Taipei has a reputation for being an ugly city and for the most part it is. Buildings were seemly constructed with only practicality in mind and without any creative inspiration. Even in heart of the city center where rent is astronomical buildings are covered grey bathroom tiles. The tiles might have once been shiny and white, but after years of choking on Taipei scooter exhaust they have lost their luster. The only relief from this dystopian setting is a single strand of green bamboo towering above all the rest of the city.
Construction of Taipei 101 was completed in 2003 at which time it was the world’s tallest building. Standing 509 meters (1,670 ft) high the tower is clearly visible throughout the city making in a convenient landmark when you are trying to learn your bearings. But the best way to gauge how much taller Taipei 101 is to make the trip up, with all the hordes of tour groups from across the Straight, up to the viewing platform on the 89th floor.
Although dethroned of its title as the world’s tallest building in 2008 Taipei 101 still has the fastest elevator which catapults its passengers from the 4th floor to 89th in an ear-popping 37 seconds. Upon disembarking the elevator helpful staff will direct you to a stall where you can pick up a free headset offering an audio tour of the city below. One of the more notable stops is a building designed which traditional Chinese architecture and a bright yellow roof – the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall.
Dr. Sun is a unique figure in twenty century Chinese history. Known as the Father of Modern China, he is one of the few figures revered by both sides of Straight of Taiwan. Sitting in the southern entrance of the Memorial Hall is a larger than life bronze statue of Dr. Sun flanked by a two-person honor guard. The museum inside building is worth a stroll but unfortunately all the information is in Chinese making it impossible for non-Chinese readers to understand the significance of the material. If nothing else walking through will help you pass the time while you wait for the hourly changing of the guard which should not be missed.
Further down the road at the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall you can witness more boot stomping and gun spinning on the hour every hour. Chiang, unlike his beloved mentor Dr. Sun, is a far more controversial figure both on the Mainland and Taiwan alike. Portrayed as an American ally and advocate for a US style democracy in Asia during WWII, Chiang and the Kuomintang (KMT) fled to the island in 1949 after their defeat by the Communists. From 1950 until 1987, 12 years after the Generalissimo’s death, Taiwan was held under the Chiang initiated martial law a period collectively referred to as the White Terror. The government’s ruthless and lethal suppression of all forms of political opposition during this period has led some Taiwanese to scrutinize whether Chiang should be celebrated or condemned.
If you end up traveling to Taipei you have to visit the National Palace Museum. Built into the side of a mountain for protection against possible air raids, this collection of traditional Chinese art is considered one of the best and largest in the world. By some accounts it is estimated that if the museum changed one piece every day it would take 6o years to cycle through the collection. Unfortunately museum policy prohibits photography inside the building leaving me without any photos of the amazing collection of Chinese art inside. If you plan on visiting dedicate at least half a day but the longer the better. After all it’s going to take a lot of walking to burn off all the food you are bound to eat while in Taiwan.