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.

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