Taiwan, a mix of bustle and blissful

A visit to the world's fourth tallest building, designed to resemble a giant bamboo stalk, is one of the highlights of any visit to Taiwan.

Aussie tourist Andrew spotted a souvenir sunhat bearing the three-coin logo for the Taipei 101 super skyscraper while volunteering at an Adelaide opp shop.

He was immediately bitten by the Taiwan travel bug, and when Peregrine Adventures this year began offering a nine-day Treasures of Taiwan tour he didn't waste any time.

Andrew was on a tour and soaring up to Taipei 101's observation deck in no time.

Not a great deal of tour operators include Taiwan among their destinations, although it gets a steady stream of tourists from the Chinese mainland.

So the powerhouse island manages to retain the essence of something new, exciting and unique for the western visitor.

Peregrine's tour starts in the vibrant, bustling capital Taipei, but quickly leaves the cityside for the countryside with a three-hour drive south to the beautiful and beautifully named Sun Moon Lake, an Asian picture postcard of a place if ever there was one.

There's tea tasting, paper making, cycling and hiking around the lake and the magnificent Taiwanese cuisine to be had.

Taiwan's food and drink is an amalgam of all the Chinese and Japanese influences that have formed it: dumplings, vegetable stir fries, slow cooked gelatinous pork, crispy kiln roasted chicken, a myriad of seafood, including sweet fish and sashimi, congees, tofu in all its many forms, same with rice, juices, light pale ale, magnificent tea - and pretty good coffee.

On day three, we drove to the nearby city of Puli and the Paper Dome, a "church" donated by the Japanese and comprising compressed paper uprights and a translucent paper dome roof.

Then it was on to the breathtaking Chung Tai Chan Monastery - talk about opposites.

The buddhist monastery is huge and opulent.

Giant golden laughing buddhas and huge glittering white meditating buddhas abound.

The monastery wasn't on our itinerary, but it was enthusiastically recommended by our wonderful 65-year-old tour leader Fred Chang.

(Fred's real name is Chang Yu-Fung, but he was told at a young age, he'd get on better with westerners if he exchanged the Yu-Fung for Fred.)

That night at dinner, the restaurant owner tells Fred a major TV show is being shot in town.

He becomes very excited at the notion that we find it, somehow get in front of a camera and on Taiwan TV.

We find the shoot, but so do about 3000 others.

Taiwan's craggy mountainous heart ensures only the coastal flatlands can be given over to industrialisation and the pollution that comes with it.

The next day, we cross the Central Mountain Range, with a staggering 268 peaks higher than 3000 metres, then descend to the magnificent marble Taroko Gorge and on to the city of Hualien on Taiwan's east coast.

We are awoken by F16 fighter jets from their nearby underground base going through daily training exercises.

Then it's north along the spectacular coastal route to Yilan, a couple of hours from Taipei.

Along the way, we taste at the Ka Va Lan whisky distillery, at the home of Mr Brown's Coffee, and at the Agrioz Preserved Fruits store and factory.

The next day's highlight was a visit to the Mary Leu Fine Art Carving Gallery. The woman is a genius.

Her work in boxwood, copper, gold and glass is exquisite. This was another one not on the itinerary, but recommended by Fred.

After returning to Taipei for the night, we headed out to Yehliu Geopark, a string of coastal rock formations, teeming with tourists.

The throng of picture-snappers around one formation called The Queen's Head was like red carpet at the Oscars.

Mainland Chinese make up more than half of the tourists to Taiwan, followed by Japanese, South Korean, Singaporean Chinese, Indon and Malay Chinese, with westerners forming a small percentage.

On the final day of our tour, we visit Taipei 101.

We are all excited, not just Andrew. The view from the 89th floor observation level is a breathtaking mixture of water and lush forests, concrete and shining glass, and a hotchpotch of apartment blocks leaning towards dilapidation.

The Yang Ming Shan Mountains provide a green backdrop and the Keelung and Tamsui rivers and raised concrete freeways thread through the buildings.

In total, the vast expanse is home to eight million people - 2.6 million in Taipei, 3.4 million in New Taipei and another two million just south of the city.

Everywhere inside is the three-coin symbol that was on Andrew's hat.

"It's great," he says.


*At 508 metres, Taipei 101 (named for it's 101 floors) was the world's tallest building for several years after its completion in 2004, but is now the fourth tallest, with the tallest the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

*The lift to Taipei 101's observation deck in the world's fastest, with a top speed of 1010 metres per minute.

*Taipei 101 is protected from earthquakes and typhoons by a damper, a huge steel ball 5.5 metres in diameter and weighing in at 660 tonnes. It is suspended deep inside the building.

*Taipei 101 has an indoor observatory on level 89 and an outdoor one on level 91

*An adult ticket for Taipei 101 costs $500 Taiwan, about $AUD20.


*Flights are readily available from several airlines, through Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.

* Australians are not required to obtain a visa.

* The food across Taiwan is magnificent, but there's none more wonderful than at Taipei's New Hama Restaurant, serving up a fusion of Japanese teppanyaki and French for more than four decades.

*At first glance, things can seem expensive in Taiwan, but they're not - one Australian dollar equals about $25 Taiwan or, another way, $100 Taiwan is worth about $AUD4.20

*Be patient. By far, the greatest influx of tourists is from the China mainland and they turn up in droves at many attractions, regularly blocking pathways for photo opportunities.

*Learn a couple of Mandarin words. Ni hao (hello - pronounced "knee how") and xie xie (thank you - pronounced "share share") are always much appreciated.

* The writer was a guest of Peregrine Adventures. Its nine-day Treasures of Taiwan tour starts from $2,745 per person (twin share)

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