Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Xinyi Winery in Nantou

While driving between Shuili and Tataka in Yushan National Park last month, we made a stop at what English-language sources usually refer to as Xinyi Winery, an establishment that seems to have at least three Chinese names (信義鄉農會酒莊, 梅子夢工廠 and 梅子酒莊). Located in Shuili's Mingde Village (明德村), about 30 minutes' drive from the town centre, it sells various wines made using locally-grown plums and other crops. Most of the wines cost around NTD500 for a 600cc bottle, and the one I bought (but didn't get to try until several days later) was very palatable - which is why I didn't get around to taking a photo until I was half way through it. T-shirts and other non-alcoholic souvenirs are also for sale.

The winery, which is run by the local farmers' cooperative, doesn't have an English sign, but isn't too difficult to find if you look for a modern building with coaches parked outside on the right as you approach from Shuili. It's a popular stop with tour parties, even on weekdays. For information about other wineries in Taiwan, take a look at this 2011 post.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

New York Times on Taiwan's improving environment

This New York Times travel piece, in which I'm quoted, highlights the environmental progress Taiwan has made in recent years thanks to the government, NGOs like Wild At Heart Legal Defense Association, and growing public awareness of conservation issues. The photo here was taken in Taroko National Park, one of Taiwan's natural must-sees.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Shinto ruins in Taiwan

During the latter part of the Japanese colonial period, the authorities promoted Shintoism and ordered the construction of Shinto shrines in several locations. Most of these places of worship were obliterated soon after Taiwan became part of Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China in 1945, and none of those which survived is in good condition, with the qualified exception of what's now Taoyuan Martyrs Shrine.

The most picturesque Shinto ruins are those above Jinguashi, near Keelung on Taiwan's northeast coast. The steps and base of another shrine (pictured above) can be found a few hundred metres from Fenqihu Train Station, in the highlands of Chiayi County, beside a short but delightful forest hiking trail. A different kind of quasi-religious relic from the Japanese era, now known as the Feng An Sanctum, stands in Tainan's Xinhua District.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Taking the logging train at Fenqihu

Tourists pose in front of the diesel locomotive and carriages just ahead of the 14.00 departure from Fenqihu (奮起湖) to Chiayi City (嘉義市) via Zhuqi (竹崎) on the century-old Alishan Forestry Railway. The narrow-gauge railroad - which was out of action for some years following 2009's Typhoon Morakot - is renowned not only for the elevation it climbs (from 30m above sea level to more than 2,200m at Alishan National Forest Recreation Area) but also for the up-close views of tropical, temperate and montane forest passengers enjoy. On weekdays, it seems, the train isn't always fully booked ahead of departure, but getting your tickets in advance (you can reserve and pay up to 14 days before you travel) is certainly a good idea; it would only take a couple of sizable tour groups to fill all five carriages.
Life of Taiwan can book tickets as part of a mountain-and-tea tour. Such excursions typically include driving from Nantou County along the New Central Cross-Island Highway. This route often provides superb views of Mount Jade and other lofty peaks. We recommend getting off at Zhuqi (sometimes spelled Jhuci; station shown in final picture), a bucolic inland town, thereby avoiding the traffic around Chiayi City and providing easy access to the scenic No. 3 Freeway. One-way from Fenqihu to Zhuqi or Chiayi City is NT$240 per person.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Kaohsiung's National Stadium

Last month I attended a meeting at Kaohsiung's National Stadium (國家體育場), a landmark building completed just ahead of the 2009 World Games. The stadium hosted the Games' opening and closing ceremonies. It's in the northwestern part of the city, next to the ROC Naval Academy, and can be seen on the seaward side of the KMRT Red Line if you're travelling between Zuoying (Kaohsiung's high-speed railway station) and Ciaotou. Since the World Games, the stadium has been Taiwan's no. 1 soccer venue, and often hosts pop concerts.
There are several small bodies of water around the 40,000-seat stadium, plus an artificial creek. These were added for aethetic as well as environmental reasons, and work well. I was amazed at the number of fish (including some at least 20cm long), and less surprised to see egrets taking advantage of this food source.
Ahead of the meeting, I had time to walk the whole way around the stadium, which stands on a 19-hectare plot of land and cost a reported US$170 million. The architect, Japan's Toyo Ito (伊東豊雄), was awarded the 2013 Pritzker Prize, and I wouldn't be surprised if this stadium was a major factor in his winning.

Various tree species have been planted, including betel nut (shown in the third image). It's well known that the cultivation of betel nut on hillsides leads to erosion; the palm has very shallow roots, and because the leaves provide so little shade, topsoil dries out quickly. But on flat land they're OK, I suppose.

As with other recent infrastructure projects in Taiwan, public art (fourth and fifth photos) adds colour to the surroundings. What isn't obvious from street level is that much of the roof is covered with electricity-generating solar panels which produce about 80% of the power used by the stadium each year. However, because many of the events are held at night, but the panels produce electricity during the day, the stadium's management are able to sell surplus power to the national grid almost every day.
Rather than having a conventional circle or oval shape, when seen from the sky the stadium looks a little like a question mark which has lost its dot. The photo below comes from a Kaohsiung City Government webpage.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


ShowMeTaiwan.com is a new website which aims to help backpackers and other tourists plan their trips around Taiwan and book accommodation. The founder, Charlie Taylor, is a friend of mine who also operates two popular hostels in Tainan. So far I've contributed two short articles to the website. Both are about attractions in Greater Tainan: Hutoushan in Yujing District; and Anshun Salt Field Ecology and Culture Village in Annan District.

The photo shows a road bridge near Baoan TRA Station in Tainan City's Rende District, near Ten Drum Culture Village and the soon-to-open Chi Mei Museum.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Koji art in a Tainan temple

Seen from the street, Jintang Temple (金唐殿) in Tainan City's Jiali District (台南市佳里區) isn't notably impressive, even though a sign proclaims it to be a national third-grade relic. What makes it special are the koji works inside and out. Several must be very valuable, as they're protected by thick sheets of glass rigged with alarms - something I don't think I've seen in other houses of worship.
The alarm system, which would be triggered if the glass was broken or removed, can be seen in the photo on the left; the ghostly figure on the right of the image is a reflection of myself holding my camera. In addition to the sages, generals and characters from Chinese mythology typically featured in shrine decorations, there's a panel showing a gentleman in Western attire. According to an information panel inside the temple, this is Dr. Sun Yat-sen, accompanied by figures in more traditional clothing (shown below).
It doesn't look anything like him, however – you'll agree if you look at the black-and-white portrait from Wikimedia Commons here. The artist even forgot the mustache! In the 3D depiction in Jiali, Sun is holding a roll of paper, not a cigar as you might think.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ceramic air-raid shelters

This pot wasn't fired to store water or grain. Rather, it was commissioned during World War II by the Japanese colonial authorities to serve as a one-man air-raid shelter. Contemplating the possibility of Allied forces landing on Taiwan's beaches, the Japanese (who ruled Taiwan between 1895 and 1945) ordered hundreds of these pots, which could be buried in sand or soil, horizontally or vertically, protecting individual soldiers from bullets and bomb fragments. 

According to information at Shuili Snake Kiln (水里蛇窯), where I took this photo, because Taiwanese potters were needed to produce these air-raid shelters and other items needed for the war effort, they were exempted from conscription into Japan's imperial armed forces. Similar pots were also bought by wealthy individuals; one is on display inside this traditional courtyard house

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Dragonflies in Taiwan

Just as it has an incredible number of avian and lepidopteran species for its size, Taiwan also has a stunning array of dragonflies. Around 145 species have been recorded on the island, including one previously unidentified dragonfly which earlier this year was given the  scientific name Sarasaeschna chiangchinlii in honour of Chiang Chin-li, a wildlife photographer who helped make the discovery. Its English name is Hook-tailed Bog-hawker.

The link above goes to The Dragonflies of Taiwan, a Chinese-language blog with stunning photos of almost 160 local dragonfly and damselfly species, conveniently organised by family and including scientific names. Of them, 26 are classed as endemics. Despite the quality of the images, I haven't been able to identify the dragonfly in the image above, which I spotted a couple of years ago by a creek in Maokong (貓空), part of Taipei best explored by taking the Maokong Gondola and then doing some short hikes.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The keymaker of Hsinchu

Spotted earlier this year in a side street in Hsinchu's city centre: A hand-painted ad for a maker of keys, chops and similar items. Hsinchu is usually associated with high-tech industries but it's unusually rich in relics of the Qing period as well as the Japanese colonial era.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Things to do in Taiwan when it's raining

The summer is Taiwan's wet season. In Taipei, almost two thirds of each year's rain falls between May and September. In the south, the difference between the wet and dry seasons is even more pronounced. Tourists who visit during the hotter months may not be able to explore the mountains, as road closures due to landslides are common (see the photo accompanying this post for a typical Taiwan rockslide), and heat may drive them indoors. How best, then, can summertime visitors use their time?

Good answers include temples and museums. Taiwan has an incredible number of both, thanks to a lively religious culture and governments that have shown great willingness to invest in museums which entertain and educate. While gloomy conditions may frustrate photographers' efforts to capture the beauty of shrine roofs, there's so much art and detail inside major shrines - not to mention all sorts of human activity - that they're a top choice whatever the weather. If you stumble across a place of worship that's in the midst of renovation, do take a closer look, as the way in which wooden panels and beams are replaced and paintings retouched is fascinating. The photo here shows a renovation artist working in Tainan's Temple of the Navigation Superintendent.

Taiwan's best-known museums, including all five mentioned in this article, are government run. However, wealthy individuals and non-profit foundations are behind some worthwhile public collections, such as one in Dajia that'll appeal to those curious about the Mazu cult.

The Central Weather Bureau's bilingual website has clear and useful forecasts which are very useful when planning travel around Taiwan. The site also has reports of seismic activity and rainfall statistics - several places in Kaohsiung received more than 150mm of rain yesterday!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Budai Seafood Market

When updating my guidebook, I had to drop a few locations to make space for new attractions such as the Buddha Memorial Centre, and also so I could expand my coverage of, among other places, the East Rift Valley. One place I cut out is Budai Seafood Market (布袋漁市) in Chiayi County, pictured here.
It's still worth going to if you enjoy eating super-fresh seafood, as within the market there are around 40 restaurants, none of which are very expensive. Late morning to early afternoon is the best time to go; don't expect English to be spoken or English-language menus, but this isn't a problem as most eateries have picture menus and/or tanks from which you can select the creature(s) you want to enjoy.
Photographers take note: Even if you don't much like seafood, you may find the market worth visiting for visual reasons. The market is very easy to find, being on Zhongshan Road, the main road through the town to its port. Buses from Chiayi City and Xinying in Tainan stop within 20m.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Read extracts from the second edition on Bradt's website

The publisher of my guidebook has posted sizable chunks of the second edition on their website alongside some gorgeous images of Taiwan. In addition to information about how to get to Taiwan and how to travel from place to place once you've arrived, there's an abridged version of the history section, plus segments on highlight destinations such as Little Liuqiu and Shei-Pa National Park.

I took the photo above in Jinmen Hall (金門館) - a seldom visited late 18th-century place of worship in the historic town Lugang - about five years ago, and thought it appropriate as the World Cup is now being played in Brazil...

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Direct buses from Tainan to Foguangshan

Since the beginning of this month there's a direct bus between Tainan and Foguangshan, which is good news for tourists into cultural attractions who'd rather skip downtown Kaohsiung. The bus is #8050, and - assuming traffic isn't unusually heavy - takes 1 hour 40 minutes one way (adult fare NTD207). It replaces the old #9122 service.

There are only six services per day. These leave Tainan TRA Station at 06.25, 09.10, 10.10, 14.10, 17.10 and 18.50. The route is quite scenic as it follows Road 182 through Neimen (venue of the Songjiang Battle Array), then Highway 3 into Qishan (where you can board a bus to Meinong). There's no need to change buses in Qishan; stay onboard for the few minutes it spends at Qishan's bus station. The final part of the journey, from Qishan to the monastery, takes less than 15 minutes. In the opposite direction, the first bus setting out from Foguangshan is at 06.15, the last at 16.45.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Taipei City Hakka Cultural Park

A week ago in Taipei I had time to kill before meeting a friend for dinner, so for the first time I explored Taipei City Hakka Cultural Park (臺北市客家文化主題公園), a short walk from Taipower Building MRT Station. 

It's not a huge green space - just 4.03 hectares - but it is beautifully laid out and maintained. There's a farming demonstration area where rice is grown, a waterwheel, a number of pavilions where you can shelter from the sun or the rain, and a walkway/bikeway that goes over the levee to link with the cycle trails along the Danshui River. There are replicas of the tobacco-curing barns which still dot Meinong in Kaohsiung, and of the oblation furnaces in which Hakka people used to ritually burn any paper bearing written words.

The photo above comes from the park's thorough and bilingual website. Right next to the park you'll find the Taipei City Hakka Music and Theatre Centre, and the Hakka Cultural Centre.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Egrets on the coast

Egrets cluster on a fishing vessel at Kezailiao Harbour (蚵仔寮漁港), Kaohsiung. The port here is pretty small but attracts a lot of visitors on weekends. Some buy superfresh seafood which they take home and cook, others enjoy meals or snacks at the adjacent eateries. For some more photos and details how to get to Kezailiao by public transport, see this blogger's writeup on the place.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Oyster omelettes in Huayuan Night Market

Oyster omelettes are one of Taiwan's most popular street snacks, and Tainan's Huayuan Night Market (aka Flowers Night Market, 花園夜市), where these omelettes were being prepared, is one of south Taiwan's most-crowded night markets. In fact, it's usually so jammed with people - and not so near the city centre - that I haven't put it in my guidebook.

If you want to make your own oyster omelettes, here's a recipe.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

East Rift Valley

Also known as the Huatung Valley (花東縱谷), because it includes large parts of Hualien and Taitung counties, the East Rift Valley is a mainly agricultural region in Taiwan's thinly-populated east. The weather is often cloudy, and unlike Taiwan's west (and southwest in particular), the wet and dry seasons aren't pronounced. 
There isn't much traffic and some of the valley's most attractive routes, such as Road 193, are quite narrow, so a motorcycle is the ideal vehicle for exploring. Here are the wheels I used last October, parked near Luoshan Waterfall (羅山瀑布). The waterfall is just visible in the background. The sign to the right of the motorcycle asks Buddhists not to release fish, turtles and other creatures into the pond. This tradition, known as 'mercy release', causes environmental problems beyond the suffering and premature death of the animals set free
On this trip I made it to one place I'd never been before: Taiyuan Hidden Valley (pictured above). It's very pretty, but tourists are told to not feed the slightly aggressive macaque population; at the time of my visit the local government had stationed a worker by the bridge specifically to educate outsiders that feeding encouraged bad behavior and could make the animals sick.

For photos taken during a train journey through the East Rift Valley, go here.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Alangyi Ancient Trail, Part 2

It's hot going on the Alangyi Ancient Trail (click here for Part 1 of this post). However, in the greener stretches (first two photos) there are a few spots where you can pause in the shade, and listen as the guide points out indigenous fauna such as the screwpine in the lower left corner of the second photo.
On the beach we found a dead green loggerhead turtle (shown above). Then a very steep section of trail brought us to a vantage point with shade.
The end in sight! Hikers make their way down from the highest stretch of trail to the beach for a sunblasted march to the finish, just south of the village of Nantian (南田) in Taitung County. The hike took us about three hours, not including a stop for lunch - a bit quicker than average, according to our guide.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Alangyi Ancient Trail, Part 1

When the government announced plans to extend Highway 26 through this section of Taiwan's Pacific Coast (the project has since been cancelled), the public suddenly became aware of the Alangyi Ancient Trail (阿朗壹古道). This beachside track has since become a very popular hike, and the road-building project has been shelved. A quota of 300 people per day is imposed and permits (which must be obtained in advance at a cost of NTD150 per person) are carefully checked. We hiked from the southern end, near Xuhai (旭海) in Pingtung County. The first stretch of trail is a regular if narrow road from a small fishing harbor:
Two long stretches of the trail (which totals 4.5km) are right on the beach, which is why hikers must take note of tide times, and aren't allowed unless accompanied by guides.
No part of the beach is sandy and in many places it's littered with driftwood.
For more photos, see Part 2 of this post.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Taiwan's onion capital

It's onion-harvesting season in and around Checheng in Pingtung County (屏東縣車城鄉), a township many tourists pass through en route to Kenting National Park. In a few places, like the spot pictured, the smell of fresh onions is strong yet never overpowering. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

National Palace Museum to revise admission charges in July

Taipei's National Palace Museum (NPM) is adjusting admission charges effective July 1, but contrary to recent media reports, foreign citizens will not always be required to pay more than local Taiwanese.

As soon as I read that Taiwanese citizens would qualify for discounted tickets (NTD150 per adult, compared to NTD250 for standard admission), and that these would not be available to non-Taiwanese, I emailed the NPM for an explanation of the new policy. I believe 'double-pricing' of the kind common in a few countries reduces Taiwan's appeal as a tourist destination; I also think it's unfair to foreign nationals like myself who are resident in Taiwan and pay taxes here

According to the museum's reply, the new price structure won't discriminate against foreign citizens. Taiwanese will not be able to get discounted tickets simply by presenting their ID cards or passports. Foreign citizens, I was told 'may also benefit from the discounted prices, if they have a valid international school ID, or a youth travel card... foreign visitors who are under the age of 6, or have disabilities, may enter for free with one accompanying person.' However, the NPM staffer told me, there would still be certain discounts to encourage Taiwanese to visit, in accordance with government policy. How generous these will be remains to be seen.

Whether or not the new price structure is fair or not, NTD250 for admission to the NPM represents very good value for money for tourists interested in Chinese art. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fresh Facts VIII: Taiwan's economy in 1939

By 1939, Taiwan was no longer producing as much camphor as it had some decades earlier, because of the invention of synthetic camphor, yet it was still the world’s no. 1 source of natural camphor. It was also the world’s third-largest producer of bananas and canned pineapples, no. 4 in global production of sweet potatoes and sugar, no. 6 for tea, no. 10 for rice and peanuts, and no. 13 for salt.

Nowadays, salt is no longer produced on a commercial basis (it's made the old way in a couple of places for educational/tourist reasons). Sugar production is minimal, and the quantity of tea grown has more than halved. However, Taiwan's teas (including those grown in the hills of Chiayi County, pictured here) are now regarded as among the very best in the world and command sky-high prices. Since the 1980s, bananas, pineapples and sweet potatoes have not been exported in significant quantities, although plenty are grown locally for domestic consumption.   

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The 'biting cat' nettle

Hikers in Taiwan are often warned about this species of stinging nettle, which grows up to 1.2m tall. It's known to botanists as Urtica thunbergiana and to ordinary Taiwanese as 咬人貓 (yǎorénmao, 'biting people cat'). In addition to mid- and low-elevation mountain areas in Taiwan, it's also found in China and Japan. The stings may cause considerable discomfort for up to half a day but there's no need to seek medical attention if you brush against a plant. In two decades of frequent hiking, I've never suffered any stings.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Taiwan's best cycling roads

Michael Turton, an extremely knowledgeable American who's lived in Taiwan for more than 20 years, has written this very useful introduction to ten of the best cycling routes on the main island. I've been on nine of these roads (and may have been on the tenth - I'm not sure, it would have been about five years ago) and recommend all of them, even if you plan to drive or ride a motorcycle rather than pedal your way around Taiwan.

To mention just three of the ten... Highway 8, which links Hualien with Lishan via Taroko Gorge, involves a huge amount of climbing. Road 193 follows the boundary between the southern plains of Pingtung County and the rugged uplands near Maolin and Sandimen; there are some historical sights, too, such as Wanjin Basilica. Road 159A is an excellent approach to the Alishan area; exploring it one time by motorcycle, I went up a side road which was very promising until I reached the rockslide pictured above.

The wonderful thing about cycling, of course, is it's so easy to stop anywhere you find something of interest - whether it's piles of discarded oyster shells, like these I came across in Dongshi, Chiayi County - a temple or even an abandoned haunted mansion.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Taiwanese restaurateur wins 'Asia's Best Female Chef' award

Chen Lan-shu (陳嵐舒), chef-founder of Le Mout, a French restaurant in Taichung, has been named 2014's 'Asia's Best Female Chef'. For more details about Chen and the award, click here. For more about the restaurant, go here.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Taroko Gorge in winter

There's no bad time of year to visit Taroko Gorge. On my most recent trip, it was misty and drizzled from time to time, but everyone enjoyed themselves immensely.
Being midweek, Swallow Grotto wasn't crowded with tourists.
But nor were there many swallows...