Thursday, 20 October 2011

10/10 Double Ten Day

Double Ten Day celebrates the beginning of the uprising in China that led to the fall of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China. I won't presume to go into detail about the significance of the Republic of China (as Taiwan refers to itself) and how that relates to the Chinese mainland. Suffice to say that it's a good excuse for some fantastic fireworks.

Conrad and I took the MRT to Shuanglian station where we boarded the firework bus:

It was a warm and humid evening.

We followed the growing crowd to the riverside setting for the display.

The usual delicious streetfood was on offer. 

We were entertained by a puppet play (enlarged on a screen).

And a mini-pop concert.

There was also a celebrity/politician who spoke at some length but I didn't bother getting a photo of him!

At last the fireworks!

As you can tell I'm rubbish at taking photos of fireworks!! I can report, though, that I knew I was amongst the  people who invented fireworks at that display. There were even things that I have no idea how they were done, such as a river of sparks falling continuously into the real river for about 20 seconds, and fireworks that appeared to be exploding in slow motion. Here's a Youtube video of the display, though I confess I haven't watched through, so apologies if it isn't very good quality:

There was a long wait and a crush leaving the grounds, and next year we'll be coming by bike using a different route, but we'll definitely be back! Here's Conrad with his obligatory flashing toy waiting for the train to go home:

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Giant Spiders

Well, I promised giant spiders and I aim to deliver.

Ever since seeing the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon I've had a hankering to see some bamboo forest. I asked on the Forumosa website for information on bamboo forest close to Taipei and was directed to a trail next to Qingtian temple in the Yangmingshan mountains.

After a few hiccups along the way (got off at the wrong stop and had to wait for the next bus) Conrad and I finally made it to the temple. I was a little worried I wouldn't spot it from the road or wouldn't be clear about whether I'd found the correct one of the many temples in Taiwan, but I'm fairly confident this was it (yes, this is Taipei so it was raining):

It was wonderful being up in the mountains. The view was amazing:

And the people at Forumosa were right. There were stands of bamboo on the trail. Unfortunately we didn't get as far along as I'd like to have done, but we still saw some substantial areas of it. When you're used to only seeing dried bamboo supporting tomato plants or modest clumps of Phyllostachys nigra, it's strange and interesting to see it growing in the wild.

The main reason we didn't get as far as I'd have liked was because climbing up mountains is really tiring! Also, at the end of the paved part of the trail the going got very steep and slippery and I thought it was risky for Conrad to attempt it (and me too). But I'd be lying if I didn't also admit that another reason was the burgeoning wildlife we encountered. Okay, here we go. We saw FOUR of these, three of which had spun webs directly across the trail:

I'd like to prove to you that these spiders were as big, if not bigger than, my hand, but there's no way I was putting my hand anywhere near that spider to give you a comparison. For some reason this one was missing a couple of legs.

In order to get past the webs across the trail we had to kind of limbo under them. I was dreading actually touching one of the webs and sparking the spider into some sort of activity. It was bad enough seeing them at rest. Apparently they're Golden Orb Weavers and are commonly seen in the autumn in Taiwan.

More pleasant encounters with small creatures included the beautiful butterflies (which unfortunately didn't stay still long enough for me to take a picture) and this beetle that was resting on the path:

Despite the giant spiders we had great time. It was wonderful to breathe the fresh mountain air and experience the stillness of the forest. It's extremely lush and green up there. Here's a photo I took on the way back down:

And here's Conrad waiting for the bus. There didn't seem to be a bus stop that I could recognise, but a care worker for the old folks at the home up there kindly pointed us in the right direction. They're very lucky old folks to be living in such surroundings.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

You Have to Act Nonchalant

Last night we went out for dinner with a Taiwanese couple and their sons. The lady, Ching Yi, has been very helpful to me since we met at Conrad's school the first day I took him there, and we wanted to thank them. Sorry, I forgot my camera so no pictures of the food. During the discussion the talk turned to traffic in Taiwan and Asia generally. In many ways transportation is excellent and much better than in the UK. For example, I've sung praises of the MRT system before and I'll do so again. It's extremely efficient and clean, and even at the busiest times, people are generally polite and considerate. My most favourite thing is the set of exhortations to behave well that are frequently made over the announcement system. These are the ones you hear, in order of frequency (the announcements are made in Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese (I think) then finally English):
  • Please do not smoke, eat, drink, chew gum or betel nut on the Taipei metro system
  • Please yield your seat to those in need
  • If suffering from a cold, please wear a surgical mask as a precautionary measure (and yes, people frequently do)
Finally, my absolute favourite that I've heard only once is:
  • When using a cellphone, please moderate your voice, for the comfort of other passengers
The above ground public transportation is very good too. Buses are very frequent and cover all the areas the MRT doesn't reach. They are clean and well-maintained and they also have English signage so are very easy to use. It has to be said that sometimes it feels as though you're on a ride at an amusement park as the drivers drive away and break very enthusiastically but that's good for your coordination and balance I think.

In the general traffic on the road, though, things are a little more haphazard. The system for crossing the road is great. At red lights, drivers are shown a countdown of how long they have to wait until the lights change. Similarly, pedestrians see countdown of how long they have to cross the road. The green man moves, though! When you have, say, 40 seconds to cross the road, he walks in a sedate and relaxed manner.

As your time decreases he starts to run,

 and then by the time you only have a few seconds left, he's sprinting:

However, despite the fact that drivers are supposed to stop to allow you to cross, they mostly don't, and will cut in front and behind you on the pedestrian crossing. It isn't anywhere near as bad as this:

but it can be nerve-wracking nonetheless. I've found the best policy is to adopt a nonchalant gait. If you walk slowly and steadily drivers can predict where you're going to be when they pass you. So the trick is to pretend you aren't at all phased by the traffic whipping around you, that you don't care that there's a bus coming around the corner, and that you're merely going for a relaxed stroll, oblivious to the hundreds of horsepower vying for a place on the crossing.

There isn't a lot of disruption from roadworks, but when you do come across it, it's always fun to see the non-human traffic controller:

I have lots more to tell, including tales of giant spiders and more pictures of food! So I'll try to post again soon.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

School Tribulations

Not such a great week this week. Conrad has been having a difficult time at school trying to find things to occupy himself during the lessons that he doesn't understand, and fitting in with the other students. As a response he's taken to reading through much of the day, sitting in the library playing on the computer and refusing offers of help with his work. It's hard to know exactly what to do. A lot of this is due to his personality. He's competitive and wants to be the best at everything, which is of course impossible in his situation. We've had a talk about his ways of coping and agreed some new strategies. Andy and I will monitor the situation closely and withdraw him from the school if things get too hard for him.

Meanwhile, we continue to settle into our new area. We've decided to stay and tolerate the noise as best we can. Moving again is going to be disruptive and difficult, now that we've started to buy items for the apartment and with our shipment's arrival is imminent. Also, we would have no guarantee of moving somewhere else that didn't harbour a different nasty surprise. Maybe later, when we know the ropes better, we can seek out a better place to live.

There are some good things about this area. At the end of the road there's a small farmer's market at the weekend. Last week I went down and bought some delicious figs. They were a little battered but perfectly ripe and very tasty:

I did buy more but these were all that were left by the time I remembered to take a photo! I also bought some eggs and a particular kind of banana that you can't get in the UK. They look terrible when they're ripe enough to eat. In this photo, as you can see, they're starting to blacken, but they still aren't ripe. Once the skin looks disgusting you know they're just right and you can peel back that thin, soft, black strip to reveal delicious, sweet banana-ness inside.

Another good thing about this area is the park at the end of our street:

It backs onto the mountain, and if you stand at the far side of it you can hear all the birds, frogs and various sounds of the forest. I haven't ventured in yet because it looks quite dense but one day I may try. There is a set of play equipment, exercise equipment, basketball courts, a hard-standing area that would be good for skateboarding, a clay running track and a large pond with a bridge.

When we went down for the first time the other day we caused a small American Werewolf in London-style stir, but then gradually everyone ignored us and Conrad had a nice play on the equipment. When we walked over to the pond there was a group of older Taiwanese people throwing bread in the water. I haven't seen ducks here yet so I was curious as to what they were feeding. It turned out to be turtles and fish, and the competition was intense! The water would boil with fish wherever bread touched it, and the turtles were lucky to get any at all. We watched, intrigued, for a while, then a man kindly gave Conrad some bread to throw in, too.

We went back yesterday with a basketball and some stale raisin bread. Conrad shot hoops for a while then we fed the pondlife. I managed to get some photos, though I'm not sure how clear they will be. Here's a photo of one of the turtles:

And here's one of one of the hoards of rampaging fish:

There's a whole soap opera going on down there. There's a tiny baby turtle that seems to be constantly stalked by a large albino fish. Maybe the fish knows the baby gets lots of sympathy bread thrown to it? There's also a very large carp or something, that I swear is trying to eat the other fish rather than the bread. The turtles are clearly the good guys, while the fish remind me of the cast of Eastenders. I'm really pleased to have this lovely park so close to home and I imagine we'll be going down there a lot.

Today we're off to an event organised by parents of English-speaking children at local schools. The idea is to provide some interesting educational activities for the children, plus a buffet lunch! Then we're going to soccer practice at Conrad's school. That should be fun. Here's hoping Conrad's time in lessons improves.