Thursday, September 4, 2014

Where There's A Road, There's A Bus (En Voyage)

Taiwan is stupendously scenic, having 1,566km of coastline and 258 peaks over 3,000m in height. It’s also well developed, the population of 23.3 million enjoying good public transportation and a comprehensive road network. Where these elements come together, visitors can enjoy truly breathtaking bus journeys.

Obviously bus travel can never be as flexible as self-driving, but on almost every route it’s possible to break your journey in one or more places. In addition to being an inexpensive way to get around, buses save you the stress of navigating unfamiliar streets and adapting to a different style of driving when you should be concentrating on enjoying the island’s visual splendor. And you’ll enjoy it in some comfort, as every bus in Taiwan is air-conditioned. To maintain high levels of cleanliness, eating and drinking are prohibited on many routes.

If family or business commitments keep you close to Taipei, focus your attention on Yangmingshan National Park and Taiwan’s north coast. Bus #1717 provides a splendid introduction to the park’s extinct volcanoes. It can be boarded at Taipei Main Station, Jiantan MRT Station or points in between, and there’s approximately one service per hour. Staying on the bus all the way to its terminal stop in the town of Jinshan is satisfying yet unadventurous. But if you love the great outdoors, get off at Xiaoyoukeng. You’ll have no problem recognizing the stop, because a steam-belching fumarole comes into view as the bus rounds a corner. It looks as if part of the hillside has collapsed, and many of the exposed boulders bear yellow-green stains. As long ago as the 16th century, local aborigines were mining the sulfur deposits here and selling the chemical to visiting Chinese merchants. For even better views of the fumarole, follow the steep path up the hill toward Seven Stars Mountain, the peak of which (1.6km away and 1,120m above sea level) is the highest point in the national park. 

There’s plenty to do at Jinshan. Al fresco eating options are available a stone’s throw from the bus stop. At Jinbaoli Old Street, where pre-World War II merchants’ houses have been preserved, vendors hawk dried seafood, peanut candy and other traditional items.

If you regret not stretching your legs at Xiaoyoukeng, or simply prefer flat paths, you can tramp from the heart of Jinshan to the end of the promontory that shields its fishing harbor. It takes about an hour, and it’s impossible to get lost if you follow the signs to the Twin Candlesticks [shown here in my own photograph], a pair of unwieldy 60m-high rock columns just offshore...


To read the whole article, which is spread over eight pages in the August edition of EVA Air's inflight magazine and accompanied by superb images - none of them mine - click here and scroll forward.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Fruit of the Angels (Travel in Taiwan)

Papayas aren’t native to Taiwan. They originate from Central America, and it’s said that when Christopher Columbus tried one during his historic voyages of exploration, he described it as “the fruit of the angels.” Like many other crops, papayas grow superbly well in Taiwan thanks to an abundance of water and a foliage-friendly climate. Sometimes called the pawpaw, the hefty reddish-orange fruit is sold at markets up and down the island.

Carica papaya, to give the papaya tree its scientific name, is a relatively recent addition to Taiwan’s landscape, having been introduced to the island from the Chinese mainland around 1907. These spindly, fast-growing plants are now seen throughout the southern half of the island, individually in private gardens or cultivated by the hundred beneath nets.

In terms of quantity, Taiwan’s papaya hotspot is Pingtung County. Tainan also grows a good many. However, Chiayi County’s Zhongpu (嘉義縣中埔鄉; where I sampled this interesting dish) has won a reputation for producing consistently excellent papayas, so it was to this township, located between Chiayi City and the mountain resort of Alishan, that Travel in Taiwan drove in search of knowledge and yummy fruit. Thanks to Mr. Chen Yong-ming (陳永明) who is an official in Zhongpu Township Farmers’ Association as well as a papaya grower, we got both.  

According to Mr. Chen, who looks after approximately 8,000 papaya trees on 4.85 hectares of farmland, Zhongpu’s main advantage is its climate. Even though most of the township is less than 200m above sea level, nighttime temperatures are considerably lower than those in the daytime, and this facilitates the healthy development of the trees.  

Guessing Mr. Chen would be a typical Taiwanese farmer - in other words , modest to a fault - and wouldn’t be one to make scarcely plausible claims about the fruit he grows, I researched the health benefits of fresh papaya before our meeting. What I discovered impressed me. A normal-sized papaya is typically 20 to 30cm long, as wide as your fist, and weighs between 600g and 1kg; eating half gives you enough vitamin C for two whole days. Such a portion also contains a fifth of the fiber you should consume each day, and one-seventh of the recommended daily intakes for vitamin A, potassium, magnesium and copper. The pink flesh is butter-like in texture, but half a papaya is unlikely to have more than 120 calories.

Almost all the papayas grown in Taiwan, Mr. Chen informed us, are one of two variants: Risheng (日陞) and Tainong 2 (台農2號). The latter, a hybrid of the former and a Thai subspecies, is longer and less oval. Papayas grown in the Philippines, he added, are rounder and yellower than their Taiwanese equivalents.

Left alone, papaya trees grow dead straight, and bear fruit near the top. Because the trunks aren’t usually strong enough to support a ladder, harvesting is difficult as soon as the tree grows taller than a man. This is why many papaya farmers clear-cut their trees when they’re about three years old, and invest in younger, shorter saplings. Each time this is done, however, the farmer must wait ten months until the tree is mature enough to produce decent fruit...


The complete article, which describes some popular Taiwanese dishes made using papaya, is now online, as well as being in the July/August issue of Travel in Taiwan magazine. The photo here, which I found in Wikimedia Commons, is an illustration of a papaya tree from a 1656 book about China's flora compiled by Jesuit missionaries.



Monday, August 4, 2014

Taiwan’s Ubiquitous Foot Massage Parlors (Taiwan Business Topics)

It seems impossible to walk very far in Taipei or other major Taiwan cities before coming across a storefront offering foot massage. The popularity of the practice in recent years is hardly surprising. All forms of massage appeal to those who want better health without taking medicine or who wish to relieve stress without the use of alcohol or electronic devices.

The principles of foot massage, also known as foot reflexology or zone therapy, mesh perfectly with the LOHAS ("lifestyles of health and sustainability") philosophy adopted by many young, well-educated consumers. In addition, many tourists find that enjoying a foot massage is an excellent way to conclude a long day of sightseeing and shopping. 

As a form of therapy, reflexology has been around for over 2,000 years. It is described in Huangdi Neijing, an ancient medical text known in English as The Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon or The Medical Classic of the Yellow Emperor. However, the discipline's recent history – both here and on the Chinese mainland, where it originated – has been checkered.
During the Cultural Revolution, many practitioners in the People's Republic of China dared not give massages to strangers lest they be attacked by Red Guards for perpetuating old customs and habits. 

In Taiwan, there was no government- recognized national organization for foot masseurs and masseuses until 1991, and that association was technically a sports club registered with the Ministry of the Interior. Two years later, what is now the Ministry of Health and Welfare gave approval of sorts to traditional foot massage, categorizing it as a folk remedy. By removing the possibility that practitioners could be prosecuted for being "underground doctors," the reform allowed foot masseurs and masseuses to talk more openly about the theory behind what they do, and how reflexology may help some people.

Unlike Chinese herbal medicine treatments, foot massage is not covered by Taiwan's National Health Insurance system. Nor is there a national system regulating the training of reflexology practitioners. Courses are offered by several different organizations, the cheapest and shortest being those offered by the Ministry of Labor's Workforce Development Agency. These involve 54 hours of instruction spread over a month, but experienced masseurs say that between four and 12 months' training is required to attain real proficiency.

Although there is no clear scientific evidence to support the traditional Chinese notion that ailments of internal organs are treatable via particular nerve endings on the soles of the feet, medical opinion is fairly positive about the overall benefits of foot reflexology. According to the website of the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality & Healing: "Research studies in the U.S. and around the world indicate positive benefits of reflexology for various conditions. In particular, there are several well-designed studies, funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health that indicate reflexology's promise as an intervention to reduce pain and enhance relaxation, sleep, and the reduction of psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and depression."

The website also notes that reflexology seems to cause "an increase in blood flow to kidneys and to the intestines," improved kidney function in kidney dialysis patients, lower blood pressure and reduced anxiety, plus pain reduction for those suffering from AIDS, osteoarthritis, diabetes, and other conditions.

Some benefits are even seen for cancer patients. The website states: "Studies showed reduction of pain, nausea, diarrhea or constipation, and improved quality of life with reflexology..."


The read the second half of this article, click on this link. Another useful article on the subject can be found here. The photo was taken by Rich J. Matheson, who also supplied the image on the magazine's cover.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Exploring the World of Taiwanese Tea (Taiwan Business Topics)

Teas grown in Taiwan have many fans, both on the island and overseas, but few are more avid than Stephen Carroll. When Carroll, a Briton who has lived in Australia for many years, encountered Taiwanese Oolong in 2012, it was love at first sip. 

"My first thought was that I'd never before tried a tea that tasted of tea as well as what I could only describe as flowers," he recalls. "I had to learn a new sensory vocabulary for this sort of tea. I thought to myself: 'How can leaves from one bush produce such a panoply of neurological inputs?' The experience was rewarding for my nose, tongue, mouth, and throat." 

Glenn Shark, an American connoisseur of Taiwan teas, does not hesitate to describe the island's high-mountain Oolongs as "the champagnes of tea." He attributes their tremendous quality to natural factors: "Taiwan is the only tea- growing country that combines high-altitude climate, mineral-rich volcanic soil, and close proximity to moist, ocean air currents. This causes slower plant growth and results in sweeter, aromatic teas with a distinctive dry aftertaste." 

"Taiwan Oolongs include a larger span of leaf styles and oxidation levels than their Chinese Oolong cousins, giving tea enthusiasts more delicious choices to explore," asserts The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook: A Guide to the World's Best Teas by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss. In Alishan, Lishan and Shanlinxi, the book goes on to state: "The tea bushes yield relatively small quantities of astoundingly good tea... Despite their high cost, many [high mountain teas] never leave Taiwan, as they are spoken for year after year by Taiwanese customers loyal to these artisan farmers." 

The vast majority of Taiwanese teas are made from the leaves and leaf buds of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. Indian teas come from a different strain, Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Whether a tea is classed as green, black, or Oolong depends largely on the degree of oxidation. For green teas, the leaves are minimally oxidized. Black teas are fully oxidized, while Oolongs are withered under the sun and partly oxidized. Over the past few decades, Taiwan's tea producers have gradually shifted away from black tea and focused more and more on Oolongs.

The complete article is here. The photo shows a tea plantation near Dabang, an aboriginal village not far from Alishan.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Touring the Remains of Taiwan’s Sugar Industry (Taiwan Business Topics)

Several of the world's poorest countries are dependent on sales of a single agricultural commodity, among them Burundi (the livelihood of 55% of the population is tied to coffee) and Malawi (tobacco represents over 70% of export revenue). It is hard to imagine nowadays, but Taiwan was once in a similar situation.

Just before and for years after World War II, sugar was the mainstay of its economy. Sugarcane, a species of grass that reaches about two meters in height and slightly resembles bamboo, has been grown in Taiwan for at least as long as Han Chinese have been present on the island. The Japanese, who ruled Taiwan as a colony between 1895 and 1945, nurtured the local sugar industry. By the late 1930s, sugar plantations covered almost 170,000 ha, a fifth of Taiwan's farmland. Cane was grown from Linkou in the north to Hengchun at the southern tip, on the east coast as well as throughout the western lowlands. One in seven Taiwan households had some connection to the industry.

At its peak in 1950, sugar accounted for 73.6% of the ROC's exports by value. But since the 1970s, due to competition from Brazil and other producers, Taiwan's sugar industry has been in unstoppable decline. The number of active refineries has fallen from 49 to just three.

The growing, transportation, and processing of sugar have left a lasting physical imprint in almost every part of Taiwan, however. More than a dozen shuttered mills are still extant, and hundreds of kilometers of railway tracks laid by sugar companies remain in place...


This is the first of three articles I wrote for this year's Travel & Culture Special, published by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. To read the whole piece, go here.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Blood rites in a Taiwanese temple (PerceptiveTravel.com)

The blowtorch failed to ignite the sheaves of spirit money, so the master of ceremonies splashed kerosene over the sodden pile, then touched his cigarette to it. Flames leapt up briefly, but the heavy spring rain soon quenched the fire. Unconcerned, the man turned his attention to another stack of the square yellow papers Taiwanese burn to show respect to their gods, and to ensure their ancestors have enough cash to sustain them in the afterlife.

Behind him a shirtless, sword-wielding spirit medium lurched like a drunk from one steaming heap of spirit money to the next. Only the medium's colorful apron, embroidered with supernatural symbols, marked him out as a deity's go-between, not a lunatic running amok. Each time the tang-ki (as such men are called in Taiwanese) halted, he applied the blade to his back, scalp and forehead. Blood trickled down onto his shoulders before disappearing in rivulets of rainwater. Ardent adherents of Taiwanese folk religion believe that such men are possessed, and protected from injury, by members of the religion's vast pantheon (36,000-plus divine personalities, according to one tally).

In his trance-like state, the tang-ki seemed oblivious to pain, weather and noise. Strings of firecrackers criss-crossing the tarmac went off, adding yet more smoke to the damp haze. I put my hands over my ears each time a bundle exploded, but it was the constant amplified drumming which made me fear for my hearing. The drum was three meters across and mounted on the back of a truck. Four young women dressed in mustard tracksuits thrashed away; their thunderous beating was constant and practiced. Taiwanese pilgrims often resemble teams of athletes, and train just as hard.

A steward ran back and forth among the spectators, his face reddened by the effort needed to make his whistle audible above the din. He was trying, with little success, to keep onlookers a safe distance from the spirit medium. Despite smoldering ash underfoot and a dangerous weapon swinging in random arcs about our heads, we all seemed compelled to move closer to the tang-ki...

This article appears in the July issue of PerceptiveTravel.com. To read the entire piece, start here. For an anthropological opinion on tang-ki, look at this interview.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Touring Taiwanese culture (South China Morning Post)

Most first-time visitors to Taiwan devote a few hours of their trip to the National Palace Museum (NPM) which, as everyone in Greater China knows, houses the better part of the art and curio collection built up over almost a millennium by scores of emperors. Touring a museum is an especially good option during Taiwan’s summer, when high temperatures and the occasional thunderstorm hamper outdoor exploring. The island has upwards of 500 museums, and several offer a better tourism experience than the rightfully renowned yet fearsomely crowded NPM.
 

Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines, a mere 200 metres from the NPM, has Taiwan’s foremost collection of artefacts relating to the island’s indigenous Austronesian minority. Among the most beautiful items are traditional costumes, such as the tunics worn by men from the Atayal and Truku tribes during dances held to celebrate successful head-hunting missions. Such garments feature delicate red and blue stitching, white shells, black beads and up to 900 tiny copper bells.
 

There are also canoes from Orchid Island, bronze weapons, musical instruments and household utensils. Wooden twin cups used by the Paiwan tribe allowed two men to sip liquor at the same time – a ritual when sealing an alliance – and be sure the other was not trying to poison him. 

The best place to learn about Taiwan’s earliest human inhabitants, who preceded the Austronesians by thousands of years, is the National Museum of Prehistory [where the picture here was taken]. Located on the outskirts of Taitung City, the NMP makes a good stop for anyone on a self-driving tour of the east coast. Youngsters are especially intrigued by the lifesize models of animals which roamed Taiwan before the arrival of mankind, among them rhinos, elephants, big cats and small horses.
 

Every facet of Taiwan’s human history, from the discovery of a few teeth which proved people were living here at least 28,000 years ago, to the political pluralism of recent decades, is covered by the superb National Museum of Taiwan History. The past comes alive thanks to 200 Madame Tussaud-type figurines...

This article, which also mentioned the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art in Taichung, appeared in a recent holiday supplement in Hong Kong's main English-language newspaper.