Thursday, January 5, 2012

Taiwan in one (PINCH Magazine)

Good news for those eager to explore Taiwan beyond Taipei: Heading down island is a snap. The history and character of Tainan – 90 minutes by bullet train from Taipei – have earned it a place not only on itineraries but also in the hearts of many visitors. It’s also a fine springboard for exploring the mountains that dominate Taiwan’s interior.

Tainan folk rise early and you should too. Ask around for a place serving youtiao and doujiang. The former are savoury doughnuts as long as your forearm; the latter is vegan-friendly soybean milk. Like croissants, youtiao are best enjoyed when oven-hot. As with coffee, freshly-ground beans are essential to good doujiang.

The city has a prodigious number of ancient temples where locals sacrifice incense and fruit to Buddhist, Taoist and folk deities. The Great Queen of Heaven Temple is especially colourful and on any given morning you’ll see rites venerating the Queen of Heaven herself, sea goddess Mazu. A parade held in her honor each spring is said to be the largest annual religious event in the world outside India. At a side altar, singletons ask the matchmaker god for help finding a spouse. Those who pray here and later get hitched leave wedding pictures to show their appreciation, and to encourage lonely hearts. Elsewhere, a tablet commemorates the man who lived on this site before it was a house of worship. A pretender to China’s imperial throne, he hanged himself 328 years ago when his government-in-exile crumbled.

Drifting through the city centre, you’ll pass Baroque edifices added to the cityscape during the 50 years Taiwan was a colony of Japan. Like the Victorians, the Japanese built everything to last. But local architects have found their voice, and there’s no better place to see their work than the Magic School of Green Technology – a state-of-the-art example of sustainable design, with touches inspired by Noah’s Ark.

Heading inland, pineapple plantations, guava orchards and net-covered papaya groves blanket the first ripple of hills. Sampling Taiwan’s superb fruits is highly recommended. Thanks to an excellent road network, it’s possible to get to the mountain resort of Alishan before dark – even if temple-touring kept you in Tainan well after lunch.

Some 2,200m above sea level, Alishan is to Taiwan what Darjeeling is to India. Before air-con, it was a place where the gentry could escape summer heatwaves. And like Darjeeling it’s in the heart of tea-growing country. Taiwan’s Oolongs and Oriental Beauty teas are excellent and affordable – the shocking prices you may have read about (in August 2011, 23,000 euros was paid for 1kg of a prize-winning leaves!) are auction-room publicity stunts. Cherry blossoms and a sublime Zen shrine give the resort a strong Japanese flavor, but Alishan is truly the stomping ground of the Tsou people, one of Taiwan’s 14 indigenous tribes. Visiting Maoris and Filipinos, eavesdropping on locals’ conversations, have been astonished to find themselves understanding snatches. Only recently did scientists confirm that Austronesian languages and peoples throughout the Asia-Pacific can be traced back to this little island.

When in Alishan, it’s customary to rise in time to see the sun rise over Jade Mountain, which at 3,952m is Northeast Asia’s highest peak. The “sea of clouds” filling the valley beneath you is a stirring sight, and if you’re into birdwatching, you’ll want to continue onto the national park that surrounds Jade Mountain. At least 16 avian species unique to Taiwan make their home in the park, and these feathered beauties neatly embody the island’s charms: Made in Taiwan, found nowhere else on Earth.

This short article appears in the first issue of PINCH Magazine, an online cultural and lifestyle magazine which chose Taiwan as its featured destination. Pinch is put together by the people behind the award-winning luxury travel and lifestyle websites, Black Tomato and Beach Tomato. The photo above is one of the images that accompanied by article, and comes courtesy of the publishers.

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