What little I knew about Taiwan I gleaned from an outdated version of the Lonely Planet’s guide to Taiwan.
Of course, that was before most people had the Internet. But even with the help of Netscape Navigator, I doubt I could have found out much about travelling in Taiwan.
The truth is, not many people outside of Asia think of Taiwan as a travel destination.
Millions of North Americans and Europeans visit Asia each year. They love to go to Japan and China to visit the cultural and historical places they’ve heard so much about and seen on TV.
They flock to the beaches of Malaysia and Thailand and Bali.
But travelling, exploring and discovering in Taiwan are not really high on their list of things to do.
For most of the world, then, Taiwan remains The Undiscovered Country.
And that is a great pity, because there is a great deal to discover.
Sounds of the City
The image most people have of Taiwan is one of a bustling, modern urban society of 23 million people who have turned this once rustic and agricultural society into a largely developed nation and an economic powerhouse: one of the “Four small tigers” of Asia’s economy.
This is definitely true. But at the same time, Taiwan is a “living museum” of history and culture – a place where traditional Chinese, Taiwanese, Hakka and Aboriginal lifestyles are not merely preserved but thrive.
Outside the cities, Taiwan’s urban jungle gives way to tropical forests that are teeming with exotic wildlife.
In short, Taiwan is a traditional Chinese watercolour painted on a tropical canvas with a digital printer.
OK, so that’s the big picture. But what people want to know is the nitty gritty.
I had been here less than a week when friends and family started asking the difficult questions:
Where is Taiwan?
If you’re looking for Taiwan on a map, it’s easy enough to find.
Find Japan and then trace your finger along the chain of islands that hug the coast of China.
When you come to the island that looks kind of like a tobacco leaf, stop. That’s Taiwan: The one the European explorers called Ilha Formosa – “the Beautiful Island.”
Taiwan’s main island lies about 160 kilometres off the south-eastern coast of China. It is separated from the mainland by the Taiwan Strait. Sitting on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, it is about 394 kilometres long and about 144 kilometres across at its widest point. Americans always say it's about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. Europeans say it's about the size of The Netherlands. I always say that Taiwan and its islands are roughly the same size as Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
That's because the country of Taiwan also includes several offshore islands. These include the Penghu Islands – in the middle of the Taiwan Strait — and the islands of Kinmen and Matsu that are so close to China you can almost spit and hit the mainland.
Like Taiwan proper, these islands still known to many in the West by the names given to them by the Portuguese explorers 400 years ago: The Penghu islands, for example are also known as the Pescadores. Kinmen is also known as Quemoy.
What’s the weather like?
In a word… hot. Hot and humid. Well, for most of the time anyway. And a lot depends on where you are.
You see, Taiwan straddles the Tropic of Cancer, and that automatically makes for two climate zones: Tropical in the south. Sub-tropical in the north.
So while there are four seasons, they are perhaps not quiet as distinct as the ones in more Northern climes. Summers will be longer and hotter. Winters will be shorter and not as cold.
The things you need to know is that Taiwan is affected by the monsoon winds. That means May and June bring heavy rains. And late fall tends to be a warm, dry season — making it a great time to visit.
Of course, we also get the occasional typhoons in summer and fall. To the traveller, these are generally welcomed as blessings in disguise because they do clear the air and cool things down quite a bit.
What is it like?
Taiwan proper – like many of the surrounding islands – lies on the western edge of the Pacific “rim of fire.” That means that it was forged by volcanoes and earthquakes. All this prehistoric activity has created majestic mountain peaks, rolling hills, sweeping plains and dramatic coastlines. This sceptred isle also features placid lakes and gorgeous gorges.
On the East Coast, the jet-black cliffs seem to spring straight from the sea. Further inland, the Central Mountain Range features some of the highest mountains in this part of Asia. Among these is Jade Mountain (or Yushan).
At over 3,000 metres, this is a climb for only the most adventurous. The less adventurous Nature Lovers can try to Alishan (or Ali Mountain). There you take a ride on the historic Alpine railway that is unique in this part of the world.
These mountains are covered with forests, making them a virtual Noah’s Ark of wildlife.
Here there are birds and beasts of every kind – about 18,400 known species in all – with more than 20 percent of them considered rare or endangered.
For a more relaxed holiday, you can also soak up the sun in beautiful Kenting; take a romantic journey to placid Sun Moon Lake or visit the offshore islands of Kinmen and Penghu.
What about the culture?
Taiwan is truly the Beautiful Island. But Taiwan has more than offer than just natural beauty. There is also the beauty of more than 10,000 years of culture.
Of course, the Aboriginals were the first people here and their tribal cultures, languages, arts and religious practices can still be witnessed today in the villages around Taiwan.
But through the centuries, Chinese culture has taken root in Taiwan and the country has been developed with a Chinese sensitivity toward culture and art.
You can see this in the ornate temples and religious ceremonies of the Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians. These include not only the famed Longshan Temple and Confucian temples in Taipei, but in the thousands of temples and shrines found in every corner of every town in these islands. Some of the oldest "Chinese" temples in the world are in Taiwan.
You can also see the “Chinese characteristics” in the Taiwanese love of arts such as calligraphy, ceramics and paintings. When the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang or KMT) fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war, they brought with them the crème de la crème of China’s treasures. That’s why today, the National Palace Museum in Taipei houses what many experts consider to be the finest collection of Chinese art in the world!
Taiwan is also one of the best places in the world to see and learn about the Chinese “performance arts”. In fact, if you want to learn about Chinese dance and Beijing opera (or is that Peking Opera?) – forget about Beijing: Taipei is the place to be.
So, are the people in Taiwan, like, Chinese?
The simple answer is yes – and no. Well, maybe. But not really.
Chinese people — including today’s Taiwanese and Hakka people — have been settling in Taiwan for hundreds of years, especially since the 1600s.
But Taiwan’s rich and colourful history dates back much further — 10,000 years in fact — to the early Aborigines who are believed to have come from nearby Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as from other islands in this part of the Pacific.
The descendants of these tribes remain in Taiwan today. In fact, some of the 12 tribes representing almost half a million people still practice and preserve the traditions of their ancestors.
With its natural resources and strategic location, Taiwan has also been a natural stop for colonizers, both Western and Oriental. Beginning in the 15th century, both Holland and Spain fought over control of the island. And for 50 years — from 1895 to the end of World War II — Japan occupied Taiwan and claimed it as its own.
These colonizers are gone now, but their legacy can be felt even today.
Each of these groups has contributed to the today’s Taiwan. Here, the different elements of religion, architecture, language, living habits and food have been pieced together in an exciting and vibrant mosaic.
What’s the food like?
Perhaps the best example of this cultural mixing and matching is food. Only in Taiwan can you find in one place all the different styles of cuisines from the diverse parts of the China.
Here you will find the famous Cantonese and Sichuan cooking styles, the renowned Beijing and Shanghai cuisines and the lesser-known but equally good Zhejiang, Hunan and Yunnan styles.
Of course, wherever you go, you can also enjoy traditional Taiwanese cuisine, as well as the local delicacies of each area.
And while the Japanese colonial rulers may have left, the Taiwanese fondness for Japanese food has not. Almost anywhere you go in Taiwan, you’re sure to find a restaurant that serves your favourite Japanese cuisine.
And if you’re longing for something a little more familiar, the major cities also have some of the best Italian and Indian restaurants in this part of the world!
Welcome to Taiwan
In Taiwan then, the blending of Aboriginal, Hakka, Taiwanese and Chinese cultures has produced a rich and colourful tapestry that many visitors have come to enjoy.
Come and see for yourself why those early explorers called this place the Ilha Formosa — “Beautiful Island.”