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.