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.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Valley at the Heart of Taiwan's Untamed East (En Voyage)

The eastern counties of Hualien and Taitung have more than a fifth of Taiwan’s land area, yet contain a mere 2.4 percent of the country’s population. Express trains from Taipei reach Hualien in less than three hours. For an even quicker escape, board a Taitung-bound plane at Taipei’s Songshan Airport. The flight time is just one hour.

It’s no surprise that Highway 11, the intensely scenic coast road from Taitung to Hualien, draws a lot of tourists. However, the inland route through the East Rift Valley is even more alluring. This well-watered region, more than 150km from north to south, is squeezed between highlands. The Central Mountain Range hinders access to Taiwan’s more developed western half, while the Coastal Mountain Range shelters the valley from Pacific typhoons.

Much of Taiwan’s best farmland can be found in the East Rift Valley, which is also known as the Huatung Valley. Since Japan’s 1895-1945 colonial occupation of Taiwan, the township of Chishang has been synonymous with rice of the highest quality. As demand for organically grown food increases, more and more Rift Valley farmers are reviving traditional methods such as raising ducks in their rice fields. Not only do these fowl eat snails and other pests, but their feet also stir the soil and their excrement is good fertiliser. Paddies which have been spared industrial pesticides teem with frogs, spiders and tiny moths.

The valley is an excellent place to sample aboriginal cooking, which is based on millet rather than rice

The full article can be seen in the online version of EVA Air's inflight magazine. Click here and scroll through the magazine. The photo shows an old wooden bungalow in Lintianshan, an East Rift Valley attraction I mention in the article, and which I've also added to my guidebook for the just-published second edition.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Staying on Track: Exploring Taiwan by Train (Centered on Taipei)

Trains aren't the cheapest way of getting around Taiwan, and often they’re not the quickest. The high-speed railway will get you from Taipei to Kaohsiung in as little as one hour 36 minutes, but at four times the price of a midweek bus ticket (journey time about five hours). Very few of the conventional expresses operated by Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA), a branch of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, cover that route more quickly than buses, even though the cost is double. That said, rail travel is an excellent way to explore Taiwan. The island’s trains are safe and ultra-reliable. They don't get stuck in traffic. And while they can't carry you through Taroko Gorge or to a beach in the Penghu Islands, they can deliver you to several worthwhile destinations. 

If all goes to plan, by the end of this year the famous logging railroad between Chiayi City and Alishan will again be taking sightseers from 30m above sea level to an altitude of 2,216m via a spectacular 72km-long route which includes switchbacks, the spiral ascent of a mountain, and so many bridges and tunnels you’ll lose count. (The photo above shows one of the forest railway's diesal locomotives).

Hsinchu, Chiayi and Tainan HSR stations are several kilometers from the centers of those cities, whereas TRA services convey passengers to within walking distance of downtown attractions. Hsinchu TRA Station is just 300m from Yingxi Old East Gate, and 750m from Beimen Street, a thoroughfare packed to the gills with old buildings. If you live in Taipei and
have never seen Hsinchu’s historic side, do make the trip.

At Tainan TRA Station, pick up a map from the information center and commence your walking tour. Even if you stray no more than a kilometer from the station, it’s possible to take in the city’s incomparable Confucius Temple, Fort Provintia (built by the Dutch East India Company in 1653), the exquisite Sacrificial Rites Martial Temple and several other places of worship. In the same neighborhood you’ll find Japanese colonial-era landmarks...

To see the whole article, pick up a print copy of the June/July issue of Centered on Taipei, or go here and scroll down to page 24.