Taiwan

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Friday

Couple of hiccups travelling south from Okinawa via Naha Airport to Taipeh.  The first occurred when checking in for the flight on China Airlines (a Taiwanese carrier) they discovered that Lilly’s Taiwanese visa stated her name as TL and not LT as per her passport. So they refused to accept her on the flight, giving me only a ticket. At the same time the issue went up through the management hierarchy until someone made a decision to contact Immigration in Taipeh and they got the green light. Pedantic stuff in my view because a myriad other details corresponded and all documents had photo ID.

Minor problem with a Visa card when getting the Avis rental card. The expiry date is only a month away, they need six months in event of problems with tickets. American Express came to the rescue.

Getting out of the airport in a new car, driving on the right side of the road and without a GPS was a bit of a struggle but no incidents and we get to the Grand Hotel safely. Aptly named because this place is quite grand. Presidents, prime ministers, film stars and the magnificent have all stayed here. Hope we are not letting the side down.

The hotel was first established in 1952 as Chiang Kai-shek felt Taipei had no proper hotels for hosting foreign dignitaries. The main building was completed in 1973 on the grounds of the former Taipei Grand Shrine, though it underwent major renovations after a fire in 1995. This is a landmark hotel, a bit garish but the rooms are immaculate, large and the whole place has a royal feel about it. Tonight we swim in its Olympic size pool and eat in one of its four major restaurants.

Saturday

Set off today for Taipeh 101. Travel for about 10km and take a wrong turn, so easy to do. End up back on a highway going in the wrong direction. Nothing we can do except enjoy the view. Pass within almost a stone’s throw of our hotel again. What was possibly a 20km trip turned out to be may be 50km!  We gotta avoid highways. We have no GPS and if we had one it would be in Chinese, perhaps that would be better than Anna’s iPhone GPS, perhaps not. Lilly and I are still on speaking terms notwithstanding the navigator blaming the driver and vice versa. A real adventure making it eventually to a car park, Hall 3, adjacent to the Taipeh 101 mall. The mall an up market shopping centre on about 5 floors, every shop an international brand. Who can afford to shop in this place? We don’t even bother to poke our nose in, we are far too tight for this kinda shopping.

Taipeh 101 was the tallest building in the world from when it was completed in 2004 until 2010 when it was exceeded by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Now it ranks only about 9th – there is apparently a tower almost twice its height going up in Saudi Arabia, due completion next year. The Chinese have four or five of the top 10. It’s all about prestige and face in my down to earth opinion. In 100 years they will reach the moon. Still it’s a bit of an icon especially in Taiwan and we had to visit it, despite the admission fee of $30 each. The tower’s elevators reach speeds of 60km, are extremely smooth and transport us from earth to heaven (in secular terms from the 5th to 89th floor) in 37 seconds. Set speed records in those days, probably now snail’s pace.

Yea good view up there and Lilly takes plenty of photos from all four directions. We can even see our hotel in the distance. Wish we could have reached there as the crow flies. There is an outside observation place three floors above and a damper incorporated to enable the structure to withstand earthquakes and the region’s tropical storms.

According to Wikipedia this damper is suspended from the 92nd to the 87th floor. It is a pendulum that sways to offset movements in the building caused by strong gusts. Its sphere, the largest damper sphere in the world, consists of 41 circular steel plates of varying diameters, each 125 mm thick, welded together to form a 5.5 m diameter sphere. Two additional tuned mass dampers, each weighing 6 tonnes are installed at the tip of the spire which help prevent damage to the structure due to strong wind loads. On 8 August 2015, strong winds from Typhoon Soudelor swayed the main damper by 100 centimetres – the largest movement ever recorded by the damper.

We then argue about how to reach the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. We eventually find on the second floor of the mall a short cut to the Grand Hyatt hotel, diagonally through an interim park and thence to the hall. I first heard about Sun Yat-sen in High School and then renewed my acquaintance with him in China, can’t remember now exactly where. He never seemed to me to be typically Chinese because he promoted his three great principles: democracy, livelihood and nationalism.

Sun Yat-sen was first president of the Republic of China from 1919 to 1925 (when he died at the age of 58) and the first leader of the Kuomintang the Nationalist Party of China. He was referred to as the Father of the Nation and is revered apparently more so now in Taiwan than in China. Given the nationalistic, even jingoistic nature of modern China, it is difficult to see how anybody espousing democracy and livelihood, could still be revered in communist China. Capitalism, hard work and a natural entrepreneurial bent – and certainly not communism – has been responsible for improving China’s infrastructure and the livelihood of hundreds of millions of its citizens. Socialism and the Chinese Communist Party’s doctrine, demonstrated unequivocally, as if the message was ever needed’, via the great leaps forward and its cultural revolution, exactly how to wreck a once proud nation. As for democracy (Mínquán), Sun Yat-Sen believed in a western style of government by the people, anathema to the current regime in China.

We make our way back towards our home territory stopping at the National Palace Museum. This museum has a permanent collection of nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks. It’s one of the largest of its type in the world.

Most of the collection are high quality pieces collected by China’s emperors and moved within China by Chiang Kai Shek to escape the clutches of the Japanese and later to Taiwan to escape the clutches of the communists. China naturally proclaims that the collection was stolen and that it legitimately belongs in China, but Taiwan has defended its collection as a necessary act to protect the pieces from destruction, especially during the Cultural Revolution. That’s fair justification given that during the cultural revolution in China, temples where looted, relics, scrolls, and books containing vast amounts of cultural heritage were burned and destroyed. Libraries were ransacked, monuments destroyed or severely damaged, and religious sites and tombs of historical figures were looted and desecrated. The red guards also destroyed many priceless artifacts, like those from the tomb of the Ming Dynasty emperor, Wan Li. In Beijing, the remains of the emperor and empress were publicly denounced and burned. China can count itself very lucky that the red guards and their ilk did not get their hands on the priceless, magnificent and ancient artifacts and exhibits that we viewed today. There were three floors and we could have spent a day on each floor instead of two hours on the lot.

We head towards our hotel and not far away stop at the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine, a structure that houses the spirit tablets of about 390,000 persons. These were persons killed, among other engagements, during the Xinhai Revolution, Northern Expedition, Second Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War, and the First and Second Taiwan Strait Crises. A changing of the honour guard from the various branches of the Republic of China Military take place at the shrine. The shrine closed about half an hour ago and we take photos of it from the gate in front. It is unlikely we will be back but it causes thought about the engagements that lead to the deaths of all these Taiwanese people. Knew that Japan had invaded Taiwan but did not realise that it controlled Taiwan for 50 years from 1895 to 1945. Plenty of history gaps yet to fill.

We eat in the same restaurant as last night but are wiser about the menu and quantities and eat much better.

Note via Youtube highlights that the All Blacks in a world cup warm up easily account for Tonga 92-7. Two weeks to go before the RWC and ABs v Boks, hopefully as a delicious entrée.

Sunday

Much easier driving today with Lilly navigating and me starting to feel more comfortable with driving on the right, getting used to the car and the road signs etc. This place could be called scooter city, they are everywhere, scooting past you on each side sometimes so quick that one false move and they would be curtains. So it’s imperative to hold your line in the traffic and give plenty of warning to change lanes. Traffic is much quicker than in Japan, margins are small, drivers more flamboyant but still mostly very considerate.

First stop today thermal valley located on the outskirts of the Yangmingshan National Park. This is a sulfur hot spring, known locally as Hell Valley. The water reaches a temperature of 90 Celsius in a small lake that sits in a volcanic crater. Steam rises presumably from the injection of a small cold water stream from above. We buy eggs boiled in the water from a 73-year-old local woman and eat them on the spot.

We travel on into the Yangmingshan National Park through winding roads gradually ascending until we reach the park’s Visitor Centre.  It appears that the Centre is primarily there to give guidance to people hiking and there are many trails within the park and up the mountain. But the officers were also very helpful in directing us on to our next spot and the Centre has a wide range of exhibits on the history of the park and area, wildlife and volcanic activity. The National Park is famous for its cherry blossoms, hot springs, sulfur deposits, fumaroles, venomous snakes, and hiking trails, including Taiwan’s tallest dormant volcano at 1120m, Seven Star Mountain. No cherry blossoms today but the drive through this beautiful park was well worth it, even if the roads were a bit narrow in places.

We take the long route down the other side of the park towards Tamsui and drive through that city including its old streets to the Tamsui Fishermans Wharf.  This whole area appears to have had its heyday 20 years ago, parts are now abandoned and you get the impression it’s all in decline. We lunch at a restaurant on the wharf, cross Lovers Bridge, take plenty of pics and drive on.

Next stop is the Fort San Domingo which is a historic fortress originally constructed as a wooden fort in 1628 by the Spanish Empire who named it “Fort San Domingo”. However, the fort was then destroyed by the Spanish, after losing a battle to the Dutch Empire in 1642. After the battle, in 1644, The Dutch rebuilt a fort in the original site, and renamed it “Fort Antonio”. It has walls 1.9m thick but I don’t think it was ever tested in battle. In 1724, the fort was repaired with a perimeter wall with four gates added. From 1868 onwards the fort was leased to the British government as its consulate, and a new two-storied building was built nearby as the consul’s residence. We review both buildings and they meet with our approval. We will consider conveying that to Her Majesty’s government.

On site is also Oxford College, funded in large part by contributions from the residents of Oxford County in Ontario, Canada in 1882. The founder George Mackay named the school Oxford College as a gesture of thanks to its benefactors. The original Chinese name of the school meant “The Hall of Reason of the University.” The original curriculum included courses in theology, Bible studies and reason as well as sociology, logic, Classical Chinese literature and others. The school marked the beginning of general education curricula in Taiwan and is today Taiwan’s oldest institution of higher learning.

We head home for a late afternoon snooze in the Grand and tonight take the shuttle bus down to the Shilin Night Market. This place is absolutely crowded, mostly young people and also families. A lot of sideshow type entertainment, food stalls, restaurants, souvenir shops and indeed shops of all descriptions. Fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable for a couple of hours before catching the bus back for a late dinner of dumplings and sautéed beef julienne in our chosen hotel restaurant.

Monday

Left Taipei today, without incident, achieved by avoiding highways in and around the city.  Long drive east then south, behind the wheel most of the day from about 8:30 to 4:30.

Deviated from our route to Hualien county, Ruisui Township only once to marvel at the Taroko Gorge and National Park.  Visitor headquarters in the park were closed so we pushed on through the gorge. The gorge was created from erosion by the river against the constantly elevating land combined with the heavy sub-tropical rains. Marble, which is relatively hard and resistant to erosion, nevertheless relented to these forces resulting in the unusually steep and narrow canyons.

We take plenty of photos throughout the day, in particular as we make our way into the gorge. Several times today we waited in ever growing queus of cars while workers dislodged potential boulders or whatever presumably made dangerous by the recent heavy rains.

Taiwan has a population of about 24m. From a cursory glance at the map the vast majority are concentrated on the west side of the island. The east side appears to be mainly forested hills and mountains. Still on the east side of the island we pass by or through Yilin, Luodong and Hualien all seemingly significant cities.

Many of the towns that we drive through today do not look prosperous. There appear to be a lot of abandoned buildings and fairly basic homes, almost belies the fact that Tawian’s GDP is about the same as Australia’s, about 20% greater than NZs and about 3 times that of China.

Tonight we are in our first and only BnB; a deliberate move and we are not disappointed. The accommodation is in a rural area of Ruisui and is more than adequate for our one-night stopover. We are surrounded by fruit trees on all sides. We had a good chat to the owners when we arrived, they grow a fruit that looks like a large pear and tastes like a grapefruit.  They also grow Haas avocados and a fruit that Lilly is familiar with that I still have to get the English name for.

Taiwan has a history going back thousands of years. The Taiwanese indigenous peoples or formerly Taiwanese aborigines, Formosan people, Austronesian Taiwanese or Gāoshān people, are the indigenous peoples who number almost about 800,000 or 4% of the island’s population.

The Spanish built a settlement in the north for a brief period but were driven out by the Dutch in 1642 and the island was colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century, followed by a major Han immigration from mainland China. In 1662, Koxinga, a loyalist of the Ming dynasty who had lost control of mainland China in 1644, defeated the Dutch and established a base of operations on the island. His forces were defeated by the Qing dynasty in 1683. Parts of Taiwan became increasingly integrated into the Qing empire. Following the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the Qing ceded the island, to Japan. Japan ruled Taiwan for 50 years from 1895 to 1945 at which point the Kuomintang (KMT), took control of Taiwan. The KMT ruled Taiwan as a single-party state for forty years, until democratic reforms in the 1980s, which led to the first-ever direct presidential election in 1996. Today the Taiwanese see themselves as Taiwanese, not as Chinese. The official stance of Taiwan is that Taiwan is part of China. But the China that this stance refers to is the Republic of China (based in Taipei) instead of the communist People’s Republic of China (based in Beijing).

Tuesday

After breakfast in the reception/dining area with our hosts and two other couples and a long chat with them about fruit and all manner of subjects we head south.

First stop is Chikeshan which we reached by deviating probably about 20kms off our route, about 12kms of it up a narrow, at times quite steep and very winding road.  In two or three place landslides had blocked off half the road. We persevere in rain as do a number of other tourists eventually reaching an area where the hillsides are covered in orange daylilies. The flowers are picked and dried for tea or for a flavouring in soups. It’s a commercial operation in an area that suits this particular flower and there are obviously quite a number of growers.  How they keep going up and down this hill 12kms each way must be a chore and somewhat dangerous. There’s not much room to pass in places but we make it down in one place and take the scenic route through to the coast. Anna has a headache and sleeps through the scenic area which is also winding and in the rain. Later I exaggerate the beauty of the scenery.

We stop next at Sanxiantai, an area containing three islands located on the coast and joined to the mainland by a long footbridge in the shape of a sea dragon. Anna reminds of Penglai in Shandong, but here the name Sanxiantai means “three immortals platform”, referring to the island with three large standing rocks. We walk out to and onto the bridge for photos, but don’t go far as the rain starts again.

Further down the road our interest is piqued by a sign saying Water Running Uphill so we can’t help ourselves but stop and see this strange phenomenon. Sure enough there is a channel of water running in one direction and it does appear that its running uphill. Turns out we are fooled by the channel appearing to run uphill because all around it everything is sloping downhill. The hill behind it, an adjacent stone wall and the pavement beside it all slope downwards. It’s an optical illusion, enhanced by a very clever adjustment of the depth of the channel in places to get the water moving faster and creating momentum and better flow.

We reach Taitung mid-afternoon, wait half an hour for the room and have a later afternoon snooze. Followed by a trip to the Seashore Park not far away and a drive around the city. Park the car and walk around the centre of the city looking for a restaurant and taking in the sights of the night market, mainly fruiterers. Getting nearly back to the car we see the Sheraton Hotel and poke our nose in hoping they have a restaurant. Turns out they have two and we have a decent meal in their Chinese Restaurant.

Wednesday

Today in summary we go south mainly via the east coast to the southern point of Taiwan and back up the west coast to Kaohsiung City. A long day behind the wheel, sometimes a bit hair raising but we survived unscathed and my beloved and I are still talking and the relationship solid. That’s my view anyway.

I am not going into a lot of detail on our stops today, here is a list that I may expand on one or two below: Southern tip of Taiwan, Eluanbi Lighthouse, Little Bay beach, Kenting National Park, Southern Bay Recreation Area, Hengchun South Gate, National Museum of Marine Biology, Dapang Bay National Scenic Area and Donlong Temple.

We left at about 8am and arrived at the hotel here in Kaohsiung City about 6pm.  Much of the coastline, forestry and scenery of southern Taiwan is beautiful. The roads and bridge infrastructure is great, perhaps not quite the equivalent of Japan but travel generally is quite a bit quicker mainly because everybody ignores the speed limits.  Taxis go through red lights, everybody passes across solid double lines, truckies are best described as total lunatics and the scooters zip by you on all sides.

The great pity with many of the cities and towns of Taiwan are that they are smelly, untidy and dilapidated.  We have walked blocks and blocks around towns and cities and the default position is an unholy stench, rubbish lying around everywhere, no place to walk unless you want to compete with cars and scooters. The pavements in many places are just parking places for scooters and shops just wheel their wares out to totally block off any walking space. The streets and the pavement are dominated by scooters, then cars, then shop owners and then pedestrians. To move around the pedestrian has to move out into the street and compete with the scooters and cars for space. This is a microcosm of many of the cities and towns of China. So much for democracy working here! Why cannot city and town officials walk around their jurisdictions and insist that ordinary folk at least keep their own bit clean and tidy. The South Koreans and Japanese achieve that, why can’t the Taiwanese get their act together?

These comments apply to many of the “attractions” we visited today. They appear to have been popular twenty years ago but have not been maintained and are now overgrown or in decline. Lilly reckoned the Dolong Temple once a landmark and with some beautiful features is now a mess and barely worth a visit.

The only attraction we really enjoyed today at an admission fee of 450 NTD each was the National Museum of Marine Biology. This is more an aquarium than a museum and we both enjoyed the experience to the point that we spent a lot longer there than I had planned.

Wikipedia says the total area of the park is 96.81 hectares (968,100 m2), while the museum itself covers 35.81 hectares (358,100 m2). The museum has three main exhibits: Waters of Taiwan, Coral Kingdom Pavilion and World Waters Pavilion. The museum also has an 81-metre underwater moving track, the largest underwater tunnel in Asia. The building also has several major divisions including the experiment centre for aquatic life, public facilities, research facilities, maintenance facilities, an international conference centre, and an academic research centre.  Well done to whoever owns and runs it.

Thursday

Take off to the Dragon & Tiger Pagodas also known as a temple situated in the Lotus Lake. Walk around in the heat – mid thirties – including up the pagoda to get good shots of the lake and various temples and shrines surrounding it. Built in 1976 the pagodas have intricate and colourful eaves and carvings and appear well maintained. You approach the pagodas via zig zag walkway over the water and enter the dragon’s mouth symbolizing courage. After viewing the pagodas and taking many pics we exit the Tiger’s mouth escaping danger.

Next stop is the Fo Guang Shan which is an international Chinese Buddhist monastic order that practices humanistic buddhism.  It is the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan and also one of the largest charity organizations in Taiwan. The stated position for Fo Guang Shan is that it is an “amalgam of all Eight Schools of Chinese Buddhism. We start by going to the Welcoming Hall of the Museum, a well-established commercial centre, peddling everything from food to jewellery to souvenirs etc. Apparently the museum is beyond the eight Chinese-styled pagodas on either side of the main avenue leading up to the Bodhi Square.

Next we walk up a steep incline in the heat to eventually find the Fo Guang Shan Monastery, the headquarters of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order. We stop to read and consider material handed to us and leave a donation of 100 TWD. Difficult to find our way here and even more difficult to find our car after being here. Signposting leaves a bit to be desired, but this Order does a lot of good work so I must not be critical.

Last stop today is Cijin Island, a long narrow island situated almost within a stone’s throw of the mainland with a population of about 30,000.  It is connected by a tunnel at one end, while a ferry services the other end.  Harbour on one side and a beach on the other. All a bit down market. We poke our nose along various narrow streets in the car, appears to us that it is quite poor and a bit of a backwater compared with at least some parts of Kaohsiung City.

Friday

The second last leg of our trip is north from Kaohsiung to Taichung via Tainan.  At Tainan we make two stops, the first to the Chimei Museum, the second to the Anping Fort and area.

The Chimei Museum is an impressive structure, housing an impressive private collection of some 4000 items. The outside space of the museum is an artwork on itself, you can walk around for free and view the various sculptures, fountains, ponds and gardens. The exhibits include animal and bird taxidermy and fossils, weapons and armour, musical instruments, ancient clocks and Western art. We spent a couple of hours viewing the exhibits, but this remarkable collection, so very well presented deserves more like a full day. Forbes magazine, in its February 1996 article on private collectors in Asia, called the Chimei Museum “one of the world’s most surprising art collections.” While some of the art works may not be to everyone’s taste the collection as a whole is quite stunning and very well described. Travelling around Taiwan this taste of Europe and the rest of the world has got to be in the top ten attractions.

The same cannot be said for our second stop at the Anping Fort. We fought over parking with several other drivers, eventually finding a space and after quite a long walk, found the fort. Originally built in 1634 as Fort Zeelandia by the conquering Dutch, the Qing Army later demolished it and instead built the Eternal Golden Castle. This was gradually abandoned until the Japanese occupation when it was rebuilt as Anping Fort. Today the only remains of the original fort are the southern brick walls of the outer fort. There are modern buildings constructed inside the fort and so the whole thing looks incongruous from the outside. We take pics and travel on. This place a bit of a waste of time.

Book into our hotel and eat in the hotel. After dinner take a walk, find a pharmacy to buy throat medicine for one of Lilly’s friends in Sydney. We have our heart beats taken and our tongues examined by the pharmacologist, a very pleasant young doctor. He reckons Lilly eats too much, gets upset too easily and carries her little troubles too long. I am more equable but need to eat less meat and drink less, I think he possibly said, “milk”. Anyway he also warns against me about taking the little disprin to thin the blood.

Saturday

Mixed feelings as we near the end our trip. Taiwan has got so much going for it and so much going against it. The elephant in the room casts a long shadow over what is a thriving democracy and its warm and hospitable people. That shadow of course extends over more than Taiwan and even more than over the Pacific but it is Hong Kong that is currently resisting suppression and Taiwan is possibly the next of the dominoes. The choice of the people of both countries is obvious, but that matters not to the elephant.

Today we travel south and east to the Sun Moon Lake, the largest lake in Taiwan. The area around the lake is home to the one of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan. The lake surrounds a tiny island. The east side of the lake resembles a sun while the west side resembles a moon. It is very hazy today whether that is the heat or pollution, who knows. Lilly suggests the pollution could well come from China. The sun is not shining on the lake today and the moon has even less chance of a breakthrough.

Quite a beautiful setting for a lake which is tiny at only 8 square kilometres. We travel around about half the lake on the east side from south to north stopping firstly at the Xuanguang Wharf to take photos of the lake, the wharf area and the Xuanguang Temple. The latter records the journeys of the monk Xuan Zang who left Chang An in 629 at the age of 28 to clarify differences between various Buddhist translations from the Indian and their interpretations. He returned in 645 after spending about two thirds of his time in India and the other third travelling there and back.  He brought back to China, Buddhist scriptures to translate and he also wrote an account of his journey titled “Journey to the West in the Tang Dynasty”. Quite an incredible trip at the time given the terrain, the bandits, the heat and the cold and the fact he left without a passport and against the wishes of the government.  After 16 years away he was welcomed back by the government and his translations helped to foster the acceptance of Buddhism in China. Xuan Zang’s journey along the Silk Road, and the legends that grew up around it, inspired the much later fictional Ming novel Journey to the West, one of the great classics of Chinese literature. Lilly has often recounted stories surrounding the monk, and his three disciples, one of which was a monkey.  Today, sets her off again!

We are relatively close to the Yushan National Park, which we missed from the other side of the island but we decide the extra 150 kms to travel there and back was not on today. We have travelled through many scenic areas and are a bit sorry to miss this one, next time perhaps, particularly if we are fit enough to do some hiking.

Sunday

Today we have a free day in Taichung and drive around visiting sights in the city, none of which were outstanding.

They included the Fongle Sculpture Park, Rainbow Village, Maple Garden, Taichung Park and the Cultural Heritage Park. Spend half the afternoon and evening watching league games and Bad Blood, the latter featuring the toppling of Turnbull. Good riddance to a man without principle and at long last also without cabinet support.

Monday

Only hiccup today came as we travelled into Taipeh’s Sonshan and got within a stone’s throw of it before realising we had pinpointed the wrong airport and it should have been Taoyuan. Overshot by about 50kms adding 100kms to our travel at the end of the day! Anyway we survived it all otherwise without incident and are happy to be home about midday 17th.