Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The beauty of the east

In the past two months I've spent many memorable days in east Taiwan. Here are some photos from those trips.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The bus made an unscheduled stop

Yesterday, the bus I was on stopped somewhere between Taitung City and Zhiben. The driver picked up an empty plastic bag and got out, leaving the engine running. He mentioned to one of the passengers what he wanted to do - collect fruit. He spent the next two minutes scooping small, green golf-ball-sized fruit up from the pavement, gathering at least two dozen. Two of the passengers got into the act and grabbed a few each.

This is an aspect of Taiwan I and many other Westerners like. When travelling here, everything is pretty safe, reliable and well organised... but there's just enough oddity, funkiness and unpredictability to keep things interesting.

Over the years I've seen plenty of bus drivers halt so they can run into a shop and buy something, and in the mountains I've seen some stop beside waterfalls so they can collect water for making tea at home (good quality water is, of course, very important for tea devotees).

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas in Taiwan

Fewer than one in ten Taiwanese is Christian, and December 25 is not a public holiday (it used to be until about a decade ago but not because it was Christmas, rather because it was the anniversary of the promulgating of the ROC Constitution in 1947). The retail sector obviously loves the idea of Christmas, and young people are getting into the habit of sending each other Christmas cards, but the festive season is still very much a minority activity. Most people save their money and energy for the Lunar New Year.

If you're thinking of coming to Taiwan at this time of year and worry about places being closed or packed with people, don't be. The weather can be a little cold, but all in all it's a good time to be touring the island.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

One for industrial archaeologists

Zhumen Hydroelectric Power Station (竹門發電廠), near the Kaohsiung town of Meinong, has been producing electricity for 100 years.

These days it's better known for its Baroque cathedral-like architecture than the amount of energy it contributes to the national grid (about as much as a single wind turbine, in fact). It's another of those strange places - there are several in Taiwan - that leaflets and websites describe as a tourist attraction, but when you get there it isn't at all clear if the place is normally open to the public. Anyway, nobody stopped me from wandering around the grounds and taking photos inside. There's an even better example of this kind of architecture in Tainan.

Here's an article of mine from 2006 about industrial heritage sites being repackaged as tourist attractions.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Futai Mansion

While in Taipei a couple of months back, I walked past the Futai Mansion several times, but didn't have time to go in.

According to a Taipei Times newspaper article:

"Built in 1910, the Futai Street Mansion was originally used by its Japanese owners as an office. In the following decade, about 100 commercial buildings were constructed on Futai Street in the area inside the North Gate. The Futai Street Mansion is the only commercial building from that time to have survived.

Although small in scale (about 156m2), the two-story building has great historic value and was designated as a historic building by the city government in 1997. The mansion’s curator, says the building has the style of the Japanese Meiji period with a strong European flavor and was unique because of the materials used to construct it.

The arched pedestrian arcade was made of stone... and the arcade ceiling was made of Formosan Cypress and is diamond-shaped. The outside wall on the second floor was made of stucco faced with fine gravel. The roof truss was made of wood in the Mansard style and the steeply slanting roof was covered with diamond-shaped copper tiles. The three dormer windows on the roof provided ventilation.

During the Japanese colonial era, the mansion was used as an office by the construction company and then by a wine importer.

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government took over the building and turned it into a dormitory for high-ranking Ministry of National Defense officials. It was eventually vacated in 1998.

Three years after the building was designated a historic site, a fire completely destroyed the building’s wooden structure and scorched the stonework. A one-year, NT$39 million (US$1.18 million) reconstruction project was completed in August 2007 and the building opened to the public in April this year.

The first floor now houses an exhibition room and a cafe decorated with the work of local artists, where visitors can enjoy tea and snacks while listening to old Taiwanese music.

Climbing up the wooden stairs to the second floor, there are two exhibition rooms, one equipped with a large-size electronic book detailing in Chinese and English the history of Taipei City from 1600 to 2007."

Externally it's very attractive. Here's a flickr.com phototream with photos of the mansion, starting with one that shows how it looked prior to restoration.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Way back when...

Having just griped about the inadequacies of public transport in certain parts of Taiwan, I think it's a good moment to point out just how much things have improved for the traveller since the 1930s, which is when Taiwan's rulers (who at that time were the Japanese) first began promoting tourism. At that time, any trip away from the main north-south railroad took many hours indeed and involved either slow buses or 'push carts' like those pictured here.

Several years ago, I visited an elderly British ex-missionary who had fond memories of going up through central Taiwan by the kind of human-powered railway trolley pictured in these photos. Of course, as a paying passenger, he didn't have to push the thing...

These pictures are courtesy of David Reid, the man behind the excellent David on Formosa blog.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Taroko Gorge by public transport

One of the objectives of my recent trip to Taroko Gorge was to see if it's possible for those depending on public transport to see many of the sights. The answer, I'm afraid to tell those who don't want to drive or join an organised tour, is 'not very'.

I only achieved as much as I did in the space of a single day by walking along the main road more than I would've liked to, and by thumbing a lift (which isn't an option for those who speak no Chinese, and not practical if you've luggage or there's more than two of you).

The problem isn't just a scarcity of buses - only four buses per day go all the way to Tianxiang - but also that services bypass some of the sights, notably the Eternal Spring Shrine (pictured right) . Nevertheless, Taroko Gorge is a must-see. Almost two million people come here each year and you should be one of them.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Birdwatching on the Blue-Gate Trail

This trail ('Gate 1') is located off Highway 14A, very close to the 16km marker (not 15km as is reported elsewhere). The actual gate or gateposts are not visible from the main road, but the entrance can be identified by a sign for 'Rueiyan River Major Wildlife Habitat' and a number of water pipes that run along it.

There's parking on the right a short distance up the main road. The trail has recently been cleared making it much more accessible. After about 5km the trail crosses a small road (about half a kilometre down from from the police station where's there some excellent mothing) and then continues – passing an actual blue gate, 'Gate 2' – for a further 12km where it ends at the head of a valley. Thus visitors can walk for up to 17km if they've the energy, though sometimes the road is damaged by typhoons.

This is the area referred to as the continuation trail. Pheasants can be seen here, as well as other high-altitude endemics such as the Taiwan Hill Partridge. This trail can be very wet due to leaking pipes, so it's best to wear rubber boots or carry spare footwear. During the dry season you'll do OK gingerly edging along the less-wet parts.

The Taiwan Forestry Bureau has published a good leaflet about the area. It is, alas, very difficult to obtain. Guided tours of this trail can be organised by Taiwan Eco-Tours.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Why visitors to Taiwan shouldn't waste water

You might not believe it if you visit Taiwan in the wet summer months – or if you've seen what happens during a typhoon – but the island often suffers water shortages. Nature is part of the problem. The dry season is very long and rivers tend to be short and fast, so a lot of rainwater flows into the ocean before it can be used.

Rainfall per square kilometer is more than three times the global average, but because of Taiwan’s incredible population density, per capita precipitation is less than one-eighth of the world’s average.

The government has urged people and companies to use less, but under the current pricing system many households pay less than GBP2 (USD3) per month for their water, so there is little incentive to conserve water.

Taiwan has a growing number of 'green buildings', several of which feature rainwater-catchment systems. (In 1999, Taiwan’s government became the first in Asia, and the fourth in the world, to adopt sustainable-building standards). These systems store rainfall so it can be used to flush toilets and water lawns. Among the buildings fitted with rainwater-catchment equipment are libraries and factories.

Proposals to build new reservoirs and dams have run into opposition. One plan, to construct a dam that would have inundated Meinong's beautiful Yellow Butterfly Valley, seems to have been dropped for good. Another, which conservationists predict will “tear the heart out” of the Huben IBA (Important Birding Area), is going ahead, despite claims that it could fail disastrously in the event of an earthquake.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Spelling of stations and towns according to Taiwan Railways

The Taiwan Railways Administration, the central government agency that runs Taiwan's conventional rail network, has clarified which station names are to be spelled according to hanyu pinyin, now Taiwan's official system for rendering Chinese words into the Latin alphabet, and which are to continue to be known by their old spellings.

The rationale, it seems, is that to change the spelling of Taipei, Kaohsiung and other places well known outside Taiwan would confuse non-Taiwanese. Ten cities fall into this category. Here they are, with the spelling in parantheses is hanyu pinyin:

From north to south: Keelung (Jilong); Taipei (Taibei); Hsinchu (Xinzhu); Taichung (Taizhong); Changhua(Zhanghua); Chiayi (Jiayi); Kaohsiung (Gaoxiong); Pingtung (Pingdong). On the east coast: Hualien (Hualian); Taitung (Taidong).

Of course, it's by no means certain that other government agencies, such as the Freeway Bureau, which administers Taiwan's motorways, will do the same. When driving, be prepared to see Taizhong, Pingdong etc.


According to reports in the Chinese-language media, such as this one, the government has decided that hanyu pinyin will not be universally applied to smaller towns. The town previously known as Lukang (鹿港) will retain that old spelling - rather than Lugang - while Danshui (淡水) will officially be Tamsui, a rendering of the place name as its pronounced in Taiwanese.