Monday, 23 September 2013

Balcony Gardening

Typhoon Usagi neatly coincided with the Moon Festival holiday weekend just gone, thwarting many outdoor celebration plans, no doubt, though we did see a few die-hards determined to have their pavement barbecue despite the fierce winds and driving rain. Good for them. Personally, I was content to work on my balcony garden.

A recurring theme of walks around Taipei and northern Taiwan, whether through back streets, neglected patches of ground, or overgrown, disused mountain tracks, is opportunistic vegetable growing. You can be - apparently - far from any human habitation, scrambling up narrow, crumbling forest trails, without sight or sound of another human being for miles, only to find that the single tiny spot of flat earth on the mountain has been turned into a makeshift allotment patch, and is supporting bamboo shoots, bananas and rambling gourds.

In Wanlong the pedestrian shortcut we used to take to the main road, was lined with a market garden growing entirely in polystyrene boxes, until someone must have told the authorities, because one morning it was all swept away. Riding the brown MRT line, it's possible to see several impromptu fruit and vegetable plots growing on the no man's land next to the tracks.

Basically, in Taiwan, if an area of land isn't covered with concrete and is reasonably flat, and no one much cares what happens to it, someone will grow something on it.

Such sights bring back fond memories of my garden in the UK, which was large even by British standards. I was bitten by the gardening bug many years ago and have never managed to shake my addiction. I miss my patch of earth, even though it was a terrible time sink. Living in an apartment has put an end to most of my gardening shenanigans, but we do have one balcony that receives a reasonable amount of sunlight,
An early morning view from our living room balcony
so it was inevitable that I would start to gradually fill it with plants.

Just as the Taiwanese spirit abhors a disused piece of ground that could be put to good use growing something to eat, Taiwanese balconies are frequently brimming with vegetation that cascades down the sides of buildings. In spring and summer bougainvillea decorates the dingiest alleyways in shocking pink, and other tropical flowers I can't name add their exotic touches to the displays.

Gardening on balconies here is challenging, despite the warm climate and frequent rain showers. Balconies tend to be very hot and exposed, or in constant shadow from surrounding apartments. Our balcony is enclosed, so it heats up very quickly during the few hours of direct sunlight it receives, and I've tried to use this information to guide me when buying plants.

Our cats put paid to my first attempt at growing something on the balcony. I thought a small cactus garden in a ceramic tray was a safe bet, and pretty indestructible. But our cats thought it was just another, albeit inexplicably prickly, litter tray.

Since then I've collected a range of plants, known and unknown, and am currently waiting to see what survives. A fig tree seemed a good idea. I thought it could probably take the heat, and it's doing okay so far, having overcome being grown in compacted garden soil that was impenetrable to water. It's now putting out new leaves and I'm hoping for fresh figs next year, although as you rarely see figs for sale, I think the climate may be too humid for them. Other plants include a gardenia (I think), a dancing lady orchid, a begonia, more - larger - cacti, a plant called mother-in-law's tongue in the UK (I think, again) and an attractive shrub that I've never seen before.

Next year I'll start growing tomatoes, peppers, melons and, frankly, who knows what else. My little balcony might be a lot smaller than my old garden, but I've learned that if there's empty space in Taiwan, plants must grow there.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Taroko Gorge Days Two and Three

The only noise you can hear in the early morning in Taroko Gorge is the sound of frogs, birds and insects. Here in Taipei we're currently enduring our upstairs neighbours' renovations, so I recall our time there with some fondness. The second day of our visit was best of the three.

Day Two

We had a full breakfast at Leader Village and set off early to catch the tourist shuttle bus at Bulowan, a short walk from the hotel. It was lucky we got to the bus stop early because the bus arrived ahead of schedule and quickly departed. As far as I could tell the driver made little attempt to stick to the advertised timetable for the rest of our journey.

Tianxiang is the final stop on the bus route, a small collection of shops in the centre of Taroko and also the site of the Silks Palace Hotel and Taroko Catholic Hostel. We didn't enter either (in fact, we didn't spot the hostel) but I was surprised the hotel was a 5 star because it looked unimpressive from the outside. There's also a tiny information office advertised as a service station. It's staffed, though I'm not sure if the employees speak English, and has a few leaflets.

As far as we could tell, the only trail within walking distance of Tianxiang is to the Baiyang Waterfall. To get there, we walked up the main road and entered the trail from within a tunnel. We had a torch, which came in handy, and was fun for my son to use, but you could probably manage without one, even though there are several tunnels to negotiate on the route.

On the way to Tianxiang the views from the bus had given us a taste of what to expect once we started to truly explore Taroko and the trail to Baiyang didn't disappoint. Sheer mountain slopes rose around us, their interesting rock folds and other formations often completely clear of vegetation. Below, a river wound along the bottom of the gorge, sometimes milky blue and gentle, sometimes grey-white and roaring.

The trail was flat and wide all the way along, which made the going easy despite the blistering heat.

Once we reached the waterfall, after about 45 minutes' to an hour's walk, we found you had to cross the Gorge on a wooden suspended bridge, to get the best view. I managed to accomplish this through not ever looking down.

The view was worth it.

After filling our senses with the sight and sounds of the waterfall for some time, we headed back. There were only three buses a day that stopped at Bulowan on their return journey, so we caught the two o'clock bus, rather than waiting for the last one of the day. I didn't want to rely on catching the last bus in case it was too full, left early, or didn't arrive at all. My confidence in the service's reliability wasn't strong after our earlier experience.

Back at Leader Village we took a stroll around the short bamboo walk at the back of the site, and relaxed the rest of the day.

Day Three

With only the morning of our final day to spare, we hesitated between a standard half day tour or a particularly enticing place I'd read about, Wenshan Spring, where apparently you can relax in hot spring water then cool off in the river. According to what I'd read, it was easily accessible, though whether the site was actually open after a fatal rockfall had closed it some time ago, wasn't clear. We did plump for the spring in the end, but never got to find out whether it was operational.

Without a car or scooter, it's very difficult to get around Taroko. It's a long walk from one area to the next and public transportation is scarce. Walking the single narrow road also feels unsafe because walkers share it with large tourist coaches. There's no pedestrian pathway. Most people either use their own transportation, take a tour or hire a taxi for the day. To get to Wenshan Spring our only option was to hire a driver through the hotel, have him drop us off, then return later to pick us up. Which would had been fine had our driver known where Wenshan Spring was.

He dropped us at a sign stating it was the beginning of the Wenshan Lushui trail and left, after assuring my dubious face that this was where the hot springs were. I spent 5 minutes scouting around until I was pretty sure he'd taken us to the wrong place, then phoned the hotel. The driver reappeared after 20 minutes. He repeated his assurances that we were in the right place and took us for a half hour scramble along a narrow and arduous trail. I wouldn't have minded quite so much if the trail hadn't clearly been unsuitable for my son. It was littered with loose stones and earth, and so steep and difficult in parts there were ropes and chains installed as climbing aids.

Finally realising there was, as I'd said, no spring, we turned round and scrambled back for another half an hour. On returning to the car, we walked past the spring, directly off the main road, that the driver had failed to spot when he'd parked the car to return to us. He was relieved and happy. I was not as we no longer had any time to spare and had to return the hotel to collect our bags.

Leader Village did refund the fee we'd paid but of course they couldn't return the time we'd wasted, which was far more precious to me.

Despite a disappointing final day, we'll be back. I love Taroko Gorge, but I'd love it more if it were a little better organised.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Taroko Gorge Day One

Taroko Gorge must be one of the top three tourist attractions in Taiwan. Formed by the tectonic plate movement that gives Taiwan its frequent earthquakes, hot springs and fumeroles, the Gorge is a magnificent, shifting landscape of marbled mountains, dizzying precipices, richly-colored rivers, and abundant plant and animal life. It is also home to aboriginal tribes who strive to maintain their traditions, pass them on to their children, and share them with visitors.

Taroko's dynamic nature makes it prone frequent rockfalls when rainstorms and earthquakes loose boulders, rocks and earth down the mountainsides, closing roads and tourist attractions for weeks or months at a time. We found this out to our cost in May when we first attempted to spend a weekend at the Gorge. We found rockfalls had closed the park entirely and we had to find somewhere else to stay at no notice.

This time we were luckier but our trip was still marred by unfortunate events.

Surprisingly for a top tourist attraction, Taroko Gorge is a little difficult to access. The express train from Taipei bypasses the local station, Xincheng, and travellers are taken on to the nearest small city, Hualien. From there, visitors must double back and either take a taxi, local bus, private tour bus or a tourist shuttle bus to the park. Taroko is about an hour's drive from Hualien. All day and two-day passes for the tourist shuttle bus, which stops at the main sites, are only available from the bus station and visitor centre in Hualien, so anyone who doesn't go to Hualien first can't buy one. Single trip tickets are sold on the bus, but you must have the exact change and the drivers don't speak any English (we can cope in Chinese now but this was a problem for other tourists).

We flew from Songshan airport, which is inexpensive and takes only 35 minute flight, so is much faster than the train. We arranged for our hotel, Leader Village, to pick us up and drop us off. Otherwise, I think the only way to get from the airport to Taroko would be by taxi. 

Day One

Leader Village is a wonderful place to stay. Run by local tribespeople who do their best to make your stay relaxed, enjoyable and educational, it's set in an area of flat ground amid the mountains, giving wonderful views from the cabins, and the constant sounds of birds, frogs and insects in the background. 
Butterflies swarm the landscaped areas and we also spotted iridescent blue, green and bronze lizards basking on the paths, though we didn't manage to get a photo.

In the mornings and evenings cloud descends over the mountaintops.

Leader Village is about half way between the entrance to Taroko National Park and the central village, Tianxiang. Only one site is within walking distance - Swallow Grotto, so this was to be our destination on the afternoon of our arrival. Sadly, after twenty minutes or so of climbing down the mountain stairs and walking another ten minutes up the road, we found that we needed a permit to enter the trail to the grotto. Permits aren't available at the site and the information isn't available on any English language website, so that was disappointing. 

We stopped at Bulowan on our way back to Leader Village. Bulowan is described as a village but it's actually a tourist village: a collection of small museums, a cafe and a shop selling items crafted by tribespeople.

The day was saved by a set dinner and tribal show, which was interesting and entertaining. 

Wild boar ribs on the bottom left, bean soup, steamed rice in a hollow bamboo stem, wild boar skin (top right), tomato and coriander salsa bottom right, mushrooms and mountain vegetable, chillies and roast sweet potato in the centre.

My son sent me a look of deep affection for volunteering him for the tribal dance.

We went to bed late, tired from our first day of walking up and down mountains and in hopeful anticipation of more successful visits to Taroko's sites the following day.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Food Addiction

Information on good places to visit comes from diverse sources in Taiwan. Government websites are sometimes useful if you know what you're looking for, and friends frequently recommend places or suggest trips. Another useful source is Centered On Taipei magazine, a production of the Community Services Center, which serves the English-speaking community, temporary and permanent residents alike.

Centered on Taipei put me on to Addiction Aquatic Development, an aptly-named fish and gourmet food market, containing indoor and outdoor restaurants. It's at No. 18, Alley 2, Ln 410, Minzu E Rd 台北市民族東路410巷2弄18號

Vegetarians should look away now.

Addiction is one of those places where you can choose your meal while it's still alive, and have it cooked and brought to your table steamed, fried, barbecued, made into soup, or however you want to eat it. Addiction also has shelves groaning with very fresh, high quality sushi, sashimi, raw fish and meat, imported delicacies and lots of booze.

With the tail end of a tropical storm system still hanging over Taipei yesterday, we sought and found sanctuary from the rain at Addiction. We got a taxi from Zhongshan Junior High School MRT station on the brown line. There are a few buses that pass nearby but taxis aren't that much more expensive and deliver you to your destination reasonably dry.

One of the advantages of living in Asia is that you can drink fresh coconut milk straight from the nut. It's a subtle taste but your stomach sends back signals of great contentment after drinking it. I first encountered fresh coconut milk many years ago and am always ready to become re-acquainted. My son is also becoming a big fan. This is just one of the drinks on offer at Addiction.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Tanks of huge crabs, lobsters and other shellfish greet visitors on their arrival. Assistants spray your hands with sanitiser before you're allowed inside, and it's easy to see why because the temptation to touch is irresistible. We toured the poor, doomed creatures before going into the shop area.

I don't know what these are. My husband thought of a name but I'd better not repeat it on a site open to the general public.
We saw at least three places to eat: a stand up sushi joint, an upstairs hot pot restaurant, and an outdoor barbecue area. There may be more but the place was so packed it was difficult to manoeuvre and explore. We settled on the outdoor area as it was marginally less full than the others, and enjoyed a beer while waiting for a table.

The creme-whip topping is actually some kind of crushed ice, as far as I could tell. Not unpleasant but, as someone more used to room temperature bitter, slightly bizarre.

Ordering is a little unusual too. There is a single wooden menu to read as you're waiting, but guests survey the display of (already dead) items on display to order.

We had green pepper, mushroom, rice balls and skewers of meat and fish, but a crab leg and scallops were the highlights of the meal for me.
The crab legs were about a foot long. Here's ours resting on the ceramic hot plate where wait staff deposit your food as it arrives. 

The aftermath.

The scallops were huge and delicious too.

The wait staff were dressed as sailors, bless 'em.

After a couple of hours we emerged extremely full and a little poorer. It would be easy to become addicted to food if you frequently ate at Addiction.