Sunday, 24 March 2013

Where is Taiwan?

When I started telling colleagues, friends and relations of our intention to live in Taiwan, their first reactions were often surprise and confusion. While no one was tactless enough to say it, I think the thoughts that went through their minds were: what? why? and finally where? Taiwan isn't a country the British are familiar with. I'm sure some people thought we were moving to Thailand. For most, the phrase that springs most often to mind in relation to Taiwan starts with the words Made in.

Synonymous with computer electronics, clothes, toys and other cheap consumer items, Taiwan's image in the UK, for those who are even aware of it, is of a nation of sweatshops and pollution. There is, or at least used to be, some truth to this image. It wasn't without rapid industrialisation and little regard for the environment that Taiwan managed to pull itself up by its bootstraps in the late 20th century, reaching a GDP today on a par with the UK's. North-western Taiwan is still in need of beauty treatment and doubtless many people still spend monotonous 12 hour days working in dim factories. But these facts are only a small part of the story of Taiwan.

Lying to the south-east of China, Taiwan has a marine tropical climate. A small island, only 245 miles long and 89 miles wide, it's at constant high risk of earthquake. (In our 18 months here we've felt about 10, one of which was on my birthday!) It's also prone to typhoons, heavy rains and hot, humid weather. Unlikely though it may seem, all of this makes Taiwan a beautiful island. Geological action caused by tectonic plate movement has forced up a mountain ridge running right down its eastern side, and the warm, moist climate keeps these mountains covered in green forests, waterfalls and mountain rivers all year round.

There's also a lot more to Taiwanese people and their history than being cheap labour for exploitative factory owners. Today, for example, we caught the 795 bus from outside Muzha Station and went on a trip to Pingxi. This is an area with a long mining history, which I'd visited once before on a school trip.  The bus ride is like a journey into the heart of Taiwan, through winding roads surrounded by forested peaks. (We're lucky to have such an easy connection - most people go by train from Taipei Main Station.) Today, all the mines have closed down and the area has turned to tourism to help alleviate its poverty.

Pingxi has built on the tradition of releasing sky lanterns. After covering the lantern with your various wishes, a small fire is lit underneath. Once the lantern has filled with hot air, it's released. On fine weekends, the village is filled with tourists and the sky bears a constant procession of lanterns.

As always in Taiwan, the presence of tourists means the availability of delicious street food. Some of it even bears the illusion of being healthy. If you've ever had toffee apples, you'll be able to imagine the taste of these toffee strawberries and tomatoes. Tomatoes are, correctly, considered a fruit.

No trip is complete without some spiritual education, too. Temples are everywhere, and walks and mountains usually have some kind of spiritual reference. Today, we came across a sign that indicated a route to the Cave of the Eight Immortals. Figures of ancient Chinese history, the Eight Immortals are associated with good luck and include interesting characters such as Iron Crutch Li and Immortal Woman He. These are Taoist deities. Taiwan hosts many religions, all existing side by side peaceably.

Unfortunately the sign was the only one and we wandered through the forest pleasantly but fruitlessly. We  did stumble across one place, which was abandoned and closed off with secure iron gates. I took a photo of the spooky interior through a grid. If this was the Eight Immortals' current residence, they must be living cold, damp and boring lives at the moment.

At any tourist gathering there are usually some games to play. My son had fun trying to roll a marble down a track on this home-made machine.

Few opportunities are lost to make things look decorative and cute. My husband has developed an interest in Taiwanese manhole covers. More utilitarian objects can't exist, I don't think, but in Taiwan, looking down is often a small moment of interest and education.
A Pingxi manhole cover. The holes are sky lanterns.
A train, another attraction of the area, runs across the centre,
 fish swim in the river that flows through the town,
and mountains form the background.
From a foreigner's perspective, there's also usually something inexplicable going on. In Pingxi, it was the desire to risk life and limb by walking along the railway track on its bridge over the river. This track is in use,  trains arriving roughly every hour or so. No hand rail exists. As far as I could tell, there's also nothing between the sleepers to stop people plunging to their deaths, and no reason to undertake the walk except as a dare. I found the practice mentioned in this blog, where the writer recounts how the train arrived while people were on the bridge.
Pingxi is a good example of nature meeting Taiwanese history and culture. As always with our trips, there's more to tell than I have time, space or ability to post about. I can't convey the rich, clear air of the mountains, scented at times with the perfume of tropical flowers. And I can't capture the sounds of birds, tree frogs and cicadas. I have yet to write about the tribal societies of Taiwan, the waves of immigration from mainland China, or the farming and fishing traditions. I love the mountains, but there are also beautiful coastal areas. I have barely scratched the surface of this country. When I first thought about coming here, I had to find it on a map. How little I knew then what I would learn from asking the question: where is Taiwan?

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