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Special encounters of the scenic kind

Shifen Waterfall, Taiwan  

There’s something about travelling in a 787 Dreamliner with inflight entertainment, sitting in relative luxury aboard what is supposed to be a low-cost airline. The air is heavy with expectation, and, to an extent, trepidation. We are to land in Taiwan just when a typhoon is in the neighbourhood.

But, you fall in love with it even as your Scoot readies for touchdown at Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei, after a long day of travel via Singapore. The landscape is dotted with innumerable water bodies, trees and working-class neighbourhoods.

Once you’re in the comfortable coach and armed with a high-speed WiFi router, you’re all set to take in the sights and sounds of a place said to have one percentage of India’s population but 10 times its GDP.

Soon enough, the trees sway dramatically, the roiling waves of the Taiwan strait present a fearsome sight, and menacing clouds slap down angry rain. But, it’s a regular day for the Taiwanese. They smile, run for shelter in the downpour and carry on.

In six days, the itinerary promises to take us on a multi-city tour of the Republic of China. From Taipei, the capital, we are to travel South to Kaohsiung via Pingtung and Kenting, experience the mist-clad mountains of Yunlin, also said to be the fruit bowl of Taiwan, the lure of Taichung and the charms of Sun Moon Lake before hitting Taipei again.

Here’s our pick of things to do and see.

Shifen waterfall

The 30-minute walk through pleasant pathways and steep inclines to this cataract high up the reaches of the Keelung river seems worth it when you finally sight it, through a screen of native ferns. As waterfalls go, this one’s pretty quiet, falling from a height of 20 metres and across 40 metres, but without much murmur.

It’s also the perfect selfie spot. Tourists cheerfully gesture someone, asking if they’ll move a little, and then some more, for that perfect shot — with the waterfall in the background and a lone red hibiscus on the side.

Walk back through another route, and take in the sights of the waterfall from another angle. Stalls selling souvenirs and eateries stocking boiled sweet potato and a delicious-looking slush of lemon and a local root slake the thirst to shop and eat.

Carved horses burnished a deep silver-brass stand guard before you walk up to a wooden staircase, where two decorated lions take over. You then cross a swaying bridge before finally reaching where you set out from. From the well-maintained main road, it’s difficult to believe you just returned from the lap of Nature.

Sky lanterns at Pingxi

Bandits and wayraiders once ran riot in this terrain. When they struck, the women and children would hide in the nooks and crannies in the surrounding hills. The men would stay back and fight. The lanterns floating in the clear sky were a message that the coast was clear. Today, there are no bandits, but the tradition thrives.

We reach Pingxi after a steep trek to the spectacular Shifen Waterfall. There’s a row of shops on either side of the railway track. Once an hour, the local train chugs past. The minute it leaves, the track turns into a launching pad for lanterns.

The shopkeepers help you choose your pattern — plain, floral or multi-colour. They also supply you with black ink to paint your wishes, and then light the inflammable material placed in the centre of the lantern and set it afloat. Most of ours bore messages of world peace and education. Someone, somewhere, will hopefully listen!

This is also a great place to shop for local sweets, especially nougat, dried seafood strips, and porcelain figurines of sleeping cats and smiling pandas.

Chimei Museum, Tainan

You’d be forgiven for thinking you were near the Trevi or somewhere in Europe, when you set your eyes on the privately-run Chimei museum. It’s grand and built to impress.

Once inside, you can’t help but admire the vision of the man — Wen-Long Shi of the Chi Mei Group — who set out to build a magnificent museum, fuelled by his childhood love for museums. Originally built in 1992, it was reopened to the public in its current location.

It primarily features Western art, musical instruments, arms and armour from times of yore, and a section on taxidermy and fossils. It is said that the collection displayed is just about one-third of the founder’s collection.

Look out for the Rodin Gallery, which features the master’s art works, and brings alive the life and times he lived in. Take in the exquisite marble busts, especially those of Queen Victoria, Persephone and The Athlete by Donato Barcaglia, and the figurines of children caught in various stages of play.

Check out the violin exhibition room that showcases some of the world’s best, including the Stradivarius, Brescia and Cremona. Whenever there’s an exhibition featuring classical violins, the museum is requested to send its collection.

Chimei Museum also has a lovely system of loaning instruments to musically-inclined children from deserving backgrounds. That’s in keeping with its founder’s belief that “Good works of art are not to be kept just for oneself to enjoy, but to be shared with the public.”

Tao temple, Checheng

Driving back from the Chimei museum, you’ll chance upon a magnificent structure that rises to the sky — the Fuangong Tao temple. Walk up the steps to enter an ornate hall gilded in shades of gold. Our guide, the well-read Francis Hu, explains that this is a gong (temple or palace) of fortune (Fuang).

There’s the deep reverberation of drums and cymbals as people of all ages walk in (you’re allowed to wear footwear) bearing gifts for the lord. These can range from fruits and rice to meat and sweetmeats, because the Tao philosophy believes all are equal. A lady rolls two numbered wooden pieces painted red and looks expectantly towards the altar. She’s asking if she can go ahead with what she’s planning, translates Francis. On getting a positive nod, she’ll walk towards a counter with a paper bearing the same number as the pieces rolled, and follow what it says. Someone from our team tries it — she’s told she’ll have more children!

The countryside is dotted with these structures that diligently bring together design and devotion. We spot one en route to the museum in Tainan. Two columns rise up, and guarding them are a dragon and a tiger. Water lilies bloom in the background, and boys indulge in a spot of waveboarding — spirituality and sport fuse seamlessly.

National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium, Pingtung

Long before you see the museum, you hear the roar of the ocean behind it. The waves rise up many feet in the air before they crash near the perimeter. It’s the perfect setting for a museum that prides itself on keeping things as natural as they can get. It has three sections — Waters of Taiwan, Coral Kingdom Pavilion and World Waters Pavilion — each one showcasing vibrant marine life. The museum also has an underwater walking track, where visitors, especially children, look on in amazement as Beluga whales, sharks and fish swim past.

There are interesting installations, including ‘A Troubled Environment’, made of used tyres, broken wheels and fans, and cycle chains, which seeks to portray the harm done to Earth. The recreation of a ship wreck, including the captain’s cabin, is eerily realistic. It’s a sobering lesson before you set out to explore the rest of the treasures in the museum, which works to educate and entertain. A lot of school children throng the exhibit space, especially the section where they can touch and feel certain marine life, including sea urchins.

(The writer was in Taiwan on the invitation of Taiwan Tourism Bureau and Scoot Airlines)

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Printable version | Oct 31, 2020 1:47:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Special-encounters-of-the-scenic-kind/article16443753.ece

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