Slow Travel, Taiwan Style

Since the 1980s, Taiwan’s prosperity has allowed its citizens to travel abroad in large numbers.

Group tours were extremely popular at first, but in recent years more and more Taiwanese have opted to travel independently. Whether they realize it or not, an increasing number are choosing to spend their vacations in a manner that matches the ideals of the “Slow Travel” movement.

According to A Manifesto for Slow Travel, published in 2009 by the magazine Hidden Europe: “Slow travel re-engineers time, transforming it into a commodity of abundance rather than scarcity, [reshaping] our relationship with places, encouraging and allowing us to engage more intimately with the communities through which we travel.”

Rather than dash through and tick off “must-see” attractions, the slow traveler takes his or her time to truly appreciate local lifestyles and customs, typically by eschewing airplanes and bullet trains in favor of bicycles and footpaths.

Taiwanese are more familiar with the terms “LOHAS” and “Long Stay” than “Slow Travel.” The first is an acronym for “lifestyles of health and sustain-ability.” The second refers to spending several days at the same place, rather than rushing from city to city. All three describe the kind of visitor likely to be intrigued by Taiwan’s “International Spotlight” itineraries.

In addition to a series of regional programs – details of which can be seen at the International Spotlight’s Chinese-Japanese-English website http://www. gifttaiwan.com) – Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has devised two nationwide itineraries.

paper productsThe itinerary labeled Nationwide I links six places which, if experienced in succession, give visitors a thorough introduction to the splendors of Taiwan’s countryside and small towns. Although agriculture today is only a minor part of the economy, public interest in how food is produced has never been greater, and leisure farms can be found in every part of the country. The six “clusters” that can be viewed on the itinerary are the aboriginal fruit orchards of Taoyuan’s Fuxing District, the natural farming in Nan’ao in Yilan County, three stops in Nantou County (Puli for its scenery and paper craft, Zhushan for its bamboo, and Lugu for its tea cultivation), and Kaohsiung’s Meinong District for Hakka arts and design.

For those who fly into Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, it makes sense to begin in the hills nearby. Taoyuan’s Fuxing District covers 351 square kilometers – more than Taipei City – but has a mere 11,000 residents, many of whom are indigenous Atayal people. The Atayal tribe is one of Taiwan’s 16 Austronesian ethnic groups.

Fuxing is well known for its peach crop, but in the tribal community of Biyawai, apples are grown using chemical-free methods inspired by the traditional ecological knowledge of Atayal elders.

From there, one can proceed into Yilan County via the Northern Cross-Island Highway, a scenic route that climbs more than 1,000 meters above sea level. Yilan’s Nan’ao Township is one of a number of places in East Taiwan where rice farmers have adopted organic growing methods, such as raising ducks in the paddy fields. The ducks eat pests such as snails, their feet stir the soil, and their excrement is a natural fertilizer.

Heading south to central Taiwan, travelers may wish to stop at the Puli Paper Factory, where visitors have the opportunity to learn about traditional paper-making by doing it themselves. Puli is near Sun Moon Lake, and also in the same region as two other spots on the Nationwide I tour: Zhushan and Lugu.

The town of Zhushan (literally, “bamboo mountain”) has long been associated with bamboo, an exception-ally versatile material much used in old Taiwan for construction and furniture making. Zhushan Culture Park has both a Bamboo Garden, where more than 50 bamboo species grow, and a Bamboo Museum. The latter displays beds, tables, and toys made of bamboo, as well as baskets, cages, cribs, traps, xylophones, and yokes.

Lugu Township is much smaller, but has a huge reputation among those who adore tea. Because the weather in this hilly area is often foggy, the leaves of the tea plants grown here stay tender and rich in flavor until the moment of harvesting, resulting in one of the world’s finest oolongs. Several of the area’s tea farmers welcome tourists for tastings or overnight stays. To properly enjoy this place, book a room in one of the local bed-and-breakfasts that over-look the tea plantations.

Meinong is one of southern Taiwan’s most solidly Hakka areas. The Hakka people, who began settling in Taiwan in the early 18th century, have maintained their own language and customs. A tour of Meinong should include tailor shops where Hakka ladies’ distinctive blue tunics are made, workshops where local artists produce ceramic masterpieces, and the many shops offering exquisitely crafted “oil-paper” umbrellas.

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The town is also well known for its delectable food. Few visitors leave with-out trying the flat noodles known in Chinese as bantiao. Other delicacies include pigs’ knuckles, stewed cabbage, steamed winter melon, and kejia xiao chao, a stir-fried blend of pork, squid, and tofu. Those who worry about “food miles” will be glad to know that in Meinong much of what appears on the plate is grown nearby.

The Nationwide II itinerary will appeal to fans of the Taiwanese movies and television shows that have a devoted audience not only within Taiwan but in Southeast Asia and among Taiwanese expatriate communities as far away as New York.  With a bit of planning, it is possible to attend the taping of a TV show and meet the star performers.

In Taiwan as in New Zealand, movies shot on location often inspire travel plans. The 1989 historical drama A City of Sadness transformed Jiufen from a mostly-abandoned ex-mining town to one of Greater Taipei’s most popular day-trip destinations. The 2008 romance-comedy Cape No. 7 encouraged thousands to visit scenic spots in and around Kenting National Park.

Kenting

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Those not content to simply watch – and who instead aspire to be watched – can engage the services of one of Taiwan’s “diamond-class” star instructors. These experts nurture talents, open doors in the entertainment industry, and may be able to help make dreams of fame and fortune come true.

Visitors intrigued by any of these programs would do well to carefully study the International Spotlight website before making firm plans, as the Special Offers section includes attractive deals on accommodation and souvenirs, as well as food and drink.

For general travel information, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website (www. taiwan.net.tw) or drop by any of the visitor information centers inside Taiwan’s airports and major railway stations. An excellent resource for those needing up-to-the-minute information is the tourism hotline at 0800-011-765. The hotline is free if the call is made within Taiwan, and those answering the phones speak English, Japanese, and Mandarin.

 

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