Thursday, January 12, 2012


Ask most people of what they associate with Taiwan and they will likely say the words "Made in". And it is true that Taiwan produces a lot of things, most notably hi-tech equipment, microchips and bicycles (more on that in a bit). As for the island's other notable points,apart from along-running political m├ęsentente with China, you would be hard pressed to find any that are well known beyond its shores. Like its other East Asian peers, such as South Korea and Japan, it is densely populated, yet it also has large tracts of unspoilt, mountain areas. The island can be neatly divided into eastern and western halves, with most of the cities, industries and agriculture concentrated in the frenetic west. There is then a long mountain chain that runs the entire length of the island from north to south, reaching a peak of almost 4000m at Jade Mountain, whilst the east coast remains relatively sparsely populated and devoid of much economic activity apart from agriculture, fishing and tourism. It is here on the east coast (and in the central mountains) that nature lovers and outdoors enthusiasts can slake their thirst.

The entrance to the Taroko Gorge, Taiwan's most popular attraction. Unfortunately it's impossible to give you a picture of the narrowest, steepest parts of the gorge as my lens just doesn't have the wide angle necessary to catch the vastness at such close quarters.

When the Portuguese, as the first Europeans, arrived on the island, they were so taken by its natural beauty that they named it Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Island. And any time spent on the east coast (when it's not overcast and/or drizzly, which unfortunately has been most of the time for me) will show you that the old Portuguese were not wrong. The lofty, emerald mountains, with candy-floss clouds for hair, fall steeply into the ocean that constantly batters its basalt feet. The mountains of the interior are a hiker's paradise, however the need to organise permits and the poor winter weather forced me to set my sights on less lofty goals. My initial destination in the east was the famous Taroko Gorge. This is Taiwan's premier natural sight and every visitor to the island passes through here. In places the marble walls of the gorge rise up over a kilometre and are only 20 or so metres across.Craning your neck back a full ninety degrees as you search for a sliver of sky between the towering masses of rocks (whilst keeping an eye out for potential rockfalls that occur with unnerving frequency) you really feel small. There are few places like it in the world.

The unstable geology of Taiwan coupled with often torrential downpours make this sign one that really shouldn't be ignored out of hand (like I would most such signs). The fact that it was one of the few that was left, more or less, intact added to the sagacity of paying heed (at least just this once).

Moving further south along the coast I have not had so much luck with the weather with constant winds and ranks of clouds stretching all the way out into the grey, boundless Pacific. It is a scene that any consumptive author of Gothic novels would feel totally at home in. Despite the less-than-ideal conditions there were plenty of local cyclists braving the coastal highway and its notorious headwind. cycling is, surprisingly, a big thing in Taiwan and there is a large community of lycra-clad enthusiasts who routinely circumnavigate their island. It shouldn't therefore surprise that the world's largest bicycle manufacturer, Giant, is actually Taiwanese. But whether the cyclists or the cycles came first to this island is a question I do not know the answer to. Although there is a definite two-wheeler obsession in Taiwan, as the most popular mode of transport on the island is undoubtedly the scooter, which is used by all, from the young college students to old grans off to do their weekly shopping, even the police are on scooters.

Taiwan's east coast gets the full force of the Pacific's wind and waves, which can be both majestic and a little bit scary at the same time.

The east coast, with its small towns, few roads (basically just the one) and infrequent buses makes it prime hitchhiking country. And despite the fact that hitching is not at all part of the Taiwanese culture it was, without a doubt, the easiest place that I have hitched so far. Rarely did I need to wait longer than ten minutes before a friendly local would come by and pick me up, often turning round after having initially passed me by (a new experience for me). I have even experienced my first ever lift without even (remotely) asking for one after a family saw me hauling my tired ass off a mountain trail in Taroko and offered to drive me back to town. It has been a great way to meet a diverse cross-section of society, all of whom seem to be eager to feed me. Among the highlights were a couple of guys in a pick-up covered in political banners and blaring slogans from rooftop loudspeakers who insisted I try their local herbal brew, whose list of ingredients would have covered several pages if it hadn't been written in 4-point font and tasted of dentists' mouthwash; as well as a ride from a truck driver who would relay every morsel of information I gave him via CB to his curious trucker friends. Not that communication went very far as he spoke no English whatsoever so that we had to rely on my paltry Chinese. Luckily the questions that people ask are generally he same so I could guess most of what he was saying and reply accordingly. I was quite pleased with my meagre abilities until he asked me whether I was alone in Taiwan and I said no, I have a friend in Taipei. He then wondered whether I had had sex with my friend yet (feeding off a previous comment I had made that Taiwanese girls are pretty). I had difficulty explaining to him that Steven was a guy (plus he's married) when I realised that I didn't know how to say man or woman in Chinese, which is strange as they were among the first characters I had learned (very important when you want to ensure that you choose the correct toilet). In the end I managed to get the message across by imitating some breasts and saying "bu" (no).

My friendly rides, who plied me a vile local drink, were campaigning for an aboriginal party in the upcoming elections.

The Chinese really only came to Taiwan a few hundred years ago, even later than the Europeans, and when they did they found that there were already people living there. These aboriginals, who are closely related to the Malay and Filipino people, were gradually displaced by the incoming Han Chinese, until they ended up confined to the mountains and eastern coast, where they remain to this day. Despite the marginalisation, they survived, and are experiencing something of a renaissance as many Taiwanese people strive to forge an identity for themselves, separate from China. Not that their lot approaches anything like the levels of their Han co-islanders, but at least their voices are being heard, and not just the ones performing ethnic song and dance routines for coachloads of tourists. The aboriginal customs may have been squeezed by overwhelming numbers of Chinese and Christian missionaries over the past 60 years, but they have pushed back with their drug of choice, the betel nut,which is now very popular amongst the whole population in the south and east, as evidenced by the tell-tale red spit marks that can be found everywhere on the ground, sign of an unhealthy nut-chewing habit.

Ami woman playing a traditional, double-bodied bamboo flute where you don't blow with you mouth, but with your nose.

It may be home to less than 5% of the population and be completely unheard of outside the confines of the island itself, but until you explore Taiwan's east coast you will never get a feel for the diversity and beauty that lurks in such a small island.

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