Thursday, 20 June 2013

Penghu I

An archipelago of nearly 100 small and large islands, Penghu lies off the west coast of Taiwan and is only 50 minutes from Taipei by plane, making it easier and quicker to get to that the more popular tourist beaches at Kending. We only had four days in Penghu, but we could easily have stretched that to two weeks and found something new to see and do each day.

Penghu has a rich and unique culture different from Taiwan, based on its challenging climate, geological history and fishing industry. Penghu islands are formed of basalt, which is slow-leak lava that has cooled and solidified, cracking into neat pentagonal and hexagonal blocks. The British will be familiar with similar structures at the Giants' Causeway in Northern Ireland. In winter the islands bear the full force of the North East Trade Wind, making conditions so difficult that in the past some islanders would simply go and work on the mainland for six months of the year.

Nowadays the traffic flows the other way during the summer, with mainlanders visiting the islands to enjoy the long sandy beaches, water sports activities, local cuisine, temples, wildlife sanctuaries, museums, ancient stoneworks, interesting geological formations and regular firework festivals.

The fireworks are exploded at the Rainbow Bridge, which was behind our hotel, and is lit up at night in all the seven colours you would expect. It crosses a small harbour entrance, and when the tide is out the sea bed is alive with crabs, starfish, shrimps and tiny fish. The children loved picking through the sand to find sea creatures. When the tide comes in the harbour fills to about 2 metres deep, transforming it into a massive sea water swimming pool. You can rent bikes to cycle around it, and you can also walk over the top of the bridge, which we did, and saw wonderful sea views.

 One child's catch from an afternoon's busy investigation of the sea bed.
A hermit crab peeking out of its borrowed shell. There were thousands of these, crawling quickly towards the retreating sea.

The three main islands of the archipelago, Magong, Xiyu and Baisha, as well as one or two smaller islands, are connected by road bridges. There's enough to do just on these islands to keep you occupied for a week or so. On our first day we hired a car to tour in. We visited a couple of huge, ancient banyan trees, Penghu Aquarium, Whale Cave, Erkan Traditional Village and a temple/turtle 'sanctuary' (more on that later).

Banyans are traditionally planted near temples, because Buddha is supposed to have achieved enlightenment while sitting beneath one. They grow wide and dense, casting much-valued shade during summer heat. We certainly appreciated sitting beneath this 300 year old one.

Penghu is known for its cactus fruit, which is used to make ice-cream (actually a kind of sorbet) and a refreshing soft drink. It's deep red in colour and all I can say is it tastes fruity, but unlike any other fruit I've ever tasted. I had cactus fruit and melon sorbet, and cooled off under the banyan tree.

Penghu Aquarium was decent considering the small island population, and worth visiting. The highlight of the day for us was watching a diver feed the rays, sharks and other fish in the main tank. Rays have an interesting way of eating, a kind of hoovering action. I couldn't imagine how they manage it in the wild, with their eyes and mouth on opposite sides of their heads. 

Outside there's a children's play area, but it's unshaded and was unbelievably hot. My son had a narrow escape from the whale shark that lives there.

The only part of our trip that disappointed me was visiting a supposed turtle sanctuary situated in a temple. Outside, there's a sign stating that the temple has a stamp of approval from a conservation body, and after seeing the conditions inside I could see why they had put up the sign. The turtles are kept in the temple basement in a grotto-style room, in shallow tanks that are completely bare. They're large, green sea turtles that in their natural state would swim thousands of miles of ocean every year just to lay eggs. The temple claimed, according to my friend, that they cared for small turtles until they were large enough to return to the ocean, but there were only very large turtles in the tanks, so I took their claim with a pinch of salt. 

The outside of the turtle temple.

Whale Cave lifted my spirits. Formed by the action of waves on the basalt cliffs, the rock is named after its size, which is large enough for a whale to swim through. The local myth says that a whale was once trapped there and smashed its way free. There are amazing sea views and very welcome sea breezes at this spot, and the kids had a great time scrambling over and through the cave.
At the end of our busy first day we also managed to squeeze in a visit to Erkan Village, where people still live in traditional houses, some of which date back hundreds of years.

This house is about 400 years old and is easily the oldest house I've ever seen, or expect to see, in Taiwan. It may be due to Penghu's climate, which is much drier and windier than the mainland, that such houses survive.

This document was hanging on the wall. It's from the time of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and states the ownership of the house.

Here you can see the stonework of the walls, that was typical throughout Penghu. The walls were made of either dead coral, basalt, or a mixture of both, with the heavier basalt forming the base.

Walls like this are also constructed around small plots of land in low lying areas. Strong winds make it difficult for plants to grow and any shelter farmers can give helps them survive. In winter, the wind makes farming and fishing nearly impossible. A small wind farm currently operates on the main island.

A house left to fall derelict, showing the interior coral and basalt walls. Material used for building is a status symbol, with wealthier islanders able to afford more durable basalt.
Pretty tired from our first day on the island we took it a little easier the next day, allowing the kids to go beachcombing and playing quiet games in the shade. I didn't seek out the local wildlife myself, but found that it came to me instead. I felt a large bump on my posterior, and after reassuring myself that I was getting needlessly hysterical and it was only a peanut shell, the darned thing moved, and, as I shoved my hand down my trousers to pull it out, bit me.

Here's the little xxxxxx

I can cope with being a mosquito magnet, but if these little guys also find me irresistible, it might be time for the old biohazard suit and independent air supply.

Another reason we rested up on the second day was because we had a squid fishing excursion planned for the evening. It's a popular tourist pursuit on Penghu and you need to book ahead. A boat takes you out into fairly calm sea water and you spend a couple of hours failing to catch anything, or at least that was the experience of all but one person on our boat. It's still quite fun, though. Then the fishermen running the trip put you to shame by scooping a few up effortlessly out of the water, which you can sample as sashimi with wasabi before disembarking.

More on beautiful Penghu next week.

Monday, 17 June 2013


Martin Booth, novelist and poet, wrote Gweilo - Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood as his final work before his death in 2004. Martin spent much of his late childhood and adolescence roaming the backstreets of 1950s Hong Kong and his experiences were fascinating, remarkable, and in some cases, hilarious. I strongly recommend the autobiography if you're interested in Chinese culture and the history of a transformed country. In one affecting scene, after spending the day and evening at the beach with Cantonese friends, Martin's mother tells him that it's moments like these that stay with you for the rest of your life. I was reminded of her words the other weekend when some friends were kind enough to invite us on a weekend trip to Baishawan.

A trip to the beach is somewhat of a trek for Taipei dwellers. We took the MRT on the red line all the way to the terminal at Danshui, then, on the advice of the visitors' information desk at the station we caught the 862 bus. There was some confusion over this because other blogs state different buses, but it seems the 862 or 863 from the bus station adjoining Danshui MRT is now the only available public transport.

Baishawan is in San Zhi, about 45 minutes from Danshui, and the bus stops right at the beach. 'Bai' means white, and although Baishawan's sand tends towards the golden end of the spectrum, it's soft and clean. The ocean currents are strong, however, making swimming permissible only in certain areas and while lifeguards are on duty. Swimming outside these areas and times means accepting you're taking very real risks.

But swimming is only one beach activity. My son and his friends had a whale of a time just playing in the sand and rock pools, discovering sea creatures and trapped fish, building sandcastles, inventing complex scenarios for games and burying each other in the sand, creating rude body parts to augment their sculptures. The adults chatted, gossiped and drank too much beer (well, I drank too much beer).
Baishawan is deservedly popular but the day we were there most people left not long after the lifeguards 'closed' the beach, missing the best part of the day, in my opinion.

 A friend had booked us a room at a place called something like Amy's Country Kitchen Hotel. English speakers reduce drastically in number once you leave Taipei and I don't think this hotel would cope with an English speaker on the phone. The day we went they were very full, too, so I was grateful for my friend's help. The rooms were clean and spacious, and breakfast was included in the cheap price of around NT$2000. I think if you want to stay overnight in Baishawan it would be worth getting there early. There are several hotels in town.

Dinner for five or six families at one of the many restaurants epitomised the traditional Taiwanese 'hot and raucous' experience, where you literally had to shout as loud as you could to be heard on the other side of the table. The rest of the evening faded into a beery haze for me. I'm sure it was good fun, though.

The next day was too short. After a couple of hours enjoying the bright morning sun, we had to head back to Taipei. Test week is looming and there was homework to be done.

But Martin Booth's mother was right. It's times like this that stay with you forever, and are, or should be, what life is about.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Erziping, Yangmingshan

As the weather heats up, escaping to Yangmingshan at the weekend becomes more and more tempting, and there's so much to explore that there's always something new to see. One of the most popular trails is Erziping. It's wide, level and short, making it attractive to young families, the older generation and those who want some fresh mountain air but don't have a lot of time on their hands.

Erziping used to be a butterfly trail, and many of the indigenous plants that grow there are caterpillar and butterfly hosts, but in recent years the trail has become so shady that there are fewer butterflies are to be seen. It's still a beautiful walk on a hot summer's day, and its popularity doesn't detract too much from its peaceful air.

Even on busy weekends the trail is occasionally empty.
From our home in Muzha to Yangmingshan is long journey by public transport. Government information says that the R5 bus to Yangmingshan bus station leaves from Jiantan MRT station, but I couldn't find the stop, so I caught it at Shilin MRT station instead, where the bus stop is easy to find (stop D just outside the station on the left). After about 45 minutes, it arrives at Yangmingshan, (the terminal stop) and you transfer to bus 108 that circles the park. Erziping is so popular that sometimes bus 108 goes nearly directly there, instead of taking the usual route.

Visitors can choose from several trails and meander around the site all afternoon. One track leads to Datun Nature Park, a reserve built around a large natural pond and a magnet for local ducks and other wild birds. At the end of Erziping trail is a large open site for resting, picnicking and enjoying the sunshine. Restrooms and a pavilion for outdoor performances are on site. On the day I visited, the sound of Chinese flute music floated through the air.

Erziping lies on the lee side of Mt. Datun, which creates a sheltered, balmy climate and suitable growing conditions for a diverse range of trees, ferns, shrubs and aquatic plants, which in turn support local wildlife. Of the few butterflies I saw, one or two were new to me, such as the one that perfectly disguised itself as a dead leaf when it landed. I only realised I'd been looking at a butterfly when it took off again. Hence, no photo.

Never mind, the views at Erziping are enough to compensate.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Clothes Shopping in Wufenpu Wholesale Market, Songshan

Clothes shopping is something of a national sport in Taiwan, and Taipei has something for everyone if you know where to look. Very expensive, high-end designer fashion brands are available in Taipei 101 and the nearby elite stamping grounds; long lasting, high quality travelwear shops line the street from Da'an Station to Jianguo Road; cheaper chain stores such as Uniqlo and Zara form the bulk of establishments around the Zhongxiao stations along Zhongxiao East Road; under Taipei Main Station there are miles of malls; and small, independent boutiques are everywhere. Styles range across ages and cultures - even my personal aging hippy penchant for Indian-style, music festival devotee clothes is catered for.

All this is clear from a brief exploration of Taipei's commercial districts, yet I had a niggling feeling that I hadn't plumbed the depths of clothes shopping in Taipei. A complete picture had to include somewhere very practical, busy, cheap and diverse, and just recently I was introduced to it.

Wufenpu wholesale market is where those in the know go to buy their clothes. Manufacturers sell their latest designs in bulk and cheaply to independent shop owners, and at slightly higher prices to individual shoppers. Located on Songlong Road near Songshan Mainline Train Station, it's a warren of small shops that begins to sleepily open its shutters around 1 o'clock in the afternoon.

I'm not an enthusiastic clothes shopper, as I've stated before, but I did have lots of fun exploring this market and came away very happy with my prized purchases. Cheap and cheerful outfits for remarkably thin teenagers, and for wider, but still economically challenged, older ladies are available alongside pricier, sleeker designs. Korean styles, 'doll' fashion (as my friend called it, which is something like Laura Ashley but sexier), nightclubbing and - my personal favourite - slobbing-around-the-house clothes, and other kinds fill the many shops. There's little organisation - you just have to go and search for whatever you want, but you're almost certain to find it here.

Some items aren't for sale, though.
I liked the bags at this shop so much I bought two at once, a first for me.
If the size or colour you want exists, they'll have it at the factory shop.

My friend and I visited as the market was opening on a weekday afternoon, so we were spared the usual peak period crush that's normal later in the day and at weekends.

Wufenpu Market is a great place but it should carry a shopaholic health warning. It's far too tempting, even for the clothes shopping novice.