Raw Wasabi (and other National Treasures)

Raw wasabi at market in Alishan, Taiwan.

Guava shake at “The Home of Bitter Tea.”
244 Changan W. Rd., Taipei. Tel: 886-2-2558-0119.
Crazy huge rotating cedar plank bbq at the foot of Alishan.Link
At Chuhuo nature fire “special scenic area,” in Kenting this local woman was illegally cooking potatoes on a fire fueled by a natural gas leak.

The Joys of Jinshan: Coffee and Sculptures

Last week, Fish took me to the Juming Museum about an hour outside Taipei in Jinshan. The impressive grounds house works by Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming. What moved me most was Ju Ming’s taichi series, enormous, hulking works of bulky bronze chiseled into graceful taichi poses. After practicing Tai Chi with master Liao, I felt Ju Ming brilliantly captured what it means to be “soft but not soft.” Here are these heavy, substantial characters displaying such agility and motion. The bronze is able to convey what is feels like to be grounded yet light as air.

The sun was out and the view from the 0utdoor sculpture garden was spectacular, stretching all the way to the sea. We drove back toward the city along the north coast, past Yeliu, with the Pacific sparkling at our right. I couldn’t take my eyes off the window and kept exclaiming, “Look at the view! It’s like Route 1 in California!” Waves crashed against rocks on the shore and the afternoon light cast a golden glow over the cliffs.

Fish noticed my rapture and decided we should stop for coffee at the popular Youngdoor cafe (translated from the Chinese as “Yong Doh.” We each ordered cappuccinos and shared the famous lemon pound cake. We counted at least six shades of blue in the ocean. We stared at the clouds and sat quietly, the wind whipping the scarves wound round our necks.

Biking Taipei: Guandu to Danshui

LinkLast month, my roommate rented a Taiwanese film called Island Etude. A young student rides his bike around the island meeting all kinds of characters along on the way. One of the people in the movie said that cyclists will always see the best and the worst of a place. I have to agree, especially since my bike was recently stolen! You’re low to the ground and can cover a lot of area. You’re also sure to see a diverse cross-section of local life. One of many riverside paths in Taipei, the Guandu Bikeway offers a nice weekend afternoon ride. But it’s not for impatient or speedy cyclists. Though the path is only for bikers and pedestrians, the boardwalks are narrow and crowded. There are many kids on training wheels and old Taiwanese men on bikes have the habit of stopping right in front of you to put down their kick stand to admire the view. You need to be able to break swiftly and not get ticked off. At Danshui, you can stop for a snack or a limeade and walk along the boardwalk. Here is where Taipei’s families come to relax on the weekends.

Near Danshui wharf, I caught sight of these ramshackle houses on stilts and traditional fishing boats:
Passing Guandu temple on the way back, I caught a terrific show put on by a Taipei arts school in front of the temple:Logistics: From Guandu MRT Station Exit 1, take an immediate right on Dadu Rd. and follow signs for Guandu Temple. Keep going straight. Turn left right in front of the temple and take a small alley to the main road. If you take the bike path directly in front of you, it goes south, back toward Taipei. Make a right to head toward Danshui. I took my bike on the MRT. It costs NT $80 (USD $2.50) each way to enter the train with your cycle and it can be inconvenient hauling it up and down the stairs or getting to the elevator. Plus, only certain stations allow bikes during certain hours. It’s easier and more cost effective to rent a bike when you get to Guandu. There are several bike shops on Dadu Rd. when you get off at Exit 1 where you can rent a bike for the day for NT $100 (USD $3). Weekdays should be less crowded.

Taiwan Logistics: Hualien Hotels, Train and Tours

I know firsthand how difficult it can be to navigate a foreign country when your command of the local language is poor at best. That’s one of the reasons why I try to take notes in my travels. The result is Travel Logistics: Taiwan. I’m starting a list of the transportation, hotel, and tour arrangements for my trips around the country. Hopefully this will be a useful resource for fellow travelers. If you have questions, please feel free to drop me a line.


Getting to Haulien by train
From Taipei, take the Tze Chiang Express train from Taipei Main Station (three to four hours, scenic). Check the English version of the Taiwan Railway site or head straight to “quick query” on the right side. Read about my experience on the train here.

Amigos Hostel
Just a short walk from the Hualien train station. The lovely owner, Chi, speaks English and is extremely helpful. The rooms are clean, and they offer a light breakfast and tea in the morning f you forget yours, shower shoes are provided and you can rent a towel. NT $450 (USD $14) per person per night. You can also rent bikes from the hostel. (Tel. 03-8362-756)

River Tracing
The guide named Jim speaks English. Half day tours from $1200 NT. They pick you up at your hotel around 8 a.m. Half-day tours end around noon. Don’t bring your camera. Photos of your adventure are included and posted on their web site. A lot of fun! Tel. 03 857 6000

Taroko Park is a decent bus ride away from Hualian and due to the size of the park and infrequent buses within its perimeter, a tour is a nice option. A local, English-speaking tour guide for Taroko National Park is Paula Lieng. She will pick you up at your hotel in her van that seats about seven people and drive you around the park, stopping for about half an hour at each of the highlights. The cost is $NT 700 (USD $21) per person for the day including lunch. Amigos hostel can set this up or call Paula directly at 092 011 3332. Note: The restaurant that serves you free lunch also serves as a jade shop, where you are urged to browse. I was disappointed in this development at first, but it’s still a good tour at a good price and there is no obligation to buy.

Photo: Taroko’s “Bridge of 100 Lions” and the lovely, winding Shakadang Trail. This was one of the few spots that I got to see the river in its lovely blue shade.

World Rushing By: Expect the Unexpected

I seem to be having a string of bad luck. At Sun Moon Lake, an ATM ate my debit card after I entered the wrong PIN repeatedly. I was confused and entered the six-digit code for my Taiwan bank account. What a problem–too many accounts to keep track of! Then, when I got back to Taipei, I found that my bike had been snatched from the post that I locked it to in the alley behind my apartment. Alas, my bike! My chariot! I was really bummed. I mumbled angrily, trudging all the way back up five flights to change out of my biking clothes. Who knows, maybe I didn’t really lock the bike, just sort of slipped the chain over the seat so that someone could wiggle it out. But these things usually happen to me and I get more absent minded when I have too much going on. But I only have one more month in Taiwan! I’m dazed at how fast this trip is going. I’ve been here two months and sometimes it feels like a blur.

That’s why I love this photo that I snapped from a taxi in on the way back to the bus station from the Chung Tai Chan monastery in Puli. It’s representative of Taiwan for me in so many ways. The lush green rice fields, striking mountains, big blue sky and ubiquitous skinny-trunked betel nut trees. But only half of it’s in focus. I’ve had so many amazing experiences here. When I go back and read old entries in my blog (which I rarely do) I see how many incredible sights I’ve seen, the characters I’ve met and how much of it I didn’t write down. How thrilling it is to communicate with a foreigner who doesn’t speak English using both of our beginner’s Chinese. How beautiful the mountains are. How strange that while walking to school, I see a woman who is carrying an infant while riding a bike and holding an umbrella, all at the same time.

Perhaps my fellow traveler, Maggie Lee, put it best when we were sitting on a boat, all settled in for our two-hour tour of the lake. After five minutes in the water, the boat stopped, docked, and everyone got off for a snack break. “This is unexpected,” said Maggie, almost casually. And I laughed because everything on this island is unexpected. When you’re a stranger in a foreign land and you can’t speak the language, who knows what will happen at any given moment. Living with uncertainty is a fact of life, but, as an anxious person, it’s also what scares me about life. That’s probably why I jump headfirst into these situations. After a while uncertainty itself becomes familiar. Sure, it’s frustrating and confusing. But it’s beautiful and surprising, too. And like the photo, still a little bit blurry.

Enchanting Sun Moon Lake

I’m just back from central Taiwan’s idyllic Sun Moon Lake, where the water is the color of emeralds and butterflies abound. Staying at the comparatively luxurious Apollo Resort Hotel, my friend Maggie and I took our first showers in Taiwan without wearing flip flops. In the evenings, we sat in front of the window watching the tour boats dock and the moon rise, drinking a USD $8 bottle of Chilean wine that we procured at 7-Eleven.

In addition to our epic bike ride, which I’ll tell you about later, we took a 90-minute boat ride around the lake (USD $6). Our final stop was the floating pier surrounding tiny Lalu Island, the ancestral home of the Thao tribe. They were forced to relocate during Japanese occupation for a hydroelectric dam project. Today, the island has been eroded to a small mound and the Thao who are left live in Itshao Village on the south side of the lake, shilling street food and aboriginal headdresses for tourists. It’s a shame. But looking out over the water at dusk, you can still feel that the place is sacred. The lake is surrounded by grey-blue peaks that fade into the background. As the sun drops. You can’t tell the difference between mist and mountain and the air smells of sweet, wild ginger.

Measure Words and Other Perils of Chinese Grammar

Early in our Chinese lessons, we learned the concept of measure words. The way that I explain it to myself is that it’s the same way that we describe certain groupings in English: a flock of birds, a school of fish, a fleet of ships. But Chinese takes it to a whole new level. Every object seems to have it’s own special measure word: pens (zhi), paper (zhang), cars (liang), cups (bei), people (wei). You have to use the measure word even if there’s only one pen. Then there’s the all-purpose measure word, ge, which Maggie translate as “piece,” as in, I want to buy three pieces of pen. My teacher tells us every day in class not to translate into English. “It’s better just to think like a Chinese,” she says. She’s right, but like so many things, easier said than done. Our book says that zhi is the measure word for “stick-like things,” and the example is a pen. But I have yet to confirm another stick-like thing. “What if you’re actually talking about a stick?” I asked my teacher one day. Nope. That’s a different measure word.

There are other things that irk me about learning Chinese: the fact that there’s so many of the same words that mean different things and you read large numbers as if you’re counting on an abacus, as in “three hundred ten thousands.”

But then at lunch one day Maggie and I made a list of all the different ways you can pronounce -ough sound in English (though, brought, cough). We counted at least seven–I know, we have a lot of time on our hands–and we felt better. English grammar is just as obnoxious as Chinese, probably more so. I can’t complain too much. Chinese has no past tense to speak of, no verb conjugation. Still, there’s something so foreign about the sentence structure, ”Watch television very interesting,” as if Yoda himself were alive and well.

After lunch, Maggie and I were walking down Shida Road when she pointed to a character on a street sign and said, “What’s that?”

I replied: “Don’t you know? That’s the measure word for dogs.” We both cracked up. Maybe you had to be there.