Far from the madding crowd in Taiwan

By Ainsley Thomson

Thick white clouds swirl around the Alishan mountains, which offer spectacular views of the sunrise. Photo / Supplied
Thick white clouds swirl around the Alishan mountains, which offer spectacular views of the sunrise. Photo / Supplied

Standing in Taiwan's Alishan mountains waiting for the sun to rise over the country's highest peak, Jade Mountain, is one of those sublimely serene moments - and seems a world away from the country's teeming cities.

At this time all is still and quiet and you can enjoy looking over a spectacular and unfamiliar landscape. Waking at 5am, driving on windy mountain roads and standing in the cold, suddenly seems worth it. This is beautiful.

Then 10 vanloads of Japanese tourists turn up - music blaring, excited voices shrieking and cameras snapping. Yes, tourism is done a little differently in Taiwan.

The country is off the beaten track for most Western visitors - most of Taiwan's tourists come from Japan, mainland China or other Asian countries.

It is not a natural holiday pick for most New Zealanders - few people know much about the country other than it has a strained relationship with China and is a leading producer of electronic goods.

Business is the reason for most New Zealanders' visits, and those business people rarely venture outside the capital, Taipei.

Taiwan's tourism officials are making a concerted effort to appeal to Westerners, but the country's tourism reputation has suffered because many people suspect it is a heavily industrialised nation that has put economic progress before town planning.

The first glimpses of Taipei and other major cities confirm that suspicion but venture a little further from the sprawling industrial areas and teaming motorways and you find a country rich in culture with some unexpected delights. The Alishan mountains are one of them.

Considered a must-see, the mountains are famous for the "sea of clouds", pictures of which often feature in tourist brochures. Thick white clouds swirl around the mountains, creating the effect that the peaks are islands floating in an expanse of white sea.

The Alishan area is also famous for its sunrises, and it is unlikely you will go there without being cajoled into getting up early to see it. It is well worth the effort.

Alishan has 18 mountains and the highest, Jade Mountain, or Yushan, at 3952 metres, is considered the best place to watch the sun rising.

Another custom in the mountains is the forest bath. I became quite concerned when my guide insisted he wanted us to take a forest bath together.

When I reluctantly set out I was relieved to discover it is just a walk through the forest, but the effect on your mind is meant to be like a refreshing bath.

I was also worried that the words "mountain hike" appeared on my itinerary as I had brought no suitable hiking boots.

I need not have worried. The tracks around the Alishan village are paved and, indeed, some people walking them were wearing suits. The most popular track winds around enormous and ancient Chinese cypress trees - which have been given intriguing names such as "three-generation tree" and "elephant nose tree".

But perhaps the most unexpected discovery was the Buddhist temples randomly dotted throughout the forest.

More than 93 per cent of Taiwanese people are either Buddhist, Taoist or Confucian, and one of the country's most memorable features is the number of ornately decorated temples in the most unexpected places.

The other "must-see"' in Alishan is the alpine railway. Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945 and little in the Alishan area seems untouched by the Japanese. Even one of the main attractions, the cherry trees, which make a dramatic display when they bloom in spring, were planted by the Japanese.

The Alishan railway was a product of the Japanese era. Construction began in 1899 and it was intended to transport logs down the mountain. But now the railway is a major tourist attraction, with its spectacular, if hair-raising, scenery.

When you step on the train you are in the mountain village of Alishan. On the journey you pass through temperate forests and sub-tropical vegetation, before finally stepping off in steamy tropical jungles - all within an hour.

Around an hour's drive north of the Alishan mountains is another of Taiwan's major tourist attractions, Sun Moon Lake.

It gets its name from its shape - the southern part of the lake is believed to look like a new moon, while the northern part is round like the sun.

The lake is around three hours' drive north of Taipei and is a popular holiday destination because of its stunning scenery.

The deep green water is set within mountains, with bush growing down to its edge. Several small settlements are around the lake, with hotels, restaurants and bed and breakfasts, but there are few private homes because that is not considered to be the Chinese way.

Sun Moon Lake is a water reserve and while boats are allowed to use it, people are not allowed to swim in it, which is frustrating during Taiwan's sweltering summers.

It is Taiwan's largest lake, but is partially man-made. Before 1934 is was two smaller lakes - the moon lake and the sun lake - which were separated by an island called Lalu. This island was the home of the Shao people, a tribe of Taiwan's indigenous people.

In 1934, the Japanese built a hydroelectric plant which flooded the two lakes, swamping the island and creating one large lake. The Shao people were moved to a village on the edge of the new lake.

One of the most unexpected and interesting discoveries of my holiday in Taiwan was finding out about its indigenous people. Of the 22 million people in Taiwan, 98 per cent are of Chinese descent and 2 per cent are indigenous.

Eleven ethnic groups are recognised within the 430,000 indigenous people, who belong to the Austronesian group of people.

Like many indigenous people, those in Taiwan have often suffered under oppressive conditions, laws and attempts to assimilate them into the majority culture.

But recently the indigenous culture has experienced a renaissance and a Government minister has been appointed to help to protect it.

I was taken to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, created in 1986 to provide an entertaining and colourful look at the culture.

But this theme-park, complete with roller-coaster and live performances, is so contrived it is unlikely to appeal to Western tourists.

Everything is perfectly clean, everyone is smiling and the village has a Disneyland quality. Visit if you are travelling with children, but otherwise avoid.

The other main cultural influence is, of course, the Chinese. I was often told that Taiwan was the true holder of Chinese culture, that in Taiwan the traditions were nurtured and preserved.

The best place to experience the Chinese culture is in Taipei. The city can be off-putting as it is a sprawling mass of concrete and factories. And don't be fooled by the term "park" that appears on maps.

I innocently presumed that places titled "Youth Park" and such like were parks with trees and open spaces. But they are industrial parks and are unlikely to contain a blade of grass, let alone a tree.

Even though it is crowded, Taipei is a safe city for visitors - I was often told that it would be safe to wander around at night - possibly the big danger comes from the thick exhaust fumes.

But Taipei also offers great examples of traditional Chinese culture, such as the Peking Opera.

The National Palace Museum is considered a national treasure, and is believed to have the world's largest collection of Chinese artefacts, around 700,000 items in all.

But only small portions of the museum are open to the public as it is undergoing extensive renovations.

You cannot help but notice the country's obsession with its first president, Chiang Kai-Shek. In the heart of Taipei is the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall - a giant mausoleum to the founding father of Taiwan.

About 30,000 people visit the memorial every day to pay their respects in front of a giant statue of the former leader.

One of the most unusual, and slightly creepy, features is the replica of Chiang Kai-Shek's office, which includes a wax statue of the man and a clock stopped at the exact time of his death, 11.50pm.

Ainsley Thomson travelled as guest of the Taiwanese Government.

- NZ Herald

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