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.