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Gorging on a Rock-Bound Coast

On the island's spectacular east coast, sampling a menu of history and culture, from hot-spring spas to "stinky tofu"

January 23, 2000|ERIC ELLMAN | Eric Ellman is based in Bisbee, Ariz

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — Like a lot of other Americans, I've never given much thought to Taiwan. If pressed, I might have identified it as an island in the South China Sea, a democracy, and a loser in the "two Chinas" dispute that has seen it locked out of the United Nations, politically outmaneuvered by the government in Beijing.

But by last September, when a killer earthquake put Taiwan on the front page, my view of the country had changed. By then, I'd enthusiastically embraced Taiwan--at least the picture-postcard side of it--and the Taiwanese people, all 22 million of them, and one in particular.

Taiwan is the largest island between Japan and the Philippines, a high point on the "ring of fire" around the Pacific and no stranger to earthquakes. The magnitude 7.6 quake on Sept. 21 killed 2,341 people, mostly in the center of the island around Taichung. The capital city, Taipei, in the north, was relatively unscathed.

Not a place I'd have chosen for a vacation. Romance brought me here, but anyone in a less euphoric frame of mind can find a lot to like in Taiwan.

The first human inhabitants of Taiwan probably came from the Philippine archipelago. Starting in the 15th century, the fertile coastal plain on the west side of Taiwan began to attract migrants from Fujian province in China, a short 90 miles away. Skip forward to 1894 for the next major impact by outsiders: when Japan took Taiwan after defeating China in war.

From 1895 to 1945 the Japanese ran Taiwan it as if they owned it. They industrialized some areas and built roads, rail lines and deep-water harbors to serve the new economy. All this reverted to Chinese control with the end of World War II, but evidence of Japan's half-century experiment in colonialism is still felt.

It's most thoroughly enjoyed in the many spas that the Japanese built where they found hot springs percolating in the geologic wilds on the island's eastern side. Resorts have sprung up around many of them, and Japanese rituals of relaxation bathing are a big attraction to stressed-out Taiwanese.

But long soaks in mineral springs were not what had me in such a good mood. I was in Taiwan on the most personal of missions: to propose marriage.

Six months previously I'd met Amy Lin, who's working with my cousin on the new Taiwan National Aquarium near Kenting National Park in the southern part of the island. (It will be the world's largest; the first phase is scheduled to open Feb. 4.) My cousin is a workaholic, bless his heart, which explains why Amy was along on his "working vacation" at a family reunion last winter in Colorado. I was drafted to introduce Amy to skiing. Within a week I was showing her around my home base in Arizona.

Two hundred faithful e-mails later, I found myself stepping off a China Airlines 747 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city. With 10 days to get a "yes," and curious to see how this foreign country might figure in my future, I set off with Amy as my guide.

The flight--a 12-hour marathon featuring three movies and a constantly setting sun--had left me famished. Amy took me straight to the night market, a fixture of most Taiwan towns. This is where people shop and socialize, but mostly graze from dozens of food stands, sometimes until dawn.

Kaohsiung's night market was typical, a neon-lit festival of food. Soup. Fresh noodles. Barbecue. Vendors' stalls stood cheek by jowl, two deep on both sides of a street that seemed to have no end. Tea and herbal concoctions. Fresh seafood waiting for the fryer. Live cobras destined for soup. Amy ordered steamed pork-filled buns from one cart, fried dumplings from another, noodles from a third. A convenience store provided Taiwan Beer, the nation's eponymous brand, which comes in an appropriately generic can.

In the morning we visited Kaohsiung's history museum, where I got a primer on the roots of this woman who I hoped would be my wife. The island's first inhabitants were tribal people, fierce--some were headhunters--and resisted subjugation. But by the 17th century, migration from Fujian had driven the indigenous people off the arable land along the coast and into the mountains.

The museum also recounts the suffering under Japanese rule; one photo shows a soldier proudly posing for the camera as his comrade beheads a man.

But it's Japanese contributions to Taiwan's development, not historic cruelties, that are best remembered today. Our prime destination on this trip was Taroko Gorge, a marble canyon that Japanese engineers first envisioned as a portal for a traffic corridor linking the east and west coasts. World War II stymied those plans. But other Japanese improvements provided the basis for Taiwan's postwar emergence as an Asian industrial and economic titan. Japanese improvements in public health, for instance, are credited with doubling Taiwan's population from 2 to 4 million during the half-century of occupation.

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