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A city constantly on the move, Taipei is a place where ancient tradition and modern pragmatism intertwine seamlessly. Superstition coexists comfortably with science, old-school herbal stalls are as popular as high-end malls, and quaint colonial architecture holds its own alongside futuristic skyscrapers. This fluid fluctuation between progress and tradition is reminiscent of the Chinese philosophy of wu xing, often loosely translated as the "five elements" or "five states of change."
The idea is that the planet's elements−wood, fire, earth, metal, and water−are in perpetual flux, yet the end result of the process is a return to the origin. In other words, wood feeds fire; fire creates ash which becomes part of earth; earth bears metal; metal carries water; and finally, water nourishes trees (wood), so you're right back where you started. In Taipei, you'll see aspects of wu xing everywhere as the race toward the future sometimes carries you back to the past.
Let's start, as the philosophers do, with wood, one of Taipei's most abundant natural assets. The outskirts of Taipei hold lush, mountainous forests, which you can hike through in Yangmingshan National Park. Nearby in BeiTou, you can lodge in luxury on the lovely landscaped grounds of posh suite hotel Villa 32, where the décor is infused with wood elements. For a dose of trees in the midst of the city, though, head to Da'An Forest Park, one of Taipei's largest parks, where the bamboo forest is a woodsy highlight. And if you want to take home a bit of wood as a souvenir, hit the Jianguo Holiday Flower Market, an open-air weekend bazaar selling blooms, seeds, and bonsai trees.
Just as wood is fuel to fire, these woodland diversions are just a warm-up to Taipei's hot dining and nightlife scenes. Even in the sticky summers, one of the most popular dishes is piping hot (though not spicy) soup. Two of our favorite soup stops are Yong Kang Beef Noodles and Jiyuan Sichuan Restaurant (for the clay pot chicken soup, which stews over a flame for 12 hours). The fire is definitely on at Kanpai Classic, where lively groups prepare their Japanese barbecue at in-table grills. Sizzling street eats like pan fried oyster omelettes, fried dumplings, and grilled stinky tofu are the best part of the city's various Night Markets, where people from all walks of life gather after dark to snack and shop. But if you want to turn up the nightlife heat a few notches, try the sultry candlelit terrace at Quube, a rooftop lounge atop Le Méridien Taipei.
After a dose of fire, you may want to come down to earth a bit. Some of the city's most significant sights are grounded in Taipei's fertile soil. The 2-28 Peace Park, which recognizes the tragic events of February 28, 1947 (when thousands of Taiwanese perished at the hands of the Kuomintang government), is a truly peaceful patch of hallowed ground. Monuments to important national leaders also tip their hats to the earth, such as the elegant manicured gardens at CKS ShiLin Residence Park (on the site of General Chiang Kai-Shek's former residence). But if you just want to appreciate soil for soil's sake, the rare flower displays at the Lin Family Mansion & Garden and the lotus pond at the Botanical Gardens are reminders of the beauty that begins in the mud.
As mud begets metal, Taipei's got plenty of the precious ores that supply its booming high-tech industry. At GuangHua Electronics Market, you can score a piece of that metallic bounty with discounted prices on tech hardware and gadgets. The city's finest hotels, from the W Taipei to the Le Méridien Taipei, are impressive feats of metal, too, outfitted as they are with all the latest tech amenities. Taipei's knack for molding metal into magnificence reaches its pinnacle in Taipei 101, one of the world's tallest skyscrapers−its steel pendulum helps it withstand earthquakes and typhoons. For some low-tech fun on the alloy tip, you might want to flash some bling in Ximending, a hip, youthful dining and shopping district, or at Barcode, a posh lounge where the "scannable data" is the beautiful crowd.
But of all the elements, water is perhaps the most omnipresent in Taipei, given that the island of Taiwan is surrounded by the sea and has a tropical (read: rainy) climate and hydrothermal topography. When you need a watery way to cool off, head for refreshing shaved ice at Yong Kang 15, a day by the sea at Tamsui (a colonial fishing village), or a cocktail at Bar at WET (a trendy poolside lounge on the roof of the W Taipei). But if you want to warm up a bit (winters can be damp and cool), make for the hot spring district of BeiTou, where you can immerse in the natural mineral waters at spas like SweetMe Hotspring Resort and The Spa at Villa 32. Yes, that's right, you'll end up where you began: in the woods. It's the completion of a recursive cycle rooted in the same elements that keep Taipei ever evolving back to the future.
Photo of W Taipei courtesy of W TaipeiBEEN HERE? SEND US YOUR PHOTOS