Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Banana Kingdom (Travel in Taiwan)

More often bypassed than visited, Qishan (旗山, sometimes spelled 'Cishan') is used to being neglected by tourists who rush through en route to the Hakka district of Meinong or the religious center of Foguangshan. However, this bustling-yet-bucolic town - now officially part of the Greater Kaohsiung Municipality - is not only charming, but can also rightfully claim to have played an important role in Taiwan's economic and agricultural history.

Qishan is synonymous with one crop - the banana. Amid the cornucopia of delicious fruits grown in Taiwan, these yellow-skinned delights are quite humble. They're commonplace and inexpensive. When people want to make a gift of fruit, few opt for bananas. They're more likely to buy perfect peaches, gorgeous grapes or prestigious pitayas.

Half a century ago, Japanese consumers couldn't get enough of Qishan's bananas. Nienty percent of the bananas eaten in Japan were from Taiwan, and exports of the fruit generated a third of Taiwan's foreign currency earnings. An entire section of the Port of Kaohsiung was dedicated to the fruit. The warehouses where they were kept cool before shipping, now known as Banana Pier, have been revamped into a shopping-and-banqueting complex.

At the height of the boom, each banana tree generated as much income per year as a teacher earned in a month, and it's said that for every six bananas a farmer sold to Japan, he could buy a quality suit. Not that banana farmers made a habit of wearing fine garments - it's also said that even in their free time, while shopping or drinking with friends in Qishan's downtown, bachelor farmers liked to wear their sap-stained work clothes. This wasn't due to any sense of thrift; they did so because everyone knew banana growing was lucrative, and advertising one's occupation was a surefire way to attract a wife...

This is the second of my two articles in the most recent Travel in Taiwan magazine. The other is here. The photo, which I took, shows an 87-year-old banana farmer checking on his crop.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Stars Above Canvas: Camping in Central Taiwan (Compass)

Traveling within Taiwan has a lot going for it. The people are very friendly. Public transportation is reliable and inexpensive, and the road network allows motorists to get from A to B quickly. Food is available almost everywhere almost any time of day or night. There are lots of museums, many of which don't charge admission. One gripe, however, is the cost of accommodation. On weekends or during holiday periods, your hotel or B&B may well account for over half your daily expenditure.

One solution is to pack a tent in your car, motorcycle or backpack. For as little as NT$100 per person you can stay in a campground with toilets and hot showers. Many have additional facilities-possibly even a karaoke machine. "Guerrilla camping" is fairly common in certain places and costs absolutely nothing. Guerrilla campers typically find a good spot during the afternoon, loiter nearby until dusk, then pitch their tent on an empty patch of land without the knowledge or permission of the owner. Usually they're gone before breakfast.

On many weekends, guerrilla campers can be spotted in parking lots beside the highest sections of the Rt. 21 New Central Cross-Island Highway (新中橫), a spectacular mountain road that runs between Shuili in Nantou county (南投縣水里) Tataka in Yushan National Park (玉山國家公園). In and around Hehuanshan (合歡山), brave campers have found prime sites where they're tolerated by the authorities-so long as they pick up their garbage and refrain from making camp fires.

These locations-many have toilets but no showers-are breathtaking places to stay. Before retiring for the night, go for a stroll and enjoy views of stars you'd never get on the lowlands. When you step outside your tent the following morning, you'll likely catch sight of a dramatic "sea of clouds" filling the valleys below.

Parts of the New Central Cross-Island Highway are 2,000 meters or more above sea level, so city-dwellers must be prepared for temperatures much lower than those they're used to...

To read the rest of this article - cover story in the magazine's September issue - go here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fire and Art (Travel in Taiwan)

The single-story three-sided courtyard house is a timeless feature of Taiwan's countryside. These quaint abodes, known in Mandarin Chinese as sanheyuan (三合院), are recognizable by their tiled roofs and wings set at right angles to the main part of the house. Some sanheyuan are cramped; others have enough space for large extended families. The walls may be of pounded earth, wattle-and-daub, or round river stones cemented together, but if the owners could afford it, the material of choice was red brick.

Few sanheyuan have been built since the 1960s, and Taiwan's construction industry now prefers steel-reinforced concrete. Not surprisingly, many brick-makers have gone out of business. Of the 130-plus traditional brick-making kilns which used to operate in Kaohsiung City's Dashu District (大樹區), only three remain, and they all belong to San-He Tile Kiln (三和瓦窯, 94 Zhuliao Road; tel: (07) 652-1432; open: Monday to Friday 8am-5pm; Saturday & Sunday 8am-7pm; groups should book in advance). The company's Chinese-only website features gorgeous photos of the company's premises and products.

As recently as the 1950s, the area boasted 20 companies in the same line of business. All have fallen by the wayside, save for San-He, now managed by Lee Chun-hung (李俊宏), great-grandson of the entrepreneur who purchased the business in 1925...

The complete article appears in the September/October issue of Travel in Taiwan. The picture shows the side of one of the company's three traditional kilns. Two are still in regular use.