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: 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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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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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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