Tuesday, 25 March 2014

A Roundabout Route to Yangmingshan

Not many capital cities have an 11,500 hectare national park on their doorstep, but Taipei is one of the lucky few. Comprising a live volcano, grassland plateaus, rainforests, broadleaf forests and lakes, Yangmingshan is so large it's difficult not to wander into it by accident, as happened to us the other day.

The plan was to visit the Escher exhibition currently running at the National Palace Museum and then go for a walk in hills nearby, but some miscommunication between the bus timetable website and myself resulted in us boarding a bus that went in another direction.

Getting lost in Taipei isn't at all stressful, I can safely say as someone with a terrible sense of direction. There's always a bus stop to be found, and I haven't yet ridden a bus that didn't stop at an MRT station eventually. Failing that, there will be a taxi, and providing you can say 101 in Chinese the driver will take you there. 

So when I realised the bus S 15 from Jiantan MRT Station wasn't going to take us to the National Palace Museum as I'd thought it would, we had a quick change of plan. The bus was climbing into the mountains, so we stayed on board and looked for a likely place to get off and execute the hill walking part of our plan. 

From memory we got off, after half to three-quarters of an hour, at the second Jingshan Recreational Area stop, because the crowds of people wearing baseball caps and carrying hiking sticks indicated we'd found some kind of a destination. Crossing the road, we turned right up a trail and spotted a brown trailhead sign stating Jiangsu Waterfall. We were on our way.

Jiangsu Waterfall was about a mile down a mostly level, well-paved trail, and it was a pleasant sight. Not large, but very pretty and refreshing to see. Running alongside the trail leading to the waterfall was an old channel built by the Japanese (well, probably built by the Taiwanese under Japanese orders), which directed water from the falls to farmland for irrigation purposes. I don't know exactly when the channel was built but it was 1945 at the latest, when the Japanese left Taiwan, and for something so old it was in very good condition:

The approach to the waterfall was scenic, with pale blue river water tumbling through the rocks.

We decided to walk the rest of the way to the end of the trail, which was a little more than another mile of generally easy walking and a few steep bits. (Okay, I decided we were going to walk the rest of the way.) More information signs appeared along the way mentioning a wild cattle area, and finally I realised where we were. We'd approached Yangmingshan from a different direction from our normal route, and were about to arrive at one of the most popular areas, Qingtiangang, where semi-wild cattle roam.

This high grassland plateau used to be a cattle farming area, but nowadays only these placid beasts graze, fodder for day trippers and tourists who arrive at the handy bus stop nearby.

The cold, windy plateau proved to be a contrast to the humid, shady forest trail we'd emerged from, but the views were great.
Not quite the same as an Escher drawing, but a worthwhile substitute. 

Monday, 17 March 2014

Climbing Elephant Mountain

If Elephant Mountain (Xiangshan) were the size as well as the shape of an elephant, it would require considerably fewer steps to climb, but the view wouldn't be as good.
One of the easiest mountains to reach from central Taipei, Elephant Mountain is 10 minutes' walk from Exit 2 at the newly opened final stop on the red line, Xiangshan Station. Getting there is simply a matter of following the signs and the crowds, for on weekends and holidays Elephant Mountain is very popular indeed.

People jams going up and down the steps are common, but there are also plenty of resting spots and smaller side trails if you want to avoid the crush.

Elephant Mountain is one part of a chain of mountains and trails, so it's difficult to define one peak, but a popular high point has a set of large rocks to climb to gain an improved view:

or simply to climb for fun:  
The day that my son and I climbed Elephant Mountain we explored a little off the beaten track and soon left the crowds behind. Despite its proximity to the city, the area is teeming with wildlife. 
We saw and heard lots of birds, and butterflies flitted through the quieter, more open areas, some of them even staying still long enough for me to snap a few photos.
We took a trail less travelled to descend the mountain, and were soon surrounded by huge bamboos and the typical, large-leaved subtropical forest trees and plants. My personal favourites after the towering bamboos are huge tree ferns that would cost hundreds of pounds in the UK, assuming they were available at all. These plants, palms, vines and trees are still a pleasure to walk amongst even after living in Taiwan two and a half years.
After reaching ground level, we scooted back round to the beginning of the main trail to buy a drink from the fresh orange juice vendor we'd passed going up. A great way to round off the day.

Monday, 3 March 2014

More Palau Experiences

It's the little things that are often best remembered, so I'm going to set down some small but memorable moments as my final post about our Palau holiday.

I imagine that in years to come my son will recall riding the Segway at the hotel as a highlight. Guests were entitled to a free 15 minute ride for every three days' stay, so we accrued 30 minutes in total. But the receptionist set the timer on the machine incorrectly, so my son rode it to his heart's content and only handed it back to the puzzled receptionist when he finally got bored.

Dining out brought us another memorable experience. For an island set in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Palau is surprisingly short of fresh fish. Instead, the cuisine is influenced by the American diet, and steak featured heavily on menus and in the supermarkets. In our search for local fish dishes, we visited the Carp restaurant, which is behind one of the posher hotels, the Royal Pacific Resort.

Old, rough wooden tables covered in plastic tablecloths indicated this wasn't an upmarket tourist restaurant, and the menu featured items such as fruit bat soup, so we anticipated something a little different from the standard fare we'd encountered up until then. We began ordering, but the waitress started to walk away after we'd only ordered two dishes. This should have been an indication that possibly the portions were big, but we were too slow on the uptake. It was only when I ordered a soup and she explained that it was a big bowl to share that the penny started to drop.

The food arrived quickly, and in massive quantity. My clam and vegetable soup turned up in a tureen.

My husband's tuna steak was four large, thick tuna steaks. (Someone already took one here.)

And my son's fried chicken was a whole chicken, fried. We'd also ordered Japanese dumplings and papaya salad. Faced with a food mountain we talked through our options:
Take some back to the hotel with us? Impossible - we couldn't store it and wouldn't eat it.
Eat what we wanted and leave the rest? We would look stupid for ordering too much, and I hate waste.
Eat absolutely as much as we could? It seemed the only answer.

So we stuffed ourselves to our gills. I have honestly never eaten so much in my life. But we did a great job. Between the three of us, we managed to eat nearly everything we'd ordered, and we congratulated ourselves on our sterling effort.

Then the waitress appeared out of the kitchen with two more full serving dishes. And she brought them, smiling, to our table. Sushi and fresh fruit, compliments of the chef.

What could we do? You can't not eat food specially made for you and freely given!

Well, the complementary dishes parted the wheat from the chaff that day. My husband and son manfully forced down the fruit. I wimped out entirely. When the waitress wasn't looking, I wrapped most of the sushi in paper napkins and stuffed it in my bag.

Other food related adventures include a lovely cafe we found, where we had coffee, smoothies and milkshakes nearly every day.

Echoing our experience in most other Palauan food and drink establishments, the cafe menu often exaggerated what was actually available, but I think that's just a facet of island life.

Memorable sights included pineapples growing in garden plots,

and rainbows.
Our holiday in Palau was remarkable in so many ways that I think it will stand out in our memories as one of our most amazing experiences. I hope one day I'll be lucky enough to go back.