Prehistoric Taipei (Táiběi) was wet. The mountains surrounding present-day Taipei were majestic then as now, but the basin in which a great metropolis would one day rise was under water. It was a pretty lake, we’ve no doubt, but it was completely lacking in restaurants, museums, hotel rooms and even people. We’d have advised all but the most adventurous travellers to postpone their trip for a few million years.
At some point, over 6000 years ago, the now (mostly) dry basin between the mountains began to be settled by people who’d sailed over from other islands in the Pacific. Anthropologists would later collectively describe the first settlers as ‘Pingpu’ or ‘plains aboriginals’. Their descendants still live in Taiwan.
Fast forward to the last millennium. Having been ‘discovered’ by Han Chinese, Taipei (along with the rest of Taiwan) was subject to a slow but inexorable influx of settlers from China’s east coast. These settlers forced the original inhabitants of Taipei to retreat into the surrounding mountains. They then renamed the displaced aboriginals ‘mountain people’, perhaps to make themselves feel better for having evicted them from the plains.
During Western Europe’s great age of conquest, Taiwan was ‘discovered’ again, and in fairly rapid succession by the Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish, all of whom decided that they liked the place well enough to plant their respective flags around the island. The Spanish took a particular interest in Danshui (now part of Taipei County) and before leaving they built a fortress that still stands today. Sensing that European interlopers were getting too attached to the island, in 1709 the Qing court reversed a Ming decree forbidding settlement on Taiwan and granted citizens in China’s Fujian province permission to emigrate.
Many of these Fukkienese settlers came to present-day Taipei, founding communities along the Danshui River in areas that today are considered central Taipei. These early communities became trading ports for tea and camphor and set the stage for more settlement from China as well as economic development.
By 1882 Taipei had become a fully fledged city, large enough to warrant the construction of a wall. Though the wall is long gone, four of the five gates leading into the city can still be visited. Alas, the city wall – the last to be built under the Qing – proved merely cosmetic to the Japanese, who took the city (along with the rest of Taiwan) through strong-arm diplomacy rather than arms, in 1895.
Under Japanese rule (1895–1945), Taipei became the administrative headquarters for the island. Although the Japanese ruled with an iron hand, their engineers left behind good basic infrastructure. Buildings remaining from that era are among the city’s most prized. After the decampment of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces to Taipei in 1949, the city expanded, growing to its present size (272 sq km) and governmental structure of 12 districts. It’s in this present-day city that your tour begins.