Monday, November 30, 2015

International Spotlight: South Taiwan

The Taiwan Tourism Bureau's International Spotlight program is designed to inspire and attract 'slow travellers', the kind of people who prefer to take their time, and who feel no compulsion to see each and every attraction. In addition to covering parts of the north and central part of the island, the program introduces the scenic, culinary and shopping highlights of Greater Tainan. 

Located just south of the Tropic of Cancer, Tainan is a relic-packed city which served as the island’s political and administrative center between the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1624 and 1885. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Taiwan was a neglected backwater of China’s Qing Empire. The weather is reliably dry and comfortably sunny between October and March. For anyone who likes to be outdoors, whether in an urban setting or deep in the countryside, Tainan and wintertime go together perfectly.

Tainan is already well known to tourists on account of its fabulous temples, fascinating fortresses and delicious street food. The pace of life here is far more relaxing than in Taipei; a great many visitors are happy to do little more than wander at random, on foot or with a hired bicycle. But, of course, those who explore with the assistance of a guide, or read up before setting out, will come away with a far better understanding of this ancient city and its many treasures.
The International Spotlight Southern Region has its own trilingual website where anyone considering a trip to the south can find theme routes and descriptions of historic neighbourhoods. One such zone lies around Zhongzheng Road and Haian Road. A must-see hereabouts is Shennong Street, perhaps Taiwan’s most traditional thoroughfare. As recently as the 19th century, before human land-reclamation efforts and natural sedimentation pushed the coastline further west, this part of the city was a stone’s throw from the ocean. A few of the old two-storey houses, built by merchants to serve as both homes and warehouses, have been turned into shops or bars.

Far more modern yet still of considerable historic interest are landmarks which date from Japan’s 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan. What's now Tainan Meteorological Observatory is said to be the oldest Japanese-era official building surviving in Taiwan. Locals have nicknamed this 1898 structure 'the pepper pot' on account of its circular shape. Among the items displayed inside are old seismographs.

The Old Union Hall (also known as the Former Tainan Meeting Hall, pictured below) and the adjacent Wu’s Garden is a superb spot for a picnic. The former is a 1911 French-influenced structure that hosts occasional exhibitions. The latter dates from the 1820s and is named for Wu Shang-xin, a salt tycoon who owned this land and commissioned the garden’s creation.
Tainan folk are hardly exaggerating when they quip their city 'has a small shrine every three steps, and a major temple every five steps'. The Confucius Temple offers a sense of eternal tranquility, while the Martial Rites Temple (also known as the Official God of War Temple) is equally gorgeous. The former is dedicated to the sage now regarded as China’s greatest philosopher, while the latter honours Guan Gong, a general who lived and fought in China more than 1,800 years ago.

To the delight of those who have several days to explore Tainan, goes well beyond the usual tourist haunts. There are directions to Xihua Tang, an ancient Buddhist house of worship, the Great South Gate, a holdover from when Tainan was encircled by a protective wall, and the Temple of the Lord of the North Pole.

The majority of Tainan’s attractions are within 20 minutes’ walk of the TRA Station, which itself is linked to the high-speed railway by frequent shuttle trains. However, visitors should make at least one trip outside the downtown, ideally to Anping. This is where the Dutch established their trading colony in the early 17th century, and the bastion they called Fort Zeelandia is now a captivating ruin. This part of the city abuts the ocean, so it is no surprise that oysters and shrimps feature in the dishes enjoyed by many visitors.

Riding a bicycle from the Confucius Temple to Fort Zeelandia takes around 20 minutes. An alternative form of transport is city bus no. 2, which stops at Tainan TRA Station, the National Museum of Taiwan Literature and Confucius Temple en route to Anping. Having got that far, visitors may wish to explore the coast, parts of which have been incorporated into Taijiang National Park.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Taiwan's bike-friendly railway stations

At more and more train stations in Taiwan, I'm seeing ramps like these. Alongside the lifts installed mainly for the benefit of elderly, disabled and heavily encumbered passengers, these ramps make life much easier for commuters and tourists taking bicycles on trains. 

The rules limiting what kind of trains you can carry bikes onto, and whether you need to pay extra, are somewhat complex. Passengers with a folding bicycle in a bag needn't pay anything, unless they take one of the Puyuma Express services between Taipei and the east coast cities of Hualien and Taitung. Those with non-folding bikes must always pay, but never more than an adult does on the same route.  

Friday, November 6, 2015

International Spotlight: Central Taiwan

In many countries, the capital city has a lion’s share of traveller magnets. Yet it's also true that getting to know a nation means exploring well beyond the seat of government. Taiwan is no exception to this: Taipei has endless things to see and so, but to fly out having seen nothing of central, southern or eastern Taiwan would be to miss much of Taiwan’s loveliest scenery and most authentic culture. 

The Tourism Bureau’s International Spotlight campaign has two central Taiwan programs. Viewed as a whole, Taiwan's central region is incredibly diverse. It can be said that everything which can be found in Taiwan – scenery, ethnic groups and cuisines – can be experienced here. The coastal town of Lugang has a stupendous density of historic and cultural attractions, while Sun Moon Lake is famed for its pretty scenery and temperate climate. The region’s interior boasts several of Taiwan’s highest mountains as well as indigenous communities. 

One program focuses on Taichung, a thoroughly modern municipality with a population of 2.74 million, spread over 2,214 km2. The other introduces Chiayi, a much smaller city (271,000 people on 60km2).

The toponym Taichung literally means “central Taiwan,” just as Taipei means “north Taiwan,” Tainan is “south Taiwan” and Taitung is “east Taiwan”. It has an excellent range of restaurants (this city guide is useful if you want to find new places to eat), although many visitors prefer street food at the huge and often very crowded Feng Chia Night Market. 

Taichung (where I took the photo above, inside Wanhe Temple) is the home of Chun Shui Tang, a tea-house chain where pearl milk tea (also known as “bubble tea”) is said to have been invented. In case you don't know, pearl milk tea is a blend of black tea, chewy tapioca balls (the “pearls”), syrupy sweetener and cream that's usually drunk cold. It's one of Taiwan’s most successful culinary exports and is now enjoyed as far away as Singapore, London and Florida. 

One of Taichung’s newer tourist attractions is in fact a reconstruction of a pre-World War II building. What's now called the Natural Ways Six Arts Cultural Centre was once a dojo (a place where Japanese martial arts were studied) attached to a jail. It's a quintessentially Japanese structure which dates from Tokyo’s 1895-1945 colonization of Taiwan. The centre’s name alludes to the six disciplines ancient Chinese regarded as key to a gentleman’s education; rites, music, calligraphy, mathematics, charioteering and archery. However, the activities held here reflect the great interest many Taiwanese have in Japanese culture. There are classes in Japanese tea ceremony, ikebana (the art of flower arrangement), the martial art kendo, and the board game Go.

When the authorities decided to renovate and reopen the dojo, they no doubt hoped it would help draw tourists to the city. But the popularity of Rainbow Village – a place I've yet to visit – surely took them by surprise. 

Taichung City Government is responsible for an area totalling 2,214 km2. But instead of trying to cover the entire city, the International Spotlight encourages visitors to spend quality in the heart of the city. Over the course of a day, urban explorers can follow the Greenway to the National Museum of Natural Science and National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. Adjacent to the former is a spacious botanical garden – be sure to go into the beautiful greenhouse – while the latter has a permanent exhibition featuring 82 works by major Taiwanese artists. 

Chiayi City is 86km south of Taichung. The most efficient way to get from the latter to the former is by TRA train; expresses take as little as an hour and a quarter and cost NTD224 one way. (Buses are cheaper but slower). Much of Chiayi can be explored on foot, although you'll want to jump into a taxi if you're heading to Chiayi Arboretum. I took the photo below, which shows a former Shinto shrine now serving as a local museum, in the sprawling park next to the arboretum. 

A key destination in Chiayi is Cypress Forestry Life Village, a cluster of Japanese-style bungalows originally built for timber-industry executives and their families. Recently refurbished, the village contains several art spaces and is within walking distance of Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park and Chiayi Motive Power Wood Sculpture Museum. At the former, train fans can get a close look at some of the locomotives and cars that ply the famous narrow-gauge mountain railway between Chiayi and the mountain resort of Alishan. The latter, once a power station, now exhibits prize-winning wood carvings.

Getting to central Taiwan from overseas no longer involves a two or three-hour bus, train or car journey from the airports at Taoyuan and Kaohsiung. It's not even necessary to use the high-speed railway; Taichung Airport has flights to/from Hong Kong, Shanghai and several other cities on the Chinese mainland, as well as scheduled and charter services to/from Vietnam, Japan and South Korea.