The Other China: Taiwan
Often dubbed as the lonely planet, this Pacific island has a lot to offer to travellers, writes Dr Gautam Vohra
There was no mention of Taiwan, as if it did not exist. I was flipping through the pages of the airline programmes as the aircraft soundlessly ferried us across the dark cloudy skies. Priya and I were on a Cathay Pacific flight and I wanted to get a feel of Taipei, the capital of Formosa, through the in-flight magazine. It talked of all else but of our destination. Hong Kong, where we would break flight and transfer to another airline, the Cathay Dragon, featured prominently.
James Choo was there to meet us at our hotel. As we emerged into the foyer, he introduced himself. We were ushered into the waiting van, heading to the Sanhsia Tsu Shih temple in downtown Taipei. It took us nearly an hour’s drive to reach Sanhsia. It was surrounded by buildings, so its unique style did not immediately hit us. First built by the Japanese who had colonised Taiwan for 50 years, until the end of the Second World War, the 14 granite columns and bronze engravings have been introduced adding to the rich heritage of Sanhsia.
I looked at the column with birds sculpted all around, apparently 50 different types carved on the stone columns and marvelled at the brass engravings depicting scenes from life. James Choo drew attention to the tortoise that had been depicted. For the Japanese it signified longevity. For the Taiwanese it has a derogatory meaning. I think James said it stood for “prostitute”. Like PNG, Rio and Cape Town, Taipei is surrounded by hills, but here they are densely forested. I asked if tree felling was not a problem. James said that not all the forest land was owned by the government. Private parties were involved and contractors would need to take several clearances. Obviously no one was keen on the wood. The mountains/hills remain heavily forested.
James took us to the Sanhsia Street, a quaint world that has survived ancient houses standing alongside stone-paved roads. They were all due for demolition but the residents protested. The first floors were made commercial and on top of the shops they set up their houses. This helped pay for the renovation and ancient Taipei was saved. The ceramic street was not altogether a surprise, Chinese pottery being an old art form with which we are vaguely familiar. There were a lot of household commercial items and also modern style ceramics. As we drove back, we seemed to be on the move forever. Our guide mentioned that the area of Taipei is 36,000 sq. kilometres and has a population of 2.7 million. Taiwan’s total population is a bit over 23 million.
Sun Moon Lake was next on the itinerary. The red bus raced through the highway towards the middle of the island. At first there seemed to be no end to Taipei; then other towns appeared and finally the countryside. But it was mostly hills covered with trees. My highlight was the Buddhist temple devoted to Hiuen Tsang, who had visited India as a monk in the 7th century and described us to the Chinese during the early Tang dynasty. And here I was at the Buddhist temple where his remains were kept; part of them in the form of ashes that turned into crystal (a miracle). Like the Taoist temple, the Buddhist one too was in layers. As you ascended each layer, you came across deities in front of whom people were genuflecting.
Priya dropped out of visiting the Ci’en Pagoda for it was an hour’s climb. And then having reached the base of the Pagoda, we had to go up nine floors. Several visitors in our bus dropped out. They missed out on an adventure and a view of the lake. That is when we discovered that it had no resemblance to the sun or the moon. But it was magnificent from on high with boats floating on it and a few residences dotted along its shores, the hilly forests beyond.
We had covered a lot of ground as we toured around the lake: the Wenwu (Taoist) temple, the Ci’en pagoda and the Xuanzang (Buddhist) temple. We broke for lunch at Puli town. By that time my hunger had lost its edge, for as we stopped at department stores specifically for tourists, we were given things to drink and taste (to persuade us to buy). Our fancy hotel was located at the other end of the lake. As soon as we entered our room, I helped myself to a bottle of local beer and sat down on the balcony to view the lights play ankh-micholi and reflect on the ways of God and man.
At breakfast we were spoilt for choice – the hotel had to maintain its five star status. Then the drive to the mountain began. The peak was at 9000 feet. The road wound its way through bamboo plantations. Sometimes they were as thick as curtains. We had left the betel nut plantations in the plains. Gordon repeatedly drew our attention to tea : acres and acres of it. He said in Taiwan four types of teas were grown : Oolong tea in the Sun Moon area, black tea (like Assamese tea) in the central mountains, green tea and white tea. The north east of Taiwan also grows tea.
We were constantly coming to towns that had been destroyed by Taiwan’s earthquake on September 21, 1999 and being shown new houses that had replaced them. The Alishan National Scenic Area was upon us and our group of 23 began its exploration of the Alishan forest which comprised hemlock, pine, Chinese fir, cypress and juniper. Great care had been taken to preserve the forest. Each of the older trees had a covering around its base to impart strength and warmth. No wonder so many had survived, indeed flourished. Some trees were 1000 years old and a few 2000. Finally we stood with awe in front of one that was 3000 years old. There were clusters of trees named three brothers, two sisters, two brothers – all trees that had depended on each other, nurtured one another, as Gordon explained, not allowing the other to give up. And together they had reached for the sky, so much so that the sun did not get through the darkness.
At one point we came across the statue of Chiang Kai-shek, dictator to some, hero to many, the man who had built the nine-storey Ci’en pagoda in his mother’s memory. After what seemed like forever – about three hours – we emerged from under the dark canopy of the forest into the lower slopes on to once again spotting the gay pink red cherry trees. Some had already come into flower, though most display their colour in January-February. The last lap of the forest sojourn was completed by a ride in the narrow gauge train that slowly chugged its way to our red bus. At one point I wondered whether it would get us to it. We could see down the slopes, alongside residential premises, these enormous green houses contributing to the abundance of fruit and vegetables even in winter.
Again we were racing through tunnels carved out of mountains that always seemed to surround us on this island. It had gone dark. It was difficult to tell whether we were in the tunnel or out amidst the sullen looming mountains. There was no moon. I missed the moon. (To be continued) Pics by Priya Sen