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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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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Taiwan: 烏石港 WuShiGang Surf Spot!

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烏石港 (Wū shí gǎng)
Technology Building MRT Station
Bus No. 1915
Bus No. 131

極酷衝浪 – G-Cool Surf Shop
No.93-2, Gon-ko-lee Rd.
Toucheng city, Yilan County
Zip: 261 Taiwan, R.O.C
(宜蘭縣頭城鎮港口里(路)93-2號)

Tel:886-3-9770266


Haggle!
G-Cool’s deal should include, surf lesson, full-day board rental (with option to switch to body board), wet shirt hire, umbrella and table on the beach and shower facilities.

In spring I paid 300NT for the package in a group of five; in summer I paid 400NT in a group of three.

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Last week, pre-typhoon appearance, we took a trip down to 烏石港 (Wū shí gǎng) Beach where I went surfing some two years ago with housemates and friends. It’s a great surf beach for beginners; as you head down from the road towards the beach (past car-parking spots if you’re driving) the beach is chock packed of sun-umbrellas and students playing volleyball across the curious light grey sand, unique to the area. Best of all, out in the sea sits the super-cute Turtle Island! Keeping with old and familiar, I head to G-Cool to rent boards, where we always go: the instructors are mostly twenty-something university students (all male, if you’re interested) and after just one full morning of surfing I’m bruised, battered and sun-burnt.

Top Tips:

# Bring your own rucksacks with water, food and snacks – you’ll burn lots of energy surfing.
# Take the time to find a waterproof sunscreen, even if it’s overcast at the beach, and cover your hands and any other exposed areas.
(I’m currently sporting some interesting burn lines)
# Bring savlon for board burns and after sun lotion.
# Do not forget flip flops!! The sand gets very, very hot!

It’s hard work taking the bus back on the way home, but luckily for me, family holidays mean we can rent a car for the five of us and I can snooze in the back seat on the way home.

Definitely worth visiting if you’re in Taiwan!

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Taiwan: Cultural Boo-Boos

A gift bag for a good friend!

Despite being half-Taiwanese, and having spent a fair amount of time here observing what are very foreign customs, I still struggle to express myself sometimes. Not only linguistically, although that also happens more often than I’d like, but rather importantly, in terms of gestures. This gift bag is something I fretted over for weeks; a very good girl friend of mine helped me out a lot in the past, and I wanted to find some way to repay her that she would appreciate, and wouldn’t be accidentally offended by. I settled on some beauty products and a top of Western labels (harder/more expensive here in Taipei) and making some passive Origami goldfish (six, with my mother’s suggestion, staying well away from the unlucky number four).

Pish, how can you possibly accidentally offend someone, you ask?
Believe me, it’s happened in the past.

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Two years ago I made a big boo boo offering to pay a Taiwanese friend petrol money for a three hour round trip out to the beach; there were five of us in the car, and he paid for petrol and toll booths along the way, so of course we should offer, right? As the strange look passed that his face quickly told, it was very wrong.

I later asked a girl friend what I did wrong, and she suggested that I should have taken him out to dinner instead. I didn’t see the difference between her suggestion and my action at the time, and it wasn’t until later till I realised that that in itself was was a subtle indicator that I had committed a cultural faux-pas; it wasn’t till later I thought that perhaps the custom I was used to, that of ‘Let’s go Dutch’ – each person being accountable for their own finances and it being expected of the recipients to split the costs – wasn’t something that was expectable a third of the way across the planet. In a conversation with another Chinese friend, she put it in a rather succinct analogy, where the cultural barrier could be transcended in one blunt description: what I did was the equivalent of treating him like a taxi driver.

Ah.

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I think half the the pain of being a foreigner is insulting people when you mean well.

I’m still not sure that there’s a set in stone guideline for how these things work, but I suspect that there are a whole set of cultural mistakes I make every day without noticing. Do share any similar experiences if you have them; I’m still carrying a long back-log of cultural misunderstandings, waiting to be deciphered…

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China: The Everyday Life

The Rickety Bus Lottery

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I love Chinese buses.

The rickety thrill of not knowing where you are, or if you’re going to end up where you think you’re going.

There’s something to be said for doing things the way the Chinese do. All the way across the world, the thing that gets me the most is the chance to experience how other people live their daily lives. I love the terrifying, ramshackle confusion of indecipherable bus timetables, of minuscule print stop names, the hurly-burly locals bustle for seats.

The lurch and groan of the buses in Chengdu screech of ancient machinery, and the rattle of tin-trap assures me the metal contraption has never seen a safe test, let alone heard of one.

Who knows where I’ll end up.
I’m sure it’ll be exciting.

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The Chengdu Noodle Man.

Time for lunch and I’m sitting in a Xingjiang Muslim noodle restaurant that’s at most the size of a small bedroom. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a mattress hiding somewhere amongst the cupboards at the back.

I manage to smile politely enough to let the suspicious young chef kindly allow me video him literally pulling the noodles for my lunch, even though he clearly thought I was batty.

 He’s got serious skills, and is extremely polite.

You sure don’t get noodles like this in your ramen-pack folks.

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Thanks Noodle Man!

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Chengdu:

Buses
The Noodle Man

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China: Backpacking Begins

Going Solo

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Endless trains.

I read Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Sea, The Sea’ and ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card.

I sleep. Alot.

It’s the first terrifying experience of backpacking alone, and as I’m left at the train station, I’m not filled with fear, but a burning shot of adrenaline alertness; a fend for yourself alertness. As I make my way through Beijing Main Station’s steel barriers, I enter a sea of dark-haired heads and become indistinguishable from the crowd. Beijing travelling is hot and sticky and distinctly not modern, and I battle with language barriers and reading barriers to make my platform.

It feels dangerous on the dark platform, rushing towards my cheap L-class, student-cheap train, but the train itself has the light, vaugely clean feel that attempts something clinical for the fifteen something hours six strangers are about to spend in around three meters squared of space.

Being alone, I feel at once reassured and threatened by their presence. Too shy to approach them, wary of being caught in a life-story trap, I curl up with my rucksack at my feet and settle into a long journey interrupted only by the rattle of the untouched food trolley and the occasional jarring-chug into not-my-station.

 

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Taiwan: Seaside Surf and Spike

This little guy washed up on the beach when we went surfing…  He’s pretty disgusting. Made me think twice about going back into the water…

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