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.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Nancy Coffee

I have a new favorite place. Located just south of Nanjing West Road on a lopsided intersection of Tianshui Street, near Huating Street and some random lane, Nancy Coffee and Snacks looks as though it’s been frozen in time in pieces between the 1920s (with its dark wood lined, art deco windows and Depression Yellow glasses) and the 1970s (with its retro burnt auburn faux-leather chairs and equally worse-for-wear tables).

I love the view from those vintage windows. I love the funky mid-century light fixture that forms a starburst of light on the ceiling, and the hanging birdcage lamps in one corner. I love the horrible brown-rug creaky floor and the old wood post room divider that reminds me, for some reason, of the first house I lived in (even though it did not have such a divider). I love the old folks who look like they live in the corner, covered in cobwebs, and the wall-installed HDTV they watch. I love the hideous art on the walls.

I love how the counter is about two feet high, horrible brown Formica (I think – I missed Formica’s boom years) with two hairsprayed women who are clearly more comfortable with the dips and twangs of Taiwanese than dry, proper Mandarin.

I love how the Cheese, Ham and Egg sandwich is exactly what it says it is and the coffee comes in small cups but makes your heart race. I love that it’s bitter but it’s not that Starbucks burnt bitter that forces you to add sugar. I like how they don’t have wireless access (though I wish they did).

I love the neighborhood – whatever you need you can find it in the bylanes and backalleys of Nanjing West Road. I love the store that sells widgets and the other that sells dingbats. I love the rows and rows of chemical lab supply shops and apothecary jar stores (I love that the pharmacies in this neighborhood still use apothecary jars). I love the old scraggly dude who sells sausages, and the old scraggly lady who naps in a folding chair under the monolithic temple – really a glorified gate – across the street from the 2/28 marker (the 2/28 incident began near here). I love the shops that sell baubles and crystals, and how every kind of fabric and jewelry supply is available. All those hoo-hoos and whatchits you see in the USA and have no idea where they come from are sold here, except they’re not attached to any coats, briefcases or handbags. I love how next to those stores are other stores that sell pressed fish eggs and shark jaw. I love how some of the stores are so old that their signs are crumbling, and some of the proprietors are as crumbly as the signs.

So, I love Nancy Coffee and Snacks. I think it might be my new favorite place on Earth. Bad lighting, strong coffee, stained walls, wobbly tables and all. I hope it never changes.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Three things

First: Seven Reasons Why Taipei is Better Than Singapore

Second: I now teach a class in Xinzhu on Wednesdays (HSR and taxi fares are reimbursed in full so this is fine). I mentioned to the class that I've been to the Temple to Chiang Kai Shek (whom I intensely dislike, but it was a cultural thing, like an anthropological interest) in their city and one of the students said: "Yes, I know that one. It's near Qinghua University Night Market. Do you know why he is a god? Because in Chinese culture, if you kill a lot of people or you are a robber, you will become a god when you die. So Chiang Kai Shek is a god now."

He's got a point, I must say.

Third: Saw a dead monk encased in gold the other day. (Link is to a site in Chinese). I didn't take a photo because it's not exactly respectful to do so, and we had to ask someone to open the shrine with the actual monk for us, as it was closed when we a temple representative was there. And yes, it was very kind of them to open the shrine for us when it would otherwise be closed. But I found this online:

In the 1970s the monk under all this gold sat down to meditate and continued meditating, apparently, until he died in that position after taking no food or water and not moving from that position until...well, until it killed him. His devotion caused him to be considered a minor deity and have his gold-covered idol worshipped at Anguo Temple. So yes, that's really him under there.

Anguo Temple also has a well-known vegetarian restaurant that we were too full to eat at, but intend to return to and try. The view looks fantastic but it's hard to see through the trees.

To get there, take the MRT to Beitou Station and turn left after exiting. Take the 小6 bus from there (comes every half hour) - ask to be let off at an1 guo2 si4 - 安國寺. it'll go past a few hilarious storefronts on busy streets (we were quite charmed by Internet Technotronic, Taiwan Buffet New Conception, and Black Magic Rabbit Kitchen.)* Then it'll pass Xin Beitou station before climbing a steep hill. Soon after that you'll be let off - there's no stop, which is why you have to tell the driver in advance.

It's not a long walk back down the hill to Xinbeitou, so it's a good outing to combine with hot springs or something else in the area.

* Almost as good as Chili Lubricants and Cherry Grandfather Cake near Wanlong, Lady Juice on Changchun Road, Oh! God! Ya! near Shuanglian MRT and We Deliver Trust & Dreams on Minzu Road).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Google may pull out of China

Google May Pull Out Of China: Search engine cites attacks on human rights activists' Gmail accounts and says it will no longer filter search results as per Chinese law.

YAY! I hope they do.

These attacks are almost certainly the work of the government itself and what the article calls its vast "army of proxies". Nobody can prove it, but come on, they have the capability, the desire and the sense of entitlement.

Diplomatic pressure, as we have all seen, has failed. No country (except maybe Panama and their tiny Central American friends) has the balls to stand up to the CCP - a government that really needs a standing-up-to. The reason - if my saying so isn't too pendantic - is purely economic.

So what's left? Economic pressure. Pulling out of China may hurt Google's balance sheets in the short term, and possibly even the long term, but ethically it's simply the right thing to do. China doesn't need another search engine that bows to the CCP's cracked up vision of human rights and freedom. They need actual freedom - freedom of speech, of information and of the press. This may be the only kind of external pressure that has some, possibly small, effect.

Or maybe it'll have no effect at all. I'm no economist, nor am I a political analyst. Maybe Bing (*ptooey*) will make inroads in China, ride that wave as China becomes the world's next economic center, and Google will be left in the dust.

But I certainly hope not - and now, I feel a lot better about using Google.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Nikko, The End

The final set of assorted photos from our trip to Nikko - all the stuff that didn't get posted before!