05 June 2008

Travel: Taipei 101

I left the hotel mid-afternoon, ready to jump on the MRT and explore Taipei. My first destination was to be the iconic Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world. It certainly stands out at more than a 1,000 feet tall. But what is striking is that it is the only really tall building around. Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok - they all have clusters of skyscrapers that make up their skylines. Taipei 101 stands alone, towering over its neighbors.

Architecturally, the building is a marvel. Its design brings to mind a bamboo stalk, symbolic of the strength of the native plant. It is eight sections of eight floors each, sitting on a truncated pyramid. A high speed elevator takes you from the fifth to the 89th floor in 37 seconds, or 1000 metres/minute (the ride down takes all of 45 seconds, or 600 metres/minute). Once there, you get a panoramic view of the city, as well as access to the outdoor observation area on the 91st floor and the damper on the 88th.

The outdoor area is ringed by vertical metal bars to keep visitors out of danger. With the strong wind at that height, they act as musical instruments, and a constant whistle could be heard as you walked around the roof.

The tuned mass damper will be of interest to the engineers out there. This 5-metre tall sphere is suspended by cables stretching from the 92nd to the 87th floors. Weighing 728 tons, it sways to offset movements in the building caused by strong winds. The observation level for the damper is well done itself - it is eerily quiet in the damper chamber, but the hallways leading into it feature cool illuminated floors that show aerial photos of the city and star scenes.

The tower itself, while an amazing architectural achievement, has actually been blamed by some to cause small earthquakes, because of its massive size and weight. I don't know about the validity of such claims, but it was a good spot to start my visit.

03 June 2008

Travel: Taipei

May 19 marked Vesak Day in Singapore (and across Asia). This holiday celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and passing of the Gautama Buddha, the spiritual teacher from India and founder of Buddhism. Devout followers spend the day in temples, providing simple offerings and making affirmations to observe the 8 Precepts.

This, a public holiday in Singapore, fell on a Monday, and I took the opportunity to travel to Taiwan. Or, the Republic of China, the refuge of General Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang Party, which was defeated by the communists in the Chinese Civil War. Taiwan has a much older history, and its aboriginal peoples have inhabited the island for thousands of years. The KMT fled there in 1949, upon their defeat, and helped transform the island.

I took an early Saturday flight, out of Changi Airport's beautiful new Terminal 3, for a few days in Taipei, the capital located in the northern part of this island just across the Taiwan Strait from China.

Modern Taiwan has an interesting history. It has evolved from its origins under an iron-fisted, single political party, when the country was widely recognized globally (in a diplomatic sense), to its status today as a multi-party democracy that is a diplomatic outcast. China (the People's Republic) refuses to recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan, and most of the rest of the world follows. Still, Taiwan is a thriving, modern economy. And its newly elected president, Ma Ying-jeou, has signaled his interest in bridging the differences between the two countries, helping thaw relations since his March election.

We landed on a sunny day, and I was greeted with the sight of the Republic of China flag flapping in the breeze. I think this is one of the more attractive flags, with a red background and white sun in a blue union in the northwest corner. It was adopted as the flag of the Republic of China in 1928, when nationalist forces toppled the warlord government that had held power since the fall of the Qing (or Manchu) Dynasty in 1912. For many, it serves as a historical link to mainland China. For me, it was notice that I was in for a new and different experience.

In most of my travels, I have been able to communicate with locals using English, and many signs are in English (whether in Thailand, Hong Kong, or Vietnam). Taipei would be different. There had been only a small Western colonial presence, and while one could see English on street signs and at the airport, it was not spoken or even understood by a large part of the population. I was in Taiwan, and the people in Taiwan speak Taiwanese. It would make for some interesting moments.

The airport is more than 40 kilometres southwest of the the city centre, so I was able to see some of the sights from my hired car on the way to the hotel. Taipei sits in a valley ringed by leafy hills, which adds a touch of serenity to the city. For some reason, I was reminded of a US city, perhaps in part because the Taiwanese drive on the right side of the road. Most of the signage was in Taiwanese, but this city seemed different than others in Asia. I couldn't put my finger on it (and I still don't think I can), but I felt very comfortable right away.

Les Suites Taipei - my hotel - is a small boutique hotel, fortunately within 100 metres of an MRT station (pictured above). I have lucked out with this in Hong Kong, as well, and I can't stress how much that improves the visit. The MRT is very efficient, and I was able to avoid taking taxis for nearly my entire stay there, keeping to the rails. After dropping off my luggage, I was ready to start exploring. First stop: Taipei 101.