Saturday, February 18, 2017

Putting your bikes on a train is often (but not always) straightforward

Some days ago I cycled from my home on the outskirts of Tainan to Chaozhou in Pingtung County (屏東縣潮州鎮). To avoid traffic, I took back roads wherever possible, yet managed to travel in a more or less straight line – except for the middle fifth, where having no option other than Highway 22 (which passes near Foguangshan) if I were to cross the Gaoping River – I was compelled to travel east rather than southeast.

According to Strava, I covered the 78.6km in just under four and a quarter hours. Not Tour de France pace, I know, but I'm proud of what I achieved, and I look forward to a few more long rides before the weather gets too hot. The elevation gain during the ride was 262m. Almost all of that, I'm sure, was accounted for a climb just north of Agongdian Reservoir, and another on Highway 22 where it goes below Freeway 10.

This isn't a route I'd claim to be especially scenic, although I did pass through some very pleasant villages once across the Gaoping River. It's just one which worked out well for me on the day. More useful for visitors to Taiwan is knowing that it's now pretty easy to take your bike on certain trains, and that some commuter trains have carriages which have been adapted for cyclists (see first and second images). However, this isn't possible at all stations. For instance, as I was reaching the end of my ride, I knew my options were limited because I could take my bike aboard at Pingtung (屏東), Xishi (西勢) or Chaozhou, but not Guilai (歸來), Linluo (麟洛) or Zhutian (竹田).

I got to Chaozhou about half an hour before the train to Tainan was scheduled to leave, and the young lady who sold me my tickets (full price for me, half-price for the bicycle – see third image) said it was imperative to be on the platform ten minutes before departure. Do bear that in mind.

And the cost? As with every form of public transport in Taiwan save forthe bullet train, impressively cheap: NTD182 for me and the bicycle, one way. That's USD5.89 or GBP4.74. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

A map of Taiwan's living languages

Taiwan News, one of the country's three English-language newspapers, recently published a short article and map showing the dominant languages in various parts of Taiwan. By land area, the Formosan languages spoken by Taiwan's Austronesian indigenous minority are the most prevalent, but much of this area is barely-populated highlands. In the central west and southwest - and also most of Yilan County in the northeast - Taiwanese (which linguists consider a variety of Hokkien, a language widely used in China's Fujian province) is the leading language. Taiwanese is also known as Holo, Minnanhua, Minnanyu or Southern Min. Within this region there are efforts to revive Siraya, spoken by indigenous people in the Tainan area during the brief Dutch occupation in the 17th century, and used for the writing of land contracts well into the 19th century.

In the northwest, Mandarin is the most common language, while there are substantial pockets of Hakka speakers in the northern counties of Hsinchu and Miaoli, and in the southern interior, around places like Meinong

The map is an oversimplification in that Mandarin is generally the preferred language of younger people, whether they live in Tainan or an aboriginal village, as it remains the language which dominates the education system and the media. Few people under the age of 30 are as articulate in Taiwanese as they are in Mandarin, and several Formosan languages are on the verge of extinction.   

Monday, February 6, 2017

Less rice on Taiwanese tables

Thanks to Taiwan's semitropical climate, the island's skilled farmers, and high levels of mechanization, Taiwan's paddy fields are among the world's most productive, consistently producing an average of over 4,500kg of rice per hectare. Various types of rice have been grown in Taiwan for at least 4,000 years, but large-scale paddy field cultivation didn't get underway until the Dutch, who controlled the Tainan area between 1624 and 1662, brought in thousands of Fujianese migrants to boost agricultural production. The land area devoted to rice growing expanding throughout the following Zheng, Qing and Japanese periods.

When Japan ceased being self-sufficient in rice production, around the end of World War I, they began importing the staple from Korea and Taiwan, both of which were Japanese colonies at that time. The Japanese authorities soon met with considerable success when they tried to increase rice yields in Taiwan. According to The Rice Economy of Asia (Volume 2) by Randolph Barker, Robert W. Herdt and Beth Rose, “Varieties suited to the semitropical conditions of Taiwan were developed and disseminated in the mid-1920s. The japonica varieties known as ponlai ('heavenly rice') were not only higher yielding than the native indica varieties, but had a shorter growth duration that permitted a significant increase in double cropping.”

Ponlai has been an enduring success. Even now, with consumers showing interest in other kinds of rice, more than five sixths of the rice grown in Taiwan is ponlai. Ponlai is also an ingredient in Taiwan Beer.

In the 1960s, scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines worked on breeding new types of rice that were shorter, stiffer-stemmed and would respond better to nitrogen fertilizer. They obtained the dwarfing gene (for shortness) from native Taiwanese rice varieties, crossing them with tall indica varieties.

Despite progress on multiple fronts, nowadays Taiwan's national rice production is for three reasons is now barely half its 1976 peak of 2.7 million tonnes. First, a significant amount of rice-growing land has been concreted over so factories, homes and roads can be built. Secondly – although Taiwan's population has grown around 45% over the past four decades – per capita rice consumption has plummeted. In 1981, the figure was 98kg. The average Taiwanese now consumes approximately 45kg of rice each year – just a quarter of the amount of rice eaten by Vietnamese and Burmese. Interestingly, the Taiwan figure is lower than China, Japan and South Korea, and is now even lower than the global average! The third reason is that Taiwanese rice is expensive by international standards, so surpluses can't be exported in large quantities (although some is sold to Japan). There's little argument as to the main reason for declining rice consumption: Taiwanese now enjoy a much wider range of foods; compared to just 20 years ago, the island's people eat far more bread and pasta.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Bamboo in jade

A detail from an immense piece of carved jade shows bamboo stems and leaves. Throughout Greater China, bamboo is regarded as symbolizing strength, an acceptance of the natural flow of events, and an openness to wisdom. Because it grows very well across much of mainland China and in every part of Taiwan, is has also been used for house construction as well as making furniture, toys and musical instruments. While some Taiwanese now regard the use of bamboo as quaint, some artists and scientists are drawn to the material because it's both cheap and eco-friendly.

The work shown above can be seen in Gongtian Temple (拱天宮) in the Miaoli County seaside village of Baishatun (白沙屯). It weighs 1.7 tonnes, measures 2.35m in length and was carved in Hualien County in 2002 out of Italian jade. 

The temple is best known for an annual pilgrimage that begins and ends here. Like the better-known festival that kicks off down the coast at Dajia’s Jenn Lann Temple, it expresses Taiwanese people’s adoration of Mazu, the sea goddess. In 2011, the pilgrimage was declared a national intangible cultural asset by Taiwan’s government.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Miaoli's Hakka Roundhouse

There aren’t many reasons to step inside the Hakka Roundhouse (客家圓樓) a stone’s throw from Miaoli High-Speed Railway Station, but the exterior and setting of this newish landmark make it worth a quick stop if you’re in the area. The picture above shows the roundhouse, the station to the right, and some of the many geese and ducks which inhabit the pond, and defecate all over nearby walkways!

Rather than being a proper replica of the famous Hakka tulou in China’s Fujian province, the architecture of the Roundhouse can be said to have been inspired by the distinctive shape of those UNESCO World Heritage structures. For a start, the windows of the edifice in Miaoli are much bigger than those on any of the originals. The walls are thinner, and rather than be open to the elements, the centre has been glassed over to create a pleasant atrium where there’s a small stage.

In the exhibition rooms on the second and third floors, displays illustrate Hakka agricultural practices and cuisine. If you can read Chinese, you can learn how to make fucai (福菜), the pickled mustard greens which are a distinctive feature of Hakka dishes in Taiwan. There are tools, cots and a mockup of an old-style kitchen/dining room.

The displays are in Chinese only, so the majority of tourists won’t learn anything. That said, the website does have some English information, and admission is cheap enough at NTD30 per adult. The building is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9:00-17:00. 

For me, much more enjoyable and relaxing is Qingshui Corridor (lower image), a 2.6km-long eco-engineered waterway which starts just the other side of the bullet-train railroad and wends its way seaward in the direction of Yingcai Academy (英才書院). The waterway is lined with willows and a reported 111 species of aquatic plants; when I walked along it on a very quiet weekday morning, I saw hundreds of fish and several sizable waterbirds. Miaoli County Government is notorious for splashing out money on infrastructure which hardly benefits residents, but I’d say this was a very worthwhile project. On sweltering summer afternoons, I’m sure the waterway is crowded with people cooling their feet in the water.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The recycled monument on Hutoushan

When it comes to trash, Taiwan boasts an impressive recycling rate. What few visitors appreciate is the country also has a record of recycling monuments, in much the same way Hagia Sophia in Istanbul initially reflected Christian dominance but later became a mosque. After World War II, landmarks erected during Japan’s 1895-1945 colonial occupation of Taiwan were either demolished, or turned into memorials which promoted the KMT (Chinese Nationalist) version of history.

One of these repurposed monuments (pictured top) is in Hutoushan Park (虎頭山公園) in Miaoli County’s Tongxiao Township (苗栗縣通霄鎮). Hutoushan means ‘tiger’s head mountain’, and the toponym comes from the shape of this modest ridge, the highest part of which is just 93.4m above sea level. If tigers did once roam here - which is possible - it was long before humans began settling on Taiwan.

Some people visit Hutoushan Park for the views that can be enjoyed up and down the coast (spoiled somewhat by a power station) and far inland (lower photo). Others want to see the well-preserved but locked-up Shinto shrine (for a short write-up, go here). Not everyone bothers to go to the very top, where a concrete gun-barrel points skyward. The seven Chinese characters on it mean ‘Taiwan Retrocession Tablet.’

This memorial was built just after the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. Famously, the Japanese defeated Russia’s Pacific Fleet early in the war, then nervously awaited the arrival of the enemy’s Baltic Fleet. Japanese observers on duty here spotted Russian vessels moving through the Taiwan Strait and alerted the Imperial Japanese Navy. Able to position themselves ideally, the Japanese decimated the Russian flotilla at the Battle of Tsushima on 27-8 May 1905.

Getting to Hutoushan Park is straightforward. If you're not driving, take a TRA train to Tongxiao on the Coastal Railroad (trains stopping in Miaoli and Taichung don't travel on this line, but instead on the Mountain Railroad). Turn left as soon as you leave the station, then walk uphill past the junior high school. It takes less than 15 minutes to get to the memorial from the station.

If you're visiting Penghu County, you can find a memorial of similar dimensions in the eastern part of the main island. It was erected by the Japanese to mark the spot where their soldiers first landed in 1895, but now celebrates Taiwan's return to Chinese control fifty years later.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

KIshu An 1917

Taipei’s Kishu An 1917, also known as Kishu An Forest of Literature (紀州庵文學森林) isn’t the only place in Taiwan where the date of its establishment has been made part of its name. The best-known example is the cultural facility called Huashan 1914 Creative Park, but there’s also Chiayi Arboretum 1907. The latter is an urban forest filled with hoop pines as well as teak and mahogany trees.

Despite its name, there aren’t many trees at Kishu An, though it is a lovely patch of green in one of the capital’s older, grayer neighbourhoods. The real attraction here is Japanese architecture, specifically the restored (‘rebuilt from scratch’ may be a more accurate description, as fires in the 1990s ravaged the original structures) main building. Constructed almost entirely of wood in 1927 or 1928 to house the high-class restaurant which had been operating on this site since 1917, it attains a level of elegance matched by very few Taiwanese-designed structures. 

Back in the Japanese colonial period, diners could sit inside and look out across the Xindian River, about 100m away. Nowadays, however, the waterway is hidden behind a tall concrete anti-flood barrier. There’s currently little to see inside Kishu An - no restaurant, at any rate - but in a way that’s the point. It’s ideal if you want to sit somewhere (on a Japanese-style tatami mat - there are no chairs), take in the peaceful surroundings and read.

The site’s restoration was overseen by Taipei City Government, and a few hours after my visit, I showed the official leaflet to a friend. He straightaway commented: ‘I have trouble telling those places apart.’ I know what he means; in the past decade, I've lost count of the number of similar places done up and opened to the public. If you’ve already been to somewhere like the Xinhua Butokuden in Tainan, you needn’t go out of your way to take a look at Kishu An. But if you do find yourself in this part of the capital and feel like killing some time, consider stopping by. And while you’re here, do take a look at the very pleasant Taipei City Hakka Cultural Park.

Kishu An is at 107 Tongan St and open 10:00-17:00 Tue-Sun. The nearest metro station is Guting on the MRT's Green and Orange lines. Admission is free.