All Aboard the high Speed Express

Touring the Island's West in High Style at the Highest of Speeds

Text / Rick Charette
Photos / Taipei 101, Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area, Taiwan High Speed Rail, Maolin National Scenic Area, Alishan National Scenic Area, National Museum of Natural Science, Vision Int'l

Touring Taiwan has now acquired a certain cachet, a certain sexiness, a certain "je ne sais pas." The island's long-awaited high-speed railway is set to power up in just a few nano-moments. Your wait is over. Instant travel gratification has arrived.

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Want to be anywhere on the island's west side in no time flat? There you go, mesdames et monsieurs - you're now reading this in another city. Konnichi wa, traveling friend - in town for the catch of the day, headed back without delay? Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) lets you hit any west-coast city from your main island base and slide home safe again before your spouse, pet, or boss - maybe - even knows you've left to hit the fast track. The iron rooster has come a long way, baby.

As a child I was lulled to sleep each night by the rhythmic music of passing trains. Deep bonds for the romance of rail developed. Tracks seem like flowing rivers to me, leading to mystery and far-off adventure. On my sole grand tour of France, to date, I merrily rode the Train a Grand Vitesse (TGV; love that name - "Train of Great Speed" ). On my single to-date adventure into the mists of Japan I thrilled at the bullet train, the Shinkansen.

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This is indeed a very sexy way to move, my adventurous friends, I assure you. Tres elegant, tres chic, sleekly exotic. And now Taiwan possesses the same sex appeal, an ultra-stylish bullet-train service stretching from Taipei in the far north to Kaohsiung in the far south along fair Formosa's western flank, the mist-kissed cathedral-like spires of the Central Mountain Range beckoning off to the east as you hurtle north-south at warp speed through western foothills and over plains and wide wadis, with stops at most all major urban agglomerations along the way - Banciao, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan.

Time Savings, Money Savings, Eco-Savings

As recent generations have learned from watching the big and small screens, the ultimate in speed is warp speed, and the ultimate in travel convenience is the transporter. In our present-day world the high-speed railway is perhaps the next best thing, with just a short trip to a downtown station before your molecules are hurtled en masse to some distant locale (same dimension, however), almost independent of the passage of time. Cheap, and eco-friendly too - less space used per traveling person compared to car, bus, and plane, far less FPT (fuel per traveler) used. Don't use "FPT" in your conversations; I made that up. So you save the world while traveling it. Neat trick.

Blazing Trails

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The majority of travelers to Taiwan, long or short-term, use Taipei as base. The high-speed rail brings supreme convenience for day-trips, overnighters, and even longer explorations. Like greater London, greater New York, greater Tokyo, and other great concentrations of human beings, the expression "you can't get there from here" sometimes springs to mind when attempting travel from Taipei into her hinter regions - at a stretch meaning the entire west side of the island, five hours or so by car from Taipei to Kaohsiung on days when island denizens aren't also on the road pursuing leisure-time dreams.

The high-speed rail cuts through all this. In the rest of this short article we introduce the various THSR stops, many no doubt previously not among your list of travel possibilities, now most definitely on. Since as said most visitors use Taipei as base, and that city's global-standard Mass-Rapid Transit (MRT) system and the many color-coded bus routes shooting off from each station make traveling the compact mountain-ringed metropolis a breeze, we won't spend much time introducing the city's myriad only-place-on-earth attractions.

Taipei and Banciao

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But note that in Taipei and attached Banciao (the second stop on a north-south THSR jaunt; also reached by the MRT) you can visit the planet's very tallest building, Taipei 101, with eye-popping views from the observation deck on the 89th floor. Soak in 5,000 years of learning in the single greatest repository of Chinese cultural treasures extant, the National Palace Museum, recently refurbished top-thru-bottom. Travel back to Taiwan-pioneering times to the fabulous residential complex of the Lin family in Banciao (Lin Family Gardens), the dominant clan in north Taiwan through the 19th century.

Red-Carpet Roll Call of City Destinations

An early-morn THSR launch from any point means you can hit any other point as the breakfast stands start opening, take in highlight tourist spots in-town-and-out, and be back home and wrapped up tight in your own blanket just when the sleep monster catches up with you. Or overnight on a weekend and be back at work all fresh and chipper Monday morning.

Banciao can be considered a bedroom community (of hundreds of thousands!) of Taipei, situated to the southwest of the city center just across the Sindian River. Taoyuan has grown in large part because of its proximity to the international airport that serves Taipei, Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. This city is about 30 minutes southwest of Taipei. Hsinchu, a high-tech hub with its driving dynamo the Hsinchu Science Park, home to such home-grown powerhouses as Taiwan Semiconductor, is about one hour by vehicle from Taipei. Taichung, which translates literally as "Taiwan Central," is indeed central Taiwan's main urban center and marketplace. Starting life late in comparison to our other cities, its abundant room for expansion has led to expression on a grand scale, with some of the island's biggest restaurants, nightclubs, and karaokes.

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Chiayi, about halfway between Taichung and Tainan and sitting on the flat plains, is a comparatively sleepy place. If a "rural city" can exist, this is it, for this is a market center for the surrounding farmlands, the latter stretched out to the horizon in all directions. For the out-of-towner the town is mainly used as a springboard to destinations in the central mountains and foothills such as Alishan National Scenic Area and Yushan National Park. In small towns between Chiayi and the Taiwan Strait are temples, most notable Fongtian Temple in Singang, renowned for their overwhelmingly crowded and frenetic Mazu (Goddess of the Sea) birthday celebrations each year - parties culturally unique, offering entertainment nonpareil. For Tainan, see the special sample-tour introduction below.

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Our wheels finally roll to a stop in the Zuoying district of Kaohsiung, Taiwan's industrial powerhouse and home to one of the globe's busier ports, yet storehouse for many - and growing - pockets of beauty. The downtown Love River section has received much loving in the past decade, and is today equated with Paris' Left Bank by islanders, lined with cafs and small eateries, strollers entertained by musical troupes and buskers. Kaohsiung is also important as jumping-off point for the resorts of the far south, including the tropical-zone draws Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area and Kenting National Park, the latter locally touted as either Taiwan's Hawaii or Taiwan's California. East of the city in the high mountains is the rugged Maolin National Scenic Area, where you can jump headlong into the traditional culture of four of the island's aboriginal tribes and into vigorous, invigorating whitewater rafting.

A Taste of Tainan

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In upcoming issues of Travel in Taiwan we'll be systematically exploring each THSR stop, providing you with detailed package-tour blueprints. Here we've picked the name Tainan out of a hat for a package-tour sample, though I admit I may have influenced the choosing, having just finished my umpteenth visit to this city-size bridge to the past.

This is where it all began for Taiwan in terms of its modern history - main point of the Han Chinese settler influx, base for the Dutch when they colonized the island in the 1600s, in imperial days Taiwan's capital. Like Japan's Kyoto, this easygoing nexus of traditional culture is a living vault of architectural riches. Many of these priceless historical relics saw life in the early days of Chinese rule on the island, after the Dutch were booted out in 1662.

You can't without shame wear your "I've Done Tainan" badge unless you've spent time at the following draws, all within an easy walk or taxi ride of the train station (the sleepy bus system is of limited value to the tourist).

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The Confucius Temple is the oldest temple dedicated to the sage in Taiwan, built in 1665 by the son of the man who dis-Dutched the island, Koxinga. It was set up as, and long was, the island's premier educational institution, by design serving as the center for the Chinese cultural renaissance in Taiwan.

Every Chinese locality has its City God, an otherworldly mandarin official to watch over local goings-on and take note of citizens' good and bad deeds for tallying upon death. The wonderfully ornate Tainan City God Temple is an overwhelming visual cacophony (pardon my wordage!) of smoke-stained iconry and age-old exposed timber framework. The deep-hued incense-smoke stains are the irrefutable sign of effective resident gods and incessant client patronage. By the front entrance hangs a giant abacus and a sign with the characters Er Lai Le ("So You Have Finally Come" ). This means not you, the tourist, but the souls of the freshly deceased come for the final reckoning.

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The Old Fort of Anping (Fort Zeelandia), a 15-minute taxi ride from the train station, is where the main Dutch military fortification stood. Only part of one wall remains. Background detail is available at the small on-site museum, which houses maps, paintings, relics, and other helpings of insight on Tainan's past. The bricks for the fort were brought from the main Dutch base, Batavia (Java); check out the ingenious mortar used - a mixture of glutinous rice, crushed oyster shell, and sugarcane syrup that has admirably stood the test of time. Massive Fort Zeelandia once stood out to sea, on a giant sandbar; river silting has since "moved" the site several kilometers inland.

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Along the coast in the Tainan City region is the young Southwest Coast National Scenic Area, characterized by varied coastline that ranges dramatically from mudflats to sandbanks and dunes through marshes and wetlands and river deltas. Unique habitat is thus created for a wide lineup of wildlife, notably migratory fowl, and among these particularly the endangered Black-Faced Spoonbill, the pride and joy of the scenic area, in season found at Cigu Lagoon. Silting is serious along the west coast, which in imperial days created havoc for sailing and steam-driven ships. Many a Western adventurer went to a salty grave as a result of the constantly shifting underwater terrain.

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Onland the terrain is exceedingly flat, making this area perfect for salt production. Perhaps the scenic area's most popular - and certainly unusual - attractions are the Cigu Salt Mountains and accompanying Taiwan Salt Museum. Bet you've never climbed a mountain of salt before - four stories high. It was piled up by Taiwan Salt Corp. and has stairs to allow ascent of the snow-like heights. The complementary museum gives you all you can swallow on the island's salt production industry, past and present www.twsalt.org website( in Chinese only).

Give Me More!

Now that we've got you salivating, you're no doubt breathless for more. Your best bet for greater detail on all the THSR stops listed above, including descriptions of sites in-town-and-out and how to get around from train stations, is to start with the Tourism Bureau's website (www.taiwan.net.tw). Go to "Attractions" on the English home page. Follow-on links will get you to the respective tourism/travel authorities for each site/area.

See you on the train!

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