Taiwan, the Republic of China, is an exciting, noisy, modern island of industry and trade with crowded metropolitan areas of millions of inhabitants. It's also a relaxing, tranquil, traditional place of culture and history with misty waterfalls and towering mountain peaks.
Taipei, the capital, is crowded and busy. Colorful signs with wondrous Chinese characters intensify the confusion of shops, markets, restaurants, and food stalls. Cars, busses, and people are everywhere and always in motion.
Taipei's National Palace Museum holds the massive collection of traditional Chinese cultural items that was brought to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, who were defeated by Mao Zedong's Communist army in 1949. So large are the holdings that reputedly only 1% can be shown at any one time.
Tainan, in the south, is another major city, but here the pace is slower and traditional culture more apparent. Known for its many temples, this city on the south west coast has Chuhsi, Taiwan's largest temple, and East Mountain Temple, where Taiwanese seek the spirits of their ancestors. One thing Tainan has in common with its northern counterpart, Taipei, is a reputation for great restaurants.
Mountains run down the center of Taiwan and supply a welcomed contrast to the hubbub of coastal cities. The mountain resort of Alishan is where visitors awaken way before dawn to climb Chushan for the most incredible sunrise in Asia. Hiking in the mountains, or anywhere on the island, is well-defined and very popular.
Taroko Gorge, one of Taiwan's most noted scenic sights, is 12 miles of steep cliffs and fast running water. The resort town of Tienhsiang is at the head of the gorge and the place to stay to enjoy the serenity. Maolin, in the south central mountain area, is another great area for mountain hikes and treks.
The off islands of the Penghu group, between Taiwan and the mainland, have become popular. Sandy beaches, warm through the summer months, sunny skies,
and good seafood attract more visitors to the archipelago each year. A huge, 300-year-old banyan tree on one of the islands is famous in its own right.
Festivals and celebrations fill the lunar calendar. The Chinese New Year is an overpowering concussion of fireworks; Lantern Day on the 15th day of the first moon is almost as noisy and fun; but during Ghost Month, the 7th lunar month, no one travels, marries, moves, or swims.
The dominant issue in all areas of life is the question of sovereignty. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) claims Taiwan is a renegade province that rightfully belongs to them. The UN and most nations have recognized the PRC for diplomatic purposes, but semi-official trade status exists for Taiwan including its entry in January of 2002 to the World Trade Organization.
The Nationalist Chinese, who fled the mainland after the 1949 Communist victory, no longer intend to reconquer the territory they left; instead they have had to focus on the political reality of opposition parties and on the pressing problems of economic development. Discussion of independence has begun to replace the rhetoric of return.
The island's complicated political and economic situation have not prevented it from establishing a stable, growth economy, though no amount of success seems to be able to quiet the sabre-rattling that inevitably occurs on both sides of the Straits of Taiwan.
The fear of economic, political, or military incursions from the mainland remains high, but indications of cooperation between old antagonists have appeared recently. An offshore transshipment center, open presidential elections in Taiwan, and new interest in constructing a tunnel under the strait to connect Taiwan with the PRC show a willingness to see beyond ideological differences.