By Ong Hwee Hwee, Taiwan Correspondent
TAIPEI: Disneyland was not on Timothy Lu's mind when he was making plans for his primary school graduation trip last year.
Instead, the 12-year-old chose to go around his home island of Taiwan, using the most elementary mode of travel: Walking.
Armed with a backpack and a come-what-may attitude, Timothy and his 47-year-old father - who had just quit his corporate communications job - set off from their home in Taipei.
They completed the feat in 51 days, covering 1,200km on foot, with occasional rides from kind strangers.
Along the way, they braved the scorching summer heat, one earthquake, three typhoons and swarms of mosquitoes.
They enjoyed it so much that last month, they set off on another round- island expedition together with three of Timothy's friends - on bicycle this time.
"I have not thought of venturing overseas yet. There are so many places in Taiwan I have yet to explore," Timothy told The Straits Times before returning from his 18-day trip late last month.
Like Timothy, many Taiwanese have caught the huan dao - which means "circling the island" - fever.
On foot, by bicycle, scooter, car or rail, Taiwanese from all age groups are embracing the latest fad, which gives a welcome boost to domestic tourism.
About 90 per cent of Taiwanese have travelled within the island at least once last year, a 3 per cent growth compared to the previous year. In all, they spent NT$219 billion (S$9.8 billion), according to a survey by Taiwan's Tourism Bureau.
Round-island journeys have become more popular following the release of Island Etude, an acclaimed movie which was Taiwan's entry for best foreign film at the Oscar awards this year. But it failed to win a nomination.
The film tells the moving story of a deaf college student who rides his old battered bicycle around Taiwan. Much of the film was about his encounters along the way.
"There are certain things that, if you don't do now, you will never get around to doing," goes a now-famous line from the movie.
The movie inspired Taiwanese to embark on similar journeys.
"It is popular among undergraduates, like a coming-of-age ritual," said Mr Ethan Wu, a 21-year-old student at the National Taiwan University.
He completed an eight-day round-island cycling trip in July.
"It is a journey to rediscover who you are, and the place you call home," he said.
Even politicians have got into the act.
Mr Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan's fitness- obsessed President, went on a round- island cycling trip as part of his election campaign last year, trailed by a pack of exhausted journalists.
He covered 675km in 10 days, visiting about 70 cities and towns.
Mr Stephen Young, the de facto US ambassador in Taiwan, also cycled around the island this year.
Taiwan's well-developed railway network has also boosted domestic tourism.
It now takes less than two hours to travel the 345km from Taipei in the north to southern Kaohsiung after a high-speed rail service started operations last year.
And Taiwanese can now even go a full circle round the island in 14 hours, on a service introduced by the Taiwan Railways Administration in June.
For NT$2,050, passengers get to travel in style. Carriages are outfitted with plush seats and one karaoke room while meals are prepared by chefs from five-star hotels.
That is one more reason for Ms Limay Lee, 38, to continue her practice of travelling around Taiwan at least once a year.
Last year, she went on a three-day journey on rail with her seven-year-old daughter.
"For a mother travelling with a young child, touring around Taiwan is safer and less of a hassle compared to planning for overseas trips. And there is no language barrier," said Ms Lee.
This article was published in The Straits Times on September 06, 2008.
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