Taiwan: The Undiscovered Eco-Tourism Island

August 6, 2008 Updated: August 19, 2008
EARLY MORNING TEA: The famous Lady Tea Pickers of the Sun Moon Lake region picking black tea stems from the Yun Sa Farm early in the morning. (Rich Carlson)
EARLY MORNING TEA: The famous Lady Tea Pickers of the Sun Moon Lake region picking black tea stems from the Yun Sa Farm early in the morning. (Rich Carlson)

Taiwan. It’s not the first place that comes to mind when you think about eco-tourism, but the Taiwanese government is busy trying to change that perception, especially since they are hosting the 2009 World Games.

Many Silicon Valley high-tech employees have made a quick visit to Taiwan, which is considered one of Asia’s economic tigers thanks to computer chip manufacturing. With six million people living in the metropolitan area of Taipei, it’s crowded, the buses and trains are packed, and 15 million motorcycles and scooters clog the streets. Despite that, Taiwan is an up-and-coming destination for eco-tourists.

If you haven’t been to Taiwan recently, you’re in for a surprise. In the past decade, the government has been working hard to restore this country of nearly 23 million people to its nickname, “Beautiful Island.”

Taiwan, about the size of Vermont, has seven national parks covering 8.5 percent of the country, a larger percentage than the U.S. Getting around the island without a car is easy. In 2007, the government installed a bullet train that travels from the northernmost city of Taipei to the southernmost port city of Kaohsiung with five stops along the way, and numerous other buses and trains take you to outer provinces. So, grab a seat next to me on the bullet train as we experience what Portuguese sailors discovered nearly 500 years ago.

First Stop: Sun Moon Lake

Just one hour away from the capital city of Taipei, this tranquil body of water is called the Lake Tahoe of Taiwan. Located in the middle of the island, it’s the lake locals think looks like a round sun and a crescent moon attached in the middle—thus the name Sun Moon Lake.

A man-made lake, it was originally constructed to provide electricity, but it was so scenic that it quickly became a destination spot. The lake has 27 different kinds of fish, and many visitors come just to taste the rare “President’s fish,” named for former President Chiang Kai-shek. In 1999, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake, the biggest in 50 years, devastated the area, but it has since been rebuilt with several new five-star hotels.

HAPPY TEA LADY: A smiling tea picker from the Sun Moon Lake region picking black tea in the Assam tea region. (Rich Carlson)
HAPPY TEA LADY: A smiling tea picker from the Sun Moon Lake region picking black tea in the Assam tea region. (Rich Carlson)
 

The Hotel Del Lago will pick you up from the train station and, the next thing you know, you’ll be sipping a glass of local beer on the patio overlooking the three-square-mile lake. The Taiwanese are natural environmentalists, content to just sit and stare at beautiful landscapes rather than disturb natural resources.

The area is still inhabited by aborigines who discovered it while chasing white deer and stayed because of the fertile soil. The government has made special provisions for these indigenous people. For instance, there is a designated wharf where only they can fish. On New Year’s Day the aborigines show respect to their ancestors at two ancient trees because they believe the number of leaves represent their future population. The aboriginal population in this area is dwindling and is currently only 280 people.

As tempting as this still lake is, don’t bother packing your bathing suit. Swimming is only allowed here only once a year in August. Last year 20,000 people jumped in the water for a race, the largest number of swimmers yet.

There are seven trails around the lake including one that takes you through the Assam tea farms where you can watch the famous “Tea Ladies” of Taiwan. This area has more than 99 mountains, and each weekday a group of elderly women take the bus to one of the peaks. With knowledge passed down through families for generations, they know how to spot the top three leaf stems that make up premium black tea and then pick them by hand.

According to locals, the higher the mountain, the better the quality of leaves. The best ones are processed 10 times to make the leaves smooth and produce tea as expensive as fine wine. Similar to wine tasting, Taiwanese recommend that you smell the tea first before drinking it, swill the beverage around your mouth, and use all your senses to judge the quality.

MONASTERY MAJESTY: This giant Buddha resides at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Tashu, the largest Buddhist Monastery in Taiwan. (Rich Carlson)
MONASTERY MAJESTY: This giant Buddha resides at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Tashu, the largest Buddhist Monastery in Taiwan. (Rich Carlson)
 

Next Stop: The Port City of Kaohsiung

Kaohsiung, the second largest city in Taiwan with about 1.5 million people, is the last stop on the bullet train. The local government is building the world’s largest eco-stadium, which will host the 2009 World Games. Under the Olympic umbrella, but a separate competition, the events include sumo wrestling, flying disc, bowling, and 28 other unusual events that you won’t find in the Olympics. The stadium was designed by the internationally renowned Japanese architect Toyo Ito. About his unique building, Mr. Ito says, “Some associate it with a scarf, some a dragon. To me, it is more of a snake than a dragon.”

It’s like no other stadium you’ve ever seen. Construction is scheduled to be completed in January 2009 and the games begin in July. The 55,000-seat stadium has a solar panel roof, a recycled and reclaimed water retention system, and an area that will be used as a public park when there are no scheduled performances. The roof does not cover the middle of the stadium because the stadium was constructed to make sure the winds flow north to south to cool off spectators.

“We’re creating the stadium to help educate the world about protecting the environment and also to encourage more visitors to Taiwan,” says Ting-Shin of the Kaohsiung Organizing Committee.

After a decade of being one of the most polluted cities on the island, today Kaohsiung is known as one of the greenest with 10 percent of the city covered by parks. Hop on a boat on the Love River that glides past the revitalized waterfront area. If you’re lucky, an outdoor concert will serenade you and put you in the mood to visit one of the night markets.

BUDDHA AND NATURE: This garden hosts 1,000 white Buddha statues at Fo Guang Shan monastery. (Rich Carlson)
BUDDHA AND NATURE: This garden hosts 1,000 white Buddha statues at Fo Guang Shan monastery. (Rich Carlson)

Third Stop: The Southeast

This area of Taiwan has more than its share of rivers, gorges, beaches, mountains, and culture. The Taroko Gorge, with 2,700-foot-high cliffs lined with marble is a “must-see.” Visitors walk through the famous “tunnel of nine turns” created by the men who built the highway. The Liwu River runs through the gorge where you can spot caves and imagine who may have used them as an overnight resting place.

At one point along the walk, you can see where the first cut was made into the marble walls that started the Central Cross-Island Highway. At another, you can actually see the shape of Taiwan between the tops of the mountain.

If waterfalls, clinging trees, and vegetation that looks like Chinese calligraphy isn’t enough, then visit the nearby Changchun Shrine which was built to commemorate the 212 workers who died during the construction of the highway or visit the Changuang Temple, where spring water flows all year long. This is an area where you should stay overnight. There are accommodations for all budgets, ranging from $20 a night at the local hostel to $200 a night at the five-star Grand Formosa Hotel.

With the restoration of wetlands, preservation of open spaces—including 6,000-year-old trees—and the installation of modern sewage treatment plants, the wildlife has returned to Taiwan. For instance, the Danshui River now has 48 kinds of fish instead of 14. From April to October, during butterfly season over 400 different species dot the countryside.

Butterfly watching is rapidly competing with bird watching as a year-round activity. Whale watching and dolphin spotting are also popular visitor attractions on the east coast. Due to its diverse topographies, from sea level to mountain tops, Taiwan supports tens of thousands of animal and plant species, making it one of the most diverse biological regions in the world. Look for the Formosan rock monkey, the emerald green tree frog, and black bears.

 (Rich Carlson)
(Rich Carlson)

National Geographic Traveler calls Taiwan “Asia’s best kept secret,” but Trust Lin, the Section Chief of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, wants to change that. In 2007, Taiwan had 3.7 million visitors to the island. “Next year we hope to reach four million,” says Lin.

The good news is that none of us will leave much of a footprint, but we’ll still get to walk along ancient trails populated by butterflies, monkeys, and frogs.

For more information, check out: www.go2taiwan.net