Nestled between towering mountains in the Tensui River Valley in Northern Taiwan, roughly 100 miles off the Chinese mainland, Taipei is the island’s capital, cultural and governmental centre. Taipei offers the traveller an invigorating blend of cutting edge industry, a thriving art and cultural scene and all the amenities a tourist could want, all built upon a foundation of ancient architecture and culture. Visitors to this vibrant city of nearly 3 million, 6 million if you count the outlying districts, would be hard pressed not to find something that would appeal to even the most seasoned tourist. Weather in Taipei is sub tropical to tropical, with temperatures ranging from 50s and 60s in winter to 70s and 80s in the summer. All that is generally required for a visit in winter are a jacket or perhaps a sweater. An umbrella is a good idea as the rain can have a distinctly tropical feel – lots of it, but very warm!. The climate is generally temperate thus allowing tourists to visit any time, however, typhoon season occurs from June to December so visitors should be aware of the risks.
Cruise ships dock at the port of Keelung, about 18 miles Southwest of the city of Taipei. The port itself offers a plethora of activities and things to see within ten minutes walking distance of the pier and all of the sights are accessible on foot. There is a board with pictures of the main sights as you exit the port parking lot. There is also an exchange tent to change your money and then to change back any unused Taiwan dollars upon return to the ship. This service is offered free and the exchange rate is good. NTD or the Taiwan dollar is currently exchanging for around 32 NTD to 1 USD.
The huge offerings of Taipei are accessible via train, taxi or bus. The information tent as you exit the port will show you the times, routes and provide maps. There is a coloured board pasted up with most of the popular sites to visit.
The train takes about an hour to Taipei and is air conditioned. It transports visitors to the Taiwan Central Railway Station where, from there, folks can take the MRT, or metro trains or a taxi to various points of interest.
Taxis will be lined up outside the ship as well and can be hired for short stints or for an entire day to various sites while waiting for tourists in between. It is important to know that many of the drivers speak limited to no English, so travellers should be armed with a trusty map with Chinese and English characters to which they can point to communicate with their driver. There should be an English speaking person available to assist passengers with the taxis, however. Although 90 percent of the cab drivers are honest, make sure you insist the driver turns on his meter and negotiate a price before getting in as some will not run their meters and then charge an exorbitant price.
Taipei is a shopper’s paradise with numerous offerings from electronics, ceramics, jade, crafts, teak and rosewood furniture, to bamboo, coral and cloisonné jewellery. Its many malls and markets offer an endless array of prizes for visitors. Although credit cards may be accepted at some establishments, many will take only local currency. ATMs abound. Internet cafes are also plentiful.
Banks are usually open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays. Shops typically open at 10 or 11 a.m. and many remain open until 10:30 p.m., and many will stay open as long as there is business. Many shops will close for lunch for about an hour. You will find all versions of Chinese cuisine represented in this port including Szechuan, Hunan, Guangzhou, Peking and Shanghai. Teahouses are abundant. The markets offer such exotic delicacies as the seafood of the day and duck eggs. There is enough variety to please everyone.
A few emergency numbers to know are 110 for police, 119 for fire 100 for international phone assistance. The Taiwan Visitor’s Association can be reached at (02) 594-3261 and the Tourism Hot Line is (02) 717-3737.
Tipping is not nearly as common in Taiwan as it is in other parts of the world. Many Taiwanese do not tip at all. Some higher priced restaurants and hotels, however, may include a 10 percent gratuity in the price of the bill. Otherwise, tipping is not expected, although it would probably not be refused for extraordinary service!
Although Mandarin Chinese, the primary language spoken in Taiwan has many dialects depending upon the area, there are a few phrases that will be helpful to the traveler that should be easily understood:
Ni Hao Ma? = How are you? Hello.
Dway Bu Chee = pardon
She So Jian = bathroom
Xie, Xie = thank you
Dzau = good morning
Dzai jyan = goodbye
Bu shr = no
Shr de = yes
Dwo shau chyan? = How much?
There are several other things travellers may want to know when they visit this port. The number 4 conjures up images of death and is considered unlucky. Never stick chopsticks straight up and down in a bowl as this resembles prayer incense, also associated with death. Pointing chopsticks is also bad etiquette as the gesture connotes a threatening posture, as with a dagger.
As far as clothing, Taipei is very modern, so just about anything goes. You will see people dressed up, down and in between.
Taiwan is not officially recognised as an independent sovereign nation although it appears to operate as a separate nation.
Taiwan was first populated by the Pingpu tribe and other Austronesian peoples and has been populated for around 15,000 years. Other aboriginal tribes, migrants from the Chinese mainland started migrating as early as 500 BC. Then the Dutch claimed the island in the 1600s for trade with Japan and China. In 1664, Koxinga came from the mainland and ousted the Dutch. Chinese mainlanders overtook the indigenous peoples in the 17 and 1800s. The Japanese took the island in 1895. The Japanese dominated for 50 years, greatly enhancing the economy. Taiwan finally reverted back to China in 1945 after World War II. After this period, there was a civil war between the Communists and Chiang Kai-Shek and the Mao resistance. The Taiwanese greatly resented the Communists led by Chairman Mao. Chiang Kai-Shek fought them valiantly then retreated to Taiwan. Chiang Kai- Shek and his ‘new’ government established a land redistribution plan that allowed entrepreneurship to thrive. The economy of Taipei and the island has increased ever since.
The city and its surrounding districts is currently home to a mix of Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Philippine and Indonesian ethnicities. The literacy rate in Taiwan is close to 99 percent with most students graduating from high school and many continuing on to college or vocational schools.
The island was originally populated for its rich, varied terrain, its fishing waters and its strategic location. Its largest crop is rice, and the island also produces fruit, vegetables, shrimp and eel, pork and sugarcane. The country is two thirds mountainous and its natural resources include coal, limestone, natural gas and marble.
Taiwan’s industry consists of metals, chemicals and petrol-chemicals, electronics and computers and their components and plastics.
Taiwan’s government is considered a multi-party democracy with a president and a vice president elected by popular vote every 4 years. It also has a national assembly elected by proportional representation, also elected every 4 years. It consists of mainly two parties, the KMT or Kuomintang and the DPP or Democratic Progressive party. There are also smaller parties as well, although not as well recognized.
Taiwan maintains good international relations and trading partnerships with many countries, the U.S. included. Although the U.S. doesn’t recognize Taiwan’s independence from China, it does sell arms to the country.
Although uneasy at times, there is a mutual respect between China and Taiwan, mainly in the name of economics. They sort of ‘agree to disagree’ and try to leave each other alone. From 1949 until 1991, Taiwan claimed to be the government of mainland China as well, but in 1991, renounced its supposed control of China proper. The Second National Assembly, elected in 1991 paved the way for elections in 1994 of the president and vice president.
The primary religion is Buddhism, followed by Taoism, Catholicism, Protestant and a few other lesser known denominations. Localized folk religions are practiced and many combine different religions to suit their needs.
The cultural offerings for visitors to Taipei are amazing from art, to food and festivals. Time strapped cruisers who wish to sample what Taipei has to offer should head to the National Concert Hall where Chinese and international symphony orchestras, choirs, chamber music, recitals and lectures as well as a representation of Taiwanese music through photos and exhibits may be found. The National Theatre hosts various opera performances and dance troupes. Taipei is also home to a number of museums and art galleries to suit any art connoisseur. Tourists can even purchase art reproductions at the National Palace Museum for a reasonable price.
The National Palace Museum houses over 650,000 of China’s artefacts, including jade, bronze and ivory carvings from the various dynasties and periods representing thousands of years of Chinese history. This is widely said to be one of the top 5 museums in the world, and the queues reflect this! So any visit here must be meticulously planned. The best way for the time-limited is to enlist the free services of an English speaking tour guide for a 90 minute tour. There are also 2 90 minute free tours offered by the museum – whether they fall into your schedule can be an issue.
Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is a tribute to the former president of China who fought against the Communists and was eventually defeated and fled to Taiwan where he founded the KMT party. It features a bronze statue of the leader along with some of his personal belongings as well as photos. Admission is free.
The Martyr’s Shrine is dedicated to the military history of the Republic of China’s Civil War and the war with Japan and those who fell in service to China. One of its main features is the hourly changing of the guard.
The Lungshan Temple devoted to the Goddess of Mercy and the Pao-An Temple devoted to the God of Medicine sport intricate carvings, lavish statues of dragons and lions and are quite spectacular to visit. The Confucius Temple honours the famous teacher and philosopher. Confucius valued simplicity and thus this temple is not ornate like the others, with no images or fancy decorations. It is a serene place to visit.
At 101 storeys and almost 1700 feet high, the 101 Building was, until recently, the word’s tallest building. Visitors can observe the city from observation decks and enjoy the view from Taiwan’s highest restaurant.
The port of Keelung itself offers a plethora of things to do within ten minutes’ walking distance of the pier and most of the sights are accessible on foot.
The Yingge Ceramic museum will delight pottery and ceramics fans. The town’s Miaokou Food Market presents tourists with local delicacies, particularly seafood. Tzushr Temple is one of the major temples in the area and should not be missed. Sansia Old Street displays The Republic of China’s old architecture. Browsing the local shops is also always an option. Coffee addicts can always hang out at the Starbucks and admire the harbour or head out to Peace Island at the end of the causeway near the entrance to harbour and enjoy the public park overlooking some unusual rock formations created by the sea. One can climb upon these rocks which resemble some sort of moonscape. Also near the harbour, is the KuanYin Statue of the Goddess of Mercy built on top of the mountain which can be viewed from Jhongjheng Park. The huge statue is famous as it greets the ships coming into the harbour.
Chiufen Village is an old gold mining town built into a mountain and is a favourite with tourists. Its streets are lined with shops and tea houses that wind throughout the hillside. Yehliu is an eco park about 30 miles away and accessible by bus. Visitors can walk the footpaths, traverse small pedestrian bridges, explore caves and photograph various rock formations.
The port of Keelung and the city of Taipei and the surrounding areas offer the tourist a dizzying array of things to do and see. The only real danger in this locale for cruise travellers is having too much to do! Whatever visitors choose for their time here, there is certainly something for everyone and nobody should leave disappointed.
Author: Aurora Anne Taylor