Sidequest to strawberries: Dahu Township

We have been surprisingly busy over the first two months of the New Year, and this is the first report back from our many missions around Taiwan. The early part of the year is a time full of events, most notably the Chinese New Year period. In amongst all of that, though, is a small side adventure we went on.

North of Taichung, in Miaoli county, is a strawberry farming hotspot that produces a bounty every year. The farms in the area grow strawberries that can get really big, and it’s a popular activity to go and pick your own. From what we’ve heard and read, the best time to go is considered to be February and March, and so we squeezed in a trip up that way before the chance slipped by.

Getting to Miaoli county is the easy part, with many trains heading up to Miaoli Station every day, we had our pick of local and express trains. From there, we needed a bus up to the rural Dahu township. The bus station is hard to miss, and with only a few bus routes from there it was much less difficult to get a bus than we’d anticipated. All it meant was waiting in the slightly windy bus terminal for ours to arrive, and then we were on our way up into the scenic mountains.

The township of Dahu is pretty small, with most of the activity happening at the Dahu Winelands Resort, marked out by an unmissably big strawberry statue. From there everything was strawberry themed. EVERYTHING. In the market and stores you can get strawberry and marshmellow skewers, strawberry pork sausages, strawberry wines, vodkas, and even whiskys. Even the trashcans are strawberry shaped.

Singing the Beatles, we made off to the strawberry fields that stretch (almost) forever outwards from the resort. The fields immediately surrounding the market were quite busy and already starting to look less fruitful, so we wandered around until we found a quieter farm. Each farm site has some baskets and scissors available, and we were directed to the fields to start collecting. Some fields are off limits, to prevent over-harvesting, but regardless of this we were able to harvest a lot of strawberries without getting in anyone’s way. You pay by weight at the end of your picking session, so it’s really up to you how heavily laden your basket should be by the end of the day.

After picking our berries and having them weighed, we wandered the market trying the various strawberry-related things on sale. The weather was windy and quite cold by Taiwan standards, so we gave the ice-cream a skip in favour of sampling the insides-warming strawberry whisky and wine.

One thing that I have to mention is the frustratingly inflexible Taiwanese market salesperson attitude to special offers. It doesn’t really seem to matter if you want or need to take the special offer. If there are three options, say strawberry wine, vodka, and whisky, and there is a specific combo special, you can stand on your head and yell that you don’t want the special offer, as that’s all you can get. Mainly, I think it is a language barrier problem. We talked in circles in the conversational equivalent of Sisyphus’s punishment.

Seller: “There is a special offer. You can take two of number 3 and one of number 2 for discount.”
Us: “But we only want one number 1, and one number 3.”
She thinks for a moment, considering our bizzare refusal of the generous deal.
Seller: “Ok, for you. There is a special offer. You can take two of number 3 and one of number 2 for discount.”
Us: “But we don’t want the vodka. We want the whisky and the wine. Number 3 and number 1 only.”
She ponders again, placing a hand first on the wine, then the whisky.
Seller
: “Ok.” She pauses. “There is a special offer. You can take two of number 3 and one of number 2 for discount.”

After an eternity, the sun seeming to set, rise, and start setting again, we wound up paying and leaving, with two of number 3, one of number 2, and not even one bottle of strawberry wine. Whether they had run out, and only had the display taster bottle left is a mystery our Chinese skills can never solve.

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The long haul #3: Taipei

Last week we actually took time off from work, like real grown-ups who can take leave and stuff, and headed up to Taipei for four days. A few of our colleagues were puzzled by this because “you can do Taipei in a weekend”, so they couldn’t understand why we’d use precious leave to just go a few hours north. Yes, you *can* do Taipei in a weekend but you’d be a total zombie by the end of it! Having done a packer-jam trip to Kaoshiung, which made every minute at work the next week feel like an hour, we wanted to take a longer, slower trip to Taipei. You know, the kind of trip where you actually have time to sit down to eat. Because there is a LOT to do in Taipei!

Before I really get into our full itinerary, I have to take a moment to rave about the fantastic public transport in Taipei, in particular the underground metro rail (MRT). Basically, our trip would have been a thousand times less fun without the super speedy trains, the handy lockers where we could store heavy bags at almost every station, and the frequent (and slightly death-defying) city buses which saved us from miserable walks in the rain. Also, apologies for the occasional lack of photographs. It’s a lot easier to take photos from under an umbrella using a phone, than an actual camera, but phone photos don’t look great on a computer screen!

Our first day was a classic tourist day. Our hotel was conveniently situated within easy reach of two major tourist attractions: Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall and Taipei 101, with the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Garden and Da’an Forest Park in between. The Sun Yat Sen Memorial Garden is a lovely, Japanese style garden, complete with cherry trees, a pagoda and giant koi fish in peaceful lily ponds. There is also an old house which seemed to be a museum, but it was closed when we went, so we aren’t really sure. From there we set off for Da’an Forest Park, which has the prettiest MRT station, with bronze frogs lounging on lily pads set into the floor, and a view over a small pond and water fall. The park itself would have been a wonderful place for a scenic stroll, had it not been raining torentially! Even so, we got a fair amount of bird watching done around the small lake, and rain-soaked squirrels are the funniest things! We also visited the beautiful amphitheatre, where a group of teenagers was practising for something, and walked through the wonderland of a playground, complete with roller rink, brightly coloured jungle gyms and slides, and a big open area for riding bikes and trikes.

Our next stop was the famous Taipei 101! Ask any young Taiwanese child what’s famous in Taiwan, and they are guaranteed to say Taipei 101 – partly because it’s name is the same in Chinese and English. Our intention had been to ride the high speed elevator to the viewing deck and get the full tourist experience, but due to the rain the top half of the tower was shrouded in cloud, and we didn’t really want to spend NTD600 to look at clouds. There is also a Starbucks on floor 85 which you can visit for free, but this requires you to book an appointment a day in advance, which we had not done. I mean really, it’s a Starbucks, not Gordon Ramsay… Who would think to book ahead for Starbucks?? So we snapped some pictures of the building itself, and looked at the cool modern art outside, and then set off for our last stop: The Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall. The hall itself is enormous, and striking with two huge white staircases leading up to it, and a royal blue roof topped with gold. Housed within the hall is statue of CKS, not dissimilar to the Lincoln Memorial statue I have seen in so many movies. The statue is flanked by two royal guards, and there is a changing of the guards ceremony every hour, but as we arrived at 16:15, we didn’t really want to wait to watch it. We were very lucky (and quite smart) to visit the memorial on a week day, as it is apparently a madhouse on weekends! This allowed us plenty of time to take photos, look at the beautiful garden surrounding the building, and feed the fish and terrapins in the pond.

(Disclaimer: To be honest, I had no idea what the memorial was about, or even that Chiang-Kai Shek was a person, and I realised later that what I had thought was the CKS Memorial Hall, is actually the National Palace Museum *sigh*.)

Day two got off to a shaky start as our efforts to buy coats in the morning were severely disrupted by everything only opening at 11am. This lead to us basically riding the MRT in circles for almost an hour trying to decide what to do, and then eventually getting a coffee, buying a coat and FINALLY setting off for Taipei Zoo. While zoos aren’t necessarily our favourite thing ever, Taipei Zoo has put a lot of work into helping endangered animals, raising awareness about environmental issues, and rescuing local animals which have been hurt or abandoned. All causes we can get behind! The zoo is big and sprawling, and if you want to actually take time to look at everything, you can easily spend half a day there. As every school in Taipei was on tour that day, we prioritised some exhibits, and others we just peeked into and moved on. There is an amazing range of animals at the zoo, divided into seven main areas: animals indigenous or endemic to Taiwan, other east-Asian animals, animals of the Americas, African animals, the reptile house, the bird house, and the insect house. There are also special areas for the pandas, the koalas, the hippos, and the cranes. The zoo is a bit of a labyrinth, and the map isn’t the most helpful, but if you follow the paths and don’t try to get clever and take short cuts, you can meander quite comfortably and see everything. There are also well written info boards by each exhibit, which are very interesting and sometimes very funny! Having defeated the minotaur that was a million school children screaming in unison, we left the zoo and walked five minutes down the road to the Maokong gondola, a 4 km long cable car system which takes you high into the mountains above Taipei city. There are two kinds of cable car: glass bottomed, and not glass bottomed. Naturally, we went for the glass bottomed option! Who doesn’t love to see the ground shrinking alarmingly right below their feet? The ride up probably took about 30 minutes, but the car is so quiet and the expanse of the forest below is so great, it feels like much longer. At the top most station there are a number of tea houses and cafes, which were very welcome in the cold rain. A spirit guide cat with crazy eyes and only half a tail, led us to a cat-themed tea shop, where we ordered two pots and sat in the warmth until it started to get dark outside, and we headed back to the cable cars to ride back down. While we couldn’t see the trees anymore, the city lights were equally beautiful from so high up!

Day three was a cultural day. We started out at the National History Museum, which had a number of special exhibits on show, including different forms of fresh flower arrangement, the works of Jiang Mingxian, a famous Taiwanese ink painter  who specialises in semi-minimalist landscapes, and special historical artifacts from an excavation site in Henan, China. The museum itself is quite small, but well laid out, and not overly stuffed with too many items. However, from there we headed to the National Palace Museum, which was an absolute overload of things to see and read and listen to… and maybe remember… maybe. This museum is massively popular with foreign and local tourists alike, and Taiwanese tourists have literally zero regard for personal space, so a lot of time was spent trying to move through the museum via the quietest exhibits, leaving large gaps between the group ahead of us, while trying to move faster than the group behind us. Thankfully, like so many things in Taipei, the museum is huge, so it was always possible to find an escape route when an exhibit got overcrowded. There are displays to suits every interest: rare books and documents, jade artifacts, religious idols and paraphernalia,  glass ornaments, pottery, jewellery, royal treasures, calligraphy and paintings. The audio guides were at times very helpful and interesting, and also infuriatingly vague – spending ages talking about the firing techniques used for Ming Dynasty vases, but not explaining how they made the fish brown and the leaves blue using only one type of pigment. Having a tour guide would have been very useful in such cases, and as most visitors are Chinese-speaking, the English tour groups were very small and would have been a pleasure to join! Oh well. We collected a bunch of pamphlets to read later and accepted there was no way to take in all that the museum had to show without feeling like our brains would explode!

Our last day in Taipei was slower and far less intellectual! We accidentally found ourselves in line to get into one of the most trendy breakfast restaurants in the city, Toasteria. Nope, we’ve never heard of it either! But the building was painted a lovely shade of blue and the industrial chic decor looked cool, and it wasn’t until we were already inside that we realised just how famous it actually is. We had a wonderful breakfast, which set the day up well, and then made our way over to the youth shopping district. There is a famous historical building called The Red House, which houses a craft market. Unfortunately the famous part of the building was under construction, but the market was still going on. We browsed the handmade crafts and clothes, bought a bunch of cute things we didn’t need, and made our way across to the Xinmending pedestrian way, which is referred to as Taipei’s Harajuku. It’s basically a number of colourful interconnected streets lined with shops and stalls, selling exactly the kind of stuff young people want to buy – from designer sneakers, to character tees, to Pokemon key rings and knock-off Louis Vuitton handbags, with a liberal sprinkling of street food stalls and movie theatres! The streets were fairly confusing, but we did our best to explore everywhere. The rainy weather kept the crowds to a minimum, which made it a lot easier to browse, but also made the shop keepers extra desperate to sell to anyone who paused for even one second at their door. While we didn’t buy anything wildly exciting here, we were able to pick up some things we’d been wanting for ages, like brown tights and non-knitted scarves. Had we not had to travel home by train, I’m sure I could have bought something from every shop, but the idea of carrying a thousand bags through Taipei Main Station was too horrifying!

Our final stop of the trip was the 228 Peace Park, which commemorates the people who stood up to the oppressive KMT party in the 1940s, and were violently put down. Now the park is a memorial to human rights in general, with flower beds dedicated to LGBT rights, and modern art installations dotted throughout in honour of important historical figures and events. 228 refers to February 28 1947, the day on which the government massacred protesters. As we were there on February 27, the park was full of marquees and flower arrangements in preparation for the memorial ceremony the next day, and a choir and orchestra were practising/performing for a small crowd in the amphitheatre. The beautiful background music and the bustle of people made our visit feel very special (auspicious?), and it was a wonderful way to round off our trip.

Special events: Lantern Festival 2017

We were very boring during the long time off for Chinese New Year, but to make up for it we made sure to see the 15 day celebrations off at their big final event, the Lantern Festival. It falls on the first full moon of the lunar new year, and this year the official celebration was set up in Yunlin and was the biggest one so far.

The Lantern Festival has a long history, and in Taiwan it’s still very possible to do the very traditional style, where red paper lanterns, often with wishes written on them, are released on masse into the night sky. The most popular spot to see this is in Pingxi. The official festival, however, is a more modern take more akin to an incredible light display, concert, and fair. A huge space around Yunlin’s High Speed Rail station was set aside to show off a fantastic display of lights and symbolic lanterns, tying the new LED-fuelled spectacle to the tradition of releasing sky lanterns.

Getting to the festival was a challenge. The traffic going into the festival was insane, with taxis, cars, and buses all flooding in from all directions. The shuttle buses did have some stretches of dedicated roads, and we regretted not trying to get on one at the local train station instead of going by taxi. To save time and money, we hopped out not far from the festival entrance and walked alongside the road. Many other festivalgoers had the same idea, and the excitement built as the bright lights grew distinct and morphed into signs for the festival. Every island down the middle of the road was decorated, with trees wrapped in LED lights pointing the way. Eventually we passed the full-to-bursting parking lots and under a red gateway of lights into the bustle of the festival.

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On every side there was something to see. At the entrance there was a stage celebrating Taiwan’s indigenous aboriginal cultures, including singing and dancing, and lanterns in the shape of people in the traditional dresses of each group. From there, we wandered amid ever more complex displays of light and art. We passed beneath a giant illuminated pirate ship, and saw moving animatronic dragons and vikings (definitely not loosely based on a popular Dreamworks movie), animals, and abstract shapes.

These lanterns were all made from a kind of polygonal framework supporting coloured fabric that would be placed over bright lights. Each then would glow from the inside, and the lantern-sculptures could be impressively complex, some even articulated to move. There were even whole temples to many different gods, as well as a number of impressive and fully-lit Buddhist temples and even a small Christian church complete with light-up saints. Alongside these displays were large stages where smaller performances were held. Each time we thought we were drawing near to the main event stage, it turned out to be yet another, bigger ‘small’ stage!

Naturally as it is the year of the rooster, the festival’s theme drew on roosters, other birds, and especially the mythical Fenghuang (or Chinese phoenix) as a motif that was visible all around. The centerpiece of the festival was an enormous phoenix, standing high above the main stage (something that helped us to finally find it!). Every 30 minutes, the performance onstage would subside so that the massive lantern blast a psychedelic light-show from within, set to dramatic music as the phoenix rotated and flashed a million different colours. It was amazing, and we were right below it when the display began! The other major attraction was an immense pavilion made entirely of paper lanterns stretching way into the air. These two displays really captured the blend of traditional and ultramodern that the Festival was trying to achieve.

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Of course, the festival also boasted a night market – this is Taiwan of course! The food section was really crowded, as we’d expected, but we still managed to get some fantastic Indian food from some exchange students making money selling delicious samoosas and Indian tea. Finding somewhere to sit was a challenge, as the press of people spilled out into the eating areas as well. We eventually found a street-side stone bench to sit on and quickly eat our food.

What we didn’t account for was the really long lines for getting back on the shuttle buses out from the festival. When we got to the bus area, the lines were already snaking back and forth and around and back again, with no real guidance as to which line was to get onto which bus going where. After trying to find the right queue and failing twice, we eventually squeezed our way to the front of the queues and then followed the right one back to its end, which happened to be at the centre of the world’s slowest whirlpool of people.

Needless to say, the wait that we would have had was going to make us miss the last train back to Changhua. Thank goodness for the HSR station being just a minute away from the buses. Not long after we got our tickets and were waiting for the next ultra-fast train to race us home, loads of other people had the same idea and the train filled up quickly as well! Nonetheless we were comfortable and back home in not too long at all!

The Festival was a wonderful event, and it was interesting to find out about the ways in which the city managed to Green up such an electicity-heavy event with school children riding bicycles to generate electricity in the days leading up to it as only one innovate example. We had a blast seeing all the amazing lanterns and displays, and we would really recommend trying to see the Festival next year!