Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Christmas in Taipei

'Bright lights, big city' is fitting description of Taipei at Christmas time. Brightening the shopping districts throughout the city, strings of lights adorn trees and buildings, and Christmas trees, Santa Claus(es) and other strange and wonderful figures dot the cityscape. Just going out at night at this time of year is a pleasure in itself, providing you don't mind crowds too much. Christmas isn't celebrated in the sense that schools or workplaces close for the holiday, but plenty of Christmas shopping goes on.
The tree above is at the Miramar shopping centre near Jiannan MRT station, and this in only one facet of its decorations. The ferris wheel is also brightly lit, inviting Taipei citizens from near and far to come and worship the gods of consumerism.

We were at Miramar the other day to see the final part of The Hobbit, which I found to be the best of the three, though that may have something to do with the fact my husband snuck a bottle of wine into the cinema.

I'm not a big department store shopper, and I didn't do my Christmas shopping at Miramar, but there are plenty of stores for people who like to do all their shopping in one fell swoop. When I did go shopping a couple of days later, I passed the large store in Xinyi on my way to Eslite. Like all the others, this store was festooned in true festive spirit.

Outside Eslite were what I think were giant Russian dolls, because Christmas!

And the front of Eslite was also decorated with ... fireworks? a huge rose? Pretty, anyway.

Even some MRT stations have their own Santa and Christmas tree.

I like to shop in narrow streets and small shops at Christmas time. I suppose because the experience is more intimate and personal (and cheaper). The City Mall at Taipei Main Station is always worth checking out for bargains. When I went there the other night, I found a new development called Gashapon.

'Small Capsule, Big Surprise' reads the slogan. Behind the sign stand rows and rows of capsule machines where for NT$ 20, 50 or 100 you can take a chance at buying a capsule containing a toy or other fun item.

City Mall is also the short cut to Taiyuan Road, which is one of my favoured narrow streets full of small shops in an area of narrow streets and small shops. Exiting at Y13 from City Mall brings you out at Taiyuan Road and two shops well known for selling Christmas decorations and other knick-knacks.

Taiyuan Road is also home to my number one favourite toy shop in Taipei, Dong Dong Toy. This shop, at No. 54, stocks toys from all over the world, crammed into its tiny two-storey interior. I never fail to find something interesting for my own and friends' children here.

We're postponing Christmas to Sunday this year so that we can properly enjoy it, rather than try to fit it into a school day, so my shopping still isn't over. Like Christmases everywhere, Christmas in Taipei is tiring, but fun.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Taiwan Tales

I've been shamefully lax at posting lately, and it's mostly due to a seemingly ever-expanding range of activities I find myself drawn into.

One of the most recent time sinks has been writing a story to be included in Taiwan Tales.

To quote the blurb:

More than merely stepping through the streets and trails of a land, the narrated word allows one to learn about ideas, sense passions and glimpse dreams of a place and its people. Here are eight short stories about Taiwan: an island, a manufacturing powerhouse, a nation of Buddhism and Capitalism, a land straddling a geographical ring of fire as well as a political one, a country colored by both ancient traditions and high-tech modernity. Written by authors who have called Taiwan home, each tale offers an absorbing perspective on this unique country.

The anthology contains stories by many talented writers, and I'm proud my story sits among their work.

Fiction writing has grown to be a great love of mine in my time in Taiwan. I was chuffed to see another of my stories appear recently in Perihelion, and I have one more soon to appear in Lamplight magazine. 

With all this time spent writing, I shouldn't have much left to do other things, but in truth there are so many interesting, enjoyable and heart-warming activities going on I find it hard to resist. The Red Room events are always tempting, and Conrad and I recently took part in their five-year anniversary event. Conrad sang an Annoying Orange parody of Queen's We Will Rock You, to the accompanying rhythmic clapping of the audience, as part of the Stage Time and Juice contingent (regular Red Room events for adults are called Stage Time and Wine). I also went along to their Aside event, which showcases the best performers. 

Each year it seems Christmas becomes more and more recognised and celebrated in Taipei. There are decorations up in the busy shopping districts and classier apartment blocks, and Christmas songs and carols play in the shops and on the buses. We aren't a religious family, but Christmas is part of the cultural heritage my son could miss out on growing up in Taiwan, so I was happy to take him along to Taipei City Playgroup's Christmas party.

Santa was extremely youthful this year, but no one minded as long as he gave out presents. 

Other Christmas events we've had the pleasure to take part in include Radio Redux's reading of a Christmas Carol. Last year we took part in performances of the stage adaptation, but this year we had a cosy reading circle instead, which was just as much fun and far less nerve-wracking.

Now well into our fourth year in Taiwan, we are over the 'hump' of our proposed six-year stay. At this rate, the remaining time will pass quickly. Too quickly.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Taipei Zoo

I can't believe I've never posted about Taipei Zoo. Maybe it's because it's already famous; maybe it's because we see it from our living room every day; maybe it's because the idea of a zoo is becoming more and more morally ambiguous. Who knows? At the very end of the brown MRT line, Taipei Zoo is just one stop over the river for us. This page lists the many other transportation options for getting there.

Despite having reservations about zoos in general, I have to admit we've visited Taipei Zoo several times. While some of the enclosures aren't animal-friendly, the zoo is progressive compared to many in the region, and it's becoming more so over time. The site is huge, and it took use five or six visits before we managed to see everything.

Like so many attractions in Taiwan, the entrance fee at Taipei Zoo is very low - about NT$60 for adults and less for children. Local school children pay nothing. This alone makes the zoo a huge draw on weekends and in the holidays, but it's so big you can escape the crowds if you're prepared to walk a little further than everyone else.

Our most recent visit was on a Saturday, and the queues for tickets were huge. This was was surprising because if you have an Easycard you don't need to buy a ticket - you just swipe your card to enter. 

There's rarely a queue at the Easycard gate. 
It was close to Halloween, and it was inevitable that there would be some kind of acknowledgement of the holiday. A couple of years ago, we attended a Halloween evening, which was great fun. Currently, there's a Zoolloween exhibition running. A friend recommended it, but we were too tired to go in the end. However, we did see this interesting amalgamation of Halloween/Christmas themes. 
Two new areas had opened since we last visited: a beautiful pond area planted with giant waterlilies, which had quickly been colonised by local wildlife; and a large outdoor aviary, where tropical birds flew and roamed in comparative freedom.

Personally, I love the flowers at the zoo. There's always something blooming, no matter what time of year you visit. Every autumn and spring, the bushes are heavy with flowers. 

There's a 7-11 near the entrance, and one or two cafes. After that there are one or two more cafes along the busiest routes, but generally the zoo isn't heavy on squeezing money from visitors in the way some are. The toys in the gift shop at the top of the panda center are good quality and fairly cheap, so I often pop over to the zoo just to buy Christmas and birthday presents. 

The new baby panda is a huge attraction, and when you enter the zoo you're given a ticket showing the time you can go to see it. After the excitement of the new aviary and the heat of the day, we didn't want to hang around for our 5 o'clock panda appointment. As we were leaving we noticed a performance going on. But aching legs forced us home.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

National Museum of Marine Science and Technology

If you build a museum large enough it will, through the natural force of gravity, attract visitors. This seems to be the rationale behind the building of the National Museum of Marine Science and Technology in Jilong (Keelung). 

We certainly found ourselves attracted to its massive structure several weekends ago, and in the sweltering heat that was Taiwan's most recent summer, it promised to be, at the very least, a cool, shady refuge. But in the end the NMMST was more than that, and worth the long trip out to see it.

There are several ways to get there. We caught the train to Jilong from Taipei Main Station, then caught a bus from the stop just across the road from the station. I can't remember now which bus it was, but the website lists the 1051 and 791. The bus journey took about half an hour, and we had to cross the busy highway from the bus stop, but there is an overpass. 

The museum houses exhibits on the marine ecology of Taiwanese waters, the coastal currents, shipping history and industry, and in fact just about anything you could consider linked to Taiwan and the sea. My son got stuck into the interactive exhibits right away.

There are two large buildings at the site, and we only had time to fully explore one of them. That didn't include watching an IMAX film, or spending much time in the children's play area, which is really only suitable for young children.

I'm a big fan of spooky deep sea exhibits, and the area reserved for this at NMMST was appropriately dark and creepy. The picture to the right shows a model of a dead whale being scavenged.

One thing we found confusing was that the map given to visitors shows another building away from the main site. We braved the heat to walk over and visit it, and if I recall correctly there were helpful signposts to show us the way, but when we arrived we found the building wasn't open to visitors.

Never mind. We did see some interesting squid fishing boats on our walk.
And I got to take my obligatory view shot.
There are no live animal exhibits at the NMMST, which might disappoint some visitors, but is really in the conservation spirit of the place.

The museum provides a PDF brochure free to download so that you can plan your visit before you arrive. But I think even if we'd known about that, we would still have struggled to see everything in one visit. Next time, we might make it into the second building.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Camping in Wulai

Wulai is one of my favourite places. Less than an hour from hot, sweaty, busy, cramped Xindian, Wulai is clean, green, forested Taiwanese mountain landscape at its best. The steep, winding mountain roads that transport visitors and residents to Wulai and other natural areas around Taipei are sometimes tricky and nauseating to navigate, but the difficulty of the terrain is what prohibits its large-scale development, so complaining would be churlish, especially as I'm never the one doing the driving.

We arrived in Wulai on the Saturday of the Mid-Autumn, or Moon Festival, long weekend. My previous experience of camping had opened my eyes to the typical amenities available, such as plenty of clean toilets and hot showers, electric hook-ups and outdoor sinks with running water, but this campsite had another feature, which was roofs on posts over each plot. Very sensible considering the monsoon-like downpours that are common, especially in the mountains.

It's difficult to know where to begin describing our lovely break in Wulai. Probably the highlight came at the end of the second day, when we drove to a translucent, blue, slow-moving mountain river.
I don't think my son will ever forget leaping and plunging time and again into its depths. Speaking for myself, cooling off in the tepid water was wonderful.

Most of the rest of the time was spent chilling around the campsite, which had its own built mountain pool. The weather was very, very hot, even where we were, which was above ear-popping altitude. No one felt like doing much except relaxing, eating, drinking and enjoying the view.

I went on a short hike alone up the track at the back of the campsite, where the woodland was full of butterflies and dragonflies.

I had to constantly wave my arm in front of me as I was walking, however, because the track was also filled with spider webs. Not the huge golden orb spiders, but much smaller black ones (though the webs weren't any smaller) that I'm now reluctant to research.

The rest of the happy campers did manage to rouse themselves for one short mountain hike. I went along, and we came across a mountain skills course group. I'm not sure exactly what the course involved, but they had a campfire lunch being prepared for them, and the organisers kindly let our kids play on the rope swing.

Driving is something I haven't missed through most of our time in Taiwan. I don't enjoy it and we don't need a car for our day-to-day living in Taipei. It's only when we go camping that I feel the need, because our opportunities are limited and we have to rely on kind friends who go out of their way to help us. We have less than three years left in Taiwan. Maybe we need to get a car. Just for camping.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Gold Ecological Park

We first visited the Gold Ecological Park on one of our reconnoitering holidays to Taiwan before deciding to move here. I remember the visit well. It was cool, damp and cloudy, and the park was wreathed in mist. The journey to the park had been nerve-wracking, as we were negotiating the trains and buses with no Chinese and were also completely unfamiliar with the area. The contrast with our recent visit was pronounced. This time, we passed easily through the transportation systems, and the weather was clear, bright and hot.

A relic from the years of Japanese control, the Gold Ecological Park is named for its former gold mine and the protected mountain landscape surroundings.
Guan Gong - once a Chinese general, now a god
A 25 tonne statue of Guan Gong, which sits on the roof of the Quanji Temple, is the park's most noticeable feature, and it contains the remains of a Shinto temple; a lodging constructed to house a Japanese crown prince; and a former dormitory for high level Japanese mine employees. My favourite places were the old mine entrance tunnels, which are open to the public, and the Gold Building, which houses an exhibition about the history of gold in Taiwan and the rest of the world.

Small fees are requested for some of the attractions, such as the walking tour of the old mining tunnel. Before entering the tunnel everyone has to put on hard hats. In some areas the roof is low, so that even people of my vertically challenged proportions are in danger of hitting their heads.

Each time I enter mining tunnels I'm always humbled by the conditions and dangers miners endure, even in these days of high-technology mining.

I think the place my husband most enjoyed visiting was the derelict Shinto temple. It's a 10 to 15 minute climb up broken-down steps to reach it, but I agreed that it was worth the effort. There's an atmosphere about forsaken religious sites and religious buildings that's difficult to put into words.

Of course, I couldn't resist photographing some of the local flora and fauna.

There's too much to do at the Gold Ecological Park to cover it all in one day if you include walking the many hectares of mountain landscape. Some sights we failed to see (again) on our most recent visit were the Gold Waterfall, the Octagonal Pavilion, which was a head-shaving barber shop exclusive to the Japanese, and the Changren Tunnel No. 3 flue pipes, which criss cross the mountain like giant snakes.

My son also missed out on practising gold panning in the Gold Building because this only takes place at set times during the day. But he did have fun pretending to ride the stationary mining cart.

Kids and adults alike also enjoy touching the massive gold ingot on display in the Gold Building. Is it real? Surely not.

Easycards make using public transport in Taipei a doddle, and now their range has been extended to the rail network covering the surrounding areas. To travel to the Gold Ecological Park we caught the train to Jilong (Keelung) from Taipei Main Station, simply finding the train we needed and swiping our Easycards to get through the barriers. Catching the 788 bus to Jinguashi, which terminates at the park, was trickier because it leaves from the bus stop over the road and to the right of Jilong train station, not the most obvious bus stops to the left. You can also catch a train to Ruifang, and catch the bus further along its route there, but it's standing room only by the time the bus arrives in Ruifang, though the overall route is shorter. This is the way we returned to Taipei. The park publishes an English language brochure giving all the details.

How did we feel about our trip to the Gold Ecological Park? Sorry, I can't resist. It was golden.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Yangmingshan Zhuzihu

Yangmingshan is popular this time of year. In the mountains the air is cooler than at ground level, though not any less humid in my opinion. To avoid the crowds at the weekends it's necessary to visit by less usual routes and go to less popular places. Our choice yesterday was Zhuzihu, which is crammed when the calla lilies are flowering but comparatively quiet now that the season is over.

Visiting Zhuzihu also avoids taking the usual Yangmingshan buses, which include the 260 from Taipei Main Station and the R5 from MRT Jiantan Station on the Red Line. Whenever we've caught the R5 it's always been very full and I've felt sorry for those forced to stand for an hour as the minibus leans from side to side going up the mountain roads.

Instead, we caught the S9 from Beitou station, which takes about 35 minutes to arrive at Zhuzihu, or passengers can alight at other scenic places on the way. There's even a handy little map supplied in the seat pockets on the bus to help you decide where to get off. This is very helpful because sometimes the names of the stops don't correspond with the location according to the map. For example, the second Yangmingshan Parking Area stop is announced as the Boy Scout Centre stop on the bus. By keeping a sharp lookout and following the map it's easy to see where to alight.

We started our hike by walking through the calla lily beds, which were all gone over, but it was pleasant walking past the streams and water wheels and watching the fish in the water. We walked steadily uphill as we left the beds, taking short paths or walking at roadsides until we reached a mountain trail. It was lunchtime and everyone was either eating or waiting to be seated at one of the many restaurants we passed, so we had the trail to ourselves.

The highlights of the day were the butterflies, which were out in force.

Many butterflies in Taiwan are black or darkly coloured. I'm not sure why - perhaps as camouflage in the shady areas of woodland.

We also saw a type of heron I'd never seen before. Taiwan is a wet country and herons are ubiquitous but this was the first I'd ever seen with this colouring.

The day was overcast, which made the fumes from the volcanic vents in the mountains even more atmospheric.
We climbed until we were completely puffed (about three quarters of an hour) and deafened by the cicadas (about five minutes), and made our way back down to Zhuzihu, passing many beautiful flowers, wild and cultivated, along the way.

Loved these wild violets
Wandering around trying to find the bus stop to catch the bus back to Taipei provided another twenty minutes of healthy exercise, until we actually asked someone for help. It turns out the bus stop to leave Zhizihu is the same as the one you alight at. As we left, we saw the long row of interesting shops and restaurants we'd missed in our hurry to enjoy the fresh, cool mountain air. All the more reason to return to Zhizihu.