Daytrippers #7: All up Alishan

It’s been a long time since our last post! The summer holidays mean that lots of places are quite busy, and we teachers have a bit of extra work to do running summer activities at the school. That said, it’s important to blow off steam and so, in August, a troop of teachers made our way to the train station at an unholy hour of the morning (seven AM – madness!).

Our destination: Chiayi station, from whence we were going to ride the bus up to Alishan. Now it must be noted that this plan sparked confusion in lots of people I spoke to. The more conventional way up Alishan is taking the slow little train through the forest tracks up to the top. Wrangling a group of more than six, our head teacher and tour guide for the day elected for the faster and easier route.

Off at Chiayi station we encounted the first moment of mayhem. The bus stop was a construction site. However, we had no time to be confused as an elderly Taiwanese woman quite firmly ushered us in a direction, and we quickly found ourselves talking to Mr Xi, who offered us a very reasonably priced lift up the mountain in his shuttle. It turned out to be a good call, as the winding mountain road caused one of our company to take a green turn and Mr Xi kindly pulled over to allow her to recover. He also let us stop at the foot of the mountain to look at a charming temple and suspension bridge, stretch our legs, and buy some tea. The temple was fronted by a number of quite fashionable looking statues doing martial arts in what appeared to be sunglasses.

After our two stops, we made it to the top of the gorgeous Alishan mountain road. The road itself warrants a bit of description. It winds its way between the trees, and seems to go on forever. On our way back, the clouds had descended and in such a moment the road is both beautiful and terrifying! On our way up, though, we could enjoy the views down the mountain slopes, and we even spied a waterfall coming down practically onto the shoulder of the road.

At the peak, we stopped for a bruch at our leader’s favourite spot. We also picked up the tourist map that was full of promising places to see. Without losing anyone, we managed to escape the tourist shopping area and with the aid of an umbrella squeeze our way through a rather large tour group blocking the entrance to the wooden walkway. We were finally in nature.

The forest of Alishan is really beautiful. Enormous trees cover the mountainside and the cool mountain air was a lovely escape from the sweaty Taiwanese summer. The paths lead us up between the trees, passing some truly enormous stumps that looked like something off the set of Lord of the Rings. One was aptly named the pig log, as that is exactly what it looked like. We also learned a little of the folklore about the mountain, including the two sisters who turned into the matched pools and the brothers who became the sentinel trees watching over the water.

Alishan used to be a centre for Taiwan’s timber industry, which is why the narrow train tracks were laid up there. Now the train brings tourists, squeakily, up a long winding route to the summit. In the right season the tracks are overhung by sakura blossoms, according to all the tourism pics. We were far lot too late for any blossoms, but the deep green of summer was gorgeous nonetheless.  And then emerging from the forest to find a temple nestled in the low-hanging clouds felt quite magical. It also provided a nice break to get some of Alishan’s delicious tea and to gather the group who had spread out taking photos, searching for birds, and generally ambling along.

The final descent to the train station took us across a suspension bridge, around some long wooden walkways. We passed some ancient trees, Ents over a millenium old. They absolutely towered over us. We finally crossed a bridge over a river and went down to the station. Time was marching on and we had to hustle to get everyone a ticket and aboard the old diesel train. It was quite a fun experience, despite the quite squeaky train carriage noises, and a welcome opportunity to rest our feet. After watching the forest pass by, we went down to the tourist shops for coffee and postcard shopping.

Mr Xi picked us up, and the time he set for us was on the money – a little way into our drive down the mountain the clouds descended and the rain started. Suddenly Alishan’s forest looked like something from a werewolf flick. But we managed to avoid any lurking monsters on the way back to Chiayi station.



Adventures in Amusement Parks: EDA World, Kaoshiung

Every year the schools treat their Grade 6 students to an outing to celebrate them finishing primary school. In Taiwan, Grade 7 is considered the first year of junior high school. Lucky for us, the teachers are also invited to join them! The trip is to a roughly Greek-themed amusement park in Kaoshiung, called Eda World.

If you’re expecting Disney Taiwan, you will probably be disappointed. It’s a small park, with just a few rides, but it has all of the essentials for a good time! There are bumper cars, a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel, two small roller-coasters and one big one, a haunted house, and two unnecessarily high, unnecessarily fast rides for crazy people who think being upside down is fun.

The Greek theme provides a good source of entertainment, as the decor was clearly done by someone who just did a Google image search of “Greece”. Overall, the aesthetic ancient Greek. The centre piece is a huge Trojan horse, around which the monorail track curves. One of the adrenaline rush rides is watched over by Polyphemus the cyclops and Odysseus. The big roller-coaster is partly a water ride, and is presided over by Poseidon and various water creatures. However, it goes a bit wrong when you encounter the big, three-headed dragon, wrapped around a distinctly Medieval looking castle tower. The parks mascots are also an interesting mix: Eda the Rhino, DianDian the Pelican and Donkey the… Donkey, are accompanied by Apollo and his sister… Diana? Oh well, close enough, right? The gift shop section of the park has been done up to look like Mykonos – not exactly ancient, but at least it’s Greek! And it is very pretty!

(Note: Apologies for poor photo quality – I forgot to charge my camera battery, and had to use my phone camera for most of these)

Overall, the park is good fun! Once you pay your entrance fee, all the rides and attractions are free, so you can do everything as many times as you like. We were also there on a quiet weekend, so the queues were short, which made everything much more enjoyable! The park is also joined to a very big mall, so if you get tired of the rides or need a break from the sun, there are plenty of shops and restaurants available.

While this isn’t the sort of park you could spend the whole day in, it is definitely a fun place to visit, especially with a group of fun friends. There’s something for everyone and, as is typical of Taiwan, it’s a relaxed and safe environment to wander at your own pace.


Daytrippers #6: Jiji

Another long weekend, another trip out to somewhere new! This time we joined forces with a bunch of our teachers and made our way inland to the small Nantou township of Jiji. Word to the wise, get your tones right on this town, or tell everyone you were visiting the male anatomy on your trip.

To get to Jiji you need to make a train switch at Ershui station, changing onto a specially decorated little train that takes you on a special line to the township. Each compartment has its own decor theme – some with animated cats, others with aliens named after the train number (Mr 10 and Ms 01 for train DSC1001). Because it was a public holiday the train was quite full, but the scenery was green and pretty and the trip not too long.

Out at the station, we were greeted by an old puffing steam train photo opportunity, and the town’s famous banana rolls. As with many small Taiwanese towns, Jiji takes its local crop and runs with it: you can get banana ice cream, banana milkshakes, banana smoothies, and these crisp banana rolls. They are delicious! We left with a whole box to enjoy at home.


For once we were really lucky with the weather – a sunny day that wasn’t too hot. It was perfect for Jiji’s outdoorsy activities. We started with a walk to the town’s major site of interest. A massive earthquake in 1999 shook the town, and the large temple collapsed dramatically. The remains have been left as a reminder of the devastation alongside the new temple.

The juxtaposition of the beautiful and detailed new temple alongside the similarly impressive and tragic-looking ruin was powerful. This sombre atmosphere was aided by a busker on a guitar picking a tune somewhere between traditional Chinese and mournful blues. Trees and plants grow through the gaps in the building, and many of the upper floor’s sculptures now glare out at eye level.

After our stop there we rented some bicycles and cycled around the township a bit. This is definitely a popular way to see the area, and we saw many families renting four-seater tandem bicycle-car-contraptions. We went with more conventional bicycles and whizzed around the town’s outskirts, through a graveyard, and up a hill. It was really pretty!

After our cycle ride, we had to make a choice of Jiji’s other outdoor activities: go-karting or paintball. After a group vote, we settled on the former. For a really good price, we settled into our karts and hit up the track. We had a mix of skill levels, and none of us were really counting our laps and tracking who came first. Nonetheless we had a blast flinging ourselves around the track for what felt like a really long time! With one kart struggling to get going, and the usual competitive ‘unintentional’ ramming, we had a lot of fodder for banter as we made our way back to the train station.

We did a fair bit of sightseeing, and Jiji is definitely a place to go with a group to try out the many activities on offer, from paintball to animatronic singing bear rides, to go-karting and cycling. It was also lovely getting out of the not so green Changhua city and up into a more mountainous and green spot!

Daytrippers #5: Xinshe Flower Festival

It’s been a really busy few weeks, which hasn’t given us a lot of time to add more posts. And a lot has happened in that time, so we’ve got a lot to talk about. The first adventure we want to share was our trip to the Xinshe Flower Festival. Xinshe is a semi-rural farming area outside of Taichung, which is apparently like the Garden of Eden, in terms of arable land and favourable conditions.

Every year, in November and December they host a flower festival in this little town. Originally, the festival was massive and sprawling, but this year it was split across a number of towns, to make it easier for people from all over Taiwan to experience the festival, and to make it possible for visitors to actually complete a tour in less than a day. So Xinshe was host to the Sea of Flowers, which was exactly that!

Now we should add that it took us three attempts to get to the festival, first due to bad weather, and then because the previously highly efficient and centrally located shuttle-bus service was relocated this year, for reasons unknown. However, after one stressful Saturday lost in Taichung, we finally managed to get ourselves organised the following weekend. Once we found the bus station, it was a breeze! Our South African understanding of a “shuttle bus” was totally wrong, as we took our seats on a massive luxury long haul bus, with lace curtains and a handy-dandy tray table! The drive took about an hour, climbing higher and higher into the mountains, and further from the city. It’s easy to forget that there are vast expanses of greenery and undeveloped nature in Taiwan when you live near the CBD of a busy city.

The festival itself was stunning! While there isn’t a lot to say about the Sea of Flowers itself, it was definitely worth the trip and we were very pleased that our previous failed attempt hadn’t put us off. While we were there on the last weekend, which meant some of the flowers had started to die, it was refreshing to see that the flowers were not painstakingly manicured and seemed mostly to just grow wild in the enormous field. There were some flower beds which had been planted in swathes of striking colours, and a few ornamental displays like a giant peacock topiary, but for the most part, it was like walking through a meadow from a Wordsworthian poem.

There were, of course, a number of food and drink stalls to choose from, but the strong smell of stinky tofu made it a little difficult to think of eating anything. However, we absolutely had to stop at a tea stall with three Totoros on the counter and the iced black tea was a perfect way to beat the heat as we strolled through the various displays and sections of field.

A sunny break in the otherwise rainy weather made the day perfect to go and wander. We certainly weren’t lonely as a cloud, though. The Sea of Flowers is a very popular spot, especially for young couples like us and dog lovers. We had been warned that the festival can be crowded, and we certainly had our fair share of abrupt stops to avoid photobombing the many cute couple selfies being taken. That said, it was not full to bursting, and the meandering families, walking dogs, and couples holding hands really gave the flowers their festival air.

Daytrippers #4: Sun Moon Lake

Yesterday we finally got a chance to get way out of Changhua! We took a drive with some Taiwanese friends up to Nantou county’s famous landmark, Sun Moon Lake. About and hour and a half out of Changhua we passed the green covered mountains of Nantou and followed along a striking river until we reached the lake.

To our South African eyes such a huge natural body of water was really amazing – nearly eight square kilometers of water is not something we see much of in our arid home country!  The lake is a popular spot for sightseeing, and it’s not hard to see why.

We arrived just after lunch time on a grey day, but the weather had done little to deter the cyclists and sightseers who, like us, were looking to grab a boat and see what the lake has to offer. With our arms stamped to show our day pass for the ferries, we waited for the first boat out from the wooden wharves. The ferries all had a tour guide who gave details in Chinese, and our friends translated a few bits of what was being said for us.

The lake’s area is home to the Thao aboriginal people, and many of the shops, statues, and murals around the lake tell the story of its original discovery, as Thao hunters were led to the lake while hunting a white deer. In the middle of the lake there is a tiny island with a statue in honour of this story. In fact, all around the lake there are bits of history and culture, with a statue of the lake’s guardian goddess looking over it from high on a hill, and a number of temples on the lake’s shores.

Our first stop was to get a quick snack, in the form of some famous tea eggs, after our first ferry ride. Snacks in hand we were about to start exploring when a sudden downpour chased everyone under the limited cover for a few minutes. Hoping to get umbrellas in the market, and feeling a bit washed out, we took the gap in the rain to head back for the next ferry. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones with that idea and the ferry was full, leaving us waiting at the front of the queue for the next one. A second downpour caught us completely in the open, but we were saved from a soaking by  classic Taiwanese hospitality. All along the wharf, those with umbrellas offered some cover to the rest, and a kind couple helped the four of us huddle up under one of their umbrellas until the next ferry.

No discussion of any sightseeing in Taiwan is complete without talking about food. Our second stop on the trip was the street market, where we were given samples to try of all sorts of food. Following the repeated advice about Taiwanese food and long queues, we joined a wait to try the area’s famous black tea stall, and it was definitely worth the wait (although I skipped on some of it to get umbrellas in case of another downpour). We also tried sticky rice on bamboo, one with honey glazing and the other coated with salt. Both options were delicious and the perfect snack for wandering the market.

As night fell we decided to head home, leaving both of us wanting to come back and do a more thorough exploration of all that the beautiful lake has to offer, and to try out more of the food at the market!

Daytrippers #1: Lukang

Yesterday we set off for a day trip to the nearby town of Lukang. It’s a lot smaller than Changhua city, but has much more in the way of history, culture and tourist attractions.

The day got off to a rocky start, as we missed the first bus and almost missed the second, while trying to work out which of the 10 or so bus stops near the train station it would be at. But once we had caught the bus, it was a case of just sitting back and watching the scenery go past. Well, by scenery, we mean rice fields and industrial port town architecture, but it was nice to see something different from Changhua for a change.

We meant to ride the bus to  its last stop: the Taiwan Glass Pavilion. But accidentally got off one stop too early, at the Ribbon King Culture Park. We had read about the place online, but hadn’t been overly enthralled by the idea of a ribbon museum and gallery. However, as we approached the gate, the friendliest security guard in history appeared and presented us with two complimentary packs of ribbon samples of various colours, and invited us to play Pokemon Go, as the museum is a Pokestop. We decided to be polite and stop in briefly, but we were really pleasantly surprised once we got in. As you enter the building there is a long wall of different coloured threads, like a loom. Each colour represents a character trait, like calmness, enthusiasm and pursuit of knowledge. The idea is to use one of the ribbons from your gift pack and weave it into one of colours, but we aren’t entirely sure if we were meant to choose a trait we wished for, or a trait we already have. Either way, it was a hit with us and the many families we saw coming in to have a look.

The museum itself is really just a long corridor, hung with ribbons and spools of silks and beaded fabrics. In other places the walls are decorated with artworks made entirely of lengths of ribbon, alongside windows looking into the ribbon factory, and info boards on the history of ribbons and the textile industry in Taiwan. Through windows set at shoulder height you can peek into a functioning ribbon factory and at some points we could see ribbons being made. At the end of the corridor was a beautiful gift shop, with ribbons, fabrics, beads, silk scarves, leather purses, jewellery and hair accessories, along with the usual tourist doodads like key rings,  postcards, bars of soap and little figurines. The next room is called the DIY Room, where visitors can learn to dye ribbons, make ribbon art and even have a go turning the crank on an old-fashioned ribbon weaving machine. As it was Saturday, the room was really busy, so we decided just to watch other people for a bit and then moved on.

Our second stop was the Glass Pavilion, which is really a temple worshipping Tian Hou Gong Mazu, a goddess who protected the first settlers in Lukang from the dangers of the seas as they fled mainland China. As a result, the whole temple has a water theme, with a beautiful pond in the centre, serving as a wishing well to receive blessings from Mazu. Little glass bowls act as targets for people to toss coins into, which is a lot harder than it sounds! The temple is almost entirely made of glass, except for the pillars supporting the roof. Appropriately, the temple is on the grounds of a glass factory, and next door to it is a huge glass gallery featuring glass art, displays of experimental glass for household and industrial use, and an incredible hall of mirrors, with various themed sections such as the ocean, the jungle, and the Golden Tunnel. The gallery itself is free, but the hall of mirrors requires special slippers and gloves to be worn, which only cost NT$100, and you can take the slippers home with you afterwards! Near the food court area, there are also two gift shops (an expensive one and a not-expensive one) and a stand where you can watch a professional artist making glass sculptures.

The gallery also had English information on almost all its cards, which made some of the pieces stand out a lot more. We got to walk down a glass and mirrors version of the next stop on our itinerary: Moru Lane. After looking at intricate glass spiderwebs and butterflies, and wandering the glass gallery mazes, we caught the bus back into Lukang central and set off on foot for a few of the historical attractions. First on the list was a narrow lane famous for its cheeky name. Down the historical main street of the town, and then a little further, we found the incredibly narrow Moru (“Breast-touch”) Lane. A functional alley that was built to provide a fire escape for long shops, it became famous for being so narrow (only 70 cm wide) that a man and a woman may find it difficult to shuffle past one another without… well, it’s in the name. That said, there are other explanations for the origin, some involving a playful challenge to courting couples, others more implausibly involving homonyms for a prayer for a son. The lane has also been given the less suggestive, or mischievously ironic, nickname “Gentleman’s Lane”.

Having tested our courting resolve shuffling down the lane, we retraced our steps along the old road. It is still paved in old cobblestones, and has inlaid information stones, one of which nearly caused us to be flattened by a scooterist! Along this old road you can see the famous Ai Gate, which is the only remaining gate of the original city’s defensive walls. Although, the plaque states that the gate was built to be wide to welcome traders and ox wagons, it’s surprisingly small, and it stands to show how different it was protecting a city so long ago. Down the many winding cobbled streets in its area you can stumble upon many old buildings and temples, but we were concerned about catching a bus, and managing dwindling cellphone batteries was becoming a drain on our enjoyment. We left historic Lukang buildings for a later visit and set off for the bus stop.

At the information centre we realised we had quite a wait for the next bus. In a tiny spot of shade we debated whether we should hustle to another bus stop, or hide from the heat and wait where we were. Rainbow coloured smoke and the boom of fireworks decided for us as a few minutes later we heard fanfare and music coming up the road towards us. We had, it turned out, prime position to watch a parade through the streets. The parade was a strange mix of tradition drums and two-person dragon costumes, floral floats, symbolic sedan chairs, and souped up cars with blaring sound systems and pleather-clad girls. The most notable figures were four enormous puppet-costumes with fearsome faces and regal clothing. And, just before our bus arrived, we were witness to a massive and quite deafening fireworks display. The smoke trails clouded the street like a scene from an apocalyptic film, an effect added to by the otherworldly blaring of large brass trumpets not unlike the South African vuvuzela.

We suspect that the parade was part of the ongoing celebration of Zhongyuan or Ghost Festival. For the lunar month, the spirits of the dead may walk the earth again, eating and experiencing things like Taiwanese opera as a reprieve from the underworld. These ‘goodbrothers’ are given food and drinks, warm water to wash themselves, and are generally appeased. We’re hoping to figure out if what we saw was part of it. We wondered whether the giant figures were meant to be related to the god Zhong Kui, a divine exorcist who is involved in sending the goodbrothers back before the gates of the underworld close again, or something else entirely. However, with no way to really ask anyone around us we must wait for the week to start again before we can find out what we really saw.

We had a wonderful time in the small town, and are definitely going to go back to see more of the sights we couldn’t squeeze into our first day. The day also showed that sometimes the best laid itinerary can be upset to make space for wonderful surprises!