Taking on Taiwan: from Taroko Gorge and Taipei
I'M standing in Taiwan's jaw-dropping Taroko Gorge with a hard hat on, looking like the construction worker out of the Village People.
Just as I am about to break into a bad karaoke version of Macho Man, a member of our tour group runs up to tell us that a rock the size of his fist has just landed right next to his head.
Suddenly, the idea of having permanent helmet hair for the sake of safety doesn't seem like such a bad idea and I keep my hard hat firmly attached to my head for the rest of the trip to the gorge.
Despite the risk of falling rocks, Taroko Gorge is a stunning destination to visit, even on a rainy day.
The road into the gorge is a modern engineering miracle, and small shrines to the 200 or more workers who died in the construction of the inland road stand near the entrance to the gorge, which is on Taiwan's stunning east coast.
Taroko Gorge is north of Hualien, and home to one of the 12 recognised indigenous tribes that were Taiwan's original inhabitants.
Long before the Dutch, Japanese and Chinese occupied the island, there were warring tribes living in Taiwan's mountainous interior and verdant coastal lowlands.
The Truku tribe certainly picked a stunning piece of real estate to occupy, as Taroko Gorge is now a national park centred on the Liwu River, which carved a 20km river valley through a solid mountain of marble.
Dotted along Taiwan's east coast are a number of other indigenous tribes and associated tourist activities, including traditional fishing and food preparation.
There's nothing like capturing your own nile perch in a hollow bamboo fish trap and then minutes later having it cooked in a herb-filled broth filled with hot rocks straight from the fire.
The east coast of Taiwan is less sparsely populated than the west side of the island. A huge dividing range of mountains dominates every view, and there is something like 300 peaks over 3000m.
The highways and train tracks hug the coastline, and there are some decent beaches to be seen, even by Australian standards.
World-class scuba diving and snorkelling is available off Green Island, which is easily accessible from the coastal city of Taitung.
Thirty-three kilometres ff the coast of Taiwan, Green Island has stunning coral reefs to dive upon and the country's only saltwater hot spring at Chaojih Hot Springs.
The approach of typhoon Noul prevents our particular tour group from visiting, and we hear later in the day that the island had to be evacuated.
Although Taipei is Taiwan's capital and home to three million people, Kaohsiung, on the southern tip of the island, is not too far behind.
Kaohsiung, which was once Asia's busiest port, has some lovely night markets full of every food you could imagine.
There are massive oysters the size of a man's hands, and octopus on a stick resembling a fan of coral more than a seafood, not to mention "stinky tofu", which is fairly famous in Taiwan and looks, smells and tastes a bit like blue vein cheese. One of the "must-sees" in nearby Tainan is a performance by the Ten Drum Art Percussion Group.
Kaohsiung and Taipei are linked by a very fast train capable of speeds of up to 300kmh. A trip that used to take six hours by train now takes about one and a half hours.
Taipei is like a cross between Hong Kong and Singapore, and has what used to be the tallest building in the world, Taipei 101, and what remains the world's fastest lift to the top floor.
Taipei is home to some ritzy shops and colourful karaoke bars, and in the grungy Ximending district is the Modern Toilet Restaurant, where the seats are, literally, toilet seats, and ice sundaes are served out of toilet bowls.
As many countries tend to shun Taiwan in a diplomatic sense, it's easy to leave it off the Asian tourist trail, but it deserves a second look for its mountain trails, stunning coastline, food and culture.
* The writer was a guest of Tourism Taiwan.
TAIWAN FAST FACTS
Getting there: Eva Air, Taiwan's national carrier, has two services a week, Brisbane to Taipei
Must see: Chiang Kai-shek's memorial and hourly changing of the guard.
Must do: Go for Peking Duck at Taipei's Celestial Restaurant
Must stay: Regent Hotel, Taipei. Worth it for the breakfast buffet alone