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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China: LeShan Buddha

The Leshan Buddha.

Incredibly hot day. Sweated my socks off, much to the disgust of the locals. Ended up putting a towel over my head as we queued in the blistering afternoon sun to go down the pilgrims steps to the foot of the big man himself.

By that time, no one was particulaily savouring the sacred stairs experience. We just wanted the sticky, people-herded-down-small-stairs experience to end.

The biggest Buddha in the world though? Pretty fabulous!

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Beijing, TUESC: Camp does the Great Wall

The Great Wall

Mu Tian Yu

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Hot. Misty. Muggy.

The wall is a restored section.

We decided to walk up.

These are all bad things.

However there’s a donkey on the wall! He’s not looking particularly happy with his Great Wall of China experience, and to be honest, neither am I. Probably not the best day for it, but I’m paradoxically enjoying being mildly grumpy and too hot to be comfortable. Grateful, none the less, that the Summer Camp has organised our trip to the world-renowned Great Wall! The entire camp of volunteers and teachers, split up into several luxury coaches have been schlepped up to the base camp of the Wall and left to wander for three hours.

We decide to walk up, for the full experience –  one which I don’t regret in hindsight, but relished little on the uphill. I’m not that unfit, but have a tendency to turn a spectacular colour of scarlet in heat.

And it was hot.

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The weather, and by weather I mean perpetual overcast with cloud, means that we can’t see very far from the Wall itself. But it does give – the less tourist crowed areas of the wall –  a touch of the mysterious. And certainly this section, restored to its full glory is nothing short of stunningly impressive; our climb up proves what a powerful and seemingly impregnable boarder the wall provided. Even more so in it’s contextual era. I’ve heard great stories of climbing unrestored sections and camping on the wall (all of course, not strictly allowed) and would definitely recommend second-hand to other adventurous travellers with more time to spare.

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I’m pretty happy to get this muggy wall experience checked off, and clamber back in the air-conditioned coaches.

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Beijing, TUESC: The Summer Palace

A Note On Pollution

I’m getting blasé about the sheer level of smog/overcast/pollution here in Beijing and even looking at the U.S. State Air Quality Guide – constantly assuring me the concoction of chemicals in the air I’m breathing in is a big fat red ‘Unhealthy’ – is something that I’ve resigned myself to as being consistently depressing. Most of my fellow Brit volunteers have a mild cough, with one insisting he’s snot is black with pollution.

Not really feeling like checking the medical accuracy of this fact myself, I’ll just report it here and leave it to your readerly decision on its possible validity.

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Summer Palace

However, this weekend the girls have braved the sweltering Beijing summer heat on a rare, what sort-of could be classified as clear, day to explore the city’s Summer Palace!

From the elderly gentlemen practicing water calligraphy that evaporates almost instantly from the stone grey paving round the lake (which I half-expect to be steaming in this Saharan temperature), to the Chinese hawkers selling hats (with remarkable English speaking skills) and actors in full traditional regalia including beard, it’s a cultural paradise enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.

Even in the smouldering heat, the boats on the lakes make small circles loaded with barely shaded tourists and the heat burdened ant-lines of marching tourists make their way to the steps of the Palace itself, located a 15-20min walk up steep steps – depending on your relative fitness and willingness to swim with sweat.

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Thank goodness I was in excellent company, Emma and Ellie ♥ Exeter travel companions!

Suggestions:
Pick a non-weekend, and go in winter.

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Light relief!

Three wide-eyed girls and the cutest, chubby Chinese triplets known to man. I’ve actually never seen triplets before. We were innocently ‘Aww-ing’ and ‘Ahh-ing’ watching these little guys being attacked by a hoard of snap-happy Chinese tourists when suddenly we found ourselves being shepherded into centre-shot – in what must have been our five minutes of Chinese fame we were trapped sitting against the back-drop of a sandy-stoned, ancient Chinese temple, being blinded by the sun and flashes of cameras that did not need to have the flash on (Chinese-tourist speciality).

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Three exhausted foreigners and their new favourite way to eat cucumbers! This lovely lady saved us from melting completely when we bought three shaved, cooled cucumbers in a stick 小黃瓜 (xiǎo huángguā) for great refreshment; brought down from near-heat stroke by the absurdity of these salad fruit, served only in slices of course, (we’re Brits, after all) on a stick was enough to warrant a snap.

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Definitely worth the trip!

…But I can’t even remember how we got home.

Too hot.

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Taiwan: Cool Starts

I’ve only been chilling out here for a week. It’s the mildest that I’ve ever experienced in Taipei, as I’ve never been here in the spring. Its amazing to be milling about in jeans and a t-shirt when most of the memories I have of Taiwan include inhumane quantities of sweat, a burning desire for water, air-con and the immediate regret that I’d left the safety of my flat. However, these lovely temperature readings in my room are a fair reminder of where things are headed…