Houston Community News >> Seeing Green in Taiwan

8/10/2007-- With its reputation as an industrial wasteland, it comes as a surprise to learn that Taiwan is also one of the ‘greenest’ countries in Asia.

Green Taiwan? The very term sounds like an oxymoron – a complete contradiction. Taiwan has so long had a reputation as an industrial wasteland that it is difficult to imagine even a square millimeter of green space remaining in the country.

However, it comes as a surprise to find that Taiwan is one of the most nature-blessed parts of Asia. This bonsai country, little more than half the size of Tasmania, has 258 mountains each over 3,000m high, and parts of the country looks on a relief map like a giant green roller coaster. In the east of the country, smog and urban sprawl seem far away indeed.

I’m privileged to visit Taiwan during summer – a time when the country usually cops bucket loads of rain. But this time, there are no raindrops falling on our heads – and as a bonus, a big summer highlight is the annual dragon-boat championships. Our guide, Susie Shu, manages to infuse us all with enthusiasm for her native land, while at the same time suffering our worst excesses – a feat bordering on sainthood.

As a first introduction to Taiwan’s nature wonders, we follow the lead of many short-term visitors, taking on a day trip out of the capital Taipei.

Right on the northern shoreline, about two hours by road from Taipei, Yehliu geo-Park is a stunning display of bizarre rock forms, which could have been sculpted by a Salvador Dalí on acid. Some of the rocks look like the bulbous nose on a drunkard’s face. Others look like bloated, inverted golf clubs, while others defy description.

But to really appreciate the majesty of “Green Taiwan”, a visit to the East Coast is a must – and this is made decisively easier by an excellent rail line from Taipei linking with the major cities of the East Coast, i.e. Hualien and Taitung. This region is the domain of aboriginal tribes, who still make up some two percent of the population of Taiwan.

With an innate bearing and dignity, they vary from ex-warriors still wearing Maori-type scars (and speaking a language closely related to Maori) to half-caste Chinese-Aborigines. Among the many 13 officially recognized tribes are the Taroko, an offshoot from the much larger Atayal tribe.

From Hualien, we venture inland to what is justifiably Taiwan’s most visited attraction, namely Taroko Gorge. It is hard to do justice to Taroko National Park. No fewer than 27 of Taiwan’s highest mountains are within the Park, the tallest of them rising to over 3,740m.

Of the many rivers within the Park, the Liwu is the biggest, running a total of 58km from its highest point at over 3,400m to its ocean outfall. On its way, the river surges through the Gorge, a staggering 19km long and in places more than 900m deep, the towering cliffs on either side framing a yawning marble chasm.

Alongside the Taroko Gorge, hugging the banks like a child clinging to a teddy-bear, runs the trans-Taiwan highway. This road must have been near-impossible to build, with the many cantilevered sections running precariously on ledges high above the river and in other places through long tunnels.

Where a part of the highway has been reconstructed, the old highway makes a fun walking trail known as the Tunnel of Nine Turns Trail. I walk along the road contemplating the river-gorge far below, which seems to have been cut through the limestone and marble rocks with a sulphuric acid sword.

This trail is just one of a dozen or more hiking trails in Taroko National Park. Others include the Swallow Grotto trail, the Eternal Spring Shrine Trail and the Buluowan trail.

Near Buluowan (which means “echo” in the Taroko language), the Taroko people have established a very comfortable lodge, the Leader Hotel Taroko, providing low-key accommodation in wooden huts spread around a grassy courtyard. These huts have all the mod-cons, including in-suite bathroom and broadband Internet (not that you want to be reminded of your e-mail in a place like this). The main lodge building incorporates an excellent restaurant, a souvenir shop and space for aboriginal performers.

The dinner menu features such local delicacies as betel nut soup with pork, wild boar, mountain chicken with ginger, sticky rice cooked in bamboo tubes and greens in sesame oil with mashed wild potato, all washed down with home-made millet wine.

Just as I’m hoping there’s a tailor on the premises who can do quick alterations, we adjourn for a night walk along the Buluowan Trail.

“Watch out for big monkeys!” says our guide. “This place is home to the Formosan Macaque.”

Sadly, there are no monkeys to be seen – but we do get to spot giant snails, which I’m told occasionally feature on local menus.

The Buluowan cultural performers demonstrate an astonishing range of talents – from dancing and drumming, to harp playing and vocal skills. It is rare to hear such resonant singing as that displayed by Golden Melody Award winner Yijidadao. His voice starts off as a low drone, like that of a didgeridoo, then rises in a crescendo to a mournful, glass-shattering wail.

Near the little Taroko village of Tiansheng, a Buddhist group has established a temple atop a hill overlooking Pudu Bridge. Here a pagoda and a giant statue of the bodhisattva Kuan Yin rise above the surrounding greenery. The nuns and monks at the temple are most welcoming.

An amazing sight is a giant, 12m statue of the Earth Store Bodhisattva, who according to tradition has vowed not to enter nirvana until hell is empty of all its occupants. Figuring that I could use his help, I spend more than just a few moments in sheepish contemplation.

(Contributed by thestar.com)