Category Archives: taiwan

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.

Shabu Shabu "Hot Pot" in Taipei

It’s called Cash City. And no, it’s not a checks cashed joint like the kind we have in Brooklyn or a foreign exchange bureau, it’s one of Taipei’s famous hot pot, or shabu shabu, restaurants. Here, all you have to do is answer the question “beef, chicken, or pork?” and a whole world opens up to you. You’ll get a pot of broth that’s brought to a rolling boil on the burner in front of you. All that’s left to do is sit back and add whatever you like to the brew and watch your meal bubble before your eyes. The veggie platter that comes with each meal is a veritable cornucopia: tofu, tofu skin, mini dumplings, various greens, mushrooms, noodles, corn, yams, you name it. Dip the thinly sliced beef into the broth for just a few seconds and it’s cooked perfectly, before your eyes. Here is a place where you can sit over lunch or dinner for a few hours: the flavour and aroma of the broth only intensifies as the meal wears on.

The cafeteria-style eateries offer unlimited refills of sodas, tea, and fruit slushies and there’s a DIY ice cream bar. Basic hot pot for NT $280 (USD $8.50). Many hot pot restaurants offer vegetarian broth.

I went to Cash City on Roosevelt Rd. between Guting and Taipower MRT stations. Tel 2364-1565.

Yangmingshan’s Macao Hotspring

Fish picked me up on Saturday afternoon and we headed toward Yangmingshan National Park. She told me that I could take a nap while she drove, but I preferred to talk to her. It was a blustery day and as we climbed into the mountains, the sky grew darker and the road was foggy. Eventually we pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant. The dining room overlooked the entire valley and I could make out the vague outline and lights of the city below us. Over a lunch of soup and pasta, we talked at length about life, happiness, and finding ourselves. As bamboo stalks swayed in the wind outside, I explained to Fish the expression “glass half full,” demonstrating with a pitcher of water. She told me that I have an American face and a Chinese mind.

After lunch, we made our way toward the dozens of hot springs that dot the side of the mountain. It felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere. It was just the two of us, the rain falling steadily and lush greenery on either side of the narrow road. Every few hundred yards or so we had to brake for a stray dog. Fish followed a series of cryptic signs (one had the arrow broken off, so we had to guess which way) indicating Macao hot spring. The parking lot was nearly full. Clearly, this was the place to be on a chilly, rainy Saturday afternoon. Taiwan does have hot springs that allow you to wear your bathing suit, but Fish told me that the best, most traditional hot springs are those that separate the sexes and require bathing in the nude. Though I’ve bathed at the Russian Turkish Bath in New York City, this was my first bathing experience in Asia.

After each paying NT $150 (USD $4.60) we entered a large room. On one side were wooden lockers and women lounging on benches in varies stages of undress. We were chilly from the drive and my clothes were damp. On the far side of the room, four pools of milky water beckoned, steam rising from them in plumes. After rinsing off at a warm tap, we eased our way into the hottest pool. I felt like my skin was burning, so we went to an adjacent spring, where the water was cooler, though still very hot. It smelled strongly of sulfur, and for a few minutes I had the sensation that I was trying to swallow a rotten egg, but I got used to it. We transferred between the hot pool and a cold one, our skin twitching at the shock. For a change of pace, we covered ourselves from head to toe with volcanic clay, transforming into gray alien creatures. We laughed as we stood there wiggling our toes in the clay, waiting to dry. We had put too many layers on and it took a small eternity.

[A note to those who are squeamish about their bodies: I am uncomfortable, too. But if ever there was a cure for poor body image, it’s soaking in a hot spring with a bunch of other women. Immediately, you realize that all of their bodies are as flawed as you imagine your own to be, with scars and jiggling bellies and cellulite, infinite variations on the same theme. Much to my amusement, one older Taiwanese woman proceeded to do naked calisthenics in the center of the room. I soon felt relaxed and forgot about my body, an occurrence I once thought impossible.]

After a few more rounds in the hot and cold pools, and a brief trial of a pool that “massaged” you with a current of mild voltage, [“I don’t like it,” I said, leaping out of the water, “I don’t want to get electrocuted!”] we ate dinner at Macao. The cafeteria was crowded with families and friends huddled around tables, each with their own kerosene stove to keep the soup warm. “It’s like camping,” I told Fish, delighted. After the hot spring, the food tasted incredible, and we stuffed ourselves with mushroom and tofu soup, and mantou (steamed buns) of many colors. On the way down the mountain, we stopped at a lookout point to admire the city lights. It was cold and rainy, but we were still warm.

Tai Chi with Master Liao: Soft, but Not Soft Saturday, Su-fang took me to a Tai Chi class taught by Master Liao Jhen-Siang. According to a recent profile, he is the only known Taiwanese of his generation who is both a master of Tai Chi and calligraphy. At 85, he still teaches Tai Chi daily at Taipei’s grand Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall as he has for more than 50 years.

The day was rainy. It was barely 7 a.m. and already hundreds of people had taken shelter under the building’s giant eaves to take part in Tai Chi, dancing and singing classes. This is how many Taiwanese start their day. I got there before Su-Fang and sheepishly joined the ranks, the only foreigner in sight. Master Liao acknowledged me with a nod of the head and continued leading the class through their regimen. He stands tall, a long white beard pointing like an arrow down to his round belly and tiny feet. When he moves, he maneuvers gracefully, shifting on his toes so that he appears to be floating. I follow his lead, bending my knees and squatting, rubbing my earlobes and temples as he counts each repetitive movement like a drill sergeant: “Eee! Er! San!” Then the class starts in earnest. Su-fang takes her place next to me as Master Liao begins a slow shuffle across the plaza, an imaginary ball of air in his hands. It is a delicate dance, lifting and moving, lightness personified. I know I am doing it wrong but it’s o.k. Everyone is so focused on the motion that no one seems to notice.

After about 45 minutes the class breaks up a bit, becoming less formal. Master Liao stands apart from the group. A student approaches him and attempts to push him off balance, but instead bounces back with surprising force hitting his back against the wall. Su-fang tells me that this shakes up the organs. “It’s good for you,” she says. I’m more amazed at Master Liao, who stands like a deeply rooted tree, completely unmoved as men less than half his age try in earnest to push him, only to bounce back as if in some cartoon. They are sweating.

Master comes over to where Su-fang and I are standing. He smiles, instantly shedding all of the seriousness he expressed before. “You must be soft, but not soft,” says SuFang, translating for Master Liao. “You know what I mean?” He goes on to tell me that your entire body must be relaxed but not limp; aware but not tense. All of the power should come from your feet. He tells me to stand behind him as he repels another student against the wall. “Hold onto his arms,” someone tells me. “Do you feel how they are completely relaxed?” Master Liao then moves my arms to his waist as he deflects another attack. He is stiff yet relaxed. It’s hard to describe. I can feel that he has a lot of muscle–maybe even a washboard stomach–but he’s not flexing. He’s just standing there.

Then it’s my turn. Master stands behind me, gently touching holding my shoulders as a student rushes me. I deflect him once, twice three times, with my palms locked together in front of me. The fourth time, Master Liao lets go just before the guy gets to me and I pitch backward with a high pitched shriek, much to everyone”s amusement. I had mistaken Master Liao’s power for my own. With him gone, I had no chi. All of this was rather amazing and nearly had the air of a magic show. I wondered when the dove would appear from under his shirt. But I assure you, it was all real, and quite amazing.

Later, I read more about Master Liao, who is an incredibly patient, talented man, a living example of the fruits of dedication and hard work. “The only thing that did not age with time is my state of mind, which stays at 25 years old,” he told local reporters at his 70th birthday. “I am not gifted at literary works and martial arts but merely pursuing my goals with perseverance. Just like a dripping tap, filling a water tank bit by bit until it is full.”

Chan Meditation in Taipei

Last Saturday I woke up early to attend a weekly international meditation group in Taipei. It’s sponsored by Dharma Drum Mountain, a large Taiwan-based Buddhist association.

We gathered and then took a walk down to a small park outside the building. There we practiced Eight-Form Moving Meditation, developed by the school’s founder, Master Sheng Yen. These exercises were relaxing and loosened up the body. We were led by a tranquil nun named Wang Chu, whom we followed around the park like ducklings, practicing walking meditation. We felt the breeze against our skin, the sun on our heads. We felt the bottom of our feet touch the ground. We were aware of our breath. Aware that we were walking. Just walking.

Back inside, the nun led us in sitting meditation. Cross-legged on pillows in a bare room, we relaxed our bodies, one muscle at a time and sat in silence for at least 30 minutes, longer than I’ve ever sat in purposeful silence. We took a short break and sat again. Then we read aloud from Master Sheng Yen’s book, Zen Wisdom. Perhaps what I liked best about the experience was that it was uncomplicated. I felt very welcome and the concepts as the nun explained them were simple. The two most important principles of the meditation method, she said, we relaxation and awareness. The three-hour session passed quickly.

If you’re interested in a day trip, the Dharma Drum Mountain World Center for Buddhist Education is located in Jinshan, Taipei County. It’s around 1.5 hour drive from Taipei City. To make an appointment for a English guided tour, contact Ms. Sherry Ling (lingxe[AT]ddm[DOT]org[DOT]tw; 886-2-24987171 ext. 1354)

Overnight accommodations are reserved for volunteers or people participating in meditation retreats of three or more days, which require prior experience in basic meditation training. Blogger David on Formosa has an insightful post about his visit to the monastery in Jinshan.

A bike, a Bargain, a Bird

I’ve been growing tired of spending my afternoons in cafes sipping frothy drinks and writing Chinese characters. I feel like a dilettante. So when Maggie told me that our stipend for next month had already found its way to our bank accounts, I headed to a bike shop across from the botanical gardens and bought a used Giant bike. I was rather proud at having pulled this off, as the owner spoke no English. I tried out several models and, telling him that I am hen gao (quite tall), had him raise the seat and then lower it again dian dian (just a little). The asking price was NT $2,000 (USD $62). I was determined not to pay full price. I tried every trick in my arsenal. I clucked and shook my head, I looked shocked, pretended to walk away. But the man wouldn’t budge. Finally we settled on $1,950, a whopping USD $1.50 discount. I bought it and rode away happy. I hadn’t paid full price, so it was a bargain.

I took off toward Riverside Park, a pathway that snakes along the Xindian River. It’s industrial and, at times, smells bad, but if can get over this, its quite pleasant. Finally, a bike of my own! I had rented them in the city before and there’s always a nagging feeling of when and where it needs to be returned. But this bike is mine. It’s not perfect. It wheezes at higher speeds. But then again, so do I.

There was much to see in the park. Joggers, old men on bikes, old ladies on bikes, stray dogs, people playing tennis at the free courts, yellow bridge over rushing water, a duck with shiny green feathers. John and Fish have turned me into an avid birdwatcher. Like them, I have decided not to keep count or list the species that I’ve seen. A moment with an interesting bird is reward enough.

I spotted a few neat birds including a pair of Formosan blue magpies, a species that’s eluded me since I got here. I took it as a very good omen of the day: A bike, a bargain, a bird.

A Spiral of Books on NTNU Campus

National Taiwan Normal University’s other-worldly library.