The only thing you can blame it for is the trails of cities that encroach inland from the west coast. It's these cities such as; Khaosiung, Tainan and Changhua who are responsible for all those rubbish plastic goods that come in Christmas crackers and last less than a day. A mountainous spine runs through the centre of the island and in parts remains difficult to access. It's the east coast that is the greatest attraction and has been preserved in large swathes by national park status. It's worth protecting as well, when the Portuguese sailors sailed past in 1544 they christened the island the 'Ilha Formosa' the 'Beautiful Island'. The mountainous highlands are verdant and luscious but it's the coastline which is idyllic. Ragged and magnificent, the cliffs are nurtured by cascading waterfall and flanked by luscious woods (just forget they are infested with venomous snakes). As you pass the equator the forests morph into rainforest and the imposing black beaches are given the sun's Midas touch. Warm rainfall cools after the days heat and bird song embraces the morning and ambient evenings. The highlight is the Taroko Gorge. Hundreds of construction workers died while carving the roads and buildings which support the bus loads of Chinese tourists that go daily. As an achievement of engineering it's almost as awe inspiring as the sound of the thunderous river which over millennia has carved through the marble stone. From the top of a solitary Buddhist bell tower it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by the expanse of the gorge.
As the night falls every town begins to hum with activity. The night markets line the streets and amongst the fake sports brands and flimsy flip flops is food fit for a king. Teetering on thin plastic chairs you can sit and gorge on fresh seafood or hide behind bowls of beef noodle soup. There is so so many dumplings to gorge on that the night markets can be a stressful experience. Even the stinky tofu, which has been left to rot and is sewer like in its pungency has a crunchy texture which is brilliant with a spicy chilli sauce. The undisputed royalty of Taiwanese food is not the dim sum which it is so famous for but the humble pork rice bowl. For about two pounds you can go to heaven. Succulent minced porked over steamed rice is about as good as life gets and for the famous restaurants people will queue right down the street for a seat at a table. In general the Taiwanese I met seemed to take life seriously and no more so than at meal times. They eat in silence except for the slurp of wanton in sparse rooms with a tiny kitchen hidden in a corner. There is no need for pretense or dramatics when the key is in its simplicity.
In some ways Taiwan has defied expectations, diplomatically isolated as the rest of the world panders to China, it has set about becoming quietly prosperous. A significant proportion of the population are highly educated and employed and consequently has led Asia in being one of the most socially liberal places. While I was in Taipei they were celebrating being the first ASEAN country to legalise gay marriage. Aside from the shiny glass and steel of the financial district crowned by 101 is the glamour of old Taipei. I was staggered by the exoticism of the capital. It fulfilled all my ideas of what the exotic 'Far East' would be in a way that I'm sure would make Edward Said furious. You duck into narrow streets stooping underneath birds in cages and squeeze past men and women dragging produce to the markets in wooden carts. There is a sense of a constant activity and a purpose that feels inherited and vital. Thought its the smell that is so exciting, a smell of Chinese spices that's sweet and rich and perfumes the air which is intoxicating. It's easy to point out how the history interacts with modernity in a big city but it's how much of the past that seems ingrained in the past and it's chaotic. One of the major temples Longshan shows this perfectly. A heady blend of Buddhism and Han folk religion in a temple with both Indonchinese in this crowded place some are offering doughnuts to the deity of passing exams, others are wafting three incense sticks in the air, wooden blocks are thrown to the ground and one woman is spinning around and around an enormous lantern that beltches smoke. The chaos of the city contrasts perfectly with the serenity of the countryside in my favourite place in the heart of Asia.
Taiwan, I miss you.