Monday, November 24, 2008

Return to Maolin, land of not as many fruit as last time

A couple of weekends ago we went camping at the foot of the mountains in Maolin. I had been there before but this time it was Andrea's first visit to the area and my opportunity to share some of that Maolin magic with her. Unfortunately that magic was in short supply and things turned out ... well, not so good. Andrea got sick, probably food poisoning, and spent hours coming and going between our tent and the bathrooms (which are very nice by the way). She was suffering a terrible headache and I was worried enough to beg for some medicine from some of the other campers. I approached a man near the toilet block whose English was quite good and explained what I wanted. He asked me to wait a minute and walked over to where all the tents were and soon about four different people approached our tent to see if they could help in some way. Taiwanese people are so wonderful in this way - very generous and will go out of their way to help you. One of our fellow campers gave Andrea some medicine which she took. Unfortunately she probably vomited it up ten minutes later, just one of many vomit-trips to the bathroom. All she could do was weather the storm and all I could do was try to get a bit of sleep.

In the morning she was much better but we just wanted to get home and relax. Neither of us had slept well or for long enough and Andrea really just wanted to be somewhere with a real bed. It was a bad bit of luck for us, especially for her, but it could have been worse. As it was we didn't have to go anywhere for breakfast: we were invited to breakfast in a large tent with some of the people who had wanted to help us when Andrea was really sick. She couldn't eat much but at least we didn't have to drive anywhere. She wasn't ready to get on the scooter but by lunchtime she was her regular self again and we headed home.

Our campsite. You can't see all the other tents; very different from the peace and quiet of my last visit.

After we first arrived we drove up into some mountains and enjoyed the scenery.

All that driving tired me out.

This leaf is huge!

On our way home we stopped at the Maiji visitor centre and paid a visit to the Lianshan waterfall. There were hoards of local tourists there and peace and tranquility were just not.

Really nice forested tunnel. I like the sign too: it reminds me of the YHA logo.

The ranges of the "Lunar World" near Tianliao.

The long scooter ride home to Tainan. Even though our bed is not the softest, largest, or most comfortable bed we've ever slept in, we really enjoyed sleeping in it that night. I think we went to bed rather early.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Lanyu Island part 4

Andrea went for an early run in the quiet of Sunday morning. When she got back to the church she convinced me that going for a swim was a good idea. We got our things and headed down the road on the scooter to a nice stretch of clean, sandy beach. Compared to the beaches near Tainan, the water was so clean and fresh, and the morning was beautiful and crisp. It was a great start to the day.

After our swim and subsequent shower John joined us for a trip to the Epicurean Cafe for Sunday breakfast. We all ordered the Epicurean Breakfast, their signature dish, and it was wonderfully wholesome and fantastically satisfying. This day was a day to sit back and relax, to just enjoy the air and the coffee. We three sat around chatting and reading our books on the roof of the cafe, looking out over the taro fields down to the sea.

Here we are enjoying coffee, company and books. One of the employees managed to start a fire with a discarded cigarette and I think John was the first to notice the small flames licking at the boards next to the door. The fire was subsequently quickly extinguished with a glass of water but it is a lucky thing that we were up there to notice the fire starting because the wooden structure was very dry and caught quickly. It is easy to imagine that if we weren't up there to see the fire begin, the whole place could have gone down in flames.

Here are the taro fields next to the church. Taro seems to be a staple on Lanyu and is grown all over the place in irrigated paddies.

Later (once the spirit of sloth had departed) John took us to a beautiful grassy area we had passed by the day before. A paved pathway wound itself around the hillocks and through the grass. I don't know how it started but after a while we were attempting to capture a synchronised jump on camera. After about ten attempts we managed to get a shot of all three of us suspended in mid-air in front of the blue sea.

The time to depart from Lanyu drew closer. Before returning the scooter Andrea and I took it down the road to the biggest store we had seen on the island to buy a few souvenirs and some snacks for the ferry trip home.

Before much longer we were waiting for the ferry on the dock at the harbour where we had first set foot on the island two days before. And then we were watching the island dwindling into the sea behind us as the ferry plowed slowly across the strait towards the mainland. I think that of many places I have been in Taiwan, the island of orchids will render some of the most vivid memories of a sense of place: The goats, the Yami, and those towering grassy mountains in the middle of the sea.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lanyu Island part 3

After scooting around the southern half of the island we cut across it to get home via the central cross-island road which winds its way through the ups and downs of the mountainous central saddle of the island. Upon returning from our jaunt we were greeted by an alien visitor on the steps leading down to the church basement. He, or she, did not communicate in any language we understood and we could only guess at what it was trying to tell us.

I suspect that it had somehow detected our super-intelligence and was trying to contact us. Perhaps it was just lonely and was yearning for some good conversation.

After lunch we headed off again, this time to circumnavigate the top half of the island.

It was quite windy. You know it's windy when even my limited hair is windblown.

There are strange and interesting formations of rock strewn about the island and many of them have been given names, for example, Dragon Head Rock, Two Lions Rock, Old Man Rock, Helmet Rock, Tank Rock, Bear Cave, Lover's Cave, etc. This particular formation (in the photo) is called Virgin Rock, probably because... uh... well, I guess it has never been kissed.

The island abounds in nature's gifts of beauty rich and not so rare, like these goats. There must be thousands of goats on the island. You always see them wandering around, grazing, trotting down the street, and so on. You can also see them making their way up or down the mountain sides. I couldn't help thinking that there must sometimes be casualties: goats slipping on wet rocks and plunging to their doom; rocks underfoot coming loose and the goats standing on them plunging to their doom; other footing-related, plunging-to-one's-doom scenarios.

On our way around the northern shores of the island we passed by two large grottoes that seemed to be cemeteries. What you can actually see in the photo above is the mouth of a cave of the left, a fence around the entrance, and a few people standing near a cross down the pathway from the cave-mouth. Although other tourists weren't too shy to stop and take photos, we didn't feel that is was appropriate. I think we were also a little bit uncomfortable with the potential invasion of privacy our photo-opping might cause because we had been warned earlier that day by the lady managing the church sleeping quarters that a Taiwanese tourist had had his camera taken forcefully from him after taking photos of a Yami funeral. We had been warned to be particularly careful in three villages on the northern and eastern side of the island that were all holding funerals that day. Given the state of aboriginal-tourist relations, a photo shoot in the cemetery on the northern side of the island didn't seem like a good idea at the time.

We scooted around the northern half of the island then took the cross-island road back to base. Among other things we did a bit of reading while the Lanyu twilight emerged from behind the sky as the blue hues faded with the sun's plunge into the ocean. I read some more of my book, The Curse of the Viking Grave by Farley Mowat. This would be our last night on Lanyu and tomorrow we would be going home.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lanyu Island part 2

We awoke on Saturday morning to a world of promise. Here we were on a beautiful tropical island with the means to travel and a curiosity to drive us wherever we wanted to go. After the usual ablutions we mounted our rented scooter and headed southward in search of the beginning of the trail to Tienchi and Tashenshan. Tashenshan (Tashen Mountain) is the more southern of the two large mountains of the island; Tienchi (Heaven Lake) is a lake formed in the old volcanic crater near the summit of Tashenshan. John and the girls had decided to join an organised mountain hike that morning but organised, guided hikes just aren't our style.

We found the trailhead across the road from the island's garbage dump. Nice. There were already a lot of people waiting around for something. We supposed that they were all waiting for guides and for organised hikes to begin and so we rushed to get started, intending to put as much trail between us and them. We wanted to have the mountain to ourselves; selfish perhaps but we feel that some of the magic of a nature hike is lost when you are surrounded not only by the nature but by a hoard of other tourists chatting loudly, playing music, and so on. It is also quite painful to be stuck behind people moving more slowly than you want to be moving for long sections of trail.

At one point you descend into a rocky little ravine with ropes on either side to help you up and down. Andrea didn't need ropes; she had me.

Tienchi! Heaven Lake! Very nice but perhaps all a little too easy. We would have preferred a longer hike to a higher altitude I think. And we also suffered a little of that loss of potential magic I mentioned earlier, having to share the moment with an organised hiking group who happened to arrive at the same time as we did. Of course the group leader was bellowing information at everyone else including us and we decided to leave and circumnavigate the lake in search of a trail that would take us to the summit.

We never did find the summit although it was nice to be lost for a while in the jungle around the lake. As soon as we began the hike back along the trail on the return leg we bumped into John and the girls and received a negative report on the guided hiking experience. That made us feel good that we'd opted to go solo (if two people can go solo. Does that make sense?).

By the time we returned to the trailhead we still had plenty of energy in reserve and decided to continue exploring southwards on our scooter.

There are a few sandy beaches on the island but most of it is antithetical to sunbathing or playing beach volleyball. Here I am wandering alone (apart from Andrea who took the photo) across a barren landscape of craggy, unfriendly rocks that jut every which way desiring to open a vein and bleed you so that they can feed on your blood. Something like that. Maybe not so geologically conspiratorial.

Close to the southern tip of the island we found this beautiful crag jutting out from a lovely bit of grassy hillside. It really felt like Ireland although I must admit that I have never been to Ireland myself although I imagine that it feels just like this.

Here is Andrea standing amidst the very Irish-feeling location looking like... an Irish girl. There's just something about the way her hair is swaying in the wind. It reminds me of Ireland and Irishness.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lanyu Island part 1

Three islands in less than two months? At this rate we would be all out of islands to visit in a few more months. This time our visit was to Lanyu, another island with half-a-dozen different names: Orchid Island; Ponso no tao; Pongso no tao; Irala; Botel Tobago. Lanyu is an island about 45 kilometres in size that floats about 50km from the mainland somewhere off the south-east coast of Taiwan. It's a very different kind of landscape from Tainan: whereas it's difficult to find an incline of any sort in Tainan, they have trouble finding flat land to live on on Lanyu. And geology is responsible. Of course, I don't mean the thing studied by geologists; I'm talking about the volcanic inheritance particular to Lanyu. That sentential couplet was rather confusing, as was my use of the phrase "sentential couplet" in this sentence. I think it's time to stop plagiarising and copy some background in here from Wikipedia:

The island is home to the Tao, an ethnic minority group who migrated to the island from the Batan Archipelago 800 years ago.

The island was first mapped on Japanese charts as Tabako-shima in the early 17th century and Tabaco Xima on a French map of 1654. The Chinese who had no contact with the inhabitants of the island, called it Hongtouyu (紅頭嶼 Red-headed island), from which it was called Kōtō-sho during Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan. The Japanese colonial government declared the island an ethnological research area off-limits to the public. This restriction remained in effect when the Republic of China took over in 1945, but was lifted in 1967. It was because of the restriction that the Tao have the best preserved traditions among the Taiwanese aborigines. Since then, schools were built on the island and education in Mandarin became compulsory. Tourism to the island has also increased. The island is known by the Ami as Buturu and by the Puyuma as Botol.
And here's a map taken from the Taitung County Government website:

We were lucky enough to have our friend Craig generously agree to drive us down to Houbihu harbour early on Friday morning. Houbihu is the name of a fishing harbour across South Bay from Kenting Beach. It is a couple of kilometres down the road from Maobitou and situated within the boundaries of Kenting National Park. It is also, apparently, the "outfall of The Third Nuclear Power Plant" ( website). Nice.

When I say us (as in ...Craig generously agree to drive us down to Houbihu...) I mean Andrea, myself, and our friend John who lives across the street in another apartment building and works at the same school as I do. John's friends would also be joining us for the trip to Lanyu, although we would be meeting them later at the harbour.

When I say early (as in ...early on Friday morning...) I mean that Craig met us outside our apartment block at about four o'clock in the morning. We needed to leave especially early so that we could catch the 7am ferry to Lanyu that leaves from Houbihu harbour. You can find Houbihu in the Lonely Planet Taiwan guidebook, although of the ferry from there to Lanyu they have only this to say: Ferries are said to leave from Houbihu Harbour for Lanyu during the summer months. (p. 287; Lonely Planet Taiwan, 2007) I can personally attest to the existence of the ferries in question. They do exist and after being unable to find the harbour while watching the clock ticking, we finally found the aforementioned ferry and made it on to the boat in time to depart with it. About five minutes after we arrived John's friends arrived; three Taiwanese girls he used to work with were coming with us to Lanyu. Altogether then, we were a party of six bound for the orchid isle.

Here, Andrea and I stand on the upper deck of the ferry prior to the departure. The harbour building in the background reminds me of one of the ships from the Movie Dune, I think.

Once we were sure that we were in the right place and that the ship was indeed departing shortly for Lanyu, Craig said goodbye to us, climbed back into his blue van, and began the journey home to Tainan where he would continue to work in earnest on his MBA thesis. Meanwhile we took some Gravol to deflect any potential sea-sickness and sat back to enjoy (or endure) the hours-long ferry ride around the southern tip of Taiwan to the island of orchids (apparently now almost extinct from over-harvesting).

Our first impressions of Lanyu were of looming mountains. As usual, upon debarking, we were hit upon by locals offering rental of scooters and vehicles and other touristy things. We didn't need any of those as we were to be picked up by somebody from the place we were going to be staying at. After a short wait spent watching other tourists organising themselves and their belongings on the wharf, a van arrived to take us to our lodgings.

Our lodgings turned out to be a big room under a church (which was pretty cool). The church itself stood at about ground level. Underneath it and dug into the ground in an excavated recess was a lower floor containing several large rooms, a kitchen, bathroom and shower blocks, and a communal living area. Our room was large and unfurnished. There was a pile of mattresses and bedding sitting next to the door which were intended for spreading all over the floor in a "bed" kind of way.

Time out for some more background about Lanyu.

Here are John and the girls on something that looks like the traditional canoes constructed and used by the Yami people. The style and motifs of the people are quite distinctive and turn up on postcards, t-shirts, trinkets, and other souvenirs sold on the island. The actual canoes are smaller than this oversize facade.

In this shot you can see some of the key motifs of Yami culture: there is the canoe again; flying fish are an important part of Yami life and there is a special flying-fish-calling-ritual held in the middle of the year before the seasonal flying fish hunt; the Yami man depicted on the right is wearing traditional armor made of rattan.

After organising our accommodation scooters miraculously appeared outside the church for us. However, a quick inquiry revealed the source of the scooters to be a scooter rental place down the road and not some supernatural power emanating from the church above us. To make things more prosaic, the girls claimed responsibility for the procurement of said scooters leaving no room for my own theories regarding divine intervention. Then we took a short walk to see the man who was going to take us snorkeling. I harboured grave doubts about whether he would be able to supply me with all the accoutrements of our intended endeavour in a size that would be big enough and comfortable enough. As it turned out he was able to fit me out in the gear I needed although you can see from the photo that the wetsuit was a little short on the legs and arms (as was John's).

This shot was taken after we returned from splashing about in the water for a while, looking at the corals and the fish. It was wonderful. It brought back old regrets of not having taken my father up on his offers of teaching my brother and I how to scuba dive when we were teenagers.

After returning to base camp and showering and changing we headed back out to a beachside bar we had seen on our way to and from the snorkeling expedition. It turned out to be a perfect place to be at sunset.

After dark the six of us joined a birdwatching tour. The main target of the tour was a glimpse of the endangered Scops Owl; native and limited in its range to Lanyu. The tour consisted of a man leading about 30 people around to several locations imitating the owls' call and searching for it, with a bit of local history and exposition thrown in whenever the environs cued it. We never did see the Scops Owl, despite the guide's calls being returned a few times by them. I suspect that after being hunted down and bothered every night it found a better place to be. To be fair to the whole enterprise it was interesting enough for me just to learn about the other things around us. Besides, we did find one kind of bird nesting in trees: chickens. Andrea and I never officially finished the tour with the group. We both felt ambivalent about harassing the endangered owls and so we returned to the church early and went to bed, thinking about the promise of the day to come.