Thursday, 29 January 2015

wet and windy

About half an hour into our ride we find a great wild-camping spot - a nice park area with picnic tables and pagodas along the riverside.  It hurts, but we continue on our little back-country road up the valley.  We reflect how such a pretty spot would probably have been comandeered by a noisy bunch of people having a barbecue and too many drinks if it was in England, whereas here it is a peaceful haven for the local townies escaping the city.  The road is easy-going and clearly marked for cyclists.  We pull up at a designated 'bike station' to get water and walk into a noisy bunch of people having a barbecue and drinking too much.  None of them seem to be on bikes but are using the facilities anyway.  I ask about water and a jolly drunk man pushes a bottle of red wine at me.  I decline and point to the bikes. English, eh? he asks, and calls over his drunk wife who tells me she loves me.  Meanwhile a sober woman is filling our water bottles and I finally have a glass of red to appease my new friends.  It's only 11.30 in the morning. I think we might have joined in if they hadn't already finished eating.....

Somewhere along the way the road begins to climb and we pass a peloton of road cyclists free-wheeling downhill in the opposite direction.  Eventually we come back to the big river and towards the end of the day come to another little park area at the start of another bike path route.  It's empty and quiet and perfect for camping. In the morning we join a throng of Chinese tourists all out on rented bikes passing through the fields of rape and along the dykes.  For a while we find ourselves on the main road but soon find the next back country road.  There are a few Taiwanese kids riding this way - in quite a large group - all travelling light with just a backpack or small panniers on the back.  A drizzly rain drives us into a perfectly located visitor centre where we can get hot water and free wi-fi.  The clouds look low and we don't go far before camping on the 'wrong' side of a dyke, beside a river.  It's a lovely spot but in the morning the rain is heavy and we end up returning to the visitor centre just so that we can hang out the tent to dry.   By lunchtime we are ready to roll again in the intermittent rain.  We fuel up at a little fast food place in the nearby town and then hit the road northwards.  At the days end we find our little road is climbing up and down more than we'd like and then we hit another bike path that offers some easy cycling and the possibility of a good wild camp so we take a narrow bridge over the river and nestle into a plantation of trees, out of the misty drizzle.  It turns out to be a very nice quiet camp.  
Gayle amuses herself whilst John does a 'Gabor' in the supermarket

We haven't had so much rain since we left Norway possibly back in August 2012, but really that's just because we have been incredibly lucky.  Or is it selective amnesia.  Wet cycling is okay if you know you can get dry again, but when you're wild camping and you're not sure when the rainy days will end it can be trying.  We like cycling here in Taiwan though because it's never too cold and there's always somewhere to hide from the rain.  Oh look, a 7-11....
Enjoying the morning sun courtesy of 7-11
Finally the sun reappears as we close in on Hualien, a small city on the coast. Once again we come across a peloton of youngsters on a round-the-island trip.  We are waved over for snacks and photos. Their team leader, an older man, gives us tips on the route to Taipei.  He shows us the coastal road to Yilan on our map.  But no, we tell him, we want to cycle up the Taroko Gorge and then head over to Yilan.  He looks at us askance.  "You must like the mountains then." 
Gayle is unfazed about posing next to the Invisible Woman

The East Rift Valley from Taitung has been very pretty in places but we're thinking about the next part of our route already and hoping the rain will stay away. We need to be prepared for the mountains.  Where's the Carrefour?

whose navigating?

Sunday, 25 January 2015

can you feel it?

it ain't Mongolia
Twenty-eight hot baths later it's time to get going again.  The road curls around the southern tip of the island and climbs the ridge separating the east and west coasts.  The landscape has changed - there's no forest here, just bare open bluffs and cliffs with rocky coastline.  We've been looking forward to this because everyone tells us that the most beautiful part of Taiwan is the east coast.  In fact it is the least developed, which may explain why, but as we head northwards we realise that the geography is much more dramatic on this side and there is very little coastal plain.  For a couple of days we are climbing and descending steep winding roads to and from the coast.  The road is free of trucks.  The forest has returned.  A couple stop and offer us oranges for energy.  The villages are further apart and we camp behind a health clinic.  I complain to Gayle that this blog is getting rather boring.  We cycle here, we cycle there.  My descriptive powers are not quite up to the landscapes - you'll have to check out Gayle's photos.  She tells me to put some deep emotion in to it but hey, this is our life.  It feels kind of normal to be cycling slowly uphill, with no idea what to expect around the next corner, and then descend rather more quickly with a silly grin on our faces.  Deep emotions don't come into it.  It's fun, it's hard (why is it still hard sometimes?) and wild camping behind the wall of a village health clinic, out of sight of locals on scooters whizzing home, is a good end to a good day.  Throw some jokes in, Gayle tells me, but not everything is funny.  But come to think of it........ The M1 and the M25 are in the pub, sat at the bar, when this scrawny thin piece of tarmac walks in. "Don't look at him, mate." the M1 advises. "Nah, don't even think about eye-contact!" "Why not?" asks the M25 "I mean, how can us two big motorways be frightened of that skinny little bit of tarmac, eh?" "Yeah, well, I'm warning you,"says the M1, "he's a cycle path".

reflecting how funny life can be
ecology culture coffee
The east coast of Taiwan is popular with Taiwanese for cycling, but it takes us for surprise when we join the main southern cross-island highway and find a cluster of cyclists heading down to the coast too.  They all stop at the same restaurant for lunch.  "It's good food then?" I ask one woman. "Yes, all cyclists stop here to eat beef noodles.  It is very famous." So we stop and eat chicken and veg with rice.  We hate to follow the crowd.   The waitress in the restaurant speaks perfect English - turns out she's Filippino.  Now back on the main road heading up the coast the road has flattened out and is awash with young men and women in lycra, riding road bikes with a couple of panniers.  We trundle along at a healthy speed and give 'em a run for their money up the short hills that come along now and again.  We ask three young Chinese students where they will stay tonight.  They tell us the elementary school in one of the towns.  We make a mental note of this.  It seems it's perfectly fine for cyclists to ask to stay at the schools.  But we don't think anyone is camping because everyone's travelling so light. Towards the end of the day the dark clouds hovering over the hills finally beget rain. 
The timing is lousy.  An hour before sundown and we are getting good and wet.  Our female cyclist from the restaurant stops at a convenience store and helps us get online using her mobile phone.  The wi-fi provider sends her the code we need to pay.  She then heads off and it is only a few minutes later that we realise that she is being texted with our password for the wi-fi too.  Oh well.  That evening there are roadworks and a couple of steep climbs and what with the rain we are keen to stop as soon as we find a place.  A track leads us into an orchard of custard apples and we pitch up between the raised beds before the rain falls again.

Our coastal road north brings us to Taitung.  It's a small city.  Our road almost takes us all the way past until we realise that we need to find the city centre.  There's a lazy laid-back feel about the place which is a relative term in Taiwan.  The whole nation seems rather relaxed compared to China.  But here on the east coast it's chilling, man.  We are being hosted by Liu here.  He works at the city's Museum of Pre-history, history being the arrival of the Chinese immigrants, so it's really a museum of the Austronesian people in Taiwan.  Liu is a very polite man, and maybe a little shy, but he welcomes us into his home with tea and cooks us a great bowl of noodles.  He's the first Taiwanese we have seen cooking and, judging by his kitchen, and the noodles, he enjoys it.  We enjoy his cooking too.  Liu is really quite a crazy kind couch surfing host who never says no to anyone and has a large house to accomodate his guests.  On our first evening we meet Pieter and Youi who have come on a visit from Korea and spend a happy hour or two chatting away.

Taitung art village

On Saturday Liu suggests we go for a ride in the surrounding countryside.  Andrew and Suzanne, Czechs with very unCzech names (I think they were Andriy and Suzanna) stayed the night before and they are planning to catch a train but Liu persuades them to join us as we head up along the East Rift Valley which runs parallel to the coast.  First we stop off at a soya milk farm where they produce not only the milk, but tofu and other soy milk products, none of which I can name.  We can peek inside but the main thing to do is sit at an old cable reel set on its side and tuck into something like yoghurt and then a fried tofu dish.  Both are great.  

steaming vats of soy milk
The valley is wide and flat around the huge river that runs southwards.  As usual there's not much water at this time of year, but the surrounding dykes indicate what happens during the summer typhoon season.  Liu takes us down to the rice paddies where an alternating crop of rapeseed has been sown and is now flowering.  It's very pretty and there are a few folk out on bicycles and photographing the vivid yellow fields.  We have lunch at the Bento Box Museum.  The bento box is basically a takeaway lunchbox introduced by the Japanese.  Taiwan is a takeaway country so you see them everywhere.  The place is busy with daytrippers all chowing down.  It's all fine but there's a sense that we are working our way down a list of the local tourist sights along with everyone else.  It seems that if you go to this village you do this thing.  If you go there, you do that.  If you cycle there, you eat here.  There appears to be no individuality in people's leisure activities. Dear Liu, I'm not complaining about our day - which we really enjoyed - but commenting on how different it feels to home.
rice ready to plant out in the paddy

Andrew and Suzanne head off northwards while we return towards the city, stopping off at a tea shop to try a selection of locally-grown teas.  We are treated to the traditional tea-making ritual which is really a form of Chinese water torture to an Englishman.  First the pot is filled with hot water and then the teacups are rinsed off.  The water is poured away and while the pot is still warm, leaves are thrown in and then fresh water added.  A splash of tea is poured into each cup and then tossed away before finally, after a little brewing the tea is poured.  
Chinese water torture
The cups are porcelain and little larger than an eggcup.  Where's me big mug of tea with a bit of milk on the side?? We sip our thimbles and then the tea is poured away and the whole process is repeated but with a different leaf.  We work through the range from a very light green, through an autumnal range to a very dark and fragrant red tea.   While we are tasting a group of women form Taipei come in and Liu starts chatting away with them.  The woman serving the tea has also not stopped talking.  It feels a very sociable country does Taiwan.  The tea is all delicious and we head back to the city just after dusk.  Back at the house Liu cooks us another great meal.  He has prepared a pasta dish with meat on the side and salad.  We are really quite surprised because we didn't think anyone in Taiwan would be that interested in European cuisine and ultimately we are rather embarrassed because we could have cooked for him after all.  But Liu is a generous and thoughtful man and seems happy to look after us. Although he works at the history museum his real love is Buddhist Art, which he studied at university.  He tells us that he switched from architecture.  A bit later on he tells us that he first started studying electrical engineering.  Somewhere along the way he managed to break away from the expected course and plot a route for himself.  He recommends a few places in Japan to visit and sees us off the next morning with an abundance of snacks and treats which we enjoy over the next few days.  We feel very lucky to have had such good hosts in Taiwan.

perfect host.....

Monday, 19 January 2015

migrating southwards

Pidgeon coop above a house
Kim sends us off with sweet potatoes to snack on.  Our road inland takes us north beside a wide river, one of many that cross the western plains and drain the central mountainous region.  The rivers are low at this time of year but in the rainy summer season they must be bursting.  Sometimes the banks are built up to protect the land.  Huge amounts of silt and rock are left behind in the river bed.  We head to Meinong, an old Hakka settlement, and camp in someone's fields, between two stands of young trees.  The next day we continue inland towards the hills which, as Hans had described so accurately, just seem to leap upwards like a wall above us.  We have come to Maolin to look for the purple butterflies that migrate en masse from the north to winter in the warmer valleys here.  At the visitor centre we can charge our pc, get online, and get hot and cold filtered water.  We like the visitor centres in Taiwan.

The purple butterflies settle in about a dozen valleys in the area and are only one of the two known mass winter migrations of butterflies - the other more famous one being in Mexico.  We have both recently read Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour so are intrigued to see the phenomenon.   Following a tourist trail we come across the butterflies basking in the sunshine and flitting about us as we walk along.  They appear out of nowhere, perfectly camouflaged with their brown underwings when they are still, but bursting into vivid colour when they open out their wings and fly.  It's really quite magical.

Can you spot the butterflies?

There's a wonderful back country road that takes us southwards to the coast, passing through palm and pineapple plantations before we enter a long stretch full of forest, all planted out.  The trees are varied but all regularly spaced and there's so much forest that we wonder why it's here.  None of the plantations are fenced and make perfect wild camping.  Many of the villages we pass through are predominantly aboriginal.  It's a Sunday and there are plenty of daytrippers about and cyclists.  When we stop for a picnic a family stop to chat.  The man runs a cram school and invites us to visit and talk about our trip to his students.  The cram schools are big business here.  I remember Eddie in Xiamen telling us how competitive Taiwan is and it seems that if you want your child to do well in their education the accepted thinking is to push them into cram schools, private classes, after school.  I don't envy the children.  We are going in the wrong direction to accept the offer, but don't know how to disappoint the man.  We swap e-mail addresses and say we'll get in touch.

a lovely spot with evening karaoke from somewhere nearby and then reveille broadcast before sunrise at a nearby army camp

Down on the coast, on the main highway, we pass a group of cyclists going in our direction.  They are travelling light and riding road bikes, with all the lycra etc. and a support bus.  They had stopped for a break and when they catch up and overtake us one of them chats for a while.  I ask where they have come from.  They left Taichung yesterday.  How about us?  Er, well, we were in Taichung about three weeks ago.........

Spot the pineapple: 

look hard

Down on the southern tip of Taiwan is Kenting National Park.  Here the central mountains taper out and the coast has white sandy beaches, some primeval forest, protected areas and the country's third nuclear power station.  It's a holiday area and in January it's not busy at all.  But it ain't half windy, mum.  We finally find shelter from gusting winds in an orchard of unidentified bushy fruit trees that are only two metres high at most.  We can't identify them because they bear no fruit.  But they are tailor made for sheltering in and we can just fit the tent in a tight gap and then lie awake at night listening to the wind batter across the land.  Now, is this the mini-typhoon that Kim mentioned the other day?  In the morning the wind is still buffeting and gusting and we pack up and wobble back to the main road and seek refuge in a 7-11.  What we like about convenience stores is how convenient they are.  We grab a table and unpack our breakfast things, cups etc. and start munching.  There are hot water dispensers to make drinks and toilets to dispose of them later on.  Of course all these facilities are provided for customers, not hobo cycle-tourists, but the staff don't seem to mind and anyway, we're here for the day so eventually we buy something to eat.  The wind never lets up and we watch as locals wobble past on their scooters.  Potted plants roll around the carpark like spindrift on the beach.  Four old guys come in and spend the day here too, chatting and eating throughout.  It's all quite community-spirited.  Happily the temperature stays warm and towards sunset we decide to head back to the same camp spot because we know we are guaranteed shelter.  But again, the roaring wind keeps us awake.   Next day the wind seems to have eased so we nosey on down the coast, stock up on food, and head out to a little sandy beach that Ang Lee used in the Life of Pi.  On our way there about ten buses pass us, and when we reach the beach there are another five still parked up.  To our dismay someone is driving up and down the sand on a stupid noisy buggy while a bunch of people huddle together at a loss as to what to do at this tourist attraction.  It's rather disappointing but maybe it will be nicer in the morning.  We find a very sheltered spot to camp in some bamboo - a relief after the two previous nights until the big fat mosquitoes attack - and then in the middle of the night there is a rainstorm that absolutely hammers down on the tent.  We are quite amazed that we remain completely dry throughout for the raindrops are heavy and thunder down on us.  Gayle finally gets back to sleep with earplugs.  By morning the sky is clearing and the sun is soon out to dry out the tent and sure enough, the beach is peaceful and quiet when we return and Gayle has a swim, her first in the sea since we left Greece.

a cleverly composed photograph that makes it look like we are all alone
We are dawdling around a bit, at a loss as to whether to push on or hang back for better weather and a a little more beach time.  The last three nights of broken sleep have hit us hard and while I'm suffering from a reoccurrence of a bad back, Gayle has developed a hacking cough that's gone a bit Belgian (i.e. phlegmish).  We've just done a bit of laundry at the visitor centre (this wasn't a service they actually advertised) and both had a stand-up wash in the disabled toilets when five minutes later, riding through Kenting village, we are greeted by a woman on a scooter who inquires if we're looking for a room.  We are quite easily persuaded to take one of hers for a couple of nights rest and recovery.  
a cleverly composed photograph that makes it look like we are all alone

The beaches are empty but there are a few tourists around, they just don't seem to spend long at the beach.  We notice a group of young women who turn up, start taking lots of selfies and then group together for shots of themselves jumping up into the air or splashing in the surf as the waves crash onto the sand.  Photos are taken non-stop for twenty minutes and then they leave.  We also watch three mums with their toddlers.  Mobile phones are held out and the poor children are photographed ceaselessly for almost an hour while they are pushed towards the sea to stand awkwardly looking around.  The mums make no attempt to play with their kids - it's astounding.  And then there's us two who just lie there with hardly any clothes on acting as if it's hot when in fact it's only about 25oC and then splash around in the sea - madness, utter madness. 

a cleverly composed photograph that makes it look like we are all alone

It might have been a mistake to check the weather forecast because we learn that the next day the winds will pick up again with force 7 gusts.  My back is still bad and I'm walking like a hermit crab.  Gayle is suddenly nauseous and has to make a call on the Big White Phone - an act which miraculously leads to a quick and full recovery but leaves her looking slightly appalled.  So we decide to stay a bit longer.  And besides, the room we have taken also has a bathtub in the bathroom.  It's unspeakably decadent.

Friday, 9 January 2015

when smoke gets in your eyes (and up your nose)

The coastal road we take down to Kaohsiung is fairly quiet.  It's a Sunday and there are people out for bike rides.  We detour around what looks like a nuclear power station before stopping for a picnic lunch in the shade of a tree down a side road.  It's hot and sunny.  This is mid-winter? 
such a friendly woman
A woman comes over from her house and offers us water.  She wants us to come into her house for a rest, out of the sun.  We've got fresh bread for our lunch but she looks unimpressed.  She brings us guava and grapes and then sweet potato - the latter is a national vegetable.  This one is bright purple.  It tastes fragrant - like a flower.  We are embarrassed by her spontaneous kindness - she brings us iced teas and insists we sit at a table by her house.  We chat a little - unlike China, many folk in Taiwan our age can speak English and it makes for much easier interaction - and the whole episode makes us feel happy to be here.

Riding into Kaohsiung we get lost.  We stop to ask the way and the man we ask shakes his head.  He looks at our map - contrary to our understanding, we're not even on it.  When we explain where we are going he replies "Too far, too far!" and hops on his scooter and leads us through a series of tricky junctions before pointing us down a road and waving us goodbye.  Just as we arrive at Kim's appartment she hails us from the other direction.  She apologises, but she is just off to get her bike, which she left at the shops. The doorman has the key to her flat and instructions how to find it.  Kim is our third host in Taiwan and it suddenly occurs to us that everyone we stay with has to go off somewhere else.  Do we need to wash more often? 

Kim is a retired English teacher and she returns just as we have managed to get all our panniers and bags into her appartment - a small but perfectly designed flat that looks Japanese in style.  She explains that she's rarely here these days.  In the past few years she has been travelling a lot.  It's great to stay with couch-surfing hosts who have used it themselves when they travel, but Kim explains that she prefers to use Helpx.  This way she stays longer in one place and gets to contribute in return for food and lodging.  She has travelled and volunteered extensively and while we stay with her she regales us with some of her experiences.  We are interested as it's something we have considered but never done before.  Kim tells us that she feels quite bad about it because normally she never has to work hard, perhaps because of her age.  Kim's in her sixties but you wouldn't know it. Her stories are so good we suggest she should write a book about it.

the smart "Love River" promenade

Kaohsiung is Taiwan's second city and has a grungy industrial feel to it.  Kim leads us through a network of backstreets and lanes around her home on the outskirts of the city. Her place is surrounded by fields and light industrial plots - small workshops, warehouses, that kind of thing. It's a microcosm of how the land is being used all over Taiwan.  This island is incredibly mountainous with over 100 peaks above 3000 metres.  Add to this is the problems that earthquakes, typhoons and landslides create and you become aware of how land use is a particularly important issue in Taiwan.  More and more farming land is being used for industry.  Or housing, Kim tells us, although who they are building for she is unsure.  Taiwan has a falling birth rate.
spotted at the FedEx depot where we collected another replacement Thermarest mattress

Cycling around we realise how the city has spread beyond its original plan, enveloping the outlying heavy industrial zones and incorporating what were once villages and small towns into the urban mass.  There are some green spaces and the cycling is not awful as there's always a lane for scooters.  But the air is not clean and the worst cause seems to be the scooters.  And the traffic lights.  Sometimes it seems that every junction has lights.  Cycling along you can look ahead on a straight road to over twenty sets of lights.  What this means is that you end up with a lot of idling engines at red lights at junctions with no traffic on a green light.  And as Kim points out, the scooter exhausts all point upwards towards your nose.  This is in stark contrast to the clean electric bikes of China's cities, where motorbikes and motorscooters are banned.  Talking about the pollution Kim also mentions that in the winter a lot of dirty air comes over form mainland China.  But in Taichung they have a coal-powered power station that, according to one study, emits more CO2 than the whole of Switzerland.  This is a crowded island.

Kim thoughtfully brings us lots of Taiwanese snacks and treats to try each day.  Like most Taiwanese, she says she has no sweet tooth, but we discover sweetness in many dishes.  Sadly for us, the biscuits and chocolate in the shops are both expensive and lousy.
However, we have discovered the joy of buffet restaurants where you can load up a plate, usually with one meat and three veggie options for around £1.50.  These restaurants are easily found in the cities but the trick is to get there early when the food is fresh and hot.  It seems that lunchtime in Taiwan begins at 11.30am and teatime (or dinner) is around 5.30pm.  Many people take the food home - it's a real take-away country.  To stock up for our onward journey there is Carrefour to provide us with normal bread (i.e. unsweetened) and luxuries like couscous, tomato puree, fresh coffee and croustillants aux fruits (that's crunchy museli but it sounds so much better in French).  Wha-heyy!!

Sunday, 4 January 2015

the political desert island

Hans is soon to depart for LA where he will work for half the year on a project researching how to regenerate skin cells.  He came back to Taiwan seven years ago and he and Ting look very happy in Tainan.  At least he will be able to work the other half of the year here.  Hanging on his wall is a poster:

If you're not interested in History, look away now.   When the Kuomintang fled mainland China back in 1949 they brought with them their army, the gold reserves of China, the finest collection of Chinese art and their flag.  About 2 million Chinese turned up with Chiang Kai-Shek uninvited.  Martial Law had been declared in 1947 towards the end of the war with the Communists and this wasn't rescinded in Taiwan, staggeringly, until 1987.  The Americans supported the one-party state run by the KMT in Taiwan, seing them as a useful ally while they fought in Korea and then Vietnam.  Originally the KMT planned to retake the mainland but this dream faded.  Chiang Kai-Shek could never accept that the dream was dead though and so the Republic of China continued to exist only in Taiwan.  When in 1971 the People's Republic was admitted to the UN Security Council, the R.O.C. withdrew.  It was probably the best opportunity for Taiwan to declare independence from China, but it was missed.  Then gradually the R.O.C. lost diplomatic ties with most of the world - only 27 countries now officially recognise the R.O.C. and they have a combined population of about 30,000.  The current situation is that neither government renounces it's claim on the other's territory - a political impasse that has left Taiwan with a very weak hand - a low pair at best.  Ironically the KMT government has courted closer ties to Communist China in an attempt to spark an economic recovery that isn't happening. China is holding all the aces.  But no surprise when you consider they probably manufacture the playing cards. Since free elections began in Taiwan the KMT have still been elected.  We ask Hans why. Simple, he tells us. They are the richest political party in the world.  He is optimistic about Taiwan's future and becoming truly free.  I just hope he's not the gambling type.
a poster from the recent local elections. This candidate is getting the arm-over-the-shoulder treatment from his party leader.

can you spot the difference?  Looks like the leader is made of wax - hopefully he is more sincere than his endorsements.

We go for a great meal at one of Hans and Ting's favourite places in the city, with lots of barbecued meat, some of it unidentifiable.  As we chew some fatty grilled bits of chicken Ting asks us to guess the part of the chicken we are munching on.  There's a glint in her eye which only spells mischief.  "Chicken ass!" she delights in informing us only when we have swallowed.  Afterwards we go to another place for dessert.  Ting likes sweet things, Hans tells us.  We join a throng of people queuing at a place where they are serving steaming bowls of beans - red, green, white - in hot syrup.  Ting goes for the sweetened rice porridge.  The beans are strange, the syrup not so sweet.  Now we know Ting's having a laugh.  On the way back they show us their cinema - it's the one that Ang Lee used to frequent - kind of old fashioned in the classic sense and it still shows films from all over the world.  Down towards the harbour Hans points out his favourite temple - a low-key affair used by local fishermen and sailors and dedicated to the God of Wind. Sounds like my kind of temple.

Hans and Ting
I want to ask Hans about the dogs. Dogs? Yes, all the stray dogs we see - in the mountains, in the fields, around the towns.  Often in the middle of nowhere.  I usually freak out cycling past dogs but these are all very quiet. It's the farm guard dogs that are worse - leaping out when I least expect it.  Hans tells us that a lot of people like the dogs and the authorities will only catch them if they're a nuisance.  But in Tainan they have a good policy of rehabilitation - the dogs are trained to guard farms.....

Hans tells us that southern Taiwan is the real Taiwan.  With the KMT firmly entrenched in Taipei, he jokes that south Taiwan begins just south of the capital.  Tainan is still the heart of the country for many and it's a pleasant city to be in.   It seems a shame to leave.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

temples of Tainan

Tainan city street - in the scooter lane
There's a certain magic about some Couch Surfing hosts.  Hans replies to our request to stay with him positively but qualifies it - unfortunately he and his girlfriend Ting are moving out the next day, New Year's Eve.  How many people host strangers the night before they move house?  Hans is a tall young guy who talks a mile a minute - in fact he's the fastest talker we've spoken to since we stayed with Brian in Almaty.  The reason is that Hans went to a 'British' boarding school in Canada before graduating there.  His English is natural and flawless and he has lots to say.  We have lots to ask too so that's okay.  It seems a shame that we will meet only briefly.  But then Ting comes to the rescue with another incredibly selfless offer:  we can stay in her new flat the next night as she will be with Hans' family in Kaohsiung.  How many people host strangers the day they move in, before they have even slept there??  Hans is a triathlete and Ting has studied martial arts - it is clear we are not going to argue with them and besides Tainan turns out to be a very interesting city with plenty to keep us occupied.  We are thrilled to accept their hospitality, not least because it turns out the new year is a national holiday even though it's not the Chinese New Year, and all the hostels are booked up to the gills.

Portugese sailors gave Taiwan the name Formosa when they saw what a pretty island it was.  The Dutch chased off Spanish traders from the Phillipines and built a fort in Tainan when they settled here back in the 1600s. Tainan had a large inland sea which has silted up and is now a protected wetlands area to the north of the city.  Around the 1660's a Chinese admiral, loyal to the recently defeated Ming emperor, turned up and sent the Dutch packing.  Koxinga's aim, in an interesting forerunner to Chiang Kai-Shek's intentions 280 years later, was to regather his forces in order to launch a new attack on the mainland of China and send the Manchurians back to their homelands beyond the Great Wall.  But, unlike Chiang Kai-Shek, Koxinga died soon after and eventually Taiwan was subsumed into the new Qing dynasty's empire.  It was this period that saw the big migrations of southern Chinese escaping the mess that China was becoming.  The ancestors of most Taiwanese arrived in Taiwan via Tainan, which was the main port and capital of the island in this period.
temple of the City God
We spend New Year's Day flitting from one temple to another in the city centre along with a large number of locals and other tourists.  The 1st of the month is an auspicious day to visit, make offerings and say prayers.  We are fascinated by the sight of young and old doing their thing: buying and making offerings of alcohol and food, lighting bunches of incense sticks and putting them around the temple, burning fake money.  
embroidered cloak

nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah
Each temple is devoted to a particular deity, some of which were real people in ancient times.  The temples are intricately decorated buildings with some stunning traditional architecture.  Roof lines sweep up at the ends in dramatic curves, a vivid mosaic of glazed tiles make up rows of dragons, lions and other creatures. 
money to burn

Doorways are surrounded by carved woodwork and stone columns feature a gamut of faces and creatures.  There are shrines with idols - small dark wooden characters wrapped in embroidered gold cloaks and statues of other fierce-looking Gods dotted around, with facial hair sprouting every which way.  The temples are either Taoist, Confucian or Buddhist and the scenes remind us strongly of the Hindu temples in India.

sweet smelling

carved stone column

looks like a nice bloke

roof detail
It's interesting to think that this part of Chinese culture has almost all been eradicated on the mainland by Mao's Cultural Revolution.  We have seen some temples in Fujian province and remember one in Guangzhou when we first visited China in 2009, but nothing on the scale of Taiwan.  Every village has a shrine and the towns are full of them.   Later when we talk to Hans and Ting we learn that Hans' mother is Christian.  Missionaries came with European traders and most of the aborigines here converted.  Many Chinese who came with the Kuomintang, including Chiang Kai-Shek himself, were also Christian.  It's all part of the melting pot of Taiwanese culture.  At one of the shrines I spot a bloke offering up his incense sticks in one hand, cell phone pressed to his ear in the other.  Taiwan feels quite westernised in many ways, but our temple tour has opened up another aspect of the country to us.