Across the strait from mainland China, Anthony Dennis enjoys soothing infusions and splendid isolation.
China's invasion of Taiwan has begun. If this significant piece of news has escaped you, visit Taipei's National Palace Museum. It's here that thousands of tourists from the mainland inevitably descend every day. In the past year, because of the historic relaxation of a 60-year-old travel ban, the Chinese have been streaming across the Taiwan Strait on new direct flights.
These mainlanders, as the Taiwanese refer to them, come to view one of the finest displays of Chinese antiquities in the world, a magnificent 600,000-piece collection that was secretly shipped across the Taiwan Strait by Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist troops in 1949 as they fled Mao Zedong's conquering communists.
Inside one of the exhibition halls is an objet d'art that serves as a metaphor for modern-day China and Taiwan. Dated from between the 11th and 12th centuries, it's a milk-white porcelain "pillow" on which rests a "rich" boy. Formally named "Pillow in the shape of a recumbent child with white glaze", it is exquisite. I'm transfixed by it - for as long, that is, as the hordes of mainland tourists allow me. The piece is one of a pair: its companion is the "poor" boy and it can be found at the Palace Museum in Beijing.
Today the poor boy - China - is not so impoverished. And the rich boy - Taiwan - remains prosperous (it ranks as one of only three dozen or so of the world's industrialised nations, according to the IMF). But the mainland, which has long looked enviously at the economic success of its island neighbour, is catching up. China aspires to be the middle-class miracle that Taiwan became decades ago.
It's an intriguing time to visit Taiwan. Despite the fact China still has an estimated 1400 missiles trained on its neighbour, Taiwan is closer to the People's Republic politically and economically than at any other time since 1949. In fact, the Taiwanese plan to increase the daily intake of mainland tourists from 2000 to 5000. With 600,000 mainland tourists in the first year since the lifting of the ban in 2008, it's a great time to own a camera shop in Taiwan, or a hotel or bus, for that matter.
This is my second visit to Taiwan and I'm pleased to be back. My first visit was confined to the capital, Taipei, one of Asia's most underrated and sophisticated cities. This time I'm travelling with a small group of Australians and a Taiwanese guide to places such as Taichung, the country's third-biggest city, Sun Moon Lake and, further south, the former capital, Tainan.
Despite the international ostracism suffered by Taiwan as a result of China's ongoing declaration of sovereignty, it remains one of the most congenial, easiest places to be in Asia. In fact, it's also one of the few places in Asia I'd consider driving. (I envisage a round-island tour, driving below towering cliffs and above the golden sands of the east coast. But that's another story.)
No visa is required to travel here, it's safe for tourists and, unlike everywhere else in China, you rarely see anyone expectorating on the streets. China made easy. What's more, the Taiwanese are democratic, industrious and worldly, with a population slightly larger than Australia's residing on an island half the size of Tasmania.
Just 180 kilometres of the Taiwan Strait separates the two countries but for decades they've been worlds apart. Taiwan and China split in 1949 after Mao's rise to power. Chiang and his defeated nationalist forces fled to the island and imposed decades of martial law until Taiwan finally fully embraced democracy in 1996, more than 20 years after Chiang's death. Ever since, the People's Republic has vowed it would invade the island if Taiwan ever formally declared independence, a move that would almost certainly lead to US military intervention.
Inevitably, this constant threat finds expression in art more modern than that displayed at the National Palace Museum. An hour or so outside Taipei is Ju Ming Museum, an impressive private sculpture park displaying the work of Taiwan's most renowned, eponymous sculptor. Although his most famous work is the truly monumental Taichi series of giant slabs of stone in various poses, it's his interest in militarism that is the most arresting aspect of his work. Scattered across the park are disturbing, life-size abstract sculptures of soldiers, a naval ship with an attachment of sailors, even a convincing replica fighter jet in its own hangar.
But it's possible anywhere on this island to find peace in every sense of the word, particularly in the form of the Taiwanese tea ceremony, a virtual national pastime. From Taipei we head to Taichung, where we visit Wuwei Tea House, a rustic, timber replica featuring a Japanese-style garden and a pond with requisite plump carp. Inside, there's the chance to forget the concrete jungle that envelops it.
We sit around a table as a young woman meticulously embarks on the Taiwanese ceremony of serving tea, from the warming of the clay teapot and cups with hot water, the filling of the pot with tea leaves, then the pouring of the water until it overflows. By removing the initial infusion, as my copy of Taiwan A to Z: The Essential Cultural Guide explains, locals believe the cleaned leaves will release the true flavour of the oolong tea during a second infusion.
It's the custom for the drinker to pour the tea into a tiny "aroma" cup, then transfer it quickly into another to be drunk. It might seem like a painfully protracted process but, when you're surrounded by a garden and traditional farmhouse-style architecture, it's as restorative as the brew itself.
But the tranquillity of the tea house is shattered by explosions (not the most welcome sound in Taiwan, with all those missiles across the straits). I head outside to discover a street parade in the last days of the Chinese New Year. Firecrackers are detonating and the crossroads, with a McDonald's and an American-style steakhouse sitting incongruously with the rustic tea house, disappear in a congee-thick cloud of smoke. Children in the hastily formed crowd and on motorbikes plug their ears with their forefingers. So do I. Peace is restored as we head off on a drive from Taichung to Sun Moon Lake, at the foot of the Central Mountains and home to the most famous luxury hotel in Taiwan, the Lalu. It was designed by Australian architect Kerry Hill, who created a striking, minimalist new wing, opened in 2006, while retaining the original part of the hotel that had served for years as Chiang's mountain retreat.
In the same manner as modern Taiwanese treat Sun Moon Lake as a playground, the President and his wife, Madame Chiang, enjoyed boat rides on the lake and watched sunrise and sunset over the surrounding mountains. It was here, too, that the president received international dignitaries, including the US Vice-President, Spiro Agnew; the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi; and the Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan-Yew, in the days when Taiwan was still a member of the United Nations. His contemporary, democratically elected equivalent, President Ma Ying-jeou, has to content himself with visits from obscure leaders of Pacific Island states, among the only countries to recognise Taiwan.
As I'm leaving a lakeside restaurant at Sun Moon, I ask our guide, Francis, a moustachioed retired colonel and military attache in the Taiwanese Army, why the Taiwanese are so friendly. "We have to be," he replies, with a wry grin. "We need friends.
"We've been isolated for so long by the rest of the world. Taiwan is like a piece on a chess board with China and the US as the players. But only a small percentage of Taiwainese feel any hostility towards the mainland."
The seafaring Portuguese named it Formosa, "the beautiful island", for there are parts of this crowded place that are indeed beautiful. It's not until early one morning at Sun Moon Lake that I fully comprehend why Chiang chose this place as a retreat.
We hire bicycles made by the Taiwanese company, Giant, the Boeing of bikes, which claims to be the world's biggest maker of the two-wheelers, and set out along the Moon Lake Bikeway. The picturesque cycling path provides views of a mountain range known as the Four Sisters of Sun Moon Lake, which recedes into the distance and is reminiscent of some of the age-old Chinese wall hangings at the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Atop one of the smaller peaks sits Cien Pagoda, built by Chiang as a lavish tribute to the memory of his mother.
A few days later I head to Tainan, Taiwan's capital from 1683 to 1885. The best way to get around the island is the Taiwan High-Speed Rail, a single, bullet train-like shuttle capable of speeds of 300km/h, which operates between Taipei and the southernmost port city, Kaohsiung, via cities including Tainan. Across the strait, the Chinese are busily building their own bullet train network to rival that of Japan.
The Taiwanese like to refer to Tainan as the "Kyoto of Taiwan". It doesn't quite match the majesty of Kyoto but it's certainly one of the most pleasurable and pleasant places I've visited on the island. It was here, in this civilised low-rise city, that the Dutch built Fort Zeelandia, which they occupied in the 17th century until being overthrown by a Ming dynasty general named Koxinga after a nine-month siege.
Taiwan has one of the best, and again underrated, food cultures in Asia, having embraced cuisines and influences from the mainland and Japan, a country that occupied the island for 50 years and left an indelible cultural impression. On my first visit, I had one of the best budget meals of my life, consisting of imaginative Japanese-influenced Taiwanese dishes. Named Shi Yang Shan Fang, the restaurant was in the mountains above Taipei and there was change from $40 for two.
Tainan's cuisine is typified by the bite-size dishes and portions known as xiao chi. Over lunch at the convivial An-ping Gui Ji Local Cuisine Restaurant, we sit at low tables on even lower stools and tuck into street-style dishes such as noodles with pork, egg and prawn, a raft of seafood dumplings and oyster omelet.
After lunch, I stroll through the city's maze of narrow laneways, passing shrines and century-old tea shops, and meet an elderly couple still making incense, as they've always done, for the Buddhist temples that abound in Tainan.
Along one laneway I pass a row of houses lit by red lanterns, doors open to the street to invite custom. Inside, fortune-tellers are deep in counsel with their clients. But I keep walking - I know that in my future I'll visit Taiwan again.
Anthony Dennis travelled courtesy of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau and China Airlines.
Getting there China Airlines has a fare to Taipei from Sydney (9hr 30min) for about $1400; Melbourne passengers fly Qantas to Sydney to connect and pay about $1930. Fares are low-season return, including tax. Australians do not require a visa to visit Taiwan for up to 30 days; a visa is required to visit the mainland.
Staying there All of the major international hotel brands are represented in Taiwan but there is a new wave of stylish and affordable Taiwanese-designer chains and boutique hotels. Among them, Taichung One Hotel is a contemporary high-rise with stylish rooms from $TW3900 ($145); see taichung.hotelone.com.tw. A little more upmarket is the Hotel Quote, a new boutique establishment in the heart of the capital, with rooms from $TW8000, see www.hotel-quote.com. Fleur de Chine Hotel at Sun Moon Lake is a modern, upscale lakeside resort; rooms from about $TW8500, see en.fleurdechinehotel.com. Also at Sun Moon Lake, the exclusive Lalu has rooms from $TW15800, see thelalu.com.tw.
Timing One of the best times to visit Taiwan is during the annual lantern festival period in late February, which signifies the end of Chinese New Year in spectacular fashion. Each year a different city is chosen to stage the key, nationally televised festival event featuring a display of huge lanterns. Pick up a copy of Taiwan A to Z: the Essential Cultural Guide by Amy C. Lui, available at most English-language bookshops in Taiwan. For further information see taiwantourism.org.