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.