An Affordable Trip to Taiwan
For a round-trip airfare as low as $500-$650 (when bought from consolidators), you can visit a low-cost capital of Chinese culture that will appreciate your presence.
In the vast courtyard of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, before a giant statue of the late dictator, hundreds of young people gather as a strident and amplified female voice commands them to pay attention. My heart sinks as I wait for the rally to begin, regretting my decision to come here at all. "Yeow!" screams the loudspeaker, and an earsplitting rock version of Yankee Doodle pierces the air (and my eardrums). The kids are dancing, I realize, boogying with wild gyrations, certainly not in any kind of order, and each dancing alone. I am shocked, then delighted, to see such happy goings-on right in front of the altar to the dour old martinet who brought so much misery to his people in years past.
The Republic of China, which we know better as Taiwan, is a real democracy now, and what I had feared might be a vestige police-state rally was in fact a Transport Ministry festival to promote road safety for kids. Booths around the plaza offered information (on first aid, for instance), contests, and prizes. The sponsor's efforts obviously paid off -- though I recently saw thousands of scooters and motorcycles in the streets of Taipei, I noted not a single rider or passenger without a helmet, including a tiny poodle on a scooter with its old master, mistress, and young master, all wearing matching headgear.
The kids at the memorial, the family on the scooter, and adults dining at outdoor markets were representative of dozens of people who called out to me during my last visit, mostly just, "Hello" but sometimes, "Have a nice day" and even, "Are you hungry?" as I gazed at their plates. To the American visitor, the Taiwanese are extremely friendly. Perhaps because they are diplomatic outcasts, shunned in favor of mainland China, perhaps because Taiwan doesn't get many American leisure visitors . . . whatever the reasons, a lot of people showed they were glad to see me.
Taiwan should be more popular with Americans, not only because we are liked there but because the island nation has much to offer. Moreover, it's not expensive. We're not talking "cheapest places on earth" here, but you can find a marvelous two-course lunch for $3, a clean and comfortable hotel room for under $30, and have lunch at one of the nation's best hotels for under $10 or take tea with chamber music at a leading first-class hotel for less than $10.
Potent reasons for vacationing in Taiwan
Why visit Taiwan? Because you'll experience a real China, as genuine as the one on the mainland but with a few bonuses. In fact, you'll be able to experience through Taiwan's dynamism and daily life some aspects of China that are discouraged on the mainland, such as devotion to Confucianism, strong family affinities, and religious practices no longer encouraged or allowed in China. And you'll encounter, as I did, an affable group of people, quite a few of whom speak English and are only too eager to tell you how proud they are of "their" China.
The biggest advantage of visiting Taiwan is that you can get a glimpse of what the mainland could be with a democratic government. Since the end of the Kuomintang dictatorship that ruled the island for 40 years, Taiwan has experienced a surge in freedom of expression and creativity. If Beijing's China were like this, the world would stand back in awe of Chinese achievement.
Another bonus is a most delicious aspect of Taiwan's Chinese culture, its food. Based on my own recent experiences and the testimony of many travelers and residents, I can swear you will eat better on this island, on average, than you will in Beijing, Shanghai, or Suchow. You'll find small restaurants better than their counterparts in the Big China across the strait, and fancier ones as good or even better. (The only exception to this is Hong Kong, which still has the best Chinese food on earth, thanks to its chefs' longtime existence under the prosperity and leniency of British rule.)
A final plus is Taipei's National Palace Museum, where the greatest collection of Chinese art in the world is maintained. While the newly opened Shanghai Art Museum has its own treasures, the National Palace Museum in Taipei still has it beat by a long shot in terms of the number of astounding pieces available. You could pleasurably spend days here.
While anyone wanting to understand the modern world should also visit Beijing's China, that's an entire -- and different -- story in itself.
Major airlines serving Taipei include EVA Air, China Air Lines, Cathay Pacific, Northwest Airlines and more, and their published round-trip airfares run around $950 from the West Coast, and $1,300 from New York. But consolidators -- and budget tourists should always use consolidators (discounters) -- have seats to Taipei for as low as $700 to $750 round-trip from New York and $539 to $650 from the West Coast, often sinking to even lesser levels (occasionally to a rock-bottom $650 from New York and $500 from the West Coast). These or similar prices are available from Air Travel Discounts (tel. 212/922-1326), using China Air Lines, Korean Air Lines, and Cathay Pacific; Tour East Holidays (212/964-6530) using China Airlines, EVA Air, and other major carriers; Travel-Link (310/445-7705), Travel Shoppe of America (310/247-8995), and Travel International (310/327-5143), all using the very same well-known carriers.