27 Feb 2017 17:16 IST

Looking for Taiwan

There’s a little bit of everything here

Late October 2016, and it is the autumn of the tiger in Taiwan. The heat is scorching, the weather sticky. My umbrella comes out. Oh, the irony! I expected to use it in the event of a predicted typhoon, and I have never used it for shade in hot and humid Chennai.

There is only sporadic rain, which ceases even before the umbrella is fully open. We are on a whistle-stop tour of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan and on that day’s agenda are the Chimei Museum in Tainan’s Rende district, the Janfusun Fancyworld Amusement Park in Gukeng, over a 100 km away, and Taichung, 80 km on, where we visit the Fengjia night market, said to be the largest in Taiwan.

The Chimei is a museum buff’s delight, with its large collection of Western art, and a body of musical instruments from all over the world. I keep dinner light to sample the famed Taiwanese street food, but Fengjia seems more a bargain shopper’s delight than a foodie’s, and coupled with the late hour, my enthusiasm quickly dissipates.

I settle for a foot massage on a friend’s recommendation. Earlier that day, we had trekked and trudged in hilly Janfusun. It is a tiring effort, even though the park has a few escalators to ease us over longer stretches uphill. I don’t want to miss my bus back, so my masseur compresses a half-hour job into a 10-minute capsule. I yelp and scream unabashedly as he, his colleagues and their customers snigger at my hardship. This is no fancy spa where you’re kneaded and coaxed; real massages hurt like this, I’ve heard.

At Taichung, we stay in a curious hotel. Everything about iCloud seems to border on the bizarre. We are taken to our rooms through a big parking space. You are led through a rather bare room — turns out it’s your private garage — and the bedroom is on the floor above. The garage is as sober as the bedroom is a riot of colour. There is no exit from the first floor, which only houses large living quarters. We have to exit from the garage on the ground floor, and here’s the quirk — we press a button and the shutter rolls up, we press it again and dash out before it rolls back down. There is no way to close the shutter from outside. At the introduction to the hotel, we are told (or so we understood) each room has its own swimming pool too, but it’s missing. We are happy to discover it’s the case with everyone in the group.

Earlier that morning, there is a brief photo opportunity at the Dragon and Tiger pagodas in Kaohsiung, one of Taiwan’s biggest and most important cities. Most of the previous day was spent at the city’s Dream Mall, with a total floor area of 400,000 sq m. It is home to several global luxury brands, and can be a delight or a drag depending on your interests. We dine on good Thai food at a restaurant in the food court.

Our group has travelled there from Kenting, where we spend the previous night in a hotel known for its Moroccan décor and restaurant. The Kenting National Park offers up a slice of Taiwan’s tropical climate, sea and mountains, and lots of bleached coral. At the Yoho Beach Resort there, we are shown a diving-training pool and informed that it was used to film a portion of The Life of Pi, directed by the Taiwan-born Ang Lee. Across the road is a cocoa farm and we are taken there to indulge in some chocolate-making. But not before taking in the pleasures of some dancers from Indonesia, who were performing there.

There is a food-centric night market in Kenting that can be a gastronome’s delight. Go with a good appetite and a strong stomach; the sights and smells are not for the delicate. We also visit the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in Checheng on our way from Kenting to Kaohsiung. Spread over almost 100 hectares it has three main exhibits that showcase a diverse range of aquatic animals including whales and sting rays, corals and an 80-metre-long underwater tunnel. It is a big draw for children and there are scores of them visiting with parents and teachers. We fit in an unscheduled visit to a Taoist temple in Checheng. It is one of the few originally Taiwanese things we do.

But perhaps Taiwan does not consider its ethnic delights a major attraction, and our itinerary strengthens that opinion. Taiwan is one of the Asian Tigers, a clutch of economies in the Far East which developed rapidly between the ’60s and the ’90s. ‘Made in Taiwan’ is a familiar label on electronic goods that preceded ‘Made in China’. Most of the chips in our mobile phones are from here; so are many laptops and mobile phones. According to an Indian resident of Taiwan who does not want to be identified, the Taiwanese are very interested in India. They are waiting for the big switch there from feature phones to smartphones in the next three-four years, and the consequent move to the Internet of Things will be fuelled by Taiwanese technology. Taiwan, notes the resident, is also moving from being an original equipment manufacturer to an original branding and design manufacturer.

Travelling between the cities is testimony to that manufacturing might. Ringed by cloud-kissed mountains everywhere we travel, skyscrapers, offices, workshops and sheds exist cheek by jowl with homes, paddy fields, temples, plantations of pineapple, mango, guava, areca nut, and more. The fruits are superb, crisp, succulent and sweet. Our guide tells us that the government encourages the destruction of areca trees as betel nut addiction is a health hazard.

A Malaysian Chinese couple I chat with at Pingxi, famous for its Shifen waterfall and flying sky lanterns, observe that the tension between China and Taiwan’s current government has resulted in a plunge in the number of Chinese tourists. The People’s Republic of China considers Taiwan, an island off its southern coast, a part of its territory. Chinese settlers moved to Taiwan in the 17th century, after which it was annexed by the Qing dynasty and then became a Japanese colony for 50 years until 1945. At the end of World War II, Japan surrendered to Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC military forces. Kai-shek fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing to the Communists in the Chinese civil war, but maintained that he continued to represent the Chinese both in the mainland and on the island. In Taiwan, views on its independence differ across the political spectrum.

Our journey includes a day at the Formosa Aboriginal Cultural Village in the Sun Moon Lake area. There is an amusement park here too, with rides being tested as we visit. If you’re not squeamish, you can take the cable car to commute between the lake and the village. As you coast up the wires, amidst lush greenery with magnificent views of the lake, on the line next to you are other gaily coloured cable cars coming down. It makes quite a pretty picture.

Indians will be familiar with Hieun Tsang, the Chinese traveller-monk who visited India in seventh century AD, during the reign of Emperor Harshavardhana. There is a temple at Sun Moon Lake that houses a relic, a piece of the monk’s skull, which has an interesting story behind it. The relic, of which two other fragments are in Beijing and Nanjing, was taken to Japan during World War II but brought to Taiwan after some negotiations citing Chinese heritage and cultural relevance.

With its museum and cultural shows, the cultural village aims to reflect Taiwan’s early ethnic Austronesian tribal heritage, but is also a mishmash of styles with a European garden and an installation of Native American totem poles. In August last year, President Tsai Ing-wen made a formal apology to Taiwan’s aboriginal people for the centuries of torment by settlers, and said she would endeavour to remedy injustices.

In Taipei, we do the rounds of a mall selling electronic goods and accessories, and visit Taipei 101, once the second tallest building in the world. We finally have a Taiwanese meal at Din Tai Fung, a restaurant that prides itself on its xia long bao. These soup-and-pork dumplings have been honed to perfection after much research — there is 16g of filling, and there are 18 folds in the 5g of dough that goes into the dumpling. We, the Indian guests, get vegetarian and chicken versions.

The next day, we depart, laden with gifts of pineapple cakes, a famed Taiwanese confection. I am glad to have gone on the grand Taiwanese road trip, met hospitable strangers who, in the absence of a common tongue, immediately reach for their smartphones, ask you to speak into it and communicate through translations, but cannot help coming away with the feeling that I would have liked to see more of the Taiwanese in Taiwan.

Travel log

Getting there

Several airlines including low-cost operators fly to Taipei. There are no direct flights from any city in India. Depending on the airline, there are connecting flights — and a wait — from Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, among others.

When to go

April to early May is considered a good time to visit, without showers. November is also recommended.

Stay

There are a range of options from hostels for backpackers to bed-and-breakfast places and inns and hotels of various kinds.

Accommodation is more expensive in Taipei than in other cities.

Getting around

Bus is the cheapest option to travel between cities. The High-Speed Rail which runs along the west coast, from Taipei to the southern city of Kaohsiung, covers about 350 km in 90 minutes. A standard seat for this ride can cost NT$1530 (₹3,325 approx). To travel within these two cities, metro trains are convenient. Taxis are widely available.

Eat

Taiwan can be an adventurous foodie’s paradise or just the opposite if you’re conventional in your tastes or vegetarian. Many night markets host food stalls with a wide variety of non-vegetarian food, mostly seafood and pork. If you’re a timid eater or someone who eats just to live, eat the fruit — there’s plenty on offer.

Convenience stores such as 7-Elevens stock sandwiches, packaged snacks and pastries.

Tip

Communication is a challenge as English and other foreign languages are not spoken widely. Keep your smartphones handy. When travelling, write down the names of your destinations in Chinese and show them to your driver so that you can get dropped off at the right place.

(The writer visited Taiwan at the invitation of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau in association with Scoot Airlines. The article first appeared in BLInk.)

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