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Travel to Asia: Taiwan - July 2004 Newsletter


There is a legend circulating that one day in the year 1590, a Portuguese galleon ship was sailing in the Pacific when it caught sight of a body of land covered with white sandy beaches, lush greenery, deep forests and mountain peaks so high, it disappeared into the clouds. The sailors called it "Ihla formosa", or "beautiful isle", and for centuries, the island was known as Formosa. Now it is called Taiwan, which means "Terraced Bay" in Chinese.

Located approximately 90-100 miles off the southeast coast of mainland China, two-thirds of the island of Taiwan is covered by the Chungyang Shanmo mountains. For years, its geographic isolation made the island an ideal refuge for Chinese and Japanese pirates attacking ships on the China seas. It also served as a haven for settlers from other parts of Asia. Eventually, it became home to Chiang Kai-Shek, his Nationalist army, and over two million refugees fleeing mainland China as a result of the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists.

Thanks to modernization, life in the big cities, especially Taipei (Taiwan's capital), may resemble life in other big cities. Visitors arriving at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport might be surprised to see skyscrapers soaring toward the sky on busy streets congested with traffic. Approximately 70% of the Taiwanese live and work in large cities like Taipei, which has developed over the past 30 years into a glistening forest of glass and steel architecture.

Surprisingly, however, Taiwan seems to have managed to retain most of its original charm and natural beauty, as you will see during our visit around the island. If you bypass the office buildings, condominiums and tree-lined boulevards in Taipei, and you will find yourself in the oldest section of town. There, tiny old ladies sell dry squid, shrimp, seaweed and other items, while street stands and shops peddle goods like bamboo utensils, paper lanterns, toys, clothing, and kitchenware. Live snakes are also up for sale, whether for food or medicinal purposes. (Many of the items sold on the streets of Taipei are similar to the products available at Mrs. Lin's Kitchen, especially those found in our Gift category, such as hand-held fans, umbrellas and jewelry. Snakes, though, are not.)

Aside from shopping, there are other points of interest visitors would do well not to miss. In the heart of Taipei, you will find the Presidential Building where the administrative center of the government is located. Close by is another impressive structure, the majestic Grand Hotel topped with what some consider the world's largest classical Chinese roof. To stroll through its capacious lobby with its high ceilings, to see its red and fold decor, and to soak in its magical ambiance that is comparable to a Chinese imperial palace is an experience beyond one's imagination. (If you've never seen a classical Chinese roof, visit Lights category at Mrs. Lin's Kitchen, where you will find lamps with pagoda roofs resembling those atop many structures throughout Asia.) Other points of interest include:

The National Palace Museum - For a bit of culture, it offers visitors some of the world's greatest art treasures. Located in the suburb of Wai-shuang-hsi, right outside of Taipei, the museum is built into a hillside behind the Grand Hotel. It resembles a palace, thanks to a landscaped setting and sweeping stairs. Opened since 1965, it has more than 250,000 art pieces in exhibition, including bronzes, jade items, porcelain objects, paintings, and rare books. The partial collection was originally kept in China's Forbidden City, but was moved to keep the works of art out of the hands of the invading Japanese and from destruction during the civil war.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall - In commemoration of the late president, Chiang Kai-shek, the building is white, the Chinese color of mourning. The Cultural Center also has the National Theater and National Concert Hall. Exhibition rooms contain memorabilia, while a theater shows documentary films of the late president. Visitors should not miss the impressive 25-ton (22,680 kilogram) statue of Chiang Kai-Shek on the second floor.

"Dragon Mountain" - The Lungshan Temple is often called the "Dragon Mountain" because of its many sculptured creatures lining the fluted roof outside the building and the large pillars inside. The oldest, most famous and possibly the busiest of Taiwan's numerous temples, it is located in old Taipei. Built in the 18th century to honor Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy, and Matsu, the goddess of the sea, the inside of the temple is a blended scent of burning incense, burning paper money, lit candles and foods being offered to the gods. (The dragon is traditionally regarded as a symbol of good fortune. Search Mrs. Lin's Kitchen for products adorned with dragon symbols and you will see for yourself just how revered by the Chinese people this creature truly is.)

If you decide to venture away from the bright neon lights of Taipei for some sightseeing, North Taiwan offers many interesting attractions, including "Window on China", an impressive exhibition of miniature models of historical and other famous places found throughout Taiwan and mainland China. The exhibit has tiny running railroads, moving boats, and an incredible replica of the famous Wall of China that snakes over hills as the real one does.

If you head east, take the East-West Cross-Island Highway, also called "Asia's Most Beautiful Highway". It runs along the coast of the Pacific Ocean and earns its nickname from the spectacular scenery found along the road. In its easternmost section, the highway weaves through Taroko Gorge, a marble-walled canyon with magnificent overhangs and steep plunges. The gorge itself is a 12 mile stretch with 38 tunnels to pass through. Not long ago, Taoko was made a national park in an effort to preserve its natural beauty.

A not-to-be-missed site for visitors to Central Taiwan involves a religious figure of substantial size. The Pao-Chueh Temple is home to the largest Buddha image in Taiwan. Milofo, or "The Happy Buddha," is 101 feet (31 meters) high. Inside the pedestal of the giant Buddha is a small folk craft museum, and visitors will come across many other happy Buddha statues around the courtyards. Not to be outdone, the city of Changhua is home to the world's largest Buddha. Sitting atop an equally vast lotus-shaped platform, the entire structure was constructed from 300 tons (272,000 kilograms) of concrete. (At Mrs. Lin's Kitchen, you'll find our Buddhas in a more manageable size, and in the form of Yixing Teapots.)

In South Taiwan, T'ainan has the distinction of being the oldest city in Taiwan, having served as capital of the island from 1684-1887. As is the case throughout Taiwan, there are also temples located here. T'ainan, however, is known as the city of a hundred temple, although in actuality, the number of temples is closer to 209. Most notable is the Confucian Temple, built in 1665, and considered by many to be the oldest and most architecturally superior of all the temples in Taiwan dedicated to Confucius. Inside, visitors will find musical instruments, ancient books and ceremonial costumes on display. (Incense and incense burners are familiar staples at every temple. Mrs. Lin's Kitchen offers a variety of incense fragrances that will help create a tranquil and serene mood in your home. Also available are attractively detailed and functional incense burners to safely hold burning incense sticks. Please see our January 2002 newsletter to learn more about the benefits of burning incense.)

For a change of pace in South Taiwan, Kenting National Park bears the distinction of being Taiwan's first national park. Its purpose is to protect and preserve marine life and land spectacles, such as the Maopitou, or "Cat's Nose", where the coastline elevates to give visitors a fantastic view of the sea. Kenting also has a vast number of beautiful tropical flora that lures visitors around the world. It is here where visitors may get a sense of why, despite the integration of old and new, despite steel buildings towering over old styled Chinese architecture, Taiwan's ability to retain tradition while embracing modernization is what allows the island to truly live up to its original given name, Beautiful Isle.


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