High speed to a subtler world

08:40, June 30, 2010      

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A tunnel in Hualien county, Taiwan. Photos: Taiwan Strait Tourism Association

I am usually partial to nostalgic means of travel. There is just an incurable romantic gene in me that associates trains and boats with fur coats, chandeliers and they-don't-make-them-any-more gentlemen. Although I do love the ocean more than the forests, trains are my favorite mode of transport - it may well be the idea of an image surfacing through the thick smoke of a locomotive or the personification of longing or sadness. I am an incurable romantic.

So I was surprised when I actually fell in love with Taiwan's very own HSR, High Speed Rail. Anything that says or implies "fast," "quick," or "instant," seems to me to be "disposable," "use and discard" or "do not reuse." It is quite difficult for me to associate "fast" with "romantic."

This week I visited friends in Tainan, which is exactly one hour and 43 minutes away by HSR from Taipei. Aside from the fact that it made visiting friends outside of Taipei much easier, travel-ing by HSR also brought a number of unexpected pleasures.

The HSR is rather quiet compared to traditional trains. I could clearly listen to my music and it's really comfortable, the space between seats spacious enough that even when the seat in front was reclined, I could still put down my tray-table without feeling pinned to my seat.

From time to time, a well-presented lady or gentleman pushed through a cart with a range of beverages (ice, hot and room temperature) and snacks (sweet or salted, or a bit of both) to choose from - options that I could not resist. In between the service carts, another smiling lady walked up and down the aisle to take away the trash.

The scenery was also better than I expected. The northern part of my journey saw the HSR whiz through residential housing wrestling with factories, broken by patches of paddy fields and clusters of green from woods or hills. With speeds hitting over 200 kilometers an hour, the clusters of green seemed to flow like tides of the ocean. Sunshine saw dazzling gold rays add to my visual palate, while a group of low clouds surrounded the train as if it was surfing on waves of green.

After the Taichung stop, the land opened to fertile plains. Chianan Plain is the granary of Taiwan. Farmers could be seen wearing traditional straw hats working the rice paddies and while I am sure modern equipment is used to lighten their workload, many rice farmers still prefer hand-planting methods. If you are lucky to pass through the area during planting time, you can catch local children lending a hand, they are often summoned to join in the farming tradition that is passed on from generation to generation.

Many local farmers insist on organic cultivation and while a bowl of rice may seem insignificant to many of us in the city today, it is quite difficult not to be captivated by the sight of traditional farmers in the field and their diligent hard work.

The wildlife also increased as more farmlands came into view. Elegant egrets dwell near the paddies and dot the landscape in white. Farmers say they appreciate the birds' companionship, as egrets eat little pests in the paddies. I was lucky enough to see a line of egrets following a farmer who was working in the field, as if they were completely in tune with one another.

As my train pulled into my destination and I saw my friends waiting for me in the main hall, I was happy. Not just at the thought of an enjoyable afternoon with good friends, but also because I knew that when the day was over, I would be back on the HSR, sitting comfortably and sipping my ice black tea and returning home to Taipei in "modern-romantic" style.


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