Saturday, January 29, 2011

Of snails, bats and fish

Wherever there's greenery, there are snails; Taiwan is very green, so the island has an abundance of gastropods. Of approximately 300 snail species and sub-species, 70% are found nowhere else on Earth. At least one of Taiwan's snail species, an invasive exotic, is a major pest (pictured here). While most species are considered inedible, folk in the countryside (including my in-laws) do collect certain kinds for cooking and eating. After the snails are removed from their shells, they're scrubbed with guava leaves to remove the slime. They're then shallow fried with garlic, ginger or basil.

Bats are also common in Taiwan, even in urban areas. Eleven of Taiwan's 35 bat species are endemic. The Bat Conservation Society of Taipei's website has basic information in English plus several photos.

Fishing and changes to the island's rivers (especially canalization and the building of weirs and dams) have pushed 20 of Taiwan's 220 freshwater fish species close to extinction. The country's most intriguing fish is undoubtedly the Formosan landlocked salmon, first described by Japanese scientists in 1917. Two endemic fish species - Acrossocheilus paradoxus (sometimes known as the Taiwan stone minnow) and Candidia barbata - can be seen in Penglai Stream Biological Tour Area (蓬萊溪自然生態園區) in Miaoli County. Visitors can also expect to spot crabs, grey herons and clusters of butterflies.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Glove puppets and prison cells

Last week I took my son, a fan of Taiwanese glove puppetry, to Huwei in Yunlin County, home of Taiwan's best-known puppetry troupe, PiLi International Multimedia. The company's name reflects its high-tech approach to the art form; their TV shows (clips here and here) are spectacles full of acrobatic sword-wielding puppets, dry ice, pyrotechnics and sound effects. The photo above is from an exhibition in Kaohsiung a few years back.

In a renovated government building in the centre of Huwei, PiLi has set up a museum. There's very little English but the scores of puppets on display are still worth seeing. (An even better collection of puppets can be seen here). During the Japanese colonial era, the building had multiple functions, one room being divided into three jail cells. Yunlin Glove Puppetry Museum (雲林布袋戲館) is at 498 Linsen Rd Sec 1 (虎尾鎮林森路一段498號); tel 05 636 4826; open Tue-Sun 10.00-18.00.
The town of Huwei owes its growth to Taiwan's sugar industry. According to this article, Huwei's sugar refinery is one of just two on the island that still operate; at the time of our visit, it was belching steam.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Know your traditions: Divination in temples

Divination has been an aspect of Chinese religious life since the beginning of the country’s long history, when tortoise shells were heated and the resulting cracks ‘read’ in a process called pyromancy.

In 21st century Taiwan, a popular method of divination is the drawing lots. The lots are numbered bamboo slats (often 60 in total) placed in a cylinder on or beside an altar. Supplicants pick up the cylinder, give it a good shake and then pull out the slat sticking out the furthest. They read the number and, after casting poe (moon boards) to confirm it’s correct, take a sheet of paper from a tiny numbered drawer or off a numbered hook (pictured top left). On the paper there’s a message that usually 30 to 60 Chinese characters in length. Because the language is often obscure and/or archaic, expert help may be needed to understand it. The volunteers who clean and watch over temples sometimes assist temple-goes to interpret these short texts.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Taipei MRT Luzhou/Xinzhuang Line

On my recent trip to Taipei, I used the MRT's brand new Orange (Luzhou/Xinzhuang) Line for the first time. It's entirely underground, so as a travel experience it's no different to most of the capital's rapid-transit system. The line adds nine stations (most of which are in New Taipei City) to the network; it joins the Red (Danshui) Line at Minquan West Road and the Blue (Nangang/Banqiao) Line at Zhongxiao Xinsheng.

The line is more useful for commuters than tourists, but it will take you close to Dihua Street, and also to one major house or worship not mentioned in my guidebook: Xingtian Temple.

Monday, January 3, 2011

It's New Taipei City, not Xinbei

The central government has confirmed the English name of the local government area formerly known as Taipei County: New Taipei City. I and many other English-speaking expatriates think it's a bad choice. It makes confusion with Taipei City (the ROC's capital) very likely indeed, and it implies the capital (which it surrounds) is 'Old Taipei'.

For months, it seemed that after the county was upgraded to a special municipality, it would be known to the outside world as Xinbei City, a direct romanisation of its Chinese name (新北市, literally 'New North City'). That's why I used Xinbei in the first edition of my guidebook. Fortunately, this shouldn't cause problems for visitors, as they'll be boarding buses and trains to places within New Taipei City such as Danshui, Wulai and Sanxia (pictured left).

I feel better knowing I wasn't the only one caught out. The new edition of The Handy Guide for Foreigners in Taiwan (published by the central government in November 2010, but I've only just received my copy) says that the new name of Taipei County will be Xinbei City.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Xinbeitou's Longnai Hot Springs

My guidebook entry for Longnai Hot Springs (瀧乃湯) (244 Guangming Rd, Xinbeitou, Taipei; admission NTD90/50; open: 06.30—21.00 daily) reads: Almost lost amid much taller and newer buildings, Longnai offers a thoroughly traditional bathing experience. There are two pools inside this slightly decrepit 70-year-old wooden bungalow, one for each gender; no swimsuits needed. The water is usually 38—42 degrees Celsius. From Longnai it’s less than 500m to Xinbeitou MRT Station.

All of the above is correct, but a few more words can be added: No towels are provided, and there's no WC inside the building - so go before you pay for admission.