For a round-trip airfare as low as $500-$650, you can visit a low-cost capital of Chinese culture
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.
The chief attractions
Taiwan's capital city, Taipei, has the major sights, which begin with the awesome National Palace Museum (see below) but also include the busy streets of the more traditionally Asian northwestern sector of the city (especially around Tihua Street), the famous night markets (I prefer the older Huahsi to the modernized Shihlin), an amazing selection of restaurants, and many traditional structures. The latter include the venerable Lungshan Temple, with its separate Buddhist and Taoist altars to Kwan Yin (goddess of mercy) and Matsu (goddess of the sea); the fascinating Lin An-tai House, a good example of a rich property-owner's abode; and the aforementioned Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, particularly on Sundays, when there is bound to be some kind of activity there.
The Champs-Elysees of Taipei is Chung Shan North Road, a tree-lined boulevard flanked by tall, modern buildings and fronted by elegant shops, luxury hotels, and power-status businesses. Just behind the avenue, though, on either side, are little lanes crammed with older buildings, moderately priced restaurants, and small shops, evocative of an earlier time. For getting around, a taxi ride of even a half hour's duration costs only NT$90 ($2.90). There are more than 38,000 taxis in Taipei, more than double the number of cabs in New York City, where the population is itself more than double that of Taipei!
Your budget-priced lodgings
Affected by a recent downturn in Taiwan's economy, the current asking price for rooms is almost universally 20 percent less than the published rates of hotels. I've quoted the discounted rates below, which are the "walk-in" rates, so don't settle for higher quotes if you try to reserve ahead. If you really are a walk-in, you can sometimes get 30 percent off.
You'll want to stay, I firmly believe, in the northwest quadrant of Taipei, the older part of the city, where most of the important sights are and where you can experience a feeling of the classic China. And in a moderate price bracket (I'll quote cheaper properties below), you'll surely like the Hotel Leofoo, 168 Changchun Road, tel. 2507-3211, fax 2508-2070, an older property full of Chinese character and beautifully situated in the heart of the Old Town, where it charges NT$2,400 ($77) for a double room, including breakfast for two. Though the Leofoo is ten stories high and has 232 rooms, it feels more "Old China" than its nearby competitors. Runner-up and more expensive at NT$3,800 ($122.79) per double room is the Taipei Fortuna Hotel, 122 Chung Shan North Road, Section 2, tel. 2563-1111, fax 2561-9777, e-mail email@example.com; taipei-fortuna.com.tw, with its 14 floors and 304 rooms of first-class ultramodern amenities, including three restaurants (one revolving), a health club, and more. And consider the Hotel Capital, 187 Changchun Road, tel. 2507-0168, fax 2507-4620, another modern property with 11 floors and a lobby waterfall. When I last stopped in, the Capital offered me a 30 percent discount, making the twin room rate NT$3,040 ($98).
In the budget category ($45 to $59 per room), my own favorite is the Kilin Hotel, 103 Kangding Road, tel. 2331-8133, fax 2314-7070, on a busy commercial street of old shops and various businesses and close to the popular Lungshan Temple; it has two restaurants and 154 slightly old-fashioned but clean rooms at NT$2,200 ($71) per double, tax and service charge not included. Try, alternately, the Green Peak, 18 Lane 77, Chung Shan North Road, Section 2, tel. 2511-2611, fax 2563-8765, a modest six-floor building housing both the hotel and an excellent Taiwanese restaurant (separate entrance), with 45 small but comfortable rooms starting at NT$1,980 ($64) for a twin.
In the rock-bottom category (under $40 per double room) are several pleasant spots: The Royal, 5-1 Hwaining Street, is located next door to the Paradise (see above) and is a neighbor to the excellent Shang Ping restaurant (see below). Phone them at 2311-1668, fax 2331-7299, and expect to pay NT$1,250 ($40) for a big double bed, NT$1,460 ($47) for twins. Gwo Shiuan, 10 Jinjou Street, tel. 2521-5205, fax 2551-8006, has a good location near the pricier Fortuna and 56 tiny rooms from as low as NT$1,170 ($38). There's also the Paradise, adjoining the Royal, at 7 Hwaining Street, tel. 2331-3311, fax 2381-3586, with a gloomy lobby but adequate rooms renting from NT$900 ($29). Finally, there's the reliable Taipei Hostel, 11 Lane 5, Lin Shen North Road (6th floor), tel. 2395-2950, fairly clean and very bright, charging only NT$250 to $550 ($8 to $17.77) for its dorm beds and rooms, respectively.
Budget dining in Taipei
One of Taiwan's chief delights is an abundance of different styles of Chinese cuisine, especially in Taipei, reflecting not only the influx in 1949 of mainland Chinese from every part of the country but a determined effort by these Chinese regional groupings to preserve their culture in all its aspects.
Most Chinese restaurants do not have English-language menus, but many display photos of their dishes so that you can point and pick in the event that you and your waiter or the owner can't communicate with words. To economize, look for the business lunch -- main course, soup, tea, and rice often for only NT$200 ($6.45). I quote lunch prices below, dinner being about 20 percent higher, maximum, in my experience. Remember that pork and chicken are cheaper, beef (imported) and seafood more costly.
A first regional choice: for the hearty cuisine associated with Shanghai, visit Shang Ping, 1 Hwaining Street (next door to Keyman's Hotel), where shredded beef and green pepper are NT$198 ($6.40), pork with garlic NT$188 ($6), and steamed or fried tofu NT$158 ($5.10).
For Beijing-style cuisine, try Celestial, a well-known spot at 1 Nanking West Road (2nd-4th floors, 2563-2171), where shredded pork with vegetables costs NT$200 ($6.45), beef with scallions NT$220 ($7), green onion cake NT$25 (80¢), and dumplings only NT$12 (40¢) each.
For Hunan food, try Charming Garden, 16 Nanking East Road, Section 1 (2521-4131), for its famously spicy dishes; and for Cantonese, Ya Yuen Seafood Restaurant, 26 Changchun Street, 2nd floor (2543-5513), where deep-fried grouper balls with pickle sauce run NT$190 ($6.10), as does sauteed shredded pork with vegetables. Elsewhere, Mongolian barbecue, a wonderful do-it-yourself process, can be had at Tan Kung, 283 Sungchiang Road, 2nd floor (2502-6762), featuring all you can eat for NT$299 ($9.65). You pick the raw ingredients at a bar (English-language signs denote pork, beef, lamb, veal, and vegetables), which are then cooked for you.
As we said earlier, perhaps the most important reason to visit Taiwan is the National Palace Museum, containing the single best collection of Chinese art in the world. Brought from Beijing just before the Communists captured it in 1949, these works of art are from the Forbidden City and were once the property of the emperors of China. There are excellent guided audio tours in English, with good English booklets and maps at the information desk to the left, just inside the entrance, as well as English-language tours at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Admission: NT$80 ($2.50). Take buses 255 or 304 to reach the famous museum.
And bear in mind that frequently changing exhibits of Chinese art are also presented at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 181 Chung Shan North Road, Section 3 (2595-7656), and at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Cultural Center, 54 Nanhai Road, Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 6.
At the National Fu Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy, you can see a Chinese opera such as the Drama of the White Snake following an explanatory film in English every Monday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The cost is NT$400 ($12.90). You get to the academy, at 177 Neihu Road, Section 2, by taxi, about NT$200 ($6.45) from downtown Taipei, or by city bus 247 or 287 from the main railway station.
You can try to learn Mandarin Chinese in private lessons at NT$350 per hour ($11.30) or in small groups at NT$200 per hour ($6.45) starting every Monday or Tuesday at My School, 126-8 Hsin Sheng South Road, Section 1, 2nd floor (2321-7826, fax 2394-5750).
On a recent visit, no fewer than four venues -- the National Theatre, National Concert Hall, Recital Hall, and Experimental Theater -- presented 64 different events in music and dance over a one-month period, ranging from Taiwanese opera to the Philadelphia Orchestra to the Zen Dance Theatre to a "Gala Concert for Flutes." And there are night tours of Taipei offered by Edison Travel (2563-5313) for a reasonable NT$1,200 ($38.80), considering that the price includes a full Mongolian barbecue dinner, visits to the Lungshan Temple and the Hwahsi Night Market, and a night view from atop the Taipei Observatory.
If you have the extra time, you might enjoy a day trip from Taipei to Danshuei, a typical small Taiwanese village full of history, to the northwest of the capital, on the ocean. It can be reached easily in about 40 minutes on the MRT rail system from Taipei's main station, and trains run every six to eight minutes. A second day trip might be to Sanshia, just one hour south of Taipei, where an army of artists and construction workers has for years been rebuilding the Sanshia Tzushr Temple in traditional style, the work still not quite finished but dramatic enough to make this trip worthwhile. Also an hour away, at Lungtan, is "Window on China," the second-largest collection of miniature structures in the world (after Holland's Madurodam), displaying famous sites from all over the world, including China's Great Wall and Forbidden City. The best public transport here is by the Taiwan Bus Company, departing frequently from the Far Eastern Department Store on Paoching Road or on Gueiyang Street near Soochow University's downtown campus. Simply scanning the street scene is an endless source of fascination.
The area code for Taiwan is 886, and the city code for Taipei is 2. To reach any Taipei number from the United States, dial 011-886-2, then the numbers we've listed.
The rate of exchange in this article is NY$31 to one U.S .dollar.