Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The beauty of the east

In the past two months I've spent many memorable days in east Taiwan. Here are some photos from those trips.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The bus made an unscheduled stop

Yesterday, the bus I was on stopped somewhere between Taitung City and Zhiben. The driver picked up an empty plastic bag and got out, leaving the engine running. He mentioned to one of the passengers what he wanted to do - collect fruit. He spent the next two minutes scooping small, green golf-ball-sized fruit up from the pavement, gathering at least two dozen. Two of the passengers got into the act and grabbed a few each.

This is an aspect of Taiwan I and many other Westerners like. When travelling here, everything is pretty safe, reliable and well organised... but there's just enough oddity, funkiness and unpredictability to keep things interesting.

Over the years I've seen plenty of bus drivers halt so they can run into a shop and buy something, and in the mountains I've seen some stop beside waterfalls so they can collect water for making tea at home (good quality water is, of course, very important for tea devotees).

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas in Taiwan

Fewer than one in ten Taiwanese is Christian, and December 25 is not a public holiday (it used to be until about a decade ago but not because it was Christmas, rather because it was the anniversary of the promulgating of the ROC Constitution in 1947). The retail sector obviously loves the idea of Christmas, and young people are getting into the habit of sending each other Christmas cards, but the festive season is still very much a minority activity. Most people save their money and energy for the Lunar New Year.

If you're thinking of coming to Taiwan at this time of year and worry about places being closed or packed with people, don't be. The weather can be a little cold, but all in all it's a good time to be touring the island.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

One for industrial archaeologists

Zhumen Hydroelectric Power Station (竹門發電廠), near the Kaohsiung town of Meinong, has been producing electricity for 100 years.

These days it's better known for its Baroque cathedral-like architecture than the amount of energy it contributes to the national grid (about as much as a single wind turbine, in fact). It's another of those strange places - there are several in Taiwan - that leaflets and websites describe as a tourist attraction, but when you get there it isn't at all clear if the place is normally open to the public. Anyway, nobody stopped me from wandering around the grounds and taking photos inside. There's an even better example of this kind of architecture in Tainan.

Here's an article of mine from 2006 about industrial heritage sites being repackaged as tourist attractions.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Futai Mansion

While in Taipei a couple of months back, I walked past the Futai Mansion several times, but didn't have time to go in.

According to a Taipei Times newspaper article:

"Built in 1910, the Futai Street Mansion was originally used by its Japanese owners as an office. In the following decade, about 100 commercial buildings were constructed on Futai Street in the area inside the North Gate. The Futai Street Mansion is the only commercial building from that time to have survived.

Although small in scale (about 156m2), the two-story building has great historic value and was designated as a historic building by the city government in 1997. The mansion’s curator, says the building has the style of the Japanese Meiji period with a strong European flavor and was unique because of the materials used to construct it.

The arched pedestrian arcade was made of stone... and the arcade ceiling was made of Formosan Cypress and is diamond-shaped. The outside wall on the second floor was made of stucco faced with fine gravel. The roof truss was made of wood in the Mansard style and the steeply slanting roof was covered with diamond-shaped copper tiles. The three dormer windows on the roof provided ventilation.

During the Japanese colonial era, the mansion was used as an office by the construction company and then by a wine importer.

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government took over the building and turned it into a dormitory for high-ranking Ministry of National Defense officials. It was eventually vacated in 1998.

Three years after the building was designated a historic site, a fire completely destroyed the building’s wooden structure and scorched the stonework. A one-year, NT$39 million (US$1.18 million) reconstruction project was completed in August 2007 and the building opened to the public in April this year.

The first floor now houses an exhibition room and a cafe decorated with the work of local artists, where visitors can enjoy tea and snacks while listening to old Taiwanese music.

Climbing up the wooden stairs to the second floor, there are two exhibition rooms, one equipped with a large-size electronic book detailing in Chinese and English the history of Taipei City from 1600 to 2007."

Externally it's very attractive. Here's a flickr.com phototream with photos of the mansion, starting with one that shows how it looked prior to restoration.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Way back when...

Having just griped about the inadequacies of public transport in certain parts of Taiwan, I think it's a good moment to point out just how much things have improved for the traveller since the 1930s, which is when Taiwan's rulers (who at that time were the Japanese) first began promoting tourism. At that time, any trip away from the main north-south railroad took many hours indeed and involved either slow buses or 'push carts' like those pictured here.

Several years ago, I visited an elderly British ex-missionary who had fond memories of going up through central Taiwan by the kind of human-powered railway trolley pictured in these photos. Of course, as a paying passenger, he didn't have to push the thing...

These pictures are courtesy of David Reid, the man behind the excellent David on Formosa blog.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Taroko Gorge by public transport

One of the objectives of my recent trip to Taroko Gorge was to see if it's possible for those depending on public transport to see many of the sights. The answer, I'm afraid to tell those who don't want to drive or join an organised tour, is 'not very'.

I only achieved as much as I did in the space of a single day by walking along the main road more than I would've liked to, and by thumbing a lift (which isn't an option for those who speak no Chinese, and not practical if you've luggage or there's more than two of you).

The problem isn't just a scarcity of buses - only four buses per day go all the way to Tianxiang - but also that services bypass some of the sights, notably the Eternal Spring Shrine (pictured right) . Nevertheless, Taroko Gorge is a must-see. Almost two million people come here each year and you should be one of them.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Birdwatching on the Blue-Gate Trail

This trail ('Gate 1') is located off Highway 14A, very close to the 16km marker (not 15km as is reported elsewhere). The actual gate or gateposts are not visible from the main road, but the entrance can be identified by a sign for 'Rueiyan River Major Wildlife Habitat' and a number of water pipes that run along it.

There's parking on the right a short distance up the main road. The trail has recently been cleared making it much more accessible. After about 5km the trail crosses a small road (about half a kilometre down from from the police station where's there some excellent mothing) and then continues – passing an actual blue gate, 'Gate 2' – for a further 12km where it ends at the head of a valley. Thus visitors can walk for up to 17km if they've the energy, though sometimes the road is damaged by typhoons.

This is the area referred to as the continuation trail. Pheasants can be seen here, as well as other high-altitude endemics such as the Taiwan Hill Partridge. This trail can be very wet due to leaking pipes, so it's best to wear rubber boots or carry spare footwear. During the dry season you'll do OK gingerly edging along the less-wet parts.

The Taiwan Forestry Bureau has published a good leaflet about the area. It is, alas, very difficult to obtain. Guided tours of this trail can be organised by Taiwan Eco-Tours.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Why visitors to Taiwan shouldn't waste water

You might not believe it if you visit Taiwan in the wet summer months – or if you've seen what happens during a typhoon – but the island often suffers water shortages. Nature is part of the problem. The dry season is very long and rivers tend to be short and fast, so a lot of rainwater flows into the ocean before it can be used.

Rainfall per square kilometer is more than three times the global average, but because of Taiwan’s incredible population density, per capita precipitation is less than one-eighth of the world’s average.

The government has urged people and companies to use less, but under the current pricing system many households pay less than GBP2 (USD3) per month for their water, so there is little incentive to conserve water.

Taiwan has a growing number of 'green buildings', several of which feature rainwater-catchment systems. (In 1999, Taiwan’s government became the first in Asia, and the fourth in the world, to adopt sustainable-building standards). These systems store rainfall so it can be used to flush toilets and water lawns. Among the buildings fitted with rainwater-catchment equipment are libraries and factories.

Proposals to build new reservoirs and dams have run into opposition. One plan, to construct a dam that would have inundated Meinong's beautiful Yellow Butterfly Valley, seems to have been dropped for good. Another, which conservationists predict will “tear the heart out” of the Huben IBA (Important Birding Area), is going ahead, despite claims that it could fail disastrously in the event of an earthquake.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Spelling of stations and towns according to Taiwan Railways

The Taiwan Railways Administration, the central government agency that runs Taiwan's conventional rail network, has clarified which station names are to be spelled according to hanyu pinyin, now Taiwan's official system for rendering Chinese words into the Latin alphabet, and which are to continue to be known by their old spellings.

The rationale, it seems, is that to change the spelling of Taipei, Kaohsiung and other places well known outside Taiwan would confuse non-Taiwanese. Ten cities fall into this category. Here they are, with the spelling in parantheses is hanyu pinyin:

From north to south: Keelung (Jilong); Taipei (Taibei); Hsinchu (Xinzhu); Taichung (Taizhong); Changhua(Zhanghua); Chiayi (Jiayi); Kaohsiung (Gaoxiong); Pingtung (Pingdong). On the east coast: Hualien (Hualian); Taitung (Taidong).

Of course, it's by no means certain that other government agencies, such as the Freeway Bureau, which administers Taiwan's motorways, will do the same. When driving, be prepared to see Taizhong, Pingdong etc.


According to reports in the Chinese-language media, such as this one, the government has decided that hanyu pinyin will not be universally applied to smaller towns. The town previously known as Lukang (鹿港) will retain that old spelling - rather than Lugang - while Danshui (淡水) will officially be Tamsui, a rendering of the place name as its pronounced in Taiwanese.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Metal bashing in the backstreets

Wandering through Tainan's backstreets and alleyways is always interesting, always rewarding. Recently I came across this friendly gentleman, in his early 70s, who was quite happy for me to take photos as he fixed farmers' tools and custom-made various implements. Blacksmiths are a dying breed in Taiwan - I'd be very surprised to hear of someone under the age of 50 doing this job.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Butterflies big and small

During recent trips I came across two unusually cooperative butterflies. The first, one of the largest and most magnificent I have ever seen, posed for me during a visit to Fuyuan National Forest Recreation Area (also called the Butterfly Valley Resort) in Hualien. If I've identified it correctly (I'm a butterfly fan but no expert) it's a Small Birdwing. According to the Council of Agriculture's website, the forewing span can be as much as 20cm.I haven't been able to identify the other butterfly. I'm pretty sure it isn't rare; in any case, there were hundreds of similar specimens where I found it, flitting over a freshly-mowed lawn near my home in Tainan. As you can see, it's tiny, each wing being barely 1cm across.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Zhou Guang-hui's Collection

Zhou Guang-hui (周廣煇), a local Amis chieftain, school teacher and member of Hualien County Council, spent his retirement accumulating farming tools and household utensils, hunting paraphernalia and models of his tribe's traditional thatched huts which he'd made with his own hands. In addition to animal skulls, traps and catapults, there are gowns and a foot-powered rice thresher still in working order. Unfortunately, nothing is labelled in English and since Zhou's death the collection has opened to the public only sporadically. However, if you ask around in the village of Dabalong (太巴塱) near Guangfu, no doubt a friendly local will lead you to it and likely track down whoever is holding the keys.

Perhaps the most precious item inside is the multi-generation family tree that Zhou compiled. The names of many of Zhou's ancestors are written in romanized script only; the more recent members of his clan are listed with both their Amis and Han names (the latter in Chinese characters). I regret not taking a photo of it...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Homestays / B&Bs

Learn to recognise this emblem: It's the sign given to homestays (also known as bed-and-breakfasts, though not all of them offer breakfast) which satisfy fire safety and other regulations and are thus legal and licensed. Homestays have become very popular in Taiwan in recent years because they offer a different experience to hotels - one that's friendlier, less formal, sometimes quirkier...

In the guidebook I recommend dozens of good homestays.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Puli's paper church

I've moved the text about what's officially called Puli Paper Dome (埔里紙教堂) to this page.

APRIL 2012 UPDATE: The architect who designed the Paper Dome, Shigeru Ban, has been commissioned to create a cardboard replacement for Christchurch cathedral, which was so badly damaged in a February 2011 earthquake that it will be demolished.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Know your fruit: The banana

The humble banana, pound-for-pound one of the cheapest fruits grown and sold in Taiwan. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, up to 80,000ha of land was devoted to growing bananas, and the fruit was one of Taiwan's top three exports. (Refined sugar was consistently no. 1). Most went to Japan, a total of 653,800 tonnes in 1967 alone. Local bananas are excellent and healthy!

This is another of Craig Ferguson's photos.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A house made of mud

We spotted this old house, made mostly but not entirely of mud bricks, yesterday. Appropriately, it's just a few kilometres from one of Taiwan's mud volcanoes.

In the past couple of years, mud has made a bit of a comeback as an eco-friendly, sustainable building material, as this article relates.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mangroves, birds & crabs

Yesterday we joined a two-hour-long boat tour of Sicao, an area of wetlands, mangrove swamps, creeks and abandoned salt pans that's exceptionally rich in birds and marine life. Sicao will be part of Taiwan's eighth national park, Taijiang National Park.

The tour is a good introduction to the ecology of lagoons that came into existence almost 200 years ago after a strong typhoon reshaped the coastline. and sediment blocked river mouths.

I'm posting details of this on the blog but won't put anything about it in the guidebook because English-language tours are not available; indeed, the guide seemed to prefer speaking Taiwanese to Mandarin.

The Mangroves Protection Association of Tainan City can be contacted at tel: +886 6 284 1709; fax: +886 6 284 0701; e-mail: mpatc@msa.hinet.net

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Taipei: From 'drab' to 'panache'

"I last visited Taipei in 1983, and what was then a rather drab and sprawling non-descript metropolis, has now morphed itself with panache and verve into a sophisticated and vibrant capital city. Cradled in a large basin that in prehistoric times was an enormous lake, the city’s arteries are an amalgam of wide, tree-lined boulevards, mimicking Europe’s best, and quaint old-fashioned, back-alleyways resonating with all the delights of Asia. Blessed with a sophisticated service industry, cheap and efficient public transport, a blend of modern shopping malls and traditional night markets, the best Chinese food in the world, and a vibrant nightlife scene – Taipei is surely one of the most unsung and underrated tourist destinations in Asia with something to offer everyone."

So writes John Hagan in The Seoul Times, an English-language newspaper in South Korea. His article covers the main attractions - Taipei 101, National Palace Museum and the city's food - but, as with any write-up of less than 1,200 words, just scratches the surface. The capital has a huge amount to see, do, eat and buy - spend a week here if you can.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Door gods, traditional and modern

The doors of Taiwanese temples almost always bear full body-length portraits of door gods, men in classical garb with long beards. The 'door gods' pictured here were photographed at the Jinmen Hall in Lugang. Less than 100m away I came across some interesting 'door-god' style decoration on the entrance of a private house (below). Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Electric scooters

The best way to see many parts of Taiwan is by rented motorcycle, preferably a 125cc Vespa-type machine that's easy to ride (no clutch, no gear changes) and easy to park whenever you spot something of interest.

In this Taipei Times article, it's reported that the ministries of transport and economic affairs are working together to rid some of Taiwan's minor islands of petrol-burning motorcycles and replace them with electric scooters. The latter are, of course, much better for the environment and far quieter. I think it's a great idea and hope it happens. Green Island reportedly has 6,000 motorcycles registered for a population of around 2,700, because so many scooter-rental businesses serve incoming tourists.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Blue skies in Taipei

Who says it rains all the time in Taipei? I just spent three-and-a-half days in the capital, and had blue skies and comfortable temperatures 95 percent of the time. I took this photo in the 2-28 Peace Memorial Park.

The skyscraper in the background on the right is the Shinkong Mitsukoshi Department Store, formerly Taipei's tallest building. The one on the left is National Taiwan Museum, a colonial era edifice.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mixed signals

Everyone agrees that Taiwan's government agencies need to do a little more (or a lot more) to make the country really tourist-friendly. Here's an example from Penghu. At the entrance to Yuwengdao Lighthouse (漁翁島燈塔, pictured here) in the Penghu Islands there are various signs. One says, in English and Chinese, 'No Entry'. Another, just below, states 'Welcome (Admission Free)'.

So, is this lighthouse open to the public or not? It seems to be. No one stopped us, or the Taiwanese sightseers there at the same time, from wandering around the grounds.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Lost wallet

Yesterday afternoon, after checking in and passing through security at Magong Airport in the Penghu Islands, I realised I'd mislaid my wallet. When we arrived in Tainan my wife called the Penghu police and asked if they could stop by the coffeeshop where I thought I might have left it. Within an hour they'd done so and called back, saying they'd recovered the wallet (the workers were holding on to it, expecting I'd come back and ask for it) and all the contents.

Well done Penghu police for your efficiency, and thank you coffeeshop employees for your honesty.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Know your fruit: The starfruit

This is the starfruit, sometimes known as the carambola. They're native to Indonesia and the Indian sub-continent, but they're grown widely in Taiwan. Wild varieties, smaller than the fist-sized ones you'll see in markets, are also fairly common. Often eaten fresh, starfruit can also be turned into juice. Personally I dislike the taste, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try one.

In Chinese they're known as yáng táo (楊桃). Taiwan exports this fruit to Russia and other markets.

This photo is courtesy of Craig Ferguson.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The life of an aboriginal chief

This fascinating blogpost by an American who lives in Wulai, an aboriginal village on the outskirts of Taipei, describes the life of a tribal chief who experienced Japanese colonial rule and Taiwan's rapid post-war modernization. Wulai is now a popular hot springs resort.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The September 21 Earthquake, ten years on

Today was the tenth anniversary of the September 21 Earthquake, the worst natural disaster to strike Taiwan since 1935 and the strongest quake for more than a century. It happens that yesterday I was in Jiji, the town in central Taiwan that was the quake's epicentre. One of the town's most memorable sights is Wuchang Temple, pictured above. It wasn't especially famous before the quake, but even now, a decade after it collapsed, busloads of tourists come to see it. As you can see, most of the rest of the structure remains intact. A new version of Wuchang Temple is currently being built less than 100 metres away.

Craig Ferguson has good photos of the temple and other places around Jiji here.

Know your fruit: The pitaya

The pitaya (sometimes spelled pitahaya) grows on a cactus about the size and height of a grape vine. The skin isn't eaten; the flesh inside is a pink-purple colour and soft, having a similar consistency to a kiwi; the taste is mild but very pleasant. They grow well in the central and southern parts of the island, and because they're relatively expensive, many farmers surround their pitaya orchards with barbed wire.

In Mandarin Chinese they're called huolong guo (火龍果), literally 'dragon fruit'.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Well of the Black Africans

The long-sealed well (pictured left) was, according to local legend, dug by African slaves brought to Taiwan by the Dutch East India Company in the mid-1600s. It's said to have been an excellent year-round water source, never drying out even in times of drought. Covered over during the Japanese occupation, it was rediscovered in 1955 and is now a national third-grade relic. It's in Lane 146 Ziqiang Street, Tainan City (台南市自強街146巷), not far from Tainan Park and the TRA Station. You'll find it easily if you follow the excellent bilingual walking maps posted on roadsides around the city.

It seems political correctness influenced the translation of the well's name from Chinese to English. In Chinese, 烏鬼井 literally means 'black ghosts well' – a less than flattering term for people of African descent.

The hand-written notice tied to the streetlight asks local residents not to let their dogs urinate or defecate here. To be honest, there isn't much to see here. The old alleyways of Ziqiang Street are worth a wander, however.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A warning for those driving themselves

In Taiwan, it's often said that if you come across what appears to be the aftermath of a traffic accident, there are two good reasons not to stop and try to help: Lawsuits and robberies. If you take an individual to hospital or pull someone from the wreckage, you may later be held responsible for their death or injuries. Also, criminals have been known to stage fake-crash scenes on quiet country roads and beg passing drivers to stop. Good Samaritans have, for their trouble, been robbed and had their vehicles stolen. Emergency-services operators seldom speak English, so if you do see a smash, it's best to stop at a shop and explain as best you can what's happened.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Temple renovation

Seeing how temples and other old landmarks are renovated is fascinating. I visited the Temple of the Navigation Superintendant in Tainan - one of that city's minor shrines - to find it covered with a temporary roof and, essentially, dismantled to allow for a complete renewal. Segments of the roof worth saving are suspended in position from the corrugated-metal ceiling by wires. Down at ground level, two women worked at painting and lacquering wood while their colleagues discussed how best to get new wooden beams into position.

Returnng a few months later, wondering if the renovation had been completed, I found one of the female artists (pictured here) balanced on scaffolding, still hard at work.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Know your foods: Deep-fried pig skin

The old town of Lukang in Changhua County is an excellent place to enjoy traditional snacks including meat balls with taro, various kinds of 'geng' and shaved ice desserts. Near the No. 1 Market we came across an establishment that devotes itself to the soaking in water and deep-frying of pig skins.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Westerners in Taiwan temple art

A few days ago I was in Tainan's Cheng Huang Temple, the best known of its three city god shrines. The exterior art features quite prominently two men of Western appearance but in semi-Chinese garb. The temple's caretaker confirmed they are 'foreigners' but couldn't tell me why they're here.

These figures are certainly not the only depictions of foreigners in Taiwan temple art. I like the five o'clock shadows on both men, and the widow's-peak hairstyles that remind me of Ray Reardon, the snooker player.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Japanese-era photos of Taiwan

Here are two fascinating online collections of old Taiwan photos hosted by Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. The web addresses are very long so I won't mention them in the book.

The Gerald Warner Taiwan Image Collection has photos taken by Japanese anthropologists and others during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. A great many of the pictures feature aborigines in traditional clothing.

The Michael Lewis Taiwan Image Collection has some even older pictures and many that are in colour.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Know your traditions: Tainan's Cixi's Coming-of-Age Ceremony

Taiwanese can drive when they're 18 and vote when they're 20. But according to one of the city's most popular customs, they become adults when they turn 16. In Qing-era Tainan, a child reaching that age was a cause for celebration because 16-year-olds working on the docks and in workshops were entitled to adult wages, not the half-salaries younger employees received.

Since the 1740s, 16-year-olds and their parents have been going to the Kailong Temple on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month to celebrate this coming of age. The event is called Cixi because it coincides with lovers' day in Chinese tradition. Until quite recently those wishing to take part in the ceremony, which involves crawling under an altar three times, had to purchase special gowns, shoes and hats and prepare specific offerings to honour Qiniangma, the goddess believed to protect children under the age of 16.

Nowadays the clothing can be rented and offerings need not adhere to custom so closely. The city government has been promoting the event as a way to bring visitors to Tainan; even if watching teenagers wave joss sticks while their parents try to cram offerings on tables already buckling under the weight of fruit, rice and seaweed doesn't interest you, some of the associated folk performances and concerts might.

The image here was contributed by Rich Matheson, the photographer I attended the event with. Rich also pointed out this very detailed 2001 article on the event.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Kinmen: Photos by Craig Ferguson

[Top] Shanhou Folk Culture Village, a set of 109-year-old buildings.
[Middle] Kinmen is full of distinctive Fujianese-style houses.
[Below] A watchtower. Cold War-era military installations across both the main island and Little Kinmen are a major attraction for some visitors.

All of the photos by kind permission of Craig Ferguson, a photographer based in Taipei. More of his photos can be seen at - and he can be contacted via - his website.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Visiting Taiwan after Typhoon Morakot

Here's the complete text of an article I wrote last week for Taiwan Today, a central government website, about the impact of Typhoon Morakot on tourism.

"Within hours of the Jinshuai Hotel toppling into the raging waters of the Zhiben River in southeast Taiwan Aug. 9, footage of the six-story building’s spectacular demise had been seen by millions of people in Asia, North America and Europe.

The clip is unlikely to bring tourists flocking to Taiwan, and in the wake of Typhoon Morakot—the calamity that led to more than 200 confirmed deaths as well as the hotel’s collapse—the island's travel industry faces serious problems.

Reuters reported Aug. 14 that the tourism sector would see total losses of NT$4.5 billion because several of Taiwan’s finest tourism assets have been put out of action or rendered inaccessible.

The historic narrow-gauge railroad that links the lowland city of Chiayi with the mountain resort of Alishan will not be fully operational for two years, Taiwan's Chinese-language media has reported. However, the main road to the resort should reopen by Sept. 20.

According to officials in Yushan National Park’s Conservation Department, all of the roads approaching Jade Mountain—Northeast Asia’s highest peak and a finalist in the competition to select the world's new seven natural wonders—are closed due to typhoon damage, and repair schedules have yet to be confirmed. “It might take a while,” they warned.

Rangers have yet to assess the state of the park’s many hiking trails and refuges, the officials said.

The Southern Cross-Island Highway, which runs through the southern part of the national park, has suffered massive damage. It’s one of Taiwan’s most scenic mountain roads and a favorite with independent travelers who rent cars or motorcycles, but park officials said “it may take months [to complete] reconstruction.”

Fortunately a great deal remains intact. The northern half of Taiwan—including the capital, Taipei, and its world-class National Palace Museum—was unscathed. Sun Moon Lake, Taroko National Park and the historic town of Lugang are all open for business as usual.

ROC Tourism Bureau Director-General Lai Seh-jen announced Aug. 17 that, in a bid to limit cancellations, the bureau is circulating a list of unaffected tourist attractions to overseas travel agents.

Tour operators stress that even in southern Taiwan, damage to road and rail networks should not cause too much inconvenience.

"Green Island is in pristine condition because the muddy downflow of rivers doesn’t get there and the island itself has no rivers,” said Eddie Viljoen, director of sales for Green Island Adventures, a Taichung-based company that provides travel packages to several destinations around the ROC, including Green Island, 33 kilometers east of Taitung.

"Water visibility is still at least 25 meters for scuba diving and snorkeling. And there’s an added advantage right now—there are fewer people around than is usual in the summer peak season,” said Viljoen, acknowledging the typhoon’s impact on visitor numbers.

Within days of the typhoon cutting the Kaohsiung-Taitung rail link, daily domestic flights between the two cities—suspended since 2001—were resumed. From Taitung it is a 12-minute flight to Green Island.

Viljoen is not the only person seeing a post-typhoon dip in business.

"The only guest we had between Aug. 7 [the day before the typhoon arrived] and Aug. 18 was a reporter,” said Lai Chi-ming, the co-owner of Haugau Homestay near Meinong, a town 40 kilometers northeast of downtown Kaohsiung that suffered no significant damage.

"For summertime that’s unbelievable,” remarked Lai, who said that 95 percent of his guests are Taiwanese.

"We were fully booked for the weekend of Aug. 15-16, but everyone canceled. Most said it was because of road conditions, although there are no problems between here and the freeway. A few people saw TV reports about Kaohsiung’s water-supply problems and were worried they wouldn’t be able to take a bath,” he explained.

Despite extensive coverage of the disaster in the international media, inbound tourism appears to be holding up better than the domestic market.

"Nobody has canceled from any of our tours to Taiwan because of the typhoon,” said Phil Colley, founder of The Oriental Caravan, a U.K. company that specializes in tours of East Asia. "None of our clients have expressed concerns about the safety of traveling in Taiwan. We’ve had a couple of inquiries about how the damage caused by the typhoon might affect our route and the itinerary.”

"From initial reports it seems most of the areas and facilities covered by our tour have not been seriously affected by the typhoon and so we have not as yet had to change the itinerary,” he said. “Taiwan is pretty new to our portfolio. We led our first tour in March of this year and have one full and one almost-full group for October and November respectively.”

The ROC is not the only country to have seen its tourist trade affected by extreme weather.

"A number of countries around the world face the prospect of being affected by natural phenomena–hurricanes in the Caribbean and southern U.S. states, for instance, or typhoons in Asia. This is an unfortunate fact of life, of which most intelligent travelers will be aware,” said Geoff Saltmarsh, managing director of the Saltmarsh Partnership Ltd., a public relations firm contracted to represent the ROC Tourism Bureau in the United Kingdom.

"Responsible tourism authorities acknowledge the fact within their tourism information to allow potential visitors to make their own decisions. For example, the Taiwan website refers to the possibility of typhoons in the June to August period and advises visitors to monitor weather reports,” he said.

Saying he does not expect any negative long-term impact on Taiwan’s tourism industry as a result of Typhoon Morakot, Saltmarsh added: “A number of U.K. tour operators have told us that their forward bookings for Taiwan are showing an increase from last year.”

The article was originally published here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What you'd be missing if you came to Taiwan now

[Top] A flock of birds on the South Cross-Island Highway. The western section of the road was trashed by Morakot and will be closed for months.
[Middle] An early-morning 'sea of clouds' seen from the highest stretch of the same road.
[Below] Tackling the whitewater in Namasiya Township, an aboriginal district in Kaohsiung that was decimated by the typhoon. Landslides have changed the river completely - it's now shallow where it used to be deep, straight where it used to twist, and treacherous where it was once fairly safe.
All three of these photos were taken by Richard Matheson, a Canadian photographer I've worked with many times.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Know your traditions: Votive currency

Each year in Taiwan believers burn tens of thousands of tons of votive currency - also known as joss paper, spirit money or ghost money - during temple rituals, funeral rites and to mark important periods like Ghost Month (the seventh month on the lunar calendar). In the old days this money was made of rice straw; now it's conventional paper. There are different kinds of currency for different occasions and to benefit different recipients (gods, ghosts or ancestors), hence the different images and characters on the notes.

Ghost money is seldom sacrificed by itself; usually it's offered as part of a rite involving offerings of food and soft drinks (sometimes rice wine, too) and praying while holding incense sticks.

Ghost-money burning is a health hazard for people living in built-up areas. Even if it wasn't, it's so unpleasant many foreigners visiting Taiwan wish the custom could be taxed or somehow abolished. Some major temples have abolished the practice, or moved the actual burning to alternative locations where people are less likely to be affected.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Know your gods: Mazu

Taiwan’s most prominent diety, Mazu (媽祖) is said to have been born Lim Vo’g Niu (林默孃; in Mandarin, Lin Mo-niang) in Meizhou, a fishing community in Fujian, on the 23rd day of the third lunar month in 960. By the time she was in her early teens she had an excellent grasp of Buddhist and Confucian texts; she used her powers to heal the sick and exorcise evil spirits (often the same thing in those days).

Her most famous achievement came at the age of 16 when her father and brothers, then far away on a fishing expedition, were caught in a tremendous storm. She slipped into a trance just as the storm was at its fiercest. After she regained consciousness her father and brothers returned home safely, swearing that Mazu had projected herself out into the ocean to save them. (An alternative version has it that she saved her brothers, but because she was disturbed during her trance she let go of her father who then drowned; yet another legend says she swam out to sea to search for her father, drowned and was washed away in the Matsu Islands). She was revered as a rainmaker and also persuaded two mischief-making demons to ‘go straight’ and become her servants. Altars dedicated to Mazu are very often flanked by human-sized statues of these two: Shunfenger (‘ears that hear the wind’) and Qianliyan (‘eyes that see a thousand leagues’).

At the age of 26 she told her family she was going to leave this world. After climbing a nearby mountain, she ascended to the heavens. Fujianese migrants sailing to Taiwan very often carried effigies of Mazu with them to ensure a safe crossing. Both Koxinga and Shi Lang brought icons with them. Over time, Mazu has become much more than the patron saint of seafarers. Nowadays many Taiwanese who venture nowhere near the ocean seek her blessings in times of plenty and her aid in times of distress. Her eminence is made clear by one of her alternative names: the Queen of Heaven. Many of the 800-plus shrines dedicated to her around the ROC are called ‘Queen of Heaven’ temples, often romanised as 'Tianhougong' (天后宮).

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Typhoon season


If you want to visit Taiwan, try to avoid August. It's peak typhoon month. There's the tail end of one blowing through the island as I type. Typhoon Morakot has killed hundreds of people here, it seems. In the south schools and businesses closed down for three or even four days, starting August 7.

During a typhoon, no one in their right mind goes to the beach, the mountains or the forests. When a typhoon comes, don't think you can simply shift to another part of Taiwan to avoid it. Often - as throughout the past weekend - almost all public transport shuts down, and the entire island is battered by dangerously strong winds and heavy downpours. There's nothing to do but sit it out.

Exactly fifty years ago, typhoon-related flooding in central Taiwan killed 667 people.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The temple town of Beigang

Two photos from our recent excursion to Beigang in Yunlin County, which is between Chiayi and Taichung. The town is home to - you could say it revolves around - a famous Mazu shrine, the Chaotian Temple (北港朝天宫). The photo below shows a votive bell shaped like an axe.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Festivals in Taiwan

This article I wrote for the government's Taiwan Review looks at three of the island's major festivals: the Songjiang Battle Array in Kaohsiung County, Hsinchu City's Glass Art Street Carnival and the Mid-Summer Ghost Festival in Keelung.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Chiang Kai-shek's adopted son

I've been working on the history section of the guidebook. It's been a pleasure and an education. Unfortunately there are lots of colourful episodes and anecdotes I'd like to include but there just isn't space. The life story of Chiang Wei-kuo (蔣緯國, 1916-1997) is one.

In 1988, Chiang confirmed what many had guessed: That Chiang Kai-shek wasn’t his real father and that his birth was the result of a love affair in Tokyo between Tai Chi-tao, a KMT heavyweight then in exile, and a Japanese woman called Shigematsu Kaneko. Chiang Kai-shek adopted Wei-kuo to protect Tai’s reputation and marriage, and later sent him to Germany for military training. There he proved his worth as a soldier. He served as a tank commander during the Anschluss, Hitler’s takeover of Austria, and was promoted to the command of a Panzer unit training for the invasion of Poland. Before that operation was launched his father recalled him to China, where he applied what he’d learned in Germany first against the Japanese and then against the Communists. Decades later in Taiwan, he stood for the vice presidency on an unofficial conservative ticket opposed to Lee Teng-hui.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Taiwan's churches

Among a slew of articles of mine which have just come out is a long magazine piece about church architecture in Taiwan. Westerners visiting Taiwan probably aren't coming here to see Christian places of worship - but, whatever your interests, you may well find Shenshan Catholic Church interesting. I don't have any good photos, but follow this link to see an interesting melding of aboriginal art and imported religion.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Dapeng Bay

I visited Dapeng Bay - which is gradually emerging as one of Taiwan's most important watersports destinations - back in March, and a newspaper article I wrote about that place has just been published.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Know your traditions: The Chinese coffin

It looks a bit like a dug-out, but this is a typical Taiwanese coffin, photographed in a coffin-maker's workshop in Sanxia, near Taipei. As you can see, shape-wise it's quite different to you usual Anglo-Saxon casket. The very best coffins in Taiwan are made from a single tree trunk and can weigh as much as two tonnes.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

North Cross-Island Highway

Taiwan used to have three cross-island highways - north, central and south. The central road has been closed to non-locals since the 1999 earthquake, while the southern road has not reopened since 2009's Typhoon Morakot. Driving across the North Cross-Island Highway in good weather is always worthwhile, however, even if you lack the time to linger at Cihu Sculpture Memorial Park. The stretch between Fuxing and Baling is sometimes very busy because cars and tour buses head up to Lalashan for the peach season. East of Baling, however, the road is superbly scenic and almost totally free of traffic.

The North Cross-Island Highway links Daxi (a small town worth an hour or two) near Taoyuan with Yilan in the northeast. The photo here shows the view from Fuxing Youth Activity Centre's coffeeshop.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Only for drowned accidents

Westerners living in Taiwan like to make fun of the strange wording that can be seen on many signs and notices, but the English is almost always understandable. I took this photo in Nanzhuang Township, Miaoli, at a lovely little spot called Shensiangu.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Know your gods: The Jade Emperor

According to this source:

"The Yuhuang Dadi (Jade Emperor) is not only one of the supreme gods [in] Taoism, but also the god who is best known and adored among folk people in China...
He [commands] all kinds of traditional gods belonging to Buddhism and Taoism. In the Han Dynasty (AD25-220) when Taoism was just established, he was honored as a supreme god. Later, it was said he used to be a prince from a remote kingdom and cultivated himself according to religious doctrine. By the time of the Tang Dynasty (AD618-907), the Jade Emperor became the assured subject of worship. Afterwards, Taoism was respected in the Tang and Song dynasties and the story about the Jade Emperor was gradually enriched, which greatly influenced the life of common Chinese."

I took this photo in Changhua's Yuanqing Hall. Or, to be accurate, in the temporary shack next to it which currently houses all the icons as the temple is renovated after a devastating fire in the spring of 2006. The face and hands of this particular effigy remind me of the puppets in the 1960s TV series Thunderbirds.