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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The Friendly Stew

For the big two-one this year, my lovely housemates let me invite the friends I grew up with in Belfast to our tiny student house in Exeter… with absolutely no idea what they were in for. The invitation was made, plans were set and an fleet of raucous Belfast accents invaded our house by plane, by air, by car, by train, doubling our numbers for a weekend – spoiling me beyond all belief and travelling horrendous distances to the very south of England. We were noisy, ate large quantities of food and touristed like nobody’s business.  The Belfast lot were horrified by how Anglicized my accent had become; the English were baffled by how incoherent my accent became in their presence. But we danced, we drank, we mingled and resolved our respective cultural differences through games enforcing alcohol consumption. An unforgettable twenty-first.

Friendly stew and a heavenly Korean white rice

On a practical note, having lots of people about reminded me of this great recipe! The Friendly Stew is a great way to feed large numbers of people with varying tastes; it’s quick and easy to make, requiring minimal fuss – so you can leave it to do it’s magic while you enjoy playing hostess. This super basic Spanish-style stew is adaptable to many circumstances, and built around a tomato, onion and pepper base which is a good starter for any beginner cook; it can easily be adapted to fit different ingredients and built up into an individualised master-piece! A personal favourite, and one that I crave when homesick, is our family’s ‘Pork and Olive’ – the addition of pimento stuffed green olives (pre-soaked to remove any trace of brine or oil) makes it bitter and rich; it was the only good thing about winter, as my parent’s refuse to cook it any other time, and to be fair, bar Christmas, there’s not much else to be celebrating. (I’m a bit of a grinch when it comes to the cold.). Try switching up the flavours with rosemary instead of bay leaves for a sweeter edge, or three whole garlic cloves for warm tangy undertone.

Here’s the list of what I put into my stew usually, but mix it up with whatever’s in your cupboards. It serves six people generous portions or can be frozen for savvy student consumption (and most importantly, to participate in student freezer tetris).

Ingredients
4x  cans of chopped tomatoes,
3x large peppers
2x large onions
1x tbs tomato puree
Salt & Pepper
2x bay leaves
750g gammon*
I usually use a cheap and cheerful cooking bacon and it tastes great!
Soak for aprox. 30mins before cooking to remove saltiness.

Method

1. Chop peppers and onions into approx. inch by inch squares and put in pot with all ingredients but the pork

2. Dice pork into inch by inch cubes and very lightly pan-fry so they’re ‘sealed’ and pop them into the stew
ie. changed colour on the outside but raw inside.

3.  Bring to the boil, then simmer for min. two hours until the sauce thickens

4. Serve with rice, boiled potatoes or roasted yam if you’re feeling adventurous.
Yum!

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© Jonathan Boyd Photography

Much, much, much love goes out to Simon, Scott, Hannah, Peter, Jonny and Rebecca for making the horrific journey to land’s end to celebrate my oldness; a MASSIVE thank you hug to Emily, Sophie, Jonnie, Tom and Megan for coping admirably with us Norn’ Ireland lot and holding up the English end with gusto!