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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Beijing, TUESC: Forbidden City

Forbidden City

It’s a predictably hot day when Emma, Ellie and I chose to visit one of Beijing’s most coveted set of historical buildings: The Forbidden City.

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Rivulets of sweat run happily down my back, my umbrella is up, Chinese-style, and my back-pack of water feels a lot heavier than a litre of water duly should, but nothing can overshadow the sheer scale of the endless courtyards, alleys and royal buildings in the elaborate 15th century complex of beautiful, painted-wood roofing. As we file in under a huge portrait of President Mao, we’re battling with the people towards a small dark tunnel: the entrance to the city itself. It’s hard to believe, given the addition of thousands of tourists, whistles, tour-group speakers and jiggling flags, that this entire area was once a secluded, palace of secrecy and royalty.

Instead of talking the main bee-line up the middle of the complex, we soon veer off to shaded side roads, back alleys of the servants and noticeably less crowded; from these bubbles of quiet. we observing the vast cobbled courtyard space into which the bottleneck of tourists tumble ant-like, and sweating, admiring their hundreds in a space once reserved for ceremonial events and special dignitaries.

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The contents of the exhibitions here are definitely undermined by the misty glass-cum-plastic that divides the sticky fingers and foreheads from what is possibly antique furniture – though it’s hard to tell in the dim rooms, a stark contrast from the blinding sun outside.

Having visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which houses many of the original artefacts from the Forbidden City, evacuated after a long trek across the country of China over to the small Formosan Island by Chiang Kai Chek and his followers following the Civil War in China, it is not hard to see that the two heritage sites offer very different experiences. In my opinion, The Forbidden City demonstrates the sheer vastness of the architecture and demonstrates the immense power of space and place in politics and society, whereas for the contents and details of the internal wealth, art and culture, it is best to look to the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

However the souvenir shops and exhibitions in the Forbidden City offer excellent air-conned relief from the scorching morning sun.

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Chinese Chat

As a last anecdote of the day, a man in his late fifties, thin as a bean pole and wearing heavily clothes as sun-bleached as his skin is tanned, calls out to me with a flash of white teeth and astoundingly well-accented English.

It’s hard to displace the shock of the apparent incongruity of his appearance and his Oxford-style English within the wall of the Forbidden City, and his alarming tendency to peer very closely into my face when speaking knocks me straight out of my historical reverie. But while his enthusiasm to converse with us definitely straddles the border with frightening, it’s an excellent example of the curiosity of being a tourist in China; the people may stare without prejudice, and converse with mild prejudice (rightly assuming the majority of us cannot speak Mandarin), but they for the most part, are purely curious: being foreign in China is certainly an oddity in a way that is no longer common in England.

Considering the vast scale of the country, its tendency to umbrella its many ethnic diversities as a community of one country (in contrast to the emphasised individualism of the West) and it’s relative youth in terms of international tourism and wide-spread immigration it is hardly surprising that two English girls, and one half Northern Irish, half Taiwanese Mandarin-speaking girl (to be precise) can cause a small amount of fuss.

Interestingly, once most people discover I can speak Mandarin, they are suitably unnerved and back off.

It’s the real foreigners that they want photos with.

😉

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Taiwan: Vaseline Thermometer

Runny Vaseline Thermometer

The Vaseline’s runny. Well, it must be warm then.

There’s no doubt that Taiwan summers can get roasting hot, where opening the front door feels like what must be a chicken’s reaction to an oven: death is certain and sweaty. Over the last few years, my trusty Vaseline has become a talismanic indicator of when it is acceptable to sit back and say “Mmm today’s not the day to do anything. In our ancestral history, we once read signs such as these with no understanding of the whys and hows; there were some things in life that told simple truths; the viscosity of this pink candyfloss pond can certify, beyond all need for numbers and centigrade, the current level of suffering.

And this is no exception. Today is going to be a day of wafting with a sticky primal wistfulness between 7-Eleven air-cons and slow, Taiwanese-style walking.

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