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!!

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