Taipei revisited

Ximending shopping area in Taipei - photo by Rob McFarland

Ximending shopping area in Taipei - photo by Rob McFarland

Taipei 20 years ago wasn’t a very appealing prospect. Dirty, smelly and often choked with traffic, it wasn’t the obvious choice of overseas holiday destination.

Taipei today is a very different proposition. In the space of two decades this adaptable Asian city has cleaned up its act and completely reinvented itself.

Where it was once home to some of the world’s largest manufacturers of cheap consumer goods (think “Made in Taiwan”), Taipei is now a leading technology powerhouse.

Taiwan is now the second biggest producer of semi-conductors in the world, which isn’t a bad effort for an island half the size of Tasmania.

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Da Shan Wu Jia, Taipei

Tuna and salmon sashimi

Tuna and salmon sashimi

Mention to people that you’re heading overseas and you’ll often be bombarded with all manner of advice regarding places you simply must visit while you’re there.

Sometimes these recommendations uncover hidden gems, secret spots you’d never have stumbled across on your own. Other times they turn out to be complete duds. You spend all day hunting them out and it transpires that the place has either closed down, changed hands or never existed in the first place (Mali? Oh, I’m sorry; I thought you said you were going to Bali).

Despite being burned before, I still find it hard to resist the anticipation that accompanies heading to a place that has been scribbled on a scrap of paper and doesn’t appear in any of the guidebooks.

Shortly before a recent trip to Taiwan, I was given a red-hot tip for a restaurant just outside the capital, Taipei. A colleague’s friend had dined there last year and reckoned it was in the same league as Sydney’s Tetsuya’s but one-third of the price. It sounded like an ambitious claim. Last year Tetsuya’s was named as the fifth best restaurant in the world by London’s Restaurant Magazine, and was awarded the top accolade of three chefs hats by The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. It would be fair to say I was curious but sceptical.

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Overnight stay in Fo Guang Shan monastery, Taiwan

Great Buddha Land in Fo Guang Shan, Taiwan - photo by Rob McFarland

Great Buddha Land in Fo Guang Shan, Taiwan - photo by Rob McFarland

It’s a magical, if slightly surreal, moment. We’re standing in the courtyard of the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, surrounded by 480 identical gold statues of Buddha, listening attentively to the softly spoken words of one of the monks, the Venerable Yi Jih. The early evening light is just starting to fade and there’s not a breath of wind.

Suddenly, a mobile phone rings. Some of us tut disapprovingly and look around accusingly for the culprit. To our amazement, the offender is Yi Jih. She apologises while rummaging comically beneath her flowing orange robes to locate her phone. After a short conversation, she declares that the monastery office is closing soon so we’d better be quick if we want to check our emails.

And there was me thinking that technology was the root of all evil.

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