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: www.weltrekordreise.ch/flags-maps/tw_map.jpg )

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.


Fili said...

That looks great. Sounds like a good trip. I'll try that ...

Adrian Brown said...

If you ever read this, and seeing as how I waited two months to comment you probably won't, let me know how it went.