A Tourist in Taiwan

I just spent 10 days touring Taiwan and I leave with what is best described as ambiguous feelings. Yes it was nice and some parts are extraordinarily pretty, but it’s a newish country and while it’s current politics are fascinating, it’s a little short on history.

So let’s delve into the history. Taiwan was first settled by Polynesian peoples 5,000-8,000 years ago. Today, these aboriginals make up about 500,000 of the island’s 23 million people.

In the 1600’s, Chinese from the mainland first settled and in 1694, the Ming dynasty incorporated the island into Greater China. For the next two hundred years, Europeans, – Dutch, Portuguese ( who called it Formosa) and British – colonized it along with the Chinese, who variously ruled it or retreated.

1894 is regarded as a seminal year. Following the loss of the Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese ceded Taiwan to Japan, beginning 50 years of colonial Japanese occupation. The Japanese suppressed dissent, but also modernized the country with railroads and mandatory education. During WW2, Taiwan was bombed by the Allies as it was considered part of Japan.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, the Republic of China (ROC), under the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek, had taken charge but were fighting a civil war against Mao’s communists. In 1945, the writing was on the wall for the ROC, and with the urging and promises of support by the USA, the ROC and its army eventually fled to Taiwan and set up the ROC on the island.

Chiang Kai-Shek was a polarizing character. He is regarded as the father of the country and immortalized in a giant memorial and statue:

But he was a brutal dictator who declared martial law and killed hundreds of dissidents. It was only upon the death of his son and successor in 1984 that Taiwan embraced democracy.

Today, both China and Taiwan claim to be the rightful rulers of a unified Taiwan. In Taiwan, it’s two major parties focus on the relationship with China. The Green Party advocates for an independent Taiwan while the Blue Party wants to reunify with China but only with it as the governing party.

I expected what the West perceives to be growing China aggression toward Taiwan to be a major topic, but my tour guides only referred to it briefly as “the tensions”. I could detect little immediate concern, although I did run into a peaceful protest against the proposed land mining of the west coast. Military service for men was recently increased from four months to a year and temporary runways were being built along the major highway. Granted my inability to understand Chinese hindered my observations but it just seemed to me that everyone was going about business as normal. Then again, I’m not sure what might one see if a country is preparing to be invaded. Maybe a run on toilet paper and generators?

What was a surprise to me is how “ Chinese” the island is, reminding me very much of Hong Kong. Its vibrant food industry is all about Chinese food. The tv is full of mainland Chinese stations. Temples are in the Chinese style- either Taoist or Confucius.

I visited the National Palace Museum, reputed the best in the city. An impressive array of Chinese treasures, most brought over by Chiang Kai-Shek, were on display including jade, Ming vases and a famous stone carved to look like a piece of pork:

The jade carved to look like a cabbage leaf was away on loan but I could look at its photo:

The other major museum is the Taiwan History Museum where I thought I might learn more about the aborigines. The standard dinosaur fossils and exhibits about fauna took up the main floor but I was directed to the third floor for the aborigines exhibits. Oddly, the focus was on the documenters of the aborigines- a photographer and writer and a carver of aboriginal figurines, with scant mention of the aborigines themselves.

To get a bird’s eye view of Taipei, my options were to pay $25 to be whisked by elevator to the top of the tallest building in the country, Taipei 101, hike 500 steps up Elephant Mountain or take a cable car up Maokong Mountain. The lesser of three evils won out and I found myself riding the cable car. A haze of pollution obstructed the view of Taipei 101 in the background:

Taipei wasn’t all temples, Memorial Halls and museums. The Lunar new year had just ended and to celebrate the year of the rabbit, cute oversized bunnies hopped out all over the place:

For me, the most endearing sight in Taipei was…….the pedestrian walk signals. Don’t walk is the standard red person but the walking signal starts with a green man actually walking. As the time runs down, the green man speeds up to a run. Apparently every 20,000 steps, the walk man trips and falls but I didn’t see this. It’s hard to photograph the running man but he was:

I splurged on a 4 night, 5 day bus tour promising to circle the island and show us the best of Taiwan.

Our first attraction was Sun Moon Lake, a popular resort area with a beautiful lake and lots of fabulous walking trails:

The day was spent visiting various temples around the lake and admiring the views. The next day, we left the lake and went to the Fo Guang Shan Monastery, one of the islands largest. It also houses a university, hotels and plenty of souvenir shops. The tradition here is to erect a statue of every monk who serves in the monastery, so there is a plethora of statues:

The original monastery dated to the 1950’s – the head monk had been a soldier in Chiang Kai-Shek’s army- but it had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1999 so the current structure is pretty new.

Days 3 and 4 were spent driving the Pacific Coast Highway, the western equivalent of the USA’s Pacific Coast Highway, with equally impressive vast vistas of the ocean:

The highlight of our final day was the Taroko Gorge where the Liwu River carved out magnificent cliffs in the sandstone:

Wonderful walking paths, tunnels and bridges carved out by idle soldiers from Chiang Kai-Shek’s army make for some great viewing:

Thus ended the tour and my time in Taiwan. As I mentioned, I left with ambiguous feelings. I was surprised by the country’s lack of an extensive history separate from mainland China and how much of it, in architecture and atmosphere reminded me of any large Chinese city. But I was impressed by all of its green space, its national parks and rugged coastline.

Next: Cooler weather awaits.

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