Monday, February 22, 2010


So every year at Christmas I get annoying carols stuck in my head - usually Joy To The World and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. I'm not even religious! But oh well.

And as you know, Chinese New Year has its own complement of songs that are, well, just like Christmas carols (with pithy, throwaway lyrics about the season and catchy jingly tunes) except in Chinese and on a pentatonic scale.

Turns out I get these stuck in my head as well! I never realized, as until this year, I've always gone abroad for CNY.

Thanks to Matsusei - yes, the Japanese grocery chain - I got "恭喜,恭喜,恭喜你!" stuck in my head for days, to the point where people would giggle when I'd randomly start humming it in elevators. Just to get it stuck in your head, here you go. (Any long-term China/Taiwan/Singapore expats will recognize this irritating little tune, but for friends back home who read this, have fun getting it out of your skull! Mwahahaha!)

That was finally pushed out when we went to Cingjing Farm last week, and the lodge we spent all of our time in because it was too wet to hike had this Awesome Robot Confucius:

Who I realize is a prosperity god and not a Robot Confucius, but I just like the phrase "Robot Confucius" so I will continue to call him that. He was basically just like one of those annoying mechanical Santas who, when turned on, sway back and forth holding a bag of presents and sing "Jingle Bells" or some such...over and over and over again. You know what I mean.

Oh, you can't see it in the photos but he has blue eyes, which is vaguely hilarious.

Well, this guy sang the song that got the first one out of my head: 財神到 (literally "the wealth god arrives"). Turns out this song is even more irritating than "恭喜,恭喜,恭喜你".

So. I was telling some students today about getting songs stuck in one's head, and got to teach them a nifty phrase as a result ("get a song stuck in [your] head" - v phrase) and how both of these songs have been bouncing around my brain for weeks now and I've started listening to the Magnetic Fields to try and force them out.

They laughed, said the same thing happened to them, and that they have a name for the kinds of songs that seem to be implanted firmly in my cerebral cortex: 叮叮噹 or "ding-ding-dang".

叮叮噹 are those Chinese songs that "sound Chinese" - you know, like that old favorite, Kung Fu Fighting ("And everybody was kung fu fighting - 叮叮叮叮噹噹叮叮噹 - those kids were fast as lightning - 叮叮噹叮叮噹叮叮叮噹噹") that Americans find vaguely offensive and everyone in Taiwan seems to like. This is, apparently, a well-known enough phrase that if I mention "叮叮噹歌" to anyone, they'll understand instantly that I mean those old-timey Chinese-sounding songs that go, well, ding ding dang.

I love that. It's like a funky piece of cultural understanding that I'm now grateful to have. I haven't been this chuffed since I learned what a "雙-B" is.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chinese New Year Extrava-freakin'-ganza

So, we set off the day after Chinese New Year for a quick trip to Central Taiwan - the plan was to head up to Cingjing farm and hike a bit - well, walk happily in the mountain air anyway - before heading over Hehuanshan to Lishan, which our friend Emily has never been to. I've been through Cingjing twice but never stopped, but have always wanted to poke around a bit more and figured that this past week was my chance.

Oh, how I was wrong. It rained the entire time we were there, and as we were camping, in a tent, in the cold and the rain, it was mostly just miserable. We didn't feel like hiking because there was no view due to fog, and the rain was cold and horrible, and we were all already damp from tent-livin' and walking around in the cascading streams and rivulets of water around the campsite.

So, we hunkered down at Starbucks for the first day, hoping that our second day would be clearer (we were told it would be cloudy but it was not likely to rain). Emily drew a picture of what we could see from the vantage points around Cingjing:

We woke up the next day and while chilly, the sky had cleared enough to show us what we were missing: lovely views from the campsite. I snapped a few photos and am happy I did; within 20 minutes the fog was back and it was all obscured again for the rest of our stay.

And it rained some more.

Though when NOT raining, it's a gorgeous place, walkable from the bus stop and so good for visitors without their own transport. Traffic was horrible on the main road, which surprised us because it would make more sense for the weather to drive people away despite the national holiday. The owner of the lodge was very brusque and tactless, but also motherly: she'd make fun of us for sleeping in (it was COLD. And WET. And there was no view. Our sleeping bags were warm and dry. What else were we going to do?), drinking too much (it was not too much, it was about what you'd expect from three vacationers stuck in the mountains with nothing to do) and all around being weird...but then provide us with hot cooked meals as we had not brought our own stove and help us out in all sorts of ways. She also cares about aboriginal rights and economic development, and hires only local aboriginal people as workers. She yells at them the way any laobanniang (boss lady) would yell at subordinates, but also looks out for them.

To reserve grass space for a tent (NT300/night), a platform (NT800/night) or a pre-set-up 4-person tent (NT1600-1800/night) or one of their small sheltered rooms with a bathroom, call 049-2801001. The owner speaks some English but not much. To get there, get off the bus at the top of the farm (the final farm stop - NOT the Mist Center as you enter the farm - it's a large gate to a grassland with sheep and a kiosk for NT100 admission tickets). Do not enter (do not buy a ticket) but get back on the main road and walk downhill about 50 meters. Ignore the 1st sign near a parking lot for a campsite - if you can't read Chinese, it's OK, the phone # above is also on all signs - and turn left at the 2nd sign. Go downhill past cows, sheep and a huge creepy mansion. When you get to the bottom, the lodge and campsite is on the right and they play music during business hours. They have outdoor and indoor toilets (indoor open during lodge hours 7am-10:30pm), hot water, food, snacks, extra gas and other supplies for sale, beer, hot water and beverages and will feed you good meals for a fee per meal (breakfast is included free at the whim of the owner). If you bring your own mini-stove you'll be all set. There is parking if you are driving.

We mostly stayed in the lodge the 2nd day - we never wanted to see Starbucks ever again - playing cards, drinking tea and generally socializing because it was either that or stew in our shot-to-hell vacation.

At least the views from the walk up to the main road were nice, with gnarly trees poking through the fog:

...and if you measure your vacations by time spent with friends drinking beer, sharing millet wine with locals and meeting new people as well as reading novels in your spare time, the Cingjing Farm fiasco was a great success. If you measure it by gorgeous views, hiking and outdoorsy activities, it was something of a massive FAIL.

The Fengyuan Bus to Lishan was not running as snow on Hehuanshan had not been cleared from the road. The campsite laobanniang knows a driver named Mr. Chen (I know, everyone is named Mr. Chen here) with snow tires who makes the trip every day and will take people for NT600-800 per person depending on the size of your group (up to 4 I think). There are also taxis in Cingjing who will take you anywhere but they are a lot more expensive. They're run by a guy - Mr. Wang - whose business card denotes him as "Old Master". We thought about it but then called Lishan and learned that it was also raining there, so instead we chose to try it another time and head back to Puli.

Puli is a drab little town with gorgeous views in the foothills of the Central Mountains and a rich history. With no good local public transport and no one spectacular thing to do we probably wouldn't have gone if it hadn't been rainy in the mountains, but once we did we were really happy we chose to check it out. At first it was a "oh well, I guess this will suffice" but by the end of our day there, we were all thinking "man, that was really great!" We even have stuff to return to see - like the massive monastery - so we'll be back.

The outskirts of Puli, where the mountains are more visible than many towns not at a high altitude:

Notice the clouds low-slung above them. This was taken at the entrance to the lane to the Paper Museum.

In town, there were many small but poignant reminders of the 9/21 earthquake, such as spots with demolished buildings, where nobody had bothered or been able to take away striking little details, like books in old bookcases, sitting in a casement high above the ground:

This was taken outside YoYo coffee, the only coffee we could find near our hotel (the youth hostel outlined as a good option in Rough Guide Taiwan). The coffee is good but they don't open early enough! The hostel was great - I highly recommend it. NT600/night and while I guess the apartment-like dorm offered would be crowded if entirely full, it was empty so the four of us felt we were living in absolute luxury for the final day of our trip - and after 2 nights in a freezing wet tent we were grateful for it. The hostel provides rooms off of a central living room with couches and cable TV, a good bathroom with full bath and hot water, towels, a kitchen (no gas hookup though) and several bedrooms. There is internet in the "lobby" (also a lottery store) downstairs on a good computer. The boss (also a woman though a man works there too) is very friendly and speaks good English.

We first stopped by the Shaoxing Brewery which was fun in a corny sort of way, as well as poignant - the English on many signs was horrifically funny. We got a kick out of the commemorative Puli Shaoxing bottles:

You can buy one with Ma Ying-jiu on it in the shop downstairs. They also had one with an old photo of A-bian and Wu Shu-zhen labeled "A-bian and A-zhen: Brewed With Love".

Poignant because of the section dedicated to the damage to the brewery following the 9/21 earthquake.

And corny with little attractions like the House of Drunk Experiencing:

...I am pretty sure that is not how I feel when drunk.

But all in all it was an earnest effort and we had fun, plus the "VIP tasting room" at the end was fantastic - 50 kuai for a free glass and a generous taste of a product of your choice. We got more than one (I tried brandy, Ailian wedding liquor and Shaoxing 10 year aged wine) but I am not sure that is customary. The shops downstairs yielded affordable sake that we enjoyed that night, some snacks and treats and a new jar of face cream for me that is working well.

The next morning we made our way by taxi to the paper factory. The Rough Guide says one should hire a taxi for the day as sites are spread out and there aren't any local buses, but we disagree. We really only needed a taxi for the paper museum, and we'd have needed one to go to the huge monastery, but for the other museums it was really all walkable.

On the way up the road we passed a family producing and selling honey and honey products:

And bought a bottle of their delicious honey.

The paper factory was also fun, and I can see why kids would love it. We got a free, and informative, short guided tour, watching workers creating, drying and peeling paper.

Then we bought some paper (very affordable) at the gift shop and made our own prints: well as buying some very reasonably priced gifts and souvenirs. We then ate lunch and headed to the Museum of Natural Lacquerware, which is not really a "museum" but is a very interesting stop and definitely worth visiting. We learned a bit about Taiwanese lacquer products, and saw the trees that lacquer comes from:

As well as looking at the items - some artifacts, some samples, some setups of different Asian countries' method of lacquer production, some examples of refined, unrefined, clear, brown, black and red lacquers. Apparently this is how they test the quality:

And this is the lacquer master at work making spoons.

The tour is given by this guy's niece, and she's clearly taken a course in giving an engaging tour as she used some of the tricks, hooks and presentation skills I've taught my own students at companies where they will need to give tours or show foreigners around. We appreciated that - it made it, in Emily's words, "more interesting than the National Palace Museum" because the explanations were so good. It was kind of a "toot their own horn" thing - look how great natural lacquer is, by the way you can buy some here", but we honestly didn't mind as it was fun, and the products on sale were quite nice and not astronomically priced.

Our last stop was a taxi ride from Puli to Caotun on the way to Taizhong with heavy packs in the trunk - remembering this post by the Daily Bubble Tea about Ci De Temple in Caotun, we figured we ought to have a look. It's not hard to find if you go to Caotun town, have the name of it written in Chinese and preferably a printout of the map outlined on Todd's website. I recommend taking a taxi if you don't feel like walking up a steep hill. With our heavy bags, the taxi was the right choice and the driver himself was rather astounded at the temple at the top.

Rather than re-describe this masterpiece of weird, read The Daily Bubble Tea's post on it and enjoy some photos!

(On a positive note, we got to meet the guy who built the thing, Mr. Zhang. He's quite a friendly guy and was excited to show us the gift another foreigner had given him - a Batman keychain flashlight).

Happy Chineez Noo Year

Just got back from a very...surprising trip around central Taiwan. We started in Taizhong - huge letdown. Bad weather (oh well) and everything we were interested in was either closed (a good hotpot restaurant, a place called "Cafe Orgasmo" because we saw it on the way into town and were utterly fascinated by such a horrible name for a bar, and Stock 20), about to close due to the late afternoon hour (the Confucius Temple, all the other museums) or lackluster (Nantun Old Street - though the 2 temples there were OK). But we found a good Indian restaurant/bar once we wandered down Taizhonggang Road and drank up to our inauspicious start.

Then we headed up to Cingjing Farm - and it rained the whole damn time. Fog, too. More on that tomorrow; it's late now.

Also, the buses across to Lishan were not running due to "record snow" on Hehuanshan. Which we would've liked to have seen, but with no bus and some of us on a limited budget meaning no charter taxis or the

So we gave up on our "mountains!" idea - though we met some interesting people along the way - and went to Puli because, well, what else were we going to do? Give up? Never!

And finally, after sleeping in a cold, damp tent (yes, a TENT) in the cold mountain rain for two nights, playing cards in the lodge because there is NOTHING ELSE TO DO IN THE MOUNTAINS IN THE RAIN (unless you want to hike in the cold rain and get even wetter, which we did not wish to do), we managed to have a good time in Puli with a brief stopover in Caotun.

But yes, more on that tomorrow.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Link For Thee

Some absolutely fascinating posts on the origins of Qi Ye and Ba Ye as well as the Biajiajiang - anyone who reads this thing has surely noticed how images of them at festivals make up a huge portion of the photos I post...but I know very little about them. That is, until now.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Caoling Old Trail and Wankengtou Mountain (草嶺古道和灣坑頭山)

Last weekend we did a one-day hike up the Dali (大里)side of the Caoling Old Trail (草嶺古道)- you can get there on the local trail to Su'ao, getting off at Dali, which is a few stops beyond Fulong (the other end of the trail, which we could see at a distance on the upper reaches of this hike). It's walkable from the station. The coast is quite beautiful here, but the views from the train station are marred by fences, wires and poles. Fortunately, before you get to the temple where the trail begins, you can follow a path along a stream under the road and tracks (the sign calls it a "Wild River" - which is hilarious) to better admire the scenery from the beach.

I, however, prefer this view that keeps all the industrial-ness of the railroad in the picture, inc contrast with the beautiful cliffs in the distance. This looks so much like those old railway postcards you can buy in souvenir shops in Taiwan when tinted sepia that I'm just a sucker for it.

From the outset, Turtle Island is visible, looking very much like a turtle from this vantage point. (When I'd previously seen it from farther south along the coast, I'd wondered how it got its name).

From the temple - which is very well-marked, as is the trailhead - just north of Dali Station, you start climbing. You can climb a short ways and then catch a road winding up the hill, or you can stay on the stairs, which will take you to a gorgeous lookout point and then back over to the road, where you can pick up the staired historic trail.

Joseph had done the staired trail before and I HATE STAIRS (I really, really hate them) and can move much faster on hills or even steep trails than I can on stairs, which exhaust me. So we decided to take the switchbacked road instead of the stairs leading straight up to the ridge. From the top, the route we traversed looked like this:

...and the road, which had no shade (but also had fantastic views as there were no trees in the way), was a perfectly good walk up the hill. Partway up both the trail and the road reach a forestry station with bathrooms and vending machines. On a hot day, there's almost no shade so I recommend stocking up on water here if you did not bring enough.

Not far from the top of the pass - the lowest point in a ridge of mountains where the trail begins to descend to Fulong - is the Reed House. Reed House is the ruins of an old inn where one could stay along the trail, now just some heaps of rock and a faux reed hut for people to rest in and get some shade. This is also visible from both the road and the stairs.

Not long after that you reach "the top", although of course it was not the top for us. There is a wide area with tablets and a small shrine to Tu Di Gong and some other guy (or his wife; who can tell).

...and not long after that, you pass over the top and begin the descent to Fulong. About ten meters below is the famous Tiger Tablet, a historic landmark.

A Chinese official traversing the trail during inclement weather in the 19th century grabbed some grass and twisted it into a brush, painting the symbol for "Tiger" on this rock to quell the winds (an old Chinese saying goes "Clouds obey the dragon; winds obey the tiger") - it is apparently a female tiger, not that I can tell. The inked character was later carved into the rock for posterity.

This area gets buffeted by very strong winds coming in from the Pacific, and as such beyond a certain point trees do not grow, or if they do they are stunted. The upside of this is that the view from that point on is stunning and completely unobstructed.

(The sunlight was too direct to take a good picture of the entire Tiger character - 虎 - though frankly it totally doesn't look like "tiger" to me. I am sure this is because I am an uneducated Philistine).

Anyway, we did not continue along the trail because, as Joseph put it, "other than one more tablet that isn't even all that exciting, there's not much else to see on the way to Fulong".

Instead, we began a path to higher territory - we walked the ridge to its peak at Wankengtou Mountain (灣坑頭山) - the trail to that begins here, veering uphill at the rest/lookout pagoda. It's quite clear which way is up and which continues along the trail.

We were assured by Joseph that it would be "up and down", with a few peaks and then more or less easy going. Joseph's a damn liar, but we still like him anyway. After a good rest and then a hot&sweaty climb up stairs - damn stairs! - to the next lookout point, we were assured that the next peak may be the top. I had my doubts.

This, however, was not the top.

We rested and kept up the climb - fighting the good fight, as it were - up to another rest station and over a somewhat flattish area. Assured that this was quite likely the top, we huffed it up there pretty quickly.

This was, however, still not the top.

From here, we could see the top, though. That was reassuring. Looking down from this part of the ridge is breathtaking - near the trail the cliff drops straight down, and you can sometimes see wisps of clouds or sea mist below.

Yes, that is, in fact, straight down. Pretty awe-inspiring and worth the stairs.

From the far side, the little rest pagoda was quite picturesque against the teetering mountain.

The path did finally head down after this, albeit briefly. We gave our calves a rest as we wandered over hills and rises, occasionally passing grazing cattle and fences&stone posts to keep them reigned in. Cow poop and the rustic smell of cattle (and their assorted waste products) wafted in the air but it was not unpleasant.

This part of the trail offers spectacular ocean views as well as views over Taipei County - various posted signs at scenic points highlight the distant peaks - some as far out as Shiding and, apparently, Keelung Mountain peeking out in the background. In the foreground, green grass, cattle and mist gave the place a very New Zealand, Lord of the Rings sort of feel. Extremely panoramic. Ponds for bathing cattle here and there dotted the grassy hillsides.

After some time we finally made one final push up the big mountain and a sign at the top assured is that this was, in fact, the top.

The top. Finally.

Not long after we reached the top, mist began to pour in earnest over the hillsides, creating not just a "cloud sea" but what is apparently called a "cloud fall" (like a waterfall but with, err, clouds). The misty air made it that much more magical, though obscured views over longer distances.

We reached the top at 3:30pm (we rested a lot on the way and it took us longer than it should have), and figured we had plenty of time to get back down. The map indicated two paths down through the Taoyuan Valley and grasslands (桃源谷), one of which seemed to descend quickly as well as being quite close by. No problem, right?

Wrong. We walked and walked - mostly down, a little up - with no route down in sight. The sun dipped lower and lower and the light soon became good for photos again...though maybe not so good for people on a mountain ridge with no discernable way down except possibly Death Toboggan (I suggested Death Tobogganing down; my idea was rejected for some reason).

Finally, after passing a few more ponds and scenic outlooks, we reached another high point that had quite a few visitors even in this advanced afternoon hours. A road led up to a parking area nearby. "If there's no path down here, let's take the road and stop at the first farmhouse we see to ask for help in calling a taxi," we decided.

Fortunately, I had thought to bring flashlights so we had some source of light once the sun set. This would be quite handy later.

After this point it was no longer possible to take good photos with my dinky little out of date Canon Powershot, so I put it away. We did find a path down, and after a long scramble down some stone steps came to a temple about halfway (maybe a little less) along. "You guys have flashlights, right?" they asked (in Chinese).
"Yeah, we have two."
"Good, you're going to need them. It's already dark farther down on the ocean side of the ridge."
"How much longer until we get to the highway?"
"About an hour's hike."
"...and until we get to the nearest town?"
"Daxi is about a half hour farther south down the highway."

So we girded our loins and took off after refilling some of our water supply at the temple. Flaslights soon came on as the path wound down the mountains, over the folds and in places straight across the ridge. Not going straight down meant that it did take a good hour, through some scary parts. One area was landslided out, and we had to cross it - a short section but still a terrifying one - with ropes. There was about 3 inches of mud to hold you up, rock on one side and a steep drop-off down several tens of meters on the other. Brendan, who is not afraid of heights, just went across. I am afraid of them just a bit and I freaked out, slipping at one point to land against the rock. Fun times.

Another part has the path following a stream, where it's slippery, pitch black from the set sun and clouded moon as well as thick overgrowth, and hard to make out where the path ends and the stream begins. We followed that for awhile - after that it was fairly easy going. Over another fold in the mountainside and down to the highway, where we walked that half hour (no choice really) to the bus station and ran-limped (run-limping is great, isn't it?) onto the local train pulling in.

For dinner - and we were starving - we went to Luodong 40 minutes south, ate ourselves silly at the night market and boarded an express bus through the Xueshan Tunnel back to Taipei, which we reached at midnight.

So, as we decided at the night market, our day was not just seized. It was throttled a bit, thrown to the ground, and kicked in the dust for good measure.