When you're offered an opportunity you should take it. Well, that's what I believe anyway.
Would I have considered taking a trip to Taiwan on my own accord? Truthfully, it had never crossed my mind. But when I was offered a chance to visit the small island (just 36,000sqkm) that sits peacefully between the mega empires of Japan and China, I leapt at the chance.
Okay, that's a slight exaggeration. The truth is, despite this being my very first travel writing gig abroad, I was hesitant. What did I know about Taiwan? Nothing.
After some intense googling, I discovered Taiwan to be a destination with plenty to be desired - from fabulous beaches to towering cities. It's also the birthplace of Life of Pi director Ang Lee, with much of the film set in Taipei's famous zoo.
Just one week was all it took for Taiwan to capture my heart and appease my doubtful mind; and it all began in its tantalising capital city - Taipei.
Taipei: A City of Soul
After an easy overnight flight from Brisbane to Taipei with Taiwan’s national airline EVA Air, I arrived at the Howard Plaza Hotel. As I waited to be checked in I took in my surroundings; some business people with their heads bowed into their Blackberry and a handful of holiday makers with their over-flowing shopping bags and bulky cameras. And I was, well, someone in between.
The busy lobby extended out into a kind of boutique shopping mall with designer shops, cafés, and traditional Taiwanese restaurants, and in the centre of it all was a stage gracefully balancing a grand piano over a pool.
Where was I to begin? A song, a swim, a designer handbag...
'This is a work venture Kate', I had to remind myself, 'so put the microphone and the Martini down and step away from the piano.' With that test of self restraint, I checked in and headed to my room.
The room was attractive with an inviting king bed, elegant furniture, and an ensuite toilet with more buttons than the TV and air-con controller combined. I scanned the city skyline from my window as I quickly freshened up, then grabbed my things (the bare essentials – wallet, camera, note pad, map) and headed straight for the heart of the city - Taipei 101.
The city of Taipei displays much the same personality traits as any other busy city; erratic traffic, constant soundings of car horns, rushing pedestrians, smells of car fumes and unrecognisable food. But there was more to it.
As classic, American-style yellow cabs hustled through the thick traffic I had to take a photo to capture what, in theory, seemed a mess but in actuality was quite beautiful.
Throughout the city the merging of the old and new was all around me, from the elaborate temples to the hyper modern shopping malls; every passing minute told another story. There was the constant reminder of a deeply religious and colourful past, but one that was seemingly unaffected by the lights and heights of the glamorous high-tech stores.
By day Taipei is a constant motion of people with things to be done, but at night the city becomes a very different place. Night markets explode into the streets, music spills out of bars full of university students and tourists from nearby places, shops stay open and restaurants open onto the street displaying everything from the latest craze Bubble Tea, to bowls of steaming noodles and slimy squids.
It wasn’t long before I caught a glimpse of the Taipei 101, shimmering between some much older buildings that had clearly seen plenty of change in their lifetime. Soon I was standing beneath the second tallest building in the world.
I leaned my head back as far as I could to rest my eyes on its final peak at a dizzying 1669ft high. This modern marvel easily doubled the next tallest building in the city. In my thoughts I related it to a loving Queen perched high on her thrown as she towered protectively over her precious land. She also had one hell of a view from up there and I was dying to see it.
I reached the elevator with a handful of others ready for the ride of a lifetime. Eighty-nine floors in a record breaking thirty-seven seconds was what we were all in for, and before you had the chance to ‘yawn out’ your blocked ears, the doors opened onto the observation deck.
The sun was beginning to set as I gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows over a glittering panorama of city lights. One would think vertigo would surely set in from that great height but the sheer beauty was more than enough to detract from those wobbly thoughts. It was truly breathtaking.
Ding Tai Fung: Masked surgeons and the divine dumpling
As I entered the busy Ding Tai Fung restaurant, located on the ground floor of Taipei 101 building, I was greeted by the warm smile of a hostess who took me to my table, front-row-centre to the ‘show of a meal time’.
She politely took my bag and jacket, placed my bag on a tray beside me and then slid a satin slip over my jacket hanging on the back of my chair. I couldn’t help thinking how such a seemingly simple dish, like a dumpling, warranted such decadence? But that was before I noticed the glass room in the centre of the restaurant.
Just like a surgeon’s theatre, there stood the dumpling chefs, all in white aprons, white gloves and white surgical face masks. Each group was stationed at a particular table as their hands moved methodically to create the divine dish that would soon be on my plate.
This step by step routine would begin with a person to roll the dough, having fully mastered the art of rolling the perfect weight, texture and width skin. The next step, the filler, would know the exact amount of delicious filling to go inside this mouth watering dumpling.
Next another chef had the delicate and most accredited job of all, of folding and sealing the dumpling with the exact amount of presses, twists, turns and indentations as the last. (You could count the number of folds for yourself and it would never be wrong. Ever!).
Finally the dumplings are placed in a bamboo basket to be taken to the other side of the room where steam roared up from the fiery depths below, covering them and properly sealing their fate.
Then it seemed it was time for me to play my part as the famous Steamed Pork Shrimp Dumplings are placed in front of me. It is no wonder this restaurant claims the Michelin Star three times, with restaurants in Hong Kong, Australia, Japan, the United States, and Singapore, and was voted one of the Top 10 Restaurants in the World by the New York Times. It was divine.
I did my absolute best to try them all as I sat in awe of the spectacle before me until my favourite part of the night arrived. Dessert.
The Steamed Red Bean Dumpling oozed Criollo chocolate from its centre, made from a chocolate bean used only by the absolute best chocolate makers of the world. I took a bite and only wished that moment could last forever.
Xie Xie, (pronounced Shay Shay) is ‘Thank you’ in Chinese, and as I said goodbye to the men in the white masks and the charming Ding Tai Fung restaurant, I meant it with all sincerity.
This was definitely a dining experience like no other and just another perfect example of how this diverse and exciting city seamlessly combines the old with new, and in the most impressive way.
If you go
EVA Air offers direct flights from Brisbane to Taipei from $1253.64 - www.evaair.com
Where to stay
The Howard Plaza Hotel is just 7 minutes walk from Taipei 101 - http://taipei.howard-hotels.com/
Where to eat
Taipei 101 - http://www.taipei-101.com.tw/
Din Tai Fung Restaurant - http://www.dintaifung.com.tw/tw/default.htm
Taiwan boasts the world class, Japanese-inspired bullet train - Taiwan High Speed Rail: http://www.thsrc.com.tw/en/
Shuttle buses are also a reliable and popular option for travellers and are very cost effective.This writer was a guest of EVA Air and Taiwan Tourism - http://taiwantourism.org/