Saturday, 26 May 2012

Down on the Farm

While my son's experience at public school here has been a bit of a bumpy ride for all of us, as to be expected, one thing I've always appreciated is the opportunity this has given us to participate in the extra-curricular activities associated with school life. One of our reasons for coming to Taiwan was to get to know Taiwanese people and the way of life here, and going along on trips with other children and parents has been invaluable in this.

Yesterday we took part in the annual farm trip. One of the sets of parents at my son's school own a family farm about one hour's drive from Taipei and every year they invite the other parents and children to spend a day there.

We stepped out of the coach into gloriously hot sunshine, the threatened rain having held off for one more day. If there is one thing that speaks 'Asia' to me it's the vibrant greenness of rice plants growing in paddy fields, so of course I had to record my first proper sighting since arriving here nine months ago. City living does have some disadvantages.

The first activity of the day was to do some traditional cooking. In other words, to build a fire and bake some local food. I'd always thought of Taiwanese cooking as in many ways very similar to Chinese cooking, that is, mainly based on cooking food quickly over a hot flame. I don't know how true it is, but I've read that the tradition of stir-frying foods evolved on the great plains of China where wood was a scarce commodity, so cooking fires were brief and food was cut small and quickly cooked.

You may know from earlier posts that kitchens here don't usually come equipped with ovens either, so I'd thought that baking foods for long periods of time was probably more a Western custom. However I wasn't considering the varied heritage of the Taiwanese culture, including a Polynesian influence from centuries ago. Maybe that's where the tradition of baking food in fire-heated earth comes from, or maybe it's from another influence. I don't know, but I do know that it's fun and the food is delicious.

First, though, you must build your oven. Everyone had to split into groups. My son and I were adopted by some friends of the family. My son had a great time getting himself dirty building the oven with lumps of sticky clay soil. To build an oven with a roof in this way is surprisingly tricky and I'm glad I was just hanging around taking photos.

The first step is to build a door facing the prevailing wind, to provide a draught for your oven.

Once that's complete, you can start building the walls of your oven. The weather has been dry lately, which had transformed the soil into handy 'bricks' for building.

After a few collapsing wall disasters (I strongly suspect these men spend their days in more refined pursuits than clay oven-building) our oven was ready for firing.

This lovely woman was the only female present who got her hands dirty by mucking in with the men. I'm not sure whether us women were being smart or just lazy.
Then came the most exciting part, building the fire.

I'm sorry to say there isn't much to see when the fire's on the inside. You can just see the smoke escaping on the right and a little lick of flame through the walls.

Meanwhile, the fishing had started. The farm has a manmade pond filled with fish to catch and this formed the second main activity of the day. The owners had kindly provided some rods and bait for those that wanted to try, which included nearly every child in the place. The fish were very gullible and took the bait with speed. My son caught three fish in the space of a few minutes.

Removing the hooks and getting the fish into bowls of water was the tricky part. While the fish weren't particularly bright, they did have the defence of very sharp spines along their backs with which they inflicted some revenge on the fishermen.

This fisherman is being especially careful removing the hook.

Those too young to fish had fun in other ways.

And so the day went on.
Sometimes things other than fish were caught.

The owners had provided a traditional rice noodle dish and soup for lunch and mochi for dessert. Andy loves mochi but I can't deal with its propensity to glue your teeth together. Luckily for me, our baked goods were soon ready to eat. I wonder why it is that food cooked in the open tastes so much nicer than that cooked over a stove?

When the fire had heated the walls of the oven red hot, the remains were scraped out and foil- or newspaper-wrapped food was placed inside. Then the whole thing was squashed down and earth piled on top to seal in the heat. One or two hours later the ovens were ready to be opened again. First out were some unusual shoots that I hadn't seen before. They resembled bamboo shoots but I was told they're actually a kind of fungus that grows on the bamboo.

Very sweet....

...and delicious!

The sweetcorn needed a little longer, but the sweet potatoes were done to a turn. Yum.

What a shame we can't cook like this on the 5th floor.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Home At Last!

After months of searching we've finally found a place that I hope will become our home for the next few years. Finding somewhere that ticks all the boxes hasn't been easy. Within our price range we could have somewhere either modern or quiet, it seemed.

There are three main websites:

And luckily for me Google Chrome translates the pages into English automatically. This does make for some comedy while reading sometimes, but it's very easy to understand the essentials. I cannot, however, arrange to view apartments by myself and my very good friends Jane and Yee Ling have helped me enormously with this.

While I'm not a big fan of house hunting, it's been interesting seeing the variety available and the differences with houses in the UK. For a start, I'm saying 'houses' but of course they're actually apartments. The distinction isn't such a strong one here. I'm pretty sure Chinese generally uses the same word for both.

Of course in Taipei the vast majority of housing available is apartments. You do see what I would call proper houses and they're highly sought-after it seems. Maybe this is because your chance of being annoyed by your neighbours reduces the further away they are. But then I think that unless you're living in the mountains, the further from the street with its traffic and accompanying noise and pollution the better, so for me apartment living at considerable height is preferable.

Another consideration is that a sub-tropical country harbours a lot of creepy-crawlies to be scared of. I have a theory that the higher I am the more difficult it is for them to get me. We're currently on the tenth floor and have had only two close encounters with cockroaches, both of which appeared to have been brought in in cardboard boxes. Mosquitos, of course, will get you however high you live.

One thing that Taipei has in common with most other Asian cities is the contrast between the exterior and the interior of apartment blocks. It's just about impossible to tell what an apartment will be like by looking at its exterior. It's like Doctor Who's TARDIS in the realm of aesthetics. The dirtiest, most decrepit exterior can conceal palatial splendour within. The only thing you can really guess from the outside of a building is its age.

While there doesn't appear to be a clear distinction between houses and apartments, there are different words for apartment blocks with and without elevators. Living somewhere hot and wet, the ability to get to your front door without having to climb five flights of stairs ranks high in importance, of course. Also, there are several items you might like for your home that simply won't fit up a narrow staircase.

I did look at several gongyus, or no elevator buildings, but in the end we settled on somewhere that we could reach without too much of a struggle. Here it is (I don't know for how much longer before the agent takes the ad down):

We like the open aspects to both sides of the building, which will probably make for less humidity and mould in the winter, and its relatively modern interior. It's very close to an MRT line but on the outer edge of the city where the air is cleaner and there are many places to go walking and cycling. We've swapped proximity to restaurants for a supermarket on the ground floor and a sports centre with swimming pool just down the road (that's free to residents of the district).

After already being cooked on occasion in our current apartment I'm pleased to report there are four air conditioners in the new one. Now all we have to worry about is the electricity bill for the summer. There are also three balconies so I'll never be short of somewhere to dry the washing, and I may even finally be able to grow something.

The only potential downside that I'm aware of so far is that we're near a main road, though it's only the living room that faces the road and that's through an enclosed balcony area. We've stood in the apartment and listened and been unable to hear the traffic, possibly due to good windows. What it will sound like in the early hours of the morning as we're lying in bed, I don't know. One thing I do know is that we're about to find out. It can't be worse than a recycling depot - can it?

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Pingxi - Mining for Kids

I can't say that mining has ever been a subject that particularly interested me, unless it has something to do with gold or dwarves, but when I heard about my son's next school trip I thought I should be a good mum and go along. School trips are also a great opportunity for me to meet and chat with the other mums and dads and see areas of Taiwan that would otherwise be more challenging for us to visit.

I'd heard of the Pingxi branch line and the surrounding area and also of the Coal Mining Museum (from another blogger who's more enthusiastic on the subject than me). It sounded like a nice enough day out and there was a coach laid on directly from the school so I signed up. It took us about an hour to get there and the kids watched half of Toy Story 3 as we wound our way through the mountains north-east of Taipei city.

One thing that I do love is the scenery in this area. It was a lovely day too so as we were given a guided tour of our first stop I was able to enjoy the beautiful landscape.

On the bottom right is the former abode of a Japanese prince.

Children have an unending enthusiasm for travelling by train and on this trip they weren't disappointed. Our first train ride was on the branch line itself. Time for a group photo while we were waiting:

And then here comes the train:

We stopped at Shifen. The Old Street here is a popular tourist destination, full as it is of souvenir and sky lantern shops. The children had a quiz with prizes, given by our tour guide. We also walked a little way out of town and over a suspension bridge, which was a little too wobbly for my liking with 50-odd children scampering across it.

Then we got back on the coaches to travel up to the Coal Mining Museum. After eating our packed lunches the children watched a short film about the history of the mine. Then they got the chance to don hard hats and scramble through a mocked-up tunnel so that they could experience similar conditions to the miners. I swear that for some of them putting on a hard hat was the absolute highlight of the trip.

Next came the second train ride of the day, this time in the old carts that used to be used to transport coal. Many screams and shouts of excitement were heard as the engine jerked the carts into motion. Then we trundled out -

- and back again.
Once more, some beautiful views:

The final activity of the day, before the coach trip home with Toy Story 3 part 2 showing, was to decorate and launch some sky lanterns. I'd shamefully missed the signature festival that took place a couple of months ago so this was particularly interesting for me. 
First, the decoration

Then the carrying out


And airborne
I was curious as to how the lanterns are launched. There are two crossed wires underneath the lantern and some combustible substance is wound round these, then set alight. The launchers wait until the lantern is full of hot air and straining upwards, then they let go. There were eight or nine lanterns launched that day and we watched them float off into the distance. 

The Sky Lantern Festival takes place every year and hundreds of lanterns are launched simultaneously at night, which must look spectacular. I'll make sure I don't miss the next one!

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Calamity at Fulong Beach

Northern Taiwan isn't famous for its beaches but there are a few which are nice. So when, last Monday, Conrad had a rare school holiday, we decided to travel out to Fulong Beach. One of the reasons northern Taiwan's beaches aren't particularly well known is because Taipei itself is inland and a trip to the seaside, especially if going by train, can take an hour or more.

We managed to negotiate the local train section of Taipei Main Station well enough, that, eventually, we found ourselves on the slow train that stopped at Fulong. The journey took an hour and a half and we were standing for half of it, so we were hoping for something to make it worthwhile by the time we arrived. We weren't disappointed.

Fulong Beach consists of two small spits leading out into the sea. The smaller one is directly opposite the road that leads down to the water. To get to the large beach, you turn left and follow the signs to the waterfront. This beach is private and you have to pay to enter but it's a small fee.

On the day that we arrived the entries to a sandcastle building competition were still remaining to view, though I'm not sure the word sandcastle appropriately describes these structures. How they withstand Taiwan's downpours I have no idea.

It was a blisteringly hot day and many people had retired to the only shade available beneath the small bridge to the beach, but what's that saying about mad dogs and Englishmen? I was fully prepared with sunscreen, sunglasses and hat, and it was one of the few dry and sunny days we'd had in a while. Besides, while Conrad never wants to go to the beach, once we arrive, I can't get him to leave. He launched himself into the waves and it was clear we were going to be there for some time.

For myself, I had my Chinese coursebook, a beautiful view -

 - and an entertained child. I was set up for the day.

But here I'm sorry to say that here the photo record ends, because calamity struck. Not once, but twice.

As you can see, the waves were quite high that day. Maybe not high enough for surfing, which is apparently a pastime at this beach, but high enough to catch me out. I'd set up on the dry sand above what I thought was the high water line when, as I was deeply immersed in trying to read Chinese, a freak wave came up the beach and soaked me, the towel I was sitting on, my Chinese book, Conrad's dry clothes and my bag!

I saved my phone and camera before the water reached them but I had an unfortunately-placed wet patch in my shorts and everything else was drenched and sandy. Conrad found this even more entertaining than the waves. But karma was about to strike. 

I tried my best to rinse out the sandy towels etc. in the sandy water with little success. The lifeguards were completely unsympathetic to the extent of not allowing me to hang anything on their ropes to dry. 

I moved a considerable distance from the water's edge and sat in the hot sand. I optimistically tried to dehydrate my sandy book in the sun (it was ruined, I had to bin it). 

We lasted about another thirty minutes before Conrad came hobbling and crying out of the water, clutching his foot. There was nothing to see at first, despite pouring water over the painful area to clear it. Then in a few minutes the raised blisters of a jellyfish sting began to show. 

Conrad continued to wail. I continued to pour fresh water over him. A lifeguard helpfully told me it was a jellyfish sting. No, really?

After a while, Conrad's wailing abated enough for us to hobble back to the station. A visit to buy ice-creams miraculously relieved the pain. We got the fast train back to Taipei and Conrad had something to write about in his school diary that night. So the day was not lost. Fulong Beach was worth the trip.