Monday, December 5, 2016

Taiwan-shaped leaf and a tiny snail

Hiking in Pingtung County’s Neishi Township (獅子鄉) recently with the man behind Taiwan Waterfalls and a couple of other friends, I decided to pause for a while and see whether I could find any interesting insects. I found over a dozen - none of which I could identify-  and also found one of the tiniest snails I’ve ever seen, pictured above. The fact it was clinging to a leaf shaped like Taiwan made it all the more appealing.

Thanks to its warm, wet climate and lush vegetation, Taiwan has a fabulously diverse snail population. New species have been identified as recently as 2014

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

An earthquake memorial in central Taiwan

Not long ago, after an appointment in central Taichung, I jumped on a bus to what is now the city’s Shengang District (神岡區), but which was part of Taichung County until the city and county were merged at the end of 2010. Why Shengang? I’d never been, and I reasoned that in every place there’s something of interest.

Soon after getting off the bus, I came across this memorial. I didn’t notice the man taking a nap behind it until I got home and looked carefully at my photos; while I was there I was busy trying to figure out what event it commemorated, because the characters incised on the plinth were barely legible. 

It turned out to be a memorial to the deadliest earthquake in Taiwan's recorded history, the temblor which struck the west-central region just after dawn on April 21, 1935. According to the Wikipedia entry on the disaster, 3,276 people were killed and just over 12,000 injured. Almost 18,000 houses were destroyed; twice as many suffered serious damage. The most famous and photogenic reminder of the 1935 disaster is Longteng Broken Bridge, a short distance north in Miaoli County. This part of Taiwan was also hit badly by the more recent 921 Earthquake (so named because it occurred in the early hours of September 21, 1999).

Friday, September 30, 2016

Wufeng Story House

Wufeng Story House (霧峰民生故事館, pictured above) celebrates facets of local history and agriculture not far from Taichung, central Taiwan’s principal city.

The Story House occupies a late 1950s two-storey concrete structure which served as both a clinic (downstairs) and a residence for Dr. Lin Peng-fei (林鵬飛, 1920-2010) and his family (upstairs). The building had been empty for some years, and in a sorry state due to earthquakes and typhoons, when it was taken over in 2014 by Wufeng Farmers Association. The association says they decided to fund the project entirely by themselves so they’d retain complete control; in Taiwan as in many other countries, central government money always comes with strings attached.

Cracks in the walls and floors were fixed, new windows were installed, and the doctor’s office was restored to its 1960s appearance. Among the items on display are some - among them a microscope - which Dr. Lin himself used. Others were donated by some of Taiwan’s most notable medical-intellectual families. Over the past decade, nostalgia for pre-1970s Taiwan has become an important driver of domestic tourism.

Like many physicians of his era, Dr. Lin wasn’t a specialist, but handled internal medicine, pediatrics and external medicine on a daily basis. According to one blogger, he was ‘well-respected as an ethical physician who often provided free care to the poor’. 
One part of the downstairs is now a restaurant where typical Taiwanese dishes showcase local produce. Set meals cost around NTD450. Wufeng is especially famous for its mushrooms, so it’s no surprise these feature prominently. The field behind the Story House will soon serve as an organic farm, supplying vegetables to the restaurants and demonstrating to visitors how food can be produced in an ecofriendly manner.

What’s now upstairs is altogether more sobering, but will fascinate anyone curious about Taiwan during the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonisation and World War II. By his late eighties, Dr. Lin was the last surviving member of the class of 1941 at the medical school of what was then called Taihoku Imperial University (now National Taiwan University). Several of his classmates, conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Navy, perished on January 12, 1945 when the ship on which they were sailing to Japanese-occupied Indochina, the Shinsei Maru, was sunk by US warplanes. Some 247 Taiwanese personnel - among them 41 doctors - died in that incident. In all, over 30,000 Taiwanese were killed while serving with the Japanese armed forces between 1937 and the end of the war. 

The Story House’s upper floor is devoted to the sinking of the Shinsei Maru and the Taiwanese who lost their lives on board. Amid the maps, photos and models - and a Rising Sun flag autographed by Taiwanese servicemen - especially striking is the black-and-white movie footage taken at the wedding of one of the doctors in the late 1930s. It’s interesting to see the cars and fashions of that era, but the mere fact the movie was shot is proof of the elite status physicians in Taiwan enjoyed throughout the colonial period, and have continued to enjoy, albeit slightly diminished, ever since. Unfortunately, all the displays here are currently in Chinese only.

A look at Wufeng Story House can easily be combined with a look around the area’s best known attraction, the 921 Earthquake Museum (also known as the 921 Earthquake Educational Park). The museum is just 1.5km from the Story House. 

Less than a minute’s walk to the south of the Story House is Wufeng Farmers Association Distillery (霧峰農會酒莊). There you can buy locally made sakes which has won awards in European competitions.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wild animals, night and day

I’m on a roll when it comes to catching glimpses of Taiwan’s wild animals! Soon after an engrossing and enlightening midnight nature tour near my home, we were able to spend a few days in a thinly-populated part of Taiwan’s little developed east. 

This year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, a national holiday,l fell on a Thursday; it’s always celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month on China’s ancient lunisolar calendar. Many companies and almost every school decided to take Friday off as well, so people could enjoy a four-day weekend. 
We headed to a spot in Hualien known alternatively as Changhong (‘long red’) Bridge (長虹橋) or Jingpu (靜浦). The former, pictured above, crosses the Xiuguluan River just before it joins the Pacific Ocean. The latter is an indigenous community, and among the residents are Amis folk whose ancestors were likely involved in the Cepo Incident

Compared to the lush foliage that’s commonplace in Taiwan, not much grows between the trees hereabouts because the slopeland is more scree than soil. There are few insects as a result, but also fewer hiding places for larger creatures. One evening, before seeing a banded krait slither away, we came across what was either an immature Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) or a Formosan gem-faced civet (Paguma larvatain the drainage ditch beside the road. Unable to scramble out and take cover among the trees, it ran hither and thither before making its escape. We were grateful to get such a good, close look.
The following day I walked by myself a few kilometres along Hualien County Route 64, a narrow road on the south side of the Xiuguluan River. As I expected, I saw several Formosan macaques leaping from tree to tree, plus some gorgeous butterflies and moths. But the most satisfying moments were those spent watching a family of three crab-eating mongooses (Herpestes urva) crossing the road, crossing back again, then scampering into the forest. I took several photos with my smartphone; none are worth posting here, but they did help with identification. The mongoose image above is borrowed from this webpage, where you’ll find several other excellent pictures.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A nocturnal nature ramble

Inland of central Tainan, the hill country starts about 25km from the sea. Back in 2007, I wrote two articles about this region of mixed forest and bamboo groves for a local English-language newspaper. (See here and here. At that time the authorities decreed 新化 should be spelled Sinhua; they now prefer Xinhua.)


I’ve hiked through these woodlands dozens of times but, until last weekend, never at night. Meeting up a little later than planned with Richard Foster (an old friend and full-time birding guide) and Dane Harris (an American who’s led dozens of people on middle-of-the-night nature rambles), we entered the forest near Xinhua National Forest Arboretum (新化國家植物園). 

Within minutes of leaving our vehicle, we spotted in the canopy right above us a red giant flying squirrel (Petaurista petaurista, like the one pictured above). I was as surprised as I was delighted: I’ve glimpsed these creatures before, but never so close to a major urban area. From time to time, Dane also comes across Asian palm civets; we weren’t in luck. (Within a fortnight my luck changed for the better.) 
Dane’s true passion is snakes, and he’s as willing to hold them as a Pentecostal pastor in Appalachia. But rather than put his trust in a deity, he practices safe-handling techniques. These are critical, as one of the four serpentine species we encountered was the extremely venomous many-banded krait (Bungarus multicinctus). Our tally for the evening also included a red-banded snake (Dinodon rufozonatum), three common mock vipers (Psammodynastes pulverulentus papenfussi; a subspecies endemic to Taiwan pictured below) and one greater green snake (Cyclophiops major, shown above).

According to the excellent website Snakes of Taiwan: “the harmless, invertebrate-eating greater green snake is frequently mistaken for the Chinese tree viper [aka Stejneger's pit viper or Trimeresurus stejnegeri] and subsequently killed… [but] the differences are quite obvious at a closer glance: the Chinese tree viper has a triangular head, red eyes, a white stripe along both sides of the body, and a reddish-brown tail. The greater green snake has an oval head, black eyes, no stripes, and a green tail. Its scales are also much shinier than the matte, dull coloring of the Chinese tree viper.”  
Dane glimpsed but was unable to detain and show us a Taiwan habu (Protobothrops mucrosquamatus), a highly venomous snake alternatively known as a brown spotted pitviper. 

The understory near Xinhua is rich in insect life. We encountered dozens of grasshoppers representing at least seven species or subspecies, a single European mantis, lots of snails, a few slugs, large spiders and impressive centipedes. Dane pointed out a creature I’d never previously heard of: Thelyphonida, commonly known as a whip scorpion or vinegaroon (pictured below). These black  arachnids are typically five or six cm long, including tail. The name “vinegaroon” comes from their ability to squirt out a mildly noxious, vinegar-like substance when threatened. They feed on millipedes, cockroaches and crickets, and when once you’ve learned to recognise them, you’ll see them all over the forest.
Glowing mushrooms were another highlight. Of the world’s 75 species of luminous fungi, nine - including one only identified in 2013 - grow in Taiwan. 

Dane is happy to introduce Xinhua’s wildlife to visitors and expats based in other cities. These expeditions, which often last well into the early hours, are moderately strenuous. Good footwear is essential as you’ll likely go off-trail, especially if you hope to see bioluminescent mushrooms. You’ll also need your own transport to the trailhead, but Dane can lend powerful flashlights. He can be reached via daneharris@hotmail.com or through Facebook. The photos here are his; lots more can be found on his Facebook page.


Monday, September 5, 2016

2016 Taiwan KOM Challenge

Starting around 2007 there was a huge shift in public attitudes to cycling. Living in Taiwan back in the 1990s, I was often asked: ‘Why do you ride a bike when you can afford a motorcycle?’ However, I was never seriously tempted by the nimble Vespa-type scooters which dominate the roads. They’re very convenient, but not good for the environment.

Around a decade ago, Taiwanese began to rediscover their love of cycling. This trend was both anticipated and bolstered by a hit local movie called Island Etude. The main character is a young man who spends a week exploring Taiwan by bike, along the way immersing himself in the island’s natural beauty and rich traditional culture. Since then, getting around by pedal-power has been in vogue for reasons I outlined a few months ago.

Andrew Kerslake, an American cyclist and long-term resident of Taiwan once told me: 'Taiwan's value for cycling comes from its unique location and topography. In a relatively short distance a rider can skim along the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean, soar above alpine peaks, pass between the urban and the rural, disappear into the shadows of the jungle or lazily soft pedal along a meandering cycling trail. Taiwan surely has the potential to become the Tuscany, Flanders or Pyrenees of Asia.'

Andrew’s blog is an excellent resource for anyone planning serious riding in Taiwan.

Realizing Taiwan’s suitability for bike touring, the authorities have developed an annual Taiwan Cycling FestivalMany of the festival’s featured events are aimed at leisure riders who’d rather enjoy a slow circuit of Sun Moon Lake than give themselves a real workout. That said, the most exciting component of the festival, for spectators as well as the small number of people allowed to participate, is undoubtedly the Taiwan KOM Challenge.
Unlike ‘king of the mountains’ titles awarded to hill-hopping cyclists in long-distance races such as the Tour de France, the Taiwan KOM Challenge is a stand-alone race. Competitors start within sight of the Pacific Ocean near Hualien City, proceed through Taroko Gorge, then tackle the uplands of Taroko National Park. For photos of the route, see this page on Andrew's blog. 

The 2016 KOM Challenge is scheduled for October 28. No more than 600 riders will be allowed to sign up, with half of those spots reserved for cyclists based outside Taiwan. First prize is NT$1,000,000.

After taking part in the 2014 KOM Challenge, British rider Dave Everett wrote on the Cycling Tips website (where the photo above comes from) that the race, ‘could easily be classed as the unofficial world championships of mountain climbing. The Taiwan KOM Challenge is exactly what the name suggests: a challenge. It’s held on 105km of spectacular roads that rise from the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean to a quite literally breathtaking 3,275m mountain summit.’

It was Everett’s first visit to Taiwan and he was deeply impressed: ‘[This] small island has climbs that can best any in Europe. In fact, Taiwan would have to be one of the best locations I’ve have the pleasure of turning the pedals over in.’

Others have also gushed about the route. According to the Taiwan KOM Challenge website, the gradient never exceeds 2% for the first 20km. For much of the route it's around 6%, but in 'the final 9.5kms, and then the real challenge begins. Riders will traverse gradients from 10-22%.'

Of course, there's nothing to stop anyone tackling this route any day of the year. It's also possible to break it up over more than one day; there are places to stay in Tianxiang (天祥) and it's sometimes possible to arrange accommodation at Dayuling (大禹嶺). 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

An indigenous chapel in Tainan


Cycling through Tainan recently, I stumbled across this forlorn-looking but intriguing building less than 100m east of the soon-to-be-buried railway line. It was locked up and there was no one around while I was there, so all I could go on are the nine Chinese characters on the stained metalwork beneath the cross. From left to right they’re pronounced: ‘Wutai Jiaohui Nankai Libai Tang.’

There are plenty of Christian places of worship in Taiwan, and it’s not unusual to see one as small as this. It was the first two characters that really caught my eye: Wutai (霧台) is an indigenous township in the mountains of Pingtung County, about 90km southeast of here as the crow flies. In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful places in all of Taiwan. But for all the region’s scenic splendour, jobs are few and higher education means leaving home. Most of Wutai’s inhabitants belong to the Rukai (魯凱) tribe, and like most of Taiwan’s aborigines the majority of them are Christian. There’s long been a Rukai community in Tainan and this ‘prayer hall’ seems to be a branch of an established Rukai church elsewhere in the city. It’s perhaps no coincidence it’s also near another of the area's Christian landmarks, Tainan Theological College and Seminary.