Looking lost while trying to find the night market in Taipei a woman stops to ask if she can be of assistance. Feeling confused as I try to figure out how to properly pay for a trip on the rapid transit, called the Metro, a man helps me count out the coins which will be required.
Sometime later as I am attempting to sort out which connection I need to take to get to the night market, a young girl walks me to the platform level where my train will stop. If there was a United Nations designation for most friendly peoples it would surely be granted to Taiwan.
While this kind of professional courtesy can be expected from hotel and restaurant staff, to have it repeated often by ordinary people, defied any expectation I had of what I discovered to be an extremely fascinating country.
Taiwan is not a country many North Americans choose as a vacation destination. Often it is an add-on to a business trip or conference that lures visitors. It was just such a motivation that took me there, and beyond seeing the building that knocked off the CN Tower as the highest in the world, I really felt no great excitement or enthusiasm for the trip.
Taipei itself is a mega metropolis. While traditional temples and Chinese style architecture can be seen everywhere, they are juxtaposed with high-rise office towers and hotels that serve as the business core for international buyers who travel here to buy clothing and other export products.
It was seen as the centre of the world’s export market until China awakened to the fact that they could usurp that position a few years ago, as they tried to modernize their own society. But the Taiwanese will still argue vehemently that their own attention to quality far outweighs that of the mainland. Recent problems with products coming out of China may add credibility to that belief.
While commercial activity is centred in Taipei, a trip on its high speed rail system can quickly take you to dramatic vistas and quiet lakes calling out for visitors seeking tranquility.
There are almost 300 mountains in this 36,260 square kilometre country that are over 3, 000 metres high. Majestic pagodas often crown their peaks. The highways and rail systems are extremely well maintained, providing convenient access to those who choose to leave the pavement of the cities behind.
Only a couple of hours from Taipei, along the northern coast, you can experience what it might be like to land on the surface of the moon at the Yehliu Geopark. Along a 1,700 metre peninsula, carved by time out of layers of limestone shoreline, have emerged strange mushroom-shaped forms and surface pools that hold living organisms like seaweed and crabs, along with the occasional small fish.
Tourists come from around the world to gaze upon the natural phenomena of the Queen’s Head Rock, which viewed from the right angle clearly resembles an ancient queen bedecked with her head dress.
In the resort area of Sun Moon Lake, you would never know that beyond the green mountains in which the lake is nested, are the factories and the other entrails of commerce that drive Taiwan’s economy. Named Sun Moon because the western portion of the lake appears to be crescent shaped, while the eastern half is round like the sun, there are daily cruises available to take visitors through both the sun and the moon segments.Mountains flow away from the lake in tiers, each peak a different hue that changes as the morning sun gives way to the day, then the evening. A number of hiking trails provide changing scenic views of the lake and mountain backdrops for personal or photographic memories.
On the way to Sun Moon Lake, the Ci En Pagoda, built by the late Chiang Kai-shek to honour the memory of his mother, rises above the Shabalan mountaintop overlooking the lake. The view from the site is spectacular but even more so if you have the stamina to climb all nine stories of this 46 meter high structure.
On the same road only a few kilometers up is the Syuentzang Temple, named after an important Tang Dynasty monk who travelled to India to bring back sacred writings. It is a dramatic two level temple that sits on the land where, it is said, the green dragon plays with a pearl. The temple is viewed as a national treasure and still houses the remains of the monk Syuentzang.
While the scenery and temples of Taiwan provide ample reason to visit the island, at every stop along the way we seemed to run into people who believed in kindness to strangers. At the temples where they worshipped they were patient with the tour groups who, to me, seemed to be impinging on solemn ceremonies. At tourist shops we never felt any overpowering sales pressure. And when we felt out of sorts in our surroundings, someone seemed to always emerge out of nowhere to help us.
In an industrial country and a cosmopolitan city like Taipei, it is an attitude one does not contemplate. I am completely ready to make the journey again to see what I know I have missed in this diverse country.