Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Exploring Taiwan’s Southern Tip (En Voyage)

If beach capers are the be-all and end-all of your vacation, it makes sense to minimize the time spent getting from Taiwan’s second city to its premier seaside resort. But if your interests are broader and you’ve access to a hire car, you’ll discover a region that makes for a wonderful multi-day road trip.

Expressway 88 and Freeway 3 allow a rapid escape from Kaohsiung and its suburbs - but also bypass the intriguing destinations of Donggang and Jiadong...

This article, which also appeared in the December issue of EVA Air's inflight magazine, goes on to mention Donggang’s bluefin tuna and boat-burning festival, Jiadong’s superb Hakka mansion, Mount Lilong, Longluan Lake, the beach resort at the heart of Kenting National Park, and the Alangyi Ancient Trail. The photo above, which I took in 2010, shows Longpan Park in the southeastern part of Kenting National Park. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Taiwan's aboriginal food (En Voyage)

More than nine-tenths of Taiwan’s population is of Han Chinese descent, yet the island’s indigenous minorities (537,000 out of a total population of 23.4 million) have managed to preserve many of their Austronesian traditions. Aboriginal languages are still spoken in remote mountain villages, and indigenous festivals delight foreign and domestic tourists. What is more, aboriginal cuisines are quite different to the Chinese-influenced fare usually eaten in Taiwan.
 

In the mountains that dominate Taiwan’s interior, aboriginal people traditionally lived by snaring and trapping wild animals and gathering wild greens utterly unlike the vegetables usually grown in the lowlands. These days, very few indigenous lives are untouched by modernity, but hunting and foraging habits still influence what aboriginal people eat. Mountain boar is leaner than domesticated pig; other succulent meats include muntjac and wild dove. What members of the Bunun tribe (one of 16 Austronesian ethnic groups recognized by Taiwan's government) call bubunu resembles a nettle, but when cooked in a soup it can ease a hangover. Bunun women learn from their mothers how to distinguish the nutritious balangbalang from a similar but poisonous plant. Rather than rice, taro and millet are the carbohydrates of choice.
 

Big-city restaurants run by indigenous people rely on family connections to source ingredients. As you might expect, aboriginal food is easiest to find in those parts of Taiwan with substantial indigenous populations, such as around the famous mountain resort of Alishan. In the eastern counties of Hualien and Taitung, where over a quarter of residents are indigenous...

This is one of two articles I wrote for the December issue of En Voyage, the inflight magazine of EVA Air. It appears on pages 32 and 33; the entire magazine is online. The photo, which I took earlier this year, show Bunun dishes at a restaurant in Kaohsiung City's Namasia District.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Quoted in New York Times

New York Times' writer Adam H. Graham quotes me in his just-published piece, Taiwan, an Island of Green in Asia. Mr. Graham contacted me by email back in September and graciously mentions that I authored the Bradt guidebook to Taiwan.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Small Wonder (Journeys)

Taiwan, a strikingly rugged island 170km off the coast of China, is only slightly larger than Wales and Northern Ireland combined, but studded with mountains three times’ the height of Ben Nevis. The vast majority of Taiwan’s 23 million people are crammed into its western lowlands, which is why Taiwan has such bustling cities, yet also stunning alpine and forest wilderness.

Strangely, the island is still better known among business travellers than tourists, which is undeserved. Most first-time visitors begin with a night or two in Taipei, an ugly-duckling sprawl turned stylish metropolis.Taipei has the the world-class National Palace Museum (NPM) and Taipei 101 (now the world’s second tallest building) among its many attractions. Despite mainland China’s rapid rise, the NPM will always be the best place in the world to appreciate the stupendous artistic achievement of China’s 5,000-year-old civilization.

Taipei was for decades the ‘provisional capital of Free China.’ This is where Chiang Kai-shek and his generals plotted the defeat of the Communists and the retaking of the Chinese mainland while neglecting Taiwan’s long-term development. But since martial law was lifted in 1987, the island has evolved into one of Asia’s liveliest democracies. Now that its politicians are answerable to the population, improvements have come thick and fast.

A case in point is Taipei’s public transport system. Using comfortable, air-conditioned buses and a superb underground, it’s possible to zip out to far-flung attractions like Danshui or Wulai, get in a whole day of sightseeing, and be back in the heart of the city for dinner.

Danshui’s main draw is Fort San Domingo. Named by the Spanish who arrived in the 1630s, then rebuilt by Dutch occupiers a decade later, it housed a British consulate between 1867 and 1972. The fort neatly encapsulates how Taiwan has been occupied, exploited and pushed around by outsiders throughout its history...


This article, for the UK-based Journeys magazine, appeared in their August print edition, but doesn't seem to be on their website. In it, I also mention Taroko Gorge, Tainan's temples, the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival, and tang-ki who cut themselves during folk rites. I took the photo on one of Danshui's old side streets, not far from the Little White House.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Taking in Taiwan's autumn scenery (En Voyage)

There's no better time to visit Taiwan than in the fall. Throughout October and November the island enjoys dependably comfortable weather. In Taipei, daytime temperatures average 19-25 degrees Celsius (66-77 degrees Fahrenheit). Summer typhoons are a dim memory and rain is infrequent. In other words, it's an ideal season for outdoor activities.

This is the time of year to enjoy Yushan National Park. Driving from the plains into the hills around Jade Mountain, Taiwan's highest peak...

This article appeared just over a year ago but I didn't get around to posting a link. As we're entering autumn, it's timely. To read the whole article, go to the online edition of EVA Air's inflight magazine. This link will take you straight to the first page; you can scroll on to see the rest. The photo shows an old shop in Chiayi County's Taiping Village, a mid-elevation destination that's very suitable for autumn touring.

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.