The Second China

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Flag of Taiwan  ,
Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Taiwan isn't on many travel itineraries and for us, it came right on the heels of our wanderings through Japan (which would be a hard act to follow for any country). Even the Taiwanese don't talk up the highlights of their country usually explaining that the country has a history that is only three or four hundred years old. The pilot of our inbound flight also seemed a little reluctant to take us to Taiwan- with the wheels down and only inches from the payment, he gunned the engines and made a steep climb away from the runway, and then circled out over the sea for a second more successful attempt. We weren't given much of an explanation for this hair raising event- something about too much weight (comments to yourself Amanda M) so I assume we were dumping some fuel when we looped around (DH was hoping that they had shoveled our backpacks out the cargo door- they seem to be getting heavier as we travel).

All that said we found Taiwan, and Taipei in particular, to be well worth a few days of exploration. The island has an indigenous population that goes back hundreds of years but it's the more recent history that makes for a fascinating story. Decades of Japanese occupation ended after WWII, only to see the losing guy in the Chinese civil war that followed WWII, Chiang Kai-shek (commonly referred to in the West as General "Cash-My-Cheque" given the corruption and incompetence of his regime) and the remnants of his army, set up shop here after being chased off the Chinese mainland with the stated objective of regrouping and launching a counteroffensive when the opportunity presented itself (which was never). Officially the Chinese civil war hasn't ended with both claiming to be the real China, although in reality most other countries have long ago recognized Communist China as the legitimate government of China. In a remarkable show of stubbornness Taiwan is still marketing itself as the Republic Of China (ROC) although in most international events like the Olympics, they tend to go with the less grandiose title of the Chinese Taipei.

Mainland China still regards Taiwan as a renegade province and with the economic boom on the mainland there was considerable interest in Taiwan in rejoining China proper- apparently some of the recent bullying of Hong Kong by China has cooled that interest dramatically.

And the invasion that Chiang Kai-shek was hoping to launch seems to have happened in the inverse. And the Weapon of Mass Destruction at the head of that invasion? The feared and lethal bus tourist. At the time we were there, the place was alive with packs of mainland Chinese bus tourists wearing colour coordinated baseball caps and following the one guy/girl with a bullhorn and a flag looking for areas of peace and serenity to crush completely. Because of a recent dispute with Japan over a group of uninhabited islands that both sides claim, the Communist Chinese have been ratcheting up the rhetoric as they tend to do- bus tours previously scheduled for Japan were rerouted to Taiwan and many Taiwanese had apparently fled to the countryside to avoid the onslaught. Since the bus tour tends to focus on a handful of sights at certain times we were only caught in the chaotic riptide a couple of times but it did get scary.

Most of the time we were on our own and wandering through the streets of old Taipei and discovering wonderful temples that didn't even make the street map we had. Taiwan has more than 5000 temples, ranging in size from single room shrines to vast multi-story complexes. There are three main varieties of temple in Taiwan: Buddhist, Taoist and Confucius temples- during the 50 year Japanese occupation of Taiwan there was widespread persecution of Taoism- seen as the embodiment of Chinese culture- which meant that Taoists had to secretly worship in Buddhist temples.Today individual Taoist and Buddhist temples and simpler Confucius temples are found, although in some temples, we found Confucian portraits alongside Buddhist and Taoist shrines, merging all three faiths into a single uniquely Taiwanese place of worship. And all temples are actively used- it wasn't unusual to see people praying fervently with their hands clasping divinity blocks in front of them asking the applicable deity for an answer to a question. The question must be a yes or no question and the deities’ answer is determined by the way the divinity blocks fall after being dramatically released. It was also obvious that people weren't always getting the answer they were looking for (are you allowed to stomp on the blocks??).

We did do all of the more conventional sights including Taipei 101 Building inspired by Taiwan's native bamboo plant (the world's tallest building from 2004 until the opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in 2010- it still holds the record for the world's fastest elevator; 40 seconds to get from ground level to the 89th floor observation deck!), the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall (which may see a name change in the near future as more and more Taiwanese question whether or not the legacy of brutality warrants this kind of gigantic memorial), the National Palace Museum ( I'm absolutely convinced that there is one guy who does most of the labeling and write-ups for far too many of the museums worldwide- a guy with a Masters in Tedium and a Minor in Boredom- it almost takes talent to make history and culture dull but he certainly worked his dreary magic at this place), the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, Shinlin Night Market, and various other stops. With reluctant DH in tow, my favourite stop might have been the toilet bowl themed restaurant were we had a very tasty spaghetti dinner- the seats were toilet bowls, the tables were glass covered bathtubs, and the food was served in urinal shaped dishes- you just can't make this stuff up!! Even though the food was good, DH insisted on 'flushing' the taste with another Taiwanese craze- bubble tea. Bubble tea, also known as pearl tea or boba tea, is a tea-based drink invented in tea shops in Taichung, Taiwan, during the 1980s. Ice-blended versions are usually mixed with fruit or syrup, and come with small chewy tapioca balls commonly called "pearls" (which get stuck in your straw). I liked it but DH gave it the thumbs down (she was probably still thinking about eating her meal out of a urinal?).

According to all of the guidance we received, the number one attraction for travelers in Taiwan outside of Taipei is the bullet train from Taipei to Kaohsiung but since we had just come from the land of bullet trains we elected to visit the Tarok ( Marble) Gorge. We flew down on a small plane with a number of other gorge groupies and spent the day driving through the outstanding scenery (including the Tunnel Of Nine Turns and most of the other 38 tunnels). As any reader of our New Zealand posts knows, I'm a little ho-hum when it comes to these treks through geography but DH (where the D stands for Delighted), really enjoyed the sheer marble cliffs, deep winding tunnels, and the Liwu River that snaked its way through the gorge.We also did a day trip to explore a bit of the Taiwanese aboriginal history in Wulai. Unfortunately, if they had inserted a small plastic model of an aboriginal village inside a Snow Globe, it would have made for a more authentic experience then the one we had. In the worst kind of inclusiveness, we were invited/forced to join some native dancers in a series of 'marriage' songs that ended with the worst rendition of YMCA that I've ever seen. Even the tattooing was badly faked- facial tattooing used to be a feature among both men and women as a token of adulthood or honor, or to differentiate them from other tribes at a time when headhunting remained a popular practice. Due to a ban on this custom during the Japanese colonial days, it is now just self-applied black magic marker (learned from Kuta Beach Aussies?).

The plastic aboriginal experience was more than balanced by the Toilet Bowl Restaurant and we had a really good time in Taiwan.


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