Part of a trip that brought me to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Palau, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands before being cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic in Fiji.
– visited February/March 2020 –
I have exactly the same feeling as last time. Again, I am coming to Taiwan from a poorer country and again I am in awe. Getting a SIM card takes 45 seconds from giving them my passport to getting my phone back with the card in it and the whole thing fully working. Shortly later, I browse through a convenience store looking for nice delicacies to try out, one of those lovely onigiris, something else? Hmm, maybe a box of sushi. I buy a digital payment card (no registration, no nothing) to conveniently pay for transport and anything else, I take the metro and soon thereafter I am sitting in the high-speed train heading south. The tracks are raised and the views superb, towns, villages, rice paddies and always the backdrop of the Taiwanese mountains.
I feel at home in a place where everything works and is well organized. Taiwan and Sri Lanka (from where I arrived) are islands of similar length (about 400 km), in Taiwan it takes less than two hours to go from north to south, in Sri Lanka that would take ten or twelve. Five years ago, I was coming from the Philippines and soon after arrival found myself in exactly the same train and again it felt so good. On my last visit, I circled the island but hardly touched the interior. This time, I am on a short stopover, in 72 hours I will already be waiting for a plane to Palau, but my intention was to explore the beautiful Taiwanese mountains.
Things could be easier though, as I devised my travel plan, I immediately decided to rent a car for my three days. That would give me flexibility, freedom to roam and make sure that I would see a lot. That was enough planning for Taiwan but as I finally tried to rent a car a few days before arriving I found out that they are expensive. 80€ is about twice what I usually expect to pay in a rich country, no clue why. That means public transport for me and that does not go to well with the plan to head to the mountains. There are buses, all the timetables are online (music in the ears of someone arriving from Sri Lanka) but only a few. Making something like a round trip or crossing from west to east (easy with a car) is difficult to impossible on public transport, especially as I have a limited amount of time. I settle for a plan involving Sun Moon Lake and a visit to Tataka.
Sun Moon Lake is beautiful, one part shaped like a sun (as many lakes are) and another part shaped like a crescent. There are several temples around the lake, boats go across and buses around. Beautiful, just a lot more developed than expected. The Austrian cabarettist Georg Kreisler sang about how beautiful Vienna would be without the Viennese and Sun Moon Lake evokes a similar feeling in me, how beautiful would this lake be without all the visitors, without all the buildings. But I shouldn’t be selfish, I am a visitor myself and should not complain about other people doing the same.
The next morning, I head to Tataka, the starting point for Yu Shan (Jade Mountain), at 3,952 metres Taiwan’s highest mountain. I have neither the time nor the equipment or the necessary permit to climb the mountain. I just want to enjoy the mountain scenery. As a (sub-)tropical country even Yu Shan is free of snow in late February. The accommodation I had planned to stay turns out to be under renovation cutting my time in the mountains short.
9-21 Earthquake Museum
I head to Taichung instead. The hostel has a room next to the reception with small lockers for every room to leave your shoes in and to take the provided slippers out. I will not see much of Taichung; I spend nearly all my time at the amazing earthquake museum, one of the best museums I have ever visited. Taiwan is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire; earthquakes are a part of life. Still, the 7.7 magnitude earthquake that struck in the early morning hours of 21 September 1999 left its mark. 2,415 people were killed and 11,035 severely wounded. More than 50,000 buildings were completely destroyed. Taiwan, which had pulled off a strong economic development decided that while you cannot stop earthquakes, you can at least be better prepared. Waking up in the middle of the night because your house has been damaged is a bad experience, waking up in the same situation at least with an earthquake backpack at hand is still bad but a little less bad.
Schools proved to be especially vulnerable buildings. Had the earthquake occurred during school hours the number of victims would have been far higher. Many schools had been built according to a blueprint developed in the 1960s and later slightly adapted all in the same way. The blueprint was already bad but the adaptations left many columns especially vulnerable leading to the collapse of the school buildings. The 9-21 Earthquake Museum is one of these collapsed schools. It lay directly on the fault line that moved several metres. The athletics track of the school is a vivid illustration. You could run the first 200 metres as normal but then encounter a steep drop of nearly 3 metres. The next 100 metres would be near level again but then you would have to handle a steep rise of nearly 3 metres before tackling the next 100 flat metres to the finish line.
The museum handles earthquakes in all aspects. Photographs, exhibits and a lot of explanations. There is a whole section on construction showing different techniques how to make buildings stronger, hands-on exhibits let you check out how different mitigation efforts handle the tremors. I love it. I take time to read all the panels. You can even find out how the high-speed trains are supposed to handle tremors of different strengths. A big aspect of the museum is educating people and telling them how you can prepare. Normally, there are plenty of school groups but because of the threat from the novel coronavirus (I visit on the 25th of February 2020, South Korea is just seeing a massive surge in cases) these visits have been interrupted.
A centrepiece is the earthquake simulator. You are only allowed in if you are healthy and you find yourself sitting on a couch surrounded by screens. Then the shaking starts. You get this treatment twice. The first time you are in an unprepared apartment and you soon find yourself surrounded by shards of glass, everything lying on the floor and as the final act your massive bookshelf is falling onto you. In the second scenario your apartment is well prepared. The TV wobbles like crazy but does not fall, the damper it stands on takes enough energy. Your drawers stay closed and the bookshelf is well fastened to the wall. The books still fall out but one by one and not with the force of the full shelf. As the final act, your automatic door springs open to allow first responders easy access. The lights have gone out, but your earthquake backpack shimmers on the wall.
I head to Douliu to meet with a Taiwanese friend that I met years ago in Iceland. She takes me to all these small eateries with all those specialities that I do not dare venture into on my own. The language barrier sometimes is a real barrier.
I take the high-speed train back to the airport. Douliu is not on the line and it takes about the same time to get to the HSR station (by shuttle bus) than it will for the train to bring me to Taoyuan. My ticket shows the number of the railway car my seat is in and the markings on the platform show exactly where it will come to a stop. Everybody is waiting where they are supposed to wait. The train comes, people get in quickly, the train leaves. Japan pioneered this, South Korea, Taiwan and China found it a good idea. Deutsche Bahn, are you listening?
I return to Taiwan six days later. This time, I have less than 48 hours and I want to spend them in Taipei. I return to a changed country. In the last days, cases of Covid-19 have soared in South Korea, Italy and Iran. Awareness and precautions against the virus have gone up strongly.
Taiwan CDC officials have set up a line of desks at the airport where they collect health forms (“Be sure to wear a mask in public places”), at the hotel the elevator buttons are protected with a sheet of plastic and my temperature is taken at check-in. I have also stepped up my personal precautions, I am no longer staying in dorms if I can afford not to. And I often can as tourist numbers are low.
My first task is buying a camera. I finally want to be able to photograph the world underwater. By chance, I stay close to “Camera Street”. The shops offer similar rates. To my surprise, the cameras can be bought with or without warranty. Without warranty, they are about 25% cheaper. I wonder where these warrantyless cameras come from. As a Taiwanese warranty is of limited use to me, I buy the cheaper version. With warranty, I could take the camera straight away but without I have to come again in the evening to pick it up.
My first visit is to the Taipei 101 skyscraper. Tall buildings are fascinating and I love the views. I also want to see the wind damper, a giant ball of steel (weighing 660 tons) that stabilizes the building in strong winds and during earthquakes by swinging. At the 9-21 Earthquake Museum I saw the theory, now I see it applied. Entering the Taipei 101 mall a signboard informs people that they will not be allowed to access the building if their temperature is above 37.5°C, an infrared-camera gives an employee the power to stop you. Having passed the camera, hand sanitizer is waiting. Inside, you are informed how the cleaning-regime of often-touched surfaces has been stepped up. The same at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Palace Museum. You don’t even have to take the hand sanitizer yourself as an employee is spraying it right on your palms. The metro system also informs about the enhanced cleaning of the trains, posters from before Corona remind people to wear a mask if feeling sick and at one station even my temperature is taken. Nearly all shops offer hand sanitizer at the entrance.
The next day is rainy, stopping me from heading to Yangminghshan National Park as planned. I visit the Shun Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines and the National Palace Museum instead. The original inhabitants of Taiwan are an Austronesian people related to the Micronesians, Melanesians and Polynesians that populate the islands of the Pacific. In fact, the theory goes that the original movement to populate these islands (which only happened in the last millennia) started in Taiwan. Since then, Taiwan itself has seen two waves of immigration. In the first slow one, Chinese settlers arrived during the last 400 years. The majority of them speaking Hokkien, a language from the south-west of China. The indigenous people were pushed towards and later into the mountains where they now mostly live in remote settlements.
The second wave of immigration (or invasion) came as the Nationalist Government (Kuomintang) was losing the Chinese Civil War in 1949. They relocated to Taiwan and made Taipei the temporary capital of the Republic of China. To the six million people already living in Taiwan two million people were added. Many soldiers but also large parts of the political and business elite transferred to Taiwan and of course instantly presumed to run the place. With them, Mandarin became the dominant language. They brought many Chinese national treasures and these nowadays form the backbone of the collection of the National Palace Museum.
This history is the reason why Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) is nowadays not recognized by most countries. In fact, only 15 countries have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan and most of them are small independent nations that are grateful of Taiwanese Assistance. Most rich countries have good unofficial relations while officially upholding a one-China-policy. The Republic of China was founded in 1912 ending 2000 years of imperial rule. The republic had trouble exercising its authority struggling with warlordism (1915–28), the Japanese invasion (1937–45) and the civil war (1927–49). Taiwan’s existence is the unresolved state of this conflict. The communist forces in the civil war proved stronger and established the People’s Republic of China on the Chinese mainland. The Republic of China lives on in Taiwan. For a long time, both parts claimed to be the true and only China while the US navy patrolled the Taiwan Strait to prevent both sides from attempting a military solution. After World War II, Taiwan was one of the big five and held a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. In a painful reversal in 1971, it was expelled from the UN as the People’s Republic of China had successfully lobbied for recognition.
For many observers Taiwan preserved the more original Chinese culture. It was ruled heavy-handed (martial-law ended only in 1987) but never experienced upheavals like the Cultural Revolution. Over time, Taiwan gave up the idea of speaking for all of China. But Taiwan developed a functioning democracy with robust personal freedoms and many people have no intention to lose that for communist autocracy à la Beijing. Mainland China, meanwhile, has been slowly stepping up the pressure, it is trying to “buy up” Taiwan’s diplomatic friends, maintains the absolute necessity of a reunification and does not exclude the threat of force while building up its military.
On a personal note, I count Taiwan as a country as it is recognized by enough countries to justify that.