Taiwan: Urban jungle shows its wild side

By Faith Lee

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The heat feels like a warm flannel on my face as the shaven-headed monk pads across boulders towards the clear waters rushing through the Taroko Gorge.

In her smog-grey smock, she turns and calls out to her Buddhist companion, perhaps looking for a place to meditate. Behind them a group of older Taiwanese men with pressed seams and polished shoes scuff up dust as they scramble down the bank.

They have all come 15km north of Hualien on the east coast of Taiwan to see the gorge's precipitous marble cliffs - so huge that at times you can hardly see the sky - and touch the waters of the blue-green Liwu River before it empties into the sea.

"Ni hao" - hello - I smile to the pressed seams. They giggle "ni hao" in response.

With my blonde hair and Rubenesque proportions, I surprise them with my presence ... or perhaps my pronunciation.

Above us on the steep cliff, a family of Formosan rock monkeys leap about. Deeper in the bush, a Formosan black bear is probably watching, as Taroko is home to half the animal species in Taiwan.

This kumara-shaped island off the coast of China, originally called Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island) by Portuguese sailors, is not on everybody's top 10 list of places to visit - so foreigners really are foreign.

Taiwan is renowned for its economic prowess and computer chips; Its reputation is based on industry, not tourism. But it contains many wild and beautiful places.

Further along the winding road that clings monkey-like to the cliffs, and through one of the many tunnels built to protect travellers from rockfalls, is the Changchuan (Eternal Spring) Shrine.

It was constructed to commemorate the hundreds who died while building the impressive Central Cross-Island Highway, of which the gorge is part, in the 1950s.

The rugged terrain which puts the Formosa into Ilha Formosa reminds me of home. And when we head into the misty mountaintops and meet the indigenous people of Taroko, I am reminded of an article I read before my trip.

It said new language research by scientists at Auckland University had added strength to the theory that Pacific Island populations, including Maori, originated from Taiwan thousands of years ago.

The scientists used computer analysis of vocabulary from 400 "Austronesian" languages to determine how the Pacific was settled. The Austronesians originated in Taiwan 5200 years ago, then travelled to the Philippines and finally to Polynesia and New Zealand.

Nestled in the mountains, the Leader Village restaurant and accommodation provides a livelihood for the people who call the gorge home.

Their facial structure differs from the Chinese and they have a strong tradition of facial tattooing, similar to Maori.

Traditionally, each person was tattooed on the forehead at the age of 7 or 8 for tribal identification. At the age of 15, young men were tattooed on the chin after their first successful head-hunting trip (over time the human head was replaced by that of a large wild boar).

Young women were tattooed on the cheeks after mastering weaving skills, marking their coming of age.

Tattoos were also seen as passports to return to the realm of the spirits after death.

Tattooing was banned during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, so there are few fully tattooed people left. But I get to hear one of the last singing for us at a ceremony at the Leader Village.

In traditional costume, and with a bandage around his leg from a hunting injury, he sings of lost love. I don't understand a word, but I can feel the sadness in his voice. Disconcertingly, I am told he recently won a version of Taiwan Idol.

Although on this journey I have stood out - mothers have pushed their children forward to practice their English - everyone is polite and affable.

The Taiwanese are a friendly people - evidenced by the country's low crime rate and total lack of graffiti.

Perhaps one of the best things "Made in Taiwan" is the people.

Faith Lee travelled courtesy of Tourism Taiwan and China Airlines.

GETTING THERE:

China Airlines fly via Sydney and Brisbane to Taipei from $1469
return plus taxes, which includes transtasman flights from Auckland,
Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton and Dunedin.

GETTING AROUND

Food is cheap, but alcohol isn't. The train fare from Taipei to Hualien (for Taroko Gorge and the Leader Village) is $25. Leader Village accommodation costs $200 per night for two people. See www.leaderhotel.co.nz.

Taroko Gorge half- and full-day tours start at $65.

FURTHER INFORMATION

For general information about visiting Taiwan, see Taiwan Tourism's website: www.taiwan.net.tw.

- NZ Herald

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