Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The recycled monument on Hutoushan

When it comes to trash, Taiwan boasts an impressive recycling rate. What few visitors appreciate is the country also has a record of recycling monuments, in much the same way Hagia Sophia in Istanbul initially reflected Christian dominance but later became a mosque. After World War II, landmarks erected during Japan’s 1895-1945 colonial occupation of Taiwan were either demolished, or turned into memorials which promoted the KMT (Chinese Nationalist) version of history.

One of these repurposed monuments (pictured top) is in Hutoushan Park (虎頭山公園) in Miaoli County’s Tongxiao Township (苗栗縣通霄鎮). Hutoushan means ‘tiger’s head mountain’, and the toponym comes from the shape of this modest ridge, the highest part of which is just 93.4m above sea level. If tigers did once roam here - which is possible - it was long before humans began settling on Taiwan.

Some people visit Hutoushan Park for the views that can be enjoyed up and down the coast (spoiled somewhat by a power station) and far inland (lower photo). Others want to see the well-preserved but locked-up Shinto shrine (for a short write-up, go here). Not everyone bothers to go to the very top, where a concrete gun-barrel points skyward. The seven Chinese characters on it mean ‘Taiwan Retrocession Tablet.’

This memorial was built just after the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. Famously, the Japanese defeated Russia’s Pacific Fleet early in the war, then nervously awaited the arrival of the enemy’s Baltic Fleet. Japanese observers on duty here spotted Russian vessels moving through the Taiwan Strait and alerted the Imperial Japanese Navy. Able to position themselves ideally, the Japanese decimated the Russian flotilla at the Battle of Tsushima on 27-8 May 1905.

Getting to Hutoushan Park is straightforward. If you're not driving, take a TRA train to Tongxiao on the Coastal Railroad (trains stopping in Miaoli and Taichung don't travel on this line, but instead on the Mountain Railroad). Turn left as soon as you leave the station, then walk uphill past the junior high school. It takes less than 15 minutes to get to the memorial from the station.

If you're visiting Penghu County, you can find a memorial of similar dimensions in the eastern part of the main island. It was erected by the Japanese to mark the spot where their soldiers first landed in 1895, but now celebrates Taiwan's return to Chinese control fifty years later.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

KIshu An 1917

Taipei’s Kishu An 1917, also known as Kishu An Forest of Literature (紀州庵文學森林) isn’t the only place in Taiwan where the date of its establishment has been made part of its name. The best-known example is the cultural facility called Huashan 1914 Creative Park, but there’s also Chiayi Arboretum 1907. The latter is an urban forest filled with hoop pines as well as teak and mahogany trees.

Despite its name, there aren’t many trees at Kishu An, though it is a lovely patch of green in one of the capital’s older, grayer neighbourhoods. The real attraction here is Japanese architecture, specifically the restored (‘rebuilt from scratch’ may be a more accurate description, as fires in the 1990s ravaged the original structures) main building. Constructed almost entirely of wood in 1927 or 1928 to house the high-class restaurant which had been operating on this site since 1917, it attains a level of elegance matched by very few Taiwanese-designed structures. 

Back in the Japanese colonial period, diners could sit inside and look out across the Xindian River, about 100m away. Nowadays, however, the waterway is hidden behind a tall concrete anti-flood barrier. There’s currently little to see inside Kishu An - no restaurant, at any rate - but in a way that’s the point. It’s ideal if you want to sit somewhere (on a Japanese-style tatami mat - there are no chairs), take in the peaceful surroundings and read.

The site’s restoration was overseen by Taipei City Government, and a few hours after my visit, I showed the official leaflet to a friend. He straightaway commented: ‘I have trouble telling those places apart.’ I know what he means; in the past decade, I've lost count of the number of similar places done up and opened to the public. If you’ve already been to somewhere like the Xinhua Butokuden in Tainan, you needn’t go out of your way to take a look at Kishu An. But if you do find yourself in this part of the capital and feel like killing some time, consider stopping by. And while you’re here, do take a look at the very pleasant Taipei City Hakka Cultural Park.

Kishu An is at 107 Tongan St and open 10:00-17:00 Tue-Sun. The nearest metro station is Guting on the MRT's Green and Orange lines. Admission is free.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Taiwan-shaped leaf and a tiny snail

Hiking in Pingtung County’s Neishi Township (獅子鄉) recently with the man behind Taiwan Waterfalls and a couple of other friends, I decided to pause for a while and see whether I could find any interesting insects. I found over a dozen - none of which I could identify-  and also found one of the tiniest snails I’ve ever seen, pictured above. The fact it was clinging to a leaf shaped like Taiwan made it all the more appealing.

Thanks to its warm, wet climate and lush vegetation, Taiwan has a fabulously diverse snail population. New species have been identified as recently as 2014

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

An earthquake memorial in central Taiwan

Not long ago, after an appointment in central Taichung, I jumped on a bus to what is now the city’s Shengang District (神岡區), but which was part of Taichung County until the city and county were merged at the end of 2010. Why Shengang? I’d never been, and I reasoned that in every place there’s something of interest.

Soon after getting off the bus, I came across this memorial. I didn’t notice the man taking a nap behind it until I got home and looked carefully at my photos; while I was there I was busy trying to figure out what event it commemorated, because the characters incised on the plinth were barely legible. 

It turned out to be a memorial to the deadliest earthquake in Taiwan's recorded history, the temblor which struck the west-central region just after dawn on April 21, 1935. According to the Wikipedia entry on the disaster, 3,276 people were killed and just over 12,000 injured. Almost 18,000 houses were destroyed; twice as many suffered serious damage. The most famous and photogenic reminder of the 1935 disaster is Longteng Broken Bridge, a short distance north in Miaoli County. This part of Taiwan was also hit badly by the more recent 921 Earthquake (so named because it occurred in the early hours of September 21, 1999).

Friday, September 30, 2016

Wufeng Story House

Wufeng Story House (霧峰民生故事館, pictured above) celebrates facets of local history and agriculture not far from Taichung, central Taiwan’s principal city.

The Story House occupies a late 1950s two-storey concrete structure which served as both a clinic (downstairs) and a residence for Dr. Lin Peng-fei (林鵬飛, 1920-2010) and his family (upstairs). The building had been empty for some years, and in a sorry state due to earthquakes and typhoons, when it was taken over in 2014 by Wufeng Farmers Association. The association says they decided to fund the project entirely by themselves so they’d retain complete control; in Taiwan as in many other countries, central government money always comes with strings attached.

Cracks in the walls and floors were fixed, new windows were installed, and the doctor’s office was restored to its 1960s appearance. Among the items on display are some - among them a microscope - which Dr. Lin himself used. Others were donated by some of Taiwan’s most notable medical-intellectual families. Over the past decade, nostalgia for pre-1970s Taiwan has become an important driver of domestic tourism.

Like many physicians of his era, Dr. Lin wasn’t a specialist, but handled internal medicine, pediatrics and external medicine on a daily basis. According to one blogger, he was ‘well-respected as an ethical physician who often provided free care to the poor’. 
One part of the downstairs is now a restaurant where typical Taiwanese dishes showcase local produce. Set meals cost around NTD450. Wufeng is especially famous for its mushrooms, so it’s no surprise these feature prominently. The field behind the Story House will soon serve as an organic farm, supplying vegetables to the restaurants and demonstrating to visitors how food can be produced in an ecofriendly manner.

What’s now upstairs is altogether more sobering, but will fascinate anyone curious about Taiwan during the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonisation and World War II. By his late eighties, Dr. Lin was the last surviving member of the class of 1941 at the medical school of what was then called Taihoku Imperial University (now National Taiwan University). Several of his classmates, conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Navy, perished on January 12, 1945 when the ship on which they were sailing to Japanese-occupied Indochina, the Shinsei Maru, was sunk by US warplanes. Some 247 Taiwanese personnel - among them 41 doctors - died in that incident. In all, over 30,000 Taiwanese were killed while serving with the Japanese armed forces between 1937 and the end of the war. 

The Story House’s upper floor is devoted to the sinking of the Shinsei Maru and the Taiwanese who lost their lives on board. Amid the maps, photos and models - and a Rising Sun flag autographed by Taiwanese servicemen - especially striking is the black-and-white movie footage taken at the wedding of one of the doctors in the late 1930s. It’s interesting to see the cars and fashions of that era, but the mere fact the movie was shot is proof of the elite status physicians in Taiwan enjoyed throughout the colonial period, and have continued to enjoy, albeit slightly diminished, ever since. Unfortunately, all the displays here are currently in Chinese only.

A look at Wufeng Story House can easily be combined with a look around the area’s best known attraction, the 921 Earthquake Museum (also known as the 921 Earthquake Educational Park). The museum is just 1.5km from the Story House. 

Less than a minute’s walk to the south of the Story House is Wufeng Farmers Association Distillery (霧峰農會酒莊). There you can buy locally made sakes which has won awards in European competitions.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Wild animals, night and day

I’m on a roll when it comes to catching glimpses of Taiwan’s wild animals! Soon after an engrossing and enlightening midnight nature tour near my home, we were able to spend a few days in a thinly-populated part of Taiwan’s little developed east. 

This year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, a national holiday,l fell on a Thursday; it’s always celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month on China’s ancient lunisolar calendar. Many companies and almost every school decided to take Friday off as well, so people could enjoy a four-day weekend. 
We headed to a spot in Hualien known alternatively as Changhong (‘long red’) Bridge (長虹橋) or Jingpu (靜浦). The former, pictured above, crosses the Xiuguluan River just before it joins the Pacific Ocean. The latter is an indigenous community, and among the residents are Amis folk whose ancestors were likely involved in the Cepo Incident

Compared to the lush foliage that’s commonplace in Taiwan, not much grows between the trees hereabouts because the slopeland is more scree than soil. There are few insects as a result, but also fewer hiding places for larger creatures. One evening, before seeing a banded krait slither away, we came across what was either an immature Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) or a Formosan gem-faced civet (Paguma larvatain the drainage ditch beside the road. Unable to scramble out and take cover among the trees, it ran hither and thither before making its escape. We were grateful to get such a good, close look.
The following day I walked by myself a few kilometres along Hualien County Route 64, a narrow road on the south side of the Xiuguluan River. As I expected, I saw several Formosan macaques leaping from tree to tree, plus some gorgeous butterflies and moths. But the most satisfying moments were those spent watching a family of three crab-eating mongooses (Herpestes urva) crossing the road, crossing back again, then scampering into the forest. I took several photos with my smartphone; none are worth posting here, but they did help with identification. The mongoose image above is borrowed from this webpage, where you’ll find several other excellent pictures.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A nocturnal nature ramble

Inland of central Tainan, the hill country starts about 25km from the sea. Back in 2007, I wrote two articles about this region of mixed forest and bamboo groves for a local English-language newspaper. (See here and here. At that time the authorities decreed 新化 should be spelled Sinhua; they now prefer Xinhua.)

I’ve hiked through these woodlands dozens of times but, until last weekend, never at night. Meeting up a little later than planned with Richard Foster (an old friend and full-time birding guide) and Dane Harris (an American who’s led dozens of people on middle-of-the-night nature rambles), we entered the forest near Xinhua National Forest Arboretum (新化國家植物園). 

Within minutes of leaving our vehicle, we spotted in the canopy right above us a red giant flying squirrel (Petaurista petaurista, like the one pictured above). I was as surprised as I was delighted: I’ve glimpsed these creatures before, but never so close to a major urban area. From time to time, Dane also comes across Asian palm civets; we weren’t in luck. (Within a fortnight my luck changed for the better.) 
Dane’s true passion is snakes, and he’s as willing to hold them as a Pentecostal pastor in Appalachia. But rather than put his trust in a deity, he practices safe-handling techniques. These are critical, as one of the four serpentine species we encountered was the extremely venomous many-banded krait (Bungarus multicinctus). Our tally for the evening also included a red-banded snake (Dinodon rufozonatum), three common mock vipers (Psammodynastes pulverulentus papenfussi; a subspecies endemic to Taiwan pictured below) and one greater green snake (Cyclophiops major, shown above).

According to the excellent website Snakes of Taiwan: “the harmless, invertebrate-eating greater green snake is frequently mistaken for the Chinese tree viper [aka Stejneger's pit viper or Trimeresurus stejnegeri] and subsequently killed… [but] the differences are quite obvious at a closer glance: the Chinese tree viper has a triangular head, red eyes, a white stripe along both sides of the body, and a reddish-brown tail. The greater green snake has an oval head, black eyes, no stripes, and a green tail. Its scales are also much shinier than the matte, dull coloring of the Chinese tree viper.”  
Dane glimpsed but was unable to detain and show us a Taiwan habu (Protobothrops mucrosquamatus), a highly venomous snake alternatively known as a brown spotted pitviper. 

The understory near Xinhua is rich in insect life. We encountered dozens of grasshoppers representing at least seven species or subspecies, a single European mantis, lots of snails, a few slugs, large spiders and impressive centipedes. Dane pointed out a creature I’d never previously heard of: Thelyphonida, commonly known as a whip scorpion or vinegaroon (pictured below). These black  arachnids are typically five or six cm long, including tail. The name “vinegaroon” comes from their ability to squirt out a mildly noxious, vinegar-like substance when threatened. They feed on millipedes, cockroaches and crickets, and when once you’ve learned to recognise them, you’ll see them all over the forest.
Glowing mushrooms were another highlight. Of the world’s 75 species of luminous fungi, nine - including one only identified in 2013 - grow in Taiwan. 

Dane is happy to introduce Xinhua’s wildlife to visitors and expats based in other cities. These expeditions, which often last well into the early hours, are moderately strenuous. Good footwear is essential as you’ll likely go off-trail, especially if you hope to see bioluminescent mushrooms. You’ll also need your own transport to the trailhead, but Dane can lend powerful flashlights. He can be reached via daneharris@hotmail.com or through Facebook. The photos here are his; lots more can be found on his Facebook page.

Monday, September 5, 2016

2016 Taiwan KOM Challenge

Starting around 2007 there was a huge shift in public attitudes to cycling. Living in Taiwan back in the 1990s, I was often asked: ‘Why do you ride a bike when you can afford a motorcycle?’ However, I was never seriously tempted by the nimble Vespa-type scooters which dominate the roads. They’re very convenient, but not good for the environment.

Around a decade ago, Taiwanese began to rediscover their love of cycling. This trend was both anticipated and bolstered by a hit local movie called Island Etude. The main character is a young man who spends a week exploring Taiwan by bike, along the way immersing himself in the island’s natural beauty and rich traditional culture. Since then, getting around by pedal-power has been in vogue for reasons I outlined a few months ago.

Andrew Kerslake, an American cyclist and long-term resident of Taiwan once told me: 'Taiwan's value for cycling comes from its unique location and topography. In a relatively short distance a rider can skim along the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean, soar above alpine peaks, pass between the urban and the rural, disappear into the shadows of the jungle or lazily soft pedal along a meandering cycling trail. Taiwan surely has the potential to become the Tuscany, Flanders or Pyrenees of Asia.'

Andrew’s blog is an excellent resource for anyone planning serious riding in Taiwan.

Realizing Taiwan’s suitability for bike touring, the authorities have developed an annual Taiwan Cycling FestivalMany of the festival’s featured events are aimed at leisure riders who’d rather enjoy a slow circuit of Sun Moon Lake than give themselves a real workout. That said, the most exciting component of the festival, for spectators as well as the small number of people allowed to participate, is undoubtedly the Taiwan KOM Challenge.
Unlike ‘king of the mountains’ titles awarded to hill-hopping cyclists in long-distance races such as the Tour de France, the Taiwan KOM Challenge is a stand-alone race. Competitors start within sight of the Pacific Ocean near Hualien City, proceed through Taroko Gorge, then tackle the uplands of Taroko National Park. For photos of the route, see this page on Andrew's blog. 

The 2016 KOM Challenge is scheduled for October 28. No more than 600 riders will be allowed to sign up, with half of those spots reserved for cyclists based outside Taiwan. First prize is NT$1,000,000.

After taking part in the 2014 KOM Challenge, British rider Dave Everett wrote on the Cycling Tips website (where the photo above comes from) that the race, ‘could easily be classed as the unofficial world championships of mountain climbing. The Taiwan KOM Challenge is exactly what the name suggests: a challenge. It’s held on 105km of spectacular roads that rise from the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean to a quite literally breathtaking 3,275m mountain summit.’

It was Everett’s first visit to Taiwan and he was deeply impressed: ‘[This] small island has climbs that can best any in Europe. In fact, Taiwan would have to be one of the best locations I’ve have the pleasure of turning the pedals over in.’

Others have also gushed about the route. According to the Taiwan KOM Challenge website, the gradient never exceeds 2% for the first 20km. For much of the route it's around 6%, but in 'the final 9.5kms, and then the real challenge begins. Riders will traverse gradients from 10-22%.'

Of course, there's nothing to stop anyone tackling this route any day of the year. It's also possible to break it up over more than one day; there are places to stay in Tianxiang (天祥) and it's sometimes possible to arrange accommodation at Dayuling (大禹嶺). 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

An indigenous chapel in Tainan

Cycling through Tainan recently, I stumbled across this forlorn-looking but intriguing building less than 100m east of the soon-to-be-buried railway line. It was locked up and there was no one around while I was there, so all I could go on are the nine Chinese characters on the stained metalwork beneath the cross. From left to right they’re pronounced: ‘Wutai Jiaohui Nankai Libai Tang.’

There are plenty of Christian places of worship in Taiwan, and it’s not unusual to see one as small as this. It was the first two characters that really caught my eye: Wutai (霧台) is an indigenous township in the mountains of Pingtung County, about 90km southeast of here as the crow flies. In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful places in all of Taiwan. But for all the region’s scenic splendour, jobs are few and higher education means leaving home. Most of Wutai’s inhabitants belong to the Rukai (魯凱) tribe, and like most of Taiwan’s aborigines the majority of them are Christian. There’s long been a Rukai community in Tainan and this ‘prayer hall’ seems to be a branch of an established Rukai church elsewhere in the city. It’s perhaps no coincidence it’s also near another of the area's Christian landmarks, Tainan Theological College and Seminary.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Books: Taiwan 101, volumes 1 and 2

The name Richard Saunders is well known among Westerners living in Taiwan, especially those who're into hiking. A classical musician by training, Saunders has spent much of the past 23 years exploring the island. No foreigners, and probably no more than a few dozen Taiwanese, know the hills and trails of north Taiwan better than he does. He’s shared his knowledge in a series of books, and has just published a new two-volume guide called Taiwan 101. The first volume covers Taiwan’s north and east, and contains background chapters on the country’s history and culture. The second focuses on destinations in central and southern Taiwan, plus outlying islands like Matsu. The books together have 101 chapters; the actual number of attractions featured is well over 500. GPS coordinates are provided for each place.

If you’re outside Taiwan, getting ahold of these books isn’t easy; contacting the Taipei Hikers group which Richard founded is perhaps your best best. For interviews with Richard, click here or here. For a very useful review of the book by a Taipei-based blogger, follow this link.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

National 2-28 Memorial Park

Ererba (二二八, “two, two, eight”) was “the darkest page in [Taiwan's] modern history,” according to this recent article by Linda van der Horst in The Diplomat. What's known in English as the February 28 Incident actually began on February 27, 1947 when a widow selling contraband cigarettes in central Taipei was accosted by government agents. When bystanders came to her aid, a shot was fired and a man died. Van der Horst's description of what followed is succinct and fair: 'That unleashed the wrath of the Taiwanese, who were unhappy with widespread suppression by and malfeasance of the newly arrived KMT rulers. Chiang Kai-shek launched a crackdown on February 28, 1947 that lasted for weeks and saw up to 28,000 civilian casualties (although the official number has not been confirmed). The [massacres were] the prelude to the era of White Terror from 1949 until martial law lifted in 1987, when dissidents and intellectuals were imprisoned or executed to assert KMT rule over the island.'

As news of the shooting on February 27 spread, government offices in various parts of Taiwan were attacked and ransacked. Mainland Chinese civilians, who were easy to pick out because of their different accents, were assaulted and in some cases murdered. With the local KMT-installed leaders set back on their heels, Taiwanese professionals in urban areas saw an opportunity to express grievances and demand reforms. However, as soon as Nationalist reinforcements arrived, Chiang's regime gave no quarter. In the wake of the incident, up to 80% of city- and county-level elites 'disappeared from the political field' (to use the words of a report produced for the government-backed 2-28 Memorial Foundation). In the years that followed, around 140,000 people were detained, and some were imprisoned for more than two decades.

Repression was especially bad in and around Chiayi, so it's hardly surprising the city was chosen as the site of the National 2-28 Memorial Park (二二八國家紀念公園). Its suburban location means few outsiders come here, but the site at Liucuo (劉厝, spelled Liutso on information panels inside the park) was chosen for a reason. Atrocities took place here in early March 1947 after Nationalist forces holed up inside the nearby air base (nowadays Chiayi's dual-use military-civilian facility) received information that anti-government rebels were hiding in the community. At least 300 people died during several days of violence.

While the park, which was dedicated in late 2011, isn't as educational as the well-known 2-28 museum in Taipei, it is a worthy monument to those who died. The profiles of notable victims, such as renowned painter Chen Cheng-po (陳澄波; monument pictured above), make for sobering reading. 

The park, which is located between Dafu Road (大富路) and Dagui Road (大貴路), never closes. The indoor exhibitions area is open Wednesday to Sunday, 9:30am to 4:30pm. According to Google Maps, it's 3.6km from Chiayi TRA Station and 13.4km from Chiayi HSR Station. If you're coming from the latter, you may as well also visit the National Palace Museum Southern Branch.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

How to eat like a local in Tainan on Synapticism.com

This post is the better part of two years old, but thanks to the unchanging nature of Tainan, still extremely useful. And as we've come to expect from Synapticism, the photos accompanying the text (which includes Chinese script and hanyu pinyin pronunciation guides) are lovely; the one above features an eatery inside the downtown's old fabric market. I wrote about some of that neighbourhood's culinary highlights in this January 2015 article

Monday, May 16, 2016

Taipei: The Bradt e-Guide

Visiting Taipei for business or pleasure, yet lacking the time to go down island or explore the east? In that case, you might not bother to pack a guidebook which covers all of Taiwan. For the sake of such travellers, Bradt has extracted the Taipei chapter from my guidebook and repackaged it as a city guide. It's available only in electronic formats; unlike the full Taiwan guide, there's no print edition. 

The Taipei e-Guide can be ordered direct from Bradt, and should be available via Amazon any day now.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Walking tours in Tainan

There’s nothing like being shown around by someone who both speaks your language well, and knows the area like the back of his or her hand. But even in Taiwan, where locals often go out of their way to greet and help visitors from afar, you’re unlikely to meet such a person by chance. Fortunately for tourists, walking tours are catching on. One organization which has taken it upon itself to organize regular pedestrian excursions is My Tainan Tour, backed by Tainan City Government. 

For more than two centuries until the 1880s, Tainan served as Taiwan’s administrative capital. It retains a stupendous density of historical and cultural attractions: When Tainan natives say, ‘there's a major temple every five steps, a minor shrine every three,’ they’re hardly exaggerating. 

My Tainan Tour currently offers two walks. The ‘Classic Tour’ takes explorers to the city’s sublime Confucius Temple, what’s now the National Museum of Taiwan Literature, and then the Altar of Heaven (aka Tiantan), a lively place of worship. The fourth and final stops represent, respectively, the Qing era and the Japanese period. The former is the early 19th-century Wu Garden. The latter is Hayashi Department Store. An always-bustling emporium which exudes traditional Japanese refinement, it has three features probably no other department store in the world can boast - an elevator with a mosaic floor, a restored rooftop Shinto shrine [shown above] and scars from World War II air raids.

The 'Local Life Tour' is less concerned with relics and more with how Tainan folk go about their lives. It's a stroll through a cluster of narrow thoroughfares around 700m northwest of Hayashi Department Store. The most famous of these is Shennong Street, much-loved and -photographed on account of its antique appearance. Largely intact traditional two-story houses with tiled roofs and wooden upper floors line both sides of the street.

Both tours last around two hours, depending on how fast you walk, how many questions you ask, and how many detours you make. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

National Palace Museum Southern Branch

The most important and expensive museum project for a long time - certainly since the National Museum of Taiwan History - the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院南部院區) finally opened its doors to the public a few days before the end of last year. I say ‘finally’ because the opening came several years later than originally scheduled. Among the various delays and controversies which dogged the project was the first architect quitting back several years ago.

Some have questioned the purpose of the museum, which according to Taiwan’s Executive Yuan (Cabinet Office) is to be ‘a world-class museum of Asian art and culture’. Famously, the NPM in Taipei has far more artefacts than it can display at any one time, but rather than provide additional exhibition space so more of these treasures can be shown to the public, the Southern Branch casts its net far beyond Greater China. A few people have wondered if this policy was part of efforts by President Chen Shui-bian (who gave the museum the green light in 2001) to water down Taiwan’s Han Chinese heritage, and thus build a distinctive and pro-independence Taiwanese identity. If this was the case, it’s surprising this aspect of the project wasn’t modified by President Ma Ying-jeou well before opening.

Daily visitor numbers are being capped, and reservations must be made in advance via the museum’s website, so getting into the Southern Branch isn’t easy. But thanks to my reporting background, I managed to jump the queue and pay a visit.

I took the high-speed railway to Chiayi because Chiayi HSR Station is much nearer to the museum in Taibao City (嘉義縣太保市, a city with a mere 37,200 inhabitants!) than Chiayi’s conventional train station. Rather than walk 4.6km on a damp day, I hopped aboard a minibus which stops at the museum before proceeding to Zhecheng Cultural Park (蔗埕文化園區), which is better known as Suantou Sugar Factory (蒜頭糖廠). There’s a bus every half hour (adults pay NT$24 one way). I was the only passenger.

The museum bus stop is 530m from the entrance, and none of the car parks are significantly closer, so visitors get a good look at the 70ha grounds before stepping inside. At the time of my visit, after some heavy rain, there seemed to be as much mud as grass. But I’m sure, within a few years when the trees have grown, these parklands will look marvelous.

In terms of providing barrier-free access for the elderly, pregnant and disabled, Taiwan is doing much better than a decade ago. I was pleased to see, at the visitors centre near the bus stop, golf carts available to take people to the door of the museum (NT$50 per person). At the same spot, bicycles can be rented (NT$100 for the whole day).

Opening hours are 9am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday, and getting into the museum costs most people NT$250. Until June 30 this year, residents of Yunlin and Chiayi counties and Tainan and Chiayi cities can get in for free, so long as they’ve made a reservation and they’re ROC citizens. Like the NPM in Taipei, the Southern Branch of the NPM is one of a handful of institutions which doesn’t believe in extending to tax-paying foreign residents of Taiwan the same benefits given to local citizens. Disappointing…

So is the museum worth the time and trouble? Externally, it’s striking but far from beautiful. I agree with those who’ve compare it to a giant black slug. It doesn’t come close to the Lanyang Museum, the landmark which made architect Kris Yao (姚仁喜) justly famous.

And inside? The Southern Branch has five permanent exhibitions, among them a multimedia gallery where three videos introducing Asian art play in rotation. As far as I could tell, none of the three has English subtitles. There’s also a brief and mostly monolingual look at the history of Chiayi. This focuses on folk beliefs, and displays some original documents relating to the suppression of Lin Shuang-wen’s rebellion.

Far better, in my opinion, are the sections on tea culture in East Asia, and on Buddhist artefacts drawn from the NPM’s collection. In the former I learned that steeping tea leaves in hot water is a relatively modern method of preparing the drink. The highlight of the latter is a kangyur (a compilation of Buddha’s sayings) in Tibetan script created for the Emperor Kangxi in 1669. Although the individual pages are quite plain, the boards made to protect and separate parts of the canon are quite fabulous, and made me think of the illuminated manuscripts drawn by Christian monks in medieval Europe.

Of the temporary exhibitions, one greatly impressed me: Treasures from Across the Kunlun Mountains: Islamic Jades in the NPM Collection will be here until October 12 this year. Among the dozens of items were lustrous tea cups, spittoons, Quran stands, and other prized exhibits fashioned from nephrite or jadeite. Several of the non-Chinese pieces are inlaid with precious stones or gold thread.

Jade art is often thought of as quintessentially Chinese, but here were exquisite objets d’art from Mughal India or the westernmost provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the former were gifted to Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1735 to 1796), who believed these imports were better than any produced by Chinese artists.

For me, the Southern Branch’s lack of paintings and other two-dimensional arts makes it currently less interesting than its big sister in Taipei. I’ll be back, no doubt, but not very soon.

(The photo is taken from the museum's Chinese-language Wikipedia page.)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mihu Trail near Alishan

The Alishan area has an abundance of short but exceptionally pleasant hiking paths. One I hadn't tackled until recently – but which I'll be adding to the guidebook next time around – is the 2.3km-long Mihu Trail (迷糊步道), not far from the indigenous village of Dabang (達邦) and the Hakka hamlet of Dinghu (頂湖).
Most tourists arrive by car or motorcycle, and park at km66.4 on Highway 18. There are toilets here, but none along the path. The trail follows the Miyang Creek as it plunges toward the Zengwen River (曾文溪), but for the most part you hear rather than see the waters. The path is is well designed and well maintained. The concrete steps have been textured to resemble timber; there are wooden railings where necessary, as well as thatched pavilions where visitors can rest in the shade. In fact, thanks to the trees and bamboo, hikers are seldom exposed to direct sunlight. It's really worthwhile scanning the forest, and not only for the numerous birds that can be spotted. We saw lizards, and this bug, which reminded me of a moose...
Just be careful of the 'biting cat' nettles! At the end of the trail, you have three options. Like most people, we climbed back up to the car park at km66.4. If we'd had more time, and someone to pick us up there, we would've continued along the 1.88km-long Fushan Historic Trail (福山古道) to the village it's named after, and then to km68.6 on Highway 18. Alternatively, one could tramp along Road 169 to Dabang, from where a few buses each day head to Chiayi City. That would be time consuming, but very scenic.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Gourmet burgers with Taiwanese characteristics

I'm not a food blogger, and many international visitors to Taiwan tell me they want to try as many local dishes and delicacies as possible. So why am I writing about burgers served in a swanky hotel? Because W Taipei has put a fresh and distinctly Taiwanese spin on this Western staple: The hotel's Woobar and kitchen table (no part of the latter restaurant's name is capitalized, it seems) now offer what they call a DIY Burgerand among the protein options are local pulled black pork, three-cup chicken, and stinky tofu. 
As someone who adores the deep-fried, crunchy variant of stinky tofu, I felt compelled to go for the soy option. When this arrived at my table – in a charcoal bun, topped with coleslaw, bacon, a Portabella mushroom, and Swiss cheese – the first surprise was the smell. There wasn't any. Usually when I eat stinky tofu, I'm surrounded by what I regard as a mouth-watering bouquet even before I take a seat. (Non-fans might describe it as a nauseating stench.) This is because, in a night market, the tofu is fried or stewed in full view. W Taipei's burgers are, of course, cooked and plated in a kitchen the other side of at least one door. That said, as soon as I cut into the burger, I could detect the familiar aroma. For some stinky-tofu addicts, the flavour might not be strong enough, but I enjoyed both the mild taste and the crumbly texture. 

I dug out the toppings and tried each in isolation. The slaw was especially good. If I go back, I'll likely try kim chi; in Taiwanese night markets, stinky tofu is often served with zesty pickled cabbage. And rather than beer-battered onion rings, I'd go for a salad on the side. There are too many options to list all of them here: Eight proteins, 20 toppings (you can choose up to three), eight cheeses, seven types of bun, 14 different sauces, nine side dishes, plus a few other options (notably pan-seared rouge duck foie gras) for which you need to pay extra. The basic set is NTD385 plus 10% service charge; this includes a soft drink. 

W Taipei is within walking distance of Taipei City Hall MRT Station on the Blue Line, and thus in the same part of the capital as Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall and Songshan Cultural and Creative Park.  

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Two wheels are often better than four

There are at least four reasons for Taiwan's bicycling renaissance. Firstly, now that two-day weekends are the norm, Taiwanese have more free time than ever before. Secondly, as in other parts of the world where eating well and being sedentary is the default lifestyle, many citizens are concerned about their waistlines. 

The third reason is that good, affordable bicycles for all demographics are available. Taiwan has long been a major manufacturer of bicycles. In recent years, as labour and other costs have risen, local bike makers like Giant and Merida have moved up market. Their efforts to produce high-quality bicycles and bike accessories have met with great success. In 2014, Taiwan exported almost US$2.8 billion worth of complete bikes and bicycle components. 
Finally, the government has done its bit. The authorities pro-bicycle initiatives have come in for some criticism, but at least taking bikes on trains is now easier. In both Taipei and Kaohsiung, bike enthusiasts can take their 'iron horses' (鐵馬, which is how many Taiwanese refer to their bicycles) on certain MRT trains, opening up those metropolises and their hinterlands for exploration. Assisting cyclists with tea and drinking water, as well as directions, has been added to the police’s duties. 

International interest in Taiwan as a cycling destination has been building, thanks to magazine articles, TV reports, and at least one movie.  The 2014 romance Nanpu (Riding the Breeze has inspired some moviegoers to bike around Tamsui, Jiufen, and other places featured in this Taiwanese-Japanese co-production. 

Anyone touring Taiwan during the summer is likely to run into clusters of cyclists going all the way around the island. The total distance depends on the precise route, but is often over 1,200km. Huandao (環島, 'round the island') bike journeys have become both a rite of passage and an expression of Taiwanese identity. While it's possible to camp in many places, some riders prefer to travel light, carrying nothing other than a change of clothing and money to buy accommodation and food. 

Bike-rental businesses are boon for both foreign tourists and Taiwanese. Giant Bicycles’ rental operation can supply bikes and other items suitable even for tall Westerners; these can be collected at one location and returned at another - perfect for those on short visits to Taiwan who wish to bike from, say, Hualien to Taitung. 

Both cities face the Pacific Ocean in Taiwan’s unspoiled east, and nowhere are the often-quoted words of Giant’s founder, King Liu (劉金標) - 'Driving is too fast. Walking is too slow. Riding is the best way to enjoy the most beautiful scenes of life' - more apt. Liu, who was born in 1934, still cycles every day.

It's just about possible for a fit, dedicated cyclist to see both coastal and high-altitude marvels in a single day. The distance from Dapeng Bay on the southwest coast to Wutai, a stunningly scenic township deep in the mountains, is just 65km, but involves ascending to 1,000m above sea level. Even steeper climbs exist: Taiwan's toughest bike challenge is undoubtedly the 'King of the Mountains' route, from the shores of the Pacific to an altitude of 3,275m within Taroko National Park (where the photo above was taken; its from Wikimedia Commons). This webpage has a detailed description of the ups and downs of the 105km-long KOM route; it's a regular highway and thus open to cyclists every day of the year, unless there's a blockage caused by a landslide

Experienced bikers say that, before starting any long downhill sections, it's a good idea to lower saddle, to reduce the risk of going over the handlebars in the event of a sudden stop. And it goes without saying that cyclists should always wear helmets - Taiwan's roads, unfortunately, aren't as safe as the Netherlands'. In the countryside, aggressive dogs are sometimes a problem.

If this talk of high mountains and long distances is off putting, be reassured that one needn't be an Olympic-level athlete to enjoy cycling in Taiwan. There are plenty of family-friendly bicycle trails suitable for those who haven't been on a bike since childhood. Two of the most attractive are in Greater Taichung; known as the Houfeng and Dongfeng bike paths, they can be completed in a single day.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Avoiding crowds when touring Taiwan

Over at Forbes.com, my friend Ralph Jennings gives some sound advice for places (and categories of places) visitors to Taiwan should avoid if they dislike crowds, going beyond the obvious duo of night markets and temple festivals. He’s right in saying that around Yongkang Street (a foodie neighbourhood that’s become so popular the authorities have begun deleting any mention of it from official guides) and Taipei Main Station, there are always huge numbers of people, and finding a spot to sit down and have a relaxing coffee isn't easy. However, if you head into the capital’s backstreets, it isn’t difficult to find cafes where you can enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. Digital nomads are good at sniffing out such places.

I’ve never been to Yangmingshan National Park during flower season or when the cherry blossoms are out, and I’ve no intention of going. At weekends and on public holidays, the traffic in and out - not to mention the queues for buses and the lack of seats once you’re one - is bad enough. Yet in the middle of the week, the park is wonderful; get a copy of Richard Saunders’ book if you plan to do any serious exploring. 

I’m not the only person who believes the allure of Kenting National Park is often overstated. The beaches aren’t that great, and the accommodation is overpriced. Go to Taitung, or the indigenous communities in the mountains of Pingtung, instead.
Number four on his list is the Danshui boardwalk on weekend afternoons. In my opinion, Danshui’s history always makes it worth visiting, and it’s near enough to Taipei you can leave the moment you feel bored. It’s not even necessary to return to the capital the way you came. If time allows, you can set off on a loop around the north coast, as I explain in this article.

Jennings finishes up with a warning anyone thinking of going to Taitung or Hualien should heed. Between Friday afternoon and late Sunday night, eastbound trains are often booked solid. To get tickets, try at least a week in advance. Go midweek if you can, because both the Kaohsiung-Taitung and Taipei-Hualien railroads provide varied and always interesting views.

Among places I’d add to the list: The Pingxi Branch Railway during the summer; the old heart of Anping on sunny weekends; and pretty much everywhere during the Lunar New Year holidays.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Praying for Fertility: The Baogong Stone

Dajia (大甲), now part of Greater Taichung, is synonymous with the cult of Mazu, the sea goddess revered by the Fujianese migrants who arrived in this region in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their principal house of worship is Jenn Lann Temple, founded in 1732. 

Of course, humans were living in Dajia long before those settlers arrived. It's said the toponym Dajia derives from the name of the lowland aboriginal tribe that once dominated the area, the Taokas (道卡斯). Like Taiwan’s other indigenous groups, the Taokas were of Austronesian origin and spoke a language very different to Mandarin or Taiwanese, but somewhat similar to the Maori tongues of New Zealand. As a distinct tribe, they disappeared long ago, but some of their culture lives on in certain local traditions. 

One location where the influence of aboriginal beliefs on local religious practices is still apparent is on the outskirts of Dajia, in Waipu District’s Xincuo (外埔區新厝). There, childless couples hoping for a baby pray to a 30cm-high rock known as the Baogong Stone (包公石). This object of veneration has a crudely phallic appearance, but - if you look closely- you’ll notice what could be eyes and other facial features. 

Until 2010, the stone was kept in a land-god shrine. Because its apparent ability to cure infertility was drawing a lot of media coverage, there were fears it could be stolen. (From time to time, efficacious icons are snatched from Taiwanese temples.) It was thus moved to its current location, the front room of a private home in the neighbourhood. The family who look after the stone keep a list of couples who report pregnancies after coming here, and the stone is credited with three or four successes per month. 

Taiwan's birthrate is no longer the lowest in the world, but it remains well below replacement level. 

A couple's chances of conceiving are greater, it's claimed, if both visit and pray to the Baogong Stone. If only one can attend, he or she should bring some of his/her spouse's clothing, and rub the garments on the stone's tip. When telling a friend about this place, he asked: "Would rubbing underwear against the stone work better than, say, a sweater?"

It's a good question, and I wish I knew the answer.   

Monday, February 29, 2016

Taroko's Lushui Trail

One of the region's best short hikes, the Lushui Trail in Taroko National Park offers gorgeous vistas in both sunny weather and, as the two images below show, when conditions aren't so kind. Long stretches of the 2km-long trail are in forest, so you're never far from shade, which is important at the height of summer. There's also a crudely-cut tunnel; it's so short it doesn't matter if you've forgotten your flashlight, but taller individuals should take care not to scrape their heads on the ceiling. 
Some visitors decide to skip this trail when they discover they must either retrace their steps, or march back along the road to where they parked your car or motorcycle. In my opinion, the trail is so attractive it's worth allotting the time and energy to do it both ways. You'll get different views, and you've a better chance of glimpsing endemic Formosan macaques.
No permits are needed for this trail, and the faint of heart can attempt it safe in the knowledge no section is nearly as precipitous as the Zhuilu Old Trail.    

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Public art on the east coast

This sculpture, called Time's Radiograph, was created by Panaite Chifu of Romania in 2005, as part of that year's Hualien International Stone Sculpture Festival. It's on permanent display near the border between Hualien and Taitung counties, on a vantage point which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. 

Public art isn't uncommon in Taiwan. In 1992, a law was passed which stipulated at least 1% of the budget of major building projects should be devoted to beautifying the surrounding environment with artworks. Several MRT stations in Taipei and Kaohsiung contain sculptures or installations; elevated stations in the latter are also striking pieces of architecture.