The International Steam Pages
Preserved Steam (and more) in Taiwan 2015
This is the introduction to a series of pages arising from a March 2015 visit
to Taiwan. James Waite and Takahide Yamamoto have contributed as indicated.
You may wish to consult a list of existing steam locomotives in Taiwan.
Despite appearances this was NOT a steam or even a railway trip. As most of you will know, Yuehong was born and brought up in Beijing and was naturally curious about 'the other China' which was effectively off limits to her until she got her British passport in late 2014, upon which she had a visa free 90 day entry. I was not wildly enthusiastic about the prospect, six years of being exposed at first hand to indigenous Chinese culture had left me extremely cynical about a race which had contributed nothing to the progress of humanity as a whole since it invented toilet paper more than 1000 years ago (personally even that is something the world could have done without, old fashioned water being a far better alternative). On the other hand, many years of experience in south-east Asia had given me a great respect for the overseas Chinese whose work ethic has contributed greatly to the development of the region even if it has needed the not always gentle controlling hand of the indigenous peoples to moderate what could easily have turned into the rampant greed seen in today's mainland China. We are acutely conscious that Penang, even with all its many faults, is still essentially a Chinese island which is a showcase for multi-culturism and is largely inhabited by Hokkien and Hakka Chinese, groups which similarly dominate Taiwan society.
In the event we obviously didn't find another Penang, I suppose you could say Yuehong was disappointed in that respect. What we did find was a far more acceptable side of Chinese culture than exists across the water. It's a far more equal society, there are few signs of extreme poverty or extreme wealth, especially in the south-west of the island where we spent most of our time. Tainan's and Chiayi's clean streets were dominated not by the motor car but by the local motor scooters. We didn't travel on the new High Speed Railway (HSR), instead we found the traditional long electrified railway to be exactly what I believe a railway should be, offering intensive, well patronised services over both long and short distances with air conditioned trains that were as clean and comfortable as they were well maintained. The buses too were clean and comfortable although especially in Tainan their wriggling routes took some getting used to. There was none of Singapore's 'big brother' atmosphere but people went quietly about their business and their lives in general in a way that was recognisably traditional. There are almost no large supermarkets, just community shops and in the cities, 7-11 and other convenience stores everywhere. Eating was disappointing, while anywhere would be a disappointment after Penang, Taiwan generally offered little beyond simple steam buns and noodle and rice dishes and in the predominant small eating places you even had to bring your own drinks (Taiwan Beer being affordable and quaffable). If I was to offer a criticism, it would be that the place had no 'sparkle'. As such it is never likely to be a tourist hot spot, but if I was a lot younger then I think it would be an excellent place to live and work for a few years.
The inspiration for the visit came from James Waite discovering that one of Alishan's Shays was scheduled to work a few services during the Spring cherry tree flowering period and we agreed to join him for a few days, together with Takahide Yamamoto. Final confirmation of live steam came rather late so we were not as well prepared as we should have been and I am very grateful to James for the hard work he put in preparing for the trip, especially as our internet connection in Penang collapsed completely almost as soon as we had booked our flights. Things were not helped by a cryptic note on the UK Foreign and Commonwealth's Office website about issues for people in Yuehong's passport situation. We had a frantic couple of days in Penang unsuccessfully trying to establish just what they were and thankfully James kindly got in touch with the Taiwan Representative Office in London who indicated that, not for the first time in my experience, the FCO didn't know what they were talking about. Since we got together Yuehong has often had the feeling that immigration officers were handling her former passport as if it were a piece of dog poo. In contrast, her new one is a 'that will do nicely, Madam' version and we now sail through the checks without any questioning about our intentions.
James organised a hire car, this aided visiting multiple preservation sites and Yuehong's native Mandarin was equally useful, the average Taiwanese having extremely limited English. On the first day we meandered south from Taipei to Chiayi, James and Takahide then went up to Alishan whose hotels were beyond our already stretched budget. Next day, we did plan to get an early bus up to see the Shay run, in the event the hordes of local and mainland Chinese tourists meant that we arrived too late for the action. On the third day we again bashed some preservation sites until early afternoon before catching a train to Tainan while James and Takahide headed back north.
We then had three nights in Tainan, billed as the traditional culture capital of Taiwan. In this respect, it was really very ordinary, but we enjoyed our stay in an overpriced guest house in an area west of the railway station which, with its narrow alleyways, reminded me of Bangkok's Chinatown albeit without the bustle. The 'famous' old area of Anping is a tourist trap and no more. This was to have been Yuehong's part of the trip, but in the end she chose to come with me to see various preserved steam locomotives (just as well given the language issues). As often happens, the travelling to and fro this necessitated was probably the best part of the whole trip, Yuehong got a chance to talk to people and we enjoyed visiting a university campus and a weekend garden market with masses of orchids which would otherwise not have been seen.
We took almost no non-railway pictures, it wasn't a very photogenic place, even Alishan was hazy. To those of us who think Chinese people are rather humourless, this was, perhaps, my best cultural moment, seen at Alishan's Beimen Railway Park in Chiayi. Loosely translated, this sign on a preserved railcar with its grossly oversized Taiwan apparently reads "Can we have our country back, please?".