City of Smiles

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Swiftly, silently, seriously, 10 men wearing sterile white hairnets, white facemasks and white coats laboured inside a glassed-in room crafting little objects with intense precision.

In techno-crazy Taiwan this could have been any one of countless electronics factories churning out computer bits but these were no tech-heads, they were expert chefs creating tiny bits of gastronomic nirvana.

Din Tai Fung Restaurant in the capital, Taipei, was packed as their nimble fingers shaped hundreds of xiao long bao dumplings, filling them with soup and pork ready for steaming, each pastry delicately measured to weigh between 20.6 and 21.4 grams and, each, one of the most exquisite tasting morsels imaginable.

After a modest beginning as a dumpling shop opened in 1958 by Bingyi Yang, one of millions who fled Communist China in the late 1940s, business mushroomed.

With fastidious attention detail, textures and flavours, Din Tai Fung’s dumplings have become so sought after there are now 82 branches worldwide including three in Sydney and three in the United States. The two Hong Kong branches have each scored a Michelin Star.

Din Tai Fung was, for me, the culmination of a whirlwind tour of Taiwan, “The Other China”, which I discovered was good at springing surprises. This branch was on the first floor of what was the world’s tallest building until pipped by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2010.

In the downtown Xinyi District, the 508m (1,667ft) high Taipei 101 has 101 aboveground floors serviced by the world’s fastest elevator rising at a heart-pumping 60.6 km/h (37.6mph).

The first five floors are a beehive of glitzy shops bearing names like Dior, Burberry, Zegna and Vuitton. From the indoor observatory (89th floor) and the outdoor observatory (91st floor), there are startling 360-degree views of the city, its glass and concrete towers, winding avenues and verdant mountains looming out of the distant haze.

Taiwan’s jungle-clad mountains, its scenic coastlines and misty lakes have, for centuries, attracted artists, ascetics, tourists and not a few mainland refugees.

Facing defeat in China’s bitter civil war, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, including some two million soldiers, retreated to Taiwan in 1949 smuggling more than half a million artefacts and art treasures lifted from the Imperial Palace Museum in Beijing.

Now housed in Taipei’s National Palace Museum, what is possibly the world’s finest collection of Chinese art has become an obligatory stop on any tour. Only a fraction of the collection is on exhibition at any one time on a rotating basis, a fabulous display including ceramics, calligraphy, bronzes, gems, paintings and intricately carved wood, bamboo, ivory and jade, some more than 7,000 years old.

Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975 and a memorial hall was erected in his honour with a museum recounting his life and times, including two wonderful 1950s black armoured Cadillacs.

Every day at 9am a changing of the guard ceremony involving five spotlessly turned out soldiers sporting chrome helmets and white gloves is open to the public.

Delve into the iconic Shihlin Night Markets and the fashionable shops, hotels, restaurants and VieShow Cinemas around the Xinyi District. Indulge in a stimulating foot massage and immerse yourself in the hot springs at Beitou, just outside the city.

There’s plenty more to experience within an hour’s drive from downtown and an inexpensive tourist shuttle bus service means you can easily plan your own itinerary.

Just north is a district known as New Taipei. Near Wanli fishing village on the north coast, Yehliu Geopark resembles an alien landscape filled with dozens of weather-carved rocks, mushroom shapes, candle shapes and pothole erosion formed like honeycomb.

No two are the same and you can wander among them against the beautiful backdrop of the East China Sea. The village has several seafood restaurants and a market specialising in dried seafood snacks.

Around the coast, Dongding Road winds up into misty mountains where gold and copper mines dot the landscape around Jinguashi village. There are goldmine tours and a waterfall tumbling over rocks turned golden by minerals in the water.

During World War II more than 1100 British Commonwealth and Allied soldiers were imprisoned at a notorious Japanese POW camp near Jinguashi called Kinkaseki and used as slaves in the largest copper mine in the then Japanese Empire.

Now a memorial stands in their honour dominated by a poignant statue of two emaciated prisoners standing arm in arm entitled simply “Mates”.

Up the road, Jiufen (Jioufen) is a gem of a mountainside village with spectacular coastal views and steep winding narrow streets lined with shops, teahouses, restaurants and quaint timber houses.

A maze of a market winds around Jiufen Old Street with stalls selling art, souvenirs and local delicacies like wild boar sausage, grilled mushrooms, sea snails and fantastic peanut rolls – peanuts set in a block of toffee shaved onto a thin wrap topped with vegetables and ice cream that were selling like hot cakes. Pure gold.

Little wonder Taipei is known as the City of Smiles.

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Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited)

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