Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Bit of Hawaii in the West Pacific (Travel in Taiwan)

With a population of just 107,000, Taitung City doesn’t come close to being a major urban settlement. But it’s an excellent base from which to explore the east coast and the East Rift Valley.

Key to Taitung’s appeal - and one reason why this part of Taiwan is sometimes compared to multiracial Hawaii - is its unique blend of people. In addition to substantial numbers of Minnanren (Taiwanese whose ancestors moved to the island from China’s Fujian province two or three centuries ago), Waishangren (individuals who arrived from China since World War II and their children) and Hakka (many of whose forefathers came from Guangdong province), one in five city residents is a member of an indigenous Austronesian tribe. 

Taiwan’s government recognizes 16 aboriginal ethnic groups, but Taitung’s indigenous people are mostly Puyuma, Paiwan and Amis. Thanks to his musical achievements, one local Puyuma singer has won great fame: Kimbo. (This song is a paean to the community in which he grew up, and is accompanied by shots of Taitung's scenery.) 

Also known by his Chinese name Hu De-fu (胡德夫), Kimbo was born in 1950 to a Puyuma father and Paiwan mother. He is now an elder statesman in Taiwan’s music industry. An accomplished songwriter and pianist, he’s been credited with bringing aboriginal music to a wider audience, and has performed everything from traditional indigenous songs and Mandarin ballads to a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah...

One of two articles of mine in the new issue of Travel in Taiwan, this piece can be read in its entirety here. I took the photo above at the National Museum of Prehistory. We also visited the coast, a restaurant Kimbo helped start, and this church.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Holy Conflagrations: Boat Burnings at Taiwan’s King Boat Festival (Taiwan Business Topics)

For most of its history, Taiwan was a thoroughly pestilential place. In the 1700s, it was said that of every 10 Chinese migrants who reached the island, “Just three remain. Six are dead, and one has returned home” (三在六亡一回頭). Not until well into the Japanese colonial era was plague brought under control. In the late 1940s, cholera, scrub typhus, and bilharzia (a disease caused by parasitic worms) were still major health threats. Victory over malaria was finally declared in 1965.

Given the virulence of these ailments and the scientific ignorance of the island’s early settlers, it is hardly surprising that epidemics were blamed on malevolent spirits. Then as now, Taiwanese beseeched their gods for protection. Many people wore sachets of incense ash gathered from temples, similar to the amulets that now dangle from rearview mirrors in cars and trucks across Taiwan.

These notions and habits were carried to Taiwan by migrants from the China mainland. As Carol Ann Benedict explains in her book Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-century China (Stanford University Press, 1996), in southern China plague-god festivals “were periodically held in many communities as prophylactic measures against epidemics; similar rituals were held after an epidemic had broken out. Lasting about a week, the jiao (醮, sacrificial rites) included days of elaborate temple rites and liturgies, culminating in a large processional designed to expel all remaining plague demons and send the plague god back to heaven. This was done by placing the wenshen (瘟神, “epidemic gods”) on massive boats (wenchuan, 瘟船, “plague boats”) made of paper or grass that were then burnt or floated away.”

Some scholars think the discovery that fire is effective at destroying pathogens may be one inspiration for this custom, which could be 1,000 years old.

Within Taiwan, the term wangchuan (王船) is preferred to wenchuan. Two major ritual boat-burnings are celebrated each Year of the Goat, Year of the Dog, Year of the Ox, and Year of the Dragon – timing inspired by the triennial inspection tours made by mandarins in ancient China. The best known of these is the King Boat Festival (迎王平安祭) organized by Donglong Temple (東隆宮) in Pingtung County’s Donggang Township. As 2015 is the Year of the Goat, the King Boat Festival will run this year from October 4 to 11.

The other major ritual boat-burning ceremony is sometimes called Taiwan’s Foremost Offering of Incense (台灣第一香), and is centered on Qingan Temple (慶安宮) in Tainan City’s Xigang District. The 2015 edition was held May 28 to June 1.

Xigang is a nondescript town with a population of just 25,000. However, its wangchuan rites – first held in 1784 and now involving 96 villages – are said to be more faithful to tradition than the one in Donggang...

The entire article appears in the magazine's recent travel and culture special, and can be read online by clicking here. Both photos are mine, and were taken at the 2012 King Boat Festival.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Enjoying Taroko Gorge’s Fabled Beauty (Taiwan Business Topics)

The story of Taroko Gorge begins hundreds of millions of years ago with the accumulation of sediment and volcanic lava beneath what is now the Pacific Ocean. These materials blended with calcium carbonate from the bones of sea organisms and hardened into limestone. In due course, tectonic pressure compressed the limestone until it metamorphosed into marble, gneiss, and schist.

Approximately 6.5 million years ago, as the Philippine tectonic plate began sliding under the Eurasian plate, these layers of metamorphic rock emerged from the ocean. Rivers formed and began carving through the bedrock, creating the gully that eventually became Taiwan’s best-known natural attraction. This spectacular geological feature is thus far younger than the Grand Canyon, which scientists believe to be around 70 million years old.

Taroko’s cliffs, smoothed by grit-carrying water, are made up of white, cream, gray, silver, and beige boulders, some as big as vans. Yet if just one color is chosen to represent Taroko National Park, it should be green. Natural forests cover four-fifths of the park, with manmade woodlands bringing total tree cover to just over 90%.

Erosion continues to deepen the abyss, but because this region’s rate of tectonic uplift is one of the world’s highest – over 0.5 centimeters annually during the last glacial period, and up to 0.2 centimeters per year in recent millennia – the bottom of the ravine is still rising compared to sea level. (Some observers joke that this seems impossible, since Taroko Gorge gets so many visitors that the combined weight of tourists and their vehicles must surely be pushing the area down.)

Taroko National Park recorded 6.28 million visitors in 2014, a large proportion of them mainland Chinese on group tours. This total is sure to grow. As soon as improvements to the Suao-Hualien Highway are completed, probably by the end of 2017, the national park will become much more accessible for those coming from Taipei.

Managing the crowds is a serious challenge, admits Taroko National Park Director Yang Mo-lin, who took up the post earlier this year. “Visitor numbers have been increasing year by year, and this does cause congestion in certain places,” he says. “I’m often asked which part of Taroko is the most beautiful. Personally, I think every corner of the national park is worth visiting and savoring.”

Taroko National Park is triple the size of Taipei City. Yet within its 920 square kilometers, just three roads are open to the public: Highway 8, Highway 9, and Highway 14甲. The first is the Central Cross-Island Highway linking Lishan in Greater Taichung with Taiwan’s Pacific coast via the gorge. Only a short section of Highway 9 lies within the park; from it, tourists can appreciate the Qingshui Cliffs, which plunge dramatically to the ocean. Highway 14甲 enters the park’s southwest via Wushe and Qingjing Farm in Nantou County. At Wuling it reaches an altitude of 3,275 meters, making it the highest stretch of paved road on the island.

Tourists who venture no further than 50 meters from one of these highways, or who stick to one of the park’s several unrestricted trails, need not apply for any permits or pay any admission charges. This policy may change, however...

The rest of this article, which appears in Taiwan Business Topics special issue on travel and culture, can be read online here

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Taiwan’s Mountain Paradise for the Nature-minded (Taiwan Business Topics)

Fushan Botanical Garden (福山植物園) is located in New Taipei City’s Wulai District, 10km as the crow flies from the Atayal village of Fushan. There is no road – and no legal access for hikers – from Greater Taipei, so visitors must come through Yilan County’s Yuanshan Township. But inconvenience is not the only reason why far fewer people visit Fushan than Taipei’s lovely but invariably crowded botanical garden. Permission to enter must be sought well in advance, and no more than 500 people are allowed in each day (600 on weekends and holidays).

Because educating the public about ecology is central to the garden’s mission, admission is free. Multimedia presentations are made every half hour inside the garden’s Nature Center, which is on the right about 1km before the main parking lot.

Covering 410 hectares, Fushan Botanical Garden accounts for approximately a third of Fushan Experimental Forest, which straddles the boundary between New Taipei and Yilan at elevations of 600 to 1,400 meters. The annual average temperature is 18.5 degrees Celsius, compared to 22 degrees Celsius in downtown Taipei. Annual average rainfall is 4,125 millimeters, about 40% more than in the capital. At 94.1%, Fushan’s annual average relative humidity is also considerably higher than Taipei’s.

The garden is not a reserve in the sense of aiming to absolutely minimize humanity’s impact on natural ecosystems. That is the goal of another part of Fushan Experimental Forest, the 333-hectare Hapen Nature Reserve to the immediate south of the garden. The northernmost segment of the forest is the 356-hectare Water Source Reserve, most of which is broad-leaf forest. Both reserves are strictly off-limits to the public.

Before the 1895-1945 Japanese colonization period, this area was inhabited by members of the Atayal indigenous tribe. Hapen Creek, a stream which flows through all three parts of the experimental forest, takes its name from a long-abandoned aboriginal settlement called Hbun. These days, the nearest permanent human residents are a handful of Hakka farming households at Shuanglianpi (雙連埤), more than five kilometers away. In good weather, the 17.2-hectare body of water after which the settlement is named is strikingly beautiful.

That is a big if, however. Fushan itself gets rain around 270 days per year, and fog is extremely common. Visitors should bring umbrellas or rainproof jackets, even if Taipei and Yilan City are bone dry.

The actual garden is divided into four zones, and it makes sense to explore them in the following order: Natural Classroom, Tree Exhibition, Forest Discovery, and Plants and Human Life.

The route outlined in the English-language section of the garden’s website is 3.01km long. Good footwear is essential as the pathways are mostly gravel, and the boardwalk beside the Aquatic Plants Pond can get slippery.

The pond is artificial but filled with life. Egrets and grey herons prey upon finger-length Candidia barbatus, an endemic minnow species. There are also turtles and frogs. One of the latter, Babina adenopleura, is found only in Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. During its March-to-August breeding season, the “ji-ji-ji” calls of male Babina adenopleura are especially audible, although the frogs themselves are hard to spot.

In total, 515 plant species belonging to 329 genera and 124 families thrive in the garden. There are some useful information boards around the garden; all are reproduced on the garden’s website. However, the labels in front of individual trees and plants provide the scientific and Chinese names only. Unless you carry a field guide, you may well find yourself googling names on your smartphone to find out more. Cellphone reception is serviceable in most of the garden.

Visitors familiar with Taiwan’s low-elevation mountain areas may well recognize one plant before they see any labels. What Taiwanese call “biting people cat” (咬人貓, Urtica thunbergiana) is a nettle whose sting is rightly feared. Not many city-dwellers know it can be cooked and eaten in soups.

The garden has few notably tall trees, because those that grow above the canopy are often blown over during typhoons. Unlike some other managed woodlands in Taiwan, fallen trees at Fushan are moved only if they block a pathway. The damp climate means the risk of forest fire is minimal, and rotting lumber plays an important role in arboreal ecosystems. Various creatures hide from predators or shelter from the sun inside dead trees. Beetles, spiders, and worms move and feed within the decaying wood. Most of the logs on the ground at Fushan host fungi.

Several of the species here have medicinal functions, including Mahonia japonica, sometimes called Japanese Holly-Grape. Scientific and common names notwithstanding, this perennial woody evergreen is native to Taiwan rather than Japan. It bears fruit that are no more than one centimeter in length and full of seeds, but quite edible raw or cooked. The seeds can be used to decoct a febrifuge – a substance that reduces fevers – while the roots and stems are said to have anti-rheumatic, detoxifying, and expectorant powers.

Standing out like a sore thumb – or in this case a sick tree – is a mature specimen of Prunus zippeliana. Most of its bark has come off, leaving the trunk and main branches a patchwork of ochre and clay brown, which is likely why this evergreen’s Chinese name is 黃土樹, “yellow-soil tree.” This sloughing is in fact proof of good health, an entirely normal mechanism to shed borers and parasites...

This is one of three articles I have in this year's Taiwan Business Topics Travel and Culture special issue. To see the entire article, click here. I took both of the photos during my visit to the garden earlier this year.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Taipei - Rich, Fresh Diversity (Le Pan)

Among Greater China metropolises, Taipei has a unique history, and this has created a culinary scene of exceptional richness. Early migrants from Fujian adapted their cooking traditions to the wild game and seafood they found in abundance. Indigenous Austronesians and Hakka clans still live on the fringes of this city of 2.7 million, and present their ethnic cuisines in scores of restaurants.

Japanese dishes began appearing in homes and restaurants soon after Tokyo seized control of Taiwan in 1895. Japanese rule ended in 1945 - but you might not think so, given the ubiquity of sushi and miso soup, plus an enduring love for sashimi.

A second influx occurred just after World War II. Following his defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong’s communists, Chiang Kai-shek set up a Nationalist government in-exile in Taipei. His followers included foodies from every part of the Chinese mainland, and within a decade the city boasted excellent Shanghainese, Hunanese and Szechuan eateries.

By the 1970s, Taipei was a key player in the global economy. But rather than business visitors, the key demographic nowadays for international restaurants are Taiwanese whose tastes have been shaped by travel or study overseas. For quite some time, Taipei folk have not lived by rice alone.

Even now, many Taipei housewives still shop at traditional markets four or five mornings per week, and the expectation that all ingredients are ultra-fresh influences how restaurants present their offerings. Glass tanks filled with fish and crustaceans are a feature of seafood establishments throughout the region, but in Taiwan similar thinking is also found in many places where beef is served. Look carefully, and you will likely see a notice stating the number of hours from slaughter to table.

Considering at least a tenth of Taiwan’s population eschews bovine meat for semi-religious reasons, the popularity of one dish in particular is striking. Among Taipei residents, few issues are more contentious than the question of which eatery serves the finest beef noodles, and the city government organizes an annual festival. Few people blog so frequently and passionately about food as the citizens of Taipei, and online appraisals of beef-noodle restaurants judge dishes not only by the quality of the meat and the taste of the soup, but also by the freshness of the scallions and mung-bean sprouts, and the presence or absence of garlic, tomatoes, hot bean paste (doubanjiang, 豆瓣醬) and star anise. Brisket is the usual cut, but there are some who favor tendon or shank.

Hot pot is another type of meal with a massive and devoted following. Herbal-medicine and mala (numbingly spicy, 麻辣) broths are perennial favorites, but restaurants here offer at least a dozen variations on the theme, including pots which incorporate milk, yoghurt, Korean kimchi, or lemongrass and other Thai ingredients.

The arrival post-1945 of people with roots in northern China manifests itself in the range of wheat-flour foods available on every thoroughfare...

Le Pan (The Art of Fine Wine Living) is a new online and print publication focusing on gourmet food and top-notch wine in East Asia. My article is part of Le Pan's 'Culinary Capitals' series, which to date has also covered Tokyo, Singapore, Barcelona, Rome and other international cities. I took both photos in Addiction Aquatic Development, where Japanese cuisine is served in a seafood-market setting.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A trip to Poland

Just before the summer I spent a week in Poland on assignment for a media company which promotes the country as a tourist and investment destination. It wasn't a junket in the traditional sense; I wasn't part of a group led from place to place while being kept well fed and watered. Instead, several months back I was asked to devise an itinerary which interested me. The company checked and amended it, so it didn't overlap with the plans of other writers they've invited to Poland. (To date, more than two dozen have taken part in this programme, from as far afield as Brazil and Japan). Once the plan was hammered out, I flew in and travelled around by myself, spending one night in Warsaw, three in Krakow and two in Zakopane.

Within hours of my arrival I was impressed by Poland as a vacation destination. Everything seems well organised and most people under the age of 40 speak English well. Prices are far more reasonable than those in the UK. Accommodation is significantly cheaper than in Taiwan (I'd say 30 to 60% less pricey, depending on the place). Public transport is a little more expensive, yet still excellent value compared to the UK. Eating out wasn't ruinous. And as you might expect in Eastern Europe, alcohol was pretty cheap.

In Warsaw (which I wasn't writing about) I stayed less than 100m from where I took the photo, top left. The shorter, older skyscraper is the Stalin-funded 1950s Palace of Culture. I explored Warsaw's old city, which was rebuilt from scratch after World War II, and spent a morning in the engrossing yet sobering Warsaw Uprising Museum. 

Then it was off to Krakow, which is to Poland what Tainan is to Taiwan – a former capital (between the 11th and 16th centuries) and still a centre of arts, scholarship and culture. Like Tainan it has an abundance of antique buildings, but quite unlike Tainan – where architectural treasures are somewhat scattered – these are clustered in a distinct 'old town' in the heart of the urban area. The Historic Centre of Krakow is deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage Site which rewards patient, random exploration. While in the city I made two excursions beyond the old heart of Krakow: One to the old Jewish quarter, and another to Benedictine Abbey of Tyniec (pictured above). The latter involved taking trams to the edge of the city, then hiking upstream along the Vistula River for around two hours. But the exertion was certainly worth it: The views along the river and from the abbey once you're there are lovely.

Zakopane (final image) struck me as a Polish version of Alishan: A mountain resort that in itself is a bit tacky and suffering from piecemeal over-development, but which is surrounded by impressive mountains. Like many Taiwanese tourist towns, it even has an 'old street' which isn't especially old, but which is a good place to watch people and find something to eat. For me, the highlight was undoubtedly the opportunity to do some short hikes, through temperate forests and up on to nearby ridges from where I could enjoy the scenery. I'd love to go back to Poland!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

More photos on Life of Taiwan

In addition to a slight redesign to improve user experience, we've added almost two dozen new images to the Life of Taiwan website. 

More than half of them are mine, including the one posted here which shows a delicately carved window-grill in the Queen of Heaven Temple (Tianhou Temple) in Magong City, Penghu County. Additional new pictures show, among other tourist destinations, Yangmingshan National Park, Mingde Reservoir in Miaoli County, and Qinbi Village in the Matsu Islands. 

Long-time collaborator Rich J. Matheson contributed two photos this time around, while Richard Saunders (author of several guides to various parts of Taiwan, including this one to Penghu and its outlying islands) graciously gave permission to use one of his photos.