Taiwan is located between Japan in the north and the Philippines in the south. Officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), the country consists of Taiwan, three small archipelagos close to the coast of the People's Republic of China, and the uninhabited Pratas Islands in the South China Sea. The main island, which is 394km long and 144km wide, accounts for by far the largest portion of the country's 36,191km2. Taiwan is thus a little larger than the US state of Maryland. In British and Australian terms it's nearly twice as big as Wales but barely half the size of Tasmania. Six of the ROC's eight national parks are on the main island.
The Tropic of Cancer crosses Taiwan just south of the city of Chiayi. The climate is thus wet and warm, but there are distinct seasons. Daytime highs of 38 degrees Celsius have been recorded in urban areas during the summer. In winter, northerners endure temperatures as low as 10 degrees Celsius, but the south doesn’t get quite so cold. Spring and fall are recommended times to visit. Taiwan’s annual average rainfall is 2,471mm, but there are huge regional differences in the amount of rain and the timing of the wet season. The north is wetter than the south, the latter having long and very dry winters. During late winter, snow often falls on the highest peaks.
Taiwan is stunningly mountainous. Almost a third of the island is 1,000m or more above sea level, while 258 named peaks top 3,000m. The main island is vulnerable to both earthquakes and typhoons. The latter usually arrive in August or September, and bring heavy rains which sometimes trigger floods and landslides.
As of mid-2012, the ROC’s population was 23.25 million but its birthrate had sunk to well below replacement level. It's one of the most densely populated places on Earth, but because nine out of ten Taiwanese live on the western plains, those who have the time and means to escape from the major cities can find very attractive natural environments. Despite almost every part of the lowlands being used for agriculture, housing or industry, Taiwan has a remarkable amount of forest, around 58 percent of the island being covered by trees or bamboo.