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Travel Story - In a nutshell

The countryside and seaside of Taiwan’s Tainan County

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Hsichuang, Tainan County, Taiwan — One-by-one, visitors pose for photographs outside a modest one-floor house before snacking on fresh-shucked water chestnuts in this village in Taiwan’s southwest.

The crisp, mildly sweet water chestnut – "bee-chee" in Mandarin – is the biggest export from the Kuantien district in central Tainan County. The 130-year-old, white and red brick, southern Fujianese-style house is Kuantien’s biggest tourist magnet because it was the boyhood home of Chen Shui-bian.

In 2000, the son of local water chestnut growers became Taiwan’s second directly elected president and first from a party other than the Kuomintang – which ruled the island since General Chiang Kai-shek and his republican loyalists fled Mainland China’s communist revolution in 1949.

Inside a small grocery store across from Hui An Temple, a shopkeeper displays posters and dolls of Chen, or "A-bian" as locals call him. The shiny ceramic figures depict him as a bespectacled, smiling Buddha-like character. The charismatic lawyer and ex-Taipei mayor led the Democratic Progressive Party into the March 20 presidential election, the results of which are now being reviewed.

Water chestnuts and "A-bian" represent the old and new Tainan County, Taiwan’s ninth largest with a population of 1.1 million.

Dutch colonists made Tainan City their base from 1624 to 1662, until Ming dynasty loyalist Cheng Cheng-kung liberated Taiwan. The island’s first developed region remained the capital until Taipei assumed the seat of government in 1885. Japan occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. Among the remnants in Tainan is a former sugar refinery, now the Tsung-Yeh Artist Village. The park-like property is an arborist’s dream, featuring an odd banyan tree growing from a hole in a palm tree caused by World War II allied bombing.

Besides driving away the Dutch, Cheng introduced salt farming to this region below the Tropic of Cancer. Hundreds of shallow, rectangular, man-made ponds – called salt pans – dominate the landscape of Chiku Rural Township. After more than 330 years, the Taiwan Salt Industrial Corporation turned the last salt field in Chiku into a recreational park with amusement rides, a heated salt spring swimming pool, and a gift shop selling items like salt-based cosmetics and bottled deionized water. The centrepiece is a 16-metre-high salt mountain, the last salt harvested locally. The bright, white landmark is visible for kilometres and provides panoramic views of the Taiwan Strait to the west. Rising to the east are twin pyramids housing a new museum devoted to the history of salt harvesting.

Salt is now imported from Australia, but local shores remain rich with oysters. A late afternoon cruise through the oyster fields on a water taxi offers a respite from the tropical heat. After a loop of the mangroves, the captain stops to pull a string of ripe oysters for a dockside bake at journey’s end. Back on shore, the cooked-in-the-shell goodness is washed down with Taiwan Beer.

A tour of Tainan’s seaside and countryside isn’t complete until a visit to the home of the county’s most famous feathered friends.

The pheasant-tailed jacana in Kuantien is the official county bird, but the black-faced spoonbill is the featured attraction of the Chiku Wetlands in the Tsengwen River Estuary, 30 minutes from Tainan City.

With its long, spatula-like black bill and black legs, the white-feathered creature looks and moves vaguely like Jar-Jar Binks of Star Wars fame. The endangered species spends fall and winter in Tainan before flying to the Korean peninsula’s demilitarized zone for the summer.

The roadside viewing pavilion and picnic area is almost a kilometre away from where the birds arrive every late afternoon to feed on bugs and plants. Local bird enthusiasts eagerly share their high-powered binoculars with visitors. Or you can get a close-up view of two-thirds of the world’s 700 black-faced spoonbills on a closed-circuit TV monitor.

If you go: Tainan is five hours south of Taipei via the Sun Yat-sen Freeway or Taiwan Railway’s western line. It’s just an hour by plane. Call Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (604-689-7147) for information or visit the Web sites of Tainan County – www.tnhg.gov.tw/en – and the Republic of China Tourism Bureau: www.tbroc.gov.tw

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