Taiwan is a semi-tropical island in East Asia, one of the world’s most exciting and rapidly changing regions.
Like many other places in Asia, Taiwan is densely populated and highly developed in terms of economics, technology and transport. Its people are highly educated and well traveled. Nonetheless, exotic cultures thrive throughout the island, and breathtakingly unspoiled scenery can be found in its mountainous interior.
Until recently, Taiwan was thought of mainly as a destination for business people. However, thanks to its blend of Chinese tradition and modern influences – not to mention its fabulous ecological treasures and exceptionally friendly people – it’s won a place in the hearts of many outsiders.
Taiwan is in East Asia, 573 km southwest of the Japanese island of Okinawa and 345 km (214 miles) north of the Philippines. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), which considers Taiwan part of its territory even though it has never controlled the island, lies to the west.
By air, Taiwan is just over an hour from Hong Kong, four hours from Singapore, around thirteen and a half hours from Los Angeles, and fifteen hours from London.
A small but rugged island
The Republic of China, the country that governs Taiwan and some minor islands close to the coast of the PRC, covers 36,191 km2. The main island, Taiwan, accounts for all but a tiny part of the country’s land area. It’s slightly bigger than the US state of Maryland and around half the size of Scotland.
Some 394 km long and 144 km wide, Taiwan’s shape has been compared to both a tobacco leaf and a sweet potato. The western half of Taiwan is well-watered and mostly flat, and thus suitable for farming, although agriculture is no longer an important part of the economy.
Mountain ranges run almost the entire length of the island, with 258 peaks higher than 3,000 m (9,842 feet). These mountains mean that journeys from west to east are slow but offer breathtaking scenery. Much of the highlands are forested, and national parks, notably Taroko and Yushan, showcase Taiwan’s stupendous alpine beauty.
Taiwan’s rivers are short and fast. There are few natural lakes of any size, Sun Moon Lake being the result of human intervention. The main island has 1,566 km of coast, including sand and shale beaches, wetlands full of waterbirds, plus some of the world’s tallest cliffs.
More people live in the north than the south, and the population of the western half outnumbers that of the east by over ten to one. Also, Taiwan’s human population is much more diverse than you might think when you step off the airplane. Many Taiwanese have mixed ancestry because intermarriage was common in the 17th and 18th centuries and has become very common again recently. However, individuals are still usually placed in one of four categories, including the island’s original inhabitants and those who settled in Taiwan over the past 400 years. There are also 300,000-plus immigrants from other Asian countries.
Taiwan’s population is aging rapidly. As recently as the 1960s, most families had five or more children. Taiwan is now said to have the lowest birth rate in the world, around 0.9 to 1.07 children per couple, far below replacement rate. Some predict the island’s total population will begin falling within three decades.
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