HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated November 27, 2016 – 12:00am
I have never been to Taiwan. It wasn’t even on my list of dream destinations to visit. But suddenly, there I was last week with a group of travel writers, bloggers, hoteliers. We flew in on the invitation of Air Asia Philippines which launched its newest international flight destination last Nov. 21.
We were quite amazed how close it actually is from Manila. It took less than two hours to get there. Ably piloted by Air Asia Philippines’ CEO Captain Dexter Comendador, the maiden flight landed smoothly and on schedule in Taipei at 1 a.m., full of excited merry passengers gifted with special souvenirs from the airline.
We checked in at Hedo Hotel located at what they call “the old city” part of Taipei. By 9 a.m., we were off on the first day of our tour.
The first stop in our tour was at the massive Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial hall, a must-visit complex of impressive structures reminiscent of old empires gone by. It houses a humongous bronze statue of Taiwan’s founding leader Chiang Kai-Shek guarded by two soldiers. Every few hours there is a changing of the guard ceremony that takes place and is a must-see. Solemn and precisely choreographed, it is quite impressive.
Next stop was the National Palace Museum where we saw impressive, exquisitely made art and masterpieces from centuries back. It was just sad that we could only stay a short while because were on a tight schedule. We had our first delicious lunch, a mixed plate with some Sichuan dishes.
We had to rush to the Air Asia press conference by 2 p.m. where the new Manila-Taipei-Manila route was formally announced to the media in Taipei.
We then proceeded to the Longshan Temple which is quite an experience. Intricately designed with dragons and religious symbols, this temple was filled with worshippers chanting and praying almost non-stop.
The scent of candles, incense, burning joss sticks, food offerings and flowers filled the air. There were personal ceremonies going on at the back of the temple where devotees threw wooden blocks in the air and, depending on how the blocks fell, they would get their answers.
The day closed with another sumptuous Chinese meal. I am not the type of traveler or blogger who takes pictures of food. I just sit down and heartily savor what is on the table. Every meal we had on this trip was what I would call an elevated experience as far as my palate was concerned. Yes, all meals were Chinese food but everything was prepared differently.
The tofu, veggies, mushrooms, pork, seafood, soups, dessert had a touch that I had not experienced in Manila. The meals were scrumptious and heavenly.
The next day we went to the Northeast Coast where we took pictures of the wild sea and its waves splashing on the rocky shores under rain and strong winds. The Nanya rocks are awesome.
The scenery included wild rock formations strewn randomly along a coast as killer waves smashed against them with such fury, it was breathtaking. It reminded me so much of Batanes in its roughness and rugged beauty. We passed by the Golden Waterfall, a series of waterways that, though majestic to look at, are actually heavily polluted with poisonous chemicals and heavy metals. One can only admire — but do not touch or go near the water.
Lunch was at Joufen Village. It was quite a trek of a few hundred steps before we reached our dining place. But the food was well worth the physical challenge. I thought it was the best meal we had on the entire trip.
In the evening, we meandered around the neighborhood near our hotel and tried out some street food. I always fancied myself an adventurous eater, but I admit to failing the test when it came to the notorious Stinky Tofu, and the ampalaya smoothie. I won’t describe it. I will leave that for you to try out when you visit Taipei. Who knows, you may like it. The fun part is summoning the courage to try something new and edgy.
The next day, we visited Taipei’s premier high-rise tower, an ultramodern and luxurious building called Taipei 101, which boasts the fastest elevator in the world — one that travels 89 floors in 39 seconds. At the top, one can see a panoramic view of the entire city.
It was an extremely foggy and rainy day when we got there and so we hardly saw anything. More impressive for me was seeing the engineering wonder that could keep this building “balanced” during earthquakes and powerful typhoons. It is a huge damper in the center of the building occupying a few floors held in place by thick metal cables. During earthquakes, the damper moves slightly around balancing the building, however much nature’s forces try to shake it.
We went shopping at a fancy arts and craft store called Eslit where I bought a sturdy dry bag for travel near the sea and during inclement weather. Taipei is a delightful place to visit. The sights are awesome, the food is wonderful and the shopping is nothing short of fantastic.
Whether you are a high-end or low-end traveler, shopper or eater, Taipei has something for you. And oh, yes: the people are quite friendly and accommodating to visitors.
On my last day, not far from the hotel, I discovered a small home gallery displaying old photos of the early days of Taiwan. They were nostalgic photographs of Taiwanese life before prosperity transformed it into an economic miracle. Despite the communication gap, the owner and curator welcomed his few guests warmly as we appreciated the artworks.
I felt that this was my short fleeting moment of a personal encounter with a local in this place I had visited for the first time. It was a good way to end the trip. I will surely come back.
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Air Asia Philippines flies daily to Taipei from Manila at 11:05 p.m. From Cebu, it leaves at 6:35 a.m. on Wednesdays, and 10:20 a.m. on Fridays and Sundays. Photos by JIM PAREDES