Monday, 25 February 2013


Maokong, southern mountain suburb of Taipei City, lies about twenty minutes from Taipei Zoo via a cable car system known as the Maokong Gondola. It's famous for tea and potholes. Formerly one of the biggest tea growing areas in Taiwan, there are still many plots full of tea bushes to be seen on the mountainside, and other-worldly potholes line its riverbeds.

I was in Maokong last summer when I walked from Silver Stream Waterfall to Maokong Gondola Station, and stopped briefly in Maokong itself. But the area really deserves at least a day of exploration.

Riding the cable car is exciting and a little scary as you go from summit to summit, passing over forested valleys hundreds of feet below. Transparent-floored cars are available for the especially brave.

One sight I love to see is an allotment apparently in the middle of nowhere. Although Taipei is surrounded by mountains, any vaguely level space has always been put to good use by an enterprising Taiwanese person.

The dark green lines of plants are tea bushes.

Maokong is spread out across mountain slopes. The main streets are lined with restaurants and tea shops, all with wonderful views over Taipei. Snaking away from the streets are many long and short hiking trails, leading to interesting sights, such as Zhinan Temple and potholed riverbeds, or just meandering off into the mountains.

Spring had arrived in Maokong the day we visited. Wild and cultivated flowers were blooming en masse, creating some beautiful sights and filling the air with scent.

 Escaping down a trail into a cool valley, we came across one of the potholed areas.

According to the China Post, the potholes are made by small stones being spun in a circular motion by the river current, and eroding holes in the soft rock of the riverbed.

We heard, rather than saw, the local wildlife, as the trees were alive with birds. This little chap didn't escape my camera lens, though.

The Tea Promotion Centre exists for those who would like to find out more about the history of the region, but we decided to leave that for a rainy day. The weather was too beautiful to waste any of it indoors. We contented ourselves with a close-up of some tea bushes instead.

After a 'winter' of mostly balmy, perfect days, we're now moving into our second Taiwan spring, and looking forward to many more such excursions as our delightful day in Maokong.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Chinese New Year II

If mainland China ever decided to invade Taiwan, the optimum time would be at Chinese New Year, as it would take several hours for the Taiwanese to figure out that all the bangs, screeches and crackles weren't fireworks.

Firecrackers are an important part of Chinese New Year celebrations, and used to be set off to scare away evil spirits. Today, the tradition continues with the addition of evening fireworks throughout the holiday. Last year, when we were living in Wanlong, fireworks were a mere ornament to the general holiday festivities, but this year we've been a little, er, overwhelmed.

The fireworks started in earnest more than a week ago. As soon as it was fully dark, around 7.30 p.m., we would hear the initial explosions. Performances would reach a crescendo around midnight, then gradually wind down until about two in the morning, when they would finally stop. So, apologies to those who might have missed last week's post, but the sound of fireworks, and general family holiday duties, left little room for quiet reflection.

Setting off fireworks is tricky if you live in an apartment, as most Taipei-dwellers do. So, as we discovered, people head out to open, public spaces, such as the river park opposite our home. When my son and I went for a bike ride there last week, we found some areas thick with spent firework cases. As another item in my list of living-in-Taiwan experiences, I appreciated the novelty for about 48 hours, then sleep deprivation set in and I began planning next year's escape.

Now, I'm pleased to say, the fireworks are tailing off. Everybody is back at work or school, and things are just about back to normal, though I can still hear the occasional burst of firecrackers in the distance as I type this.

The general noise actually started just before Chinese New Year, when recycling and rubbish trucks seemed to be going round the clock, allowing people to get rid of all their old, unwanted items before the year was out. This is an exclusively Taiwanese phenomenon and a typical, very loud, communal activity:

Our own celebrations were low key. Our apartment block had its firecrackers up for a week or so, and now we're protected from evil for another year.

Communal paper money-burning bins were available if we wanted to send some cash or consumer items up to the old ancestors.

We spent a quiet Chinese New Year Day at a friend's house having champagne and leftovers, which was very relaxed and enjoyable, and we gave hong baos (red envelopes containing money) to our friends' children and our apartment security guards. Compared to the Western tradition of giving presents, I found this method extremely practical and convenient; in other words, very Chinese. One result we've had is the grumpy guard now says hello in the mornings.

Aside from the fireworks, we had a great break, and spent lots of time on simple family pursuits, one or two of which I hope to write about in the coming weeks.

Hopefully, my next Chinese New Year post will be from somewhere far from home.

Sunday, 3 February 2013


Shenkeng is a small town just outside Taipei, famous for stinky tofu. If you love tofu, you're in heaven there as it's on sale in myriad forms, including tofu ice-cream.

Somehow we've managed to live just ten minutes away by bus 660, yet only visit it twice in all our months in Muzha. Our first trip was aborted when rain stopped play, but the gorgeous winter weather we're currently experiencing, with temperatures in the high twenties, drew us there again this weekend.

We were actually looking forward to resuming our attempt to make the short trek to a small waterfall nearby, but I couldn't resist first popping into Yungan House. I'm so glad we made the effort. There are very, very few houses preserved from earlier times in Taiwan and consequently few opportunities to get a feel for how people used to live.

This was clearly the house of a very rich family, as a large kitchen was needed to feed everyone, and frivolously expensive decorations still adorn the roof. The original furniture is ornate too, and children were obviously spoiled with generous gifts.

Following Richard Saunders' directions in Taipei Escapes 1, we left busy Shenkeng behind to walk to Four Dragons Waterfall. It was so hot I was glad I'd stopped to buy extra water to take with us, despite the fact that we were only travelling a mile or two.

The trail up to the waterfall was in the process of reconstruction, but the workers had thoughtfully left behind sacks of cement in lieu of steps to help us on our way. We traced the course of the stream that flowed down from the waterfall, glad to be out of the sun's glare, in the cool, humming, chirping shade of the forest. All the way up and down, we didn't meet another soul (which was probably a good thing as the cement sacks were only one person wide). It was glorious.

Satisfyingly exercised, we returned to civilisation and indulged in Shnekeng Old Street's excess eating and shopping experience. A temple painting is a highlight of the street, but approaching Chinese New Year as we are, the crowds and decorations were enough of a buzz in themselves. Full of craft shops and interesting food stalls, Old Street could keep anyone entertained for hours.

We didn't exhaust all the walking possibilities around Shenkeng. No doubt the odour of stinky tofu will lure us back.