Monday, May 26, 2008

Into the mountains

Verily 'twas a great day spent exploring the Taiwanese countryside riding thither and hither, fro and to, forth and back. Our plan for this Sunday had been to ride to the mountains to the South East of Tainan and take the number 40 road that very scenically crossed a high section of the range. It was great to be able to take our time and stop to see whatever took our fancy. I have to say that our scooter is very economical to run. We were out all day and used less than a tank of petrol (from the Latin petra [rock] and oleum [oil]) which costs us just over US$3. That's a long, cheap ride.

Driving along, we saw a sign for the muddy volcano. We are aware that there are a lot of hot springs in Taiwan. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, Taiwan's hot springs attract a lot of Japanese tourists who know the value of a good hot spring. So what did we find when we finally reached the site? You'll have to watch the video to find out although I can tell you that it was a pleasant surprise to discover that there was no fee to see the volcano and no businesses very close to it.

Riding along on a scooter honey... I was going to quote the lyrics from an old Mungo Jerry song here but upon checking the lyrics I decided that I didn't like that particular song very much so I'll quote the lyrics from the title track to Transformers the Movie instead:

Something evil's watching over you
Comin' from the sky above
And there's nothing you can do

Prepare to strike
There'll be no place to run
When your caught within the grip
Of the evil Unicron

More than meets the eye
Robots in Disguise

And you thought that I was holding up that dragon bridge didn't you! A very cunning photographic illusion I'm afraid. My dragon-bridge lifting days are behind me and I'm sworn to a life of abstinence (from lifting dragon bridges).

An inactive cone close to the very active muddy volcano. Note that my pose here was intentional and I attempted to look wacky, to little avail methinks.

Oh they're so cute together, the Australian country boy and the Canadian hapkido black belt. Note my collared short with the subtle floral pattern. I may not look tough but I can wield an axe like she can wield a pair of nunchaku. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia the name nunchaku derives from the terms nun (a pair) and chaku (from shaku, a unit of measurement). The weapon may have developed as a response to the moratorium on edged weaponry instituted by the Satsuma daimyo, or so says the great Wiki.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Music for Haydn

Several people have commented on how our apartment block is officially called "Music for Haydn". While this may seem a strange name for an apartment block it is not as strange as some of the other English names we see on a tour through our fair city. I especially like the local English schools "Grimm Kindergarten" and "Love Baby Wonderland: Pudding Burger". However, deficient as I am in evidence that those places really exist, allow me to take you, my gentle reader, on a very short tour of Music for Haydn.

Franz Joseph Haydn was born in the village of Rohrau, Austria in 1732 and died in Vienna (I think), Austria, in 1809. He composed a lot of music and knew Mozart and Beethoven and ate a lot of Austrian beef made into cute little meatballs with a smiley face on one side and a sad face on the other. In the late 20th century he was immortalised in becoming the eponymous inspiration for the Music for Haydn apartment complex on Jyunping Road in the historic district of An-ping in Tainan, the old capital of Taiwan. May he reign supreme among famous people who have given their names to communal residences. This is a photo of the hanging outside our front door which spells out our address. Haydn was obviously the Phil Collins of his day and must surely have been able to charm his way into the silky beds of the rich and famous women of 18th century Austria.

Immortality is your face on a gold plaque outside the elevator of our tower within the apartment complex.

The large building on the left is the north side of the Music for Haydn complex. The ground floor spaces are all utilised by businesses from scooter mechanics to drycleaners to restaurants. Note the Tomato vegetarian restaurant on the far left; This is one of our favourite dinner destinations.

Inside the complex itself, one finds oneself immersed in a lush, green paradise of tropical gardens inhabited by Taiwanese monkeys who have learned how to pry snacks and valuables from unwary passers-by. Okay, there are no monkeys. But there are fish.

Being a musical sort of place the pool is suitably decorated with a keyboard mosaic that prompts one to spontaneously burst into song upon breaching the calm surface of the cool, clear water. The song usually sounds a little like "Oo, oo, oo, ah, oo, oh"; That water can be pretty cold.

What better way to relax on a hot summer day than with a dip in the Music for Haydn pool. Mmm, life could hardly be better.

Haydn's Symphony No. 101, the Clock Symphony, 2nd movement (Chamber Arrangement)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Breakwater breakfast

Okay it wasn't breakfast, it was dinner. And I'm not sure it was a breakwater, a " A barrier that protects a harbor or shore from the full impact of waves" so much as the arms of stone, earth and concrete that created the harbour in the first place. But it was very nice there anyway.

What am I talking about? Twice in the last month we made a picnic dinner on Sunday evening and took it out to An-ping harbour to eat it. Although I can see part of one arm of the harbour from where I sit now, it takes a while to actually get there as you cannot travel directly. You basically have to drive down the river that runs out to the harbour and then drive back up the other side of the river.

It's a long walk from the car-park to our picnic spot all the way out at the end of the southern arm of An-ping harbour. This photo is taken where the arm bends at an angle and heads towards the end of the other arm to create the mouth of the harbour like a giant pair of robot pincers. Unfortunately there is no control mechanism and the arms of the harbour do not open and close so there can never be a scenario where terrorists hijack the harbour and use the pincers to grab a ship as it passes through the mouth and then squeeze it until its cargo is forced out. That was a strange distraction. My original point was that behind the camera in this photo is the rest of the arm which must be traversed to get to the end and our picnic spot.

This photo shows Andrea standing on the very end of the harbour arm while the sun begins to set in the sky. You can see the end of the other arm in the background. You can also see the end of Andrea's patience with me taking pictures when she really wants to tuck into those corn-chips we packed.

How Andrea managed to get this shot I don't know. It's beautiful and reminds me of Top Gun (which I have never actually seen) as one of the pilots walks down the deck of the aircraft carrier towards his jet and towards probable glorious martyrdom in a shower of flack and flare. The truth is that I also wanted to get stuck into that bag of corn chips.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Goodbye Taiwan

Taiwan was literally disappearing before our very eyes.

I don't know if it was just particularly bad weather or some symptom of global-warming-induced rising sea levels but there was no beach here. The sea came right up to where the trees were and had been eroding the sand away from under the trees so that there were skeletal trees all along the coast here. Just to the other side of the area in the photo here was an area where there was a collapsing cliff of sand created where the waves were in the process of eating away the sand, on top of which trees and other plants were still attached and growing. We could stand there and watch the waves undermine the small sand-cliff (a foot and a half high) until it would collapse and the sand would be washed away. To be fair the area seemed to be prone to flooding from the sea as evidenced by the large trenches that seemed to have been dug to allow water to drain away to the coast. It was a strange area but a little disconcerting to see. Oh, and of course there was garbage everywhere. Yuck!

Journey to Salt Mountain

What better way to enjoy your well-earned weekend than with a pilgrimage to Taiwan's biggest repository of salt-related paraphernalia and knowledge! (note that that introductory string was not phrased as a question but as a statement - there is no better way to enjoy a weekend). Yes, the Taiwan Salt Museum comprises four floors (4!) of salt... stuff. There are life-size mock-ups of salt-related places and industry, explications of the nature of salt both historical and chemical, salt-related tools, clothing, maps, and of course, samples of the stuff from around the world. Yes indeed, despite not being able to read the Chinese signage on the exhibits we felt upon departure that we need never again yearn for any kind of salt-related object or fact. Verily, the visit to the museum had been a case of a-salt (pun willingly scripted) upon all of our senses.

Oh, what a beautiful mornin', oh, what a beautiful day. I got a beautiful feelin' somethin' salty's comin' my way. (apologies to everyone)

Wow! Life-size mock-ups of salt-fields and salt-farmers! And the backdrops are beautiful too.

Wow! A reconstruction of a salt mine. Are those salt crystals on the wall of the cave real? Hmm, am I missing something? I feel like my appreciation of salt is not quite as grandiose as this museum. I thought it was just something that went with fish and chips.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

How Andrea threw a handbag and won a bike

How can you get a bicycle for tossing a handbag? It happened to us, well, to Andrea one day back in November of last year. We were still in Australia at that time and the weather was finally warming up after an unusually wet and cold winter.

It was a Saturday; a warm, sunny Saturday morning. Once a year the Collie Agricultural Show is held in town. There are log-chopping competitions, carnival foods, equestrian events, all sorts of domestic animal exhibits and competitions, a food and craft fair in the pavilion and of course there are show bags to be desired by all kids to the detriment of their parents' wallets. But this year there was something new: a strong-man contest. It was actually a series of strongman events constituting a competition that lasted for about 2 hours. The competition was really set up for male competitors but they had incorporated one event especially for female Schwarzenegger wannabees - the handbag toss. The handbag involved had been filled with some kind of heavy pieces of metal and was actually pretty hefty. There were probably about 10 female contestants who took a shot at handbag fame and fortune but none were as stout, sturdy, stalwart or strong as Andrea who grasped the metal mettle with both hands and swung it mightily into an arc of release of roughly forty-five degrees from the horizontal (the optimum angle of projection for greatest horizontal distance). And I snapped a series of images that capture the immortalising event.

We had to wait around for a while before the winner was officially announced and the day had warmed up so as to have started to become a little uncomfortable as we neared noonday (note the unrelenting verbosity of the sequence " as to have started to become a little..."). But eventually the announcement was made and we were both thrilled and a little embarrassed. I think Andrea wanted to go up, grab the bike and get out of there but she did pause for a photo for the organisers although, at the time, we thought the photo might be appearing in the local newspaper the following week.

Winning the bike was great but we didn't really need another bike and it was too small for us anyway. Before leaving the area of the strongman event we talked to a local policewoman who had also competed against Andrea in the Handbag Toss. She congratulated Andrea on her win and I vaguely remember something about joining the RCMP in Canada. But Andrea's main purpose in approaching her had been to ask about donating the bicycle to a local family for Christmas which was only a month away. The policewoman took Andrea's details and said she would contact her if she had any good ideas. In the end Andrea donated the bicycle to a local charity and made some new friends of the folks who worked there. I'll include three more photos of the proud winner with her bike with local backdrops.

That was a pretty nice bike actually.

The Collie River which flows through the town.

Just like the sign says, "More than you think".

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Maolin - Land of fruit and flowers

I have been on holiday this last week and the students in my class at school have been having Chinese lessons instead of the usual English. I spent the first part of the week catching up on some little projects and generally enjoying the opportunity to take my time doing everything and anything (I took my time eating breakfast, doing the shopping, getting from A to B and taking in C and D for fun). But I couldn't just hang around in Tainan for the whole week. On Wednesday I decided that I would go to Maolin, a region in the southern end of the central mountain range that is the spine of this island.

(Source: )

On Wednesday I packed up and attempted to leave but by the time I had finished at the tourist office it was almost 5pm so I decided that I would sleep at home, rise early the next day and start my journey with the new day.

And so, on the morrow which became the morn of Thor's Day as the Taiwanese sun floated somewhere in the sky to the south-east obscured by a cloudy haze, I sallied forth upon our Jockey 125 motor scooter loaded with tent, sleeping bag, inflatable mat, one day's worth of provisions, reading material, map and travel guide, camera, insect repellent (very important - Dengue fever is endemic in Taiwan), hiking shoes, socks, other clothing, and a cup-full of lukewarm trepidation. I knew that I had plenty of time to get to Maolin but the familiar routine of work and play in Tainan had become a comfortable bubble from which outward adventure, unaccompanied and un-Chinese-speaking, felt thrilling, foolish and vaguely dangerous.

This was my first stop, just outside Tainan city. The location is not significant but I thought that I would include this picture just to illustrate how untraditional Taiwan can be. This picture could have been taken in any one of so many other countries. There are apparently a few Smart Car dealerships in Taipei and we see a few of these cars here in Tainan. Incidentally the Smart Car was originally the product of cooperation between Swatch and Daimler-Benz and the first purpose-built Smart factory opened in France in 1994. You can see the giant department store/supermarket Carrefour. Incidentally again, the name Carrefour is French for junction or crossroads and they have a presence in North-Africa, China and south-east Asia, Europe, and South America). You can also see Burger King and Fila. But Taiwan is certainly a land of contrasts and I can guarantee that not far away someone will be tilling the soil in their garden using centuries-old technology.

There are so many temples in this country. I took this shot at my second stop. I bought a bubble tea (the bubbles are actually tapioca balls) at a small tea shop around the corner and stood for a while admiring the craftsmanship and detail of the decoration of this temple. I think it is actually more impressive close-up where you can see the finer details and some of the intricate work. The roof is covered with statuary representing aspects of the story of whichever deity the temple is devoted to. And this is to say nothing of the inside.

I stopped again at the foot of the mountains at the Liouguei Visitor Center and had lunch while wandering around. There are a series of tunnels in the area, like the one in the picture, that were built by the Japanese during their occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945) to aid in the collection of camphor trees for their oil and wood. Here I ate my carrot.

This giant river valley is almost empty now because it is not the season for rain in this part of Taiwan. At some point on the road I stopped to buy a couple of bell-fruit or wax apples (Lianwu) from a lady at a road-side stall. Taiwan is a tropical island with fertile soils and great for growing all sorts of fruit and vegetables. In Western Australia almost all the fruit and vegetables you buy have to go through cooperative in Canning Vale which is a great waste of time and means that you don't actually get fresh fruit. Here in Taiwan the chain is usually a lot shorter and you know that if you are buying from a guy who is selling only one thing then he probably grew it. You see a lot of roadside stalls with the grower selling what they have grown. This time of year there are a lot of pineapple sellers and very soon there will be a lot of mango sellers. This really is a fruit-lover's paradise.

The look on my face is one of perplexion. Hmm... beautiful camp grounds with great facilities. And I was the only one in the whole park. Why? I still don't know. The camping ground in the photo was one of three camping grounds in the Saijia Recreation Area where I ended up camping for the two nights of my stay in the area. It was actually a 20-minute scooter ride from the Maolin National Scenic Area which I had intended to camp in but the folks at the visitor centre there seemed sure that there was nowhere to camp in the Scenic Area. Hmm.

The area I stayed in was at the foot of the mountains and the land was blessed with soils that were great for growing pineapples, mangoes, bananas, and papayas, all of which I saw growing in abundance. These are fields of pineapple bushes.

I have to tell a little story here. I had become worried about the effect of the noise of the scooter on my hearing. When you passed anything that reflected sound (like a wall) it got really noisy and I actually thought that too much of this might damage my sense of audition. So I started stuffing small wads of tissue into my ears and that worked fabulously the first few times. But on the morning of the second day when I tried to remove the tissue from my ears as I sat down at a Best & Breakfast I discovered that I was unable to remove the wad in my right ear. As I ate my fried pancake and drank my coffee that was not really coffee I became increasingly anxious about the wad of tissue in my ear - how was I going to get it out? Upon finishing my breakfast which did not satisfy my hunger and purchasing some supplies for the hike I expected to undertake later in the day I tried to ask the two ladies who worked at the Best & Breakfast where the nearest doctor could be found. At first they tried to tell me my problem could be solved at the hairdresser down the street but when I explained properly what the problem was, one of the ladies sat me down and had a look for herself. She let out some kind of aha! sound and went off to get a wooden fork that is supplied to eat some of the breakfasts with. A bit of probing and a few discouraging sounds from her and a few anxious moments from me were followed by success and I saw the disgusting waxy wad on the end of the fork as she showed me with what I can safely assume was a degree of pride. I was so grateful to her for this that I bought her some chocolate from the local 7-eleven and brought it back to her. I probably won't stick small wads of tissue in my ear again.

The Maolin Valley follows the water course around and between the mountains. Here is a suspension bridge built over the valley. This photo doesn't do the bridge justice: this is one long suspension bridge with metal plates as a base to walk on. The view from the bridge is fantastic and I saw a lot of people cross it in the half an hour that I was in the area. After seeing other people riding their scooters across the bridge I decided that I would do the same and film the event with my camera. You can view the result below. Note the Taiwanese aboriginal designs on the bridge head. I will come back to the aboriginals of Taiwan a bit later.

Click to watch the movie (and nominate me for your favourite acting award):

The Waterfall Hike

I was at a loss trying to find a hiking path to the top of a (any) mountain in the Maolin Scenic Area and puttering around on my scooter exploring by way of leaving the valley. Down in the valley as I was about to cross a bridge I saw a sign describing some sort of river/waterfall hike and decided that this sign was a sign and that, at this stage, any hike was exactly the kind of hike I was looking for. I revved the 125cc engine and sped off in pursuit of hiker's heaven. I found it a kilometre down the road. Well, I seemed to have found the spot but seeing as everything was in Chinese and I was just going on the style of sign and the location I had been led to, I was really just guessing that I had found the spot. The path could lead me to an abandoned coal mine for all I knew. Besides the lack of certainty regarding what seemed to be the origin of the trail, I was also a bit wary of the way that at the start of the trail I could see there was a big sign with lots of big white text on a bright red background. I got the impression that perhaps this sign was a bad sign of some sort but, failing to see any immediate dangers - giant pythons, falling rocks, corpses, etc - I bravely ventured forth into the semi-untamed wilderness.

By the time I was looking at the second bridge of the trail I was a little anxious: these bridges seemed to be falling apart and the trail was a little wild. Still clear but... wild. As I moved along slowly and carefully I discovered that all of the bridges had big red signs posted in front of them, the same sort I had seen at the beginning of the trail, and all the bridged looked dangerous. The damp, slippery rocks looked dangerous. The knotted ropes placed where stairs might have been placed on a more developed trail also looked dangerous. After a while, the vegetation started to look dangerous and a sense of foreboding began to settle on me as I got further from the origin point having seen no other hikers or signs of life save the odd, old piece of food packaging.

I crossed seven bridges and walked for some way afterwards, increasingly reluctant to continue. As I rounded what I had decided would be my last corner before turning back I finally saw it - the waterfall. Hallelujah and eureka all at once! It turned out to be an impressive waterfall, still strong despite being the wrong time of the year for rain. I ate a late lunch, drank my water, admired the fish, falls and ferns, and then started on the hike back to my scooter, relieved to finally emerge from the dense forest trail. I never did find out what those signs said.

Hmm. Looks dangerous and forbidding, yet beautiful and refreshing.

Hmm. Looks dangerous and forbidding and lacking in any beauty or refreshment.

Hmm. Looks beautiful and refreshing and lacking in any danger or foreboding.

The Paiwan

The last story in this camping epic concerns those local aboriginal people I mentioned earlier, although not of the same but of a neighbouring tribe. Exploring on my first afternoon in the Saijia area, not having enough time to go to Maolin Scenic Area, I ended up in the small town of Saijia. I managed to order a very late lunch from what seemed to be a restaurant (either that or someone's outdoor barbecue area) and made ready to leave. I had only driven a block on my way out of town when I decided to turn around and follow the directions on a sign I had seen. I actually thought that the sign was directing me to the paragliding facility advertised on the brochure but as I got to the top of the hill I reached the end of the road which had brought me to... nowhere, or so I thought. However, there was a sign explaining some kind of garden that had been created in the form of a snake, the head of which I could see about ten metres away, and so I decided that I might as well check it out.

Now, I believe that there is a background level of randomness that exists in these countries. It was very high in Korea; a lot of random things happened there. It didn't seem so high in Taiwan although relative to Australia it was bedlam. And so it was that as I moved towards the head of the snake that was actually a garden I met a man walking down the snake's back who introduced himself as Gerry in Australian-accented English and revealed himself to be a former resident of Australia. Gerry had spent six years in Melbourne getting his MBA and played a lot of baseball while he was there. Upon his return to his homeland he had a compulsory military service obligation to fulfil. However he was able to exchange time in the military for time teaching English in "the sticks" where it is notoriously difficult to recruit native English speakers. The snake garden was based on the mythology of the local Paiwan people, aboriginal to Taiwan and descendants of the Austronesian wave of peoples that expanded out of Asia to settle in many areas of south-east Asia in prehistory. Incidentally, the Aboriginal people of Australia are also descendants of this wave of Austronesian expansion. It's something like that anyway.

Gerry taught at the local elementary school just down the hill and took me to see it. I ended up introducing myself to the kids there and then playing basketball with them. The following evening I returned to talk some more and play badminton. On that Friday evening I met the principal of the small school who presented me with a head-dress of leaves and flowers which I politely wore for the next hour or so and only removed because I was worried it wouldn't survive the badminton. During my time there on that second evening I met the third-place winner of the karaoke competition that had been held that day. He was about 8 years old and was goaded into singing me his winning song which I could not comprehend but tried to bop along to. In return I provided everyone present with a soulful rendition of Fly Me To The Moon, forgetting myself occasionally only to discover that I was closing my eyes while getting lost in the song. It had been a good end to my second and last day in the mountains and I wondered what the future held for the children of the Paiwan.