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Experience Asian cultural transition in Taipei

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Taipei, the capital city of the subtropical island of Taiwan, is a modern metropolis with a shiny skyline and a busy, culturally rich atmosphere. Between historical buildings, food markets, and some peculiar and authentic shopping, there's a wide variety of sites to visit for an immersive experience. 

It’s not chaotic but it’s not still. Multifaceted in the realities it proposes, the city is a concoction of Asian values in the perfect blend between Chinese and Southeastern influences. It is vibrant and charismatic but gentle and polite in the same instant. When meeting somebody of possible interest for business, one hands out their business card for courtesy, and the other must receive with both hands bound in appreciation. The underground is large and polished, very nineties, and plays elevator music to fill the void between the floor tiles and the vaulted ceilings. 

A froffy, tepid, humid air and the thick sticky scent of stir fry pad the space between yourself and others. There’s a patina of raindrops on everything, the streets are knitted together in winding gyres and crowned by flora that cracks cement with its roots.

People that are ill wear medical masks to avoid others from getting infected, in a great demonstration of respect and understanding. Some also wear masks due to the filthy amount of pollution concentrated in certain areas. At times it’s like those scary pictures online, where there’s a thick layer of blackness in the sky. Although the air pollution levels in Taipei are basically Beijing’s infant brother, by far, they are still being severely monitored by the government.

In fact, you’re advised to rent a bicycle, for example a You-Bike, one of the capital's public bicycle, part of a ramificational system which should be amongst the most efficient public cycling systems in the world. Taipei is increasingly  encouraging citizens to use low-pollution and low-energy-consumption Bike Sharing as short-distance transit vehicles to reduce their Co2 emissions and differentiate themselves from other Asian nations that have fallen in the vicious cycle of pollution. Other than being great for the environment, cycling around Taipei is genuinely a lot of fun, and a great recreational way to see the city from the streets, being fully immersed in the atmosphere.

It is thoroughly understood that although the city may come across as messy at first glance, it is purposefully structured with meticulous care for the people that inhabit it, and constantly undergoing changes to uphold such care and tradition. Everything you need is always where you need it. There’s a slightly American vibe as there are 7 Elevens more or less everywhere you look, and they’ve got it all.

The architecture spans from traditional to modern, like a much more gritty and raw version of Singapore, like a more authentic take on Jakarta. 

The skyline is dominated by one of the tallest buildings in the world, the Taipei 101. “One of the tallest”, because although it was proclaimed as a peak in 2004, it has been quickly surpassed by other skyscrapers, such as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. It also used to have the fastest elevator in the world, travelling at 60.6km/h, but that got surpassed by the tower of Shanghai.  All 101 stories of the bamboo shaped tower come together in a post-modernist style as a symbol of evolution and technology within Asian tradition. It symbolises high ideals by going one better than 100 and it’s divided in a series of eight segments of eight floors each, an allusion to the concepts of abundance, prosperity and good fortune as interpreted in Chinese-speaking culture. 

As if this weren’t enough, this mastodon is designed the typhoon winds and earthquake tremors that often overcome this area of the island, eg. Gale winds of 60 metres per second, and the strongest earthquakes in a 2,500-year cycle. In a balance between structure and flexibility, several varying structural features rendered this building one of the sturdiest ever constructed. The cherry on the cake is a massive steel pendulum that serves as a tuned mass damper: hanging from the 92nd floor to the 87th, it sways to offset movements and compensate any natural forces, and it’s the largest and heaviest pendulum in the world. It’s such a popular tourist attraction that it’s been turned into a mascot, the Damper Baby. 

In such an architecturally eclectic metropolis it’s also possible to go from busy bustling roads of glamour and excellence to a peaceful oasis of historical buildings. For example, in the spacious plaza of Liberty Square, cornered by four monumental pagoda-like buildings and iconic bonsais, the  National Memorial for Chiang Kai-Shek, the National Concert Hall and the National Theatre represent traditional Asian architecture at its best. 

The square became Taipei’s site of choice for mass gatherings as soon as it opened and therefore acquired public meaning over time, even ushering Taiwan into its modern age of democracy, for example with the mass demonstration and rally of the Wild Lily student movement in the 1990s. 

Although the memorial hall is in honor of  Chiang Kai-shek, the  former  President of the Republic of China, Taiwan's Ministry of Culture is slowly attempting to move away from the Chiang personality cult and transform the hall into a national centre for “facing history, recognising agony, and respecting human rights.” 

Indeed our guide still spoke about their former president in present tense although he’s died. Awe in her eyes as we studied sacred writings and went through the pictures of the presidential family, a sense of respect and humble admiration seeping between her every word. This sense of strict admiration is a tumultuous one for a nation with a history like Taiwan’s; 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of the martial law and the 70th anniversary of the February 28 Incident, when thousands of civilians were murdered in an anti-government uprising violently suppressed by the Kuomintang-led Republic of China.

In this portion of the city the atmosphere is slightly somber, almost serious, even between the flocks of tourists taking pictures of literally anything that comes on their path; their selfie sticks laser swords of the 21st Century as they walk around in the same shoes everybody else is wearing. In this case, in this scenery, there’s a stillness to the air that walks a thin line between political unrest and political firmness. Amidst the battle between the cool and unnerving efficiency of a functioning government versus the messy bravery of a democracy, going up these stairs to see a demonstration for the hourly change of the guards is a constant reflection upon history repeating itself, national identity curating a population, laevigating the edges of a rough past.

The definition of Taiwanese identity has been an ongoing issue for several decades because of the rivalry between the Republic of China (more commonly known as Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (more commonly known as China). Taiwanese people are increasingly fighting for their independence, as a de-facto state, working towards a change in the name from Republic of China to Republic of Taiwan, in order to separate the identity and conceptual link between the two sides of the medallion. 

Taipei, the capital of the divided nation, embodies this transition in national identity, as proven, throughout both its architecture and its cultural ways. 

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Sofia travelled to Taipei with the Taiwan Tourism Bureau on a ten-day trip cycling around the island.

In this series she'll explore lifestyle, culture, religion, food, nature and sporting opportunities that are available in Taiwan.

Visit the Taiwan Tourism Bureau on Facebook for insight on holidays in Taiwan and check out the events coming to the nation in the next few months.

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