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February 2008

Taiwan-The Beautiful Island

23

February

Taiwan is a place which mixes the old traditions with modern verve, a part of China, yet an island apart, and a place which packs over 23 million people into a 13,000 square mile island that features majestic mountain Taipei 101tops, tropical jungles, and Pacific beaches. Taiwan is certainly a place filled with electricity and energy, and is a great place for the more active traveler.

Taiwan, and its exciting and massive capital, Taipei, seem to be a city in a country which never sleeps. Any time of the day or night, there are plenty of activities going on, restaurants open for business, and bars, cafes, and shopping centers bustling with people. In fact, the city has a number of ‘night markets’ that only open during the evenings in alleyways and side streets which offer clothes, snacks, jewelry, and other goods, in a unique, lively atmosphere. In the past, night markets were places where pirated goods were available, but this practice has all but disappeared in favor of more legitimate ones. Visiting the night markets is a great way to get right into the middle of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of traditional Taiwan.

One of the least traditional, but most impressive sights that Taiwan has to offer is the Taipei 101 building, currently the tallest in the world. The behemoth’s full name is the Taipei International Financial Centre 101, and the building is as tall and imposing as its name implies. Standing 508 meters and boasting 101 floors, the building is a gorgeous example of modern architecture, and is built to invoke bamboo and rope. On the lower levels, Taipei 101 boasts an upscale shopping mall and gigantic food court. Visitors who aren’t afraid of heights can make their ways to one of the two observatory floors (located on the 89th and 91st levels) and will be rewarded with spectacular 360 degree views of the city. Although the building has only been open since 2004, it has quickly become a known landmark, featured in movies, commercials, and has been named one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.

Food lovers visiting Taiwan and China will be amazed at the blend of flavor, variety of offerings, and affordability of dishes that are available. For the most affordable meals in town, street vendors offer noodle and rice dishes that are as delicious as they are cheap. For just a dollar or two a day, budget travelers can find cheap, delicious, and nutritious plates and bowls. Of course, more demanding gourmands can find upscale restaurants offering world-class, modern dishes in cutting-edge environments. Vegetarians will have no problems fulfilling their needs, as the large Buddhist population assures that most restaurants offer meatless dishes, or can cater to most tastes and needs.

Although most people know that Taiwan is located in a sub-tropical zone, and may have seen the occasional typhoons that hit the island, certain times of the year and certain locations can get quite cold. In fact, Shei Pa National Parkthe mountains regularly see snow in the winter (December to February) and also are swept by strong winter winds which can send the temperature plummeting in just a couple of hours. During the summers, the whole of the island is hot and humid, and heavy downpours are the norm.

Taiwan is a fascinating place, caught between trying to keep its own identity separate from China, but still being ethnically, economically, and (perhaps) politically tied to the mainland. The people are open and friendly, and levels of crime are about the same as in most big cities. A trip to this country combines the old traditions with the all the fascinating advances that modern life has to offer, and travelers will be rewarded with an experience you will never forget.


Turkey-Country at the Crossroads

03

February

For centuries, Turkey has been the bridge between East and West, between Christianity and Islam, between Europe and the Middle East. Although many things have changed over the years-Turkey was formerly Dogubeyazitknown as the Ottoman Empire until the end of WWI, and Istanbul, was known as Constantinople-Turkish hospitality, and the beauty and mystery of the land have remained unchanged. Although Turkey is moving quickly into modernity by stabilizing the economy, cleaning up its human rights record, and trying to retain a secular government, whether or not the country is allowed to join the European Union remains to be seen.

Although the Turkish economy is stable and fairly strong these days, the country still remains a bargain for tourists and visitors, especially when compared to other destinations in the Mediterranean. Budget travelers can travel, eat, and sleep for about $40-60 a day, while around $100 per day, allows one to sleep in nice hotels, eat well, and travel in style. In the major cities, dollars, euros, and other major currencies can be used, but when traveling in smaller villages off the beaten path, keeping a ready supply of Turkish Liras is advised.

Turkey has a modern transportation system in place, and visitors can easily and cheaply get in, out, and around the country via airlines, ferries, trains, buses, and cars. The trains are typically slower than the buses, but many do have sleeper cars for long-distance travelers, and can be a good value. The Bosfor Ekspresi train connects between Budapest, Bucharest, Belgrade, and Sofia.

Istanbul has to be considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with domes, minarets, and modern building all standing side by side in a city that as been home to philosophers, crusaders, mystics, artists, and holy men for centuries. Surely, no trip would be complete without a visit to the Aya Sofya, or its western name, Haghia Sofia. Built 15 centuries ago, the structure was first built as a Christian church, but became a mosque for several centuries before finally ending up as a museum. Another gorgeous religious structure that shouldn’t be missed is the Blue Mosque, or the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet. A perfect example of the perfection and harmony that Islamic architecture strives for, the mosque contains the largest courtyard of any Ottoman mosque, and six minarets.

Although Turkey’s cities are enormous, loud, and chaotic, plenty of opportunities to relax and enjoy the Turkish sun exist in the resorts, smaller towns, and islands that make up the rest of the country. Bodrum is one Istanbulof Turkey’s most gorgeous resorts, replete with picturesque white houses and villas, and a bay that is usually dotted with sailboats, swimmers, and others enjoying the Aegean waters. Although Bodrum is a place to come for relaxation and rejuvenation, partygoers can dance the night away in the town’s famous discos, which pump out the beats until the early morning hours.

Turkey is both modern and old fashioned. At once European, Asian, and Middle Eastern, it was one of the first multicultural societies on the planet, and a melting pot of different ideas, cultures, customs, and arts, but also a place still defining itself. Visitors will be awed by the architecture, inspired by the art, and romanced by the energy and verve that the cities and people have to offer.