Here be dragons
Dragon boat teams get ready for the starting gun on Lake Liyu. (Lottie Davies)
The lake was high in the mountains of Taiwan. The hills were lush with jungle, green and dense as spinach, and the humidity in the air was overwhelming; a few metres above the lake, wisps of cloud were forming in the soupy air. From time to time, the crack of a starting pistol sent a scribble of smoke upwards from the jetty, and two brilliantly coloured boats, dragon headed, pushed out to the beat of a drum. The Liyu Lake Dragon Boat Festival was running through the competitive heats.
On the lakeside, festive stalls had taken root; families were sitting stolidly on stools under umbrellas, the best spectator spots long taken. From time to time, the parents dispatched their children to fetch bags of tiny shellfish, spatchcocked squid from the grill, malodorous 'stinky tofu'. The teams waited their turn; 14 alarmingly fit young men from the local fire brigade, whose spectacles and general air of thoughtfulness gave them the semblance of intellectual revolutionaries, went through their rituals.
'Esther! Esther! Esther!' they chanted, their arms about each other's shoulders. Another team, on the jetty, jerked their torsos back and forth in synchrony, as if in high-speed Islamic prayer. The waiting teams getting a pep talk stood relaxed and confident, their bare feet apart, shouting 'Ha!' from time to time. This was a serious business. 'Who is Esther?' I asked. 'I think they're saying "Extra",' my guide said.
There are three important festivals in the Chinese calendar: the New Year; the Moon Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival. The Dragon Boat Festival commemorates an incident that took place in Jiangxi province in mainland China in 278 BC. A righteous court official, Qu Yuan, was falsely accused of crimes by the emperor, and drowned himself. The people are said to have thrown balls of zongzi (cooked rice) into the river to discourage the fish from eating his body. From this touching story, the boat races and the festival arose. The rituals and traditions surrounding the boat races are, for historical reasons, better preserved in Taiwan than anywhere else, including China. Traditional food, such as zongzi is served; the boats are carved by hand, much as they always were.
Taiwan, unaccountably missing from the usual Western tourist's mental map of Asia, is a curious sort of country. For a start, this medium-sized island confusingly refers to itself as the Republic of China, though it is not recognised as a state by many other countries. Its modern history begins with the flight of the Chinese Nationalists before Chairman Mao's communist forces in 1949. In their flight, the nationalists under Chiang-Kai Shek took historical treasures, including most of the contents of the Forbidden City in Beijing - the National Palace Museum in Taipei is an astounding collection of hundreds of thousands of treasures. Subsequent events in mainland China inadvertently turned Taiwan into a repository of traditional expertise and history. During Mao's Cultural Revolution, many historical treasures left behind were destroyed; much traditional craft was lost; and festivities, such as the Dragon Boat Festival, were abandoned. Nowadays, mainland China has tried to reinstate its links with the past, but it is too late, and most of the boats raced in mainland China during this festival are cast in fibreglass. Taiwan sustained an unbroken link with the past, and in its festivals, a nationalistic pride in this fragile country is to the fore.
High in the mountains of Taiwan, Lee Luan-Fu, the wife of a tea plantation owner, poured me a cup of tea. It was a lengthy process. She boiled a kettle, then half-filled a tiny teapot. She measured out dry tea into a bamboo pipe with a sort of chopstick; she emptied the pot into a tea bowl. Every implement had its rest and was respectfully returned to it after its use. The tea was added to the pot, then hot water. The tea was poured, after resting, into a small pitcher, and later poured into a cup, which she rested carefully on a towel. The contents of the cup were poured into the tea bowl and offered up for me to smell. She poured a second cup and now, finally, I was permitted to drink it. All around, the rolling hills were covered with neat rows of tea, looking from a distance like corduroy in racing green; tiny figures bent and picked with deft expertise. Carried out without self-consciousness, it could have taken place at any time in the last thousand years.