Expect the unexpected in a country where ancient meets hyper-modern


You can see anything in Taiwan,” our tour guide merrily proclaims as we zip through the early-morning traffic toward central Taipei. As if on cue, a large, golden mutt suddenly appears outside the car window — riding a bicycle! The dexterous dog’s owner walks two steps behind, a smaller canine companion in his arms. “Ah, is that a dog riding a bike?,” I ask, wondering if the sleeping pill I took during the overnight flight from Vancouver has yet to wear off. “Yes, that’s right,” says our guide. “You can expect the unexpected in Taiwan.” And I can tell already, there are some things you just can’t find in the travel brochures. For Canadians considering a holiday excursion to Asia, Taiwan does not often feature top-of-mind. When Canadians think of Taiwan, they think of tech parks and computer chips, T-shirts, toys and China troubles. This is an image Taiwan is working hard and successfully to change. You can see it in the gleaming new High Speed Rail stations along the spine of the island and the 1,000 Mile Trail cycling network that will soon circle the country; you can feel it among the burgeoning artists’ collectives in Taipei and Hualien and in the beach towns and fishing villages that dot the coast. Taiwan is abuzz and its people energized as the country rebrands itself as a holiday destination where the ancient world meets the hyper-modern alongside some of the world’s most jaw-dropping natural wonders. Arguably more Chinese than China, Taiwan is a living repository of the culture that was swept away from Mainland China with the Communist takeover of 1949. Taiwan’s minister responsible for tourism, Mao Chi-kuo, is not jesting when he says Asian tourists visit Beijing to see the Forbidden City and Taipei’s National Palace Museum to see the treasures it once contained. An island nation of over 23 million people and some 36,000 square kilometres (Vancouver Island, by comparison, is 33,500 square kilometres), Taiwan boasts more than just temples and antiquities.

FUN FACT: Most buildings in Taiwan will not have a fourth floor, in keeping with Chinese superstition. Unlike Canada, they all have a 13th floor — typically with stunning views.

The small country, which straddles the Tropic of Cancer and is divided east to west by a precipitous series of mountain ranges, contains seven national parks and 13 national scenic areas — as well as 500 species of butterflies! Taiwan is loosely divided into four geographical regions: Northeast, Central, East and Southwest.As a guest of Taiwan, I had an opportunity to visit these four areas on a week-long, whirlwind tour earlier this month. NortheastOur destination is the Cape Yehliu Geology Park outside the coastal town of Yeliou. But first, we “just must” stop for lunch at Sam Ming Seafood Restaurant in Wanli, a quaint fishing village where families haul the morning catch from their brightly painted wooden fishing boats to the live-tanks that compete for space along the town’s central sidewalks. Fuelled up on plate loads of fried Crystal Fish and clams basted in star anise and bitter herb, and it’s onward to the Yehliu Geopark (www.ylgeopark.org.tw) While it’s pushing 35 degrees in the shade, this coastal phenomenon is very cool. The Geopark is an isthmus of peculiar rock formations created by the differential erosion brought on by the salt water, wind and the baking sun. There are dozens of different types of formations; the most famous among them is Yehliu’s Queen Head Rock, a majestic work of nature that stands eight metres high and was an estimated 4,000 years in the making. Her neck is still shrinking, so there’s no hugging allowed! That same afternoon we arrive at Fulong to take a bike ride through the Old Caoling Tunnel (www.necoast-nsa.gov.tw). The Taiwanese love their biking and travel the length and breadth of their island home in search of new cycling adventures. The so-called “train cave” is a 2.6- km stretch of underground railway decommissioned in 1986 and opened last year as a naturally air-conditioned tourist attraction. It links up with a larger network of cycling trails that transit the entire Northeast and soon — when the 1,000 Mile Trail is completed — the entire country. The train cave connects Fulong to the north with Shilhcheng to the south, and terminates at a cliff-top lookout above the mythical Turtle Island and the open Pacific Ocean. Later that afternoon, we hit Fulong Beach to catch the sunset over the Shuangxi River before making our way up a white-knuckle mountain road to the old gold-mining town they call “Little Shanghai.”

FUN FACT: Garbage trucks in Taiwan play “Fleur de Lise,” the tune Canadians commonly associate with the arrival of an ice cream truck. When they hear the song, Taiwanese rush to the street with their trash. Their kids, fortunately, are none the wiser.

While the goldmine has been long closed, the hillside town of Jioufen is a must-see for travellers visiting Taiwan’s Northeast. Built around a maze of narrow, cobble-stepped streets illuminated by Chinese lanterns, the town is chock-a-block with tiny trinket shops and Old World restaurants overlooking the bay far below. CentralCruising at 300 km/h aboard Taiwan’s High Speed Rail (opened 2007) enroute to Central Taiwan, we arrive before the tea has cooled at Nantou County, the geographical centre of Taiwan and the country’s only land-locked county. At the centre of Nantou County lies Puli, a town known — and I quote our guide – for “the four W’s — water, wine, weather and women.” Intrigued, I’m the first one out of the car when we arrive for lunch at upscale Pu-Le Restaurant (www.puli-eating.com.tw). The women I cannot find, but the drunken chicken and sweet vinegar fish is only outdone by the “precious mushroom hot pot soup” containing no less than 12 species of fungi.One of the mushrooms, the Blazei mushroom as chef Heng Hong Liu informs, is originally from Brazil and grown in the local mountains in bored-out old logs buried in sand. Seconds please! The natural jewel of Taiwan, most agree, is Sun Moon Lake (www.sunmoonlake.gov.tw), a preternaturally blue, mist-shrouded body of water that attracts three million annual visitors to its shores. An hour’s drive from the Taichung HSR station, it’s Taiwan’s largest lake, with its smallest island — Lalu.

FUN FACT: Taiwan has 14 officially-recognized indigenous tribes. To pass official muster, a tribe must demonstrate it holds cultural events and have its own, unique language.


The Thao tribe, the smallest of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, still inhabits a township on the lake’s south side and each September holds a Moon Festival. Not to be outdone by the locals, more than 10,000 people from across Taiwan arrive a month later to swim en masse across the lake in a festival of fireworks and laser light. The most famous hotel at Taiwan’s most famous lake is The Lalu (www.thelalu.com.tw), the long ago summer residence of former President Chiang Kai-Shek. Done out Zen in wood, stone, glass and iron, if you can’t afford to stay at the Lalu (the outsized private villas with swimming pools and gazebos run $800 US per night), you simply must do tea. We are invited by the hotel’s Liz Chuang to sample the Lalu’s famous No. 18 Black Tea; an Assam blend nicknamed “carbuncle,” it took the country’s agricultural commission 50 years to perfect it. And, like the ancient ritual around its service, perfection it is. In the hills above Sun Moon Lake in Yuchih township sits Wenu Temple, unique in that it is actually two temples in one — a Taoist temple below and a Confucius temple above. A short climb to the rooftop affords visitors a spectacular view and photo op of Sun Moon Lake. Southwest Tainan is the oldest city in Taiwan and the former headquarters of the 17th-century Dutch colonial forces — which were sent packing after less than 40 years by the heroic warlord Koxinga. Today, Tainan (www.tour.tncg.gov.tw) is attempting to trade on its rich history, drawing international tourists to its many historical sites and ancient temples. Even the city’s restaurants capitalize on their rich folklore, including Tu Hsiao Yueh (www.iddi.com.tw), the most famous noodle shop in Taiwan. It was founded in 1895 by Yu Tou, who hauled his noodles around the city on carrying poles before setting up permanent shop. Today, his family still runs the place, cooking in the same pots from the same recipes, including a signature noodle soup stewed for nine hours!

FUN FACT: They say you can’t go three blocks in Taiwan without running into a temple. Or a 7-Eleven.

Most unusual among Taiwan’s many temples is Tainan’s Confucius Temple, built around 1665 during the Ming Dynasty. Attached is the first school in Taiwan, which is still in operation today. The temple has no burning incense, no calligraphy, no icons or images of any sort. It is completely bare. Only on Sept. 28, Confucius’ birthday, does the temple pop with celebratory song and dance. Visitors are encouraged to stamp their admittance tickets with the temple’s school chop, write a message of luck for their school children, and tack the stub to a prayer wall. Which seems to work — my kid made the honour roll this term! Not far from the Confucius Temple is Tainan’s Chihkan Tower, which stands on the foundations of the old Dutch Fort Provintia circa 1653. The Chinese called it “the tower of savages” or “the tower of red-headed barbarians,” which may explain the unflattering central statue of a hang-dog looking Dutch fellow handing over the fort’s keys to mighty Koxinga and his entourage.Not all about the history, Tainan has a vibrant arts scene, too. Ground Zero is Shenlong Street, really an alley, off Haian Road. Haian Road is the site of an abandoned transit project. The government literally sliced half of the buildings away for the line it never built. Today, artisans and artists have reclaimed the buildings and turned them into a number of cool studios and nightspots.The Blue Print Cafe on Haian Road is the most popular. The artists from the adjoining OUStudio Collective (www.pws.stu.edu.tw/lukeliu/) have sketched in what was once there, right down to the toilets and plants!
“A lot of the people who traditionally lived around here are kind of conservative and most of them are older,” says Blue Print Café curator, Eleanor Chen, during a tour of her latest sculpture exhibit. “They think we’re kind of weird. “But it’s becoming a trendy area now for young people. It’s getting more tourists from Northern Taiwan, so many restaurants and bars have come up.”

FUN FACT: Kaohsiung boasts a population of 1.15 million people, and 1.15 million motor scooters!


Our second stop in Southwest Taiwan is Kaohsiung (www.khh.travel/tw/), the country’s second largest metropolis and host of this summer’s 2009 World Games. Quite polluted during Taiwan’s ‘Asian Tiger’ period of rapid industrialization, Kaohsiung today is one of the greenest urban centres in Taiwan. And the city is buzzing — somewhat nervously — over the July 16-23 games. As new MRT stations go in, sheets of new high-rises go up and stadia pop like mushrooms across the cityscape, the people of Kaohsiung are asking themselves the same questions Vancouverites are asking as we prepare for the 2010 Olympics: “Can we afford it?” “Will they come?” “What will we do with all these trippy new buildings afterward?” A trip to Kaohsiung is not complete without a ferry ride across the world’s eighth busiest harbour and a visit to the Kaohsiung Lighthouse at Cijin Beach. A working lighthouse and customs office, the facility is open to the public and, after a sharp hill climb, offers a 360-degree panoramic view of bustling Kaohsiung and the Strait of Taiwan beyond. EastWhen you ask someone from Taiwan to single out their favourite part of the country, they will invariably answer: the East. On our trip to the East, I met two indigenous people — the rugged mountain Truku and the gentle coastal Amis. I also discovered one of the most spectacular parks on the planet. Taroko National Park (www.taroko.gov.tw) features the famous Taroko Gorge, a two kilometre-high slab of rock cleaved open by ancient tectonic forces to reveal sheer walls of marble that twist and turn and very nearly touch. Below, the vibrantly green Liwu River has found a path to the Pacific, and over time and with typhoons has hauled great masses of rock along its course.

FUN FACT: It took three years, nine months and 18 days to complete the Central Cross-Island Highway with 5,000 workers a day bashing away with hammers and chisels. The Central Cross-Island Highway that runs from Taroko to Tiansiang made the whole shebang accessible to tourists — and folks who simply want to get from one side of Taiwan to the other.


The spectacular gorge is narrowest at the Swallows’ Grotto (where the migrating birds nest) and the Tunnel of Nine Turns, where lookout stations have been handily erected. The Eternal Spring Shrine sits on a nearby rock cliff and commemorates the 212 people who lost their lives during the construction of the highway from 1956-60. The gorge is truly a natural wonder of the world, and is already a top backpacking and hiking locale with local and Asian tourists. That night we arrived at The Leader Village (www.leaderhotel.com), a hotel of rustic but comfortable cabins staffed mainly by a Truku family, which puts on a nightly performance of traditional singing, drumming and story telling. They also serve up a dinner of native Truku foods, including millet wine, spiced vegetables and boar, the tribe’s traditional protein source back in the day when their womenfolk wore blue tattoos across the bottom half of their faces, a practice banned in 1912 for health reasons but recently resurrected by the tribe’s braver youth. The drive from Taroko Park to the coastal city of Haulien is less than 90 minutes and features some lovely coastal vistas, including Cisingtan Beach, one of the first stops on the new rail-and-bike tourist circuit begun in earnest last year.

FUN FACT: In keeping with Taiwan’s eternal optimism, factory chimneys are painted sky blue with images of sunflowers and clouds dotting their towering lengths.

We arrived in Haulien in time for a late lunch with the artists of o’rip (www.orip.wordpress.com), a collective that runs a café and studio near the heart of the city. The artists — with hard-earned funding from the government — are creating an artists village along the coast, a project called Paikeriran Art Village. The idea, explains Amis tribe member Sumi, is to entice youngsters from the cities back to their roots and heritage by the coast. She and fellow artists Su-Min and Ssu-Ming present photos of the project and describe the tribe’s ancient relationship to our shared ocean. “We treat the Pacific Ocean like our refrigerator,” says Sumi, as she reenacts a tribal dance about the Moon Cave, a mystical cave of fresh water at the seashore used in healing and cleansing rituals. Lee Chong Lin, a retired professor of archeology who has recently founded the Dulan Museum of Archeology in Hualien, says the artists’ efforts to revive both traditional and modern arts in Taiwan is part of larger movement across the country to celebrate the country’s rich heritage while steering a course of independence and hope toward a future.

A LINK to the SIX PHOTO GALLERIES at this location:http://www.theprovince.com/Life/Expect+unexpected+country+where+ancient+meets+hyper+modern/1740922/story.html


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