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A holiday made in Taiwan
From February to April is the best time to soak in the splendour of cherry blossoms. Taking in the varied hues of the delightful flower (that in East Asia incidentally, blooms first in Taiwan), we speed past a skyline punctured with peaks on our way to Nantou County, having given the capital city of Taipei a miss to discover the delights the heartland offers.
Garden of earthly delights
Our destination is the sprawling Formosa Aboriginal Cultural Village that has five theme parks - the European Gardens, Aladdin Plaza, Aboriginal Villages, Amusement Isle and Ti Ka Er Rainforest. When we visit, the park is already preparing for its next theme, Lavender Love, starting with white and purple-hued statues of sheep dotting the entrance garden. "But that will only be ready after we bid goodbye to the cherry blossoms, " smiles the village guide, Angel Du, with a crown of colourful flowers sitting pretty on her head. Going past colourful manga comic characters, Du recommends the UFO Gyro Drop experience. "Just brace yourself for an exhilarating experience but don't forget to have a good look around, " reminds Du as I plant myself on the ride that slowly takes me up to a height of 85 metres. Perched there for a few seconds, one barely has time to take in the stunning view when a sharp free-fall plummets us breathless and screeching back to terra firma!
Next is a dekko of the largest outdoor museum in Taiwan. So we hop into the cable car for a seven-minute ride to the Aboriginal Park with its nine villages, each representing a different aboriginal community of the country. Walking past totem poles and quaint homes (reconstructed on the basis of research drawn up by anthropologists in the 1940s) is like a journey back in time. Life-like tableaux of aboriginals engaged in different activities - a ball game that would determine the most sporting youngster of the tribe, or a tribal chief blessing his fellow tribesman - arrest our attention. . . but there are other pressing matters at hand. We're called away to witness a dance performance at the Naruwan Theatre, and watching the Ami tribals in their colourful costumes and headgear swinging to catchy beats, we're reminded of our own dancers from the North-East (the upshot of a cross-cultural encounter back in the day, perhaps?)
Everywhere, we're met with touching hospitality. An elderly aboriginal gentleman offers us sweet potatoes he has baked over a slow fire, and as we eat these we observe representatives of the different tribes making handicraft, cooking, weaving, and so on... Du's mother sits in one hut, stitching a garment. "Try it;it's a tribal princess' outfit, " she says, as Du translates. Before I can even answer, she has me wrapped up in a gorgeous red and white ensemble, intricately embroidered and embellished with shells, bells, white-metal jewellery and thick beads. She then places on my head a huge crown of flowers, leaves and even a couple of horns - the whole ensemble weighing a few kilos!
From here, we move towards the second ropeway which takes us to the largest alpine lake in Taiwan - the Sun Moon Lake, named after the shape of a little island called Lalu, nestling at its centre. The eastern side of Lalu is round like the sun and the western end is shaped like a crescent moon. Seated in a speedboat, we go around this deserted island that was once inhabited by the Thao tribe - elected Taiwan's 10th aboriginal tribe in 2001. Look out for the statue of a white deer on this island dotted with maple trees. Legend has it that the ancestors of the Thaos, when out on a hunt, found a white-coloured deer. When they tried to catch it, the nimble creature took flight, jumped into this lake and disappeared. Reading this as a good omen, the Thaos made a replica of the one they spotted.
As we sail on, we catch sight of picturesque old fishing boats, also called four-hand net rafts, moored on the lakeshore. Our affable local friend Jeff Liu points to the Ci'en pagoda that's considered a landmark in Chinese architecture, and the swanky hotel that stands in place of the separatist leader Chiang-Kai Shek's summer resort, which collapsed in the 1999 earthquake. Legends of the Kuomintang chief abound. "When he'd come here, soldiers holding machine guns would stand guard because Chiang-Kai Shek was worried that Chinese communists would have him assassinated, " remembers a local, "He was scared that some Chinese James Bond-like creature might drop down from the sky and kill him. "
Assassins may not have come, but every year, hundreds of swimming enthusiasts from around the world faithfully drop in for the annual three-km race organised as part of the Swimming Carnival. "It's not a competition, just a fun exercise, " the local informs.
As the lake takes on the changing colours of the evening sky, we spot the stunning Xiangshan Administration Centre of Sun Moon Lake designed by the Japanese architect Norihiko Dan. The unique structure, composed of two curved buildings, is one of the favourite photo backdrops of the to-be married couples. Armed with suitcases full of outfits, they arrive with a photographer and spend hours getting themselves shot for their wedding albums and videos. One young lady here is thrilled to learn we're from India. "Oh, I just love Aamir Khan, " she gushes in broken English. "You wouldn't believe this but everyone here in Taiwan has seen 3 Idiots. We just love it, it's a grrrreat film. "
By the pound
Following a brief stopover the next morning at the Wen Wu Temple (that looks more like a Chinese palace), we head south towards the delightful Ten Drum Creative Park. While the original fa?ade of most of the buildings have been retained, the interiors have been given a more contemporary look. We watch a percussion performance inside the old refinery that now houses a state-of-the-art auditorium. The combination of traditional and modern beats, the half-hour energetic performance, complete with stunning light effects and dry-ice and water showers is quite stunning.
A walk around the village reveals old warehouses and even railway tracks dating back to the early 20th century. "Wagons were constantly taking processed sugar out to the market, " says Bob Wu, an official at the park. "There was a time when we produced a lot of sugar. But about 40 years ago, Taiwan stopped making sugar because of rising production costs. We're now into other things like electronics - as you might know, " he says. A must-see here is not just the warren of old bunkers that Japanese soldiers took refuge in when American planes flew overhead during the World War II, but also the drum room where percussion classes are held. We are invited in for a lesson. "Runnin-runnin walkin runnin-runnin stop. . . , " Wu gives us the shorthand of it, and after a 15-minute tutorial, we walk out, pleased as punch.
It's late evening when we drive into E-Da World, a little city in itself, that's still abuzz with activity. Weekend revelers queue up for a ride in the transparent cars of the 125-metre high ferris wheel that, in a single round, lets you savour the picturesque landscape for miles around. But the real adrenaline rush is reserved for the next day when the theme park will unravel slices from Greek mythology in its three different zones: Greek Temple, Aegean Sea Village and the Trojan Castle. Admiring the huge statues of Greek warriors and of course, the Trojan Horse, we opt for some Disneyland-like fun on the gravity-defying rides: The twister that gives you 360-degree twirls at a height of 55m and the 64m-high U-shaped slide, among other tricks. But the highlight is the 'Fly Over Taiwan' show. Complete with 4D effects, this flying-simulator experience offers a 'bird's eyeview' of all that the small country has to offer - from the night-life of the buzzing cities to the adventure-filled, rugged landscape, the water bodies and sports and, of course, the serenity of its religious destinations. It confirms that small is, indeed, beautiful.
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