Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Exploring Taiwan’s Southern Tip (En Voyage)

If beach capers are the be-all and end-all of your vacation, it makes sense to minimize the time spent getting from Taiwan’s second city to its premier seaside resort. But if your interests are broader and you’ve access to a hire car, you’ll discover a region that makes for a wonderful multi-day road trip.

Expressway 88 and Freeway 3 allow a rapid escape from Kaohsiung and its suburbs - but also bypass the intriguing destinations of Donggang and Jiadong...

This article, which also appeared in the December issue of EVA Air's inflight magazine, goes on to mention Donggang’s bluefin tuna and boat-burning festival, Jiadong’s superb Hakka mansion, Mount Lilong, Longluan Lake, the beach resort at the heart of Kenting National Park, and the Alangyi Ancient Trail. The photo above, which I took in 2010, shows Longpan Park in the southeastern part of Kenting National Park. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Taiwan's aboriginal food (En Voyage)

More than nine-tenths of Taiwan’s population is of Han Chinese descent, yet the island’s indigenous minorities (537,000 out of a total population of 23.4 million) have managed to preserve many of their Austronesian traditions. Aboriginal languages are still spoken in remote mountain villages, and indigenous festivals delight foreign and domestic tourists. What is more, aboriginal cuisines are quite different to the Chinese-influenced fare usually eaten in Taiwan.

In the mountains that dominate Taiwan’s interior, aboriginal people traditionally lived by snaring and trapping wild animals and gathering wild greens utterly unlike the vegetables usually grown in the lowlands. These days, very few indigenous lives are untouched by modernity, but hunting and foraging habits still influence what aboriginal people eat. Mountain boar is leaner than domesticated pig; other succulent meats include muntjac and wild dove. What members of the Bunun tribe (one of 16 Austronesian ethnic groups recognized by Taiwan's government) call bubunu resembles a nettle, but when cooked in a soup it can ease a hangover. Bunun women learn from their mothers how to distinguish the nutritious balangbalang from a similar but poisonous plant. Rather than rice, taro and millet are the carbohydrates of choice.

Big-city restaurants run by indigenous people rely on family connections to source ingredients. As you might expect, aboriginal food is easiest to find in those parts of Taiwan with substantial indigenous populations, such as around the famous mountain resort of Alishan. In the eastern counties of Hualien and Taitung, where over a quarter of residents are indigenous...

This is one of two articles I wrote for the December issue of En Voyage, the inflight magazine of EVA Air. It appears on pages 32 and 33; the entire magazine is online. The photo, which I took earlier this year, show Bunun dishes at a restaurant in Kaohsiung City's Namasia District.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Quoted in New York Times

New York Times' writer Adam H. Graham quotes me in his just-published piece, Taiwan, an Island of Green in Asia. Mr. Graham contacted me by email back in September and graciously mentions that I authored the Bradt guidebook to Taiwan.

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.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Taking in Taiwan's autumn scenery (En Voyage)

There's no better time to visit Taiwan than in the fall. Throughout October and November the island enjoys dependably comfortable weather. In Taipei, daytime temperatures average 19-25 degrees Celsius (66-77 degrees Fahrenheit). Summer typhoons are a dim memory and rain is infrequent. In other words, it's an ideal season for outdoor activities.

This is the time of year to enjoy Yushan National Park. Driving from the plains into the hills around Jade Mountain, Taiwan's highest peak...

This article appeared just over a year ago but I didn't get around to posting a link. As we're entering autumn, it's timely. To read the whole article, go to the online edition of EVA Air's inflight magazine. This link will take you straight to the first page; you can scroll on to see the rest. The photo shows an old shop in Chiayi County's Taiping Village, a mid-elevation destination that's very suitable for autumn touring.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Where There's A Road, There's A Bus (En Voyage)

Taiwan is stupendously scenic, having 1,566km of coastline and 258 peaks over 3,000m in height. It’s also well developed, the population of 23.3 million enjoying good public transportation and a comprehensive road network. Where these elements come together, visitors can enjoy truly breathtaking bus journeys.

Obviously bus travel can never be as flexible as self-driving, but on almost every route it’s possible to break your journey in one or more places. In addition to being an inexpensive way to get around, buses save you the stress of navigating unfamiliar streets and adapting to a different style of driving when you should be concentrating on enjoying the island’s visual splendor. And you’ll enjoy it in some comfort, as every bus in Taiwan is air-conditioned. To maintain high levels of cleanliness, eating and drinking are prohibited on many routes.

If family or business commitments keep you close to Taipei, focus your attention on Yangmingshan National Park and Taiwan’s north coast. Bus #1717 provides a splendid introduction to the park’s extinct volcanoes. It can be boarded at Taipei Main Station, Jiantan MRT Station or points in between, and there’s approximately one service per hour. Staying on the bus all the way to its terminal stop in the town of Jinshan is satisfying yet unadventurous. But if you love the great outdoors, get off at Xiaoyoukeng. You’ll have no problem recognizing the stop, because a steam-belching fumarole comes into view as the bus rounds a corner. It looks as if part of the hillside has collapsed, and many of the exposed boulders bear yellow-green stains. As long ago as the 16th century, local aborigines were mining the sulfur deposits here and selling the chemical to visiting Chinese merchants. For even better views of the fumarole, follow the steep path up the hill toward Seven Stars Mountain, the peak of which (1.6km away and 1,120m above sea level) is the highest point in the national park. 

There’s plenty to do at Jinshan. Al fresco eating options are available a stone’s throw from the bus stop. At Jinbaoli Old Street, where pre-World War II merchants’ houses have been preserved, vendors hawk dried seafood, peanut candy and other traditional items.

If you regret not stretching your legs at Xiaoyoukeng, or simply prefer flat paths, you can tramp from the heart of Jinshan to the end of the promontory that shields its fishing harbor. It takes about an hour, and it’s impossible to get lost if you follow the signs to the Twin Candlesticks [shown here in my own photograph], a pair of unwieldy 60m-high rock columns just offshore...

To read the whole article, which is spread over eight pages in the August edition of EVA Air's inflight magazine and accompanied by superb images - none of them mine - click here and scroll forward.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Fruit of the Angels (Travel in Taiwan)

Papayas aren’t native to Taiwan. They originate from Central America, and it’s said that when Christopher Columbus tried one during his historic voyages of exploration, he described it as “the fruit of the angels.” Like many other crops, papayas grow superbly well in Taiwan thanks to an abundance of water and a foliage-friendly climate. Sometimes called the pawpaw, the hefty reddish-orange fruit is sold at markets up and down the island.

Carica papaya, to give the papaya tree its scientific name, is a relatively recent addition to Taiwan’s landscape, having been introduced to the island from the Chinese mainland around 1907. These spindly, fast-growing plants are now seen throughout the southern half of the island, individually in private gardens or cultivated by the hundred beneath nets.

In terms of quantity, Taiwan’s papaya hotspot is Pingtung County. Tainan also grows a good many. However, Chiayi County’s Zhongpu (嘉義縣中埔鄉; where I sampled this interesting dish) has won a reputation for producing consistently excellent papayas, so it was to this township, located between Chiayi City and the mountain resort of Alishan, that Travel in Taiwan drove in search of knowledge and yummy fruit. Thanks to Mr. Chen Yong-ming (陳永明) who is an official in Zhongpu Township Farmers’ Association as well as a papaya grower, we got both.  

According to Mr. Chen, who looks after approximately 8,000 papaya trees on 4.85 hectares of farmland, Zhongpu’s main advantage is its climate. Even though most of the township is less than 200m above sea level, nighttime temperatures are considerably lower than those in the daytime, and this facilitates the healthy development of the trees.  

Guessing Mr. Chen would be a typical Taiwanese farmer - in other words , modest to a fault - and wouldn’t be one to make scarcely plausible claims about the fruit he grows, I researched the health benefits of fresh papaya before our meeting. What I discovered impressed me. A normal-sized papaya is typically 20 to 30cm long, as wide as your fist, and weighs between 600g and 1kg; eating half gives you enough vitamin C for two whole days. Such a portion also contains a fifth of the fiber you should consume each day, and one-seventh of the recommended daily intakes for vitamin A, potassium, magnesium and copper. The pink flesh is butter-like in texture, but half a papaya is unlikely to have more than 120 calories.

Almost all the papayas grown in Taiwan, Mr. Chen informed us, are one of two variants: Risheng (日陞) and Tainong 2 (台農2號). The latter, a hybrid of the former and a Thai subspecies, is longer and less oval. Papayas grown in the Philippines, he added, are rounder and yellower than their Taiwanese equivalents.

Left alone, papaya trees grow dead straight, and bear fruit near the top. Because the trunks aren’t usually strong enough to support a ladder, harvesting is difficult as soon as the tree grows taller than a man. This is why many papaya farmers clear-cut their trees when they’re about three years old, and invest in younger, shorter saplings. Each time this is done, however, the farmer must wait ten months until the tree is mature enough to produce decent fruit...

The complete article, which describes some popular Taiwanese dishes made using papaya, is now online, as well as being in the July/August issue of Travel in Taiwan magazine. The photo here, which I found in Wikimedia Commons, is an illustration of a papaya tree from a 1656 book about China's flora compiled by Jesuit missionaries.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Taiwan’s Ubiquitous Foot Massage Parlors (Taiwan Business Topics)

It seems impossible to walk very far in Taipei or other major Taiwan cities before coming across a storefront offering foot massage. The popularity of the practice in recent years is hardly surprising. All forms of massage appeal to those who want better health without taking medicine or who wish to relieve stress without the use of alcohol or electronic devices.

The principles of foot massage, also known as foot reflexology or zone therapy, mesh perfectly with the LOHAS ("lifestyles of health and sustainability") philosophy adopted by many young, well-educated consumers. In addition, many tourists find that enjoying a foot massage is an excellent way to conclude a long day of sightseeing and shopping. 

As a form of therapy, reflexology has been around for over 2,000 years. It is described in Huangdi Neijing, an ancient medical text known in English as The Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon or The Medical Classic of the Yellow Emperor. However, the discipline's recent history – both here and on the Chinese mainland, where it originated – has been checkered.
During the Cultural Revolution, many practitioners in the People's Republic of China dared not give massages to strangers lest they be attacked by Red Guards for perpetuating old customs and habits. 

In Taiwan, there was no government- recognized national organization for foot masseurs and masseuses until 1991, and that association was technically a sports club registered with the Ministry of the Interior. Two years later, what is now the Ministry of Health and Welfare gave approval of sorts to traditional foot massage, categorizing it as a folk remedy. By removing the possibility that practitioners could be prosecuted for being "underground doctors," the reform allowed foot masseurs and masseuses to talk more openly about the theory behind what they do, and how reflexology may help some people.

Unlike Chinese herbal medicine treatments, foot massage is not covered by Taiwan's National Health Insurance system. Nor is there a national system regulating the training of reflexology practitioners. Courses are offered by several different organizations, the cheapest and shortest being those offered by the Ministry of Labor's Workforce Development Agency. These involve 54 hours of instruction spread over a month, but experienced masseurs say that between four and 12 months' training is required to attain real proficiency.

Although there is no clear scientific evidence to support the traditional Chinese notion that ailments of internal organs are treatable via particular nerve endings on the soles of the feet, medical opinion is fairly positive about the overall benefits of foot reflexology. According to the website of the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality & Healing: "Research studies in the U.S. and around the world indicate positive benefits of reflexology for various conditions. In particular, there are several well-designed studies, funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health that indicate reflexology's promise as an intervention to reduce pain and enhance relaxation, sleep, and the reduction of psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and depression."

The website also notes that reflexology seems to cause "an increase in blood flow to kidneys and to the intestines," improved kidney function in kidney dialysis patients, lower blood pressure and reduced anxiety, plus pain reduction for those suffering from AIDS, osteoarthritis, diabetes, and other conditions.

Some benefits are even seen for cancer patients. The website states: "Studies showed reduction of pain, nausea, diarrhea or constipation, and improved quality of life with reflexology..."

The read the second half of this article, click on this link. Another useful article on the subject can be found here. The photo was taken by Rich J. Matheson, who also supplied the image on the magazine's cover.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Exploring the World of Taiwanese Tea (Taiwan Business Topics)

Teas grown in Taiwan have many fans, both on the island and overseas, but few are more avid than Stephen Carroll. When Carroll, a Briton who has lived in Australia for many years, encountered Taiwanese Oolong in 2012, it was love at first sip. 

"My first thought was that I'd never before tried a tea that tasted of tea as well as what I could only describe as flowers," he recalls. "I had to learn a new sensory vocabulary for this sort of tea. I thought to myself: 'How can leaves from one bush produce such a panoply of neurological inputs?' The experience was rewarding for my nose, tongue, mouth, and throat." 

Glenn Shark, an American connoisseur of Taiwan teas, does not hesitate to describe the island's high-mountain Oolongs as "the champagnes of tea." He attributes their tremendous quality to natural factors: "Taiwan is the only tea- growing country that combines high-altitude climate, mineral-rich volcanic soil, and close proximity to moist, ocean air currents. This causes slower plant growth and results in sweeter, aromatic teas with a distinctive dry aftertaste." 

"Taiwan Oolongs include a larger span of leaf styles and oxidation levels than their Chinese Oolong cousins, giving tea enthusiasts more delicious choices to explore," asserts The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook: A Guide to the World's Best Teas by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss. In Alishan, Lishan and Shanlinxi, the book goes on to state: "The tea bushes yield relatively small quantities of astoundingly good tea... Despite their high cost, many [high mountain teas] never leave Taiwan, as they are spoken for year after year by Taiwanese customers loyal to these artisan farmers." 

The vast majority of Taiwanese teas are made from the leaves and leaf buds of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. Indian teas come from a different strain, Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Whether a tea is classed as green, black, or Oolong depends largely on the degree of oxidation. For green teas, the leaves are minimally oxidized. Black teas are fully oxidized, while Oolongs are withered under the sun and partly oxidized. Over the past few decades, Taiwan's tea producers have gradually shifted away from black tea and focused more and more on Oolongs.

The complete article is here. The photo shows a tea plantation near Dabang, an aboriginal village not far from Alishan.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Touring the Remains of Taiwan’s Sugar Industry (Taiwan Business Topics)

Several of the world's poorest countries are dependent on sales of a single agricultural commodity, among them Burundi (the livelihood of 55% of the population is tied to coffee) and Malawi (tobacco represents over 70% of export revenue). It is hard to imagine nowadays, but Taiwan was once in a similar situation.

Just before and for years after World War II, sugar was the mainstay of its economy. Sugarcane, a species of grass that reaches about two meters in height and slightly resembles bamboo, has been grown in Taiwan for at least as long as Han Chinese have been present on the island. The Japanese, who ruled Taiwan as a colony between 1895 and 1945, nurtured the local sugar industry. By the late 1930s, sugar plantations covered almost 170,000 ha, a fifth of Taiwan's farmland. Cane was grown from Linkou in the north to Hengchun at the southern tip, on the east coast as well as throughout the western lowlands. One in seven Taiwan households had some connection to the industry.

At its peak in 1950, sugar accounted for 73.6% of the ROC's exports by value. But since the 1970s, due to competition from Brazil and other producers, Taiwan's sugar industry has been in unstoppable decline. The number of active refineries has fallen from 49 to just three.

The growing, transportation, and processing of sugar have left a lasting physical imprint in almost every part of Taiwan, however. More than a dozen shuttered mills are still extant, and hundreds of kilometers of railway tracks laid by sugar companies remain in place...

This is the first of three articles I wrote for this year's Travel & Culture Special, published by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. To read the whole piece, go here.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Blood rites in a Taiwanese temple (PerceptiveTravel.com)

The blowtorch failed to ignite the sheaves of spirit money, so the master of ceremonies splashed kerosene over the sodden pile, then touched his cigarette to it. Flames leapt up briefly, but the heavy spring rain soon quenched the fire. Unconcerned, the man turned his attention to another stack of the square yellow papers Taiwanese burn to show respect to their gods, and to ensure their ancestors have enough cash to sustain them in the afterlife.

Behind him a shirtless, sword-wielding spirit medium lurched like a drunk from one steaming heap of spirit money to the next. Only the medium's colorful apron, embroidered with supernatural symbols, marked him out as a deity's go-between, not a lunatic running amok. Each time the tang-ki (as such men are called in Taiwanese) halted, he applied the blade to his back, scalp and forehead. Blood trickled down onto his shoulders before disappearing in rivulets of rainwater. Ardent adherents of Taiwanese folk religion believe that such men are possessed, and protected from injury, by members of the religion's vast pantheon (36,000-plus divine personalities, according to one tally).

In his trance-like state, the tang-ki seemed oblivious to pain, weather and noise. Strings of firecrackers criss-crossing the tarmac went off, adding yet more smoke to the damp haze. I put my hands over my ears each time a bundle exploded, but it was the constant amplified drumming which made me fear for my hearing. The drum was three meters across and mounted on the back of a truck. Four young women dressed in mustard tracksuits thrashed away; their thunderous beating was constant and practiced. Taiwanese pilgrims often resemble teams of athletes, and train just as hard.

A steward ran back and forth among the spectators, his face reddened by the effort needed to make his whistle audible above the din. He was trying, with little success, to keep onlookers a safe distance from the spirit medium. Despite smoldering ash underfoot and a dangerous weapon swinging in random arcs about our heads, we all seemed compelled to move closer to the tang-ki...

This article appears in the July issue of PerceptiveTravel.com. To read the entire piece, start here. For an anthropological opinion on tang-ki, look at this interview.

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.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The second edition of my guidebook is out

I've just received my advance copy of the second edition of Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide (link to Amazon here; an electronic version will be available very soon) and I'm very pleased with it. The inside photos are much better than those in the first edition (thanks to the efforts of photographers including Rich J. Matheson), the maps are clearer because hotel and restaurant names have been moved to listings boxes, more of the attractions are listed in Chinese script as well as by their English names, and the background sections on history and nature are tighter and sharper, as well as fully up to date.

Attractions appearing for the first time in this new edition include the National Museum of Taiwan History, Lanyang Museum, Lintianshan and Baibau Creek (both in Hualien County), Japanese-era landmarks in downtown Taichung, the Foguangshan-affiliated Buddha Memorial Centre, and what is perhaps the only museum in the world dedicated to the sex industry - Kinmen's Military Brothel Exhibition Hall.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Native Beauty (Sawasdee)

Taiwan is often presented as a thoroughly Chinese society, and you’d be forgiven for thinking its people were homogenous. Long before the 17th century, when Chinese migrants began to settle on the island, Taiwan was home to at least 25 Austronesian ethnic groups. These aborigines, who currently number around 534,000, still speak more than a dozen languages. These tongues are very different to the Mandarin and Hokkien used by most Taiwanese citizens, and the fabulous linguistic diversity they display is one reason many scholars are now convinced Taiwan is where the Austronesian branch of humanity began.
Archaeological discoveries also support the theory that Austronesian people spread out from Taiwan to Polynesia, Hawaii, New Zealand and other places in the first millennium AD.

Taiwan's indigenous people are slightly darker and stockier than their Chinese compatriots. Their eyes are rounder, their noses more prominent. But generations of intermarriage have blurred the boundaries between Chinese and Austronesian. Many, possibly a majority, of the former have some indigenous blood. 

Taiwan’s aborigines account for just over two per cent of Taiwan's 23 million people, but they're very well represented in the fields of pop music and professional sport. However, these glamorous worlds are far removed from the lives of most indigenes. On average, they earn less and have fewer years of schooling than Taiwanese of Chinese descent. Many leave their villages in Taiwan’s mountainous interior to take labouring jobs in the big cities...

The complete article can be read in the May edition of Sawasdee, the inflight magazine of Thai Airways, and is accompanied with photographs taken by Rich J. Matheson. The photo here, taken in Pingtung County's Wutai Township, is mine.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Opening Up Taiwan's Clam Heartland (Travel in Taiwan)

Taiwan is - no exaggeration - a paradise for lovers of seafood, with clams being a particular favorite. They appear in soups and stir-fries, and can also be grilled or pickled. Curious why Taiwan enjoys such an abundance of clams, and eager to sample some of the island’s best, Travel in Taiwan recently headed to the southern city of Tainan in search of answers.

Clams are found around the world, in freshwater as well as oceans. An Arctica islandica clam found in the sea off Iceland in 2006 turned out to be 507 years old, making it the oldest individual animal ever discovered whose age could be accurately ascertained. Clams, like trees, have annual growth bands, although the ones enjoyed in Taiwan’s restaurants are seldom more than two years old.

For as long as humans have been living on the island, clams have featured in Taiwanese cuisine. Clam shells have been discovered in middens around the island. Even now, at many points along the coast, some members of the older generation still gather and cook wild clams. But the vast majority of clams eaten in Taiwan nowadays are cultivated in coastal ponds along the southwestern coast. With over 100 hectares devoted to raising clams, Tainan’s Qigu District (台南市七股區) plays a major part in local shellfish production.

Outside Taiwan, Qigu is best known for Black-faced Spoonbills and other migratory birds which spend each winter here. The presence of so many birds is no coincidence. The mild conditions in which clams thrive also support shrimps, snails and small fish, staple foods for waterbirds.

Qigu’s clam-raising heartland is utterly flat. Compared to other parts of Taiwan the absence of buildings and greenery is striking. The region is criss-crossed by long straight roads and utilities poles; at least three quarters of the surface area is covered with water...

This article also appears in the May/June issue of Travel in Taiwan, and on the magazine's website.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Land of Salt, Sugar and Shrines (Travel in Taiwan)

Taiwan’s southwest is a treasure house of traditional culture and rural scenery. However, exploring beyond the major cities of Tainan and Chiayi is not easy for those without their own vehicle. The Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Southwest Coast Route plugs this gap. 

Stop I: Garlic Sugar Factor 

Both garlic and sugar grow well in south Taiwan, but they are not usually blended. The name of this factory actually derives from an unusual place name. Suantou (literally “garlic”) is a tiny village on the Chianan Plain (嘉南平原), and the sugar factory here is one of Taiwan’s oldest, having began operations in 1904.

Until the 1950s, sugar was Taiwan’s no. 1 export, with about one-fifth of the island’s farmland devoted to sugar cultivation. Since then the industry has been in steady decline because Taiwan’s sugar is too expensive to compete with cane grown in Brazil and elsewhere. Most of Taiwan’s sugar factories are shuttered and a few have been dismantled. Suantou’s has been idle for over a decade, yet remains intact. As such, it is a magnet for those curious about Taiwan’s industrial heritage.

It is also one of just a handful of places in Taiwan where sugar trains still run. At the industry’s zenith, diesel locomotives hauled wagons full of cane from plantations to sugar factories, and passenger cars from town to town. The network comprised about 900 km of 762-mm-gauge track.

Arriving with time to spare before the 10am train (there’s another at 3pm each day; extra services are put on when needed), we sampled some of unusual ice lollies sold here. The taro and pineapple flavors are popular, but I recommend the sugarcane juice lolly - refreshing as well as fitting.

After buying our tickets (NT$100 for adults, discounts for students, children and seniors) inside Suantou’s endearingly quaint passenger station (a relic of the Japanese colonial era, which lasted from 1895 to 1945), we boarded the train. The contrast with Taiwan’s high-speed railway - which is visible just to the east - could not be greater. With an average speed of 15 km/h, bench seats and open sides, it is a true “slow travel” experience. The on-board guide provided a stream of commentary in Chinese about local history, the sugar industry, flora and fauna. The rodents which inhabit sugarcane fields, she told us, grow big and healthy, and are quite the delicacy!

After trundling through nearby fields - some are still used for growing cane - the train returned to the factory [where the photo above was taken]. Wandering inside the main building, we saw massive machines formerly used to crush cane, and vats where the pulp was boiled. Engineers are sure to find the machinery fascinating, and anyone whose eyes appreciate the subtleties of shadow and light will be beguiled. There has been no effort to spruce up the interior for visitors - commendable honesty.

The area lacks both gradients and heavy traffic, so cycling is a popular pastime. Biking from Suantou to Dongshi’s Fisherman’s Wharf (東石漁人碼頭) takes two and a half hours, almost half of which is on a dedicated bikeway. Bicycles can be rented for NT$100 to NT$250 per day from a store just behind Suantou’s old railway station. The Tourist Shuttle stops at Fisherman’s Wharf before heading south to Budai. 

Stop II: Budai  

Ask ten people what you ought to do when visiting this lively seaside town, and buying or eating seafood is sure to dominate the answers given by nine of them. Budai Seafood Market (布袋漁市), where dozens of seafood vendors sell live crabs, bucketfulls of shellfish, cuts of grouper and other ultra-fresh delights, is also a splendid place to enjoy lunch. Little English is spoken in the 40-odd eateries which surround the vendors, but photo menus do a good job of overcoming any language barrier... 

The full article (in all, four stops are described) can be read in the May/June issue of Travel in Taiwan, or on the magazine's website.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bilingual Living Environment Commission of Kaohsiung City

In my (physical) mailbox yesterday: A letter from Kaohsiung City Government, notifying me that I've been reappointed a commissioner of the Bilingual Living Environment Commission of Kaohsiung City for the year of 2014. I've been a member of this committee since 2011. It's an honor and I feel flattered they value my opinions. Oddly, I was never asked if I wanted to join the committee – I was appointed, and sent a letter, and that was that! Also, this year isn't the first in which the reappointment notice has come long after January 1...

The commission meets every few months and it's work includes reviewing translations of places names (including tourist attractions) and the names of local government agencies. One place we haven't talked about is the Chen Jhong-he Memorial Hall, pictured here. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

You Don't Know China - A new book by John Ross

You Don't Know China: Twenty-two Enduring Myths Debunked is a brand new book by John Ross, published by Camphor Press.

Ross is a friend of mine, and I had the pleasure and privilege of reading substantial segments of this book while it was being written. His first chapter, titled “Five Thousand Years of History,” deals with a canard familiar to all who've been anywhere near China, and one which I encountered several times back in the 1990s when I was doing a lot of English teaching.

I was often told by adult students here in Taiwan that they were proud of their Chinese heritage because “China has 5,000 years of history.” Challenging dearly-held ideas is always fun, so I sometimes responded by pointing out that other civilizations around the world are just as old if not older. This seemed to make little impression, so I changed tack. I'd ask students how old their motorcycles were, then point to the one with the most ancient set of wheels and declare his was the most admirable because it was older than others. It's just possible my joke made a few of them ponder what Ross slams as “the hypocrisy of glorifying history yet so poorly preserving it.”

This is the kind of book where a dozen readers will likely have a dozen different favorite chapters. Ross takes his scalpel (and occasionally a hammer) to feng shui, traditional Chinese medicine, and the eagerness of some Westerners to relocate to China or study Mandarin.

Ross is on top form when discussing financier Jim Rogers' much-discussed move from the USA to Singapore (because Rogers thinks Asia is theplace to be and that his daughter ought to learn Mandarin):

The city state of Singapore is about the same distance from Shanghai as London is distant from a remote southern Saharan town called Timbuktu. Rogers chose to relocate to Singapore rather than to a Chinese city as he would have preferred because of China’s horrendous pollution and the potential effect this would have on his children’s health. Even for someone of Rogers’ enormous wealth, it’s impossible to find a city in China offering anything approaching a high quality of life. China is not the place to be. Comparisons with New York of the early twentieth century are laughable. In 1907 well over one-third of New York’s population was foreign born. Foreigners are not flocking to China; the numbers are miniscule even for the big cities of Shanghai and Beijing. According to local officials, Shanghai had 173,000 resident foreigners at the end of 2012. Far more people are trying to get out of China than trying to get in.

Elsewhere in the book, Ross concludes that Marco Polo did go to China (contra this school of thought), that isolationism has never been a Chinese trait, and that China's biggest cities are not nearly so huge as often portrayed.

Whether they agree with his arguments or not, readers are sure to learn a lot from this book. The chapter about opium, for instance, has some engrossing nuggets about the link between the prohibition movement and churches:

Arguments that opium was no worse than booze didn’t wash with many Western advocates of opium prohibition. The anti-opium movement grew out of the temperance movement, which had become very strong by the middle of the nineteenth century. Protestant churches were at the forefront of the fight against both the “demon drink” and its Chinese equivalent. It was no coincidence that the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade was founded by diehard teetotallers (in 1874, by a group of Quakers, to be exact). In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church, wisely tolerant in the ways of the bottle, was not active in the anti-opium movement. Missionary accounts [were] greatly exaggerated...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sugar Heritage and Tourism in Transition

I've begun working on a lengthy magazine article about sugar-industry sites here in Taiwan which have been transformed into tourist attractions, and online research came up with extracts from a book called Sugar Heritage and Tourism in Transition (edited by Lee Jolliffe; Channel View Publications; December 2012). The chapter devoted to Taiwan – “Transforming Taiwan's Sugar Refineries for Leisure and Tourism,” authored by Abby Liu – begins with a 57-word quote from this 2006 article I wrote for China Post, one of Taiwan's English-language newspapers. It's always nice to see a sign that someone takes at least some of your work seriously...