"My favourite fact about Taiwan's capital, Taipei, is this: within two years no resident nor office worker will be further than 50 metres from an entrance to an underground station. It puts the estimate that Londoners are never more than 20 yards from a rat to shame.
"Taiwan has been off the map, almost literally, for decades from the British traveller's perspective. It used to style itself the "Republic of China", much to the irritation of the much larger People's Republic of China, 100 miles away on the mainland – which has long regarded this surprising and dramatic island as a thorn in its ideological side.
"China exacted all kinds of diplomatic revenge: when BA flew briefly to Taipei, for example, the airline had to create a subsidiary, "British Asia Airways", to serve the route for fear of losing its valuable rights to fly to Beijing.
"But rapprochement across the Taiwan Strait means that the first non-stop flights from London start next weekend, helping to open up an island that has much to offer besides excellent public transport. Early in the year of the tiger, Taiwan is burning bright.
"In 1971, I led a pioneering tour to the People's Republic of China; at the height of the "Cultural Revolution", we were treated to an abundance of propaganda. This month, I redressed the ideological balance with a visit to Taiwan – and, for the necessary history lesson, headed straight to Taipei's memorial to Chiang Kai-Shek.
"You can't miss it: modelled on the temples in the Forbidden City in Beijing, it continues a Chinese tradition of honouring former rulers with folie de grandeur rather than grandeur on its own and is therefore plumb in the centre of the city. Carefully tendered lawns and flower beds on all sides, and then the marble of the building itself, topped with blue-glazed tiles, make clear that this is a shrine and nothing else. Eighty-seven steps – one for each year of Chiang's life – take pilgrims from ground level to the exhibition hall..."
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