TAIPEI – Taiwan is officially called the Republic of China, but at first glance
this island nation appears to have more in common with Japan than with its
larger and more powerful rival the People’s Republic of China.
lights, modern apartment buildings and wide avenues greet visitors on the
approach from Taoyuan International Airport into Taipei City, illustrating why
Taiwan was once dubbed one of Asia’s four economic tigers.
hour 7-11 convenience stores can be found on almost every corner. The
homelessness, littering, reckless driving and poor “Chinglish” that are
prevalent in even the most prosperous of mainland Chinese cities are
conspicuously absent here.
Taipei 101, the world’s third-tallest
building, dominates the capital’s skyline, rising 509 meters from the ground in
a style reminiscent of the ancient Mayan temples of Tikal, or – if one views it
as its architects intended – of the country’s native bamboo plants, which
symbolize humbleness and modesty.
The Taiwanese were separated from their
ethnic kinsmen on the mainland when the Communists completed their overthrow of
the governing Kuomintang (nationalists) at the end of the Chinese Civil War in
1949, and the Kuomintang – led by General Chiang Kai-shek – fled to Taipei,
which they declared their new capital.
Although Taiwan evolved into a
multi-party democracy in the 1980s, Chiang is still as ubiquitous here as his
bitter enemy Mao is on the mainland. His memorial hall looms above the National
Theater and National Concert Hall on grounds occupying over 240,000 sq.-m. of
prime real estate in the Zhongzheng government district. The changing of the
guards takes place in an elaborate 10-minute ceremony every hour, directly below
a Lincoln Memorial-sized statue of Chiang himself.
The National Palace
Museum, situated a few kilometers north of the city center, houses one of the
world’s most impressive collections of ancient Chinese artworks and artifacts.
The hundreds of thousands of individual pieces were shipped to Taiwan from
Beijing as the Communists were closing in on the city in 1948, saving them from
possible future destruction in the Cultural Revolution of the late 60s and early
Taipei’s metropolitan area is home to seven million people – almost
one-third of the country’s total population – and most of the city can be
reached via the underground metro system. Not only is public transport cleaner,
more accessible and more efficient than in Israel, but it is also cheaper: An
unlimited one-day pass costs NT$ 200 (NIS 25) while a single journey costs as
little as NT$ 20 (NIS 2.5).
Scooters are another popular form of
transport, which is unsurprising given that two of the world’s largest
manufacturers – Sym and Kymco – are Taiwanese, and that there are specially
designated lanes for bikers on the city’s main thoroughfares. Once again, the
Taiwanese pay less for this essential product than their Israeli counterparts.
The price of 95-octane gasoline costs around NT$ 34 (NIS 4.4) per liter in
Taiwan, a far cry from the maximum NIS 7.65 (no-service) fee Israeli motorists
paid in May.
Taroko National Park is the highlight of Taiwan’s mostly
mountainous Pacific east coast, and is located about a two-and-a-half hour train
ride from Taipei. Taroko Gorge, named for its beauty by the local Truku
indigenous tribe, is the centerpiece of the park, with sheer marble cliffs
reaching up to 300 meters high and twisting tunnels and caves that force hikers
inside the mountain and back outside to more breathtaking views.
paths are easy to navigate, although everybody is required to wear hard hats to
protect against rockfalls.
These hats are popular with tourists, many of
who have been caught trying to smuggle them out of the country.
coastal range descends abruptly into the Pacific Ocean, plummeting to a depth of
4,000 meters only a few kilometers from the shore and making it a perfect
habitat for marine life. We did not manage to spot any whales during our boat
tour of the coastal waters, but we were approached by a school of friendly
bottlenose dolphins and were treated to a show by several flying
Finally, an article about Taiwan would not be complete without
mentioning the food. Israeli celebrity chef Israel Aharoni, who studied in
Taiwan in the 1970s, claims that it produces the world’s best seafood.
is difficult to argue with him after one has had their bowl filled with bonito
fish, lobster, stingray and other locally caught fruits of the sea. Sashimi is a
particular favorite in Taiwan, reflecting both its modern-day popularity and the
lasting influence of the Japanese occupation of the first-half of the 20th
Like most countries, Israel adheres to Beijing’s One China
Policy and does not afford Taiwan full diplomatic recognition. However, this has
not stopped the two nations from forging a strong bilateral relationship, which
– fortunately for potential tourists – included the signing of a visa waiver
agreement last year.
The writer participated in the 2012 International
Youth Taiwan Culture Camp, a week-long program for young professionals from
Israel, Russia, Mongolia, Ukraine and Armenia. He attended as a guest of the
Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office Tel Aviv.