Showing posts with label yilan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label yilan. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: The Evergreen Resort Hotel, Jiaoxi

Note: this is not a sponsored post - I'm just writing about my stay at Evergreen so others can get an idea of what it's like. I wouldn't do a sponsored post like this anyhow. I actually stayed here in December last year, less than one week before rushing to the US ahead of schedule and the difficult few months that followed.

The Evergreen Resort Hotel Jiaoxi

TEL: 03-910-9988
FAX: 03-987-6383 

No. 77, Jiankang Rd., Jiaoxi Township, Yilan County 26241, Taiwan 

If you have upper middle class Taiwanese friends, you have probably heard of the Evergreen Resort Hotel. Billed as a five star hot spring resort in a town famous for its hot springs (Jiaoxi, in Yilan County on the northeast coast), this is like the to-go place for a weekend away with a spouse, a family or an entire caravan of extended family or friends. (Not as uncommon as you might think: with apartments in Taiwan fairly small in size, when large groups want to get together they'll usually go to restaurants if they're in the same area, but if people are coming from all over, it's quite common to rent a block of hotel rooms in a resort-style hotel where kids have ample play spaces and adults can spend time together. These groups may never leave the hotel).

It's also popular for weddings, which is how we ended up there. I'd visit local friends and see Evergreen slippers near their doors, or just hear stories of weekends at this hotel, and that made me want to check it out. When a friend announced her engagement and chose it as her venue, we figured why not book a night there to see what all the fuss is about?

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My overall impressions are this: great if you have kids or want an easy weekend away, very comfortable and your needs certainly are looked after, but I'm not sure that the "five star" rating really translates. That's not to say we didn't enjoy it - we certainly did! Just that there may be some cultural differences implied in what is and is not a "five star" resort hotel.

The services definitely were high-end or at least very considerate of guests: we took a morning bus to Jiaoxi (you didn't think we drove, did you? Ha!) and called the hotel for a pickup. Although the bus station turned out to be walking distance from the hotel, they sent a car to come get us without implying that we could have walked (which we could have, although given that I was already wearing the shoes I wore to my friend's wedding, I'm happy we didn't). Wanting to avoid the weekend traffic to the coast, we took a very early bus and had a few hours to kill before the wedding. Our room wasn't ready yet but we were welcome to use all hotel facilities. All we really wanted, though, was a cup of coffee so we walked to Starbucks (not exactly next door but not far away). Once our room was available our bags were taken up without us having to ask.

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A good size private bath for a hot spring soak - don't worry, there's a remote that will bring down a screen curtain over that glass wall if you're staying with friends and want to bathe in private.

One thing that made me feel like "globally speaking this isn't really five star" was the lobby, which was sparse and frankly a little boring. Maybe as a Westerner I expect "five stars" to mean "ostentatious", decorated within an inch of its life, but the Evergreen lobby is almost entirely laid with plain neutral marble, basic seating, a very normal reception desk...nothing that took my breath away. Nice, but not memorable.

The wedding itself was lovely - pretty typically Taiwanese, which most of you are probably familiar with, so I won't go on at length about it (although I was a bit shocked that one person giving a speech said "as you all know, [friend] is almost 40. So this is proof that you can find love at any age!" ...uh, wow.) Wedding food, three dresses, big banquet hall, speeches, you know the deal. The huge Evergreen logos on either side of the wedding stage were a bit corporate and weird, but otherwise it was a fine venue for this sort of event. Being outside of Taipei one can get a better deal on high end wedding packages there.

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My friends Joyce and Stanley tie the knot

Our room was probably one of the most basic ones as we got it at a discount due to being wedding guests, but it faced the mountains - a good thing as there is construction going on in the building across the street so an ocean view room would also be a construction-site-view room. It came with a king-size bed with the most comfortable mattress in all of Taiwan and down-soft bedding (I still kind of dream about that mattress and comforter), a large private hot spring bath and separate shower, high-end toiletries in their own little cloth bags, Japanese-style cover-ups to wear to the hot springs, slippers, good towels, a full range of TV channels, a Japanese-style table and chairs with fresh fruit and candy, a full tea and coffee service and a massive picture window.

But, again, the decoration didn't wow me. It's very understated: light wood that frankly reminds me a little bit of IKEA, basic carpeting, a subtly colored cloth headboard. I researched the hotel a bit and found that that was the entire point of the aesthetic: to mimic Japanese simplicity, understatedness and minimalism. Rather than luxe upholstery and Western-style dark woods, they went with a Japanese hot spring look. The thing is, this could have really worked if it were really Japanese or at least more clearly Japanese-inspired. It didn't have some of the lovely aesthetic touches that make a minimally decorated Japanese space pop (eg. blue-and-white patterned cloth, shoji screens, tatami etc). Instead it was like applying Japanese minimalism to a Western aesthetic which doesn't really do it for me. It was nice. It just wasn't particularly memorable. I like memorable - I don't need my room to look like some crap out of Versailles (yuck!) - but I like to really feel that I got a unique experience.

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My favorite part of the room was this amazing bed. I want this bed in my life again.

So, I guess I would say: five star amenities and service, but the look just didn't say "five star".

We were stuffed after the banquet, so before dinner we availed ourselves of the hot spring spa in the hotel. This is where I felt a little annoyance: I knew that the women's spa cover-up wouldn't fit me because nothing in Taiwan fits me. The slippers didn't fit me either. I called to ask for a 2nd pair of men's slippers but they never came, so Brendan let me wear his and he just put his shoes in a locker when he got down there (I eventually took his and still have them: it's not stealing if you're allowed to keep it). I felt like - calling at all drew attention I didn't really want to my giantess feet. Not bringing the slippers? Come on guys. Five stars.

I could have also asked for a men's cover-up but instead just wore my own casual outfit - I had already had to ask for accommodation for my Hulk feet, I didn't want to have to call to ask for bigger clothing, too. It's not that they would have had a problem with it, it's that I didn't also want to spend any extra time thinking about how "one size fits all" in Taiwan actually means "one size fits petite women and if you are not petite, you are conspicuously huge". Fee, fi, fo, fum! If you want your five star hot spring resort to really attract international visitors, you should provide spa clothing that will actually fit the varying body types of those international visitors.

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My second favorite part of the hotel was the Japanese-style seating area with a view to the mountains.

But the hot spring spa itself was again very nice. I would have liked less cement and more stone and wood, and more natural scents in the scented baths, but there were a variety of hot spring pools to choose from. I tried the "tiny fish eat your skin" foot-bathing pool, which was a first for me as I don't normally go to spas where you pay for that sort of thing. But being a free amenity here, why not? The verdict? Do not try if you are ticklish in any way. It's, uh...very tickly and weird. But kind of fun. The scented pools (kumquat, Chinese herb and orchid) were nice, but I saw them adding the bath salts that created the scents and they looked chemical-y and fake. I'm not sure what they were made of, but actual herbs, dried orchids or kumquats etc. would have provided a more upscale experience. I quite liked the super hot bath and the more natural bath surrounded by plants, paved with stones and jets that pummel your back. The outside pools were also nice on a pleasantly cool December evening. There was free barley tea which was refreshing.

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Pretty typical wedding banquet food presented on a super fancy platter

What I did not like: the music piped into the hot spring area. Elevator music mixed with Christmas songs (at least it was appropriate for December). Also, the large number of children crowding the pools. I get that this is a family-friendly resort, but I didn't feel it was, in that case, a very good place for adults without kids to relax.

We went out for dinner, not really wanting to pay hotel prices for hotel food, and also to get out into Jiaoxi town a little. When we came back there was a children's Christmas concert and a guy in a costume making balloon animals. That reinforced my feeling that this is a great hotel for a hot spring vacation...if you have kids. Rather than go to the bar/cafe, which didn't look particularly interesting (I would expect a more unique bar/cafe area at a five star hotel) we ordered drinks to the room and sat in the awesome Japanese-style chairs drinking and eating wedding cookies for dessert. I liked that we really got the chance to use the space (also that I could order a glass of Macallan, neat, to my room and it would come with free Doritos), but I would have preferred a more inviting bar.

I did appreciate a free Taipei Times in the morning (you can choose a newspaper in English, Japanese or Chinese), and I thought it was sweet that as we were coming back from dinner a girl on our floor got a visit from Santa Claus. Around Christmas if you stay at Evergreen with kids and ask for it from the staff, Santa will visit your kids in your room and bring a small gift. It was really sweet, but the parents (snapping lots of pictures) seemed more excited than the kid (who looked kind of confused and scared of the guy in the fake beard and red velour suit - it's not that Santa is unheard-of here, it's that the kid was probably just too young).

Breakfast was included in the room and it was definitely of five-star size: a huge buffet of Western and Chinese style breakfast foods, all of which were perfectly good but none of which were anything to write home about. Guests are notified that they're more likely to avoid a wait if they have breakfast at non-peak times (basically not between 8:30 and 9:30am), but we felt like - this is when we want to eat, so this is when we're going to go. We did have to wait but not long.

Since the food was perfectly fine, my only real complaint about breakfast was that, again, there were kids running around everywhere (one almost made me spill my coffee as I was walking back to the table). It's not that I don't like kids, it's that when I think "five star resort hotel", I think "place for adults to relax without screaming children". Family-style resorts are something entirely different to me. I guess, rather like the "minimalist Japanese-inspired" decorating, the idea of "five star hot spring resort" and "bring the whole family!" are just not disparate concepts in Taiwanese culture.

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The venue was fine, but the corporate logos were a bit odd. 

All in all I would recommend going if you have the opportunity - if anything to get your foot skin eaten by tiny fish and to sleep on those heavenly mattresses as well as take a nice, scalding private hot spring soak. If you have kids it's definitely a good choice for a comfortable weekend away. If you're a couple looking to relax in a grown-up setting with other adults it's still pretty good, but probably not what you're looking for. But it's a great choice for a wedding!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mountain Rescue in Yilan: Our Scary Hiking Story and why Taiwan's National Health Insurance Rules (and America Sucks)

Near that waterfall is the water hole that Brendan fell into - this is us swimming before it happened
So, last Sunday (just about one week ago), my husband, a friend and I took a hike/river tracing excursion to Yuemeikeng waterfall: we wanted to show our friend the falls and I was eager to return with a better camera and take more photos. Plus, I wanted to try the hike in something better than sports sandals, and bought river tracing shoes for this trip as well as future ones.

We set off alright, following the directions I remembered, and made it a good ways up the river. Then we came to a deep swimming hole carved out by a powerful waterfall of moderate height. We took a swim, and then tried to figure out how to get over it. We weren't going to make ti by climbing, that was for sure. I remembered their being a side trail over this fall from our last hike, and started up it - but the ropes that had been there were gone and the ground was steep and slippery. This was almost certainly a result of the typhoon that had blown through recently. I was almost certain to fall into the gorge below - and not necessarily in deep water - if I continued. Other river tracers made it over the waterfall or had their own climbing equipment for that section of trail.

We searched for alternate trails and found none on the same side - I found what I thought was an alternate, in an area I vaguely remember walking around in on the last trip, and started up it, with the understanding that if this didn't work out, we'd either turn back or take the high trail, which might give us a view of the waterfall but probably no safe way down.

The trail seemed overgrown and in places not really a trail - but I saw some footprints, which made me believe that it was a good route up and over the falls, and we continued far past where we really should have.

Our friend said she was starting to believe this path wasn't safe - I wanted to look ahead to confirm that but was also within a few minutes of agreeing to turn back. We were maybe 20 meters above the gorge at this point.

Before that could happen, Brendan - who was hiking between us, shouted as a large section of ground gave out beneath him. I had just climbed the same bit of ground, but clearly two people clamoring over it was more stress than it could take. We heard his interminable fall down, grunting and yelping as he was hitting trees and underbrush on the way down in a manner not dissimilar from this (after Homer starts falling).

Twenty meters of that - later on we learned that he'd lost his glasses and his wedding ring in the fall - and twenty meters of us gasping in terror has he took the worst fall of his life, as well as the worst fall any of us have ever personally seen anyone take.

Then, silence. It was about ten meters after that straight down into the water, with nothing but a slick rock face in between.

And then, a loud splash.

We heard shouts, and then nothing. I was terrified and started shrieking - but I was also stuck. I had just climbed over the ground that had given out under Brendan. How would I get around that safely and back down? Could I get up to the trail at the top safely? Probably not and almost certainly not.

I told our friend, who was behind me, to go see about Brendan first while I figured myself out - I figured I could stay up there almost indefinitely (provided the ground didn't give beneath me too) whereas Brendan almost certainly needed immediate aid.  I still didn't know what had happened - I didn't know where in the river he'd fallen. I didn't know if he had a lot of cuts, some broken bones, a concussion, or worse. He might have been dead. The thought of that final possibility terrified me - imagine not knowing if your best friend, your beloved spouse, a person who is so good that they're like gold to their core, a person who, if they leave this world while young, then the world is not fair and any god that may exist is uncaring, and knowing it was your idea to take the trail up - and not knowing how you are going to get down to find out. Feeling like you, for deciding to check a little further ahead, should have been the one to go down with that chunk of dirt. For feeling like there might be a hole that just got ripped out of your heart and soul, and a person you are pretty much of the other half of, gone - and you don't even know yet if that's true.

Like that. I couldn't even cry, but I couldn't stop crying - it was that much of a shock. Obviously, it was a bigger shock from him, but I can only write knowingly about my perspective.

So as Brendan lay below - possibly OK, possibly not - and Emily tried to get to him, I spent the next few minutes figuring out how to get back down, or back up, or decide to wait for help, or somewhere or something. After several minutes of what seemed like careful deliberation but was really my adrenalin-fueled lizard brain making decisions for me, I swung carefully over the crumbled ground, hanging on by roots and prayers to a god I don't believe in to make it down to my husband at the bottom of the gorge.

Two-thirds of the way down, Emily came back and said two words: "He's alive". She also said "his leg's pretty bad and he's bleeding from the head, but he's talking and conscious and he's alive".

All I really heard was "he's alive" - I didn't remember the rest until later. I took Bigfoot steps through the bit of shallow river to where he was - some river tracers had seen him fall and gotten him out of the deep water.

Fortunately, he'd fallen in that one section of river carved out by the waterfall that was so deep that we, when diving down, couldn't reach the bottom. Ten meters straight down, and all I can say is that he was extremely lucky that that's where he landed. Ten meters into any other portion of that river and it could have been much worse. He was sitting on a rock, blood running down the back of his head (he patted it to show me that there was no brain coming out), back cut up pretty bad, huge gash in his knee.

We had no cell reception - nobody, not those with Da Ge Da, Fareastone or China Telecom, had any signal. Emily knows First Aid, so she watched for signs of shock, broken bones, trauma etc. as she used her teeth to cut apart the cheap towels we'd brought and tie them to his bleeding. We got him food and water, and I took off with just some money, my phone and sandals down the river to get to an area with reception and call for help.

Truth be told, I wanted to be there with my husband in his time of need, but this made sense: I speak Chinese and know the trails and river better, having hiked a few times in this area before. Emily knows First Aid. It was smarter to send me for help and leave her with Brendan. A group of river tracers helped us to the best of their abilities, but went back to their activity when they saw he was basically OK, and probably going to be OK. Emily tore apart towels with her teeth (her teeth!) and tied them to his head and leg with shoelaces to staunch the bleeding, and looked for signs of shock, broken bones, head trauma, hypothermia and other injuries.

I got to a juncture where I still had no reception but had to take off my river tracing shoes and put on sandals. As I was doing so, a Taiwanese couple came by and I asked them if they had reception - I didn't, but they had China Telecom and did. They helped me call 119 - I thanked them and said I wouldn't mind if they went on their way, but they stayed with me. I had forgotten to bring food and water, and was starving and thirsty - they asked me if I was hungry and thirsty and gave me a sarsparilla soda and raisin bread, which I wolfed down like a thieving Labrador who'd just stolen it.

Sitting, wet and covered in mud and silt, by the bridge, waiting for the EMTs to arrive, while still racing on panic, guilt, worry and adrenalin felt like someone had trapped me in aspic - I couldn't leave, I had to wait for the EMTs - but I couldn't sit still. Brendan was probably fine, but I still had a curdling stomach (which didn't stop me from shoving an entire loaf of bread down my gullet, mind you) and a sense of urgency. No....URGENCY.

Five guys showed up - a local lookin' dude in blue and white plastic shoes and faded clothes, a guy in a black EMT shirt with some ropes and a walky-talky, and two men in burgundy shirts with something wilderness-y embroidered on the pockets.  One had a pallet and huge Emergency First Aid bag. One wore dress shoes. At first I was really worried - this was mountain rescue in Taiwan? A dude in sandals and another in dress shoes?

I led them to the river, put on my tracing shoes and was all "OK, LETS GO NOW" but they stood around for what felt like the same amount of time it took for the Roman Empire to fall, discussing amongst themselves in Taiwanese.

I tried to implore them to just go through the damn river already, my husband is hurt and you need to go NOW. I was perhaps a little more hysterical sounding than I should have been. The younger of the two burgundy shirts said he understood my worry, but Sandal Guy was an experienced mountain guide in these parts, and carrying my husband back through the river was more dangerous than a trail. If a trail could be cut, they'd try that instead.

"But there are no trails! We were just there! He fell because I thought it was a trail but it wasn't a trail and WE NEED TO GO NOW!!11!!1".

One of them said (in Chinese) "I know, this is your husband and you are really worried, but trust us, we know what we are doing and we'll get him out." That calmed me down, because even I could see that he was right.

I should have shut my mouth, or shoveled in some more raisin bread - the EMTs clearly knew what they were doing and the mountain guide got them down through a trail they cut themselves. I waited at the top - I'd be more trouble than I was worth at this point, and I finally realized this and stayed out of the way - while they descended to the river below with ropes, pullies, the pallet and the aid kid. Ages later, they carried, dragged and prodded my husband up the "trail" from where he was sitting in the river.

At first I was horrified that they'd make him walk in that condition - we called 119 in the first place because he couldn't walk and was feeling faint - but also contrite, so I waited to ask Emily why they'd decided to pull him up - at times making him walk by basically forcing him along and shouting at him in Taiwanese - rather than put him on a stretcher.

Apparently they'd examined him, bandaged him, and saw injuries that would require stitches but no head trauma and likely no broken bones, and decided it would be smarter to get him up partly on his own two feet (well, his own one foot) and put him on a stretcher on the trail rather than have men haul him up on something not designed to be hauled in that way. Brendan had been sitting in the river - cold, flowing water - for almost an hour by then and was shivering. The cold water certainly helped keep swelling down, but there was a risk of infection that the emergency room doctor later warned us about. His shirt was ruined, and his spare soaked, so Emily put him in my spare t-shirt, which obviously looked ridiculous on him, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

A strange omen of things to come?

A few things amazed me about this part of the ordeal.

First, what a strong person Brendan is. I mean, I knew that, but Emily remarked later how amazed she was that Brendan sat there bleeding profusely for almost an hour and didn't complain or freak out. That, while in obvious pain, he made it up the mountain with those guys shouting at him in Taiwanese. He didn't understand them, but when it was clear he needed to move, pain or no pain, he moved. He stayed in good humor even as they got him to the main trail and put him on a stretcher.

Second, that mountain rescue came quickly and was free of charge - we paid the emergency room fees later on, but the actual rescue and ambulance didn't incur extra expense. It was as good as I'd imagine mountain rescue to be in any Western country. I would absolutely, if I were caught in an emergency in the mountains, trust these guys with my life. Dress shoes or no. I don't really know how it works - whether they're on call and in uniform at certain times or just always on call, but they got there in 20 minutes - on a trail that's not that well-known yet (many people in Jiaoxi have never heard of it).

Third, the disparity between the locals who helped me so much, and the group of river tracers later on (the group that was there when Brendan fell did their best to help us out). As they were trying to figure out how to get to Brendan, a group of them was returning down the trail with all sorts of equipment. The mountain rescue guys asked if they'd stick around and help if necessary, and they said no. They were within their rights to do that, but I was surprised. I guess I would have stuck around. I have noticed when enjoying Taiwan's great outdoors (and how great it is!) that other individuals and small groups or families totally have your back. They'll chat with you, help you out, share snacks with you (and I do share with them), even give you a ride. The large, organized groups, however, never do. They'll make sure you don't die but that's about it. Again, within their rights, but being within your rights is not always synonymous with being kind. I remember a story told by a friend who climbed Jade Mountain and hiked from the bus stop to the first cabin (back when that was a 14km hike with no public transport). It was dark and raining and they were being followed by dogs, but nobody with a vehicle would give them a ride - all organized hiking groups. Contrast that to when a friend and I got stuck at the Laomei waterfall trailhead - a 2km, no streetlight walk back to any main road through farms where dogs lived. We quite easily scored a ride to the nearest bus stop from another leisurely day hiking couple. In this situation, the most helpful non-professionals were the couple who lent me their phone and fed me their soda and raisin bread, and stuck with us until Brendan was in the ambulance. I never learned their name (but I did thank them), and they'll have my eternal gratitude for taking care of me when I needed someone to help me help Brendan.

Fourth, I have not yet figured out how our band of three, plus the couple that helped me and the rescuers (fewer than ten) turned into a parade of approximately 30 people as we got to the end of the trail. I honestly have no idea where most of these people came from - two guys on scooters, a guy with blue hair, a few other day hikers, and about twenty other completely random people. My best guess is that word got out among people at wherever mountain rescue hangs out and the base of the trail that "some dumb foreigners had an accident in the mountains, why don't we go see what's up?" "OK, I've got nothin' else going on, let's check it out".

At the end, I thanked everyone including the Taiwanese couple and the EMTs got Brendan into an ambulance and sent us to National Yangming University Hospital in Yilan (I told them "the best nearby hospital" and that's the one they chose). It was my first and hopefully only ambulance ride not only in Taiwan, but ever. And yes, I Facebooked the whole way there, once it was clear that Brendan would be fine (obviously I would not have done that had he not been OK). It's not often that you get to be tagged in a photo like this:

Don't worry, Brendan's the sort of person who sees humor in such photos, assuming the person is not in any danger.

At the emergency room, he got a CAT scan and an X-ray, care for his less serious wounds, stitches and a dry hospital gown.

The X-rays and CAT scan confirmed that he managed to slide 20 meters and fall straight down for another 10 or so without breaking any bones or suffering any head trauma. Not even a mild concussion.

Which means that the fifth thing to amaze is that I am apparently married to Clark Kent. I think he may fly around saving lives and stopping criminals while I sleep. If a fall like that doesn't break a bone, I am not sure anything will (knock on wood).

Then they gave him an IV to make sure he didn't dehydrate, gave him some painkillers and observed  him for a few hours to make sure he didn't have some trauma they'd missed (nobody wants this), and a chance to rest. The care he received was as good as any you'd get in an American emergency room - no, better. He didn't have to wait. The ER was a little busy, but not understaffed. He got the attention he needed immediately - something you may not get in an ER in the West. I remember cutting my knee badly enough that I needed stitches one year at summer camp, and waiting two hours in the ER before a doctor was free to see me.

Emily and I went to a nearby hotel that has a deal with the hospital to provide discounts to patients and their family - we got a room for three hours (NT$500) and took showers and a rest. I frequently walked back to the hospital to check on Brendan, and 7-11 to buy him some sort of shirt. He had no clean, dry, non-ripped and non-bloody shirts to wear. He ended up with undershirts, but they'd do. He felt faint, but probably from exhaustion and shock more than anything, and I helped him hobble very slowly to our hotel room. Once there, he said he didn't think he'd make it back to Taipei that night, so we sent Emily home, paid a bit more for a full night, put a towel down on the pillow and slept in Yilan. We both canceled work the next day. Him because he was in no condition to teach, me because I needed to get him back to Taipei and then help him at home.

Some things I learned from the whole ordeal:

- I do realize just how lucky Brendan is. I do attribute it to luck: if anything, the fact that some people are not so lucky at all, and people do die hiking, mountain climbing and river tracing just because they didn't manage to fall into deep water, has made me feel that no, this is not the result of a higher power watching out for us. If it were, people just as deserving of a happy ending as Brendan would get it. So this hasn't caused any sort of religious epiphany.

- I will never, ever, EVER again make fun of people who take what seem like too many safety precautions when hiking or river tracing. I do understand the need for climbing gear, a wetsuit and a helmet for serious, challenging river tracing, but I felt that the Yuemeikeng trail was so easy - I mean, even I have done it, and I'm hardly Olga Outdoors - that a helmet was really not necessary. Well, no. Brendan was fine, but he might not have been, and had he fallen a few meters to the left, a helmet might have saved his life. In this case, a helmet would have meant no stitches in his head. So kids, listen to Auntie Jenna: wear a helmet when river tracing.

- Just because something has footprints and looks like a trail does not mean it is a trail you should be taking, or a real trail at all. I don't care how those footprints got there, if you feel like it's not a good trail, don't take it. Just don't. Even if you have to turn back. I have learned my lesson.

- I am really not interested in hiking or river tracing right now. I will surely hike again in the future, but for the forseeable future I am going to stick to safe trails. I had the jeebus scared out of me and I'm not interested in it happening again.

- I do realize how lucky we are that this happened in Taiwan and not, say, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, or Indonesia...or even China. Yilan County had the facilities to come to our aid quickly. I don't want to think about how much longer Brendan might have sat in that cold water, bleeding had this happened in a less developed country, or one in which we didn't have a cell phone (we generally don't travel with one), or I didn't speak the language, or had subpar hospitals. I am not too interested in seeing how good Nicaragua Mountain Rescue is, or how good their hospitals are. Lesson: don't do risky hikes in places where you don't have access to emergency services. Get a guide or don't go. It sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised.

- Take a First Aid course. I will. Again, it seems obvious, but it hadn't really occurred to me. Emily did a lot to keep Brendan safe while I went to find help, and I'd like to have the knowledge to be able to do something similar should I ever need to.

This was our final destination - I'd been there before. We never did make it. I'm not sure I'll go back. Too many bad memories now.

Finally, for all of you out there who still think America's craptacular private health insurance "system" is superior to a nationalized system like Taiwan's, I can assure you that National Health Insurance saved our butts. I am a big fan of Taiwan's nationalized insurance, which covers everyone but allows private hospitals and clinics to open alongside government-run hospitals. It means everyone is covered, but you don't have to wait for care because the private clinics help ensure that everyone gets quick attention. It's expensive, but not any more expensive than what you lose in productivity when you have a population that can't afford to seek medical treatment before it becomes dangerous/unavoidable. It's not perfect - people complain of perfunctory visits and ridiculous regulations on what can be prescribed when, and what is and isn't covered - but it's a hell of a lot better than America's horror.

Here's a breakdown for you:

Mountain rescue
Taiwan: free
USA: Usually free, but not always (It's hard to say if we'd have been found "negligent" and possibly charged for the cost on the USA: in retrospect we shouldn't have been on that "trail", but at the time, seeing those footprints, it seemed like, if not a great idea, that at least it wouldn't end as it did). Had we been hiking in Maine, Brendan's home state, the government would have been legally allowed to bill us for the cost of the rescue.

I'd say the level of training and competence evident in Yilan is comparable to what I'd expect in the rest of the developed world.

EMTs and Ambulance
Taiwan: free
USA: It depends - but usually not free
It may be ree if it is publicly funded, but it's not always. Private or fee-based ambulance services can be quite expensive (I know, Yahoo! Answers is not a good source, but in this case I believe it is accurate). Private insurers may or may not cover it: if they deem it wasn't medically necessary (Brendan technically could have been transported by car, but we didn't know that at the time), or are out-of-network, or take you to a hospital that the insurer won't improve. The ambulance may be covered but take you to an out-of-network hospital. Or your insurance may only cover you in your region. Let's say $500 as many sources agree this is the typical fee, and with all the weird rules and ways to reject a claim, there's a fair chance we'd have been stuck with that fee. However, let's assume everything goes according to plan and you pay a $50 co-pay for the ambulance ride.

Emergency Room
Taiwan: NT$500 (US $20 or so)
My old insurance plan paid for ER visits with a $50 deductible, some charge up to $250. I think the mean is about $100 so let's say $100 (this coverage plan confirms that). Without insurance or if insurance deemed that his visit was not medically necessary (it was, but private insurers seem to work on a plane of logic devised from their own sense of whimsy coupled with sadism) it could have been several thousand. Brendan needed more care than the child in this article's first anecdote, but like the child, got stitches for a deep wound. Let's say without insurance it would have been a similar amount - about $5500. I'll be generous and assume that includes X-rays.

CAT scan
Taiwan: Free with ER visit
USA: $300-$1500 (confirmed here - could even be more)
I'll go with $1500 here as he had CAT scans with contrast dye of his head, pelvis, leg, foot and possibly other parts - he may have gotten a shoulder and abdominal ones as well. I'm really not sure. It could have been much more than that, up to $3000 or even higher. Insurance usually asks for a 20% deductible for such tests, which would be $300 for a $1500 scan, or $600 for a $3000 scan.

Taiwan: free with ER visit, very cheap (like maybe $10 USD) otherwise
USA: $200-$500 (check the comments)
Let's be generous, though, and assume in our range that the huge ER bill included the X-rays, stitches, doctor check and pain medication - I'll include this cost in a range, but it may not be a separate charge.

Follow-Up Visits
With stitches in wounds as deep as Brendan's, he'd need at least one follow-up to remove them, or more than one to make sure everything was healing alright. He'll probably have to see an orthopedist soon to check for soft tissue damage.

Taiwan: NT$200 (US$6), typically, no waiting - we paid more for one visit but it wasn't strictly necessary to go back to the hospital in Yilan before returning to Taipei
USA: US$50 with insurance, typically (it varies), or $200 or so (again, it varies) without insurance - that'd be for a doctor to check/remove the stitches and again to see the orthopedist (a specialist - plans in the USA vary).

Total: 4 visits so far in Taiwan (NT$800 or about $25 USD), we'd probably go to the doctor less were we in the USA. 2 visits at $50 copays is US $100, or without insurance $400 USD.

Walking Cane
Taiwan: free - the ER gave us one, but if we'd had to pay, maybe NT$300 (US $9)
USA: let's say US $20, although that is a generously low estimate

Taiwan: Free
USA: assuming ER medication was free but medication given later on prescription had to be paid for: my estimate (I have no way of verifying this accurately, but I can make a good guess) would be $20 with insurance, up to $60 or more without. Let's be charitable and stick with $60 for some basic Neosporin-type stuff and some antibiotic cream.

I won't even get into the cost of acquiring a hotel room ($30 US in Taiwan, probably $100 US in the USA), food while in a different city (negligible in Taiwan, probably $50 or so in the USA with three people eating a few meals, even if we ate cheaply), transport back to Taipei (we would have paid that anyway), and taxi to the bus station and then apartment (total $300NT or $9 US, would have been more like $40 in the USA), and getting Brendan shirts (about US $5 here, probably would have cost me more in the USA).

Total cost in Taiwan:

Mountain Rescue - Free
Ambulance - Free
$20 ER
CAT scan - Free
X-rays - Free
$25 follow-up visits
Cane - free
Medication - free

$45 USD for the entire thing

Total cost in the USA if you are lucky and have insurance

Mountain rescue - free
Ambulance - $50 co-pay
Emergency room - $100 with insurance
CAT Scan - $300-$600 with insurance
X-rays - charitably, let's assume this is covered by the emergency room fee. If not, maybe $100
Follow-up visits: $50 for two follow-ups and $50 to see an orthopedist = $150
Walking Cane $20
Medication $20

$640 - my minimum estimate with insurance, $1040 as a maximum total cost even if you are lucky and insured!

Total cost in the USA if you are one unlucky bastard

Mountain rescue - free (you're not that unlucky)
Ambulance - $500
Emergency room - $5500
CAT scan - $1500-$3000
X-rays - let's say this isn't covered by the ER bill and estimate it at $200 (which is being generous!)
Follow-up visits - $600 for two follow-ups and one orthopedist appointment (note that in Taiwan you'd have had four visits)
Walking cane - $20
Medication - $60


= may as well file for bankruptcy now

Or, $8,380 if you are only a little unlucky
and $9,880 if your CAT scan was on the more expensive end of things

Just in case you're not furious yet, here's the cost in Taiwan even if you don't have insurance:

Mountain rescue: free
Ambulance: not sure, but the EMT told me it was actually free no matter what (will double-check or someone can correct me in the comments if I'm wrong)
Emergency room: from my sister's visit, NT$800 or about $25
CAT scan - no idea - can anyone help? I'll ask some doctor friends soon
X-rays - NT$300 (from my own experience) or $9 USD
Follow-up visits - NT$400 each for 4 visits = NT$1600 or about $48 USD
Orthopedist without insurance - NT$1000 (estimated from what it's cost me to see a chiropractor and an OB/GYN that didn't take national health insurance) or US $30
Walking cane - NT$300 maybe (US $9)
Medication - let's estimate a total of NT $500 (US $20), which is overstating it


= USD $141 (not including CAT scan)


Poor Americans shouldn't go hiking. If you're poor, and American, or even not poor but lack insurance, don't just stop hiking - stop EVERYTHING. Just go live in a bubble. If you're in an accident, and live, your life is still over. If you can afford the bubble. Which you probably can't. You're fucked, because a bunch of "meh meh meh let's spend all our money on wars we don't need to be fighting and tax cuts for people who don't need them and then balance the budget on the backs of the poor and elderly and tell those poor and elderly that they're the moochers who won't take personal responsibility"folks.

And, also, clearly nationalized health insurance works, and clearly even setting the insurance issue aside, medical care costs too much in the USA and I have to ask why. Costs in Taiwan are about 1/2 to 2/3 that of the USA, so why is the difference more like several orders of magnitude just in the case of medical care? When medical care in Taiwan is comparable to that in the USA (in the case of emergency rooms, it's better)?

Note that the expenses listed in Taiwan are generally one line each - because it's all very simple. There's about a paragraph per expense under the US section, because it's complicated, and easy to get screwed (out of network, ambulance brings you to the wrong place, insurance says something was not necessary even though doctor said it was etc.). That right there says a lot about how screwed up the American system is. It shouldn't be that way. It should cost $X, at all times, for everyone, under every insurance plan.

And also, note that I put "in Taiwan with no insurance" at the end - because while it's possible to go through this in Taiwan with no insurance, almost everyone is insured. Youd've been insured, almost certainly. The exceptions are few and far between. In the USA, it is absolutely not a guarantee that you'd be insured.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bits and Bobs - River Tracing Accidents and Post-Typhoon Orchid Island

Sorry I've barely updated, but we've been busy.

A good friend from Australia is visiting, so there's that. Then, Brendan had to be carried out of the mountains by Jiaoxi on a stretcher - we went river tracing back at Yuemeikeng , but the bit of trail we needed was washed out. We tried an "alternate route" that quickly turned to bushwhacking, and just before we all agreed to turn back (I was the most reticent, I admit), the ground beneath Brendan gave out and he went plummeting back down toward the river, freefalling the last ten meters or so. Fortunately, he fell into a pool of very deep water, which meant he was (mostly) unhurt. He had to get stitches and a CAT scan, but remarkably, had no broken bones. He's still having trouble walking and moving his left leg, but he's on the mend.

More on that later - I am mentally composing a post that outlines what mountain rescue is like in Taiwan if you need it, along with a comparison of what the whole ordeal cost us in Taiwan (less than $100 US including overnight in a hotel in Yilan) vs. what it would have cost with and without insurance in the USA (hint: more than that). Just, you know, in case you still don't think nationalized health coverage is a good thing.

And now we're on Orchid Island - Brendan was healthy enough to make the trip, but he won't be doing any snorkeling or hiking. We almost cancelled after hearing about the typhoon damage, but the Lanyu police station and our reserved homestay both assured us it was fine, so we came anyway. We're happy we did - there's some damage, a few landslides (the road is clear), and the coral took a hit, but it's mostly fine. It's not the desperate wasteland that news reports would have you believe.

More on that later, too. I'm not going to spend a perfectly lovely day on Orchid Island blogging. I love you guys (well, most of you), but no.

So, there are two posts to look forward to, but you'll have to wait until Sunday at the absolute earliest for either of them.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Lvsang (呂桑食堂): Delicious food from Yilan on Yongkang Street

Red Date Pork (紅糟肉) at 呂桑
Lv-Sang ("Mr.") Yi-lan Restaurant

# 12-5 Yongkang Street, Taipei

(they also have a branch in Zhongshan: Zhongshan N. Road Section 2 Lane 59 #5-1)

What a fantastic restaurant! Along with my quest to find a suitable Japanese restaurant in which to SPEND ALL THE MONEY, I'm also on a mission to find a short list of restaurants to prove anyone who says "Taiwanese food isn't very good/flavorful/delicious/well-seasoned" wrong.

I also have to say that the past few weeks have really reminded me of how well I eat in Taiwan for such little money. People say "it's cheap to eat out" and usually mean the night market or hole-in-the-wall restaurants, but even nicer food is generally cheaper than you'd pay at home, unless you're going out for Indian, German or some other non-Asian "foreign" cuisine (and even then, prices are not bad)...and better. Washington DC was a mecca of good foreign food, but didn't have a lot of good "American" or continental fare - and yet restaurants charged through the nose for what they did have - bilking politicians, networkers, social climbers and foreign dignitaries no doubt. In Taipei I can enjoy quite literally the best the city has to offer and not  end up in the poorhouse. Sure, there are NT$6,000 per person restaurants serving birds' nest soup, but come on, that's not really the best Taipei has to offer.

It's places like this that remind me that, as well as I can cook, I can't really cook. Not like this. I couldn't turn out a perfect red date sliced pork like the delicious dish above. I wouldn't dare put cheese on a baked papaya. I can't create the dishes we enjoyed here.

Recommended by our friend Joseph and well-known in its own right, Lvsang is one of the restaurants that gives Yongkang Street its reputation for good food. Serving Yilan Taiwanese food, including plenty of lesser-seen or less-known dishes, this is also one of those places that kicks to the curb any notion that Taiwanese food lacks flavor or that it's all just the light&sound of soy sauce, chili oil and deep fryers.

Fatty stewed intestine
For our meal, we got the "liver flowers" roll, the fatty stewed intestine (above), the red date pork, the cold chicken, the vegetable salad and a baked papaya, and have agreed to try the liver next time (it's supposed to be great).

Other than the papaya, which was interesting and unexpected but not exactly something I'd try to re-create, everything was amazing. I'm not a fan of intestines or innards normally, but the intestine used to make two of the dishes we tried was soft and tender, not chewy and weirdly-textured. It's really the texture, not the flavor, that bothers me. This stuff was melt-in-your-mouth soft and savory without being too salty, served with slivered ginger to give it a spicy, dry punch.

The restaurant itself has an Old Taiwan vibe going, as well.
The salad has a bit of a wasabi vibe to the dressing, but isn't spicy (Brendan called it "decaf wasabi"). I'd prefer if it had the wasabi punch, but the fresh vegetables and tangy sauce were still delicious (although I can't say I'm a fan of the white vegetable, which I believe is 山芋 - biting into it releases juices that have the texture of runny snot).

Quick warning: they don't seem to serve water or any alcohol here - the only beverage available is tea, and the tea seems to be a slightly savory kumquat potion which I liked, but I wouldn't say it sated my thirst. It was made from dried kumquats and so had a bit of the salty-ish stuff they use to preserve fruit and vegetables in it.

The eggplant, mushroom and other vegetables are delectable, though. Fresh, well-seasoned, delicate in a tangy dressing. Definitely not your standard stewed or fried fare.

Cold chicken (白斬雞腿)
I'm a huge fan of plain cold chicken in sauce (and the sauce at Lvsang is a bit different from the usual flavored oil this dish is served in - the dipping sauce has a spicy punch to it, as well) and this not-very-sexy but standard and good dish is a fine addition to your order. It's simple but they do it well.

I don't have a good picture of the stuffed "liver flower" (宜蘭肝花)but, served with a very Taiwanese "pink sauce" (the kind you get on sticky rice and Taiwanese tempura), it's cooked beautifully and delicious. Above is the 烤木瓜, which is a slice of papaya baked with cheese, underneath which are chopped vegetables in a creamy sauce. Although it was interesting and new, I'm not sure I'd recommend it, an I've never actually seen this dish in Yilan. It's...something. I'm happy I tried it - it was a new experience. I didn't dislike it, but I am really not sure I see the point.

Overall, though, I was thoroughly pleased with Lvsang - especially that divine red date pork.  Thoroughly and highly recommended overall!  

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Day Hike to Yuemeikeng Waterfall (and Reason #23 to love Taiwan)

Yesterday we hiked to Yuemeikeng waterfall in Yilan - I have to say, very honestly, that this is not only the most beautiful waterfall I've seen in Taiwan: it's the most beautiful waterfall I've seen in person. Period. And that includes some spectacular falls in Guizhou, Sumatra and the Philippines. You can see for yourself how lovely it is - a spray of water falling down an etched rock face into an idyllic, swimmable pool surrounded by verdant cliff faces, approached from an idyllic gorge.

I can't give exact directions because I didn't lead the hike, although it's not a hard trail to follow. There is are links out there to posts by other hikers/bloggers that I thought I'd bookmarked, but haven't (J, if you want to provide a link in comments I'll link it in the post).

To get there, you begin at Wufengqi (also spelled Wufengchi and Wufongchi...whatever) in the hills above Jiaoxi in Yilan County. You can get there by taxi, a tourist shuttle or your own transportation. The tourist shuttle leaves from outside the train station approximately once every 15 minutes, at least on weekends.

I recommend going during the week if possible, and not on a holiday. The last blogger to pass through here said he felt that this gorgeous spot would soon be overrun with hiking groups and he'd like to see it remain pristine. Our experience is that it's pretty newly popular and full of hiking groups (we ran into several) and so...what's done is done. Weekends promise to be somewhat crowded, as do holidays, and the large hiking groups of which Taiwanese seem to be fond, while friendly, well...the sheer size of them does kind of ruin the peaceful atmosphere.

You do not want to do this hike in heavy rain or after it. Some parts of the trail are really not navigable when wet.

When you get to Wufengqi, head down the path along the river where the mini-dams are (people will probably be swimming) and after climbing the stairs above them, cross the river. This is not the first time you'll be wading in water - a good portion of the hike is essentially river tracing, so wear appropriate shoes (river tracing shoes would be the best choice, but we did it in Teva-style sandals).

There is a trail across the river - not really marked at all. Head up that and you'll walk a very gentle incline for awhile. You'll cross two bridges and pass a simple Tu Di Gong (earth god) shrine.

One of the bridges has a sign saying that only one person may cross at a time.

The trail goes up and down and only one section is a longer, steep climb. I'm not exactly a super-fit hiking maven, but I made it up, so you can too. Huffing and puffing, but I made it. You'll pass lots of lovely hanging branches and vines and a grove of green bamboo on the way up.

At two points you'll hit crossroads...this is where my directions get a little shoddy. For one of them (I believe the first one) you go right. The other path heads uphill and the one to the right is level/slightly downhill. For the other I believe you go left. I'm fairly sure that's the second one.

You'll start heading downhill quite sharply and then hit the stream, which is punctuated by several large boulders. It's a popular rest stop for large hiking groups - when we got there they'd all stopped in the stream and were starting up hot-pot style food. Right in the stream. Which is fine, and it all looked very festive, but we were looking for peace and quiet. 

I don't mean to be too harsh on the tour groups - clearly they enjoy the atmosphere that a large group brings, and they are extremely friendly. It's just...they're loud.  And they take up space. And they make their hot pot right on the trail. 

They also carry far too much gear. Here is a big cultural difference between hiking in Asia and hiking back home. We Crazy Foreigners show up in Tevas - well, fake Tevas from A-Mart - grody t-shirts and comfortable pants or shorts, a backpack with some water and snacks, and we go. They show up in wetsuits, with vests full of dangling gear, carabiners, rappelling ropes, helmets (why? "In case we fall and hit our head"), river tracing shoes and probably crampons and machetes as well (I'm joking about the crampons and machetes...sort of. It's hard to tell under all that rope). We get our shirts wet and whatever, it's cool. They look like they're about to start a deep-sea dive, except in a helmet.

Which is fine, I'm gently poking fun instead of mocking, because I am sure they gently poked fun at the "unprepared" Crazy Foreigners without helmets or rope that we honestly didn't need.

Crazy Foreigners!

At this point in the hike, you need to start following the stream, which means wading (or river tracing). Good shoes are a must - it's worth the money to by dork-tacular river tracing shoes although if you go in sandals with a good grip you'll be fine. Just watch out for slippery or unsecured rocks.

You'll get partway up and then reach a waterfall you may or may not be able to get over - I guess this is where the rope that the Taiwanese hikers had came in handy. There is a trail, though, up and over with ropes to help you. It's slippery, very narrow and if you fall you will probably break something, but I did it so you can, too.

You can, in fact, choose to take that trail - which is muddy, irritating, tiring and a bit dangerous - and skip the rest of the wading until you get to the end, but we found the wading to be more fun and actually easier.

 You might lose a shoe, though. 

After the 2nd mini-waterfall, which also has a trail up and around, you enter a small gorge and can see the top of Yuemeikeng over the trees. Even from that distance it is spectacular.

Didn't I tell you?
At this point I shouted "DUDE! We're HERE!" Even from a distance I could tell it was going to be stunning. 

You do have to start wading again, but it's not that challenging. This area can get dangerous after heavy rains, and flash floods are a concern, so do check the weather and precipitation before heading out.

The trail is populated with butterflies, including small cornflower-blue ones, and dragonflies. There are also a lot of spiders.




Wufengqi itself - which is a tiered series of three waterfalls (only the final one of which is really impressive) reachable by an easy path pockmarked with stairs, has nothing on this place. If you have to choose between here and Wufengqi for time reasons, choose Yuemeikeng. Don't even bother with the more well-known Wufengqi. Yuemeikeng is just better.

See what I mean about the large number of people ruining the atmosphere for us smaller groups? Again, if one of us got into a serious spot or was injured - which was a possibility in some areas - you know they would have used their fancy equipment to help us (I will never say that Taiwanese are unfriendly or unhelpful) but we did appreciate having about 40 minutes of peace at Yuemeikeng before they arrived.

Also, note the bike helmet, the scooter helmet, the construction helmet...bring a helmet, any helmet seemed to be the directive from the group leader, who had a whistle and everything.

I would never want to hike like that, but good for them.

See how much nicer it is without a lot of people?

It started to rain on the way back - pretty heavily in fact. Fortunately the worst of it hit long after we'd left the more dangerous-when-wet parts of the trail. Ash had already changed into a dry shirt (we hadn't) so he put on his Giant Condom. Brendan, Joseph and I figured, well, we're already soaked, so whatever. We're not going to get any wetter.

Brendan and I changed in the bathrooms at the Wufengqi parking lot near where the shuttle picks up. Although my pants were quick-dry and my shirt was athletic clothing material, I was soaked to the bone and didn't want to get on the bus like that.

I have to say goodbye to the pants though - at many points on the trail I had to get there by scooting on my butt (I call it "ass hiking") and I got a huge tear in the right butt-cheek of my pants about halfway through: another reason to change before heading back to civilization.

In Jiaoxi we sought out some locally-brewed beer that we'd tried previously. This company makes three kinds of wheat beer and something called "green beer". We'd tried the dark wheat beer before and thought it tasted like Oreos - when we first tried it I thought it was pretty good. This time we got that and the Green Beer (below) and, well, it wasn't as good as I remembered. I could drink it, and it was certainly unique,'s green beer.

If you want to try it (don't say I didn't warn you: it's not that good, but it is an experience), go to the main intersection in Jiaoxi where the road to the train station hits the main road (Rt. 9), turn left and walk to the large blue building under construction. Next to that is a hot spring park with coffee, shaved ice, ice cream and this beer.

They also have snacks - fennel dried tofu, fennel cooked peanuts, smoked duck in a tasty sauce, edamame and more. The snacks, especially the duck, were delicious.

Yes, this is actually beer.

I'll leave you with this: if you live in Taiwan, and you are even reasonably fit, you have to try this hike. Go with a small group, bring good shoes, check the weather and try to go on a weekday, but do go. You won't be disappointed - Yuemeikeng is truly spectacular.

That brings me to my Reason #22 to love Taiwan - wherever you live, especially around Taipei, there are myriad day trip and day hiking options to get out of the city. When I lived in DC getting out of the metro area was an ordeal that required planning and a car. Sure, you could go to Annapolis, Harper's Ferry, Shenandoah, even the Blue Ridge Mountains if you wanted. You could go to Richmond, Baltimore Harbor or the Billy Goat Trail (or other hikes in the area), visit Mt. Vernon or do any number of other things.

The problem was that none of them - not even one - was remotely convenient or in some cases even possible without a car. They were expensive, too. Some of them (such as Harper's Ferry) were better suited to a weekend. Very few of them actually involved nature - most involved going to some other town. Nature was just too far away for a day trip, or close but inaccessible.

In Taipei, if I get up early enough I can do a satisfying hike through some breathtaking natural vistas (or just enjoy the breeze, butterflies, trees and earth) and I can do a different one every time. I could hike every other weekend for years and still not do every day hike available to me from Taipei. And for most of them I don't need a car - there's a bus that goes close enough, or a chartered taxi is in my price range (imagine getting a taxi to take you out to a hiking trail in the USA!). 

It's not that I didn't like hiking in the USA - and I did a lot of it in upstate New York where I grew up because that town really is in close proximity to a lot of day hikes - it's that in the USA if you live in an urban area and don't have a car...forget it. At least where I'm from - I don't claim to have been to every major urban area or spent enough time there to really know. Maybe things are different in another part of the country. 

Even if you do have a car it's hard to get out to a good day hike. From New York City you'd probably want to go to the Shawangunks which are a good 2 hours away. From DC there are precious few day hikes and by the time you get to the best mountains you're looking at an overnight stay in central Virginia. 

I complain a lot about how living in a city in a "basin" (surrounded on three and a half sides by mountains) creates pollution and bad weather, but I have to say that that basin is formed by some great mountains which are etched with some awesome trails - some of which are in Taipei City itself. And unlike China, not all of them are paved over with stairs!

Here, well, we pick a trail, we pack a bag, we catch a bus early enough and we go. And we're back in time for dinner. No car necessary and there are quite literally hundreds of choices.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Sorry. I know it's been almost a month.

I'm just...busy. I'm getting married in three weeks. In a large wedding. That we planned from the other side of the planet. A wedding on something of a budget in which huge sections that most people delegate to paid professionals...are done by us. DIY. And while B's family has been fantastic, mine have been a little on the dramaaaaatic side. I love them anyway, but it's true.

And yeeess, I took the photo above. I did not rip it out of a calendar or scan a postcard. I took that!

Just goes to show that no matter how much the Taipei basin overpopulates, and no matter how much crap fills the air from China next door (cough cough, wheeze), and now much industry blights the west coast (industry that keeps the economy humming, I know), there's a reason why Taiwan is also called Formosa. It really, truly and deeply is a gorgeous place. It's east, northeast and south coasts, islands and northern mountains along with the central mountains are absolutely stunning. No two ways about it. They say China is beautiful and in some places, it's true. Taiwan still has that beauty - I can't help but think that huge tracts of it have been destroyed in China - tumbled temples, ravaged environments and filthy ecosystems, razed meadows and forests, blanched mountains, depressing zoos, bilious rivers.

It's truly a gem of a place and it's too bad that so many people don't realize it - they think "Taiwan" and it's synonymous with "my keyboard was made there". Not with "mind-bending mountain vistas and cloud seas". Or, if they're a little more astute, maybe they associate it with Sun Moon Lake or Alishan or some such. Eh. I'm sorry, but the sheer vastness, the gut-punching raw beauty of the drive from Puli to Lishan and down to Yilan shoves those tourist-blighted spots down to pale also-rans. And yet you see so few travelers up there.

Which is good, in a sense. I have it all to myself when I go - which is every few years when I need a soul-resting break and a reminder that I am truly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Vistas like the one above are good for things like that. When you're planning a wedding - a large wedding, a DIY wedding, a nontraditional wedding, from a distance, you need that perspective sometimes.

So we rented a car - the bus is an option, but it sucks - you can't scream "WOOOO!" out the windows, play burned mix CDs, lean out the window and stop where you please to eat, take pictures or run around shouting about how beautiful it all is. We burned piles of music, grabbed the car at Taizhong HSR Station (CarPlus - recommended. Very good service though their good cars book out fast - we ended up with a Mitsubishi Colt when a Toyota Camry or Altis (Corolla) would have done better. You can return the cars elsewhere for a $1200 NT fee - we returned ours in Taipei. They do insist that you have an International Driver's Permit and they do check.

Anyway, here are some photos of our recent weekend in Lishan for you:

Farms of Lishan with Snow Mountain peaking out the top.

Drew and Emily in the creepy abandoned church.

View from the ridge just below Lishan's main town.

Side doors of creepy abandoned church.

View, I believe, from Fushoushan.

Creepy abandoned church.

One of the peaks of Hehuan Mountain. At this point I turned back toward the soaring views beyond and shouted "WOOOOHOOOOOOOOOOHOOOO!" at passing cars. A lot of people shouted back!

And no, the roads are not that safe. Drive carefully, use your horn, watch the mirrors and be prepared to brake at a moment's notice.

Clouds rolling in.

Emily at Fushoushan.

Happy folks from Tainan on a weekend trip. It is amazing, the hospitality up in the mountains - we shared tea, shared food, swapped stories and had conversations with so many people.

Books in the abandoned church.

Drew in a sniper hole at Fushoushan.

Maple leaves at our farm homestay, right outside our door, from the porch. I loved that in the evenings we could sit out there, drink tea, futz around and enjoy the cool (cool!) air.

Fruit and tea grown near Lishan. Lishan's fruit, vegetables and high mountain tea are superb.

Harvesting snow pears in Lishan.

Awwwww. Me and Brendan.

The new, less creepy, church.

This reminds me of the lyric of a favorite song, "Falling Is Like This" - One minute there was road beneath us - and the next just sky..."

Flower at Fushoushan.


"The Old England: Since 2009"

Rose after a nighttime rain in Lishan

Pears at Fushoushan.

The owner of our farm homestay - Mingxiu (明秀) - it's a kilometer down a steep hill from the top of Lishan proper, but totally worth it. Not cheap ($1500-$2000 /night for a double room with electric blanket, cable TV, hot water and other amenities in a cabin built with local wood) but the best deal in town for what you get and the lovely setting, if you ask me. The owner and his family are very friendly. Drop me a comment if you are ever interested in staying there - I highly recommend it.

More farming near Lishan.

Street food stand with the best damn view in the country.

Since 2009.

Tea at a farm stand just off Hehuanshan.

Farming near Nanshan in the Lanyang Valley.

Lanyang River Valley - after Lishan you basically head down, leaving Taizhong county and entering Yilan County. The signage is terrible once you hit Yilan.

Lanyang River Valley from the top of the mountain on the way down.
View from pagoda on the way to Tianchi lake at Fushoushan Farm about 4km up from Lishan and walkable for those hardy enough - though we drove.

Fushoushan trees.