Year Abroad: Tianjin Travels

TO TIANJIN!

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Off the HSR at Tianjin Railway Station

Off the High Speed Rail and into the bustle at Tianjin Railway Station.
Beijing – Tianjin: 54.50¥
Shanghai  – Beijing: 550¥

It’s autumn in China, and I recently made a trip out of the bustle of Shanghai up to Tianjin, where over the course of four days I managed to amass a large amount of photos of the journey, the city, and very few of myself and my friend Peter.
(Sorry, Pete.)

In comparison with Big Ol’ Shanghai, Tianjin is pretty chilled and quiet city, and I’ve spent a lovely four days wandering some of it’s least tourist-trekked streets, thanks to my trusty guide, as well as some of it’s Lonely Planet-style tourist attractions. Despite the fact that Tianjin covers an area some six times larger than Shanghai, it’s population is only half that of the shiny southern city – and it shows. The streets are chilled, the metros are only quietly bustling, and the people are friendly (what a shock to the system).

Take note Shanghai.

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REAL CHINA

We start off the trip with an excellent 6¥ bowl of noodles at what Pete has dubbed ‘Man and Wife Pull Noodles’, a tiny, tiny, tiny restaurant that sits in a rickety road alley just by Tianjin Experimental High School. If you haven’t tried eating where the locals eat, you’re missing out on a real and genuine experience of China. This street is lined with lots of similarly miniature restaurants, all of which have been dubbed with fabulous English names by the local, non-Chinese speaking foreigners, and are flocked with tracksuited schoolkids at lunch (beware).

I keep accidentally calling the restaurant ‘Man on Wife Pull Noodles’, much to everyone’s delight.
Well, it is a bit of a mouthful.

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By Necessity, Alley Restaurant, Tianjin

These pretty bottles are filled with Chinese vinegar, and are perfectly lined up on our table (one of only three, in a space smaller than my tiny dormitory bedroom at Fudan University). The decor has definitely happened by necessity, and not because they’ve popped down to the local Ikea.

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Cat in Basket, Waiting

Oh, and here’s a Cat in Basket outside the shop.
Why are you so grumpy, kitty!

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I’M A TOURIST!

Next, I get the grand tour! Try the Tianjin Radio Tower, 1 Weijin South Rd, Hexi, Tianjin in summer for a great view of the surrounding city. On a smog-free day take the cheeky elevator up with a 50¥ Adult ticket (20¥ Consession/Student), and check out the span of the sprawling city. Afterwards, the nearby Lake Park 水上公园  is perfect for a relaxed stroll and watermelon on a stick! The attractions themselves are all a little worn out and dusty, with lots of attendants that seem to be there mostly for show – but worth visiting for the strangeness of it all. Other tourist spots worth a visit are the shiny, new Museum District, the Italian Quarter, the Old Town and the Tianjin Eye.

Radio Tower in winter  is an absolutely amazing sight.
Tianjin is b-e-a-utiful in winter, if not horrifically cold.

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 Tianijn Radio Tower

Tianijn Radio Tower.

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If you get a chance, go for a stroll around the local areas (or a bike ride if you can find one and are savvy enough not to get killed on raod that have a fairly relaxed attitude to general traffic laws). Out by Wujiaoyao the two story houses and residential streets are slow paced, and filled with wandering elderly people in faded floral packs; the wide, dry streets are sparsely tree-lined and seemingly under constant renovation, with building dust churning now and then under our shoes. Card playing old men in dark jackets shout in tense, tight circles around makeshift tables.

We were very alternative, and took a stroll in the dark.

A NIGHTTIME STROLL IN TIANJIN

One lovely evening after a long day at the nearby Italian Quarter and Old Town, we take a stroll down along the HaiHe 海河 Riverside to soak up some more of Tianjin’s relaxed atmosphere, take some photos, and a look at night-time life.

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Tianjin Father and Daughter, Nighttime Radisson Building

A man and his daughter sitting in the glow of the Radisson Building.

Tianjin, Nightshift Nap

This man is taking the night shift on Tianjin Old Street very seriously.

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Over the Bridge, Tianjin

Over the Bridge.

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Three Men Fishing, Tianjin China

Three men fishing under an over pass; the man on the very left is wearing what’s left of his daytime, smart suit, while the older gentleman in the middle has the look of an old-timer to the trade.

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Tianjin Little Eats Street 天津小吃街

Little Eats Street, Tianjin is busy and bustling.

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Last Man Working, Nightshift Tianjin

Last man working the nightshift.

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The Clock, Tianjin

Tianjin Clock in some pretty cool looking light pollution.

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HEADING BACK


 “Home, James!” My family say this when we’re going home after a day out, but I don’t know why, or who this mysterious ‘James’ is. Peter made a face and sounded fairly insulted that I was calling him James… Does anyone else say this? Support would be greatly appreciated.

Anyway, after a long day out, we nip on the last metro of the evening on line three and head home!
Tianjin’s metro is wonderfully efficient, and much less overcrowded that Shanghai’s rush hour. English everywhere and friendly staff makes it a super easy tourist city.

Wujiaoyao Metro

I love how symmetrical everything is in the station, and as a treat, they’ve opened the backs of all the metro coin machines –  pretty neat.

From the White Lights, Lamps in the Dark, Tianjin

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AWAY I GO

View from the Window, China High Speed Train

At on my window seat back down to Shanghai as the High Speed Train hits 400km/h!

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It’s a long journey home when you’re leaving an old friend and heading back to a city that you can barely call home yet. It’s a seven hours door to door, and I do nothing more than doze, read and listen to music.

It’s been great to take a step back from Shanghai and chill out for four days from the stress of university level Chinese and watch Pete make all our transactions, translate, tour guide and generally be an excellent host. On the creative side of things, one of the great joys of touristing with a friend is you don’t have to feel nearly so ashamed of spending five minutes trying to get the shot that you want. So cheers to the large album dedicated to one of China’s five national central cities.

Hope I can come back soon,PhotoVogue Shelled Light, Charlotte Black

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.Charlotte xx

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PhotoVogue Shelled Light, Charlotte Black

Oh, hey there Vogue, this is the Tianjin Railway station.

😝

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Tasty Taiwan Treats

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If you’re thinking of heading to Taipei, happy-snappy touristing, back-pack hipstering, or even (darn you, lucky thing) living in Taiwan currently, here’s my run down of the best best best things to eat in a 20min walking radius of the National Taiwan University.

I’m not in Taiwan anymore, let alone in the wonderful Gong Guan area of Taipei, but you’re just going to have to forgive me: it’s been a long first week of classes here in Shanghai. All I want to do right now is turn back the clock two and a half weeks, and head down the road to get some ice-cold Chen San Ding Bubble Tea

It can be hard jumping from one country to another, especially on the tummy, and for this week, I’m struggling not only to find what I am used to eating in Taiwan here in the sprawling metropolis of Shanghai, but to force myself to branch out from my small selection of known foods.
I’m still feeling pret-ty wary of the strange looking food here….

CHEN SHAN DING
BUBBLE TEA

陳三鼎黑糖粉圓專賣店
台北市中正區羅斯福路三段316巷8弄口

Take the MRT to Gongguan Station, Green Line

What you want:
No. 1 青蛙撞奶 (Qīngwā zhuàng nǎi) 30NT

Chen Shan Ding ((陳三鼎) Bubble Tea, Taiwan

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If you come to Taipei and miss out on this, I can only say, shame on you. This take-away store front in Gongguan Market sell bubble tea to a hectic queue of dedicated fans from Tuesday to Sunday. And, when I say their bubble tea is the best, I mean their “black-sugar-soaked-bubble” tea is the single most delicious, intoxicatingly sweet, 30NT-a-pop drink in all of Taiwan. Period.  My order is usually a “一杯一號, 少冰” (Yībēi yī hào, shǎo bīng)  or a No.1 with less ice, and it hits the spot.
Every. Time.

STEWED PORK RICE
滷肉飯 (Lǔ ròu fàn)

with a side of Chinese spinach – and if you’re lucky a tea egg or a fluorescent slice of crunchy sweet pickle!

Your treat for… ~30NT rice +  ~40NT vegetable dish
Try a side bowl of 餛飩湯 (Húntún tāng), commonly known as Wonton Soup in the West .

If nothing else is on my mind come dinner time our here in Shanghai, it’s this yummy little dish.There’s nothing simpler or more satisfying for me than a little bowl of the ol’ Lou Rou Fan after a day in the heat in Taipei. It’s cheap, it’s filling, and it’s available at nearly any standard noodle-and-dumpling store – usually the cheapest on the menu in my experience! It’s definitely worth trying the variation in different stores if you have the time, as the softness of the mean, the ratio of fat to lean, the type of meat (fine mince or chunks), and cheeky add-ons are different wherever you go.

For moments of laziness, longing, tired-and-homesickness, I like to know where my wee local is…

My favourite, all-circumstances appropriate dish.

lou rou fan, 滷肉飯 taiwan.

TAIWANESE HAMBURGER
藍家割包
(Lán jiā guà bāo)

No. 3, Alley 8, Lane 316, Roosevelt Rd., Sec. 3
TEL:+886 22 368 2060

If you’re at the Gongguan Nightmarket already and it’s night-time, don’t leave just yet!

From facing the obvious Chen San Ding store front, turn 90º anti-clockwise to 藍家割包 (Lán jiā guà bāo), which sell a delicious on-the-go treat:  割包 (guà bāo), otherwise known as the ‘Taiwanese Hamburger.’ These hot, little puffy white bread bundles are filled with braised pork (Options: lean, fatty, or half-and-half) with optional parsley and peanut powder for a neat 50NT.  While they claim to have other stalls over Taipei, nothing beats the original at Gongguan.

Not that I’m biased or anything.

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Copywrite Christopher Chen

 

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 LITTLE PLUM
LAN ZHOU BEEF NOODLE

小李子蘭州牛肉拉麵館
(Xiǎo lǐzǐ lánzhōu niúròu lāmiàn guǎn)
No.57, Lane 118, Section 2, Hépíng East Road, Daan District, Taiwan
Tel: +886 2 2736 9505

Top of the range 牛肉湯麵: 120~160NT

If you’re walking out the back gate at the 和平東路 exit of the National Taiwan University (about 20mins walk from Gongguan Station), step into Lane 118 for a taste of the best little Beef Noodle Restaurants in the area. It’s modestly sized and simply run, with a plastic seated interior and efficient service – but the right wall is plastered with foodie awards, photos of famous clientèle, and even a letter of recommendation from President. Fancy.  

For me, it’s the perfect rendition of the traditional Taiwan Beef Noodle dish: the noodles are made on the spot, the soup is light but packed with flavour, the beef is incredibly soft, with lovely marbling and a hint of sweetness and of course, there’s some winter gourd cooked in with the noodles. Parfait! If spicy is your thing, you may have to make use of the chilli flake oil provided, but for me, it’s got it just right.

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Taiwan Best: Beef Noodle Soup

Taiwan Best: Beef Noodle Soup

Winter Gourd and all... sob! It's delicious!!

Winter Gourd and all… sob! It’s delicious!!

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SHI DA NIGHTMARKET

Take the Red/Green Line to Taipower Building Station (台電大樓站), exit 3.
Turn right, then make another quick right to Shi-Da Road (師大路).
The market is located along both Shi-Da road and in the alleys off both sides.

If you’re looking for some proper, girly (or a manly) nightmarket shopping while you’re in the area, hop just one stop on the metro to Taipower Building Station to hit the hot, packed alleys of Shi Da Nightmarket.

Although it’s cracked down on what used to be a sprawling, noisy hubbub of food stalls and vendors, there’s arguably a better (read: less smelly and elbow-jarring) shopping environment at the Shi Da University’s local night-time stroller.

CLOTHES
It’s the main street if you want to exercise some haggling for those cheap bargains, but if you’ve got the cash to splash for Korean boutiques, try the cutesy decor, air-conned stores that are hidden in doorways or behind tinkling glass doors further out of the bustle.

FOOD
The 浦城街雲和接 crossroads for on-the-go food options from barley and green mung bean sweet soup, deep fried delights from yam to squid and, a personal favourite, don’t miss the freshly made winter gourd tea. If you need to rest those feet – there’s a  studen
t haunt ice cream parlour Anor Crêpes that serves a biscuit-esque crêpe that can be packed with different flavours of ice cream scoops towards the 浦城街 entrance to the market

Crepe

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I sure miss my Taiwanese food, but I’m learning my preferences out here in Shanghai. The drinks are heavenly, the street food outside the Guanghua Chinese Language Building is a guilty treat, and the University cafeteria is student-budget cheap: my kind of places!

Can’t wait to show y’all my meals out here in Yanugpu district of Shanghai!
.Charlotte xx.

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Year Abroad: Shanghai Touchdown

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Leaving Taipei is strange. I’m not sure what to make of the move I’m making to Shanghai – controversially thought of as the south capital of China – but making it with my entire family in tow manages to dull any would be panic. Having never lived in a city bigger than Taipei, I’ve no idea what to expect of life in a city sprawled across some 6,340 km², to Taipei’s mere 271.7 km², and that’s to say nothing of Exeter or Belfast.

However, it’s not the first time I’ve set foot in Shanghai: the family transited here at the end of July… for one of the hottest heatwaves that Shanghai has experienced. As we fled the mid-day heat that soared into the high 30s (Celsius), world news was transfixed by a news broadcast of bacon and eggs frying on pavement that was reaching searing temperatures of 60. Some serious hotel air-conditioning, and continental breakfast does much to ease our jet-lag, exhaustion and the shock of the temperature difference, still we brave the mid-day make a regrettably sweaty visit to the magnificent Yu Yuan Gardens (stopping off for a much needed McDonalds Taro Ice-Cream) and at night venture tentatively for an afternoon to Nanjing East Road and nightfall at The Chinese Bund.

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Like many a literature student, my only second-hand, preconception of Shanghai comes from reading J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun at seventeen: a 1940s city falling into the turmoil of World War II. As I approach The Chinese Bund, and gape at the looming structures of former foreign consulate and business buildings on the PuXi, side it’s the hoards of people, surging towards the black water of the Huang Pu River in the night that are the strongest presence around us. The water reflects the thousands upon thousands of lights that string up the towers on the PuDong bank in the night sky, making me think the “gaudy city”, as Ballard opens his novel, is still living up to it’s claim. It’s hot, sticky and as the throngs press around us, down the entirety of East Nanjing Road to and from the Bund, and rushing with blankly manic gestures towards the opening train doors on the metro (地鐵 – Dìtiě); queuing is a foreign concept, running for a free seat is not.

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Yet, the Bund makes a second appearance when we arrive in the Shanghai for the second time, and for a welcome to my home for a year, the family brave the humidity and heat of Nanjing East Road a second time, to see the skyline of the Bund by day. It’s well worth the baking concrete walk and overhead sun. The crowds are considerably less by daylight, and we wander up the banks strip, noting the spirited Chinese flags atop the Pu Xi buildings, and becoming more and more interesting to the local Chinese tourists. The blink of black lenses and unnecessary flashes on the sidewalk slowly turn towards our family of five, as we snap our own family photos, and as the pictures become ridiculously blatant, we make a quick exit off the Bund sidewalk. Nevertheless, I’m glad to be with my family for our first experience of the interesting social practice of  photographing foreigners.

I assumed that here in Shanghai, with an estimated population of 23.5 million, my dark hair, dark eyes and vaguely Asian features may have spared me the embarrassment, total invasion of privacy and complete bafflement  that comes with having a stranger blatantly take your photo.

Apparently not.

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Looking forward to the year ahead!

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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: 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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