This Intriguing Island of Taiwan
Days 890 – 894
Back in Bristol in summer 2018, we went into town for Tim to get a new carry-on bag to replace his rather large rucksack. He had seen the (travelling) light! The lady who served us was from Taiwan and was astonished that we had heard of her country. Apart from where it was in the world, we had little knowledge of this intriguing island of Tawain.
As we haven't done much for the last week, due to Tim having man-flu, I thought I would share with you some info about this beautiful island with its golden beaches, marble-walled gorges, tropical forests and bustling neon-lit cities.
Officially this beautiful country is called The Republic of China. (Not to be muddled up with The People's Republic of China, that's the big boys across the water). I was curious why the country doesn't change its name to Taiwan, but started going down a political rabbit hole, and it was making my head hurt. There are some interesting explanations here if you want to know more.
It must be sad not to have your homeland recognised by many countries around the world. In fact, I completed an online survey recently and was asked my current location - Taiwan was not included on the dropdown list.
But Taiwan has had a few different names over the years. When the Portuguese first came to this island in the 16th century, they named it "Ilha Formosa", which means "Beautiful Island", a bit different to "Mudball" that the Chinese called it at that time.
This island, just 81 miles away from China, is 394 km long (245 miles) and 144 km wide (89.5m) at the widest part so takes only 8 hours to drive around the whole island. Not that you'd want to do that!
The population is nearly 24m, similar to Australia, but the island is a tad smaller!! This makes Taiwan one of the most densely populated countries in the world with 649 people per km². However, with less than 8.5 births per 1,000 people (2019), gives this the lowest fertility rate in the world; that will help the density issue.
The majority of the people live and squeeze into the flat west side of the country, as the rest is quite mountainous and often suffers from earthquakes. I've read that Taiwan often experiences over 1,000 earthquakes in a year – gulp!
Not surprisingly, Taiwan has over 150 hot springs. We haven't been to any yet, but they are included on our list of things to do. So, what else can I tell you about Taiwan?
Biking and Hiking
Biking is very popular here. Often at the weekend, we see groups of people in their lycra on the many cycle paths. The country is known as the Bicycle Kingdom and is where the world's largest bike producer GIANT was founded. The rugged east coastal road is geared up for bikes and makes a fabulous 150-mile bike trip for all you cyclists out there.
And if you prefer to be on your feet rather than pedals, there are numerous hiking trails over the mountains and National Parks. As hiking is not my thing, I prefer a long flat stroll, I've found a good article on Culture Trip for hikers.
One thing to note is that some trails need permits, either a national park permit and/or a police permit for entering a restricted high-mountain area; some need to be applied for at least a week in advance, so plan ahead.
While you are cycling or hiking in the countryside, you will definitely see many butterflies. Taiwan has nearly 400 species, and they are indeed all around. We have spent hours trying to capture the best photo of butterflies during our travels here and this week have enjoyed sitting on the balcony, watching them fluttering around us.
Butterflies used to be big business for the country, and 10 million of these insects were exported per year. I'm glad to say that they now focus more on the conservation of these fascinating insects than selling them.
When we were in Hengchung, our friends Cathy and Zeph explained a bit about the schooling system here in Taiwan. Zeph runs private English classes to young children, and one of the mums took her son out of the lesson as he was having too much fun learning!
The Taiwanese take their education very seriously here. The typical school day started at 7:30 am to 5 pm, and after that, children often have extra curriculum lessons going on until 8 pm. That's far longer than the average working day!
Included in their school timetable, the pupils are responsible for keeping their school clean! No janitor needed here. This includes everything – toilets, floors, windows; but they do complete this task listening to cheery music. Isn't there a saying about childhood being the best days of our lives? I'm not sure the Taiwanese children would agree.
On The Streets
Not unique to Taiwan, but popular in the south; quite a few people have a dreadful habit of chewing betel nut. It's the seed from a type of palm tree which makes your mouth bright red and then people have a disgusting habit of spitting out the red juice – argh! Best not to try it at home, as it is carcinogenic; Taiwan has one of the highest rates of mouth and throat cancers in Asia because of this addition.
Another weird SE Asian thing is that we hear Beethoven's Für Elise being played most days. We have heard the exact rendition in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The same music! Now, you may mistake this for the ice cream van, but it's the rubbish collectors coming to pick up the trash!
Instead of leaving your dustbin out on a particular day of the week, you have to listen out for this rather irritating music and take your refuse out. We feel for the dustmen and women having to listen to this music constantly. We wonder if they wear earphones, or hear the music in their sleep.
I've read somewhere that Taiwan has more 7-Eleven stores per person than any other country in the world, and I can believe it! They are on most street corners. You will often find Tim and me by the fridge section looking for the tuna onigiri next to the shelf of interesting flavours of milk, including Apple, Watermelon and, of course, Chocolate.
Not only will you find a whole aisle full of instant noodle foods with dehydrated delights, but you can also find a cauldron with hard-boiled eggs simmered in an aromatic tea broth called Tea Eggs and a tin of roasted sweet potatoes. As well as food, these useful little stores have ATMs and a machine where we can print our train tickets from and locals can pay their bills.
On the other corner of the street, there will probably be a Temple. These are also everywhere, with over 15,000 of them officially registered in the country and represent the rich culture, history and rituals of the Taiwanese people. It is easy to find them as they stick out like peacocks in a flock of pigeons,
The temples are mainly built from wood post and beam frames joined without nails, with a gabled roof and distinctive swallowtail ends. These are often decorated with stunning 3D ornate details; creatures such as dragons, tigers and phoenixes curving themselves over the apex of the roof with birds and flowers; the temple just down our road even have fish, no doubt as it's so near to the sea.
There are two traditional ways that these decorations are made, koji ceramics and Jian nian, meaning "cut and paste", a mosaic-like art form using brightly coloured pieces of porcelain pasted onto a stucco frame. Sadly, due to cheap imports from China, these crafts are becoming a dying art.
The deities inside can vary; for example, the serene patron of sailors, Matsu, who saved her brothers and father caught in a typhoon, to others with scary faces with protruding eyes that seem to pierce deep into your soul with red or black faces.
And last but not least are the famous Night Markets situated in every town across the country. Here you can find inexpensive weird and wonderful foods to taste, such as the delicious sweet potato balls we had in Hengchun or the infamous stinky tofu marinated in shrimp brine that has been fermenting for six months or more. (After writing this, we went and tried some at a street stall – it wasn’t as bad as we were expecting! – the things we do for our blog, eh!)
So I hope that this has given you a flavour of this intriguing country and that perhaps one day when the world has opened its doors again, you will want to come and explore Taiwan's delights.
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