Taiwan: modernity and tradition in perfect harmony.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY JANICK LEMIEUX AND PIERRE BOUCHARD
The excitement of discovering new places and waving at new faces is without a doubt what has kept Pierre and I pushing on the pedals over the past years. Every new trip holds the promise of new knowledge and surprises. To fully enjoy the thrills of culture shock, the less we know about our destination, the better. An island found north of the Philippines fit that bill perfectly. The only thing we knew of Taiwan, other than the fact that most bicycles sold in North America nowadays are manufactured there, came from skimming articles about the Chinese Civil War — Taiwan was where Chiang Kai-shek retreated in 1949 with 600,000 Nationalist troops and two million refugees. Were they the first people to reach the island? What did it look like — an industrial wasteland? Was Taiwan part of the People’s Republic of China? We couldn’t wait to find out.
You shouldn’t judge a place by its capital city, but Taipei has everything to impress: more than 100 kilometres of bike paths — a network with a no-nonsense design that includes spiralled access to bridges and elevated tracks over protected mangrove (take some notes, Canada!). It was July, and our tires were sticking to the downtown’s scorching pavement. Chinese specialties were on display in small alleys and we filled up on spicy tofu, water spinach in garlic, and rice. The attentive restaurateur jumped at the mention of our being from Quebec. “You had a vote to separate from Canada!” he said excitedly. He saw similarities between Quebec’s political will for independence and Taiwan’s. Although Taiwan has its own currency, elected government and diplomatic relationships, its political status is a contentious issue. He called it a “renegade province of the mainland” and predicted that within 10 years, China will come back to claim its lost child. “It won’t be hard,” he said. “We have no resources, no petrol. Just rice. Close our ports and we die.” By the time our meal was over, we understood that most Taiwanese feel a strong connection to China, realizing that the majority of their cultural traditions have their source in its long history (most Taiwanese came from the mainland beginning 500 years ago). At the
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same time, Taiwan’s younger generation, who has grown up feeling “Taiwanese,” has little desire to unify with China. Taipei is a modern city and boasts (but not for long) the world’s tallest building. Constructed to resemble a stalk of bamboo, Taipei 101 boasts 101 stories and culminates at 508 metres. From this cutting-edge structure resting atop Asia’s largest and most colourful indoor food court, we headed to the old town centre along the Danshui River to visit Longshan Temple, one of Taipei’s oldest. Built in 1738, it is home to Guanyin (goddess of mercy) and 165 other deities. Hundreds of worshippers make the temple a daily stop on their way to/from work, engaging in hypnotic chanting. Modernity and tradition in perfect harmony. While inhaling incense and mentally trying to put this temple either in the Buddhist or Taoist category, we learned something new. The Taiwanese have an eclectic approach to religion, and elements of Buddhism and Taoism are combined to suit one’s needs. To render this an even more interesting mix, the majority of Taiwanese blend the secular moral teachings of Confucianism with whatever religions they are affiliated with. This laidback attitude is something that Christian missionaries have found frustrating — beginning when
Taiwan was called Formosa, a post on the European trading route. Many islanders feel that a conversion to Christianity doesn’t mean giving up the myriad of folk beliefs that have long-standing meaning in their culture. In between temples (Taiwan has more temples per capita than any other country), the most common public buildings are 24-hour convenience stores (perfect for toilet breaks), American fast-food restaurants and Seattle-born coffee shops (with free wireless connection). In Taipei, we shared the road with a large fleet of scooters, but once we hit the scenic East Coast Highway, it was all about luxury cars and tour buses. A rare bike commuter caught up to us on his way to work at the nuclear power plant and asked why we chose to visit Taiwan in July. “You know this is the hottest month of the year and it’s typhoon season. November is a much better month to come here on a bike,” he informed us. July in the Tropic of Cancer was hot indeed, and tenting at sea level was torture. On that first day when we began our climb up the Taroko Gorge, it was mostly the promise of cooler climes that motivated us to ride as far up as Tienshang. With its marble-walled canyons, lush vegetation and cliffs so high that they block out the sky, the gorge is a breathtaking ride. At the visitor centre, we learned that the original inhabitants of the region are the Atayal people. Known for their weaving skills, facial tattoos and headhunting, they are one of nine aboriginal tribes found on Taiwan. Established on the island for 5,000 years, they are of Malay and Polynesian descent and their language is from the Austronesian family. So neither Chiang Kai-shek and his gang, nor the earlier mainland Hakka and Fujinese migrants, were the first ones to settle here. Nowadays, Taiwan boasts 23 million citizens and is second only to Bangladesh for having the world’s highest population density. Up in the Central Mountain Range, surrounded by jagged peaks, the only hints of civilization were the perfectly engineered cross-island highways — most of which were built by the technically savvy Japanese during their brutal rule of Taiwan from 1894 to 1945. While western Taiwan is made up of plains and basins and is densely populated, the eastern part of the island is dominated by high mountains (the tallest, Yushan, rises to 3,950 metres, one of the tallest mountains in northeast Asia). Soon we were camping at a 3,200metre-high pass, freezing and forgetting all about the heat below. Because Taiwan sits on the colliding Eurasian and Philippines tectonic plates that constantly grind together, earthquakes, mountains and hot springs abound — three characteristics of the island that can bring either bliss or destruction.
On the road to Yakou Pass... little did we know.
Tower 101, the world's tallest building, in the background
Roadside delicacies abound.
We’d read some place that what is really special about Taiwan is the Taiwanese, who welcome visitors to their island with amazing warmth and hospitality. The first few times we heard cheers, we weren’t sure if they were directed at us, but it became clear that the heart-warming “Go, go, go!” coming from passing cars and the roadside was for our bio-propelled caravan. This “Tour de Taiwan” also involved drivers stopping to strike up a conversation (in Mandaringlish!), wish us well and offer some food and refreshments. When we reached the edge of Yushan National Park, the cheering turned to warning: Typhoon Bilis was headed straight for Taiwan. The National Park’s portable toilets were tied down with ropes, plywood was nailed to windows and everyone was heading for shelter — Formosan macaques included. Moving fast toward the lowlands and the city of Chiayi (where we stayed indoors for four days), we had butterflies in our stomachs as the wind picked up by the hour, the rain came down as if from a high-pressure hose and the trees were bent backwards: this was our first typhoon! Betel nut chewing is a local pick-me-up we didn’t indulge in, but we were happy to develop a bubble-tea addiction. On almost every corner, bubble-tea shops provide a divine mixture of tea, milk, sugar and giant tapioca balls, the perfect cold fix on sticky summer days in the tropics. “Duoshao qian?” — inquiries about drink prices were usually answered with puzzled stares, probably something to do with our accent! We headed back on our zixingche (bicycles) and into the mountains. The Southern Cross-Highland Highway climbs to 2,728 metres and turned into a great experience in miscommunication. First, we believed the rangers at the Meishan Visitor Centre when they said the highway was closed. Next, it sounded as if the policeman was saying that bicycles could go through. Then we thought a motorist said that it was impossible. End of the story: after three days of switchback A NNUAL 2007
Chiang Kai-shek memorial
Longshan Temple, one of Taipei's oldest
climbing, we reached Yakou Pass, let go for a few kilometres down the other side and then suddenly realized that a whole segment of the road had fallen off the cliff! We backtracked and rode at night, hitchhiked and hopped on trains in a panic-striken effort to leave the Republic of China (ROC) before our 30-day visas expired. We made time to visit Liyushan mud volcano, near Pingdong, and volcanic Green Island off the East Coast. We learned the ROC is a state whose effective area of administration consists of the island of Taiwan and 15 smaller islands in the Pacific and the Taiwan Strait, some of them off the southeast coast of the territories administered by the People’s Republic of China. Confusing? Maybe, but that’s not all. Jan. 1, 1911 was the day the Republic of China was officially born, and the ROC Year Zero is our 1911. I learned this buying chocolate milk from a 7/11 store: the bottle’s expiry date was 95-01-31. After my initial shock of thinking I was holding an 11-year-old bottle of milk, a fellow customer explained (with obvious amusement) that it didn’t mean 1995, just Year 95 in Taiwan years! Our visas were fast expiring, and from Taitung we had no choice but to head back north on the train. We reluctantly left our Devinci bikes at the station to be loaded on the early once-a-day cargo wagon, so this meant we also slept close by. In any event, where would we go with 15 pieces of luggage and no wheels? Later, we were glad to see our aluminum buddies at the rendezvous in Keelung, and hoped the ferry to Japan would also show up, as Typhoon Kaemi was predicted to hit Taiwan any day. In Keelung, Taiwan’s busiest port, we rode through a maze of cranes and loaders and found the Japanese vessel scheduled to set off for Okinawa. We departed without delay. The bikes were rolled inside the hold and we climbed up to our cabin. When the anchor was lifted at sunset, it was time for a beer on the bridge and reminiscences about one of the most pleasant surprises: Taiwan.
Mo’ Info www.velomag.com/“Volcans et vélos” www.pedalmag.com/“Ring of Fire”
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The Chingsui cliffs: spectacular scenery is everywhere