Explore marble cliffs and meet dolphins in Taiwan

At first glance this island nation appears to have more in common with Japan than with its powerful rival China.

THE TAROKO Gorge in Taiwan (photo credit: Nadav Shemer)
THE TAROKO Gorge in Taiwan
(photo credit: Nadav Shemer)
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.
Flashing 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.
Twenty-four 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 70s.
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.
The 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.
The 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 fish.
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.
It 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 century.
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.