Saturday, December 29, 2012

Happy New Year!

I took this photo of fruit, rice, tea and joss-paper offerings during a recent celebration at a temple near my wife's place of work.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Big babies

Spotted this in the toilet on the train heading to Taitung the other day. I know childhood obesity is becoming a problem in Taiwan as it is in the West, but designing a diaper-changing unit that can bear 159kgs/350lbs seems like massive over-engineering. Still, it's good to know Taiwan is becoming a better place for travellers with very young children; changing facilities like these can be found in larger train stations, MRT stations and department stores. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A relaxed attitude to relics

One of the many things I like about Taiwan is the relaxed attitude to relics that prevails. In many cases, ancient landmarks such as the Arch of Virtue and Piety for Ciou Liang-Gong’s Mother (pictured here; a grade-one national relic located in Jincheng, the main town in Kinmen County) are respected by the population, yet neither cordoned off and converted into crudely commercial attractions, nor hyped into something they're not. Another good example is just a few km from my home: Xinhua Elementary School Feng An Sanctum.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Taiwan KOM Challenge

Daniel Carruthers, a New Zealand cyclist and competitor at the 2009 Deafalympics in Taipei, took part in last month's Taiwan KOM Challenge, and begins his engrossing account of the experience with this paean for the 103.5km-long route:

"There are many epic hill climb challenges dotted around the world that capture the imagination of riders, but there is, perhaps, one hill climb challenge that surpasses them all – the toughest, the most beautiful, with the highest elevation gain on a paved twisting road that snakes its way through a jaw-dropping Taroko Gorge, through some dense forests and eventually up to one of the highest points in Taiwan, at an elevation of 3,275m!"

His article is here, along with some good photos of the event. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Fresh Facts VI: Taiwan's first railway

The Sino-French War of 1884-85 underscored Taiwan's vulnerability to foreign invasion, and was a factor leading to the construction of the Keelung-Hsinchu railroad. Work on the railway started in 1886 but it wasn't until early 1892 that a short stretch (about 45km) was open for traffic. 

The project was delayed because Qing officials ignored or overruled the European engineers hired to supervise construction; requests to divert the line for reasons of fengshui had to be dealt with; and many of the pegs marking the proposed route were removed by locals who used them for firewood.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pan Li-shui's art

Taipei's Baoan Temple is one of my favorite places of worship because the interior artwork is superb. The 1995-2002 restoration of the shrine won an honourable mention in the 2003 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Conservation.
Many of the paintings were executed by Pan Li-shui (潘麗水, 1914-1995), one of Taiwan's most famous temple artists. His fatherPan Chun-yuan (潘春源, died 1972) was also a noted painted. Pan Li-shui's son Pan Yue-xiong (潘岳雄, born 1943) assisted his father in the 1960s and 1970s and now works independently. During the Kominka Movement in the 1930s, when many temples were closed or demolished as part of the Japanese colonial authorities' efforts to make Taiwan culturally more Japanese, Pan Li-shui and his father survived by designing advertisements.
Works by Pan Li-shui can also be seen in Nankunshen Daitian Temple and Fahua Temple, both in Tainan, and - I just saw them last week - in Dajia's Jenn Lann Temple.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Fire Lion... and Falun Gong

A few weeks back we attended the final day of the 2012 Kaohsiung Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival (高雄左營萬年季). When the article I wrote about this cultural event appears next year, I'll add a link. Until then, here's a summary: Several local temples cooperate to build a "fire lion" which is venerated, paraded through the streets of Zuoying, blasted with firecrackers (shown top) and then set afire to carry people's wishes and hopes up to heaven. Dozens of other events - culinary and artistic - have been tacked on to create the modern festival.
One of the wonderful things about religious events in Taiwan is that you never know what you might see. Over the past 20 years, I've been to or stumbled across hundreds of miao hui (會, 'temple gatherings') and da bai bai (大拜拜, 'big worship ceremonies') but I don't recall ever seen members of Falun Gong - a group regarded by some as a cult - taking part in one. There were almost 200 of them, outnumbering the lion dancers and other zhentou. The banner bearers (above) were quite striking, but it was the marching band (below) that I'll remember. Watching them, I couldn't but help thinking of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Points of the compass

A sidewalk decoration with the four points of the compass marked in Chinese in Kaohsiung City's Fengshan District (高雄市鳳山區). They are, going clockwise from top right, (nán, south), 西 (, west), (běi, north) and (dōng, east).

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Raw crab!

A plate of raw crab served with chilis and a kaoliang-based sauce that I enjoyed a few months ago in Kinmen. Tasty, and I speak as no great fan of either crab or kaoliang.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How can we sleep when a boat is burning?

Over the weekend, photographer Rich Matheson and I attended the climax of Donggang's famous triennial boat-burning ritual, 2012 edition. We got there about 7.30pm, when the boat was still in Donglong Temple's forecourt. Watching the slow, ritual loading of supplies and other rites, around 10pm I asked myself, "Why the hell did I come here, knowing I'll have to stand up all night?" But things soon got livelier. Seeing the boat dragged through the temple's massive gateway was thrilling. After that we didn't hang around - the writer of this excellent article about the festival had given us good advice: dash to the beach, 1.6km away, so you can get a good spot from which to witness the burning.
On the black sand we sat and watched for a further three hours as the masts were erected and the sails hoist. Sacks of joss paper were piled around the hull, and strings of firecrackers laid across them. Around 5.30am, the firecrackers were lit; the joss paper immediately caught fire and within 45 minutes the boat was a charred wreck. It was entrancing. Spectacular. Truly memorable. Now I understand why some people travel all the way from Taipei to see this event, even if they've seen it before.
The title of this post was, of course, inspired by Midnight Oil's classic song.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

National park drops triple-pricing plan

According to reports in the Chinese-language media, Yushan National Park has decided not to charge foreigners much more than locals for permits to hike Taiwan's highest mountain. It seems everyone will pay NT$480, regardless of nationality or country of residence. But there's still no confirmation when Paiyun Lodge may reopen.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Guardian lions

Lion statues have been guarding the entrances of temples and public buildings in the Chinese world for at least 1,800 years. According to Wikipedia: "The lions are always created in pairs, with the male resting his paw upon the world and the female restraining a playful cub that is on its back."

I took this photo of an especially impressive male guardian lion several years ago, outside a newly-built temple in Chiayi County.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Two attractions in Zhubei

Zhubei City (竹北市) is a rapidly-growing part of Hsinchu County, much of the growth being driven by residential and commercial developments near Hsinchu HSR Station. A handful of old, single-storey homes have been preserved and turned into New Tile House (新瓦屋), also known as the Hakka Art Village. New Tile House is visually attractive (see this Chinese-language blog for good photos) but unless you come on a weekend, when there's live traditional music, it's not worth going out of your way for. Bus #1782 from the HSR station stops outside New Tile House. If you want to walk, it'll take you around 20 minutes.

If you're in the neighbourhood and want a soft drink, a beer or English-language conversation, drop by the intriguingly-named Titty Tea, which is less than 100m away. In the evenings there's often live music or comedy.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Taiwan Design Museum

Located inside Taipei's Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, the Taiwan Design Museum (open: 09.30-17.30 Tue-Sun; admission NTD50/30; Chinese-only official website here; photo gallery here) contains a small but thorough selection of  local and overseas items, mainly appliances and furniture items. Taiwanese are acutely aware they have a reputation for copying rather than innovating, so it's especially interesting that one of the museum's audio-visual presentations, describing the first locally-made rice steamer to reach the market, delicately notes it was created in the early 1960s ‘with reference’ to Japanese designs.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Gourmands and gourmets will find useful when planning where to eat in Taiwan's capital. With details of around 1,500 eating establishments, divided into categories like "vegetarian" or "bakeries" - and English-language reviews of many of them, it's probably the best dining site for visitors and expatriates after A Hungry Girl's Guide to Taipei.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Military Brothel Exhibition Hall

Last week in Kinmen County, I visited one of the ROC's newer museums, the Military Brothel Exhibition Hall (特約茶室展示館, open: 08.30-17.00 daily; admission free). Housed in a single-floor building that used to serve as a 'special teahouse' between the 1960s and 1980s ('special' in the sense that sexual services were sold here, rather than just tea), the hall has two large rooms with bilingual information about the system of military brothels on Taiwan's frontline islands, plus three much smaller rooms furnished just like those in which the goods, so to speak, were delivered.

The displays are interesting as far as they go but left me with several questions. The cost of 30 minutes' of sexual services in various eras is compared to the salaries received by soldiers at that time (sex got relatively cheaper between 1951 and 1990, when the last brothel was closed). It's said civilians weren't allowed in, but nowhere is it made clear whether men in uniform always had to buy the coupons with which they paid the girls (direct payment in cash wasn't allowed) or whether coupons were sometimes given as rewards to exemplary soldiers. Also, some details about how the girls were recruited would have been interesting. The displays stress that no women were forced to work in the brothels, yet one of the people I visited with said he'd heard that girls who were in legal trouble in Taiwan were sometimes offered a choice by the authorities - jail time, or two years' work in a frontline brothel. Given that many of them probably faced prostitution charges (selling sex has long been a crime in the ROC; buying sex isn't illegal), brothel service probably looked the better of the two options.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Playing for those praying

Camera-shy musicians inside Lugang's Queen of Heaven (Tianhou) Temple accompany rites. Both are playing a two-stringed instrument often called an erhu in English; this name comes directly from the Mandarin èrhú (二胡). Sometimes it's referred to as a zither. To get an idea of how it sounds when played by an expert, watch this YouTube video

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Know your food: Fried grasshoppers

A portion of fried grasshoppers, served at a restaurant in Chiayi County. Without seasoning or sauce, the insects weren't that tasty - although they were pleasantly crunchy. I don't know if the grasshoppers were farmed for human consumption or caught in the countryside; certain species, you'll find if you spend time in rural areas, are quite common.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Taiwan at the London Olympics

Taiwan's athletes have returned from the Olympic Games. Like four years ago, a few have become heroes, while the performance of others left many disappointed. The best-known of the nation's hopefuls was Taekwondo star Yang Shu-chun (楊淑君). Yang - twice Asian champion and a silver medalist in the most recent World Championship - failed at the quarterfinal stage of the women's under-49kg contest, but teammate Tseng Li-cheng (曾櫟騁) got a bronze in the women's under-57kg category. Like many of Taiwan's best sportsmen and sportswomen, Tseng is aboriginal. She's the second member of the Amis tribe to win an Olympic medal; the first was C.K. Yang (楊傳廣), back in 1960.

The finest achievement by any Taiwanese competing in London was in women's weightlifting (a sport in which 'Chinese-Taipei' usually does well in international contests): Hsu Shu-ching (許淑淨) won silver in the under-53kg class

Two medals isn't very impressive considering Taiwan's size and wealth, and the country isn't likely to do any better in the near future. Even though the government has invested in facilities and training programs, very few parents encourage their children to devote themselves to sport, and match-fixing scandals have harmed the image of baseball, the island's most popular spectator sport.

Just before the games, there was a minor political dust-up connected to the appearance of the ROC flag in London. Reports about the kerfuffle can be read here and here.  

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Books: A Foreigner's Guide to Taiwan's Indigenous Areas

Cultural tourists will find Cheryl Robbins' new book valuable both for the background information it presents about some of the island's aboriginal communities and the practical tips it contains. A Foreigner's Guide to Taiwan's Indigenous Areas: Central and Southern Taiwan - the only English-language travel guide of its kind - is the first part of a three-volume series. Guides to the north and the east will follow next year.

Robbins – who has been done translation work for, among others, Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines – has long been fascinated by Taiwan's Austronesian population, and her passion for indigenous arts shines in every one of the book's six chapters. In addition to descriptions of over 20 aboriginal-run homestays and restaurants where you can enjoy indigenous cuisine, the book includes details of where to find artisans skilled at leather work, weaving, woodcarving and making glass-bead jewelry.

Fans of Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale may want to visit the Mona Rudao Memorial (a sight, as far as I know, not mentioned in any other printed English-language guide or even website), while those who love hiking will find very useful information about paths such as the Mihu Trail and Bird Worship Trail, both of which are in Alishan Township.

This 212-page book, which has color photos on almost every page, as well as several easy-to-understand maps, is published by Taiwan Interminds Publishing. The recommended price is NT$380, but many bookstores are selling it at a lower price. It (as well as a previous book Robbins worked on) can be ordered through this website.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Donggang's boat-burning ritual

Last month I visited Donglong Temple (東隆宮) in Donggang (東港), Pingtung County. For many tourists, Donggang is best known as the gateway to Little Liuqiu, but every three years it hosts a religious event of national prominence: The ritual burning of a purpose-built wooden ship at the end of a week of rites and festivities. The 2012 edition begins on Sunday, October 14 and reaches a climax a week later when the vessel - its sails unfurled, its anchor raised, its hull filled with effigies - is set ablaze.

I took a look at the ship, which is 13.82m long and which was completed several months ago, but because it's stored in a rather confined warehouse, getting a photo of the whole thing was near impossible. The pictures here show (top) a dragon painted on the side and the vessel's rudder (lower left).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cycling around Taiwan

A detailed account of one couple's just-completed circumnavigation of Taiwan by bike can be found here. On the same blog you'll find useful information about cycling in and near Taipei.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Taiwan's two and a half million Chens

If you spend any time in Taiwan, you'll come away with the impression that a great many people are surnamed Chen, Lin or Wang. This is something I touched on in my first book, in which I quoted a local idiom: "Chen, Lin, Li, Guo and Cai are half the people in the world." (Li is often spelled Lee, as in the case of a former president; Guo is often Kuo, and Cai is usually Tsai).

This webpage makes a fascinating comparison between the frequency of popular surnames in Taiwan with those in the USA:

Imagine taking everyone in the United States named Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown, Davis, Miller, Wilson, Moore, Taylor, and Anderson … and giving them all the new family name of “Smith.” Then add to the Smiths everyone surnamed Thomas, Jackson, White, Harris, Martin, Thompson, Garcia, Martinez, Robinson, Clark, Rodriguez, Lewis, Lee, Walker, Hall, Allen, Young, Hernandez, King, Wright, and Lopez. Those are, in descending order beginning with Smith, the 32 most common family names in the United States. It takes all of those names together to reach the same frequency that the name “Chen” has in Taiwan.

Chen [the traditional version of character is shown right] covers 10.93% of the population... Smith, the most common family name in the United States, covers just 1.00 percent of the population there.

In Taiwan, the 10 most common family names cover half (50.22%) of the population. Covering the same percentage in the United States requires the top 1,742 names there. And covering the same percentage as Taiwan’s top 25 names (74.17%) requires America’s top 13,425 surnames.

Why is Taiwan dominated by a handful of family names? I'm not sure, but in South Korea the situation is even more extreme. There, the four most common surnames account for almost 70% of the population.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Taiwan Birdathon 2012

Taiwan is holding a 30-hour Birdathon event on the weekend of November 24-25, 2012. It starts at 8:30am on Saturday and ends at 2:30pm on Sunday.

It will be held in the southern counties of Yunlin and Chaiyi plus Tainan City. This region is home to great birding sites such as Alishan, Yushan National Park, Huben, Beimen Wetlands, Aogu Wetlands, and Qigu. A wide range of shore and forest birds can be expected, including many endemics and wintering specialties. 

Teams, each consisting of three or four members, will aim to spot as many bird species as possible in the 30-hour period. Foreign teams are especially welcome: Accommodation and food will be provided for November 23-25, and foreign teams can be paired up with local guides if necessary. No registration fee is required.

The event is organized by the Taiwan Ecotourism Association and sponsored by the ROC Tourism Bureau and three national scenic areas: Southwest Coast, Alishan and Siraya.

For more details see the official website (the English section is still under construction) or see Richard Foster's blog post.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Taiwan's lighthouses

Taiwan has around 1,600km of coast and well over 100 minor islands. In the 19th century, shipwrecks were frequent and they sometimes led to international incidents, so it's no surprise the government operates 34 lighthouses to ensure maritime safety. For the past 140 years, these lighthouses have been managed by the Directorate General of Customs, a body founded back in the Qing Dynasty and headed for 48 years by Sir Robert Hart, an Ulsterman. 

At the end of this year, however, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications will take over responsibilities for lighthouses, and to celebrate the handover, 12 lighthouses will be open to the public on June 30. The 12 were built between 1872 and 1983, and six are opening their doors to the public for the very first time. Several other lighthouses are open to the public year round, among them the one that stands on Qijin Island and overlooks the mouth of Kaohsiung Port. Judging by this photo, Suao Lighthouse has a spectacular location, but it isn't open to casual visitors. 

I visited the lighthouse pictured here (Creative Commons photo by Shih-Pei Chang) while researching the Penghu County section of my guidebook; the grounds are open to visitors, but the building is off-limits. Or so it seems.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

B&B profiles on Tra News

Tra News is a trilingual (Chinese, English and Japanese) website on which you'll find some useful information if you're planning a trip around Taiwan and want to see what's happening. The short articles reflect Taiwanese rather than Western interests; there's a great deal about local delicacies and festivals which travelers who can't speak Chinese will find dull or bewildering. That said, the photos and details of numerous homestays (B&Bs) are useful when looking for somewhere to stay. Also, several establishments offer discount coupons through the website.

The letters "TRA" usually stand for Taiwan Railway Administration, which manages the island's conventional railroads. However, there seems to be no connection between this website and the railway agency - and there's no explanation on the site of what "Tra" stands for.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

National park plans to triple-charge foreign hikers

Paiyun Lodge (aka Paiyun Shanzhuang 排雲山莊), which is where most of those ascending Mount Jade (aka Yushan, 玉山 , Taiwan's highest mountain - pictured here) spend the night before hiking up to the summit, has been under renovation since last year. Around the start of this year, members of Taiwan's hiking fraternity alerted me to an announcement on Yushan National Park's website, in Chinese only, that when the lodge reopens sometime in the summer, non-Taiwanese will have to pay NT$700 to stay there, while local citizens will be charged NT$220. In other words, as the policy stands, foreigners will pay more than three times what ROC citizens will pay.

Dismayed that such a policy would be considered just when Taiwan's government is trying to boost international arrivals - and concerned that it might set a precedent which would lead to museums, national forest recreation areas and other attractions charging foreigners more - I asked my contact in the national park's headquarters for an explanation. Segments below in blue are responses from government officials; those in purple are emails/letters from my side. 

The key part of her reply, which came on February 10, was:

[The] section which is in charge of park entry application explains that we pay more to build an English environment for foreigners, such as hire English specialist staff, built English edition website, bilingual guide sign or instruction…etc.

She suggested I send an email to the director of the national park. I did so on February 17: 

It was suggested to me that I write to you because I have expressed concern about the plan to charge ROC citizens NT$220, but foreigners NT$700, to stay in Paiyun Shanzhuang once the rebuilding has been completed.

I have been told by one member of your staff that the difference in pricing is to fund "bilingual services" and "a bilingual environment." I and several other people are very curious about this.

First, I would like to point out that - to the best of my knowledge - nowhere else in Taiwan are foreigners expected to pay more than locals.

I would like to know exactly what services foreign visitors can expect, and how those services differ from or improve upon what has been available in recent years. In my experience, the signs and information boards on the approach to Yushan are pretty good already. However, I admit that few of the national park workers one meets around Paiyun Shanzhuang speak any English.

Also, I would like to know if all non-ROC citizens will be expected to pay the higher fee, even if they are ethnic Chinese from Malaysia or Singapore, or from mainland China.

Furthermore, I would be most interested to know where this proposal originated. Was it suggested by someone within Yushan National Park? Or did it come from the Ministry of the Interior or elsewhere? Also, is the policy being coordinated with government bodies such as the Research, Development & Evaluation Commission (RDEC), which in recent years has been endeavoring to build a bilingual environment? What does the Tourism Bureau think about the policy?

I would be most grateful for detailed answers to these questions, and I truly appreciate your taking the time to explain this policy to me.

The reply came very quickly:

Your mail sent on February/17/2012, titled “Paiyun Shanzhuang / different prices for foreigners and ROC citizens” has been received and processed by our Park Entry Service Unit and the response is as follows:

We sincerely appreciate that you wrote us and give us an opportunity to clarify your or other potential foreign visitors’ doubts.

First of all, the change of the standard of fee is based on the 10th article of Charges and Fees Act “…Administrative fees: shall be set under the direct cost of goods and materials, wages and salaries, and other costs, and by taking indirect cost into consideration…” and the 11th article of Charges and Fees Act “The executive authorities in charge of the concerned matters shall review the standards of charges and fees on a routine…The forgoing routine review shall be made at least once every three years.” The fee of Paiyun Lodge includes the cost of construction, management, and maintenance, etc. Local visitors staying overnight at Paiyun Lodge will be charged NT$220 per night. As for foreign visitors, the fee of NT$700 contains extra cost of management for the service of bilingual staff, the maintenance of website in foreign languages, English signs, and brochures in foreign languages, etc.

The standard of charge is differed from objective condition, nationality, instead of visitors’ language skills. Thus, visitors from Singapore, Malaysia, and China are also charged NT$700.

As for your first question, there are indeed scenic spots and national parks having different standard of fee according to nationality or citizenship, such as the historic spots and museum in Tainan City, Aconcagua Park, Kinabalu Park, Taj Mahal, etc. As your reference, this is the standard of permission fee for Aconcagua Park:

I wasn't nearly satisfied by the park's response. Apart from it failing to answer some of my questions (I was especially curious if the Tourism Bureau had been consulted, and if the park had sought bilingual-project funds from the RDEC), the statement about Tainan City's historic spots and museums is simply wrong. People who live in Tainan (ROC citizens show the address on their ID cards; foreigners show the address on their alien resident certificates) can enter places like Fort Zeelandia for free. Those who live outside the city limits - be they Taiwanese or foreign - have to pay, and they pay the same regardless of national origin. Also, the Aconcagua Park website clearly states that foreigners living in Argentina pay no more than Argentine citizens.

Accordingly, Robert Kelly (principal author of the Lonely Planet Taiwan guide) and I sent the following letter to the director-general of the Tourism Bureau on March 12.

In recent weeks, two changes in the hiking policies of Yushan National Park have come to our attention. As we are authors of two of the most popular English-language guidebooks on Taiwan (Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide and Lonely Planet Taiwan), and are well connected with the foreign hiking community within Taiwan, we hope your department will be interested in hearing our views on this matter.

Our first concern regards Paiyun Shanzhuang currently under reconstruction. When the cabin reopens later this year, the national park plans to charge ROC citizens NT$220 for an overnight stay; and NT$700 for foreign visitors. We have been told by the national park that the much higher foreign fees will go toward recouping the costs of funding “bilingual staff, maintaining the park's website in foreign languages, erecting English signs, and making brochures available in foreign languages.

All foreign visitors appreciate the efforts being made by Taiwan's national parks and other government agencies to deploy English-speaking staff, improve signs and make other sources of information clearer. Long-term residents such as ourselves also recognize that Taiwan has made impressive progress over the past decade.

But we are both surprised and dismayed by Yushan National Park's decision to charge foreign guests higher fees, believing it sends a negative signal to those thinking of visiting Taiwan. If followed by other agencies and site managers (such as those at forest recreation areas, museums, historical sites, etc), it could make Taiwan a significantly more expensive destination to visit; and as a result significantly less attractive as a destination.

Within Asia, Taiwan is already considered a fairly expensive place to travel. Compared to Thailand, Vietnam and China, for example, is can be two to four times more expensive for food and lodging. The lack of high user and admission fees, however, is one way that Taiwan balances out the expenses, allowing a visitor to Taiwan to spend not much more than one to China, for example, when all expenses are added up. If Taiwanese sites begin to charge high admission rates this will surely be a strike against them in the eyes of many travelers.

We also think the new policy has not been thought through carefully if in fact it is a fund-generating measure. Yushan National Park receives hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, many of who are foreign travelers. Yet not a single visitor (with the exception of hikers) is asked to pay even an entrance fee, though they may in fact benefit from bilingual staff, signposts, and brochures.
One argument put forth by the national park is that at many attractions around the world foreign visitors are required to pay more than locals. This is certainly true but in our experience it is almost always in countries where local salaries are significantly lower than the visitors'. For example, in China or Thailand, wages are far below Western levels and so it is not entirely unfair that foreign visitors are asked to pay more. However, that said, in recent years among the biggest complaints now from visitors to China is the discrepancy between local and visitor entrance fees and the huge rise in the latter. For Taiwan to replicate unpopular policies elsewhere does not seem wise to us.

Furthermore, Taiwan is not a third world country: GDP per capita is now almost US$20,000 according to the latest GIO reports. This is higher than the GDP per capita of many of the countries from which visitors to Taiwan originate (such as Malaysia) and is quite comparable to South Korea, and not so far below Japan. The higher charge of NT$700 could also be quite prohibitive for the average young traveler or backpacker from a Western country; the type of tourist, we should add, that will be most interested in climbing Yushan in the first place.

In short, Taiwan is not a poor country and this kind of unequal treatment of guests is counter-productive to the image the Tourism Bureau wishes to spread: i.e., that Taiwan is a safe, prosperous, advanced nation, steeped in tradition but enjoying all the advantages of the modern world. In our opinion, if the national park is in need of higher revenues then it would be much preferable to see entrance fees charged to all visitors.

Our second concern regards the high mountain hiking permit system. While Taroko National Park has long forbidden foreign hikers from climbing its mountains without a Taiwanese guide (a policy that is at odds with every other national park) it has come to our attention that Yushan National Park is also about to engage in selective rules for foreign hikers: in this case refusing to issue permits for a one-day ascent of Yushan.

Again, we believe this sends the wrong message to the world. Foreign hikers within Taiwan are already complaining to us that they believe the “no one-day permit policy” is simply a way of forcing them to stay at Paiyuan Shanzhuang (and hence be charged more). While we don't believe this is the case, we do agree that the impression such a policy gives is not positive.

A “no one-day policy” will also reduce the number of foreign hikers coming to Taiwan, especially the very experienced. While Taiwan's mountains are very beautiful they are not a great challenge for skilled hikers. However, such people do enjoy the challenge of a one-day ascent. We know of several who live within the Asian region that make regular trips to Taiwan. If national park policy begins to alienate such people, Taiwan's mountain reputation could take a large hit.

Thank you for taking the time to read our concerns. We would be most interested in hearing your views.

On April 16 we received a short message in Chinese from the Tourism Bureau, stating that they had received our letter, had assigned case number 10100106051 to it, and forwarded a copy to Yushan National Park.

The park's most recent response, dated April 18, reads:

This is a reply to official document No. 10100106051 of Tourism Bureau submitted on April 16, 2012.

The “fee-charging standards for the usage of Paiyun Lodge of Yushan National Park” is based on user pays principle and the differences on costs and taxes.
  1. Local visitors: NT$220 per person per night
  2. Foreign visitors: NT$700 per person per night
  3. The fee-charging standard for local visitors is applicable to foreign visitors who hold ROC (Taiwan) Resident Certificate.
According to “National Park Law,” national parks are established for protecting specific natural scenery, wildlife, and historic sites and also for the recreation, education, and research purposes. Mt. Jade main peak and west peak is within the ecological protected area and scenic area in Yushan National Park. For satisfying the aims of ecological conservation, recreational quality, and hiking safety, our park has set up daily maximum capacity for years.

Presently, the maximum capacity of single day ascent to Mt. Jade main/west peak has been increased from 20 people per day to 40 people per day due to the reconstruction of Paiyun Lodge. For single day ascent application, our park strictly inspects the fitness and experiences of applicants and the training purpose(s). It is suggested that foreign visitors hike this route with a Taiwanese guide and be careful on hiking safety.

We appreciate your advices to our park.

Robert and I then waited a while, hoping the Tourism Bureau would chip in with comments of their own. Hearing nothing, on May 9 I sent an email, the core being:

We have now received a response from Yushan National Park which has addressed some but not all of our concerns.
We are still hoping for an official response from the Tourism Bureau about the issues raised in our letter. If the bureau plans to make a response, we should be most grateful if we could receive it by May 18, as we are discussing these issues with a number of newspaper and magazine editors (in Taiwan and overseas) with a view to writing about the new pricing policy, and would very much like to know the bureau's stance.

Possibly because of the deadline I included, on May 16 we received the following letter from David W. Hsieh, the new director-general of the Tourism Bureau:

Thank you for your email concerning the pricing policy of Paiyun Lodge in Yushan National Park. From the standpoint of international promotion, we think that it is not proper to charge foreigners differently from local citizens for the use of tourist facilities. As we mentioned before, national parks are outside the jurisdiction of the Tourism Bureau; we will, however, make strong suggestions about this matter to the Ministry of the Interior's Construction and Planning Agency, which is the agency in charge of the parks.

We do appreciate your efforts to promote Taiwan, and thank you again for your concern.

At the time of writing this blog post, the triple-pricing announcement is still on the national park's website. It'll be very interesting to see how this pans out. If the park sticks to its guns, it'll upset a good number of foreign visitors while raising very little extra revenue. Snow Mountain is looking even more attractive than before!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A foodie talks about Tainan cuisine

Among Taiwanese, Tainan is famed for its xiaochi (小吃), literally 'small eats' - inexpensive snacks made and sold by roadside vendors or in night markets. While researching an upcoming article about the future direction of tourism in Tainan, I interviewed by email Shanti Christensen, a Californian food blogger living in Beijing. This is what she had to say:

When did you visit Tainan and how long did you stay?

Every Christmas holiday, my husband takes me to visit his grandma in Taipei. At Christmas 2011, we took the high-speed train south to Tainan. We stayed for three days, two nights. I wanted to visit other parts of Taiwan and Tainan is known for its street food stalls.

As a foodie, what do you think about Tainan's foods? Which stood out?

As a food lover, after one day I wished I had discovered Tainan sooner. I had planned to be in Tainan one night and two days, but extended my stay a day longer in order to taste at more food stalls. Fortunately, a friend’s father who grew up in Tainan knew stalls that had been around for five decades and showed me more than my stomach could fit. Chinese who fled China in 1949 arrived in Taiwan and some opened up shops featuring family recipes.

My two favorites were ròu zào fàn (肉燥饭) and shrimp meat rolls (xiārén ròu yuán, 蝦仁肉圓). The first [pictured top left] is cubes of soy-sauce braised pork neck and a pinch of sweet-pickled ginger served over steamed rice. I loved this dish because it is simple and delicious. My favorite dish in Chinese cuisine is red-braised pork belly (hong shao rou, 红烧肉) served with steamed rice. This dish is essentially the same with the fresh bite of pickled ginger. The second [pictured below right] is glutinous rice sculpted around shrimp head meat then steamed. Glutinous rice is fun for the mouth. Its chewy texture with shrimp roe and pork juices steeped into the mound of flavorful goodness makes me wish the glutinous rice denseness didn’t rob space from my stomach’s capacity to eat more.

Would you recommend Tainan to foodies who don't speak Chinese? Why or why not?

While speaking Chinese and especially reading is very helpful, grazing the food stalls in Tainan doesn’t need more than an observant eye and dash of adventure. Peeping over shoulders onto tables of other diners is better than any picture menu. Find a server then point and pick.

What could be done to make Tainan more attractive and accessible to non-Chinese foodies?

I believe to be a foodie, one possesses an element of tasting the unknown. Good food is a common language. If it smells good, looks good, and has a line out the door, chances are it’s the place to be. Following guides scratches the surface. Walking and grazing with a big appetite will open more doors than non-Chinese foodies have time for.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Xiaolin Pingpu Culture Museum

A few days ago, we visited the recently opened Xiaolin Pingpu Culture Museum (小林平埔族群文物館). It's a replacement for a small museum maintained inside Xiaolin Elementary School until landslides triggered by 2009's Typhoon Morakot obliterated the school and almost the entire village of Xiaolin. The original museum was the first devoted to Taiwan's lowland aborigines, Xiaolin being an outpost of the Siraya people. This ethnic group isn't recognized by Taiwan's government, but thanks to Xiaolin's remote location, tribe members there were able to preserve much of the culture.

The new two-floor museum (main hall pictured above) displays a great many traditional tools and implements, most of which are made of bamboo. There's almost no English. Those who can't read Chinese will be able to recognize the tiny banjos and equipment used for making mud bricks (pictured left), but they're unlikely to know which of the other items is in fact a mousetrap, and which was used for carrying water.

One display notes that in 1945, just before the end of Japanese colonial rule, 91 lowland aboriginal families were living here; 34 of them were headed by men surnamed Pan (潘), 30 by men surnamed Liu (劉) and seven by men called Xu (徐). Domination of a village by one or two surnames isn't unique to lowland aboriginal villages; it's also common in Han Chinese areas. There are also many poignant photos of old Xiaolin (such as the one on the right). You can't help but wonder how many of the people pictured are still alive.

The museum's address is 50 Wuli Road, Jiasian District, Kaohsiung City (甲仙區五里路50號), but an easy way to find it is to follow Highway 21 northwards from Jiaxian, and look for kilometer marker 223. The museum, plus several homes built to house survivors of Typhoon Morakot, are beside the road, on the right-hand side. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9am to midday and 1pm to 5pm.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Know your food: Wild taro

These wild taros, harvested from nearby hillsides, were drying in the sunshine in the backstreets of Sandimen (三地門), an aboriginal town in Pingtung County famous for its glass-bead art. Wild taros are about half the size of cultivated varieties.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Jinshi of Lugang

In the Taiwan of yore, having a bian (匾, inscribed board) bearing the same two characters as the one above added immense prestige to any household where it was displayed. The two words, read from right to left, are pronounced jinshi and mean something like "presented scholar." They indicate that someone in the family had passed the highest level of China's imperial civil-service examinations.

According to a chart in the Heritage and Culture Education Center of Taipei (臺北市鄉土教育中心), between 1823 and 1894, only 29 Taiwanese passed the highest-level exams to become jinshi; the first was Zheng Yong-xi (鄭用錫, 1788-1868), builder of Hsinchu's Jinshi Mansion. After 1894, Taiwan residents could no longer sit the exams because the island had become part of the Japanese Empire. During the 18th and 19th century, some 251 Taiwan residents attained juren, the second-highest status in the examination system.

Both of the boards shown here are in Changhua County's Lugang Township (some official sources now spell this toponym Lukang). The top one is in the Ding Mansion; the lower board is in an old residence on Putuo Street which now functions as a souvenir shop. In China's traditional society, business was looked down upon, while literacy, classical education and official appointments were revered. Inevitably, successful merchants - like those who dominated life in Lugang - hired renowned tutors in the hope their sons would achieve academic success, attain high office and bring glory to the family.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Pandas in temples

Inside Taiwan's temples, you're likely to find carved, etched or painted depictions of various animals, especially dragons, lions and elephants, but also owls, pangolins, fish, crabs and other crustaceans.

Returning to Shunsian Temple (順賢宮) for the first time in almost three years, I noticed something I'd missed on previous visits: Etchings of pandas in a mountainous landscape. As I've never before noticed pandas inside temples, I'm wondering if their presence here reflects the temple's newness. The shrine was inaugurated in 2008 - the year panda-fever broke out in Taiwan when China presented a pair of pandas to Taipei Zoo.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Birdwatching in south Taiwan

On my main blog, I've just posted a 1,532-word article I wrote for a local magazine about birdwatching along Taiwan's southwestern coast. If you're keen to see migratory waterbirds, you may find it useful.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tianliao's mud volcano

Mud volcanoes enthrall me, so a little while back I rode my motorcycle out to Kaohsiung City's Tianliao District (高雄市田寮區) in search of a mud volcano marked on some maps of the area. En route, I passed through some of south Taiwan's most striking "moonworld" scenery; I took the photo above near where Freeway 3 goes under Zhongliaoshan (中山 ), a 421m-high peak topped by military and civilian telecommunications equipment.

The volcano itself is difficult to find if don't read any Chinese. From Tianliao itself, head east on Highway 28, over Freeway 3 to the community of Chongde (崇德). Then take Kaohsiung Road 141 on the right. After less than 1km, you'll see Chongde Elementary School (崇德國小). The mud volcano is a further 1.5km east; keep your eyes peeled for Chinese-language signs reading 泥火山. Opposite a chicken farm, you'll find some rough concrete steps going up into a bamboo forest on the right-hand side of the road. The volcano is less than 100m away.
In visual terms, Chongde's volcano is less exciting than the better-known eruption at Wushanding (烏山頂) about 9km to the south. There's no cone as such, rather a 1m-wide belching hole in the ground. I picked up a bamboo almost as long as I am tall and stirred the hole. This seemed to cause an outbreak of bubbling; the stick wasn't long enough to probe the bottom of the vent, pictured below.