Sea of lights

Sea of lights

Sea of lights

Let there be light: A dragon shaped lantern at the festival in Taiwan. Photo by taiwan Tourism BureauAs the China Airlines flight CI 0072 crossed the Taiwan Strait and approached the Taoyuan International Airport late in the evening, I looked through the window and found Taipei down below basking in a sea of lights.

And propping up from that was the most famous icon of Taiwan’s economic might — Taipei 101, the skyscraper with 101 floors that has just been replaced by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa as the world’s tallest building.  
Post World War II, Taiwan has risen like a phoenix and its miraculous economic strides has now made it one of the four ‘Asian Tigers’ – along with Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. Gloria Ku, a schoolteacher turned tourist guide was waiting for me at the airport’s arrival lounge with a winsome smile and ready for her unenviable assignment of enlightening me about Taiwan and guiding me through a whirlwind tour of the 394 km-long and 144 km-wide island.

We drove to a nearby rail station. And then, a high-speed train barreled down nearly 210 kms to the island’s south-western city of Chiayi in just 64 minutes. It was 10.45 pm when we reached Chiayi and I had my first dose of Gloria’s Gyan on Taiwan — that Taiwanese generally have their dinner by 7.30 pm and it was too late to get dinner at the hotel. Ravenous after such a long day, I suggested if we could at least pick up something from the fast food joint at the station. And, thankfully,  Gloria nodded.

As we drove to the Alishan National Scenic Area next day, I got to see the natural beauty of Taiwan. The crowded streets, bustling markets and swanky shopping malls of Chiayi soon gave way to swathes of corn, tobacco and paddy fields. The breathtaking landscape along the spiralling road was replete with lush green forest on the dizzying precipice, cascading waterfalls and waves of verdant tea bushes going down the slopes. We took a break at Fenchihu, a tiny hillside village that was once an important station of the now-defunct Alishan Forest Railway. The village is still famous for its souvenir and snack shops and, of course, the eateries and the tourists’ favourite lunch boxes.
Gloria told me that Alishan’s famous sunrise, sunset and the ‘sea of cloud’ drew innumerable tourists every year and the peak season was just about to begin with the blossoming of beautiful cherries that herald spring in the mountain. But, what I enjoyed most was the cool, quiet and refreshing walk through the cypress groves, recreated, after the natural forest had been depleted due to rampant felling during Japanese rule in Taiwan.

The trail led past landmarks like Younger Sister and Elder Sister’s lakes, which have a myth attached to them. It is said that two sisters had plunged into the lakes to commit suicide as they both had fallen in love with a man. The forest is also home to the Three Generation Tree, Elephant Trunk (tree stump that looked like a jumbo’s trunk) and Alishan Thousand Year Cypress.

We returned to Chiayi next day to find that the city wore a festive look overnight – ready for the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar every year. We headed towards the venue in the evening and found ourselves amidst thousands of lanterns — in various sizes and shapes, ranging from horses to dragons and from flowers to landmark buildings.

After mesmerising performances by children, popular music bands and folk dance troupes as well as percussionist groups not only from both Taiwan and mainland China, but also from Japan; the Republic of China’s Vice-President Vincent Siew declared the festival open. The lights were switched off and following a countdown by the compere, the huge tiger-shaped lantern placed on a revolving pedestal at the centre of the venue was lit up for the first time with a blast of fireworks lighting up the night sky of Chiayi.

We also paid a visit to Janfusun Fancy World that boasts off thrill-machines like Flying Submarine G5 — a terrible high-speed 381 meter free-fall rollercoaster and Asia’s only Sky Jet. Then, we were on our way to Sun Moon Lake, the largest natural lake of Taiwan.
During a cruise on the vast water-body that surrounds the Lalu Island, Gloria explained that it was so named because its eastern side looks like the sun and the western like the crescent moon. We took the cable car to the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village, an open-air museum displaying the traditional homes and architecture of nine principal aborigine tribes of Taiwan.

Later, we were back to Taipei, where our first stop was the huge computer and electronic gadget mall at Kwang Hwa followed by a tour to the Shilin Night Market. Gloria told me that all Taiwanese towns had night markets, but the one we were in was the largest. Next morning, the world’s fastest elevator with a maximum ascending speed 16.83 metre per second, took me from the 5th to the 89th floor of the Taipei 101 in just about 40 seconds!

Once you are in Taiwan, you have to visit Taipei’s National Palace Museum that holds in itself a slice of history of ancient China, with about 6,50,000 antiquities and artworks. The museum’s most prized possession is the ‘Jade Cabbage’ – a cabbage-like jade.
Our last stop was at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, which is a monument built in the memory of the legendary military leader had who led the nationalists against the communists in the Chinese civil war. As Gloria showed me the personal memorabilia of the late president of Republic of China, I suddenly spotted a photo of great leader with Mahatma Gandhi, shot in Kolkata on February 18, 1942.