Sunday, December 29, 2013

Why buy a guidebook?

As a guidebook author I obviously have a vested interest in this question. While no one disputes that guidebook sales have fallen – because of the economy as well as the rise of smartphone apps and other electronic alternatives – this recent New York Times article provides a number of good reasons why, for some travellers at least, print guidebooks remain an excellent option.

Noting that sifting through websites can take an eternity, the article points out that: "[C]hoice can be paralyzing. For those who want the deciding done for them, a trusted guidebook brand wins, at least in planning an agenda."

The writer concludes that "a guidebook stomps the web almost every time" in three ways. Firstly, guidebooks have "curated maps" which are more useful than anything published online by Google or Bing. Second, "guidebooks offer information you may never think to look for online. In the Hungary book, I happened on a section about common tourist scams in Budapest, and an article on Budapest’s Jewish population — neither of which I would have thought to look up on my own." Finally, with a printed book you need never worry about the battery running out, or going out of range.

As a friend pointed out, the writer didn't even mention roaming charges, or hotel-room internet access fees, both which can be significant. These were among the reasons given by two recent American visitors to Taiwan when I asked them why, in addition to their iPhones, they were carrying not one but two print guidebooks.

For a bit more on this debate, click here.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

For trainspotters

The famous logging railway between Chiayi City and Alishan hasn't run since 2009's Typhoon Morakot, but at the city's Beimen Station (北門火車站) you'll find some of the old locomotives and carriages. These days, tourist trains, pulled by diesal locomotives (see picture at the bottom) run between Chiayi TRA Station - which is well served by express trains from north and south Taiwan - and Beimen, with the occasional service to the small town of Zhuqi (嘉義縣竹崎鄉).

The neighbourhood around Beimen Station includes several sites associated with Chiayi's once mighty logging industry, and a number of these have been renovated in the past few years. A former power plant is now a wood-sculpture museum (see this Facebook page), and outside Chiayi Municipal Museum a large pool where tree trunks were kept in water (to prevent them from warping under the sun) is now an eco-pond.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Miaoli's Mingde Reservoir

A recent visit to Mingde Reservoir (明德水庫) in Miaoli County (苗栗縣) coincided with a spell of excellent weather. We stayed right by the water's edge, within walking distance of civilisation but still enjoying excellent views of the lake and nearby mountains. The dam here was built between 1966 and 1970 and is 35.5m high; the water area is around 170 hectares. The area is especially popular, and deservedly so, with long-distance cyclists who adore the combination of scenery, light traffic and moderate gradients.
Late autumn and early winter is silvergrass season in many parts of Taiwan. The grass itself is between one and two metres tall and often grows on riverbanks or beside ponds.
I posted another photo of the reservoir on Life of Taiwan's Facebook page.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Is December a good time to visit Taiwan?

At least one Singaporean blogger thinks so after visiting in December 2011 and again in December 2012. Not surprisingly, he and his family had better weather in the south than the north (winter days in Chiayi and points south are typically very sunny yet extremely comfortable in terms of temperature; nights are cool but not frigid). There's another reason why coming in December is a good idea: Relatively few Taiwanese travel at this time of year, so booking accommodation isn't difficult. The family especially enjoyed the night markets and the scenic hill town of Jiufen.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

New luminous mushroom species discovered in Kenting

The academic journal Mycological Progress reports a new species of mushroom that glows in the dark: 

"Mycena kentingensis, a new luminous mushroom, was discovered in the tropical forest of Kenting National Park in Taiwan. The pileus of M. kentingensis is 3–8 mm in diameter and emits green light in the dark. The dorsal surface of the pileus is covered with short and white spines. The lamellae are nearly free... The new species of Mycena kentingensis brings the total of luminous fungi in the world to 74 species."

The actual discovery was made in autumn 2011; since then scientists have been propagating the mushroom to better understand it. According to this article in Taipei Times, Taiwan can boast of having nine of those 74 luminous fungi species. For photos and a Chinese-language report, click here

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A library, not a temple

This library in Kaohsiung City's Fengshan District (高雄市鳳山區) is a typical piece of Northern-Palace architecture, the building style favoured by the Kuomintang regime between the 1950s and 1970s. Other examples are the National Palace Museum in Taipei, the National Revolutionary Martyrs Shine and also quite a few post-war Roman Catholic churches. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

An old dojo in Taichung

I adore Taiwan's Japanese-era buildings, such as this dojo, formerly part of Taichung's prison. Most of the prison complex was demolished in the 1990s, but this building and an office were saved and renovated and are open to the public.

Other appealing colonial-era structures in Taiwan include Futai Street Mansion and the Museum of Drinking Water (both in Taipei), as well as Taoyuan Martyrs Shrine.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Keelung, old and new

Ershawan Battery, also known as Haimen Tianxian, is a sprawling ridgetop defense post established by the Qing authorities during the First Opium War (1839–42). Little remains of the original encampment but the views over Keelung harbor are good and bilingual information boards provide some details for history enthusiasts.
The area around the fishing port at Badouzi is being transformed into a major tourist destination. The almost-completed building above will be an exhibition hall.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Unveiling the second-edition cover

The cover of the second edition shows daylily pickers in Hualien County. I'm still updating the text; the book won't be out until spring next year.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Sky lanterns at Shifen

Tourists from Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and other places write their wishes on the sides of bamboo-framed paper lanterns which they then release into the afternoon sky over Shifen (十分), a tiny former coal-mining town near Taipei reached by the Pingxi Branch Railway. Mass releases of lanterns into the night sky are popular around the time of Lantern Festival.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Taiwan, 55 years ago

Click on this link to see an online album of 278 photos, the majority of which were taken in Taiwan in 1957-58 by US serviceman Tom Jones. The images show the north coast, Taipei's streets (the capital was then a low-rise, relatively uncrowded city), funerals, temples and military personnel.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Taiwanese cooking classes with Ivy Chen

Ivy Chen has been teaching Taiwanese cooking at the Community Services Center and at her home in Taipei since 1997. “I believe Taiwanese cuisine is worth promoting and learning because of its uniqueness and vibrant character. I know how to introduce and present Taiwanese cuisine, and I’m very experienced at combining local and global produce and food trends,” she told me recently.

Chen, a native of Tainan, says about 2,000 people have attended her classes so far. Class sizes vary from one person to up to 20. “They’re from every corner of the world. Europeans and Americans are the majority, but others have come from Africa, Tahiti, Syria and India. Many are Japanese, and recently some Filipina caregivers and maids have joined my classes, encouraged by their employers.”

I asked her which dishes her students are especially interested in learning how to cook. “It varies from country to country, and individual to individual. However, dumplings, Kung Pao chicken and cucumber salad are among the most popular.”

Fish preparation, and cooking fish the Taiwanese way, is probably the most difficult thing for my Western students to learn,” she added.

If you’re interested in learning Taiwanese cooking, contact Ivy via email ( or Facebook. Recipes and other information can be found at Ivy’s Kitchen.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bullet train fares going up but buses remain a bargain

On a good day, a bus from the centre of Tainan to downtown Taipei takes less than four and a half hours. The high-speed rail (HSR) takes one hour 43 minutes, and is never caught in traffic jams. However, the HSR station is about half an hour from central Tainan.

Taking the Tainan-Taipei bus costs between NTD220 (mid-week) and NTD360 (weekends). Unless you snag one of the hard-to-book "early bird" discounted tickets, the HSR journey will cost you NTD1,350, and that's only if you're travelling before October 8. After that date, HSR fares will rise by up to 9.6%. Long-distance bus travel in Taiwan can be a little slow sometimes, but it's always a real bargain. The most expensive bus ticket is nearly half the price of a conventional (TRA, not HSR) train ticket, and usually the bus is quicker.

Buses also have a non-price advantage over the HSR. When taking the bullet train, you've no choice but to get on or off at Taipei Main Railway Station. Most bus companies, by contrast, making a few stops before terminating at or near Taipei Main Station. Kuo-Kuang services, for instance, stop within walking distance of Dalongdong Baoan Temple and then again at Minquan West Road MRT Station before reaching Taipei Main Station - convenient if your hotel is in the city's northeast, or if you simply want to avoid the crowds and stairs at Taipei Main Station.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Clear skies on the northeast coast

Just after Typhoon Trami drenched Taiwan, I got up to the northeast coast and had a good look around places like Badouzi (八斗子) and Longdong (龍洞). Badouzi, near Keelung and where I took the photos above and below, is the site of the new National Museum of Marine Science & Technology.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Taichung Prefecture Hall

Taichung Prefecture Hall (台中州廳), one of the most attractive Japanese colonial-era buildings in central Taiwan, served as Taichung's local government headquarters for decades, and still houses the municipal Environmental Protection Bureau. It was designed by Moriyama Matsunosuke, the architect behind what's now the National Museum of Taiwan Literature.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Sun Moon Lake

Several weeks back, I took a motorcycle trip from Taichung to Sun Moon Lake via Puli. Shown above is Wenwu Temple, one of the lake's most popular attractions.
Inside the temple, there are hundreds of these golden pendants bearing auspicious messages like "hundreds of years of harmony." You're unlikely to see them in other Taiwanese shrines - probably because few are nearly so touristy as Wenwu Temple. 
The tower on the ridge on the left of the photo above is Cien Pagoda. Leaving Sun Moon Lake, I took Highway 16 (shown below) to Shuili.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A super-central place to stay in Tainan

We're welcoming visitors of all kinds to Taiwanfoo Homestay Apartment. Located in the heart of Tainan - within walking distance of the train and bus stations as well as several tourist attractions, it's quiet day and night as well as being clean, safe and comfortable.

Monday, June 10, 2013

National Changhua Living Art Center

National Changhua Living Art Center (國立彰化生活美學館; 3 Guashan Road, Changhua City; tel: (04) 722-2729) is a community-focused exhibition space and creativity hub. It's also an intriguing piece of architecture and a lovely place to wander around on a sunny day, before or after a visit to nearby Mount Bagua. The center's website is in Chinese only.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Books: A Foreigner's Guide to Taiwan's Indigenous Areas: Hualien and Taitung

This is the second book in a three-volume series by Cheryl Robbins, who is surely Taiwan's most knowledgable English-language travel writer when it comes to aboriginal culture and communities, as well as a professional licensed tour guide. The first book in the series (see this blog post) came out last year; the third volume, which will focus on Taiwan's north, is due out before the end of 2013.

A Foreigner's Guide to Taiwan's Indigenous Areas: Hualien and Taitung (Taiwan Interminds Publishing, NT$380) contains a wealth of easy-to-digest information plus maps and hundreds of color photos. Robbins doesn't limit herself to restaurants, places to stay and attractions. She includes several businesses where tourists can buy aboriginal handicrafts or clothing, plus music venues such as Tiehua Village in Taitung City. If a criticism can be made of the book, it's that for some of the places mentioned, details of opening times and days off aren't included.

One featured place I'd previously heard about (but have yet to visit) is the Taiwanese Aborigine Tattoo Culture Museum. Its founder, Kimi Sibal, has won renown for his photographs of traditional face tattoos.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Free wireless access for foreign tourists

Taiwan's Tourism Bureau has got together with local governments and telecoms companies to provide free wireless Internet access to foreign visitors. According to this report, all tourists need to do is to show their passport at a visitor information centre (there are dozens across the country, in airports, train stations and major tourist spots) and fill in a form. The report doesn't say if there's a cut-off date for the program. I would assume it'll last until the end of 2013 at the very least.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What do Taiwanese people ask for when they pray?

Taiwan's temples are often crowded with worshippers. What are they praying for? 

According to Religion,Occultism, and Social Change in Taiwan, a paper published by Academia Sinica - the ROC's most prestigious research institution - a few years back, the most popular requests made by those visiting folk shrines were physical health (80.8%), prosperity (75%), career or educational success (59.6%), reassurance (55.8%), safety during military service (48.1%), wisdom (48.1%) and good karma (42.3%). Of course, these categories are all quite broad, and because the data has been translated from Chinese to English (and likely Taiwanese to Chinese to English), it's hard to draw any firm conclusions. However, the survey did make another interesting finding: 53.8% said “habit” was a major reason they prayed. 

I took this photo at a fairly ordinary, medium-sized temple in Taoyuan City. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

New Taiwan travel website

Life of Taiwan, a travel website I wrote text for, was launched earlier this month and today was the subject of a full-page feature article in Taipei Times, Taiwan's main English-language newspaper. The website, which is designed to meet the information needs of those who've never visited Taiwan, has more than 150 pages of information about the country's history, culture, religions, cuisines and tourist destinations.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Religion in the Matsu Islands

Matsu's temples are pretty small by Taiwan standards, which isn't surprising given the population is less than 10,000 and flat land is at a premium. Several shrines are dedicated to Baimazunwang (白馬尊王, 'the honourable white horse king"). This minor god - human, not animal, in case you're wondering - is virtually unknown in Taiwan itself. 

The photo at the top shows a Baimazunwang temple on Nangan. The other image shows a discarded censer beside the same temple.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sailing to Matsu

The Taima Ferry () leaves Keelung six evenings a week and sails through the night for the Matsu Islands (馬祖列島), an ROC-controlled archipelago around 150km northwest of Taiwan.  

There are various ticket options, the cheapest being nothing more than a padded seat in one of the lounges. Most people opt for a berth in one of the bunk-bed dorms; at NT$1050 per person one-way, it's almost half the price of flying from Taipei to Nangan. These bunks are fairly comfortable and you have a curtain you can draw across for some privacy. Unfortunately, all the lights are left on throughout the voyage, which takes eight to ten hours. There are also first- and business-class cabins, but from what I saw they aren't worth the extra money unless you've a great need to watch TV. In the lounge you can buy beer, tea and instant noodles.

It's worth staying outside for the first hour or so as you get good views of Keelung Harbour and its impressive freight-handling facilities [see above and below]. Also, the ocean is dotted with fishing boats using dazzling carbon-arc lamps to attract fish.
The vessel is quite substantial - the car deck can take more than a dozen small trucks - so even if the weather is poor, the pitching and rolling are tolerable. 

I woke up around 5am and went outside. We passed several small islets; officially, the Taiwan-ruled portion of Lienchiang County consists of 19 islands, but that tally doesn't include several isolated rocks.

Matsu's docks depend on military personnel. Each time the Taima makes a stop [such as Nangan (南竿), pictured left], teams of soldiers tie the ship up. Note that the man closest to the water's edge is held by the fellow behind - a wise precaution, I'm sure.

At Nangan the Taima [bottom picture] paused for two hours, during which we hit the island's main market for some breakfast. Then we reboarded the ferry for the two-hour voyage to Dongyin (東引), where we spent the first night.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A museum in Dajia

Jin Hua Shan Mazu Folk Museum (金華山媽祖文物館; 9, Lane 119, Guangming Road; tel: (04) 2676-5678; open: 09.00-17.00 Tue-Sun) is a newish privately-owned museum in Dajia District, Taichung City. It was established to showcase Mazu icons and religious paraphernalia purchased by a Dajia-born businessman during trips to the Chinese mainland, and the collection is well worth seeing if you're interested in local religious culture. There are capes, hats and shoes used to dress images of the sea goddess, but the finest object in the collection is a Mazu statuette thought to date from the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1276); the mineral dyes used to paint it have hardly faded despite the passage of centuries. At the time of my visit there was little in the way of English labelling, but this may well change.

The museum doesn't have a proper website yet, but you can see photos taken inside the museum on this page.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Above the treeline

Recently I drove northeast from Wushe (霧社) in Nantou County, past Qingjing Farm (清境農場) and over Hehuanshan (合歡山). This stretch of road is the highest in Taiwan, cresting at 3,275m; Hehuanshan's peak is 3,416m above sea level

The section shown here isn't the very top but gives you a good idea of the scenery. On weekdays there's usually little traffic; at weekends and whenever there's snow, you can expect crowds of people and vehicles. Hehuanshan is inside Taroko National Park. If you'd rather not drive, you can see this road by taking one of the buses which link Puli (埔里) with Lishan (山).

Monday, April 1, 2013

Taoshan Waterfall

A few days ago I hiked to Taoshan Waterfall (桃山瀑布) in Wuling National Forest Recreation Area, which itself is inside Shei-Pa National Park (雪霸國家公園). The trail, 4.3km long, rises gradually to 2,245m above sea level. Getting to the waterfall and back takes around two-and-a-half hours; the path is shaded by pine trees and surfaced with concrete. In other words, it's a good hike for people who don't normally wander off into the wilderness. Because I was well ahead of the mid-morning crowds, I saw a lot of birds.

A fence (not visible in the photo on the left) blocks tourists from getting too close. Judging by this blog, the barrier is a fairly recent addition to the landscape. It's a necessary one, in my opinion, as the consequences of slipping by the pool's edge could be very nasty. The waterfall is about 80m high and was quite impressive when I reached it - not surprising, as it had rained throughout the night.

Within 100m of the trailhead, those hiking to the waterfall cross the Qijiawan Creek (shown right), habitat of the Formosan landlocked salmon. This endemic fish species doesn't migrate to the ocean because it can't tolerate water temperatures above 17 degrees Celsius. It almost went extinct in the 1980s, but in recent years numbers have rebounded thanks to a major conservation effort.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Biking the Jin-Shui-Ying National Trail

Cycling on the Jin-Shui-Ying National Trail (浸水營古道) is illegal but popular. It's an excellent one-day hike but you'll need transport to the trailhead, whether you start on the Pingtung side or the Taitung side, and also someone to pick you at the end. We did it with the help of Blue Skies Adventures.

Friday, March 15, 2013

On many temple roofs...'ll see these three figures. From left to right, they're Taoist immortals who represent blessings, wealth and longevity. You'll see the exact same statuettes atop many shrines - presumably they're mass-produced somewhere.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Wild leopard cats in Taiwan

According to this article, there are around 1,000 wild leopard cats in Taiwan's mountains. A story about another leopard cat rescued in Miaoli can be read here. If you want to know how big they grow or how to tell them from common household cats, which they resemble in size and colouring, take a look at this report.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Photos and panoramas of Kaohsiung

This Kaohsiung City Government website has an engaging collection of photos and panoramas of attractions in the municipality, including aerial shots of Mount Banping, the very modern Da Dong Arts Center in Fengshan District and an oil-paper umbrella store in Meinong.

Just a few days ago, I was at this spot in Maolin, enjoying very similar views of the surrounding mountains and the post-Typhoon Morakot bridge.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Know your fruit: The custard apple

Back in December, these custard apples were being sold right outside Taitung's railway station. Sometimes called sweetsops or Buddha's head fruit (because they resemble the Buddha's curly hair) they're one of Taitung's best-known agricultural products; more than four-fifths of Taiwan's custard apples are grown in the southeastern county.

When ready to eat, the exterior becomes soft. Inside, the flesh is white, sweet and somewhat like custard in texture. In Chinese, they known as shì jiā (釋迦).

Friday, February 15, 2013

Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan

In recent years, Tibetan Tantric Buddhism has gained ground in Taiwan - a prominent convert is former Defense Minister Chen Li-an (陳履安) - and a number of Tibetan-style temples have been established. One of the most prominent isn't far from my home in Tainan: Gemagejyu Temple, also known as Karma Kagyu Monastery, is just south of Highway 20, very near the km22.5 marker.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Gold for the Jade Emperor

On the first day of the Year of the Snake, Nankunshen Daitian Temple was exceptionally crowded, but I did get to see the newest attraction inside this ancient temple – a solid-gold tablet [pictured left] dedicated to the Jade Emperor. Weighing 405kg, at today's gold price it's worth about US$23.5m.

This slow-to-load Chinese-language blogger has posted some superb photos of the complex; the very first and some lower down show the Jade Emperor tablet.

Friday, February 1, 2013

More on Koxinga and Dajia

 In 1961, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China and the 300th anniversary of Koxinga's arrival in Taiwan, Chiang Ching-kuo (then head of Taiwan's security services, later its president) commissioned what was then the world's largest statue of Koxinga. Like the Koxinga shrine I wrote about recently, it stands on Mount Tiezhen (鐵砧山) near Dajia.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Twelve months, 388 bird species

Birding and ecotourism guide Richard Foster has wrapped up his Taiwan 'Big Year', having got 388 species. For a full report including hits, misses and 'what ifs', go here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Koxinga shrine with a difference

It can be argued that Koxinga is one of the three or four most significant individuals in Taiwan's history. If it wasn't for him, Taiwan may well have beea Dutch colony until after World War II. If he hadn't set up a mini-kingdom in opposition to China's Qing Empire, it's quite possible the Qing would have ignored Taiwan, in which case Taiwan may well have been incorporated into the Japanese Empire a few decades earlier than it was.

Temples dedicated to and named after Koxinga can be found in several parts of Taiwan. This one, near Dajia in Taichung City (台中市大甲區), is unusual in having a domed roof [top left], “a bit like a mosque,” according to the local history expert who showed us around. The broken safe [pictured right] was the result of the temple's managers forgetting the secret combination, not robbery, he said. There's no evidence that Koxinga himself visited Dajia, but during the siege of Fort Zeelandia, he sent foraging expeditions to this area (and other parts of Taiwan) to gather food for his army.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Bradt named best guidebook brand

Bradt Travel Guides has come out on top in a poll of over 2,500 Which? members to find the best guidebook brands for country, regional and city guides. Bradt heads the list for country guidebooks with a customer score of 75%. Guidebooks from DK Eyewitness are close behind on 73%, while Rough Guides is third with a score of 65%.

Which? is a product-testing and consumers' rights charity based in the UK. They've been publishing a magazine with that name since 1957. To see the online report, go here.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Fresh Facts VII: Taiwan's first bus route

One hundred years ago to the day, Taiwan's first public bus service was launched. It linked Taipei's railway station with Yuanshan (圓山) in the city's northwest. That neighbourhood is now best reached by the MRT's Red Line; attractions in that part of the capital include Dalongdong Baoan Temple and Taipei Confucius Temple.