Why Taiwan is still an unique escape

Taiwan's economic heyday may be long gone, but as Rob Crossan discovers, the rebel island's exotic cuisine and native traditions remain

The stench hits me like a house brick to the sinuses. An old woman, cackling malevolently, wades her bare arms deep into the belching cauldron of fat in front of her. The sweat from the pore-swelling night heat creates a film across my pupils, which means that when a piece of what the Taiwanese call "stinky tofu" is pulled out of the vat and handed to me on a paper plate by the elderly cook, I can barely see the deep-fried package in order to move it into my jaws.

A small crowd of locals at the Shilin night market in the capital city of Taipei has gathered to see the rare sight of a tourist tucking into one of Taiwan's many ostensibly inedible dishes. The smell is akin to a piece of over-ripe camembert cheese put inside a student's sock. The taste is... actually not bad at all. I'm expecting applause. Instead a young local pulls me to one side with some urgency: "Sir, you come here – my pig brain soup is famous!"

It's said that a good way to get the best out of London is to look up, as it is only above street level that you see the history of the city in its unaltered state. However, in Taiwan's capital city Taipei, I quickly learn that it's better to keep your eyes fixed straight in front of you. At street level the initially bewildering chaos of yellow taxis, betel nut-chewing office workers, incense stick-brandishing temple goers and street vendors serving steaming dumplings, oyster omelettes and – yes – stinky tofu, is part of what feels like an exciting maelstrom of humanity.

Looking up, on the other hand, reveals a rather ugly, smog-stained vista of dilapidated apartment blocks – a reminder that economic powerhouses and aesthetic beauty are rarely comfortable bedfellows. Plus, looking anywhere but straight in front of you means risking being flattened by one of the millions of scooters that career around the city - the owners of which appear to have the road sense of a pack of blind rabbits on a caffeine bender.

Taiwan is one of the 20th century's greatest rebels. In 1949, a group of Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled mainland China to escape communism. They arrived on this small, mountainous, tropical island to plan for a re-conquest of their old home. This project was abandoned a long time ago, although the island is still officially the Republic of China.

It has a tricky diplomatic status, because of pressure applied by Beijing against its renegade neighbour: Taiwan does not have a seat in the UN and the contentious nature of its existence as a separate state means it is forced to compete in the Olympics under the title "Chinese Taipei". British Airways flew between Heathrow and the capital under the pseudonym "British Asia Airways" because it could not simultaneously operate to Beijing and Taipei.

Until recently, this plucky underdog has flourished, despite China and the West's best efforts to pretend it doesn't exist. Taiwan somehow managed to pull through it all, creating in the process what was, in the 1960s and 1970s, the fastest growing economy in the world. The island is Brando with Buddhism, Che with chopsticks – so why are tourists not piling into Taiwan by the million? Well, because of the other, bigger story happening just next door.

China's booming economy has pushed Taiwan even more into the wilderness. Factories are closing down across the island; locals are making for the mainland to find their fortune. The label "Made in Taiwan" is increasingly a bygone cliché from the days of cassette Walkmans and ghetto-blasters. Poverty is rife. But I quickly found that this renegade hideaway still has much to offer the curious visitor.

It's only by moving out of the city and on to the east coast of Taiwan that you begin to understand why Taiwanese people feel aggrieved that the charms of their country are being ignored.

Set in its own national park, the Taroko Gorge is extraordinary: the result of a monumental collision five million years ago between the Luzon Arcs of the Philippines and the Eurasian continental plate. It's an impossibly sheer drop of hundreds of metres, with marbled walls and the turbulent, metallic blue waters of the Liwu River racing across the bottom. It looks as if a giant cake knife has sliced through the middle of an epic expanse of rock.

Swallows swoop out of small caves hidden amid the dense ferns on the cliffs. A series of footpaths runs along the side of the gorge and in some places chunks of rock have been blasted out to create views for the Taiwanese tourists that flock here. The park itself is large – over 920 square kilometres, or the same size as Dartmoor National Park – so it's easy to escape the crowds. But, perversely, perhaps the most interesting thing about this area is its indigenous people.

Some anthropologists believe that the aboriginal Taiwanese (who make up just two per cent of the population today) are descendants of the people who went on to populate Australia and vast swathes of the Pacific Ocean islands thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, in 21st-century society the Taiwanese aboriginals have fared little better than their Australian counterparts. Firmly at the bottom of the social strata, the 13 tribes (there are many more who have not yet received official recognition) are confined to remote villages and islands in the east and centre of Taiwan. Taroko Gorge is named after the local Truka tribe and a few members remain inside the borders of the park today. There are many villages scattered further south towards the city of Sioulin, mingling with villages belonging to the Ami, the largest tribe.

Arriving at the Ami village of Cifadahan at sundown I was surrounded by people wanting simultaneously to feed me, water me, photograph me and share their family history with me. Though the village itself was architecturally modern, stepping inside the home of my host Nakaw, it became clear that many traditions lived on; I was presented with a sweet rice wine, which was drunk through the mouth of a small shoe-shaped cup, which had the face of a pig.

"So few people know anything about our traditions – there is so much misunderstanding," Nakaw told me via a translator. "We are very different to Taiwanese but most of us do not want segregation. So many of our traditions have already died out. Many Taiwanese have aboriginal blood but won't admit it."

Nakaw and his wife then showed me sepia-tinted photos from the late 19th century: ancient shots show men and women with tattoos on their faces, a ritual that everyone undertook at the age of seven or eight for tribal identification. Men were given another tattoo when they hunted their first wild boar. Women were given distinctive thick dark striped tattoos on their cheeks when they were thought to have mastered the art of weaving. There are no tattoos now; the result of a law passed while Taiwan was under Japanese rule in the early 20th century.

Later, Nakaw proudly presented me with a feast of aboriginal food in the village restaurant; a mouth-watering mixture of dishes that included meat with betel nut soup, pheasant and "spicebush" with bacon.

"You will not find this food in Taipei, let alone anywhere else," said Nakaw. "There are some Ami people in Taipei but getting good jobs is hard for us. We really hope that learning about our culture in schools [the present government has made aboriginal studies compulsory for all school children] will change things eventually."

The time I spent with Nakaw felt precious because he and his tribe are so dedicated to the cause of preserving their culture. But there was also an air of sadness: so much has been destroyed in Taiwan's turbulent history, and what remains is entrenched in the backwaters of the Taiwanese psyche.

The further from Taipei I'd ventured, the further I'd come from my original image of Taiwan as a giant, grubby plastics factory. My hi-fi – "Made in Taiwan" in the late Eighties – is in an attic now, along with few preconceptions about an island once known as "Formosa" (beauty) by Portuguese explorers.

Traveller's Guide

Getting There

There are no non-stop flights between the UK and Taiwan. The writer flew to Taipei with EVA Airlines (020-7380 8300; www.evaair.com, the only direct flight from Heathrow and has a touchdown in Bangkok. Thai Airways (020-7491 7953; www. thaiair.com) offers flights with connections in Bangkok, while Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; www.cathaypacific.com) has connections in Hong Kong.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

Staying There

Landis Taipei Hotel, 41 Min Chuan East Road, Section 2, Taipei, Taiwan (00 886 2 2597 1234; >www.landishotels resorts.com. Doubles start at NT$5,457 (£85), including breakfast.

New Life (Niuaohua) Hot Spring Resort, Wuncyuan, Yuli township, Hualien County (00 886 3888 7333). Doubles start at NT$2,800 (£43), including breakfast.

More Information

Taiwan Tourism: 00 886 2 2349 1500; www.taiwan.net.tw

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