A recent guidebook described the island as one of the most underrated tourist destinations in Asia.......
Dan Hipgrave falls for its mystical charms on a journey into the unexplored south.
Taiwan probably enters most Britons’ consciousness when prefixed with “made in” and stuck on the underside of a DVD player. But the island, situated 75 miles off mainland China, has a lot more to offer than just high-tech gadgets.
In the Nineties Taiwan became the first Chinese democracy and, though its relationship with its mainland neighbour remains complex, it has nevertheless forged a strong identity, flourishing economically and socially.
Tourism has boomed with a growing number of spa resorts taking advantage of the island’s numerous hot springs. It’s also big on spectacular scenery; half the country is covered in mountains and it is blessed with six national parks. Thanks to a high-speed rail network, much of this is now accessible.
My trip started in the capital, Taipei. Although the sprawling metropolis offers an exciting fusion of traditional Chinese and state-of-the-art architecture typified by the world’s tallest building – at least for now – Taipei 101, it was something of a relief to escape to the serene countryside.
My first destination was the mountain-top Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery near Kaohsiung, reached via the new Japanese-style “bullet train”. The sleek carriages were comfortable and roomy for the trip to Zuoying, which cost a reasonable £22.50 return.
On leaving the industrial suburbs, I sat back and enjoyed the view as farmland framed by mountains whizzed by. At Zuoying I hired a car for my 45-minute drive to the monastery.
The southern region is blessed with a rich, fertile soil and tropical warm weather that is tempered by sea breezes.
I headed up a track lined with bamboo and sugar cane and enjoyed one last meal before giving myself up to Buddhism.
The smell of spices seems to fill the air wherever you are in Taiwan, but in the south the smell is just that bit sweeter thanks to the clean, unpolluted air. Street food is fast and cheap, with vendors operating from the back of bicycles. I ate delicious pork-blood rice cakes for about 20p.
Home to the Fo Guang Shan International Buddhist Order, founded in 1967 by monk Hsing Yun, the monastery practises “humanistic Buddhism”, which focuses on applying Buddhist precepts to everyday life. They welcome day visits or longer stays at Pilgrim’s Lodge.
The vast monastery grounds offer spectacular views of the surrounding lush mountains.
It is the Main Shrine where the monks pray that is the centrepiece, surrounded by smaller buildings and houses for 3,000 monks and nuns.
The entrance to Pilgrim’s Lodge is more akin to a five-star hotel than a monastery, but that’s where the luxury ends.
Accommodation is basic yet practical, with a small bed provided, a shower/toilet room and a portable TV. The charge is about £30 a night, including breakfast and dinner.
All kinds of activities can be arranged, including calligraphy, t’ai chi, meditation and Buddhist teachings. The meals were simple, with boiled rice, noodles, pak choi and tofu served with green tea.
I was given a lesson in calligraphy before an invite to meditate with nun Yi Jih Shih, which induced a deep sleep. I woke just before 5.30am to watch monks pray in the main shrine. The sun rose over the monastery to the chanting of the Yaksa Yorae Bul, the prayer to the medicine Buddha.
A four-hour drive brought me to the centre of the island and the country’s most popular attraction, Sun Moon Lake. It is the island’s largest freshwater lake, lined with atmospheric temples and pavilions.
My base in the area was the luxurious Lalu Hotel on Sun Moon Lake’s prime peninsula, overlooking tiny Lalu Island. The Zen-style building has an organic feel with lots of wood and stone.
I spent a lovely afternoon beside the 60m infinity pool before enjoying a blissful full-body massage.
The area is perfect for cycling, hiking and canoeing. I opted for the less strenuous boat tour. The first stop was the Syuenguang Temple near the touristy village of Itashao, which houses relics believed to be some of Asia’s most sacred.
My trip ended with a tiring, but rewarding, climb up the 2,300ft paved pathway towards the nine-tiered Cih-en Pagoda, with its spectacular views across the lake and beyond – an undoubted highlight to end an unforgettable trip.GETTING THERE:Emerald Tours (020 7312 1712/www.etours-online.com) offers a nine-night package to Taiwan from £1,365pp (two sharing), including four nights B&B at the Landis Taipei Hotel, two nights B&B at the King’s Town Hotel in Kaohsiung, one night’s B&B at the Fo Guang Shan Monastery, two nights B&B at The Lalu Hotel Sun Moon Lake, return flights from Heathrow and transfers (including high-speed train from Taipei to Kaohsiung).Taiwan Tourism Bureau:0800 011 765/www.taiwan.net.tw