It is 4 p.m. in Taiwan. A couple of hours after having touched down at the Taichung International Airport, we are now proceeding to our first stop, which is the Puli Township in Nantau County. There is no sun in sight. The sky is grey. The weather slightly cold. The climate and the long snaky highways along the way give a dystopian aura to the place. Then there is the general silence. Cars speed by our bus, but there is no honking.
The mist surrounds us. There appear mountains and streams, emerging in the distance. The feeble sound of distant waterfalls in the bus. Not a dystopia anymore. A city, like a person, has many characters to it.
“The water here is good for making wine,” says our guide, CharlesTung. Tung is a middle-aged man who has an exclamatory way of talking. “Shui!” he says to the group of people in the bus, the local word for water. “Here, sometimes they also call women ‘shui’. You are so shui!”
Tung also talked about the aboriginal tribes, which have had their presence in the country since before the 17th century. “Taiwan has many tribes. The aboriginal people in Taiwan get many privileges—education, job, they have so many subsidies, scholarships, etc.”
The next day we were taken to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village in Nantou County. Aboriginal culture lies at the heart of Taiwanese heritage. Taiwan itself was earlier known as Formosa. At the cultural village, we witness the tribal way of life. We learn how to beat the rice to give it a sticky texture (rice is a staple in Taiwan). The entire setup is given the rural look—with stalls selling beaded jewellery of the tribes, a fortune teller, village games, and so on. Under the canopy of trees, blossoming with pink cherry flowers, we pass through small houses made of wood, bamboo and stone. We then witness a theatre performance by the tribespeople of Taiwan. The Naruswan play—an old tribal form—is performed at the open arena in the park. A number of aboriginal instruments are played and old songs are sung.
Life here revolves around the Sun Moon Lake, the largest lake in Taiwan. The cable car ride overlooking the Sun Moon Lake presents a bird’s-eye view. The expanse surrounding the lake is rich with mountains and forest land. On one side of the water is human habitation. The dam on the lake supplies hydroelectric power to nearby towns and cities. There is also a temple beside the lake. We rent bicycles and ride around the lake area, across the markets on the shore—a six-kilometre stretch. It is time for sunset. The narrow passageway along the lake, the fallen leaves on the road, the cool breeze, the sunlight, and the minimal, orderly traffic present the perfect landscape for the cyclist.
Taiwan—a leaf-shaped island—is home to only about 2 crore people. Over the years, to address this population deficit, the Taiwanese authorities have given out baby bonuses to the citizens. Tung, who was once a professor teaching electronic engineering at a university, tells us that there are universities but not enough students to be trained. “However,” he says, “we are very bright at computers and mobile phone-related technologies.”
Technology has shaped everything here. Even at the Chinese Lantern Festival, in Chiayi town, the organisers have used a lot of hi-tech stuff to make the lanterns. Some of the lanterns are huge. Some placed on a pedestal 21 metres high. The lanterns high up are cut out in the shape of a dog and a boy—this being the Year of the Dog in the Chinese calendar. Other lanterns resemble cartoon figures.
Contemporary Taiwanese culture is incomplete without cartoons. You stumble upon them on the streets. Murals of popular cartoon figures, or people dressed as them. About this fixation, our guide tells me, “This is nostalgia.” He smiles, and then adds, “We grew up watching TV. We are the TV generation. This reminds us of our childhood.”
One striking thing about Taiwan is how people here are ready to make room for culture even on the streets. A lot of old factories in these cities have been converted into galleries and studios for artists. Many old properties are being reused as public spaces.
We are off to Ten Drum Ciatou Creative Park, located in Kaohsiung. The park once was a sugar processing plant. Now, a percussion group has regular performances here. Percussion classes are also held here. They put up a special performance for us, and we cheer them on for an encore. The Ten Drum Percussion Group, as it is called, has won awards, including a Grammy in the Best World Album category.
But the setting isn’t a concert venue. It is a defunct sugar processing factory. So we are introduced to the craft of making cane sugar. In the huge factory, we are moving from one place to another on translucent floor. Someone yells, “Oh! We are walking on a tree.” Looking down I see branches the elevated floor was constructed on. We were walking on tree branches.
The place also features a café and a bookstore where visitors will find themselves hemmed in by rusty old machinery used in the factory once upon a time. Although the factory is not in use anymore, the team here still offers guided tours to help educate visitors about matters concerning sugar.
This is our last day in Taiwan. On our way back to the airport in Kaohsiung, a huge iron suitcase greets us at the Takao Railway Museum, built during the Japanese rule in Taiwan which lasted from 1895 to 1945. At this museum, too, we see the same transformation visible everywhere else in this country—the old is given a new shape. The iron locomotives are replaced by electric trains. The iron not needed anymore is invaluable to the artists who have created huge installation pieces from it. The suitcase is accompanied by a huge iron sail and a kind of robot. Many sculptors have their studios in this area.
I leave Taiwan with memories of a young couple kissing in a departmental store; of old, abandoned factories being turned into places of culture; of no-honk cities; of cartoon characters on roadsides; of people stopping and bending a little while greeting you. Taiwan appeared a country happy and contented in itself. Being a traveller you think what will happen if you are born and die in the same place, without any contact to the outside world. Given the range of rich culture and beauty here, outside contact shouldn’t matter much if you are born in Taiwan.
The writer was in Taiwan at the invitation of Taiwan Tourism Bureau