Taiwan exudes energy

A COMMONALITY among the most successful countries in the world is the inexhaustible energy that drives their nations and economies as much as it reinforces their sense of nationhood.

For a country nearly the size of Gauteng, Taiwan (Republic of China) exudes an inordinate amount of energy, which is almost palpable among its population of 23million.

Small wonder this Pacific-ocean island boasts an economy ranked 16th in the world, with firms - such as Acer - that are the largest suppliers of computer monitors and leaders in computer manufacturing in the world.

Inexplicably, though, it largely remains undiscovered as a shopper's paradise for high-tech gadgets and apparels by computer geeks and other tourists searching for basement bargains .

A 16-hour flight from Johannesburg, which includes a stopover and transfer from Hong Kong's international airport at the crack of dawn, is the only most exhausting part of a journey that invariably leaves one with unwieldy jet-lag and misaligned body clock.

But as soon as one lands at Taiwan's Taoyuan International Airport, the side-effects of long-haul capsule travelling give way to curiosity about the island's palpably humid subtropical climate and scorching heat.

Easing the first-time visitor's anxiety is the local's unaffected friendliness, which borders on personal affection.

But the greyness that characterises the island's skyline is a disappointing human-induced mishap, which might irk the environmentally aware. Though this is a problem that acutely confronts many countries in this part of the world.

Taiwan's capital, Taipei, is the nerve centre of this visibly thriving nation. It is a concrete jungle nearly double the size of Johannesburg, throbbing with traffic festooned with a phalanx of motor-bikers.

Taipei alone boasts a community of a staggering 10million bikers, who ceaselessly zigzag through the city's streets almost round the clock.

Daytime buzzes with as much gust of life as night-time, with pavement eating places and formal restaurants bursting to fresh life with nocturnal diners in the later part of the day.

A gourmand is as spoiled for choice as a mosquito in a nudist camp. Cuisine is a mouth-watering variety of Tawainese, Cantonese, French, Japanese, Shanghainese and other Western influences.

Dining out is as integral to Taiwanese life as their hunger for knowledge, which is evident from the endless queues at museums and libraries.

Their sense of nationhood is obviously nourished by their affinity to their history and political figures which shaped the country. It is a consciousness that is second only to their constant awareness of the mainland China's preoccupation to reclaim the island as its historical territory.

Frosty relations, though, have since been replaced by evolving rapprochement between the two nations. This has seen the superpower emerging as Taiwan's largest trading partner with the latter's investments in the mainland estimated at a colossal $150-billion.

A visit to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial and Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall turns out to be a glimpse into the soul of this nation. The two are the most recognisable monuments in honour of the founding fathers of the Republic of China. The memorials attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

And so too the National Palace Museum, which traces the island's heritage back to the time it was part of the mainland China.

Travelling through Taiwan is effortless, thanks to the integrated metro train and bus service, which is as ubiquitous as it is timely. The system is a testament to the benefits of our much-maligned Bus Rapid Transport (BRT).

For longer distances, the Taiwan high speed rail system (a Gautrain equal) is a marvelous convenience, zipping a 400km-trip approximately in two hours.

Shopping is a study in haggling. Haggling is king (or queen), and adds to the vibrancy of shopping, making deals involving top-brand laptops possible for as little as R2 000 at computer or digital photography exhibitions. Prices are as elastic as the patience of the bargain hunter allows.

In fact, the biggest hangover from touring and shopping on the island stems from wanting to buy so much and agonising over the limits imposed by the travel budget and the constraints of time.