Taipei personality: A bustling, culture-rich city

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Getting oriented

Accommodations are available to meet all budgets. Taipei is a major business center; therefore, many of the top hotels, such as the Ritz, (011) 886-2 2597-1234, and Rebar Crowne Plaza, (011) 886-2 2763-5656, are designed with the business traveler in mind.

Room rates at the Ritz range from $230 to $1,110 per night, and at the Rebar Crowne Plaza, from $220 to $560 per night.

For a different experience, a stay at the amazing Grand Hotel, 12 floors built in the style of a temple, is worth the expense. Busloads of tourists come just to be photographed in front of the city landmark.

Rates at the Grand Hotel range from $150 to $600 per night. Call (011) 886-2 2596-5565.

Other hotels popular with U.S. travelers, according to the Taipei tourist office, are the Grand Hyatt Taipei, the Eastern Plaza, the Howard Plaza, the Grand Formosa Regent Taipei and the Westin Taipei.

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- It takes nearly half an hour to change the guard at the National Revolutionary Mar-tyrs Shrine in Taipei, the capital of the Republic of China, or Taiwan, as it is more commonly known. 

The two young soldiers, unblinking in the face of a barrage of clicking cameras, go through an elaborate routine of marching and gun-twirling before their replacements take the stand at the entrance to the shrine.

Even then, they are not left in peace, as groups of giggling girls pose with them and an attendant comes out to make sure their feet are correctly aligned and their uniforms perfectly draped.

This routine takes place every hour during the day.

Across the city, a similar guard-changing routine is played out at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall that towers over the landscaped gardens and ornamental ponds of the surrounding park.

A bronze statue of the late president dominates the inside of the monolithic Memorial Hall that includes displays and mementos of his life, including two shiny, black limousines.

The National Revolutionary Martyrs Shrine, a complex built to resemble a Ming Dynasty palace, is dedicated to the fallen heroes of Chinas wars.

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is dedicated to one man, the statesman and military leader who was a pivotal figure in the history of modern China.

Flanking the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall are two striking buildings of classical Chinese architecture: the National Theater Hall, which presents Chinese and Western operas, dramas and ballet, and the National Concert hall.

The roofs of the three buildings form a triangular design, with Memorial Hall as the pivotal building.

Only 30 years ago, Taipei was a small city surrounded by rice paddies. Now it is a bustling metropolis, with high-rise buildings and busy streets lined with shops.

Scattered throughout the sprawling downtown area are numerous temples, ranging from the famous and extremely decorative Lungshan (Dragon Mountain) Temple to tiny, very personal places of worship. At many of the temples, Taoists and Buddhists worship side by side.

Large department stores rub shoulders with myriad small businesses, including an incredible lineup of food outlets that are busy throughout the day and night. 

Around the town

The moped is the main form of transport for locals, and the fairly new and extremely efficient underground makes movement around the city simple and quick (the underground is well-signed in English), contributing, no doubt, to the notable lack of pedestrian traffic on the streets.

A highlight of a visit to Taipei is the National Palace Museum, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary in October.

The museum opened in 1925 in the Forbidden City in Beijing during the fledgling years of the Republic of China, making the treasures of the Chinese imperial collection accessible to the common person for the first time.

The changing of the guard at the National Martyr's Shrine in Taipei.By 1950, much of the collection of 620,000 art objects from the Chinese imperial collection had been brought to Taiwan after being stored and moved around mainland China for years during the Japanese occupation. The collection is so large that only the most popular pieces are on permanent display, with other items exhibited in a series of rotating specials. 

The collections of porcelain, calligraphy and paintings as well as jade and bronzes are especially impressive, with fabulous designs and colors.

Of the special exhibitions, the intricacy, workmanship and detail of boxes designed to hold curios (some had secret compartments) was fascinating.

English-language tours of the museum are held daily at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Close to the National Palace Museum is Chiang Kai-sheks residence, not open to the public but set in extensive parklands and gardens that are a popular place for couples and families to stroll and as a backdrop for wedding photos.

Taipei has many other museums and galleries, including the National Museum of History near the Botanical Gardens, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines. 

Of particular attraction is the Lin Family Garden, an oasis amid the bustle of Taipei, re-creating classical Chinese-style landscaping reminiscent of a serene village from a bygone era.

Those who want to see how Chinese opera is produced can visit the Fu Shing Dramatic Arts Academy in the Neihu area of Taipei, where students learn the skills of costume, make-up, song and dance. Visitors can watch some of the training and enjoy a short performance.

Taking stock of the markets

The markets on the side streets do a brisk trade in fresh fruits and vegetables; fish and meat; and shoes and clothing. 

The night markets also are popular, and at some of them, sideshow, alley-type games cater to children, making these markets popular with families. 

Unlike in many Asian cities, the markets are relatively quiet, perhaps reflecting the general reserve of the Taiwanese people.

Chinese herbal medicine clinics do a busy trade, and peering through the window one can see patients with acupuncture needles stuck into their bodies or feet soaking in buckets of water. Also popular are foot massage clinics where health care for soles is reputed to lead to physical and mental rejuvenation.

Tasting Taiwans cuisine

When the high-ranking Chinese officials and leaders escaped to Taiwan in 1949, they brought with them their chefs, and the legacy of this is that Taiwan is now regarded as one of the best places in Asia to experience the best of many styles of cooking. Hunan, Szechuan, Peking and Mongolian food are wonderfully prepared and available even at roadside stalls. 

There are a number of food courts where you can make a selection of dishes to sample the different styles. Taiwan beer is the perfect accompaniment.

Pastry shops and sweets stalls do a roaring trade. Coffee is popular, with chains such as IS Coffee and Starbucks well represented.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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