Susan Strongman is charmed by Taiwan and its people and discovers many cultural and historical links to New Zealand.

Taiwan, that small island east of China where stuff used to be made, was the first — and only — Asian country I'd ever visited. As a child, I'd pored over photos of Mum's trip to Beijing in the early 1990s, but as a young adult the idea of backpacking through Southeast Asian hostels surrounded by sweaty tourists, as many of my friends had, didn't appeal.

Taiwan was a place I knew little about — except that the ancestors of Polynesians had sailed into the Pacific, from the island, thousands of years ago.

It's approximately 14 hours from Auckland to Taipei, via Sydney or Brisbane, and my first impressions of the country were what I saw out of the window of a brightly coloured minibus with lacy curtains as I headed to Taichung: Urban sprawl, impressive raised motorways, rice and taro fields interspersed with single level concrete dwellings, large white heron-like birds with black legs dotted across the landscape, and a blue mountain range to the east, in the distance.

With its history of constant colonisation, Taiwan's culture is diverse.


Tao and Buddhist temples adorn almost every peak, and churches can be seen dotted about — mainly in villages populated by indigenous Taiwanese, Austronesian people who arrived from mainland China about 3000BC. Today, there are 16 indigenous tribes and 26 known languages.

Beginning with the arrival of Dutch merchants in 1624, Taiwan was colonised by the Spanish, Ming, and Qing. Between 1895 and 1945 it was part of Japan and today many older Taiwanese speak Japanese as their mother tongue.

After World War II it was taken over by the Chinese Nationalist Party, but in 1949, when Mao Zedong took over the People's Republic of China on the mainland, the nationalists — led by General Chiang Kai-shek — withdrew their government and 1.3 million refugees to Taiwan.

The enormous Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, the General's tomb — topped with a giant bronze statue — is guarded with pomp and ceremony by white-uniformed soldiers carrying shiny bayonets.

The guard is changed hourly and it's worth watching them click their shiny black boots and juggle their guns like cocktail shakers.

When Chiang Kai-Shek and his government fled mainland China, they took with them many of the country's most ancient and beautiful treasures, which are now housed at Taipei's National Palace Museum.

A collection of almost 700,000 items — including early bronze weapons and tools, vibrant jade artefacts, and stunning calligraphy — are housed at the museum, which is a must-see.

But it was Taiwan's indigenous people that fascinated me the most. For an entertaining (but incredibly touristy — think Tamaki Maori Village, Rotorua) experience, head to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village near Sun Moon Lake, south of Taipei.

The 62ha property sits on a mountainside forested with endangered Formosan cypress trees — if you're lucky you'll see a monkey.

It features a European garden, a theme park — complete with a roller coaster and a log flume ride — and a cultural village and museum.

The village showcases the indigenous cultures (and is mostly staffed by indigenous guides dressed in traditional costume).

What struck me was how familiar the culture seemed to my Kiwi eyes — from their weaving, their use of taro and kumara, to their song, dance and language.

Count from one to 10 in Amis — the most widely spoken indigenous language — and anyone able to count in Te Reo will likely understand. A song and dance performance by Amis men and women could be mistaken for a Marquesan haka.

Hand-blown glass beads, ornately embroidered clothing and the silver decorated headpieces worn by some tribes reflect the Dutch and Portuguese influence, and about 70 per cent of Taiwan's indigenous population is Christian (about 4 per cent of the total population of Taiwan is Christian. The biggest religions are Buddhism and Taoism).

In the museum I learn that most tribes practised headhunting, except for the Tao.

"The Tao is a peace loving people," a sign read. "They solved their conflict simply with stone fighting."

A stunning gondola ride from the village will take you over a mountain and down to Sun Moon Lake, about a three-hour drive south of Taipei and Taiwan's largest body of water.

It's surrounded by densely forested hills that remind me of Lake Lugano, on the border of Italy and Switzerland, and it's a great spot to stay — you can cycle around the lake and ferries frequent its waters.

Though it's pricey, it's worth a night at the luxurious Fleur de Chine hotel. The view of the lake is stunning — especially in the morning before the mist retreats into the hills.

Rooms are fitted with a marble bath which fills with water from a natural hot spring below, and the all-you-can-eat buffet features a bottomless bowl of oysters and beer on tap (among many other things).

I was also treated to a puppet show in Mandarin which was fronted by a charismatic young man who insisted on getting me up on stage despite neither of us understanding a word each other said.

One of the novelties of my 10 days in Taiwan was being one of few Westerners wherever I went. Being tall and fair got me stares and smiles from children — who were often precariously perched on their parents' scooters — and a warm welcoming friendliness from almost every local I met.

Caught in a torrential downpour in Taipei, a man ran out of a shoe shop using hand gestures and smiles to offer me his umbrella. At 3275m Wuling Peak, groups of soldiers, friends, and even a team of cyclists dressed in singlets adorned with the Taiwanese flag, lined up to have their photo taken with me.

From Sun Moon Lake, I headed across the country's mountainous centre. The road climbed up Wuling Peak, before winding down through alpine pastures, forests and terraces planted with tea and fruit trees. Not for the fainthearted, the road winds its way along sheer cliffs, and a massive rock slide caused an unexpected detour to an aboriginal town that was the setting for the film Lokah Laqi.

The following day, I saw the country's Pacific coast. Like an island in Polynesia, high cliffs fell into the blue ocean, and wild taro plants, dense overgrown bush and creepers grew down their sides.

I bought a Taiwanese sausage on the roadside, alternating each delicious mouthful with a bite of a raw garlic clove. Food in this country is divine, if you're a fan of Chinese cuisine.

The more adventurous should eat at night markets in Taipei or Taichung, where things like whole flattened squid on a stick, and stinking fried and fermented tofu are on sale.

The population of the coast is small, and storms wreak havoc on the narrow road, which clings to the edge of the giant cliffs. Taroko Gorge is stunning, by bus (or bike) but the best way to get along the coast is by train from Taipei.

It was from this coast that indigenous Taiwanese began to explore the ocean, south to the Philippines, across Southeast Asia, as far west as Madagascar and eventually east into the South Pacific, from about 3300BC. Between 1250AD and 1300AD their Polynesian descendants arrived in New Zealand.

The journey is easier now. After 10 wonderful days in early September, I flew out of Taipei after dinner and arrived home for breakfast.

Getting there: China Airlines has connections from Auckland to Taipei.