– visited June/July 2015 –
The plane is late, I have to take a taxi to get to the train station and catch one of the last trains of the day. I enter the train armed with a sushi box, let myself fall into the comfy seat and soon we head south at 300 km/h. It feels so good after months of slow and uncomfortable transport. Outside, only the lights of cities and towns are visible. My plane had landed in the north of Taiwan but two-and-a-half hours later, I am already in Tainan in the south of the country.
Tainan is the oldest city on the island of Taiwan, for hundreds of years it had been its capital. It is known for its Buddhist and Taoist temples. It has more of them than any other city in Taiwan. Fort Zeelandia, located in the district of Anping, was the first fort built in Taiwan by the Dutch East India Company. Nearby, the Julius Mannich Merchant House is an example of a home of a foreign trader.
Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s second largest city and the political and economic centre of the south. Its port is the busiest in the country. From time to time, I run into language trouble in Taiwan, English is not very widespread and the Chinese characters are totally alien to me. I arrive in Kaohsiung in late evening. I ask the hostel owner where I can get something to eat. Two blocks away, he says, I would find a few good restaurants. They are rather informal, all with a small counter where you order and none of them has any English signage. Some meat is arranged on these counters and it all does not look very enticing to me (yes, I can be a bit picky). I keep walking to find something else. Besides an ice cream shop there is nothing so I come back to the restaurants. I choose the nicest looking, go to the counter, point to some chicken and have the feeling that my wish has been understood. Instead of the expected chicken with rice, I receive a soup. Various weird pieces of meat are swimming in the broth. I can identify three different kinds of innards, I try all of them, all are disgusting, I eat the broth but leave the meat behind. I stop at the ice cream shop.
I am supposed to meet a friend. I met her the year before in Iceland and we stayed in touch. She has just started to work as a hostel manager. Her job gives me an interesting insight in working conditions considered acceptable in Taiwan. Planning the trip, I had asked her to tell me about her days off so that I could time my visit conveniently. She never gave me a direct answer to that question. It turns out she has no days off. She is supposed to be at the hostel all the time, she has a room there (shared with another worker), she can ask the owner for some time off but that depends if the owner has time herself and wants to let her go. Principally, she is responsible for the hostel 24/7 and her own life has to play second fiddle.
The east coast is considered the most beautiful part of Taiwan and we take a few hours on a scooter to explore. I try thousand-year eggs. These eggs are preserved by burying them in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months. The yolk becomes a dark grey colour, with a creamy consistency and strong flavour, while the white becomes a dark brown, translucent jelly with a salty flavour. It is considered a delicacy; it actually tastes okay but has not become my favourite food yet.
Taiwan is maybe like no other country shaped by scooters. In the smaller cities like Taitung or Hualien, I notice surprisingly few buses at the train station. Instead, everybody seems to head to one of the numerous scooter rental shops and soon thereafter races away on their own wheels.
None of these shops have signage in English, few speak any English and even fewer are ready to deal with a person not living in Taiwan. Some also (correctly) realize that my German license does not allow me to ride such a scooter. Not a problem in Southeast Asia but a problem in Taiwan. I get offered an e-scooter. I’d actually love to take one but the battery is meant for city driving and not for the all-day excursion that I plan to Taroko Gorge. After many attempts, I finally get one. I make sure to be back in time for the whale watching trip. We see no whales but plenty of dolphins that enjoy following our boat
I start my day in Taipei at the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. As the
dictator President Chiang Kai-shek died in office in 1975 a Funeral Committee was immediately established to build a memorial. On the fifth anniversary of the leader’s death, the memorial was officially opened.
Chiang had been the leader of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) since 1926 and after the successful Northern Expedition (against the rival Beiyang government) the leader of the Republic of China from 1928 to 1975. In 1928 that meant to rule over large parts of today’s China with the island of Taiwan being an insignificant afterthought. At the end of World War II, he conferred with the leaders of the Allied powers as the man who had helped defeat Japan. The Republic of China (R.O.C.) took part (with the U.S., Russia and the UK) in the writing of the charter of the United Nations. Upon the founding of the organization the R.O.C. became one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Chiang Kai-shek was on the apogee of his power. But at home, trouble was brewing. During the Northern Expedition Chiang had ended the alliance with the Communist Party of China and thereby started what came to be known as the Chinese Civil War. As World War II was coming to an end, the internal fighting returned and the Communist forces proved stronger. In 1949, Chiang and his Kuomintang had effectively lost and fled to the island of Taiwan bringing with them about 2 million people, many of them from the political and business elite of the Republic of China. Ruling only over Taiwan, Chiang still claimed to speak for all of China, was considered by most of the world as the legitimate government of China and continued to hold the permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. The US navy patrolled the Taiwan Strait to prevent renewed hostilities. Chiang’s (and Taiwan’s) international fortunes tanked in 1971. The Republic of China (still Taiwan’s official name) was expelled from the United Nations and the People’s Republic of China suddenly recognized as the legitimate representation of all of China. That meant the mainland but that also meant Taiwan. Today, only a few countries in the world recognize Taiwan, for most it is a part of China.
Chiang ruled as an autocrat. Even before the Kuomintang arrived in Taiwan martial law was declared and remained in effect for 38 years until 1987. Taiwan was in fact a one-party state, the persecution of perceived and real opponents of the Kuomintang government is known as the “White Terror”, about 140,000 people were imprisoned, 3,000 to 4,000 of those were executed.
The memorial to the “hero” and the large square in front of it, became Taipei’s place of choice for mass gatherings as soon as it opened. Many of these gatherings did not please the leader, people demanded to be heard, demanded democracy. Eventually far-reaching political reforms were introduced, resulting in the first popular election of national leaders in 1996. Taiwan has since transformed into a fully function democracy and in 2007 the square in front of the memorial was renamed Liberty Square. To some Chiang Kai-shek is still a hero but many others see him as the deeply flawed person he was.
In the afternoon, I rent a bike and cycle around Taipei. Very enjoyable.