Ian McConnell

THE tops of a couple of tall buildings at Xinbeitou, on the outskirts of the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, appear to be moving up and down. They oscillate with increasing frequency above and below what should be fixed horizontal lines. Thankfully, it is only an illusion, caused by the impact on the body of a move from a water temperature of more than 40 degrees at the geothermal Millennium Hot Spring to one of the cooling-down pools at this impressive open-air bathing facility.

The effect is strange but at the same time invigorating. The laughter among our party of three Westerners intensifies as we notice that two of us, the Europeans of course, have turned lobster-red with the temperature changes.

Thankfully, we had worked our way up gradually to the hottest of the pools in four stages, with cooling-down periods in between, as advised by an elderly but sprightly local man with a red swim cap. This gentleman had spent some time living in France and was keen to know our nationalities.

Without his wise counsel, it would probably have been tempting to wade enthusiastically into one of the hottest two pools, with temperatures of between about 41 and 44 degrees centigrade, and about 43 to 45 degrees. When we eventually walk into the hottest pool, there are a few uneasy moments until it becomes clear that the water, whatever it might feel like, is not going to cause blisters.

That would not be the case further up the road at the Beitou Thermal Valley, where the water has a temperature of about 90 degrees and sulphurous steam fills the air. It is a beautiful setting, with trees cascading down the edges of this stunning water feature. Members of a local Scout troop insist enthusiastically on having a photograph taken with our three-strong party, comprising visitors from Scotland, the Czech Republic and the US, and are delighted when we comply.

The friendly advice of the man at the Millennium Hot Spring and enthusiastic request for a photograph are typical of the welcome in many places in Taiwan, or the Republic of China to use its official name.

Taiwan probably does not feature on most Westerners' travel bucket list but it is well worth considering, given the rich variety of things to do on this island of 23 million people, located across the strait from the People's Republic of China.

Chief among many visitors' reasons for visiting Taiwan, including the huge numbers of people who come from mainland China, is the National Palace Museum on the outskirts of Taipei.

This features a stunning collection of treasures, most of them originally from the Forbidden City in Beijing. They were transferred in three military vessels to Taiwan in 1949, and have remained there since. It is not surprising to hear that the museum receives about 18,000 visitors per day.

The first exhibit which we see, a volume of the Tibetan Dragon Sutra written in gold powder ink on cobalt-blue stationery and featuring inlaid jewellery, is stunning, as are its elaborate top and bottom covers. The tome is one of a set of 108. The other 107 are in the museum vault. The monks, our guide Margaret tells us, were given two snacks per day, free meals, and the occasional party, in return for producing this colossal work, which was commissioned by Emperor Kangxi of the Qing dynasty in 1669.

Among the other exhibits are extremely rare and valuable pieces of Northern Sung dynasty "Ju Ware", in a greenish-blue glaze, from the late 11th and early 12th centuries. These include a "narcissus basin" and mallet-shaped vase. The aim, Margaret tells us, was to make the colour of these fine pieces as beautiful as the sky after rain.

There are a variety of huge cauldrons, which are thousands of years old and feature animal-mask designs with eyes and horns.

Among these, and attracting major crowds, is the Duke Mao Cauldron, which is especially significant because its inscription of 500 characters is the longest on any of the excavated bronzes. This cauldron was made during the reign, about 2,800 years ago, of King Xuan of the Western Zhou dynasty.

Not so ancient, but also attracting great interest, is a jadeite cabbages with insects.

Elsewhere, there is a figure of a lady from the Tang dynasty, which ran from 618AD to 907AD. This piece gives a fascinating insight into what constituted beauty and elegance at that time.

After acclimatising, we set out to explore Taipei and discover the MRT metro system is a breeze to use, with plenty of English signs. The Xia-Hai City God Temple, in the north-west of the city, is where it all began for Taipei 150 years ago.

The old site is a mixture of a folk and Buddhist temple, and those who work there are happy to provide tours and offer refreshing tea, as the scent of burning josticks stimulates the olfactory system.

Other temples which are well worth a visit include Longshan, which is bustling in the evening, and the Taipei Confucius and Baoan temples.

Close to the City God Temple is the Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museum. This gives a fascinating insight into the importance of puppet theatre in Taiwan. Exhibits include elaborately-carved puppet stages of days gone by, when such theatre featured prominently as a form of entertainment at the temples.

The museum traces the evolution of puppet theatre to the modern day. There is a 24-hour puppet theatre channel on Taiwanese television, and the company behind it, Pili, has a stock market listing.

Museum director Robin Ruizendaal tells us this art form came to Taiwan in the 17th century. For a long time, the puppets were fairly small and the accompanying music was provided by an orchestra.

However, around the middle of the 20th century, there was a move towards more gaudy and extreme creations, such as a striptease puppet, and the orchestra was replaced by vinyl-spinning disc jockeys, long before the days of hip-hop. The Hawaii five-0 tune has been a popular accompaniment to puppet shows. These days, as well as the TV channel, there are more than 300 puppet theatre companies in Taiwan.

The museum director highlights the importance of the temple structure over the years to puppet theatre. He contrasts the situation in this regard in Taiwan with that in Beijing, where, he declares, only a handful of temples survived.

He highlights the use of camphor wood for puppets, which helps ensure their continued survival. This wood, used for mothballs, is not popular with woodworm.

Taipei, as well as having a rich history, is also the most modern of cities, as you would expect from the capital of an island as technologically-advanced as Taiwan.

The Taipei 101 tower, which was the tallest building in the world from 2004 until 2010, gives a great bird's eye view of the city. It features regularly in footage of New Year celebrations around the world with fireworks cascading out of its 101 floors.

No trip to Taipei would be complete without visiting the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which celebrates the life of the man who moved the government of the Republic of China to Taiwan in 1949 after suffering defeat in the civil war. There are some fascinating pictures of Chiang Kai-shek with the likes of US presidents, as well as exhibits such as the Cadillac in which he used to travel.

There is also an elaborate changing of the guard at the memorial, in which the soldiers look tiny next to the statue of Chiang Kai-shek. During this ceremony, the Republic of China flag is taken down and folded with great precision.

Taiwan has plenty to offer outside Taipei. The southern city of Kaohsiung, which was once the third-busiest port in the world, has the spectacular 85 Sky Tower Hotel, which has a 40th-floor swimming pool and 39th-floor restaurant offering spectacular views of the giant port. The curiously-named Old New Restaurant in Kaohsiung has great character and food, including pumpkin pancakes. The city can also be a staging post for visits to the beaches or countryside of the generally warmer south, in which palm trees are abundant.

A highlight in Kaohsiung is the energetic night market, a 270-metre stretch which features stalls selling just about every kind of food you can imagine, and some you would rather not, as well clothing and jewellery.

There is a snake barbecue, which is eye-catching enough but pales into insignificance when you see animal brain for sale on a block, along with more conventional offerings such as liver.

Even if you do not want to buy anything, the sights, sounds and smells of the night market are not to be missed.

Ian McConnell was visiting Taiwan as a guest of its government to learn about its Free Economic Pilot Zones.

He flew with China Airlines (www.china-airlines.com) between Glasgow and Taipei via Amsterdam (return flight typically starts from around £650). He stayed at the Ambassador Hotel in Taipei and the 85 Sky Tower Hotel in Kaohsiung (discounted rates from around £70 per night at both hotels).