Monday, 27 April 2015

Camping Near Yilan

It's camping season again. Not too hot, not too cold, and -- with luck -- not too wet. We've been to Wulai twice and once to Xinzhu, this time it was the turn of the beautiful mountains that run between Yilan and Hualian.
As with all the other camping sites we've stayed at, this one, near Nan'ao, was very clean and well appointed. There seemed to be too few toilets and showers for the number of campers, but I never waited to use either, and the site staff kept the facilities clean. Subsections containing 10 to 15 pitches, divided the site, and each had its own electricity hookups and washing facilities. Plenty of recycling and rubbish bins meant it was easy to leave the site as clean and tidy as we found it.

The kids and sporty adults played in the open spaces while the adults relaxed and enjoyed the mountain scenery.
There was also a rocky riverbed to explore.

In the afternoon the kids played that traditional camping game Monopoly.
And in the evening, we watched a film.
What more to ask? Well, from my perspective good health would have been nice. Unfortunately I fell ill during the evening, and returned home early the following day. 

I missed out on the fish my friends bought in the early morning at a nearby harbour. I couldn't stomach the sight nor the smell of fish, let alone the taste. The harbour was only one of the other attractions of the area. We passed a nature tour, and the children went off to play basketball in the morning at a nearby court. As always, there were many hiking trails through the lush mountain scenery.

Camping near Yilan was fun. I just wish my stomach had allowed me to enjoy more of it.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Xinsheng Park

Walt Disney said, "We believed in our idea - a family park where parents and children could have fun together." The nearest Disneyland to Taipei is in Hong Kong, but Taiwan's capital has plenty of less spectacular places where families, couples, friends and singles can relax and enjoy natural surroundings. Xinsheng Park is a 20-hectare site in the heart of Taipei, not far from Songshan Airport.
The park's proximity to an airport means its serene atmosphere is interrupted fairly regularly by aeroplanes coming in to land, but for the rest of the time Xinsheng Park provides a quiet, handy escape from the bustling city.

The nearest MRT stations, Yuanshan on the Red Line and Zhongshan Elementary School on the Yellow Line, are 15 minutes' walk away. We prefer to alight at Yuanshan, because the walk from there is almost entirely pedestrianised, and very pleasant. Yuanshan Park is just outside the MRT station, and at weekends a farmers' market is held in the grounds of the Yuanshan Plaza.
The walk to Xinsheng Park passes through the market area to a main road. After crossing the road, the path continues, meandering through the grounds of Taipei Fine Arts Museum. A second road must be traversed -  Xinsheng North Road Section 3. This involves crossing the entry and exit ramps of a raised freeway, but there are traffic lights.

The walkway through the Fine Arts Museum grounds is very pretty and quiet, and often there are interesting, unfathomable events occurring.

Sometimes you're better off not knowing what's going on.

At Xinsheng Park there's a maze, bike paths, covered areas and pavilions remaining from the 2010 Flora Expo. The pavilions include The Pavilion of the Future, The Pavilion of Dreams and The Taipei Pavilion. You can buy a NT$150 pass to visit all three. The theme of the Pavilion of the Future is "the harmonious ties between mankind and the ecological environment they share with plant life."

The pavilions provide much needed shade on the hottest days, and shelter during rainstorms.

They are also very pleasant, open places to sit and relax if the ground is a little muddy.
The paths are wide enough for cyclists and pedestrians, and there is a YouBike station nearby at the Lin An-Tai Historical House for those without their own bicycles. 

With this fine traditional Chinese home and the Fine Arts Museum close to hand, a visit to Xinsheng Park and the surrounding attractions makes for an interesting and relaxing day's outing within Taipei City.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Biking in Taipei - YouBikes

Since I last wrote about biking in Taipei, our bicycles have languished in the underground garage of our apartment block, no doubt growing more rusty and cobwebbed every day. But this is not because we have been similarly languishing indoors, it's because of the YouBike scheme.

YouBikes first appeared in Taipei since 2009, but it has only been in recent years that the scheme has expanded to cover most of the city, and it seems that a new YouBike station pops up every week. Renting a bike used to be free for the first half hour, but as of this month there is an initial charge of NT$5, then NT$10 for every 30 minutes thereafter. Charges increase after four and eight hours.

Our nearest Youbike station is just five minutes from our apartment, under the MRT line that crosses the river to Taipei Zoo. Renting a bike for some early morning exercise or a Sunday bike ride is an absolute doddle.
The bikes are usually in good condition, with pumped tyres, working brakes and lights, and even a little bell for those who dare to wander into the bike path. There are also baskets on the front, containing a bike chain and lock. In fact, the only downside to YouBikes is that they are so popular, sometimes there are none available.

It's a sign of typical Taiwanese civilised and polite behaviour that there is very little vandalism of the bikes. I think in the many months I have been using them, the most I have seen is a seat that had been cut.

The seat height is adjustable, and fits within a reasonable height range. My son reached five feet tall last year, tall enough to use a YouBike.

Signing up for the YouBike scheme is super easy. At every station there's a machine with instructions in English. Registering an Easycard is the simplest method for renting YouBikes. The Easycards are linked to a mobile phone number, and up to six cards can be registered to one number.

To hire a bike, you press a registered Easycard to the sensor next to a bike, and pull the bike from the stand. When returning a bike, you push the bike into any stand, and press the Easycard to the sensor again. The system remembers which Easycard was used to rent each bike, a fact that caused us some confusion one time when renting two bikes on a family excursion.

Occasionally, the system has a hiccup, such as claiming that the Easycard is already in use. Problems like these usually sort themselves out in a day or two. If not, you can go to a service center.

I first wrote about cycling in Taipei nearly four years ago. In the intervening time our enthusiasm has not waned. The river paths continue to be expanded and improved, and each time we go out there is something new to see. When going on long excursions, it's wise to locate a station for returning your rented bike before you leave. My husband found this out when he rode from Muzha to Danshui -- a very, very long way. He arrived exhilarated but exhausted at Danshui and found that not only were there no Youbike stations, taking bikes on trains was also not permitted. The poor man had to cycle back a station or two, and take his YouBike on a train before he could finally return it.

Such unfortunate events aside, our experience of using YouBikes has been overwhelmingly positive, and we'll continue to take advantage of this wonderful scheme for as long as we can.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani

Visiting the snow monkeys of Jigokudani was the highlight of our trip to Japan at Chinese New Year. There are few places in the world where it's possible to experience wild animals up close in their natural environment without any concern of the well-being of the creatures or the destruction of nature, but this was my experience here.

The snow monkeys of Jigokudani are famous for their enjoyment of the natural hot springs in the area. They bask in the waters, groom each other and relax, enjoying a respite from chilly winter temperatures.

The wonderful thing about the snow monkeys is that they take absolutely no notice of human visitors. Due to the park's stringent rule that visitors must not feed the monkeys, they do not beg for food; and due to another strict rule that visitors should avoid looking the monkeys in the eyes, they also do not perceive humans as a threat. They are mostly oblivious to tourists watching them. At one point my son was resting his arm on a fence railing, and a monkey walked right over it without paying any attention to him at all.
It was heartening to see visitors behaving themselves and obeying the rules on the day we visited. Perhaps the trek to the site weeds out the more frivolous and uncaring. On the day that we visited the trail was extremely icy, and from memory it is at least a couple of kilometres long, so some dedication is required to make the journey. At the trailhead there is a shop selling cheap boots with soles that grip and gripping attachments you can fit to your own shoes. 

Many websites recommend visiting the snow monkeys either by driving there or catching the train to Jigokudani (the end of the line) and then the shuttle bus. There are local and express trains that go to Jigokudani. The express train costs a little extra (there's an extra ticket to buy at the machine) but saves time. We took the train and shuttle bus found this is not actually a good method if you're travelling from Nagano, the closest town.

Tourist information sites state that the shuttle bus timetable roughly coincides with the train times. This isn't the case. When you arrive at the station, you may have to wait 45 minutes or so for a bus, which takes only about ten minutes to drive to the trailhead. Returning to the train station by the shuttle bus, you may have to wait a similar amount of time for a train.

A much faster and more convenient option is to take the bus that leaves from outside Nagano station and goes directly to a bus stop close to the trail head. This bus takes about one hour, as I recall. This is the method we used to return to Nagano.

Living in Taiwan, part of the pleasure of visiting the snow monkeys was simply the snow.

We had wrapped up warm, so the cold was no problem, and we could enjoy the novelty of the powdery white stuff.
Sitting here in warm(ish), humid conditions, I can still remember the crisp, clean, dry air of Jigokudani. And the calm, serene snow monkeys.