Travel: Taipei personality

Grappling with the complexities of crossing the road in a city of one thousand temples and ten million scooters demands the wisdom and patience of the Buddha himself. Two attributes I clearly lack.

Consequently, my introduction to this mesmerising East Asian capital was not the leg-shaking view from the 101st floor of the world’s tallest skyscraper or a sundown stroll through a bustling neon-lit night market. Oh no. My first taste of Taipei was getting run over by a baby driving a moped. Honest.

Rather than splash out on real safety helmets, the city’s scooter drivers adopt an ‘any headgear loosely fitting the bill’ policy of hockey and horse riding helmets, builders’ hard hats and soldiers’ helmets. I even spotted a heavy-duty welder’s mask whiz past. It was while waiting at the lights for a lull amid this mad hatters’ parade that I stepped on to the curb – and under the back wheel of a passing Vesper.

After a quick stock-take of my toes, I glanced up to see a toddler wearing a bright pink skiing helmet peering curiously over the handlebars. I then noticed she was one of a family of four uneasy riders all perched on the antique two-wheeler. Her brother and sister were sandwiched in behind, with mum balanced at the back, her arms barely reaching the handlebars.

Mum seemed suitably concerned. But rather than offer a lift back to my hotel (there was ample room for one more) she looked me up and down, and said ‘Good morning’ (the one English phrase every Taiwanese person knows) despite it being late evening, and sped off in a cloud of carbon dioxide.

Her rusting ride and millions of others zipping and zapping around the city all add to the maelstrom of sights and sounds that send a depth charge to your senses and make you stare in wonder at the soaring skyline and push-and-shove streets. Taipei’s metropolis seems part Manhattan, part Hong Kong, but all very much made in Taiwan.

Like Hong Kong, the island is a democratic satellite state free from China in all but name. Both sides have settled on this tricky status quo for half a century, with Beijing threatening war if its rebellious island declares independence.

The size of Wales but with a vast population of 23 million (only Bangladesh is more densely populated), Taiwan is often dismissed as too crowded and commercial for tourists.

Indeed, the only knowledge I had of this mountainous land before visiting was that its economic miracle of the 1960s had spawned my first cassette Walkman. It is still a silicone island – home to 90 per cent the world’s laptops and DVDs – but it offers so much more than budget electronics.

Its food is a glorious hotchpotch of classic Asian cuisine. A stroll down any high street reveals restaurants serving anything from Cantonese dim sum and Szechwan stir fry to spicy Malaysian curry and Filipino fried fish and rice. Of course, there are also oodles of traditional noodle bars to explore, where food is cooked on hotplates the size of snooker tables and served on silver foil.

Taipei’s teeming night markets feed the senses as much as the stomach. Here, life – and indeed death – is everywhere. Walking among wild boar tied up for slaughter, bags of chickens’ heads ready for soup, sliced pig faces and entrails hanging from hooks makes you appreciate how removed we Britons are from the grim realities of the food chain.

Shilin and Snake Alley are Taiwan’s biggest night markets, where you can sample dishes from the savoury to the still alive. Specialities include frogs’ eggs, pigs’ brain soup and the infamous stinky tofu – a fried slab of over-ripe vegetables with a fearful stench that brings a tear to the eye.

The Starbucks revolution has transformed this tea-drinking country. The Wisteria tea house, where home-grown movie director Ang Lee filmed Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, is one of fewer than a dozen authentic tea houses left in Taipei.

Guests enter through a quaint lantern-lit porch to be greeted by the sound of a bubbling pot on a low flame and the subtle aromas of locally grown leaves. Sitting shoeless on comfy cane chairs, sipping Jasmine and Dong Ding Oolong tea, this private public place is a welcome escape from the vanilla frappucinos found on every street corner.

But if The Wisteria isn’t your cup of Dong Ding Oolong, the ultimate unwind can be experienced during an overnight stay at the country’s biggest Buddhist monastery.

The monks and nuns at Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Kaohsiung promised to give my karma a 24-hour deep clean. So I soon found myself in a vast meditation hall, settling into a loose approximation of the lotus position, eyes closed, hands on knees, wondering if I’d fall asleep before it was polite to do so. Happily, I survived the entire ten-minute orientation without dozing off.

The Buddhists’ daily routine starts at 5.30am with the first of nine hours of meditation, followed by a meagre silent breakfast of bean curd, rice and boiled cabbage, calligraphy classes and, bizarrely, basketball – which the monks and nuns play to promote teamwork and good judgment.

The week’s focal point is the grand Sunday morning Tau San, or ‘Step, Step Bow’, when a thousand pilgrims rise before the sun to spend two hours stepping and bowing in unison across the monastery. A nurse is on hand in case pilgrims fall ill during this monastic marathon, which sees participants bow face down to the floor more than 250 times. My higher state of consciousness was bolstered by a visit to the still-blue calm of Sun Moon Lake, the country’s largest natural lake, where lush mountain scenery reflects picturesquely on the water.

It is home to The Lalu, a spa hotel famed for its organic health treatments. The intensive hour-long massage on my remaining good foot was made bearable only by watching a Buddhist lecture on refocusing pain on the mini television attached to the massage table.

My stress level returned to its default setting during my final day back in the capital, visiting the 508-metre high Taipei 101 (the world’s second tallest skyscraper after the Burj Dubai tower) and the National Palace Museum, one of the world’s top three museums thanks to its half-a-million artefacts spanning five millennia of Chinese history.

The trip back to Taipei was a breeze aboard the new 200mph bullet train service. Passengers adhere to strict rules such as platform queuing, female-only waiting zones, switching mobile phones to vibrate and ‘talking in a low voice’.

Crossing the country surrounded by such politeness was welcome respite from the treacherous streets of Taipei, where simply crossing the road risks a painful run in with the fastest moving families on earth.

• First published in the Daily Mail.

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