The land once known as Formosa

| July 5, 2013 | 0 Comments
The night market in Taiwan is a haven for culinary adventurers.

The night market in Taiwan is a haven for culinary adventurers.

Today’s Taiwan was once called Formosa, a name that means “beautiful island” in Portuguese and Latin.
You’ll soon see it deserves its former name should you come to visit this country, with its colourful past and continuing status as a region that acts as an independent, democratic state, though it’s only formally acknowledged as such by 23 countries worldwide.

Mengjia Longshan Temple was built in 1738, destroyed in the Second World War and then rebuilt.

Mengjia Longshan Temple was built in 1738, destroyed in the Second World War and then rebuilt.

First, the obvious: Taiwan, which is about the size of Switzerland or the Netherlands, with a population of 23 million, is a breakaway republic of China. Beijing claims sovereignty over the island and denies its existence as anything other than Chinese territory. In the past, it has threatened military force if Taiwan formally or officially declares itself sovereign. But for the most part, and particularly since the election of Taiwan’s more conciliatory president, Ma Ying-jeou, the two live side-by-side and tolerate each other, if only in the interest of profitable trade.

Sun Moon Lake is one of the most calming places in the country.

Sun Moon Lake is one of the most calming places in the country.

A little history: Until the 17th Century, the island was mostly inhabited by Taiwanese aboriginals. China’s Qing Dynasty conquered it in 1683, but the defeat of that dynasty in 1895 led to Japanese rule. After the Second World War, the country came under Chinese nationalist control.
When the Communists took over the mainland in 1949, millions of people fled to Taiwan and established a government using the 1947 constitution drawn up for all of China. A few years later, democracy took root and by the 1980s, the country was on its way to prosperity as one of East Asia’s economic “tigers.” That moniker is dearly held among the proud, productive and efficient Taiwanese people. Nowhere is that more evident than in Taipei, a capital with all the hustle one imagines in any Asian hot spot.

Taipei 101 was, until 2010, the world’s tallest building.

Taipei 101 was, until 2010, the world’s tallest building.

While in Taipei, visitors will want to go to the Mengjia Longshan Temple. Among the highrises in this busy section of Taipei, the temple is a calming place in spite of the jam of worshippers and tourists who pack in to see its architecture, maybe light some incense and say a prayer.
Built in 1738 by settlers from China, sections of the temple have been rebuilt many times after the ravages of earthquakes and fires. It was destroyed in 1945 by American bombers who thought the Japanese were using it to hide armaments. The Taiwanese restored it as a classic piece of Taiwanese architecture where Buddhists and Taoists alike converge.
Across the street, the city’s oldest night market invites culinary adventurers to sample oddities to their hearts’ content. Vendor carts line the pedestrian (scooters excluded, of course) streets offering everything from roasted chestnuts to the infamous durian fruit (awful smell; great taste) and, perhaps most exotic of all, snake soup. Restaurants here often have a snake charmer out front with microphone and headset, who calls to passersby to try this Taiwanese delicacy. In case you were wondering, snake tastes like chicken.

Taroko Gorge is one of eight national parks in the country.

Taroko Gorge is one of eight national parks in the country.

Visitors will also want to visit the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a white monolith whose peaked roof rises 75 metres and recalls the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. It also features a bronze sculpture of the late leader, who died in 1975. Its surrounding blue tiles, white walls and red flowers reflect the country’s white, blue and red flag. Inscriptions include one that says “ethics, democracy and science,” while another says “the purpose of life is to improve the general life of humanity.”
This well-known gathering place was once the site of demonstrations that helped push Taiwan into full democracy during the 1980s and 1990s.
A final destination — particularly for shoppers seeking high-end designer fashion as a side-benefit of touring — is Taipei 101, a landmark skyscraper and a symbol of the new Taipei.
Finished in 2004, Taipei 101 (101 floors above ground, five under) was the world’s tallest building until the opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in 2010. Because of its LEED certification, however, the 50-metre-tall building still claims an important distinction as the world’s “tallest green building.”
An outdoor observation deck and an enclosed information section at its top provide a narrated history of the building and its features. Lower down, there’s shopping of all kinds, boutiques from the world’s biggest fashion houses and a multi-level bookstore with solid wood stacks — the kind that are rarely built anymore.
Going further afield on this island, a visitor encounters beautiful Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan’s Nantou County. Mountains unfold like rose petals around the lake, and are often covered in morning mist. No wonder couples get married here, up to 100 of them all on the same October day. The ceremony takes place high in the surrounding hills in front of an infinity pool whose water appears to fall off the edge. This custom may seem a bit of a public spectacle but the government pays for the couples’ lodging and the post-ceremony reception, so it’s a cheap way to tie the knot. Practical people, the Taiwanese.
The lake, beautiful but puny by Canadian standards, is the largest body of water in Taiwan at eight square kilometres and is surrounded by temples, including the Ci En Pagoda built by Chiang in memory of his mother.
Also worth a visit is Taroko National Park on the east side of the island, south of Taipei. One of eight national parks in the country, its main attraction is the Liwu River’s Taroko Gorge, with limestone and marble cliffs that came into being more than 200 million years ago. Raft trips on the river give you a chance to spot some of the jade that supplies a market in neighbouring Hualien.
Hualien has a humanitarian side as precious as the jade. It is home to the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Buddhist medical centre founded by Dharma Master Cheng Yen, a nun some call the Mother Teresa of Asia. In 1970, Cheng Yen and 30 followers began by saving the equivalent of two U.S. cents a day from their grocery money to help the poor of Eastern Taiwan. Today, the foundation has 10 million members with chapters in 47 countries. It is one of the first to show up when tragedy strikes around the world, and it often sticks around to see rebuilding efforts to fruition.
Hualien is a short flight from Taipei (about $250 return) while the best way to Sun Moon Lake is by high-speed train to Taichung for approximately $20, with an additional bus ride to the lake.
Enough Taiwanese people speak English for a visitor to get by without Mandarin, but a decent translation app isn’t a bad idea for backup. In a pinch, friendly Taiwanese muster up enough body language and smiles to work through your questions.

Jennifer Campbell is the editor of Diplomat magazine.

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