Friday, 15 February 2013

Taitung and Chinese New Year

It's Chinese New Year at the moment here in Taiwan. Last year I spent the entire holiday in the north and around the Taipei area mostly and it was cold and wet practically the entire time. With last year fresh in my mind I wanted to get away from the north for at least a few days in the week off from work. If I'm honest after travelling around Taiwan during my spare time over the last couple of years I've had quite a bit fun and some nice experiences but something has been a little off for me. Perhaps because I have always been north of the Tropic of Cancer and never ventured to the southern extremities of the island or perhaps a combination of the busy nature of popular attractions and unpredictable weather. I have definitely enjoyed my time here but the experiences seem too polished in a sense. The hiking trails I've been on are all lovely but very accessible and complete with stone paths at every possible opportunity... I am quite aware that I haven't ventured into the high mountains and would find myself mesmerised by the hiking there I'm sure, but Taiwanese bureaucracy and my rather spontaneous and random decision-making have combined to prevent me from venturing there. So perhaps my gripes with the hiking I've done thus far is not so much what Taiwan has to offer but what is has to offer that feels authentic and is accessible without two mountain permits and a mandatory Taiwanese guide.

After a lot of reading as to possible locations in order to maximise the potential of a few days away during the New Year break I reached the decision to venture to Taitung. My friend Party Pete seemed up for it as well and so we ventured there on Monday. Taitung is in the south east corner of Taiwan. It is perhaps the most traditional of Taiwan's cities and provides a wealth of options to enjoy. One of the most appealing factors of choosing Taitung was the fact that it is so far from Taipei and even though hordes of people travel all over the country during the Chinese New Year period Taitung's relative remoteness meant that it was quite quiet.

After a seven hour train journey we finally arrived in Taitung and it was warm the contrast was immediately noticeable after leaving the train – North Taiwan was at least ten degrees cooler! We hadn't been smart enough to pre-book a hotel and actually upon reflection I think we were fortunate not to because prices are incredibly high due to the holiday season. After finding a hotel and realising that a night here was out of our price range we bumped into a local that had spent some time in England. He was really friendly and had spent some time living in Nottingham with his aunt and spoke good enough English to act as a translator, the people at the hotel were lovely too and they managed to compromise with our budget and found us a bed for the night. We were picked up by two girls in their twenties who spoke no English but they took us to a house in a suburb of Taitung. We paid them the price we had agreed for the room and they left leaving us with some bedding and the company of two nice dogs. Eventually a loud man around the age of forty came by in his pajamas and started rambling on at us in Chinese giving us directions on how to use the facilities and checking that we knew how to brush our teeth. I didn't really understand much beyond a few basic verbs and nouns but I gathered enough that he wasn't intentionally being condescending he probably just wasn't sure how foreigners do things... lol

The next morning we woke up quite early and got straight to using the wash room in the 'homestay' we had managed to find. The facilities were merely a bucket and a tap with a smaller container to scoop water over your head... this was something I had been relatively used to when living in Indonesia so it wasn't such a big deal really but I'd rather have a real shower. After washing the local man we stayed with had supplied a breakfast of a fried pork sandwich and soy milk. It was pretty good and after discussing our onward travel arrangements for some time in broken Chinese and gestures it was agreed that he would drive us for a small fee which turned out to be very reasonable. I didn't have the decency to ask the man's name – perhaps due to the seven-hour train ride the day before – but he turned out to be really friendly and showed us some of his army documentation from his younger days. He seemed very happy that we could babble a minimal amount of Chinese and proved to be friendly and helpful beyond my expectations.
In what felt like a long drive but a short distance taking in the mountainous scenery of Taitung through the holiday traffic we made it to the Xiao Yehliu area. The campsite appeared half empty and we were eager to get our tents up and ready for the night so that we could chill out and enjoy the weather by the popular rock formations. We were stopped almost immediately in our tracks when the man declared “no have” in regards to us wanting to camp there. This obviously wasn't the case so we responded in a rather baffled manner and he later informed us that there would be space from 12pm, considering that the time was 11:20am it didn't seem like such a big deal and we were happy to wait... I'm pretty odd admittedly but even I camp longer than 40 minutes in any given trip. After finally getting our tents up we made it to the rocks and had some lunch of fried chicken and corn dogs which really hit the spot. The rocks were really cool and it was nice to see a local man fishing off of them. I got some nice photos and despite a bit of mild sunburn, we managed to find a place away from the local tourists in which to relax and appreciate the chilled vibe of the area. I really enjoyed this and it was a welcomed change from the frantic nature and frenetic pace that is part of everyday life working in the north. That evening we had a decent dinner of fish soup, rice, noodles, clams and sushi in Fugang harbour a short walk from the campsite. As a side note, one thing that really made me chuckle about camping in Taiwan is how the concept of 'camping' and experiencing the outdoors really is different to what I feel is a Western conception of camping. For me at least – as a Westerner – I feel that camping is an experience to enjoy the outdoors and get away from the internet and modern life by roughing it a bit and forgetting the real world if only for a day or two, in Taiwan it seems markedly different. The campsite was amazingly well equipped: each tent was given it's own raised wooden platform complete with electricity and the shower facilities were better than any of the hotels I've stayed in since leaving Europe – despite being communal! I feel it necessary to generalise slightly here and say that it appears most Taiwanese people have trouble stepping away from their creature comforts as almost every other tent we saw was complete with an extra gazebo, a powerful light and a fully makeshift kitchen and there certainly didn't seem to be room for a campfire! The plots for each tent also included your own water supply, BBQ pit and picnic table. This was all nice and I was certainly intrigued but I didn't feel like I was being adventurous in the slightest and all the other guests at the campsite appeared to be sustained by their laptops and portable TVs... apparently songs round the campfire are not so popular in present day Taiwan not that I was itching to sing coom by ya or anything....

The next day we planned to visit the Jhiben Forest area. We woke up early used the amazing shower facilities and had a breakfast of biscuits and water that we had bought in Fugang harbour the night before. We packed up the tents and got rolling... eventually. We realised that we had been waiting at the wrong bus stop when a man working for the campsite approached us and struck up conversation he had pretty good English and told us that the next bus was from the other side of the road and that we had to wait a couple of hours which felt like a pain but we headed to the bus stop and decided to wait anyway and try to flag down a taxi, which we did, but only after about eight had already driven past us. By mid afternoon though we were back at Taitung train station with tickets to go to Jhiben and a microwave lunch from 7-11, not the most culinary adventurous choice but it was quick and it did fill us up. After catching the train to Jhiben we realised that Pete had left my tent on the train – he was carrying it because I had apparently overpacked and well he hadn't. Luckily we realised as soon as we crossed the platform and the train had departed and we spoke to the guys in Jhiben station and they were really cool and checked the seat number on our tickets and said that we could leave our other bags there while we hiked the forest and could pick them up along with the tent at 6pm. We went straight to the taxi section and showed the driver where we wanted to go. I was pleasantly surprised to find a female taxi driver working in a rather conservative part of Taiwan. Nonetheless after negotiating a highly inflated price because of it happening to be Chinese New Year – Big Fat Mustache Taxi Driver Lady proved to be pretty conversant in English once we had agreed to pay a flat rate fare and she got us there smoothly enough.
Jhiben is one of many areas in Taiwan that is famous for it's hot springs and like most hot springs in Taiwan it has a hotel monopolising the use of them. Hot springs were not on our agenda though and we headed straight for the forest. We were here for the monkeys. A personal goal of mine since living in Taiwan has been to see the local primates in the forest and Jhiben provided this opportunity. I have seen macaques in Indonesia on more than a few occasions but up until this point hadn't seen one in Taiwan. The forest was pretty cool and despite being easily accessible and the presence of bins and benches appearing at regular intervals along the path the forest felt quite authentic. The macaques here were wild and the opportunity to see them in their true glory swinging high in the trees away from an abundance of tourists was enjoyable and the monkeys here haven't yet been corrupted by the presence of mass tourism. I even managed to get a photo of a curious monkey watching us through the trees and it felt more rewarding than I imagine other places feel when it is easier to see the domesticated monkeys that tourists feed. These monkeys were wary of us and kept their distance which is a contrast from the monkey forest in Ubud, Bali where they steal things from people regularly and display next to no fear of humans. We also got to see some cool banyan trees that appear as if they have a thousand roots. Eventually we made it back to the train station after finding a place that sold kung pao chicken and rice. We recovered our bags, sincerely thanked the guys at the train station for so efficiently and kindly helping us to recover my tent and we headed for the beach town of Taimali to spend the night.

We arrived in Taimali quite quickly as it was only a twenty minute or so trip from Jhiben station. Immediately we were greeted by a “Hello and happy new year!” from one of the station workers a really cheery old man. Dusk was fast approaching and we were forced to pitch our tents on the quiet beach in near darkness but manage it we did and I was still hungry so we headed into town to see what food could be bought. We walked down the main road and after deliberating over a few options for food we arrived at a small noodle shop that looked family run and quite welcoming. The waitress was also pretty which aided my vote to eat there. I had thus far succeeded beyond what I believed were the limits of my Chinese language skill – poor by anyone's standards – but this is where I failed. I could decipher the dishes that had meat in on the menu because I recognise the character and after asking a few short, simple questions in my pidgen Chinese I managed to order some rice and noodles for us to share. The place was really cheap and so I figured that I'd just tick a few side dishes in case we hadn't ordered enough and despite warnings by the lady at the counter that I'd ordered a lot for only two people I nonchalantly waived away the caution. This ultimately caused me to lose face but was pretty funny. For two people I ended up ordering one portion of rice with fried chicken and vegetables and 5 different bowls of noodle soup. The food was tasty but there was way too much of it. Luckily Pete did some inadvertent juggling when reaching for the bowls and so I didn't look like the only clown in the room... After the noodle incident we grabbed a few beers and headed back to the beach to sit down and listen to the waves crashing against the sand. The beach at Taimali is nice and about 2km long so there was plenty of room for us to sit and chill out while watching the fireworks that some of the locals had been setting off.

When morning came we woke up early to see sunrise but were slightly hindered by the cloudiness of the dawn sky. The photos came out okay though and we headed into town to find some breakfast. After walking past a place that was open but absent any visible staff we decided to head further into town to find breakfast. I was enjoying the laid back atmosphere that Taimali offered but still require enough motivation from the locals to be able to buy breakfast. We found a small do jiang place selling the usual Taiwanese breakfast items and I settled for a cold milk tea and some dumplings with chilli and soy sauce. There was a really small local man that appeared to be a regular patron of the place and seemed really happy to see us and almost privileged to shake our hands and just seemed happy to be in the presence of different people. I must say that I really enjoyed the attitude of the locals in Taitung county and found the pleasant smiles and attitudes a sharp contrast from the busy people in the north. Perhaps it was just a combination of the holiday season and spirit that I found down there or what I believe is the true nature and spirit of the Taiwanese people away from modern technology. Taitung perhaps wasn't the prettiest place I have ever been but I like to think of it as a girl next door kind of pretty and certainly a diamond amongst pebbles.

When we arrived back in Taipei after standing on the train back for seven hours we hit Burger King and made for the bus. I was exhausted by this point and really wanted to go to bed. Upon queuing for the bus an old lady immediately pushed in front of me almost knocking me aside and I realised I was back in Taipei and exposed to it's 'me first' mentality...

I finished the Chinese New Year week by watching the fireworks from the local lantern festival with my friend Steve from the roof of his building. Earlier in the day I had managed to strike up a conversation with a spritely old man standing 88 years young called Mr. Huang. He was really friendly and said that he had learned English as a teenager in the Chinese mainland. It turns out he escaped with the rest of the Kuomintang in 1949 and managed to live a nice life away from communism in Taiwan. He seemed to really enjoy British culture and was super friendly and complimentary. I often find in Taiwan that there is a certain snobbery towards mainlanders and yet every time I meet someone from the mainland in Taiwan they seem humble and kind and I hope that stereotypes change one day and that the Taiwanese stereotypes can adapt and become slightly more realistic in representing their neighbours. One thing I didn't like about Mr. Huang was his insistence that I have an American accent which simply isn't true, jokes aside he was a really pleasant guy and I wish him all the best.

Xinien kwai lur! Gong xie fa cai and all that business!...

Monday, 4 February 2013

Hiking in Neihu

As my time in Taiwan is drawing to a close I'm starting to feel a little sentimental about the place. I keep walking along the polluted river in Nankan on the way to work. I find that the slight detour – a mildly more attractive route than the road – provides for less stress than the chaos of the Taiwanese traffic. I decided to hike last weekend and was feeling a little lethargic about it so I didn't want to do anything too stressful which led me to stick with a relatively easy hike off the MRT system in Taipei. There are a couple of nice hikes around Taipei and some of them are great and close to MRT stations making for a really nice and convenient hike with the feel of being away from the hustle and bustle of the city while actually really being connected to it. I was supposed to be meeting my colleague Meathead and our student Rick but only Rick showed... It later turned out that Meathead had overslept after making love to his biceps rather vigorously the night before, well, either that or he was 'tired' from a hard week's work. But Rick showed and we soldiered on without him.

The hike I picked was close to the Neihu district of Taipei. The trail started at Bishan Temple – a rather beautiful temple on the hillside above Neihu with a great view of Taipei and 101 could be seen in the distance. After having a look around the temple and taking some rather good photos we headed on with the trail. The next stop was to walk through the village of Shenkeng and on to a rocky outcrop on the mountainside that led to Dragonboat Rock. The rock itself was pretty damn big and had to be crossed without the use of any ropes or anything. I pretty much did a poo in my pants and skidding along the rock on my bum I didn't stop to look back and see whether I had left a brown trail...

After crossing the rock and being told that there was no road we headed into the forest anyway and followed the dirt track which headed towards a pomelo orchard. After what felt like an hour we followed the track climbing down rocks and mud surrounded in tree roots using fixed ropes and eventually found our way to the orchard after following a dried up stream bed for a few minutes. We stumbled across a few other hikers in the orchard and they managed to point us safely in the right direction of the final stop of the hike the rather subtle but pleasant Yuanjue Waterfall. There were some pretty big rocks here too and plenty of old ladies doing Tai chi as there was access from another path that led into Dahu Park and back to the MRT line... :)