Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Camping in Taiwan

It's safer for everyone if I don't drive in Taiwan, and living in Taipei we don't need a car, but this has meant that opportunities to go camping in Taiwan have been scarce. Even if a campsite is on a public transport route, hauling our stuff on and off buses isn't really feasible. This is a great shame because Taiwan is in the grip of a camping craze.

Why exactly this is my Taiwanese friend couldn't explain, but she assured me camping is more popular than ever, and last weekend she invited us to go along with her to a campsite about 1 3/4 hours' drive from Taipei, near Hsinchu.

I was curious to find out about camping Taiwanese style.


Food figures highly in the Taiwanese value system, nearly as high as education. My son learns all about the famous dishes in each town in Taiwan in his social science lessons at school. (We have to go to Alishan because the wasabi at Alishan is the best and Daddy likes wasabi, he tells me.) And eating the local dish at a destination is often the sole reason for travelling there.

We arrived at the campsite at the tail end of lunchtime. We were the last of our group to arrive - doing things in groups of families is also very common - and the kitchen area had already been set up under a huge awning. There were two or three portable stoves and more kitchen equipment than I have in my permanent kitchen at home. Lunch had been a big affair,  but we didn't miss out because dinner was a big affair too, as was breakfast the day after, and the lunch we ate before we left. Two lovely mums did most of the cooking, and my friend and I made encouraging noises and waved our hands around helpfully. A dad commented to me that he eats better when he goes camping than he does at home.

I interrupted breakfast to take a photo:

The word fangbian, which means convenient, is one is I frequently hear around Taipei. Outside the main cities life is slow and sometimes not very convenient, it has to be said (in fact, sometimes it's downright puzzling) but convenience is nevertheless an ideal to aim for, so that I think the main Taiwanese impression of travelling abroad must be how inconvenient other countries are.

The campsite we stayed at was about half an hour's drive from the closest village, which was far enough up in the mountains to make my ears pop, so I wasn't expecting much in the way of convenience. But each patch of campsite large enough for five or so tents had its own hot shower, toilet and urinal, two washing up points and electricity hookups.

Beautiful Environment

The modernity of the campsite didn't detract from the natural state of the surroundings. We were next to a mountain stream, which provided a soothing gush throughout our stay and a handy, safe play area for the children.

The terrain confined the kids to one small spot for shrimp and crab fishing, so the environmental impact was minimal.

Wildlife encroached on the campsite. When we took my tent down in the morning, we found a frog sitting on the top, and a crab scuttled away from beneath it.

The worm was slower.

Talk and Relaxation

I couldn't sit in such beautiful surroundings without exploring them, but my friends were happy to relax and chat while the children played. I snuck off for half an hour to enjoy the views.

Camping in Taiwan was an experience in understanding Taiwanese culture as well as enjoying the beautiful natural scenery. I'm grateful to my friends for inviting us.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Little Lion's Head Mountain

It's hiking weather at last. In between the rain storms, I mean.

One easily accessible mountain we hadn't managed to visit in all our time living in Taipei was Little Lion's Head Mountain. I call it Little Lion's Head because it's the smaller of two mountains of the same name, which are, even more confusingly, in the same area of Xindian. I also call it Little Lion's Head Mountain because that's what Richard Saunders calls it in his excellent Taipei Escapes volumes. But according to the Chinese on the signs, it's just Lion's Head Mountain.

Either I was very bad at following the directions (a frequent occurrence) in Mr. Saunders' guidebook, or the area has changed a little since it was written. We exited Xindian MRT Station and crossed the road on the right, as directed. Then we turned right up Zhongxing Road Section One and under the flyover, but at that point the instructions no longer followed the lay of the land. This wasn't a problem because the sign to the trail is on Zhongxing Road, and we walked up the steep street leading to the trailhead.

A handy sign indicated the start of the trail, so we had no doubts we were in the right place.

Despite it being a rare sunny, dry Sunday, the trail was very quiet. This must be one of the lesser known walks in Xindian.

I never tire of the views of Taipei from its surrounding mountains.
As always, there wasn't just one trail, but a labyrinth of them running over the mountain and leading to various exit points. Most destinations were marked with clear signs and estimated distances, but all the signs are in Chinese, as far as I remember.

At the summit there's a tower to climb to see a view unimpeded by trees.

Maybe due to its unpopularity, Little Lion's Head Mountain was alive with wildlife. Plenty of young golden orb spiders, butterflies and lizards. It was a shame to scare the basking reptiles from their patches of warm sunlight. I imagine they'd missed it as much as we had.
One of the best things about the Little Lion's Head Mountain is that it's very close to Bitan River and all the restaurants that line its banks. As a reward for all our exercise (and perhaps the undoing of it) we returned to the place where we'd found delicious organic apricot ale before.

Little Lion's Head Mountain was an hour's worth of trail stairs up and down that we could have extended by taking a side trail. I hope both we and the lizards get to enjoy more sunny hiking weather.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Taipei Sports Centres

One day, spring will come to Taipei. One day.

In the meantime, Taipei's sports centres offer plenty of opportunities for exercise and other activities no matter what the weather.

Our local sports centre, Bojia Sports Park, is five minutes' walk from our apartment, on Lane 159 Muzha Road Section 4. It's small, but has a 25 metre swimming pool, treadmills, exercise machines, table tennis tables, a reading room and an indoor children's play area. What's more, it's free to residents of Wenshan District. All you have to do is show your ARC (Alien Resident Certificate) card to the receptionist and sign the book, or fill in a small form if using the swimming pool.

Slightly more impressive is Neihu Sports Centre. Located at 12, Zhouzi St., Neihu, which is just behind Gangqian MRT station, this facility offers activities such as archery, swimming, dance, badminton, yoga, aerobics, martial arts, squash, basketball, snooker and, as we found last weekend, rock climbing.

At 15 metres, the outdoor rock climbing wall at Neihu Sports Centre is the tallest in Taipei. It costs NT$300 dollars for an hour's worth of coaching and equipment. We found the coaches were very friendly, helpful and encouraging.

We also found that rock climbing is really hard!

I say 'we', but in truth I knew that wall was more than a match for me when I first set eyes on it. My son got about two-thirds of the way up before it defeated him. The coming down part, where your partner lowers you gently to the ground, looked like fun. If only it didn't require climbing up in the first place.

Other sports centers around Taipei provide a wide variety of activities. The Zhong Zheng People Sports Centre at 1, Xin Yi Road Section 1, has a shooting range, and Nangang Sports Centre at Number 69 Yu Cheng St has a diving pool that the public can use for scuba diving lessons. At the Beitou Resort in northern Taipei, located at 88, Alley 527 Da Ye Road, there's a huge indoor children's playground, and at 55, Xin Hai Road Section 3, the Da An Sports Centre has a golf course.

With all these possibilities on offer, bad weather won't stop us enjoying ourselves. But it would still be nice if the sun came out. Just a little.