Travel Diary: Enchanting Ilha Formosa
“Welcome to Ilha Formosa,” the charming Taiwanese lady greeted the group of eight journalists from the Middle East, including two of us from Oman, who had just arrived at the Taoyuan International Airport after an eight and a half hour direct Emirates flight from Dubai.
Ilha Formosa, literally meaning the beautiful island, is the former name of Taiwan dating back to 1542, when Portuguese sailors first sighted the island, some 180km off the southeastern coast of mainland China, and named it so. The name was in common use till the middle of 20th century.
The astute lady, whom we eventually came to know as Tina, was our official tour guide for the seven day media familiarisation visit hosted by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. And just like her island nation, Tina had another name as well.
“My Chinese or Taiwanese name is Chang Ching Yuan. Chang is one of the most popular Chinese-Taiwanese family names; Ching means calm, quiet and silence; and Yuan means elegant. But you can call me Tina,” she introduced herself as we settled down in the plush 20-seater bus, which was our main mode of transportation as we criss-crossed the scenic landscape for the next one week.
The driver’s name was as animated as his persona - Jan Wen Long, where Jan is the family name, Wen means literature and Long is Chinese for dragon. But Jan was far from being as fiery as his last name hinted. The sweetness within his tough exterior had earned him the nickname of ‘Watermelon’ and that was how he became popular with our group.
So, with Tina and Watermelon for company, we set out to explore the country that takes equal pride in its historic heritage and rapid modern development.
The Taiwan Miracle
Our first halt was Taipei 101, the capital’s iconic skyscraper. Standing tall at 509.2m, the tower held the official tag of world’s tallest building from 2004 to 2009, when Dubai’s Burj Khalifa overtook it. The Taipei landmark also boasts of the world’s fastest elevator that takes you to the 89th floor in just 30 seconds. Besides the stunning 360-degree views that it offers, Taipei 101 also houses a unique coral museum, which has among its collections, the world’s tallest gemstone coral.
Standing atop the outdoor observation deck on the 91st floor (there are two indoor decks on the 88th and 89th floors) and looking below at the glittering city lights, one couldn’t stop marvelling at this nation’s growth story that saw the island’s transformation from an acutely poor country into one of the world’s richest in less than 50 years. And Taipei 101 is a living edifice to this narrative dubbed as the Taiwan Miracle.
In the course of our journey through the length and breadth of Taiwan, we got a fair glimpse into this growth story. The transport and communication network is impeccable with highways and high-speed bullet trains providing easy connectivity across the country.
Taiwan is also today a global technology hub, in the forefront of IT, electronic and robotics development. It is home to major electronics companies such as Acer, Asus, BenQ, Foxconn and HTC. No wonder, there’s free access to WiFi in nearly all public places in the major cities.
A visit to Taoyuan Robot DreamWorks could be rewarding for those interested in the cutting edge technology. Amid a range of singing, dancing and talking robots one could trace the history of robot technology while also engaging in interactive action through the somatosensory fighting robots on display.
This achievement is a great source of pride for the Taiwanese, who have had to live under the shadow of mainland China. “Big China is powerful. But Taiwan is really efficient. We have seen immense growth in the last decades. Today our infrastructure is world class and Taiwan is among the top economies of not only Asia, but even globally,” Tina asserted. “Small is good,” she added on a lighter note.
Considered a global city, Taipei is part of a major high-tech industrial area. The capital city is home to several renowned architectural and cultural landmarks including Taipei 101, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Dalongdong Baoan Temple, Hsing Tian Kong, Mengjia Longshan Temple, National Palace Museum, Presidential Office Building, Ximending and many vibrant night markets.
Further south to Tainan is Kaohsiung city, which is home to the largest port in Taiwan. It’s a sprawling metropolis with several landmarks including the 85 Sky Tower, the ferris wheel of the Kaohsiung Dream Mall, the Kaohsiung Arena and the Kaohsiung Harbor. The newly developed city is also known for having a large number of shopping streets, night markets and leisure parks such as the Pier-2 Art Center or the E-DA Theme Park. Our group of journalists from the Middle East got a first-hand feel of the go-kart race at the mini Suzuki circuit, the latest attraction at the new Taroko Park shopping centre in Kaohsiung.
We took the high-speed bullet train from Taipei to Tainan – a journey of over 300km, completed in less than 90 minutes. Tainan is the oldest city in Taiwan and was the historic capital for over 200 years. The city is home to the first Confucian school–temple, built in 1665. The remains of the Eastern and Southern gates of the old city, and countless historical monuments are the city’s other attractions. Tainan claims more Buddhist and Taoist temples than any other city in Taiwan. Tainan is also considered to be the culinary capital of the country, with many authentic and traditional Taiwanese dishes originating from the city.
To be continued next Thursday...