Saturday, 26 November 2011

Cycling in Taipei

Cycling in Taipei isn't as popular as riding a scooter, but nevertheless many people do it, often confining themselves wisely to the pavements (where they exist). I'm not a very good cyclist and so in the interests of public safety (and my own) I don't plan on cycling in the general roadways, although I do harbour a secret ambition to steer the bike with one hand and hold an umbrella over my head with the other as the locals can.

Fortunately there are extensive pleasure cycling tracks around all the riverways throughout Taipei, as can be seen on this map. Conrad and I have now been out twice to explore our nearest cycle path, each time just cycling a few miles then back again. The river closest to our house is surrounded by high flood barriers, so in order to get to the river you have to find an entrance point, which is basically where they have opened a small section of a massive metal gate.

Once through, you find yourself in a lovely riverside park area. Here are some views taken from the top of the barrier:

The area has lots of community spaces which we've found are used extensively at the weekends (these photos were taken on a weekday when I first discovered these parks). On our last trip there was even a ballroom dancing class going on underneath a bridge over the river. The cycle paths are also busy with cyclists, joggers and walkers.

As you can see, the river is quite large, so I hate to think what it would be like if the flood barriers were ever needed!

Here's a view from the river looking back to the barrier. Above it is the freeway/overpass that eases some of the congestion on local roads.

So I anticipate many enjoyable excursions over the coming weeks. I have a very sedate lady's bike with a basket, in which I'll pack some refreshments for our expeditions. Who knows, maybe one day I'll even take a ballroom dancing class along the way.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

How We're Getting On

In my last few blogs I've been telling you about various aspects of life in Taiwan and the things we've been doing, so I thought this time I'd give an update on our lives here in general.

Our main focus over the last few weeks has been Conrad's school life. As I've already mentioned, we decided to enrol him in a local school so that he could learn to speak Mandarin and also experience the local culture, as it's very easy in our circumstances to live lives isolated from the people around us. One of our main reasons for coming to live here is to learn about another culture so enrolling Conrad at an international school would have defeated our purpose.

Of course, this has been a challenging experience for Conrad and somewhat of a guilt trip for me. After all, he was perfectly content back in England. He had good friends, a school life and extra-curricular activities that he was happily participating in. We've uprooted him from all that for an experience he didn't request and had no real interest in, with the idea that in the long run he would benefit and perhaps even appreciate the time he has here.

Conrad's school experience here has been a mixed bag so far. He's now been attending his school for about 12 weeks. Three weeks ago I went into a meeting to discuss his progress so far and the news wasn't good. He'd got into the habit of leaving lessons he wasn't interested in and disappearing off to the library. He was also reading Harry Potter during the lessons that he was present for. Clearly, he was not going to pick up a lot of Mandarin this way, so we came to a decision that I would stay at the school all the time that he was there to make sure he attended his classes and didn't shut himself off from what was going on around him.

This is what I've been doing and it has worked in the sense that now Conrad participates a lot more in the general class activity and has even, as far as I can tell, found some of the classes he was bunking quite enjoyable. However, just last week I requested that Conrad change classes to a lower grade and they have agreed. The benefits to Conrad are that the Chinese is easier and the children's age ranges are closer to his own, as his birthday is late August. There are some other reasons for this request that unfortunately I cannot state publicly.

Tomorrow I'm going to also ask that I be allowed to stay with Conrad in his class for the first few weeks in order to help him understand what's happening and know which book he should be using for which part of the timetable. Part of his problem, and one of the reasons that he was missing lessons, is that he didn't really have much of a clue what was happening. There are multiple books for each subject and they're all in Chinese, so it is confusing even to me. Amongst other things I'll be labelling his books in English for this next class.

Despite the problems, Conrad is still making headway. His Maths is very good and in some areas he's further on than his grade 3 class. The BBC Bitesize website is fantastic, as is a site we subscribe to, Mathletics. With the aid of these and other resource websites I've been keeping Conrad up to pace with the UK National Curriculum, in Maths, Science and English at least. In Chinese he can count and say and understand some simple words and phrases. It's hard to tell how much he understands because of course he isn't that conscious of it himself. He's started some private tuition in Chinese outside of school now and I'm hopeful this will be very useful for him. His teacher seems very good.

Conrad's also started Taikwando classes, which he really loves. The teachers are very patient with him and he's learning to copy what everyone else does if he isn't sure what to do (when he isn't distracted by his reflection in the mirror, that is!). His piano lessons continue too, though I've had to change teachers as I wasn't really happy with the first one we found. And finally I also take him to soccer practice at his school when I can persuade him to go. He isn't really interested in soccer so he often doesn't want to do it but I find he usually enjoys some part of it once I get him there. Generally speaking, he is settled in here and enjoying many aspects of his life, although he does sometimes miss his life in England and the people he left behind.

Last weekend I bought a secondhand bike. There are some great bike paths running alongside the riverways in Taipei and on a dry day I plan to take Conrad on a cycling trip to explore some new areas of the city we haven't yet visited. It's been more than fifteen years since I last regularly cycled, so I'm a bit wobbly! But with no traffic to fall into I only risk my dignity. I discovered that we can access bike paths quite close to our apartment and that they will literally take us to any part of the city that has a river running through it.

Generally our lives here are very good, concerns over Conrad's schooling aside. Andy's of course working very hard as always but making the most of his placement in Taipei. Last week he was asked to give a presentation on behalf of his company at a conference here, so in many ways he's much better-situated work-wise than he was when we were living in the East Midlands. My working life has necessarily been put completely on hold until we feel Conrad is settled and happy at school. I'd planned on not working for the first few months and that's how it's panned out.

I like apartment living very much. I have far less work to do than was entailed in looking after a four bedroom house with a huge garden in the UK. There is so little noise from our neighbours you'd think their flats were unoccupied (of course the recycling yard makes up for that somewhat). And eating out is much cheaper here, so I have to cook less, and also Andy cooks more too. Yesterday he bought an small oven and plans to bake bread. The nearest Western-style bread vendor is Carrefour, which is three MRT stops and two ten-minute walks away.

The Taiwanese people are incredibly friendly and polite. There's an emphasis on decency and civility that makes day to day living in a large and crowded city very bearable. While we do get stares, we haven't yet had a negative encounter. The only occasional intrusions on going about our daily business come from people who call out 'Hello!' and 'How are you!' to demonstrate their grasp of English. When I fumble through what must be nearly incomprehensible Chinese, people are always patient and polite (though it has to be said they nearly always change to English straightaway!)

So that's it. Our life in Taiwan so far. There so much more to explore of this country. I'm hoping to visit Taroko Gorge in the next few weeks, and also head down to Maolin county to see millions of overwintering purple butterflies in January. But in the meantime our goal is to settle down still further and normalise Conrad's school life. We miss friends and family very much of course, but I console myself with plans to visit the UK and Spain during the long summer break next year, when I will also be reacquainting myself with Green and Blacks' organic dark chocolate, bacon sandwiches and roast dinners too!

Friday, 11 November 2011


First, ice lollies. I've come to the conclusion that Taiwan has the best ice lollies in the world. I have to admit I haven't sampled the ones from every other country but I still think it's a pretty justified conclusion. Do you like creme caramel? Well, here they have the ice lolly version.

Conrad's favourite ice lolly is made from soda water. I know, it sounds strange but he loves it. In some other lollies the thing that makes them so nice is a technique for making the inside soft and creamy, while the outside is frozen. So there are lollies with a frozen chocolate outer shell, frozen chocolate ice cream, then semi-soft chocolate in the centre. Another one high on my list of the nicest ice lollies I've ever had has a vanilla/white chocolate outer shell, soft and creamy inner tip, and strawberry ice cream as the centre.

They're also very cheap. The creme caramel costs the equivalent of about 30p. So, I hope I've adequately conveyed my enthusiasm for ice lollies here. There are also red bean ones but I've steered clear of those so far.

7-11s and other convenience stores abound. I'm not exaggerating to say there are three within five minutes walk of our flat and the same is true throughout Taipei. The merchandise sold is exactly as you would imagine: snack foods and drinks, toiletries, stationery, and all those little things you might have forgotten but find you need as you travel from one place to another, such as, for example, umbrellas (it's been raining for about three days now and we have five umbrellas bewteen three of us).

Here are some snack foods I've sampled. I'll start with my favourite again. These are baozi, or steamed buns with a meat, or sometimes red bean filling. You buy them hot from a cabinet in most 7-11s.

To give an idea of the size, I need both hands to hold them. The larger ones are about the size of a hamburger, so as you can see I took rather a large bite before taking this photo. Something else I've tried for the purpose of scientific enquiry are hot spring eggs. Eggs preserved in various ways are popular here. Some of you may have heard of 1,000 year old and 100 year old eggs, which of course aren't, but have that appearance due to the preservation method. I haven't been brave enough to try those yet, but a hot spring egg just sounded as though it had been cooked in hot spring water, and that was how it tasted too;

Sorry about the blurry picture. I was probably chewing at the time. It had a salty, mineral tang to it. Quite nice.

There are other kinds of egg available that I haven't yet tried. 7-11s sell just-cooked eggs kept warm, along with all the other hot snack foods, and the northern suburb/town of Danshui is famous for these small, black spherical objects about the size of large marbles that are reportedly eggs too, but I haven't tried them. I'll let you know if I ever do.

As well as Western-style sandwiches, wraps and buns, the convenience stores also sell lots of rice-based snacks. I'm sure a lot of you will be familiar with the triangular cakes of rice wrapped in seaweed with various fillings. Andy really likes these. I like these things below better: shaped like a wrap and also covered with seaweed they're filled with things like ham, processed cheese, cucumber and other undefined fillings. Very nice.

Nibbles abound. There are all kinds of nuts, seeds, beans, crisps, and other processed snacks to serve as the things to eat when you aren't really hungry that make you put on weight. Something you don't generally see in the UK but that are actually really nice are tiny dried fish and other dried fish or seafood-based edibles. Andy and I eat a lot of these:

which are slivered almonds and dried fish. I've also seen tuna sweets on sale but haven't sampled them yet.

All of these things are also on sale in supermarkets, as well as other convenience foods. I have to confess that I've got no idea what a lot of these things are, but I thought I'd show you anyway.

Many basic foodstuffs are a mystery to me, in fact. I have no idea what these are either (though I think the top one may be coconuts:

Finally, let me share with you a very nice Thai meal we had at the Very Nice Thai restaurant in Gong Guan.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Halloween in Taipei

Apologies for the long gap between posts. I found out that Conrad had been going to the library instead of attending some of his classes, and doing a lot of reading in class rather than paying attention to what was going on around him, so I've been staying at the school all the time that he's there to check that he goes to class as he should. Although yesterday wasn't a good day previous to this he's been much better and has started playing with his classmates and participating more.

Although I've got a stack of food photos to show you, I thought I'd write instead about Halloween here while it's still timely. As you might guess, Halloween isn't a Taiwanese, Chinese or Buddhist festival! But Taiwan has strong ties with the U.S.A. Lots of people have either lived there at some point or have relatives there, and of all the foreigners Americans are the most numerous, so there's a lot of interest in celebrating this event.

There were a few events taking place around the city; the greatest number in Tian Mu which has a large expat population. We were invited by a friend from school to go with her and her husband and children to Taipei Zoo to join in the festivities there. All the children had a great time even though - this is Taipei, so it rained.

Conrad decided to go as a devil/monster thing:

Yes, I know it's not much of a costume but I'll try harder next year!
This was taken outside our block of flats. The mask didn't stay on very long after terrifying everyone in the car. Too hot and smelly!

The zoo had thought up a witty title for its event:

They were lots of stalls with things for children to do such as face painting, mask making etc. Conrad had a great time. Here he is getting some help with his vampire cloak.

This went on over the bat wings he's just made. Then he added the final touches to the vampire theme:

by getting his nails painted.

There was a costume parade and of course all the children looked wonderful:

Even the compere!

One of my friend's sons came dressed as a cow. I asked him for some milk but he wouldn't oblige. 

The other one's costume was truly terrifying:

The last event we attended was the trick or treat walk. This involved a very long wait in the rain, which the kids complained loudly about but then completely forgot once they'd got their sweets. My friend's youngest son scrutinised every handful of sweets he received and if it he didn't think it was enough he held out his bag for more. 

All in all, it was a very enjoyable evening and by the time we left it had even stopped raining!

Next time - food!