Taiwan: Fashion Houses 101

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We’ve done the Taipei 101 many a time on our travels here in Taiwan, but for this outing, it’s the Fashion Houses in the 509m, bamboo styled building that are doing the business of being breath-taking.

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There’s certainly no expense spared in this complex of 101 floors, and the Fashion Houses of Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, TODs and Burberry certainly take this to heart and I’m drooling over the lavish and intricate window displays of the stores on the third floor with delicate floral backdrops, lush green cactus landscapes and hot-pink, candy-stripe balloons… That is, until I see the bejewelled and sparkling exteriors of the displays on the fourth. It’s worth walking around to appreicate the stores: they’re works of art – as well as powerhouses generating billions of dollars per year purely in attire for us to prance around in a feel pretty (or so I assume it feels to own any of these brands…). But, all joking aside, it’s a delicious rendering of advertising, and if it weren’t for the hawk-like, black-suited attendants intimidating my little self in the doorways, I’d probably take a couple of shots inside with my phone… As it is, I’d probably better not…

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Third Floor Displays.

Dolce & Gabbana Taipei 101

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Louis Vuitton Taipei 101

TOD's Taipei 101

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Fourth Floor Giants.

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Louis Vuitton Taipei

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Dior Taipei 101

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Burberry Taipei 101

The Fourth Floor Taipei 101

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It’s not just me however, who’s got the iphone out to do some gorgeous building papping, the locals are definitely into it to, and as I stroll around the twisted floors of shop after shop, there are people everywhere, from all over the world – posing for their photos in front of the public image of these global brands. It’s a powerful message for the effect that this kind of advertising has, that within what was once the tallest building in the world is housed these commercial, luxury brands that inspire such reverence and desire that couples will pose in front of their gleaming doors – no half-naked models required, Abercrombie.

I mean, please, even the food court is fancy, with its clever, light-dispersing wine glass chandeliers.

A little pretty architectural and advertising planning sure goes a long way.

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Taiwan: Miaoli Hills and Fat Pomelos

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On our way back up to Taipei, and our overnight stop-off in Miaoli county, we take a small detour to walk in the cool hills above the town where there are fat pomelo fruit loaded on the branches in the roadside forests, the screeching of cicadas in the branches overhead, and the sharp bite of zebra-spotted mosquitoes in the air.

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Pomelo Fruit in Miaoli Hills.

Trees on the Walk

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Parched Earth on the Walk

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Pomelo Fruit au Natural

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Taking a trail that meanders across a ledge on cultivated mountainside, we wander upwards across the farmland, meeting nobody on the rugged path, slightly overgrown by plants sucking up any moisture in the ground and flourishing in the summer heat. I’m in shorts, which is a bad call for traipsing though the long-bladed grass, and, true to my suspicions I am completely covered in mosquito bites as we emerge from the greeny overgrowth onto the hot tarmac road at the end of the trail – much to the bafflement of two brightly vested roadworkers quietly fixing a roadside lamp. We traipse downhill again to meet our silver van parked in the shade of overhanging bamboo, teeth gritted against the swell of mozzie bites, attempting to enjoy the lush scenery.

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It’s a nice walk, but it’s the chubby fruit hanging on the roadside that makes it for me. Certainly no plain ol’ apples or oranges round here!

Loving this tropical holiday!

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Taiwan: Bypassed Towns

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Taiwan’s landscape is snaked with hundreds of interlinking highways that make traversing and travelling the tropical island very different to what the journeys some ten, twenty years ago used to be. The slick highways (高速公路, Gāosù gōnglù) overarch and tower over many of the once bustling valley towns and roadside villages that cluster around the heady traffic and it’s commerce, towns that as a result, have withered quietly. Journeying towards Miaoli town in Taiwan, we take the old roads, verges still trimmed, clipped, maintained for a ghost population of cars. We meet only heavy industrial trucks, rusted and creaking off the highway towards industrial plants, steel mills, dark, empty restaurants and indifferent beetle nut vendors.

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It’s after driving on these deserted mid-week roads for several hours that we pull in to rest at a small village, too small and empty and overshadowed by what is a monolithic structure, darkened by the presence of construction power beyond individual control. It’s quiet, and an old, gum-mouthed man watches out from a weathered face at our foreign intrusion into this silent, abandoned rest-stop; the overpass, high above, is silent also. We don’t stay long, and after a short walk along the struggling, polluted river that runs through the town, we also leave.

It’s a strange and unnerving result of progress.

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Taiwan: Changhua Industrial Windmills

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On our journey back up towards Taipei on the highway we pass these enormous windmills slicing slowly into the blue sky, and running cheerily off from their nearby plants are shoals of delicate black cables draped over towering pylons carrying what must be hundreds of volts of electricity towards the surrounding towns.

They’re a fantastic white against the blue sky; their colour cleverly does much to enhance the image of clean energy and makes me wonder if we’d like coal and oil more if they were white… Either way, their looming structures are definitely worth the close look we take.

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The roads in the industrial estate are wide and empty besides the odd window-tinted van and lumbering truck. Under the scorching sun, the heavy thrum of the passing blades is heady and magnificent as we squint into their giant faces. We wander along the dusty roadside towards the sea, basking in the mid-day heat. The beach adjacent is made up of strangely regular round stones and huge pieces of drift wood: an imported beach to facilitate the windmills is both beautiful and strange.

Despite the one or two lonely vans that trundle by this family trip to the industrial estate, no one questions our presence.

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Taiwan: Hilltops and Uphill Cycling

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We’ve arrived in Yuanlin, at a great hotel, named with typical Taiwanese bizarreness ‘Kindness Hotel‘: brilliant. And apart from fabulous free ice-cream in the lobby (with which we foreigners are demonstrating our love of free things, let alone ice-cream), strange selection of ‘toast and spreads’ – read strange slabs of soft sponge and a selection of dessicated coconut in sweet butter, tasteless ‘chocolate’ spread and smooth peanut butter (a sin in itself) – there are amazing fold-up bikes for free hire outside the front door. The family are on that like it’s out of fashion; and boy is it. The only time I’ve ever seen these weird looking contraptions-with-wheels was held by a running man two years ago, while heading out from work experience on the horrible on the London tube.

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We take the 148 road out of the dusty, but bustling city of Yuanlin out onto the hilltop and park on the deserted roadside to ride up along the small mountain ridge. And up is the right word; in less than five minutes I’m drenched in sweat and puffing as I count eight pushes until I pause in exhaustion, long bypassed by avid cyclists in their lycra, my brothers and the occasional tootling, phut-phutting open truck/bicycles driven by old farmers and field workers in well-worn, ninja-style, anti-sun layers who peer curiously at my red face (for which I blame genetics. But, I could probably be fitter…). Still, however hot and sweaty the escapade is, the tropical plants cultivated in alien rows and styles just off the roadside and their accompanying houses in two stories with an open bottom floor and courtyard are perhaps just as foreign as the bustling cities for the wandering Brit. For all the pain it causes, a cycle in the farmland wilderness above Yuanlin is a wonderful reminder of Taiwan’s sub-tropical delights, rural lifestyle and a different type of lush greenness to Northern Ireland – a different kind of beautiful.

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We have two very brief exchanges on the uphill as we pause to drench our heads in water as part of our desperate rehydration ritual. A small farmer lady turns suddenly out of a field as my red-faced family flop off our bikes on the road side and drink water: she stares, we stare. Until my Dad says “Hello!” and “熱 (Rè)” – Hot! She breaks into a wrinkly smile and ambles over to our side, bending nearly double to pull out mysterious weeds and flashing a similarly small, curved reaping knife strapped to her back. We all look at each other, and I’m thinking little old lady could do some serious damage with it. I snap a quick shot as her back is turned, and we continue – up, of course.

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Old Farmer and his Pride Vegetable!
Old Farmer and his Pride Vegetable!

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It’s hard to find a good view spot when we finally reach a lovely, lovely plateau (THANK YOU, NATURE) but we try a couple of lanes to the left and right of the main road to catch a glimpse of the towns below us – cycling past bemused tour groups who happily call out “Hello”s and “Have a good days”s and are equally bemused, if not more so, when they see us not five minutes later returning up the same route after failing to find a suitable vista. But our next proper exchange is on the death-defying descent to the car, as we stop to admire a huge, and strange fruit at the side of the road. As four five foot nine + foreigners stare at the large vegetable on the roadside, a large straw hat rises slowly from the grasses in the field behind. A wary farmer locks stony eyes; we gawk back. Again, it’s Dad who’s that practised millisecond faster and shouts “Big!” making the traditional spread-arms gesture – eliciting a broad, toothy grin and a thumbs up.

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Oh, and before I forget, one of the lanes led windily down towards a little pig farm! I’ve never seen one before, and it was a strange moment as I swivelled about looking for the source of the snuffling, before looking down at the sunken, concrete pens by the lane.

They looked frightening together grunting, but maybe even more so when they looked cutely, and humanly, up at us.
I’m not a vegetarian, but I certainly thought about it for a second.

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Get your cycle on in Taiwan, it’s really a brilliant way to explore the island no matter where you are!
Anyone else had funny cycling meetings? Oh! – and if you know what any of the names for the weird fruit we saw, let me know!

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Charlotte

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Taiwan: Sanzhi Mountain Driving

 

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For my first section of real hairpin-turns driving, I’m up above Yuanlin near the Sanzhi mountain park with a full van of eight family members in the back. No pressure. It helps that sections of the road that are plunged with mist (霧 – Wù) are conveniently also subject to large holes and mudslides after the past typhoon weather. As I crawl along the road, I’m overtaken by shiny black and silver BMWs and Toyotas, fearless to death apparently.

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The good news is, the temperature takes a sharp plunge as we head on this nauseatingly winding roads upwards into the mountain, bypassing tourist-and-SUV overcrowded spots at BaGua Shan. Instead, along the way, we stop in the surprisingly temperate, cool climate, nearly chilly in our shorts and t-shirts, to take a look at some stunning tea plantations that spring out of the sheer, dark forested mountain side along with small crowds, promotions women (of the late fifties, restaurant overall wearing type) and a sudden surge of cars parked along narrow road passes that accompanies it. Unlike hardy tea I’ve seen growing on parches hilltops and fields in Taiwan, these thick bushy lines of tea plant are rich and dark against the hill, and it’s something really gorgeous to behold.

For as long as you can stand crowds that is.

Back into the car after a short walk and on down the hill.

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On the way down the hill, we stop off at a Taiwan speciality: a roast chicken. We’re big fans of roast chicken back home, and this dramatic way of cooking a chicken is certainly entertaining – nearly as entertaining for me as the little mountain pigs (pets I’m assured) that try to eat my fingers outside the restaurant. The chicken, in a strange orange to match the chefs t-shirt (deliberate?), is strung on a wire with a small dish of oil beneath it and hung in the large kiln to get roasted, coming out a deep, glossy blackened colour. Dad, head of the table, has the honour of donning a pair of white industrial gloves, made dubiously sanitary by a thin, disposable plastic covering, and tearing up the roasted chicken for the rest of the family.

Messy and very yum.

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After lunch, we hop in the car on our way back to Yuanlin, making a short stop at Beitou’s city hall – but don’t quote me on it – and wander around it’s grounds watching a fantastic array of kites soar on the strings held by parents, as children scream and run wildly on the grass track in front of the blindingly white building.

It’s a long day of exciting driving, but boy am I glad to experience some cool weather here in Taiwan, even in the peak of summer. It’s good to know leaving the safety of air-con is not always like stepping into a pre-heated oven.

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Taiwan: Dramatic Driving

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driving 1

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Having passed my driving test some three years ago (second time lucky) I’ve only ever driven two cars around Northern Ireland; I didn’t take a car to university and never even tried a motorbike in Taipei on my gap year. But yesterday I blithely stepped into the driving seat of a Nissan Serena QRV – an eight seater, automatic gear, hard-suspension bouncing bus some 6,000 miles from where I made my maiden, gear-grinding voyage on my little Renault 2.0 Clio.

There’s much to think about driving here on the other side of the world, besides not slamming my foot on the parking break thinking its the clutch (automatic, Charlotte, automatic): the towns and their roads are cluttered, bustling and busy with the blithe tootling of horns, swerving of hundreds of motorbikes and flashing lights of shop signs, hawkers and vans vying for your attention. Luckily for me, the motorways where I make my first Asia journey are much less daunting.

Nevertheless, Taiwanese signage is a sensory explosion of crammed Chinese characters, illusive arrows and dubiously spelt English translations that litter the small window space with an overkill of unintelligible information at the most crucial of times – foreign junctions, crossroads, and roundabouts. And that’s to say nothing for four (or a times seven !) hand-waving and finger-pointing happy back-seat-drivers who enjoy commentating on the daring of both the Chinese drivers, and myself. Noise reaches it’s peak, with driver joining in the clamber for coins and foray of instructions and translations, at the various toll stations along the freeway, 高速公路 (Gāosù gōnglù). I’m pleased to give evidence of 100% uneventful toll transactions which the whole family survived, albeit noisily.

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driving

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One of the most interesting things about driving in Taiwan, is the countdown system at the lights: from the moment they turn red the timer starts, letting drivers know when the light will turn green again. It’s not just for the cars, pedestrians also have a yellow counter telling them how long they have to cross the wide roads here – and to take the biscuit – a small, green animated man who slowly speeds up his pace until he runs and the lights flash incessantly telling you you should probably pelt it if you want to make it to the other side.

I’m not quite sure if the point of these is to placate the impatient public during long waits at the red lights here; certainly I’ve been at lights which have counted an agonizing eighty seconds. However, as I’ve noticed, knowing you’ve got time to kill at the lights, and a warning for when you’ll have to pay attention again prompts some interesting red light behaviour. From heavily cloaked ladies selling jasmine flowers car to car, fishing for and lighting cigarettes, to several (illegal) phonecalls; I’ve even watched an old man park his bike, pull out two saggy, beige socks from deep in a coat pocket, and proceed to sock his feet and slip them leisurely back into his plastic sandals while the counter kept a watch for him at the red light… My heart was jumping the entire time just watching him.

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The best thing about driving abroad for me though?
I don’t get carsick!

A big hurrah for all involved!

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Taiwan: Typhoon Day #3, Riverside Bike Slides

RIVERSIDE BIKE SLIDES

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It’s another wet and windy day here in Taipei, and after the last typhoon trip’s success (definite sarcasm here), we’re setting off again in our wonderful waterproofs on another weather-defiant trip! This time, we’re renting five of the city’s public Youbike‘s and heading down the riverside cycle path north from the bottom of Taipei. Youbikes are 10NT per 30mins for single rental users and free for the first 30mins, then 10NT per half hour thereafter for members. If you have a metro card and Taiwan mobile number, it’s super easy to sign up and avoid the queues for bikes so I recommend taking the extra five minutes to register!

It’s been raining hard these days, and the ground is mucky and slippy. The first family member to slide off their bike is… Dad! A full 180º backwheel slide propels him into the ground and two Chinese ladies watch, grappling with their basic English to ask “Are you OK?”, but no injuries sustained, Dad hops back on the bike and we trundle on down the path. When I say path though, really the cycle paths here are excellent, as a the youbikes themselves, with more markings than I’ve ever seen on a walkway, cyclists are treated like motorbikes with the seriousness of their road signage.

Next off the bike is yours truly! Pacing it downhill at speed with my brothers, I attempt to control my wacky downhill descent by gently squeezing the back break – only it’s not the back break at all: it’s the front break, and it is so sharp the entire bike pitches forward at 90º to the road as my body keeps flying in the my original direction. My legs pitch and wheel as I run through the steel frame of my bike, continuing a good five meters beyond it’s crashing frame, miraculously without any injury bar a bruise on my thigh, and the shock of adrenaline that accompanies my attempt at flight. As I now know, not only should you check your bell and basket on Taiwanese Youbikes, but your breaks; for Brits out there, they’re configured the American way – back break on the right, front on the left.
It may be a life saving distinction!

Lastly, but certainly not least Mum takes a tumble on the muddy wharf where the typhoon has swept up mud, sand and even fish. Covered all down one side in mud, we decide it’s better for us all to call it a day for the Youbikes. Turning off the bike trail at DaDao Cheng, we venture onto the busy night time road to leave our bikes back to ShuangLian station and head for some food!

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The MRT takes us home from a long days cycling and sliding.

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