a child. We round off the afternoon with lunch at the opulent glass and wood Silks Palace restaurant inside the Museum grounds where life imitates art- several dishes which are served are identical replicas of the exhibits in the museum.
The Portuguese navigators, who were the first Europeans to discover this island in the shape of a sweet potato, called it Ilha Formosa or beautiful island. It was then colonised by the Dutch, the Spanish and finally was under Japanese rule for half a decade. Taiwan parted ways with Communist China in 1949 and built a wonderful industrial economy at the stage when China was still a rural, poor economy. Today it represents the aesthetics of China juxtaposed with the freedom of democracy and new world commerce. Dance clubs and exquisite boutique hotels, Starbucks and atmospheric Tao temples all come together in a mesmerising melee. Taipei has the highest density of convenience stores in the world and we see a Seven Eleven or Family Mart at every block.
Modern Taipei and Taipei 101 is synonymous. The ‘101’ denotes the number of floors as well as the postal code of this district. The world’s second tallest building (it lost its numero uno title to Burj Khalifa Dubai) was built to sway- there’s a spaceship like contraption called the wind damper which helps the tower withstand earthquakes or typhoons. The shape of the building is symbolic, resembling a bamboo stalk and is grouped in units of eight floors- an auspicious number denoting prosperity. Inside the building is an upmarket mall with high end shops and a food court. We take the elevators from the fifth floor to the 89th Floor, travelling at about 60 km per hour and reach the top before the lady can even make the announcements in three languages!
From modern to traditional- our cultural ‘high’ is at the red roofed Hsing Tian Kong Temple- a Taoist temple embracing a fusion of beliefs from Confucianism and Buddhism, dedicated to the red-faced Guan Ging, the God of War, also the Patron God of businessmen. This is a multi-sensory spectacle- a haze of incense, offerings ranging from tea and flowers to even chocolate cookies, blue uniformed volunteers, oracle blocks and a gargantuan incense burner adorned with dragons’ heads.
Taipei is foodie heaven and the locals munch steadily on Xiaochi or ‘little eats’ throughout the day! Our guide Ivy Chen takes us to a branch of Din Tai Fung, belonging to the legendary chain rated as one of the Top 10 gourmet restaurants in the world by the New York Times. Sublime paper-thin Xiao long bao (steamed vegetable and meat dumplings) in stacks of bamboo steamers are served at lightning speed with small bowls of thinly sliced ginger in soy sauce and bowls of pickled cabbage and stir fried greens. The dessert is particularly intriguing: red Taro paste in steamed dumplings. We also walk on Taipei’s wild side at the raucous Shilin night market- a maze of eateries with stinking tofu, the famous oyster omelettes with greens, shrimp soup, and a smorgasbord of unending delights. I try the local drink- pearl milk tea with special large straws- a concoction with coconut milk, black tea and large rubbery tapioca seeds.
Our ‘work out’ afternoon is at the Taipei International Flora Expo, a creative extravaganza spread over 91.8 hectares of area and covering four city parks which need a pair of strong legs! The Expo dome, an erstwhile football stadium, has been converted into a rainbow patch of flowers with roofs and seats clad in shades of fuchsia, ochre and vermillion. We walk through the pavilions and halls with cutting edge technology where the sights, sounds and aromas ranging from a thousand varieties of orchids to brilliant fish and chicken just hatching from eggs transport us to a wonderland. We understand that Taiwan is the world’s largest exporter of orchids and has a famed horticulture industry. Equally amazing is the ‘Pavilion of New fashion’ made from 1.5 million recycled Pet bottles, and the country pavilions showcasing the landscape and unique horticulture of more than thirty countries. A hectic sojourn in Taipei ends on a great note: a pair of marvellous hands giving me new life at the Taipei International Airport’s Massage centre manned by the visually challenged.
PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU SUNDAY MAGAZINE, 2011