Taiwan Diary: Dispatches from a windy island

Taiwan Diary: Dispatches from a windy island

By RANGINI BHUYAN | | 12 January, 2013
The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial
A combination of natural beauty, man-made marvels & a fascinating historical past render Taiwan a must visit, writes Ragini Bhuyan

Looking at the map, it is easy to mistake Taiwan for an accidental stain straddling the Tropic of Cancer. Cradled by the Pacific, rocked by typhoons, this 394 kilometre long, sweet potato shaped island feels like a fairy tale shape shifter – verdant green hills surround the cities, while downtown Taipei boasts of the world's second tallest tower – Taipei 101, alongside other citadels of high capitalism. Inside it, Gucci and Prada jostle with pricy, Taiwanese ventures like the Din Tai Fung which have perfected the science of turning out the perfect dumpling. But step outside and you will find the falun gong sitting in silent prayer – wrapped tight in plastic raincoats in the drizzle, uncaring of any embarrassment their presence might cause to the busloads of mainland Chinese tourists congregating at city landmarks.

Ilha Formosa, the beautiful island noted Portuguese sailors in 1544 when they crossed this little outpost south of the prosperous trading port of Hong Kong. Following the Sino-Japanese war, the Japanese ruled Taiwan from 1895 onwards, officially forsaking their claim to the island only after their defeat in World War II, but leaving their indelible footprint on the Taiwanese – the obsession with being on time, the infrastructure they built to showcase Taiwan as their 'model colony', the last Taiwanese blockbuster, Cape No.7, that revisits the island's Japanese era. Because the Japanese ruled with a kinder hand – with no massacres to name, there is none of the acrimony that characterises its northern neighbours' ties with the same. Step into any 7/11 store in Taiwan today, and you will unfailingly find an array of Japanese snacks on sale.

It was in one such 7/11 that my hunt for a toothbrush bore fruit (I had forgotten to pack mine for an overnight flight), leaving me free finally to savour a dumpling feast at the City Star restaurant. My day began in earnest with an encounter with a more benign form of volcanoes. Strong sulphurous vapours suffused the air, the ground populated by little bubbles like soup being cooked atop a flame. 'Fumaroles', the sign at a craggy outpost said. 'Do not step further than this zone', another warned. They were at a distance, cordoned off to keep curious tourists safe. Several springs had been harnessed for electricity, and resorts in the neighbourhood divert the water so that at night, you can soak in the earthy heat in the comfort of your tub. Though you might be seduced by the gloomy and tempestuous presence of the Yangminshan National Park in Beitou, be fooled into thinking that you have been transported to Heathcliff's moors (it works perfectly well if you pretend to not notice the groves of bamboo impinging on your walking trail), it is not advisable to hang around here for too long. The acidic air is corrosive, so I stepped outside the park for a look at the Xin Beitou library. A song carved in wood, it has a special chemical coating to keep the wooden exteriors shining throughout in this rain drenched terrain.

Next morning, I equipped myself with an MRT pass, determined to check out the Taiwanese equivalent of the Delhi metro. The special Beitou hot springs train, with its interiors designed to imitate the ambience of a hot spring, took me south into the city, my plan being to scour through the country's east coast, bask in the beauty of the mighty Pacific Ocean, before coming back to the capital to check out its cultural and gastronomic eccentricities.

Did I mention that Taiwan is a windy island? For a quarter of the year, typhoons are an omnipresent threat. Climate change has extended the typhoon season well into two quarters now, and I was informed I might encounter its raw force towards the end of my week long trip. My guides were always on alert – tuned to the latest weather report, and apart from the occasional burst of sunshine when the clouds part, I saw the typhoon lurking ominously on the horizon, hiding behind the grey clouds, waiting for an opportunity to unleash its might. A trip out into the sea to watch whales was sacrificed to its whims, and I had to content myself with the more plebeian joys of watching seals and dolphins cavort at the Farglory Ocean Park. But I have gone much ahead into the narrative. Let us come back to the present. I embarked upon a train ride to Hualien, feeling guilty about not being able to finish the generous lunch box I was served. My guides assure me that nothing is wasted in Taiwan. "We will feed the pork and rice left on your plate to the pigs. Cheer up!" they consoled me. Hmm, management 101: even waste is a resource?

None of the photos that I clicked on my next stop, the Chishingtan beach in Hualien, could do justice to the incredible romance the place invokes. It's easy to get lost amidst the wonders of the pebble beach here, filled with driftwood that could be the pride of any luxurious drawing room. While a cycling trail wounds like a ribbon all around, an old military hangar stands next to the beach, and my sojourn here is punctuated by the sound of jets landing and taking off, piercing through the breeze like a sharp needle. It's easy to feel like you are in the scene encapsulated in the Pearl Harbour poster – Evelyn hunching beneath the clothesline while the sky is overcast with low flying jets. A former military zone, the cove was opened to the general public only ten years ago as Chiang Kai Shek, the nation's pater familias, sought to maintain a tight control over areas he thought were vital to the security of the island.

Chihsingtan is usually a stopover for most people en route to the Taroko gorge, but one that is highly recommended. If time allows, visit the ChihsingTan Katsuo, a discarded Japanese fish factory that has now been renovated as a museum, and which houses a great variety of dried fish concoctions that can be valuable allies in your quest to win over a Japanese lover. Next door, there is a restaurant famed for its fresh sea fare – though it was their deer meat and the dragon's beard fern dishes that caught my fancy the most.

But these are just roadside distractions, for the star attraction in Hualien is the Taroko gorge, a natural marvel created by the Liwu River. Over thousands of years, the river has cut deep into the marble rocks, leading to steep, vertical slopes, where you can be left breathless by the mere sight of the symmetrical deep grey and white banded rocks, shunned to silence by the steady but furious warbling of the young river. I settle for one of the easier treks here – walking up to the swallows' grotto, a viewing point named after the numerous swifts and swallows that harbour their nests there. If the gorge is nature's genius, then the roads built through this risky terrain are an engineering marvel. Double Decker buses regularly engorge hordes of mainland Chinese tourists at the swallows' grotto. The petrol fumes and the crowds might prove to be a minor irritant, but there are exclusive, charming spots here for those well heeled enough to beat the crowds. Surrounded on all sides by steep mountains hugging the clouds, the Leader Village Hotel is one such rustic refuge where you only wake up to the sounds of bird song. On their special guided night tour, I saw a rare fluorescent mushroom (an indicator species, its presence is a sign that the environment is unpolluted), plenty of harmless tree frogs and snakes, and the flying fox. Do not leave without trying their wild boar and rice wine dishes, a specialty of the Taroko tribe who inhabit the Taroko valley.

Taiwanese ingenuity has not only a discarded fish factory beautifully renovated to serve as a tourist spot (Chihshingtan Katsuo), but also an old coal mine, Jinguaxi, and an old gold mining town, Jiufen, rescued from the oblivion to which they would have otherwise sunk into. Jiufen is a veritable treasure trove full of treats for both the eyes and the tummy. Jiufen tea house, a quaint wooden structure, houses ceramic artworks as well as a workshop where if you are lucky, you can see the potters at work. Monet style impressionistic paintings, mostly done by the tea house owner, Hung Chih-Sheng, record the beauty of the surrounding landscape, and dot the walls of the tea house, waiting to be spirited away by rich collectors.

The Jiufen souvenir street or Jishan old street is a meandering, cobbled little lane that snakes its way right through the heart of the town. As Jiufen is located on a steep mountainside, this little street can be a fair climb up. I hardly noticed the walk, so distracted was I by the Chandni Chowk-style happy cacophony of crowded shops with colourful stuff – everything from leather trinkets to cat-shaped massage tools to wooden footwear that reminded one of kharams. And did I mention the food? Jiufen's specialty is their taro ball preparations, both of the sweet and savoury kinds. But Souvenir Street has lots more up its sleeve – from octopus to snails to different varieties of spiced and pickled fish, pork, beef, stinky tofu, pineapple cakes, dumplings, bubble tea, and more. Shopkeepers insist on feeding you samples of everything they have on offer, so by the time I finished shopping, I was too stuffed to eat lunch. I learnt the hard way that when in Taiwan, one should shop on an empty stomach.

Having scoured the country's east in break neck fashion, I headed to Taipei on my last day for a final look at the some of the city's landmarks – Ximending, Taipei 101, Chiang Kai Shek memorial hall, and the National Palace Museum. Ximending is something you should check out on weekends when teenagers gather here for the movies and some sporty cosplay. As for Taipei 101, it certainly is an expat's delight, housing imported and high end labels. Do check out the Liuli store and the display of gold insects and coral sculpture at the observatory, that is, after you have had your fill of gazing out at the city in its from its highest point. For the uninformed, Liuli is a form of intricate, delicate, coloured glass sculpture manufactured through the lost wax process, dating back three thousand years ago to the Western Chou dynasty.

Indians are fascinated with the Nehru-Gandhi family, the Americans with the Kennedys, the British with their royals, while the Taiwanese never tire of Chiang Kai Shek's exploits or the gossip surrounding his personal life. Like the Nehrus, Chiang Kai Shek's descendents have been prominent in the country's politics, and my next stop, the Chiang Kai Shek memorial hall is an apt reminder of the centrality his memory occupies in Taiwanese life. But what struck me most was the way his great grandson, Demos Chiang, a successful designer, sought to gently lampoon and interrogate this legacy. If not in real life, then at least in Chiang's colourful toys and figures at the souvenir store there, Chiang Kai Shek, Mao Zedong, and Stalin, stood together in amity and friendship.

But perhaps Chiang Kai Shek's enduring legacy to the Taiwanese is in the realm of art. In 1949, when he fled with the Kuomintang to Taiwan, he brought with him over 6 lakh priceless ancient Chinese antiquities, housed today at the National Palace Museum. It's the largest collection of ancient Chinese artefacts anywhere in the world, with articles dating from the Neolithic age to the medieval dynasties like the Yuan, Qing, Sung and Ming dynasties. I was especially enthralled by the ceramics, where I could observe the evolution of styles and techniques from ancient to medieval times, apart from feeling extremely fortunate at catching a glimpse of some priceless, beautiful creations. The gallery today has more than 6, 80,000 items, and the items on display keep on rotating.

Taiwan remains a hitherto unexplored destination for Indians, even though there is a sizeable and growing presence of Indian businessmen and techies there. There is some great Indian food to be had in Taipei, and considerable variety of healthy Taiwanese vegetarian options as well. It's very safe for women, and perhaps the only challenge Indians might face would be that of language - outside of Taipei, not many speak English. The Taiwanese compensate for this with their friendliness and generosity, and will go out of their way to help you if you get lost.

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