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. 
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.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Books: Taiwan 101, volumes 1 and 2

The name Richard Saunders is well known among Westerners living in Taiwan, especially those who're into hiking. A classical musician by training, Saunders has spent much of the past 23 years exploring the island. No foreigners, and probably no more than a few dozen Taiwanese, know the hills and trails of north Taiwan better than he does. He’s shared his knowledge in a series of books, and has just published a new two-volume guide called Taiwan 101. The first volume covers Taiwan’s north and east, and contains background chapters on the country’s history and culture. The second focuses on destinations in central and southern Taiwan, plus outlying islands like Matsu. The books together have 101 chapters; the actual number of attractions featured is well over 500. GPS coordinates are provided for each place.

If you’re outside Taiwan, getting ahold of these books isn’t easy; contacting the Taipei Hikers group which Richard founded is perhaps your best best. For interviews with Richard, click here or here. For a very useful review of the book by a Taipei-based blogger, follow this link.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

National 2-28 Memorial Park


Ererba (二二八, “two, two, eight”) was “the darkest page in [Taiwan's] modern history,” according to this recent article by Linda van der Horst in The Diplomat. What's known in English as the February 28 Incident actually began on February 27, 1947 when a widow selling contraband cigarettes in central Taipei was accosted by government agents. When bystanders came to her aid, a shot was fired and a man died. Van der Horst's description of what followed is succinct and fair: 'That unleashed the wrath of the Taiwanese, who were unhappy with widespread suppression by and malfeasance of the newly arrived KMT rulers. Chiang Kai-shek launched a crackdown on February 28, 1947 that lasted for weeks and saw up to 28,000 civilian casualties (although the official number has not been confirmed). The [massacres were] the prelude to the era of White Terror from 1949 until martial law lifted in 1987, when dissidents and intellectuals were imprisoned or executed to assert KMT rule over the island.'

As news of the shooting on February 27 spread, government offices in various parts of Taiwan were attacked and ransacked. Mainland Chinese civilians, who were easy to pick out because of their different accents, were assaulted and in some cases murdered. With the local KMT-installed leaders set back on their heels, Taiwanese professionals in urban areas saw an opportunity to express grievances and demand reforms. However, as soon as Nationalist reinforcements arrived, Chiang's regime gave no quarter. In the wake of the incident, up to 80% of city- and county-level elites 'disappeared from the political field' (to use the words of a report produced for the government-backed 2-28 Memorial Foundation). In the years that followed, around 140,000 people were detained, and some were imprisoned for more than two decades.

Repression was especially bad in and around Chiayi, so it's hardly surprising the city was chosen as the site of the National 2-28 Memorial Park (二二八國家紀念公園). Its suburban location means few outsiders come here, but the site at Liucuo (劉厝, spelled Liutso on information panels inside the park) was chosen for a reason. Atrocities took place here in early March 1947 after Nationalist forces holed up inside the nearby air base (nowadays Chiayi's dual-use military-civilian facility) received information that anti-government rebels were hiding in the community. At least 300 people died during several days of violence.

While the park, which was dedicated in late 2011, isn't as educational as the well-known 2-28 museum in Taipei, it is a worthy monument to those who died. The profiles of notable victims, such as renowned painter Chen Cheng-po (陳澄波; monument pictured above), make for sobering reading. 

The park, which is located between Dafu Road (大富路) and Dagui Road (大貴路), never closes. The indoor exhibitions area is open Wednesday to Sunday, 9:30am to 4:30pm. According to Google Maps, it's 3.6km from Chiayi TRA Station and 13.4km from Chiayi HSR Station. If you're coming from the latter, you may as well also visit the National Palace Museum Southern Branch.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

How to eat like a local in Tainan on Synapticism.com

This post is the better part of two years old, but thanks to the unchanging nature of Tainan, still extremely useful. And as we've come to expect from Synapticism, the photos accompanying the text (which includes Chinese script and hanyu pinyin pronunciation guides) are lovely; the one above features an eatery inside the downtown's old fabric market. I wrote about some of that neighbourhood's culinary highlights in this January 2015 article