Taiwan - the little country with big ideas

All eyes may be on China, with less than a month to go until the Olympic Games. But dynamic Taiwan – regarded a rebel province by Beijing – is worth a side trip, says Andrew Spooner

There's big and then there's Taipei big. I've just spent the morning at the top of the Taiwanese capital's Taipei 101 which, despite an unfinished tower in Dubai, remains the tallest completed building in the world.

The views are immense; endless runs of streets unfolding like miniature circuitry. But it isn't Taipei 101 that creates an imposing air. For that I need to go to the Chiang Kai-shek memorial and stand at the feet of the Chinese nationalist leader's statue. "He is our national hero," says my guide, Mr Jeng. "This is almost a holy place."

I don't doubt my guide as I gaze up at this huge eulogy to Taiwan's founder. In fact, such was the weight of Chiang Kai-shek's shadow that Taiwan was still considered "China" by the UN as late as 1971.

These days, Taiwan is considered a rebel province by Beijing. Yet, with eyes on China and the Olympic Games, democratic Taiwan is still fiercely independent and dynamic. It is also keeping up with the mainland's furious development – and nothing symbolises this better than its new high-speed bullet train.

"The line links our two main cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung," says Mr Jeng as we climb on board the sleek train in Taipei's main railway station. Modelled on the Japanese bullet train, Taiwan's effort hits the same 200mph-ish speeds, thereby reducing travel along the length of this 245-mile island to a mere blip. "It has been built to open up the country to tourists and businesses," says Mr Jeng.

So what is actually being opened up? The western tranche of Taiwan along which the train travels is a dense, ugly, urban twist of factories, concrete tower blocks and flat plains. This is where Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese nationalists, the Kuomintang, sought refuge from Mao's marauding communists . They came in their millions creating a prosperous community that is distinctively Chinese.

The eastern run of Taiwan, where I am heading, is much more intriguing. In a stretch of mountains that reaches down the length of the island, this slice of Taiwan is filled with forests, beasties and indigenous peoples who have more in common with South Pacific islanders than the dominant Chinese.

"We'll take the train to Chiayi," says Mr Jeng. "It's about halfway between Taipei and Kaohsiung in the south. From there it's only a short drive into the mountains." As we head into the distant peaks, switchbacks and deep thick woodlands become the defining views. The contrast with the industrialised western Taiwan couldn't be greater.

Our first mountain destination is the resort town of Alishan. "This place is very popular with local people," says Mr Jeng as we arrive in the middle of a thick pea-souper. Alishan has a mystique all of its own. Tiled, sloping roofs, teahouses and dense forests mingle with hordes of Taiwanese visitors. We stop for a plate of noodles and swift pot of tea but are soon on our way.

The narrow road takes us deeper into the mountains, the views of gorges and craggy peaks getting more dramatic. Our lunch involves earthy tastes – omelettes with rosemary, dense pork stews, mounds of brown rice – far from the dim sum and noodles on the west of the island.

"This village, Wutai, is home to the Rukai people," says Mr Jeng, as we arrive in a cluster of buildings strung along a high mountainous ridge. The usual sweeping roofs of Chinese architecture has been replaced by slated buildings and statues of hunters.

Accommodation is in guesthouses and homestays. "You'll be staying with the village chief, Ragaro," says Mr Jeng. The friendly chief and his wife don't speak English but they welcome me in with smiles. "This is his skull collection," says Mr Jeng as Chief Ragaro proudly shows me hundreds of boar skulls. "A Rukai warrior's status is measured by the number of skulls he has."

As I wake up the next morning, the view from my window across the mountains is bewitching. I sit and gawp for a while, absorbed and becalmed. Chief Ragaro's wife brings me bowls of pork meat and rice and soupy green tea.

Taiwan for most people is a place of grand buildings and hi-tech projects. For me the most memorable things are the diversity of its people, the beauty of the mountains and the humbling hospitality. Who needs big when you've got all that?

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
football

Arts and Entertainment
music
Life and Style
Designer Oscar de la Renta takes a bow after showing his Spring 2015 collection in September, his last show before his death
fashionThe passing of the legendary designer has left a vacancy: couturier to America’s royalty, says fashion editor Alexander Fury
Life and Style
tech

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind'

News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why