Monday, 23 November 2015

Hiking Yangmingshan - Fantasy and Fumeroles

Yangmingshan is one of the many prides of Taipei. A huge national park sitting right on the doorstep of the city and easily accessible by bus, car and hiking boot, it draws us back time after time to discover new sights and visit old, beloved ones.

Our most recent trip covered both angles, including a first visit to Menghuan Pond and our return to Xiaoyoukeng.

Menghuan Pond

The English translation of menghuan is fantasy, and Menghuan Pond is so named because it's wreathed in eerie mists for part of the year. Though the pond is a restricted area open only for educational purposes and to researchers and Yangmingshan staff, visitors can view it from a platform.

Menghuan Pong Yangmingshan

Rare plants and wildlife as well as the beautiful landscape combine to make Menghuan Pond a very special place. A water plant called Taiwan Isoetes that grows there is found nowhere else in the world. Other plants growing in the pond include Chinese water chestnut, bog bulrush, spikerush, common rush and Mt. Qixing pipewort. Frogs, birds, snakes and aquatic insects are also plentiful in the area.

It's a beautifully quiet, still, tranquil place, and I had visions of hefting my writing equipment up the mountain just so that I could sit there and enjoy the peacefulness as I write.

In fact, Menghuan Pond isn't very difficult to get to. We drove to Lengshuikeng car park and followed the signs for a half hour's easy walk. The Yangmingshan tourist bus also stops there, but these days it's getting a little too popular. We saw long queues and people unable to board, even though we were there on a weekday.


It took us about five or six years to make a second trip to Xiaoyoukeng. We first visited the boiling pools and fumeroles on a reconnoitering trip before we moved to Taiwan, and they were just as fascinating on a return visit.

My friend told me when she was a little girl her mother would take her to boil eggs in the scaldingly hot water pools near Beitou, but sadly (and perhaps wisely) such pleasures are no longer allowed. Simply viewing the pools is very interesting, however, because such hot water emerging from the ground seems somehow miraculous. If you listen carefully in some areas of the trail you can also hear water bubbling below the surface.

Boiling pools at Xiaoyoukeng

Steaming fumeroles are also amazing sights to see, edged with sulphur deposits thousands of years old. The air is filled with an acrid, eggy odour that isn't particularly unpleasant but is pretty unhealthy.

Fumeroles at Yangmingshan
Yangmingshan rises high above sea level, with its highest peak, Mt. Qixing at 1,120 metres tall, which means the park has some of the best views in Taipei. It's hard to believe, when looking at the photos I took, that all of this borders a burgeoning, busy capital city.

Yangmingshan National Park

Yangmingshan National Park
Another highlight of our trip was seeing the fourth snake I've encountered in over four years, and my third within a couple of months. It was the largest I've ever seen, too.

Sorry I only snapped the rear end. I thought it was the safest one in the circumstances!

Yangmingshan covers nearly 29,000 hectares, so there's plenty more for us to explore in our remaining years in Taiwan.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Teapot Mountain the Easy(ish) Way

October and early November are some of the best times for hiking in Taiwan. The summer heat has begun to fade and the winter rains have not yet started. Insects and other small creatures are still out and about and easy to spot. Over the last two weeks I've been taking the opportunity to re-familiarise myself with the mountains in and around Taipei, and also venture further afield, in this case to Teapot Mountain.

Named for the shape of its summit, Teapot Mountain lies near the Gold Ecological Park (near Jinguashi) on Taiwan's north-east coast. Many hiking blogs detail the longer, more arduous route to the mountain, starting at the park. But if you're short of time and leg muscle, there is an easier path.

The massive gold state of Guan Gong above Quanji (Cyuanji) Temple marks the whereabouts of the trailhead for the shorter route. I went there by car, but there is a bus stop, and according to this blog, one bus that stops there is the 1062 from Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT Station Exit 1. There's a small row of shops where the bus turns. You can buy water there, which is absolutely necessary, even on cold days.

The steps leading up Teapot Mountain begin past the back of Guan Gong's statue, on the left. They're quite difficult to miss.

Another advantage of climbing Teapot Mountain in the autumn is the sea of silvergrass that grows there.

Silvergrass, Teapot Mountain
In the gusting breezes blowing in from the sea, the swaying heads of grass are truly beautiful.

There's also plenty of wildlife to see on the way up. We saw butterflies and lizards. Some were feeding on the flowers growing next to the trail and some were basking on the steps.

It takes only an hour or so to climb Teapot Mountain by the shorter route, compared to five or six hours if approaching it from the Gold Ecological Park. The former path is also very safe, with no steep slopes requiring rope supports or precipitous dropoffs. Fit children could climb it easily.

The spectacular views over the mountainside and the sea beyond give plenty of excuses to stop and catch your breath.

The actual summit of the mountain isn't safe, and there's a red sign prohibiting entry. This, of course, doesn't stop some people from continuing to the very top (not me - I didn't like the unstable look of the teapot).

Coming down takes less than half the time of going up. The temple and nearby shops sell food, or you can continue to Jinguashi or Jiufen for a good meal as a reward for climbing Teapot Mountain.

Just don't tell anyone which route you took.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Taipei's Cat Cafés

If you're looking for some lazy, luxurious moments of self-indulgence, cats and cafés go hand in hand. The people of Taipei understand this perfectly, and as a result the city abounds with cat cafés. In fact, Taiwan originated the concept of the cat café, the first in the world opening in Taipei in 1998.

A rarely mentioned benefit of these cafés is that they provide a home for rescue cats. The average life of a street cat in Taiwan is about two years. Attacked by dogs and victims of the wet climate, traffic and numerous diseases, many stray cats are lucky if they end up in rescue centres such as Animals Taiwan and The Sanctuary. However, once cats reach adulthood they lose their appeal to new owners, who often want a kitten to raise, and adult cats can spend years waiting for a new home.

So cat cafés are a win-win for cats and visitors, whose landlords may not allow pets or who can't commit to being a pet owner.

We've visited Mask and Minimal cat cafés.

Mask, located at No. 64 Chang An West Road (長安西路64號), is about ten minutes' walk from Zhongshan MRT Station on the red line and opposite the Museum of Contemporary Art, so you can combine your coffee with culture for an afternoon's entertainment.

Mask cat café, Taipei

Mask Café is cosy and has three cats, who are all mellow and cuddly.

The cafe also sells delicious blueberry tarts.

Minimal Café is about fifteen minutes' walk from Guting MRT Station, at No. 42, Taishun St. Lane 2. Despite its name, Minimal is larger than Mask and is home to many more cats. We counted about ten during our visit.

Minimal cat cafe, Taipei

In the interest of science, I ordered a blueberry cheesecake, which was the closest comparison I could find to the blueberry tart I had at Mask. The cheesecake was equally good, so it will have to be location or number of cats that's the deciding factor between which of these cafés to visit.

The many strange people coming and going at cat cafés can be stressful for cats, and it's important to be gentle and considerate of their feelings. While most cafés allow pictures to be taken, don't use a flash, and don't hold the camera close to the cats' faces.

The cats are accustomed to plenty of stroking, and they will soon leave if they don't like it, but don't pick the cats up. They'll climb onto you if they want to get extra close.

As well as Mask and Minimal, Taipei's cat cafés include Yaboo, near Dongmen MRT Station; Su Huo Ling Workshop, which also sells cat accessories; T&F Café, very close to Songshan Creative Park; and Toast Chat, near Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall Station.

A few cafés don't allow children under the age of twelve, and the odd one charges a small entrance fee or has a minimum purchase requirement.

Monday, 5 October 2015

More Rainy Day Activities In and Around Taipei

One of the most popular posts on this blog is 10 Things to Do on a Rainy Day in Taipei. In case I haven't already mentioned it, it rains a lot in Taiwan, and there's clearly a need for wet weather activities. Luckily, there are plenty of things to do and many are cheap or free.

Shrimp Fishing

Shrimp fishing, Taiwan
There are those who say you haven't really experienced the heart of Taiwan unless you've been shrimp fishing. I was reminded of this while watching a wonderful film, A Brilliant Young Mind, where British guests in Taipei are treated to this simple yet very engaging activity. 

Put simply, you dangle a baited fishing rod in some water in a covered area, and wait for the shrimp to bite. Apparently, the water is deliberately made murky to hide the lurking shrimp. When you've (hopefully) caught a few, you can barbecue them. Be warned - the shrimp are still alive when skewered ready for cooking.

Shrimp fishing farms are clustered along Zhishan Road Sections 2 and 3. The nearest MRT Station is Shilin on the red line, but you must also catch a bus or a taxi to reach the farms. According to this report, you can catch a xiao (小) 18 or 19 from Shilin station, and get off at sha lun xia.

Hot Springs

Wulai, Taiwan
When it's cold and wet outside, what better way to warm up than spending an hour or two soaking in a hot spring? Far north and south of Taipei City lie several hot spring areas. Beitou is the most famous, perhaps, but hot springs are also available at Yangminshan, Wulai and other areas. You can use the public springs or rent a private room. 

For an easy, cheap dip, catch the MRT to Xinbeitou (change at Beitou Station), and cross the road in front of the station to reach the Hot Spring Museum. Next to the museum is the Millenium Hot Spring Bathhouse. For about NT$50 you can enjoy a soak in a communal pool. Remember to take along your swimsuit or trunks and a swimming hat.

Indoor Swimming

Continuing the water theme, one of the most easily accessible and healthy activities for a rainy day in Taipei is to go swimming. As I mentioned in this article on living in Taiwan, swimming attire is slightly more restrictive here than in the West. You must wear a hat, and males must wear close-fitting swimming trunks.

One thing I love about indoor swimming pools in Taipei is that some have spa sections, where strong jets of water pummel the tension from your muscles. Our favourite swimming pool is Dahu Park Pool  (where if you're a Neihu resident you get a discount). This is very close to Dahu Park MRT Station and Dahu Park. The indoor section of Dahu Park Pool has hot water soaking areas, a sauna and a spa area as well as a regular lap pool. This swimming centre is very popular, and it has a restaurant upstairs. We also use our local pool at Bojia Sports Park because it's free to residents of Wenshan District.

One thing to be aware of is that Taiwanese swimming pools rarely have deep ends.

Discovery Centre & 101

Taipei 101

A fun inner city rainy day activity for those with children is to combine a visit to the Discovery Centre with a trip to the top of 101. The Discovery Centre is at No. 1, City Hall Road, and it houses interesting, interactive exhibits about Taipei, its past and its cultural heritage. There are plenty of things for children to play with to keep them engaged, and most displays have English translations.

When you've explored all four floors of the Discovery Centre, Taipei 101 is within easy reach to see the most recent incarnation of the city laid out in all its splendour. If the rain clouds block the view, there are still exhibits to see and the giant damping ball at the centre, and if all those fail to impress, the stamping machine and ice-cream shop are on standby.

Strawberry Picking

Strawberry picking, Taipei
Strawberries are grown undercover in Taiwan (something about the regular, heavy rain showers), so you can spend a rainy day keeping relatively dry picking strawberries

Spring is strawberry picking season. To reach a strawberry farm catch the No. 2 minibus from Bihu Elementary School bus stop in Neihu Road Section 2, behind Neihu MRT station. The buses aren't frequent, but they are popular, so arrive early. Special taxis also regularly pick up from the stop.

The strawberry farm is the next stop after Bishanyan Temple, or you can get off at the temple and walk through the park. On your way you'll pass several restaurants you can stop at for something to eat on your way back. The strawberries are no cheaper than they are in the shops, but you do get to pick only the most perfect ones. 

Central Library (Daan)

If you're just looking for somewhere quiet, dry and different from home to spend a few hours, Daan Central Library at No. 125, Jianguo South Road Section 2, is the place for you. A ten-minute walk, mostly under shop awnings, from Technology Building MRT Station on the brown line, this library stocks many books in English, including a whole floor of children's books. To reach this floor (B2), walk downstairs to B1 and into the children's library. On the left is another set of steps leading down to B2. Hundreds of books from the U.S. U.K. Australia, Canada and New Zealand stock the shelves, and you can borrow them if you have an ARC or other long-term resident visa. Just apply at the desk on the first floor.

For older readers, there are foreign language periodicals on floor 2, an intriguing American Corner on floor 3 (I've never been there) and foreign language collections on floor 4. 

There are, of course, libraries in all areas of Taipei, but few have anything approaching the English language resources of the main library in Daan. TPE FREE, the free wifi service for Taipei residents, is available at all libraries and MRT stations. Just register here.

With all these options available, I hope you find something to do the next rainy day in Taipei.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

After Typhoon Dujuan

As an addendum to the post I wrote during Typhoon Dujuan yesterday, here are some photos of the mess and destruction left behind. I went out and took them when the winds and rain had died down at about lunchtime today.

I'd thought maybe things wouldn't be too bad because weak, vulnerable vegetation and structures would have come down in Typhoon Soudelor, but in fact the effects were much the same. Soudelor probably weakened some things, and Dujuan completed the job.

I won't be running or cycling in our local riverside park for a while.

After effects of Typhoon Dujuan.

In the end, two people lost their lives and 300 were injured. Many are still without electricity and/or unable to use domestic water supplies.

Nothing to do but clean up, repair and hope it's a long while before the next one.

ETA: I went for a run by the river this morning (Tuesday 6th October), and saw just how strong the flood waters were. Along the length of the path I run, the street lights had been swept up from their concrete bases and overturned.

Muzha Riverside Park

Dujuan 2015 was some typhoon.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Taiwan Weather - Typhoons

Typhoons are part and parcel of living in Taiwan. The island sits on two pathways typhoons can follow after forming in the Pacific, heading either to Vietnam or Japan, Korea and far eastern Russia. As a developed country, Taiwan does not suffer as badly as the Philippines and other nations with poorer infrastructures, but nevertheless the island rarely escapes some form of tragedy whenever a typhoon passes over.

Typhoon Soudelor

We had not experienced the full brunt of a typhoon until Soudelor earlier this year. After being woken at four in the morning, we spent the day watching in apprehension as the river that runs next to the road in front of our apartment rose higher and higher, threatening to flood its banks and inundate the houses that sit next to it.

Typhoon Soudelor

During the day something like an air conditioning unit fell from our building and through a greenhouse roof a couple of floors down, to be followed later by a window unit from our neighbour's apartment.

Typhoon damage

We were lucky. Friends lost power and/or spent the day trying to stem the flow of rainwater being forced into their homes. Those living in tall buildings felt them sway for hours on end.

The following day the devastation of the storm was apparent. Several lives had been lost, branches littered the streets of Taipei, the river paths were a muddy mess covered with plastic bottles and other rubbish, signs were down and windows were broken everywhere. The guard's office in our building was entirely smashed in. Over the next few days the domestic water supplies in some areas became turbid - a dirty brown, unfit to wash with, let alone drink, even with filtering.

Typhoon Dujuan

As I write this we are in the midst of Typhoon Dujuan. It is Mid-Autumn Festival, a national holiday, but even if it were not no one in Taipei would be going to work today.

The wind is whistling, moaning and howling around the apartment, driving massive sheets of rain horizontally against the building. I am checking the river every so often, but it hasn't yet reached the level it did during Typhoon Soudelor, so that's something to be thankful for at least.

It's hard to convey what typhoons are like. Up until Soudelor and Dujuan, I had been underwhelmed by them. Previous typhoons were rainy, blustery days that people enjoyed because they got a day off work. I realise now that I had not been in the centre of a typhoon as it passed through.

Typhoon Dujuan

Being in the heart of a typhoon is a humbling experience. It makes you more than usually grateful for having a safe, secure roof over your head and ready access to food, water and emergency help if you need it.

So far I have not heard reports of lives lost or major disasters as a result of Typhoon Dujuan, and fingers crossed things will continue the same overnight as the storm passes. What is especially saddening about this typhoon is that Taipei had just about returned to normal in recent weeks after a massive clean up. Witnessing the power of this storm, I'm in trepidation over what the city will look like in the morning. No doubt the clean up will have to take place all over again.

Typhoons are definitely nothing to be sniffed at. Good luck to everyone else who is experiencing this storm.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Interview With Expat Focus

This blog has been running for over four years, and in that time I've loved recording our experiences in Taiwan. I've also loved reading the comments readers post and connecting with readers in the real world.

Recently, Tales From the Beautiful Isle has been branching out into the wider bloggosphere. I was delighted to be contacted by Expat Focus and interviewed about my experience of living in Taiwan as an expat. Answering the questions made me really focus on what Taiwan means to me and how much I value our time here.

If you're interested in reading the interview, follow this link.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

10 Things You Should Know About Living in Taiwan

There are few safer, cheaper, more interesting or more beautiful places to live than Taiwan. As the country welcomes a new influx of expats and fresh-faced university graduates looking to spend a year or two broadening their horizons, I thought it was a good time to pass on some insider knowledge gleaned during our four years living here.

1. Look Before Crossing

Taiwan's traffic signals are very cute. The green man walks slowly at first, then faster and faster as the seconds count down. Finally, he's running, telling you you have only moments before the traffic mows you down. 

The green man lies. You think he's telling you it's safe to walk. It isn't safe to walk. Taiwanese drivers routinely run red lights. Always, always, always look before you cross.

2. Summer Means Plastic Shoes

Taiwan is in a typhoon corridor, which means it rains. A lot. Especially in summer. Unless you travel everywhere by car, wearing plastic shoes is going to save you frustration, money and damp, stinky feet. Every summer I buy a pair of Crocs and wear them to death. Your feet get wet when it rains, but they soon dry off in the heat, and you get your shoes washed for free.

3. Winter Means Mould

Related to the above advice, mould is an effect of the damp climate in winter. It grows on your clothes in the wardrobe; it grows on your towels in the washing basket; it grows on your coat hanging in the hallway. Some apartments are worse for mould than others, but unfortunately it's difficult to tell before you move in. Older apartments crowded by buildings that block out sunlight and breezes are most likely to suffer from mould. 

To combat mould use a dehumidifier, don't put clothes away until they're bone dry and don't leave your washing more than a few days in the basket.

4. People Slap Themselves

Routinely. In public. Without any warning. They also perform other strange and wonderful actions that would attract attention in many other parts of the world, but in Taiwan pass unnoticed. There's a man I see regularly who jogs with both his arms up in the air. Others jog backwards. Singing Chinese opera as you exercise is also common. On MRT trains there's often someone in the carriage rhythmically rubbing their ears or doing some intriguing finger actions. It's normal here. Deal with it.

5. Swimming Hats

You must wear a hat when swimming in a public pool. It doesn't matter if you're bald or have more hair on your face than your head. You must wear a hat. I like this rule. I got tired of swimming into other people's hair a long time ago. If you're male, you must also wear tight-fitting trunks. Not swimming shorts where the water can slosh around and wash your ... well, I think the reason for this rule is the same as for the rule for hats.

On the downside, in Taiwan it isn't considered disgusting to spit into the gutters around the pool. I wish it was, but you can't have everything.

6. Typhoons Aren't All They're Cracked Up to Be - Unless You Get a Big One

Typhoons can be underwhelming. It took me a few experiences, but eventually I came to realise that what people here referred to as a typhoon was what, back in the U.K., we would call A Blustery Day. I came here anticipating howling winds and driving rain, and encountered quite windy, wet days where everyone was delighted because they got a day off work.

Then came Soudelor. Soudelor was scary, and sadly caused much destruction and many deaths. We were woken about four o' clock in the morning by the noise of the wind, and were alarmed to see the river in front of our apartment block had risen and was threatening to overflow.

During the storm, objects fell from the building and crashed into the greenhouse roof below us, and the security guard's office door was smashed in. But we were safe and others experienced far worse effects. The next day, Taipei was a mess, with trees blown down, windows and signs smashed, and other destruction and debris littering the streets.

So don't worry too much about typhoons, but keep a close eye on the weather reports.

7. Umbrellas

Talking of typhoons, umbrellas are a very good idea in Taiwan. If you're familiar with Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you will know the importance of always carrying a towel. Replace your towel with an umbrella while living in Taiwan, and you'll be fine. Umbrellas not only protect you from the nearly unending rain, they also provide portable shade on sunny days, and you can use them to fend off the odd rare attacker on the MRT. Plus, if you hop over to Hong Kong, you can join the Umbrella Movement

If you're as forgetful as me, you might want to buy a few umbrellas, or even more.

8. Late Nights

The Taiwanese are night owls, retiring to their beds after midnight and catching up on lost sleep in an after-lunch nap at work. Children also go to bed late and nap after lunch at school. Foreign workers and children in the local education system sometimes struggle with this. If you can't adjust, expect to be a little sleep-deprived. Your neighbours won't quieten down until long after you've gone to bed and may have a habit of running a bath at three o'clock in the morning.

9. No Pavements

Pavements are the exception to the rule in Taiwan, even in Taipei and other large cities. If you never stray from the upmarket districts, you may, happily, never encounter the phenomenon. If you rub shoulders with the average Taiwanese crowd, expect to share your walking space with bicycles, scooters, parked cars, buses and other sundry traffic. People and drivers are mostly very careful and I've never seen an accident caused by the lack of pavement, but if you have young children and no expat contract, you might want to invest in some fluorescent gear.

10. Foreigners

Being a white foreigner in Taiwan is like being a D-list celebrity. You're noticed, and sometimes people come up and ask to have their picture taken with you. Parents also occasionally send their children over to practise their English. Depending on where you live, being noticed is more or less tolerable. We live in a middling area and I've become accustomed to the odd stare or shy hello. Foreigners living in poorer areas stick out more and so attract more attention.

Some foreigners complain loudly about being stared at and other dissatisfactions they have with Taiwan and the Taiwanese. While I sympathise with their unhappiness, the fact is white foreigners often receive privileges and have it far better than brown- or black-skinned immigrants, so I'm not complaining.

There's so much more to Taiwan than the few tongue-in-cheek items I've mentioned here. If you're new or thinking of coming over, I can honestly say I know of no better place to live. If you've been here a while, you might agree, disagree or have more points to mention. I'd love to hear from you.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Two Days in Hualian: Day Two - Hunter School

Two days in Hualian is not long enough, but that was all we had and we were determined to make the best of them. The evening of the first day had been spectacular. We stayed at one of the many hotels that line the ocean road that runs outside Hualian. The rooms in these hotels face nearly due east, which means in clear weather you can see the sunrise, and the rising moon.

Moon rising at Hualian

I don't know what caused the rays behind the moon that night, because the sun sets on the opposite side of the sky, but they were wonderful.

I'm an early riser, so I also caught the sunrise the following day. Mystified at first by dark shadows on the horizon I soon realised, as they began to shift and change shape, that they were clouds.

Such an amazing start to the day was enough to satisfy me, but we also had a whole day of hunter school ahead of us.

As I said previously, hunter schools are not so much about hunting as they are about learning the skills, crafts and knowledge of the aboriginal tribes who lived in Taiwan for centuries before Chinese immigration from the mainland. 

We were told an interesting story about the person who set up the hunter school we attended. Though a tribal person, he had grown up in the city. When he went to live with others of his tribe in Hualian he became a mountain rescue volunteer. One day, he noticed that while he was carrying a backpack of survival gear, his tribal companions brought with them only a knife. They explained that with the knowledge they had of the plants and animals that lived in the forest, a knife was all they needed to live there indefinitely. So the man set up a hunter school to pass on the knowledge to others and help prevent it from dying out.

During our day at hunter school, we learned how to 

  • bait and catch crabs at the seashore
  • make a tribal headband
  • cook soup with hot stones
  • roast meat over a fire
  • make a water carrier
  • set a trap
  • make fire 

On the surface, some tasks seemed simple. For example, to cook soup all you need to do it heat stones and put them in the soup. But first you must make a waterproof and heatproof container, and you must use the right kind of stones, which won't crack or burst despite being heated and cooled over and over again. 

Another example of this detailed knowledge of the natural environment involved making a water carrier from a large leaf. It would seem a straightforward operation, to fold and tie a large leaf, but only the leaves of a certain plant are flexible and tough enough and the correct shape to be folded into a receptacle. They must also be folded a certain way, and only strips of green wood from a particular tree have the right strength and flexibility to tie the leaf.

Here are some photos from the day:

The instructors explained and demonstrated each skill in detail and though the day was hot and long, I found it fascinating and impressive. The highlight of the day came at the end, when the teacher showed us how to make fire. Again, the instructions were very exact, but when using the correct materials and following the correct steps, the teacher made fire within ten minutes.

It was an exciting end to the day. I hope these schools long continue so even us city slickers can appreciate this ancient knowledge and wisdom.