Monday, 31 December 2012

Christmas in Taipei II

Marking the change of year with winter festivals is clearly a good idea, it just becomes alarming as they seem to roll around with ever-increasing frequency. This time last year we were living in our noisy apartment and my son was still on his journey of adjustment to school life here in Taiwan. My eldest son was visiting from Hong Kong University for the holidays, and we were experiencing Taipei's weather extremes at the lower end of the temperature scale for the first time. I was also learning how to cook big dinners in small ovens.

This year we're in a much nicer apartment, my son's very happy at school and instead of relatives we had friends for Christmas dinner. Taipei weather is the same, however.

Turkeys are difficult to come by and would never fit in my oven anyway. Plus, let's face it, one of the reasons we don't eat it year-round is because it doesn't taste that nice. So we had chicken and other meats. As well, I wanted to introduce my friends to Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and gravy. Christmas pudding with hot, liquid custard was another novelty to them. All in all, it worked out well, though dishes arrived at the table at intervals.

My husband had bought a selection of drinks for the children, just picking them at random; Japanese drinks with Japanese and Chinese labels, but no English at all. It turned out one was wasabi flavour and another was curry. They smelled utterly disgusting but apparently the curry one tasted quite nice!

It isn't too difficult to have a fairly normal Christmas here. Our problem this year was that Christmas Day fell on a school day, so we got around this by postponing Christmas to a more convenient time, in this case, the following Sunday. This worked out so well I'm tempted to do the same every year. It made no difference to the fun and excitement, and it was far less stressful to have Christmas when it suited us.

You can buy most necessary paraphernalia, including Christmas trees, decoration, cards and wrapping paper, from Costco and other places. We were only missing Christmas crackers. Last year I'd included them in our original shipment from the UK. This time, they were nowhere to be found. I was surprised by this discussion on Forumosa, which revealed that crackers aren't a tradition in the US.

As you may or may not be aware, Christmas crackers contain a small trinket, a silly joke and a funny hat. By coincidence our friends had supplied the last item, so all was not lost:

Such warm hats will be useful for the coming weeks as temperatures are currently dipping into single digits.

So our second Christmas in Taiwan has drawn to a close. No doubt the next one will advance on us even more quickly. We were touched by the number of family and friends that had made the effort to send presents, cards and emails, reminding us of people sorely missed. I'd like to thank you all and wish you, and everyone else reading this blog, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Saturday Schooling in Taipei

Last Saturday was a school day, making the week feel long. The extra day was in order to have a day 'in the bank' to bridge the gap between Sunday and New Year's Day next week, giving a four day weekend. It seems most schools did this, and schools generally seem to have more flexibility about swapping days around in this way. I think it's a great idea. My son's school made the experience less onerous by having a school fete in the afternoon.

As I wrote in my first post about schools, city public schools are typically very large, with even elementary schools having enrolments in the thousands. As British schooling is quite different in this regard, with even large primaries only having a few hundred students, this was quite surprising to me. School buildings were also surprising, as in the UK primary schools tend to be only one or two stories high, while in Taipei they're tall, thin buildings, often modelled around quadrangles.  The lower grades occupy the lowest floors, to save little legs I imagine.

My son's school building is huge. Some parts of it are seven stories high, and although there's an elevator, it only holds a few people, so much good exercise is had going up and down stairs. Here's just one section:

It's sited next to a hilly area, part of which it owns. This makes for some fabulous science and nature lessons in the hills.

The children aren't allowed up there by themselves, which would have been a huge disappointment to me as a child. But there are several play areas, enough for each grade to have their own special place, so it isn't too bad.

Main sports field and dais.

Here's another play area in the inner part of the school. You can see the steps leading up into the forest at the back.

The best thing about the school's location is that the air is very clean and fresh, especially as it's situated on the very outskirts of Taipei.

Despite the school's physical size, enrolment is on the small side even compared to British schools. In my son's entire grade there's only one class of sixteen students. The entire school has fewer than two hundred children rattling around in the large school buildings. The result is that the school community really does feel like a large family.

At the school fete on Saturday afternoon the children were given vouchers to buy various gifts the parents had donated. The vouchers were in exchange for the $NT35 (about 80p) we had been asked to give in during the week.

The pink vouchers are on the left. In my son's other hand is a green lottery ticket. The children had to get each square stamped when they completed one of the activities on offer in the afternoon, then all the stamped tickets were put in a box and prize winners drawn.

As I've usually found on these occasions, the games and activities involved skills of balance, accuracy and concentration, rather than speed or strength.

For example, in this game the children had to lift a bottle upright with the aid of a ring on the end of a length of string. Yes, those are beer bottles!

Sliding an infant formula tin to the end of the table, but not off it, is the object here.

I was confused as to what was happening in this game at first, but my son later explained that the players took turns to give the command to jump, and whoever landed on the same line as the caller was out.

All in all, Saturday schooling isn't so bad!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Sunday Biking

Having just seen the first of the Hobbit movie adaptations, I'm reminded of Bilbo Baggins' reported remark to his nephew, Frodo, when I think of Taipei's riverside bike paths:

'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step onto the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."

Setting off on one of Taipei's numerous interconnecting series of bike trails could lead you to far away destinations if you aren't careful. You can travel from the city edge to edge in most directions, out of it, or all 59 km around it.

It's been just over a year since I last wrote about biking in Taipei, and since then we've been on many expeditions. We're very lucky to be living next to a riverside bike trail, so can avail ourselves of the opportunity whenever the weather suits. We have my son's bike we brought over from the UK, soon to be outgrown, and I bought a second-hand, sedate ladies' bike, both of which we store in our basement garage; but there are also many bike rental places for those who don't own one, and most of them allow you to return your bike at your destination.

Today was beautifully warm and sunny, and as we've learned to value such winter days in Taipei, we took to our bikes and enjoyed a relaxed cycle up and down the river. As usual, we took a drink and a snack to break up the journey a little.

There's lots to see. As well as the beautiful scenery, as the trails pass through the riverside parks, there are many basketball courts, baseball grounds, playgrounds and general recreational areas. So we sit and eat our snacks and people watch.

It's nice to see lots of dads out exercising with their children.
Eyes shut is less scary.
 I'm not sure what this man's scarf is for. You often see scooter riders wearing them to protect themselves from exhaust fumes, but there aren't any noxious fumes on the bike paths.

You don't even have to be big enough for a bike seat to take to trails!

I think mum is coming up behind.

The river has been low for a while, which has an interesting effect:

The black shapes are fish congregating in the shallows. This area is near a drain outlet and the fish  like the nutrient-rich water. They're all the same species, up to a foot long and silvery-black. The other local wildlife clearly appreciate the easy pickings.

This heron is cooling down, possibly?

You can see the water teeming with fish around it.

These stray dogs leapt excitedly into the water, hoping for an easy meal I think, but were completely confused when the fish all swam away.

The paths are generally well-made and slope only enough to exercise cyclists' legs.

Construction of the paths continues, and I'm particularly looking forward to the opening of an access point just across the road from us in the next month or two. I'll be jogging by the river in the morning when that happens, rather than on the running machines at the local sports centre.

With a view like this, who knows what adventures the road will lead us to?

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Rainy Day in Taipei

Taiwan sits in the northwestern Pacific Ocean tropical cyclone basin. Since we've been here there have been a few official typhoons (as in, the schools and offices were closed) but nothing to match my expectations. My understanding of what constituted a typhoon was informed by Joseph Conrad's story of the same name; something like this:

The gale howled and scuffled about gigantically in the darkness, as though the entire world were one black gully. At certain moments the air streamed against the ship as if sucked through a tunnel with a concentrated solid force of impact that seemed to lift her clean out of the water and keep her up for an instant with only a quiver running through her from end to end. And then she would begin her tumbling again as if dropped back into a boiling cauldron. 

Admittedly, that does take some living up to and I probably wouldn't like it very much if the weather ever really did anything similar, but I have to confess to feeling a little anti-climactic about our experiences so far. When friends in the UK ask about extreme weather here I say, 'you know those strong, icy winds you get in winter, where you're leaning into it and feel like you're going to be blown off your feet? Well, I've never known it get that bad in Taipei.'

But rain.....rain is another story. Rain is something I'd underestimated about Taiwan. I thought that, living most of my life in England, I knew rain. But I did not know rain till I came here. 

It's a little hard to find statistics as Taiwan is (undeservedly) not recognised everywhere as a country in its own right, but this site gives information for Taipei in particular. It states that the capital receives an average of 2100 mm of rainfall a year. According to Nationmaster, this places it 11th in the world. 

This isn't a complaint, however. If it were not for rain it would be impossible to be surrounded by lush, green mountains. Rain provides relief from heat and dust, and lends a soft, dreamy quality to the atmosphere. And rainy days are all the nicer for having an excuse to stay home in cosy comfort and indulge yourself.

So when the view from our apartment looks like this:

it's time to break out the board games and have a relaxing Sunday afternoon indulging in poor dietary choices.

We brought some Green and Black's organic cocoa powder with us for just such an occasion.

Scrummy buttery baked potatoes.

No car means always being able to have a glass of wine when you feel like it. And the chocolate...well, I can't think of anything to justify that. Oh, I know - it's raining outside!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Monkey Mountain, Kaohsiung

Forced to choose among the many things there are to do in Kaohsiung during our too-brief visit, a trip to Monkey Mountain was at the top of my list. Hiking around Taipei is starting to become chilly and damp, whereas down south it seemed the weather was still perfect for this activity. Plus - there are monkeys!

A bus that takes you there from Kaohsiung Main Station. It's the number 56, as we found out from the information desk. We waited about half an hour before looking at the timetable more closely. One thing the staff at the information desk had neglected to tell us was that it doesn't run on Mondays. No problem, for the taxi rank is right next to the bus stop. 'Shoushan' is well within my Chinese speaking ability. We set off.

When we arrived (the taxi driver dropped us off at the zoo entrance) we discovered why the bus doesn't run on Mondays - the zoo is closed. (The taxi driver apologised profusely. I honestly believe he didn't know.) No matter. We wanted to hike and see the monkeys more than we wanted to go to the zoo anyway. So we walked along the trail, following the many maps and signs, to the main path to the monkey colony areas. Only to be stopped by a guard. Monkey Mountain is closed on Mondays.

Well, the weather was beautiful - fine, clear and warm, but not too warm. We simply weren't going to be put off. There are many, many trails and walks on Shoushan. Monkeys or not, Monday closures or not, we were going to have a nice time, dammit. 

And we did have a very nice three or four hours up there. And we saw monkeys.

The monkeys, Formosan rock macaques, are completely used to humans and just ignore you really. Unless you have some food visible, in which case they will apparently relieve you of it vigorously and effectively. You need to keep a tight hold of your camera too, just in case. But the ones we saw were never threatening, and it's interesting and gratifying to see intelligent animals close up in their natural habitat.

One small disadvantage of the restrictions placed on us by Monday was that we didn't get to the other side of the mountain, where apparently there are views across Taiwan Strait. Instead, we looked down upon Kaohsiung city:

Looking at that picture again reminds me of the gorgeous, mild weather of that day, and the delicate, fresh, green scent of the mountain air.

Here in Taipei the winter rain has started, and while that has its own cosy, autumnal charm, I can't help but remember those two days in Kaohsiung and the trails of Monkey Mountain with some wistfulness.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Taking Tea in Kaohsiung

When I was growing up I somehow missed that transitional period when you go from drinking orange cordial to drinking tea or coffee, and I became instead a kind of glass-of-water-when-thirsty person. This fact has never had much of an impact on my life except for the rare occasion I've felt that sharing a social drink, even a non-alcoholic one, would have made an meeting more convivial. But you cannot come to Taiwan and not drink tea.

When I last wrote about dining in Taipei I mentioned that we'd eaten at a tea-themed restaurant in Maokong. Well I could have extrapolated from that, for Taiwan is a tea-themed country. On first arriving over a year ago, I was still unused to the taste of tea, and I would search carefully through the drinks section in 7-11s to find something that didn't have tea in it. I'd think I was buying a bottle of lemon drink, only to find I'd bought lemon tea. My son would try to buy chocolate milk, and find he'd bought chocolate milk tea.

An extremely popular drink which originated in Taiwan is bubble tea. It is a sweet, milky tea with large balls of tapioca. You need an especially wide straw to suck up the black, chewy balls. Friends tell me it's delicious, but I'm ashamed to say haven't gathered the courage to try it yet.

The main tea types are black, green and oolong. Interestingly, what the West calls black tea is actually called red tea in Mandarin. They're named according to the degree of fermentation. My very basic understanding is that black tea is fully fermented, green tea is unfermented and oolong tea is about 20% fermented. Taiwan is most famous for oolong tea. After reading a lot about green tea I started drinking it for its health benefits and I was slowly becoming accustomed to the taste.

So, what does all of this have to do with our trip to Kaohsiung? The answer is that my good friend who lives there is a qualified tea artist and I was extremely privileged to have an introduction to tea from an expert. Here she is with her equipment, ready to serve me delicious beverages.

We started with oolong tea, which was a first for me. Of course, any tea brewed by an expert was bound to be good, but I was surprised by how delicious it was, so sweet and smooth that there was absolutely no need for milk or sugar.

Next we had Pu-erh tea. Pu-erh tea is very special. It would be presumptuous of me in my ignorance to go into detail about this tea, but I do know that it originated in Yunnan province in China, and that is where most of it is still produced today. It is fermented after drying, and a good quality tea continues to age and develop deeper and more complex flavours over the passage of time much in the same way that a fine wine does.

It's sold loose or in cakes or bricks:

Here's some 5 year old Pu-erh tea, which was a delight to drink:
I was finally treated to some 44 year old Pu-erh tea, which was so wonderful I forgot to take a photo of it, but here's an image of an aged Pu-erh tea borrowed from Wikipedia:
You can see that the tea is darker. My friends explained how you can tell the authenticity of the tea by the green tinge around the edge of it. The flavour was richer and earthier than the younger tea. Both of them were absolutely delicious and I think that, like my friends, I may develop an addiction.

As well as the taste of tea growing on me, I was fascinated to discover that not all tea is grown on little bushes. This is a 1200 year old tea tree.
But tea is not only a drink, it's an ancient culture. It has a  vast history, influence and significance throughout the world which will no doubt continue down the ages. Why? I believe one reason is that the act of sitting down with friends and sharing this subtle, rich beverage encourages us to talk to each other, tell our stories, enrich our friendships, learn from and support one another. In short, to develop those aspects of ourselves that make us human.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Kaohsiung Lotus Lake

Kaohsiung is what Taipei would probably be like if you took away the mountains, dried out the climate and slowed down the pace of life. It even has its own very tall building, the Tuntex Sky Tower, which is 85 floors high. We could only manage two days there, and this wasn't enough to do justice to this warm-hearted, laid back city, but I'll do my best to give a flavour of it. This post covers just the first few hours of our visit.

Luckily I have two good friends living in Kaohsiung. They were attentive hosts and showed us around on our first day. First, we had to attend to the essentials of life, and if you know Taiwanese people you'll know that I'm talking about food. Fresh off the high speed rail train, our first stop was a delicious lunch consisting of dumplings, beef noodles, spring onion pancake, millet porridge and some side dishes.

Unusually, I managed to stop eating long enough to take a photo:

With full stomachs we went on to the famous, wide, manmade Lotus Lake, which is within the city. It's highly scenic, and we spent a good couple of hours here. The lotus after which the lake is named were still flower,  there were many temples to visit, wild birds and turtles to view, fish to feed, an opportunity to cleanse ourselves of all bad luck and pray for better health.

My friends, who kindly showed us round.

Enter the Dragon

One way to rid yourself of bad luck was to go in through this dragon's mouth, walk through the long tunnel of its body and exit its, er, nether regions.

The second bad-luck-cleansing-process involved entering a dragon's mouth and coming out through a tiger's, which felt a little more sanitary.

If you look closely you may be able to spot the person who thought it would be good fun to run up and down the steps of both pagodas.

Another spiritual experience occurred in this Taoist temple to the god of medicine.

Such a gorgeously decorated interior

My son decided he was going to pray to the god of medicine. Here, he's completing the first step, which consists of throwing two crescent-shaped blocks to the floor. The god tells you whether he'll answer your question according to how the blocks fall. Next you have to shuffle some sticks and choose one. The number on the stick sends you to a specific drawer. In each draw the recipe to achieve your goal is written.

My son asked for better memory and more speed in sports, which were granted. The third prayer (which he refused to divulge!) went unanswered.

Hitchhiker or stowaway?

Turtles had their own pond at the lake, and seemed very content there in the green waters.

Herons had their pick of the fish teeming in the lake waters.

I could have stayed and photographed lotus flowers all day, but there was a lot more to our trip than this. More in my next post.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Dining in Taipei

Kitchens in most Taipei apartments are tiny, and apartments with a kitchen where more than two people can move at the same time are advertised as having a 'Western' kitchen, or, in other words, a kitchen for people who eat at home.

One reason for this is the fact that most adults, men and women, work and so have little time for cooking. This is true even for families with children. Another reason is that it's very easy, and often very cheap, to eat out. There are enough restaurants in Taipei to visit a different one each day of the week for a year, at the very least. Probably a lot more than that. Not only are there many, many restaurants, there are also numerous street food vendors, and, with the inevitable odd exception, their fare is tasty and safe.

Our own cooking and eating habits have changed considerably over the last year. I have, basically, become the laziest cook in the world. Each day my husband asks what plans I have for dinner. Each day I have no respectable answer. I feel the influence of all those other Taipei-dwelling wives too strongly. I can't overcome the inertia. I have embraced the group-thinking wholeheartedly and now my brain only admits the possibility of eating out. It rephrases my husband's question into 'where shall we eat?'.

I have many answers to this question. Will it be a special treat, such as the Tequila Sunrise where we ate last night, with their delicious crushed ice margaritas? Or the California Pizza Kitchen near Taipei 101, where the salads are fantastic? Or perhaps we'll just pop over the river to the Ponderosa near Taipei zoo, so we can choose from the large buffet on offer?

Now that winter's on its way, we'll probably be eating more hotpots, which are a kind of make-it-up-as-you-go-along chunky shop with a base of your own choosing. There's one we go to in Da'an, just a few stops down the MRT from us, which has an entirely lemon-themed menu. Also in Da'an, we sometimes visit a lovely authentic Thai restaurant. Or a burger joint a little further down the line.

These examples I'm giving are just the tip of the iceberg. There are also of course numerous traditional Taiwanese restaurants too, where more local dishes such as three cup chicken or green pepper beef are on offer. Also, each area has its own specialities. The Maokong area, famous for growing tea, has tea-themed restaurants. When I visited the area with number 2 son in the summer, we had tea noodles

and tea, erm, something else

Proper Taiwanese restaurants are a little trickier for us as they often don't have an English menu so I have to limit our ordering to what I can roughly understand.

We have had one or two disasters due to being overly-confident in this area. The most recent one was when I ordered a dish where I recognised the characters for 'fish' and 'slice'. What I thought we would get was.....well, to be honest I probably didn't think that far ahead. What we got was very thick slices of sashimi, which is one of the few things that I really can't stomach.

But, generally, the experience of dining in Taipei is fantastic and only bound to get better as I'm able to read more Chinese. Mmmmm, I really hope my son's Chinese textbook has a story all about dining out in Taipei.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Taiwanese Taekwondo

Taekwondo originates from Korea, but is very popular in Taiwan. It's one of the few sports in which Taiwan competes at Olympic level, as demonstrated at this year's Olympics in London, when Tseng Li-cheng won a bronze in the women's under 57kg event.

Learning a martial art was one of my son's few enthusiasms about coming to live in Taiwan, so I thought it would be best to enrol him at a centre soon after we settled in. The closest centre to our original apartment in Wanlong was luckily run by a patient and kind man who also spoke some English.

One of the best ways to learn another language is to use it in a meaningful way, and my son soon learned to count in Chinese and understand many of the commands, and while there isn't much time for idle chatter during training sessions, the children accepted him as one of their own and made him feel welcome.

Since then, Taekwondo has been a steady constant in our lives. Despite moving away from the area, I take my son back there for sessions twice a week Although he complains sometimes and says as soon as he reaches black belt he's leaving (thankfully that's quite some time away) he's actually very emotionally invested in it.

Last Saturday there was a grading session and I turned up to witness the award ceremony. When it was time for my son's level to receive their new belts, he wasn't called. He was distraught. I could see his head fall into his hands, and the teachers were patting him on his shoulders, in consolation I thought.

But it turned out that he'd been the best performer in his category. He was called with the other winners to receive his special belt.

Two interesting experiences have coincided with Taekwondo, once when we got caught in a thunderstorm, and once when I made the fatal mistake of picking up a lost mobile phone. I'm still waiting for the third to make the set, but I don't leave the house with only my keys anymore.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Day Trip to Taichung

Mid-term tests are looming and the pressure is on, so it seemed to be a good time to take a short break. A friend was going to be in Taichung for the weekend, so we arranged to meet up with her and her family on Saturday.

My son has been friends with her two boys since we arrived a year ago, but now that they're in different schools we have to make an effort to get together so they can play.

This was outside the Botanical Gardens in the centre of Taichung.  Predictably, the boys were more interested in playing than looking at plants. The gardens were a quiet, lush oasis.

The large glasshouse contains a collection of native Taiwanese flora, and a small aquarium.

Outside, water plants form an interesting display. I'd never seen anything like some of the flowers I saw there.

These were blooming in one of the large bowls of aquatic plants that line the route into the glasshouse.

In a large pond outside, bigger water plants were growing. Unfortunately all the signage was in Chinese, apart from the botanical names, so I can't tell you anything about them other than the fact they were very pretty!

Another of the pleasures of the trip was the excuse it afforded to take the High Speed Rail. I love travelling this way. It's so futuristic. I feel as though I should be wearing a silver jumpsuit and eating tablets for lunch (boy, did the futurists of the '60s get that one wrong!).

It's so cheap too. Only roughly £45 for a return ticket for both of us.

The highlight of the day was the afternoon we spent at the National Museum of Natural Science. It was very easy to get there on the free shuttle bus from the HSR station into town, which stops at the museum.

The walkway that leads down to the museum is paved with images of animals in their evolutionary order, starting with the present and walking into the past. This was one of the leviathans depicted in the shallow water channel that runs alongside the path:

And this was at the base of a bubbling fountain at the very end:

Presumably one of the earliest forms of life
I think the walk is to scale as well, because the higher order animals are clustered together at the beginning, while towards the end there are long gaps between the various forms, all of which are in water.

At the entrance to the museum, someone had dressed up for the occasion.

Once there, we went straight into the Space Theatre, which had a beautiful display of the night sky followed by a film on the history of flight. Very impressive, it was projected onto the domed ceiling. We did have to close our eyes sometimes due to motion sickenss, though!

The museum layout also mimics evolutionary history, working its way through time to human origins and the human body at the very end of the tour. Dinosaurs were, as always, a big focus of attention. No holds were barred in making them as scary and exciting as possible. T. Rex and one her babies were animated by robotics.

We spent a long time in the section devoted to humans. There were lots of interactive displays, including one that measured your brain waves. After resting your forehead against a sensor, a screen displayed your brain activity. Yes, mine did show some! Interestingly, if you cleared your mind of thoughts, the waves flattened out considerably. I assume there was no lasting damage caused. I have too few brain cells left to risk losing any more.

More gruesome exhibits were a film about smoking cadavers in Papua New Guinea (to preserve them) and two human brains in formaldehyde: one normal brain and one damaged by drug addiction. There was also the obligatory Egyptian mummy to ogle.

I was surprised how big Taichung is, and flat. I'm so used to the beautiful mountains of Taipei that travelling out of the city feels like going to another land. There was so much more to explore. One day we'll go back.