Monday, 5 November 2012

Battleship Rock and Sunset in Danshui

Today we went for a nice walk up in the mountains around Beitou, to a place called Battleship Rock and it was pretty cool. The weather was awesome and the views of Taipei and The Danshui River on one side and the views of Mount Danfeng and it's sister peaks on the other side were amazing. This was a really nice hike and compared to last week's nightmare of a hike was quite mellow. It was nice to once again see some peaks connected to Yang Ming Shan on a really nice day as my last hike there was really foggy and rained a lot, the highlight of that hike was Pete walking in the fog and nearly clattering into a cow that was 'masked by fog' in the buffalo meadow portion of The Old Fish Road. Nevertheless, I digress and Mike and I decided that ending the day with a view of the sunset on the river we could see from Battleship Rock would be a nice way to end the day.

This was a nice hike and getting out of Nankan and really getting to feel a bit more of Taiwan before I do head for pastures new feels like a good idea. I feel all too often down on Taiwan due to the daily grind of my 12pm – 10pm working schedule and it's not really the country so much as the job and the working hours that are making me feel negative vibes towards Taiwan. One thing about living in such a foreign culture that I'm not sure I like is the generalising that takes place, particularly amongst the expats I meet. It's something I think we as people ascribe to 'the other', for me in this case being the locals, to justify our feelings. I tend to attribute any negative experience or feeling at the moment to an image of “The Taiwanese” and it's really bad. After all, people are people and despite cultural norms and physical attributes we're not really that different. The only generalised truth I'm going to accept now is that every Taiwanese person is better than me at the gangnam style dance because they really are, even the pensioners and the monks. The last few weeks I have been more upbeat and have found myself greeted with more smiles in the street and I think that projecting a positive vibe is a lot more rewarding than being a miserable tit.

I am now in what I think will be my last five months or so in Taiwan and it really feels like things are coming to a head. I think I'm going to look for work in Thailand next year but before that I need to make a decision on where I'm going to travel next. Laos, Cambodia and India are all attractive prospects to me and so far I think India has pipped to the front of the race. I hope to save enough money to be able to travel there for 2-3 months on a budget before heading to Bangkok with the last of my savings for the last two years and find a job there. Visiting the southeast Asian land mass from Thailand would make a lot more financial sense if done at a later date and visiting India for a long period of time sounds like a wonderful experience with the possibilities of seeing wild tigers and rhinos, tribal groups living in mountains and The Himalayas all realistic prospects.

In regards to the hike again it was really nice and it was a real pleasure to take in the views of Taipei from the mountains. We were also supposed to find ourselves through a place called Hell Valley but that didn't happen. We found ourselves lost in Beitou and once we found a main road, and signs pointing towards the MRT we thought it better to have something to eat and wind down as opposed to getting lost again.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Trouble in the Taoyuan Valley...

Last weekend's hike could probably go down as a bit of a disaster... but looking back, with a sprinkle of lighthearted reflection it was fun. A lot of fun. Although I fell over, and nearly fell over a lot more if it wasn't for Dylan and a few super tough Taiwanese hikers who all seemed to be twice my age, triple as healthy and probably a darn sight better looking too. They also managed to walk without getting covered in mud unless I splashed them when I tumbled... :P

I've been looking at hiking the Caoling Historic Trail in Yilan for quite some time as I passed by the trail head on the return journey from my trip to Hualien. It's set in a nice part of the world in Yilan County in the northeast of Taiwan. My friend Pete was being visited by his brother Dylan and so we thought, with the weather being good and the diminishing number of weekends before winter arrives, that this was the perfect opportunity to hike one of Taiwan's most famed and popular hiking trails. We chatted the day before the hike and decided that it might be nice to hike a section of the Taoyuan Paradise Valley Trail which can be linked to the Caoling trail and at the end of a long hike we would arrive at Fulong on the beach where we could camp and rest after a nice, long, satisfying hike. So equipped with a tent, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes and enough water to rehydrate Susan Boyle fresh out of a really hot sauna I was ready for a decent trek, followed by camping and a relaxing day at the beach.

Probably against our better judgment we arrived at Daxi train station a bit late at midday and decided to start our planned extended hike regardless of any time constraints safe in the 'knowledge' that if time was a problem we could always cut the route short and perform a circular hike back down to the road and find the train station safely. To what I would call 'real hikers' of whom I would count the author Richard Saunders among, these trails are quite 'moderate' and nothing really that strenuous. (Richard Saunders writes really good hiking guides in English about North Taiwan and Taipei). To myself, 'a fat, slobbering, wobbly mess', this trail was bloody tough and sufficed to say we found ourselves struggling to make much progress with the trail as there seemed to be an endless supply of steps and is in the very least my idea of purgatory. I was also sweating like a walrus at the dentist... a lot! I was rather disillusioned after a few hours and rather unfortunately, we didn't even manage to make it to a decent vantage point in time as to afford ourselves 360 degree panoramic views that are possible in good weather here. The mists seemed to roll in very suddenly just in time for us to get to the triangulation marker at the top of the first mountain. We did however get some nice views of the pacific ocean earlier on and for that I am very grateful.

At about 4pm we met a group of hikers from a local hiking club who were very keen to pass on their information and details of group hikes and they happened to have a fairly impressive grasp of English that I don't find on display in Nankan despite it being the clerical centre for the transport hub of the entire island. These guys were amongst the friendliest people I've met in Taiwan and I am sincerely thankful to them. They gave us some rather wise advice to stop hiking and head back down to the road with them as it was getting late. We did have tents and could possibly have found a place to pitch them but it wouldn't have been that wise due to the narrow path we were hiking. And I was tired and slow... ;) … Regardless, we followed them down a forest path that started out very nicely indeed and was wide and interesting and I felt like I was back in the Indonesian jungles of Sumatra or Java. Unfortunately for me – take into account I weigh a fair bit and my favorite past time is eating Big Macs – the path soon got thinner and thinner and eventually became a two-foot wide dirt trail with a rather steep descent on one side and a crumbly-soiled, steep forested verge on the other. Slightly before that, I slipped and fell over resulting in a Taiwanese fella lending me his hiking stick and very carefully guiding me through the steps. Exactly what happened when I fell this time, I'm not entirely sure of, but I did simultaneously pull both calf muscles and let out a growl like a really sad bear who can't find any honey and is suffering from depression of some kind. After a few more hours and finding a stone path again we found our way to the road and the station and had a rather eventful day. I also neglected to mention earlier that all the pictures I have are courtesy of Pete and Dylan because not only did I manage to break the motor on my camera's zoom lens resulting in it being useless until I can get it repaired, I also borrowed and seemed to break Dylan's camera in quick succession. He handled it well and I replaced it in kind. But the case remains the same for all my tubby friends: “stairs are the enemy!”...

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Return to Seven Star Mountain Photos.

I'm going to keep this one short and sweet. I climbed Seven Star Mountain again a few months ago and it was fun. 

Here are the photos, I hope you like them...

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail

I'm just gonna keep this one kinda short and let my photos do most of the talking. On Thursday we decided that it'd be a good idea to go for a hike – seeing that the weather forecast was good and winter is inevitably close. The weather was okay today, it was cool and it didn't rain, the visibility could have been better but it was by no means bad.

We decided to head to the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail which does exactly what it says on the tin. It is in a district of Ruiefang – or so the map in the area led me to believe at which I took only a glimpse. It took about an hour or so to get to the trail head from Taipei by train. There are actually some really good trails in the area and we did a hike earlier in the year from Houtong which is the stop before Sandiaoling and so all three of us were fairly familiar with the train route.

We hiked through a nice forested area for a while and from a distance you could see the first waterfall which was pleasant but unfortunately it wasn't possible to get close and we could just see it from a distance. After that we passed through a small grove of pomelo trees which are popular here for Moon Festival which was last weekend. The trees were nice, the air was fresh and it was really starting to feel good to be away from the hustle and bustle of Nankan. After hiking through another glen of trees for half an hour or so we approached the next waterfall which was probably the prettiest of the three. I was really relaxed this time around because I didn't have to think about how to get to the trail head as we'd been close before and Mike had the map and the information and – at least in comparison to my wobbling pace – was soldiering on ahead, so all I had to do was follow.

After the second waterfall we had to climb a fairly steep ladder fixed into the rockface. It wasn't as bad as it looked though and we were all up soon enough. It was a bit sketchy at the top for 30 seconds or so because some locals were cheering the efforts of Mike and Pete without really realising that there was a fat waster behind them trying to concentrate and I think I shouted at them “arrrrrrrrgggghhhhh”, but I smiled after and they seemed oblivious enough. Following the path at the top of the river we eventually came to the third waterfall. This was the highest and where some other local hikers had chosen to have their lunch for the afternoon. It was a nice spot but I admired one local old man sitting on his own who was sat on the edge of the first waterfall just perched on a rock reading the newspaper in his overalls and wellies. Among the other hikers there was also a funny topless old man and he actually had a way better physique than me... I was soooo jealous! :P

Eventually it was time to climb the next hurdle which was a steep – by my standards but not for a real hiker – rocky path and required the use of chains and ropes to steady your balance. There was a nice spot to take photographs posing in front of the waterfall at a different angle but eventually we had to soldier on and climb up the next and final ladder. It was fairer going than the first one though and we found ourselves on a mountain road which we followed to it's terminus but missed the turn we wanted. Eventually, we were called back by a group of local hikers who had made the same mistake but noticed the marker for the side path that we had been looking for. These local hikers stopped for a rest and we moved forward at a reasonable pace and the path got a bit slippy. Michael fell over and I laughed a little bit but he was fine, he just had a mud patch on his bum that looked like he'd pooed his pants. Nevertheless we trotted on and eventually came to a car park. This had a viewing platform of another waterfall and a shrine which was nice and apparently there was a side trail through something called Barbarian Valley but I for one was tired and we still had a fair bit of hiking to do so after a couple of photos of the final waterfall and the shrine we moved on.

Moving through the car park, past a rather eager guard dog we climbed some stairs into another wooded area to start the final part of the trail ending at the station we needed to be at to get home. On that section of trail the rocks were really slippy and I fell. I was watching my footing and paying close attention but literally as soon as I let my guard down... I fell. It's okay though. I was 1-1 in the karma game for laughing at Mike... and then I fell again. The second fall was harder and I fell on the same side. Again I was okay though just got a banged wrist and forearm, luckily there were plenty of rocks to cushion the blows. Despite being a big fairy and saying “Ooowwiiieee” a lot... and I mean a lot. We finally got onto a bridge that crossed a pretty, green river and led to the tracks that we needed to be at to get to the station. Despite getting shit up by a passing train I was happy because the final stretch was flat. The tracks followed the river and it was really pretty. In fact the villages – despite being typically Taiwanese and ugly in architecture – were very pleasant. I even had some local food which I think was some tough tofu but it tasted like five-spice pork so I'm not really sure what it was, but it was cheap and good. There were also some birds of prey circling above us and the weather had cleared up enough to see the green of the surrounding hills. All in all a good day trip :D... Even if it did look like I'd pooed my pants... twice!

Ta ta for now... Lee xxx

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Down and Out in Taoyuan County with The B.O. Kid

I'm starting to get a little bit frustrated with the whole nine-to-five routine that I have let myself fall into over the last couple of months. I've been living in Taiwan for over eighteen months now and think I can safely say that I'm ready for a change. It's not that I dislike living here or have an aversion to the people or the culture... I just need a change. The school I work for are fine and everyone does their bit, it just feels sometimes like working is the only reason that I'm still here with debts at home that need paying off and most of my family and friends living in other countries combined with the building hunger inside to see and experience things anew. I'm ready to move on and will not be renewing my contract in March.

I am writing this post to consolidate some of my thoughts, feelings and emotions about living in Taiwan since March 2011. I have not really been – for the want of a better word – 'feeling' Taiwan since I returned from a trip to Hualien in May. That was a great trip and I had a really good time seeing the natural splendor there. However I am at odds with the endless churn of the teaching model that is the Taiwanese buxiban machine. A buxiban – the style of school in which I teach – is also referred to as a 'cram school' this is in a sense an 'after-school' school. Kids turn up anytime after midday and partake in lessons or day care homework classes until the late evening, some as late as 10pm, and just study to their heart's content. This is strange to me – it is a cultural thing, I guess – but how much information can a young brain absorb until it's tired?... Children here are in these schools about 48 weeks a year and it's not just English buxibans that exist. Buxibans are everywhere here and range from English schools like the one I work in and extend through other subjects from Chinese to Music... in fact it is probably safe to assume that most children here are busier than me in terms of their scheduling and even after all those classes they still have a mountain of homework from each 'school' to contend with. Poor things!... It's ironic that my conscience is bothering me about the very industry that has provided me with an income over the last few years.

The prevailing study method in Taiwan is essentially rote memorisation. Kids basically memorise lists of vocabulary and take written tests while moving through material at such a fast pace as to not actually have enough time to process the information. They learn a grammar structure, loosely gain an ability to write a sentence using it – possibly without understanding the significance of the verb conjugation – and then forget it as soon as they have passed their tests. They have a set list of questions that they memorise answers to and then the school assigns local teaching assistants to call them, whereby they regurgitate their spoon-fed answers. They memorise hundreds of spellings each term, often with little more than a Chinese translation and then struggle to remember whether 'six' or 'sex' is the number after five and before seven. Actually, I made that last faux pas up inspired by a low level student that has a penchant for shouting numbers out during spelling tests and mispronouncing them, but the point still stands: without a map between stimulus and meaning, kids will forget the meaning of most vocabulary items, lexical sets or grammar structures that they 'memorise', almost instantly without a reason for remembering it. For example, if you ask for fruit at a stall in a market and you don't know the name, say a banana, and just merely point at a bunch of bananas you want and then the fruit monger happens to make a joke comparing the banana to his manhood while saying the word in the foreign language you may well remember the word through the joke, the joke being the stimulus. I'm going to stop talking about stimulating bananas and get back to my point, simply being that memorisation as an educational tool may well have it's place in the ether, but it is certainly not worth the gravitas that is bestowed upon it by the Taiwanese education system.

I guess the weather is also a hindrance to my happiness here in Taiwan. It always seems to rain when I'm not working and really doesn't aid me in my quest to hike on some of the nicer trails here before I leave! Hiking is a nice escape from the chaos of living in Nankan. I've previously mentioned that Nankan is the town where I live and feels very much a part of the greater Taipei area. Technically it isn't but it lies between Taipei and the international airport and is on the edge of Taoyuan County – a major contributory area to the industrial output of this fair nation. Without getting further down on Taiwan there is little natural beauty in the Taoyuan area and the weather hardly does anything to lift the spirits of this portly, hairy excuse for an English teacher.

Moving away from teaching for a moment, I've come to realise that I don't really feel like a fully accepted functioning part of society here – perhaps merely just a necessary foreigner to provide a skill that their society desires or deems necessary. I also don't feel prejudiced against in any tangible way either. Scared shitless when I cross the road perhaps as a guy turning into crossing pedestrians on a clearly marked crossing the other day thought it more poignant to scream a noise vaguely resembling 'hello' – in a voice skirting the middle ground between Sloth from The Goonies and Chewbacca – than to actually drive his speeding truck in a manner appropriate for the concern of the safety of fellow pedestrians. Instances like this happen on a daily basis however and after living here for so long I really should have come to terms with the driving etiquette that is employed here. Although it's not just drivers that are oblivious to courtesy with beings foreign to them in Taiwanese society. We were recently drinking outside a convenience store and were in very high spirits but not really bothering anybody. There was nobody around to bother and yet the police deemed it necessary to move us on regardless... twice. We were not being overly loud, we were not drunk, we were not harassing anyone – especially the second occasion where we had moved to a location away from residences to a pagoda by a river. Yet the police found it necessary to move us on once again. There was no hostility on their part as such but a clear message that having fun is not tolerable if we are in a funny mood yet it seems fine to barbecue with your family on the street all day and into the early hours of the morning – this weekend was Moon Festival – without any bother from Old Bill, if you're local. I realise that at this point I sound like I'm clutching at straws but I was rather inspired by this article - ( ) - discussing the xenophobia that exists in Taiwan and is perhaps not 'racism' towards any particular group of people but does highlight the issue that foreign people are perhaps not always welcome in this relatively homogenous society. I also realise that a single article and the ramblings of a Mcdonald's fiend are from enough evidence to condemn a national population standing 23 million people strong. However, how far can the request of one thousand 'Taiwanese' people in a single neighbourhood, on a petition to the local authorities that 'brown people' – in this case a group of 30 or so Filipino factory workers – not reside in their area due to fear of the foreign individual not be constituted as racist, or in the very least as a significant act of xenophobia?...

On that note I'm going to stop whining and move on to a lighter theme to finish the post. I haven't posted about teaching or the antics of my students here for quite a while. So here goes:

I'm starting to get a bit worn out with my classes at the moment I've been teaching some of the students almost incessantly for the best part of the last two years. Most of them are wonderful kids and probably the most human interaction I get with the local people is with my students. Most of them being between the ages of 6 and 12 making them rather colourful in the behaviour department. Some of them get a little excited and I'm starting to learn the value of respect towards the teacher. I don't really feel respected as a teacher but more as a foreign person they are allowed to 'play games with' at certain intervals during their hectic weekly schedules. I have one student who flobs occasionally and sees no wrong in it and I'm at odds to shout at him because he doesn't see the wrong in it and can always play the 'teacher me no understand what you say' card. That card works as a trump card to misbehave in the poker game that is attempting to impart some level of knowledge and sustain the disapproval of their parents for scalding their kids for their misdemeanours. On return from my recent trip to Boracay in The Philippines I returned to the unthinkable scenario that I hinted a little girl may be impartial to a bit of poo poo in front of other children. I didn't – what actually happened was that I said the girl didn't like poo poo and surprisingly she didn't understand that I was rebuking the joke for her and just cried to her parents and so they complained... so I was fucked regardless. I'm a heartless bastard sometimes and I really need to mend the error of my ways... Read on!

Luckily for me there are plenty of students to brighten my day and I'm constantly reminded of their adulation for me and sometimes I'm not but whatever any press is good press and if the kids think enough of me to call me a pig or a 'golirra' – I'll leave that one to your imagination – then I guess I'm doing something at least semi-correct, either that or I'm a blithering idiot and it's funny to watch my 'teaching skills' live in performance. One kid – possibly my youngest, and definitely my smallest student – decided to show his appreciation for me while waiting in line to have his work marked by motioning his book between his legs in the manner one might floss with a towel after a shower... That was disturbing... but what the fuck, right?... This kid is cool too though, he has a mild obsession with crayfish and once told me he'd like to 'ride a nurse' but I think he meant horse so I politely reminded him that nurses are way cooler because that's what my dad says. Sometimes controlling the kids can be a problem especially when they stumble across behaviour that gets a reaction. For example I can deal with kids that flip the bird at me and then hide it behind their hand. That's easy, I just ask them if they want me to tell their mum but when they start chanting: “We will, we will fuck you...” it's not so easy to deal with. In fact there are two kids in one class I teach and one of the girls figured it would be funny to teach the other members of the class how to do a “Hitler salute”... I didn't want to deal with that angrily because it would probably encourage them and since they don't really have an awareness of sensitivity towards foreign cultures and due to the fact that they are nine they will probably just think it's funny because Hitler had a shit mustache... I managed to dissuade them by wobbling and attempting the Gangnam Style dance with a finger tash.

So to end the post on a rather random note... I also have a student whose name is Bill. But the kids call him 'B.O.' due to the fact that they can't pronounce his name properly. I always laugh when he gingerly responds: “I no B.O. I no even smelly!”...

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Xiaotzukeng Old Trail: Houtong to Jioufen

Recently, I've been hiking a bit more than usual and for the sake of my health and probably my sanity I want to keep it up. Nankan – the town that I live in – is starting to bore me a little bit. I guess for the Monday to Friday 9-5 routine it's okay but otherwise there isn't much here to really keep me entertained. Walking to work is becoming a chore with the intense heat that is arriving. My aircon is set as low as it can go and I'm still sweating like Rick Walla trying to break into a padlocked biscuit tin. There are some pretty girls that sell betel nuts to local drivers. They wear skimpy outfits and are usually quite pleasant to look at, although slightly resemble prostitutes. They are not without an aesthetic charm however and are a welcome sight juxtaposed against the ugliness of the highrise grey tower blocks that surround you on all sides and trap the tropical heat, dirt and smog from the factories.

A couple of days ago I was in the neighbourhood restaurant with my colleague Mike and we were offered some betel nut – locally known as bin lang. I received a lesson in chewing it from the chef but can't say that I really enjoyed it. Betel nuts are chewed by locals and are addictive. They turn your teeth red and cause you to salivate profusely while giving a mild stimulating buzz. They are popular with Taiwanese truck drivers and I guess chewing betel nut here is seen as a somewhat masculine past time. Well, I don't like it – so I'm a big fairy. This particular restaurant is very popular with some very friendly working class Taiwanese fellas who are pretty boisterous and enjoy chatting to us in their alcohol-fueled happiness. Which is a welcome change from the behaviour during traffic and queue jumping that accurately represents the compassion most Nankan residents show towards one another on a daily basis – “ME FIRST!!!!” usually being the order of the day. I did manage to leave the restaurant with a bag full of betel nuts as a gift from some of the locals and only accepted them on the grounds of being polite and to not offend anyone. The bin lang girls aside, Nankan is a pretty dull, industrious, grey coloured snoozefest. I guess the best thing about living in Nankan itself is that it's really easy to leave for the day and has pretty good transport connections...

Anyway getting around a bit of Taiwan before I leave is definitely a priority for me at the moment. So I did a bit of reading during last week and decided that a walk along the Xiaotzukeng Old Trail sounded like a nice idea. In contrast to the choked streets of Nankan; the trail head starts at the mountain village of Houtong which is accessible by train from Taipei. We caught the train there and it was nice to actually find a settlement in Taiwan that didn't have an obviously placed 7-11. 7-11s are convenience stores that are quite popular and seem to be everywhere, and the fact that I didn't see one in Houtong was quite an endearing experience for me. It elicited a feeling of escape from urban development. We quickly left Houtong though, after finding the start of the trail just beyond the elementary school in the village. Xiaotzukeng is an abandoned, Japanese era mining village and pre-WWII, coal and gold were mined there. It was pretty cool to see some abandoned buildings and ruins of early twentieth century homes built from rocks and a really quaint hiking trail. The trail leads up a small but rather steep mountain, through a forest to the village where there are a couple of shrines and some ruins. Apparently the Japanese left a golden Buddha in one of the shrines but that has long been stolen. The views from the side of the mountain had a pretty good view over towards the sea.

After resting at the village – the heat was getting to be a real hindrance by this point – we pushed on for the top of the mountain. I was knackered and after about 2 hours of walking up a fairly steep path, having already consumed a river's worth of energy drinks – I was bitten by some sort of insect. I had that feeling you get when you hike in a tropical environment sometimes where you feel hot, bothered and irritated and you are just sort of riding on adrenalin. The bite was nothing but it did draw blood. Whatever it was it was too big to be a mosquito. With the sound of cicadas and other insects we continued to push on – me lagging a reasonable distance behind but eventually we got to the top and were rewarded with excellent views of Jioufen and Teapot Mountain backed by the ocean. Another rest, and the feeling of joy arose in me. For about forty minutes or so we descended from the mountain down towards the town of Jioufen with a nice breeze at our backs cutting out some of the energy draining effects caused by the zapping heat of the sun.

The hike was concluded with an iced coffee and some local beef jerky and salted, shredded squid in a cafe on the outskirts of the town. The setting was very atmospheric and a nice way to unwind after the hike. What wasn't relaxing however was the crowd that had descended upon Jioufen. Jioufen is undoubtedly a nice town with cobbled streets built into the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. However the hordes of local tourists jamming themselves into the narrow alleys that lie in immediate proximity to the bus stop are not all that pleasant. The heave-ho of pushing and squabbling to be in front of people – the very thing I'd left Nankan to escape for the day – was back. Never mind, we saw only two other hikers on the hiking path and had had the entire trail to ourselves for the most part.So with that we pushed on towards to Taipei and eventually home...