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An enigmatic, artistic nation worth exploring...

CLIFFHANGING teahouses, exquisite works of art and restaurants filled with toilet seats: Kate Hodal explores Taiwan, the small Southeast Asian nation that boldly claims to be the best place on earth On a whirlwind tour of a nation best known for its cheap electronics, regular typhoons and historical animosity towards China, we are here to uncover the "other side" of Taiwan - the food, history, fun and traditions.

Nearly 60 years after it was founded by intellectuals, soldiers, monks and artists fleeing Communist China, Taiwan is still a total enigma to most Western tourists.

Roughly half the size of Scotland, this nation of 23 million has established itself as one of Asia's success stories - an island with a fervent democracy, healthy sense of humour and vibrant economy, whose people are rich in both wallet and intellect.

With self-administered hyperbole at practically every turn, Taiwan is also home to one of the healthiest self-images that exists in the world.

Boasting restaurants named "Really Good Seafood" and shops called "Your Favourite Place", Terrific Taiwan, as it is referred to by its ministry of tourism, has invested heavily in international advertising to increase tourism to this so-called "Heart of Asia".

It may be a bit off the normal path but for anyone up for an adventure, Taiwan is definitely worth a visit.

We've arrived in Taipei, a somewhat industrial capital reminiscent at times of Gotham City, during Taiwan's lantern festival - a 15-day affair coinciding with Chinese New Year.

The festival's opening ceremony is a huge affair attracting thousands of people from all over Taiwan.

What's most beautiful about the festival is its tradition: lanterns still have considerable significance in Taiwanese culture, as ritual requires children to light lanterns throughout Chinese New Year to indicate that they have attained wisdom.

The next day we jet off in a futuristic high-speed train to explore the southern beaches and coral outcrops of Taiwan. Our train propels itself at speeds of 220kph through Taiwan's flat, fertile lowlands.

We whizz past warehouses and factories, interspersed with a few palm trees and rice paddies. It isn't the most gorgeous of views, but I find myself wholly intrigued by Taiwan's efforts at patriotic beautification: the factory smokestacks have all been painted with sunflowers, parachutists or rainbows, lending the countryside an unexpected and artistic surrealism.

We pause briefly in the port of Donggang - where traders at the fish market are hawking sea-creature eyeballs, small sharks and fish so fresh it is still breathing - to board a ferry for the tiny island of Liuqiu, in the turquoise South China Sea.

The island is best navigated by bicycle or scooter and is worth exploring for a day or two, its rocky caves perfect for a dip.

Taiwan is famous for housing some of the most significant Chinese art in Asia - from ancient bronze and jade to modern-day calligraphy and ceramics - so I am delighted to spend an afternoon in the village of Jiufen, set high in the mountains east of Taipei, once we return to the capital.

On our last night in Taiwan, we decide to do the wackiest thing possible - dine at Taipei's weirdest-themed establishment: Modern Toilet. At this novelty restaurant in Taipei's fashionable Ximending neighbourhood, customers eat curries and hotpots out of mini-toilet bowls - while sitting on life-size toilets.

One meal never to be forgotten.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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