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.

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