Getting festive: Dragon Boat Races

Another crowded bus trip, another day of festive exploring! This time we were squeezed into a bus on the way to Lukang for the Dragon Boat Festival. We were really excited, as we had to miss the event last year, and as the bus trundled the thankfully short distance from Changhua, we prepared for a day of sunny skies and rowing races.

The festival is an annual event that takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese calendar, and is most famous for the rowing races that are the holiday’s main focus. Watching the races is so popular, the holiday in Taiwan extends over multiple days, meaning a long weekend for exploring, watching races, and eating rice dumplings!

There are a few stories around the origins of the festival’s traditions, but the one we’ve heard the most here is the story of Qu Yuan. He was a famous poet who died in 278BC, according to legend by drowning himself. The story goes that he was exiled from his homeland, after couselling his lord not to make war with the neighbouring Kingdom of Qing. On hearing that his homeland had been invaded and taken by the Qing, he threw himself into the Milou River. The people nearby were so upset by this that they apparently raced out in boats to retrieve the body, throwing sticky rice balls into the river to keep the fish from eating the poet’s body. As a result, today teams of rowers compete with one another in races, and people all around Taiwan eat tasty zongzi, rice dumplings wrapped in leaves.

We arrived in Lukang and set off on foot to the river where the races were happening. After finding our way past Molu Lane again, we made it to the bridge over the river. The area has been purpose built for the event, with cement grandstands, curved viewing platforms, and a field for a small market. The afternoon was hot, and so we headed for the market to get some late lunch and something to drink. We got some fruit teas, but had no luck finding the Zongzi the festival is famous for! We settled for a variety of Taiwanese market usuals, and made for the stands.

The races were fun to watch. Each one is a head-to-head of two teams, racing to the finish, or sometimes to fling a floating flag into the air first. The boats, unsurprisingly, are made to look like dragons. They really looked quite cool, and as the sun set and they lit up in changing colours. The races were quite festive, especially as evening fell and the stands filled up. Winners were cheered as they rowed back to the start, and some of the races were very close. We watched for a few hours, drinking tea or beer to stave off the golden late afternoon heat. And as it started to get dark, we made our way back to the bus terminal and from there to Changhua.

The Dragon Boat Festival is one of the most popular in Taiwan, and seeing the races on such a beautiful afternoon and evening was really wonderful.

The long haul #4: Tainan

As we gradually make our way through our wish list of places to visit, Tainan was the last of the city destinations (for now… the list keeps changing all the time). While it doesn’t exactly trigger the radar of tourism hotspots in Taiwan, there is a lot to see in Tainan, especially for history enthusiasts! The local government is also working to make English the ‘second official language’ of Tainan, and a list of “English Friendly” businesses was given to us when we checked into our hotel!

The city is roughly divided into two sections: Tainan proper and the Anping District, where they keep all the history. Tainan itself is one of the prettier cities we’ve visited, but it isn’t easy to get around in. Plans for a metrorail were abandoned due to lack of funding and the shuttle buses just aren’t quite able to provide the same blissful feeling of ease and comfort as the underground systems in Taipei and Kaoshiung. However, we highly recommend Anping as an interesting, tourist friendly and easy-to-get-around place. Now on to the highlight reel:

We arrived in Tainan late on Saturday morning and made a bee-line for Anping. The shuttle buses do a fine job in this respect. Getting to Anping was really straightforward, and as the whole area is one sprawling tourist attraction, even getting off at the wrong stop is easily remedied on foot.  We started out at the Old Tait & Co. Merchant House, a former Dutch colonial era building, which has been converted into a museum about the history of Anping (essentially a long list colonisations by different countries). The old house is right next to one of the most famous attractions in the area, the Anping Tree House, a huge, abandoned warehouse which has been almost totally overgrown by Banyan trees, to the point where some areas are more tree than building.

Having explored the alien horror movie-esque Tree House, we began strolling along the pretty cobbled street towards the other sites in the area. This led us down a long narrow street lined with street food stalls of every description. As Tainan is a port city, there is a lot of seafood to be found! One of the first things we tried was a mountain of brightly coloured shaved ice, in various fruity flavours. There were also a dozen or so people handing out free samples of prawn crackers, not unlike the ones we remember getting at Chinese restaurants when we were children. We also found some mysterious spiral shaped fried pastry things which were stuffed with green onion – mysterious yet absolutely delicious – and some coriander peanut brittle, a famous creation in the area. Tragically, we did not buy any of the famous brown sugar cake, but we watched a few demonstrations of the unique cooking methods and tried a small sample, which was also delicious!

Our next stop was the Anping Fort, also called Fort Zeelandia. The fort was originally built by Dutch settlers to watch over the merchant houses in Anping. It was then taken over by Chinese settlers and then by the Japanese settlers. There is a watch tower in the fort which you can climb up to look out over the city, and a portion of the massive original outer wall still stands, and the combination of different architectural styles makes the whole area very pretty to walk around in, even if you aren’t into the history.

Close to the fort is a temple to Mazu – one of many tributes to the goddess who protects sailors. The temple itself was very beautiful, with all the usual levels of detail and bright colours, but outside the temple was an special treat: Sun Wu Kong the trickster god, dancing around, collecting money to fund his next trip into the underworld (maybe). Of course we gave him some money, and in return he taught me the art of balance, which I suck at! From the temple, we continued our meandering until we found ourselves in a beautiful park under a giant statue of Mazu, looking out over the harbour. It felt like we had walked into a diorama for some utopian future project. Children were flying kites and chasing bubbles, dogs were playing together, young couples were having picnics, all under the smiling gaze of  Mazu.

Naturally, we followed this up by stopping to look at a naval destroyer anchored in the port. You can actually go onto the ship to look around, but by this time our feet were tired and so we just sat in its shadow and ate our lunch.

Our last stop in Anping was the Eternal Golden Fortress. This military fort was commissioned by the Chinese rulers and built by a French architect to defend against pirates and other sea-based threats. The fort is surrounded by a moat with only one way in and out, through a big archway which opens into the former training grounds, now a big grassy courtyard. This isn’t the kind of place you can spend hours, but it is interesting to look at the old canons and see how the fort was designed for visibility over the sea and defensibility (defendability?).

Having made our way back to Tainan, we checked into our hotel and then set out to find some dinner. Our plan had been to head for the Garden Night Market (not actually a garden), but on the way we found ourselves very near to Shenggong street, a walking district which now hosts trendy craft shops and liberal arts students with old fashioned cameras and asymmetrical haircuts. Here we found a lovely restaurant/bar/cafe/shop thing, run by a young Burmese couple. First of all, the shop was called Do Right Coffee and Green Kitchen, which sounded like a win right off the bat. The style of the shop was casual and homey, with the cafe and bar in the front, and if you are looking for food you simply go to the kitchen at the back, see what the chef is cooking and choose what you want. All the food is vegan, and there is a fridge of eco-friendly craft beers from around the world, as well as a really interesting menu of coffees and teas. We did eventually get to the night market too, which despite not being in a garden, was a surprisingly pleasant experience. Normally, I hate night markets because of the sheer volume of people in a confined space, but the Garden Night Market has multiple entrances and exits, wider pathways and loops around on itself a number of times, creating a good flow of people and preventing that claustrophobic feeling that other night markets have.

We may have over done the walking a little because the next day we both felt distinctly tired and just a little bit grouchy, but we had things to see! Outside of Anping, sight-seeing requires a little more effort as points of interest are much further apart, and the shuttle buses are a lot less helpful here! One of the main things to see in the Chihkan Tower, also known as Fort Provintia (yep, another fort. The Dutch settlers were a little obsessive). This fort was meant to connect this part of Tainan with the Anping district to strengthen Dutch influence in Taiwan, except that it was also captured by the Chinese settlers, and the story continues! The building is now a temple to the god of learning and is often visited by students about to write important exams.

The largest and more famous Grand Mazu Temple was closed for renovations, so we weren’t able to visit it, but this did give us more time to explore another walking district where we tried Thai milk tea (green tea with condensed milk, yum!), waited in a long queue outside a famous ice cream shop but eventually gave up, and bought some cute Studio Ghibli figures. From here, we visited the Blueprint Culture and Creative Park, a small stretch of old street which has been closed off and turned into a very pretty boutique shopping district, with striking murals on the walls, and a cool mix of modern  art and old architecture.

Our final stop, before our legs gave out, was the Tainan Confucian Temple, the oldest temple to Confucius in Taiwan. It’s one of the most famous temples in Taiwan too, and is right next door to a former martial arts academy built during Japanese occupation, which is now not open to the public, but still very beautiful to look at.

Although Tainan was not the most convenient city to visit, it was definitely worth it. If you are a history buff like Brendan, Anping is like Christmas town, and if you can get the hang of the buses, or don’t mind spending the money on taxis, Tainan itself is a lovely city to be in. It’s quieter than Taipei, but doesn’t have that massive, sprawling, overwhelming feeling of Kaoshiung. Also, the push to make English ubiquitous could make it a fantastic tourist location in the near future!

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!

The long haul #2: Xiao Liu Qiu

Having cut our teeth on a longer trip to Kaohsiung, we decided we could handle an even longer experience. Since New Year’s day fell on a Sunday, Monday the 2nd was declared an extra day of holiday. With a long weekend promising us a celebration out of Changhua, we decided to join a bunch of the other teachers to explore one of Taiwan’s smaller islands, Xiao Liu Qiu.

Getting to the island is a test of your transportation mettle, as you use at least three different kinds to get there. We caught the express train to Kaohsiung (easy for us now), and from there a bus to the tiny port Dong Gang, and finally the ferry across to the island itself. Certainly not a hop skip and a jump, but the only trick was to find right bus building near Kaohsiung Station (for future travelers, a taxi isn’t too expensive if you’re splitting it, and the convenience is worth it!). Another pro-tip, which we had all forgotten about, was to book your tickets in advance, unless sitting on the floor in the baggage car of the train sounds like an adventure to you.

That said, sharing the trip with company helped the time to pass as quickly as the scenery of central Taiwan, and once we hit the water en route to the island the sea gave our stiff legs more than enough stretching. The ferry was busy, with all the other people heading for a weekend on the island, but we had enough space to stand at the back and lean out over the water to watch the island fade into view.

Xiao Liu Qiu is one of the smaller islands, and the length of time we had was perfect to cover all of the main attractions it has to offer. The island has the claim to fame as Taiwan’s only coral island, and this gives it a really dramatic coastline of jagged coral rock caves. It also boasts a healthy and seemingly year-round population of sea turtles, big enough to spot in the water from the pagodas and pavilions that dot the coast. Tortoises and turtles (tortles as a group, really) are my favourite animals, and the chance to see so many in their natural habitat was wonderful!

As you alight from the ferry you will see a truly astounding collection of scooters and electric bicycles for rent. The island also boasts more expensive but eco-friendly electric scooters, with charging stations marked off on all tourist maps. We opted for a more muscle-powered form of transport, renting pedal bicycles and cycling the western road of the island. This was much to the surprise of our (sometimes overbearingly) helpful B&B manager, who must’ve thought we were crazy for wanting to cycle what she considered a far too long and hilly trek. I can’t recommend the cycle enough, though, as the fresh air and views are extraordinary, and it’s much more scenic without the drone of a scooter engine!

Our accommodation was a wonderfully ‘what-cease-and-desist-letter’ Disney themed B&B, with large and very comfortable beds overlooked by a towering family of certainly not copyrighted ducks. The manager was wonderful, if overwhelming. We had barely met up with her before she had asked us for our plans on about every topic from wake-up times to transport to snorkeling to whether we wanted traditional breakfast or burgers from the nearby cafe. Once the Spanish Inquisition had passed, she actually helped us to book our snorkeling and a Taiwanese style barbeque, which made our lives a lot easier.

To see what the island has to offer might take about a full day if you’re cycling and not training for the Tour de France. We took our time and managed almost everything in one with a break to double back for our snorkeling. We started by walking up to the island’s most famous feature, the Vase Rock. It’s pretty much what it says on the tin, and the bustle around it with everyone (like us) taking a selfie in front of it. We couldn’t help notice its similarity to our home continent. The other attractions to see down the west coast road are the appropriately named Beauty Cave walk, the Wild Boar Trench, and the Black Ghost Cave (sometimes also Black Dwarf and even a few translations say Black Devil). For these, you pay a small fee (NT$120) to get a ticket into all four. They’re scenic walks among the coral caves and rocks, down to the beaches, and up through the tropical forest growth. While we saw no wild boars, we did spot turtles, and the areas gave great views and amazing photo spots.

A highlight for me was snorkelling for the first time. The trip cost little more than a song at NT$300 for rental of all the equipment, our guide, and a CD of photos at the end. We were led to the spot by our B&B staff, where we got into our thick wetsuits and life vests and climbed onto the back of a blue truck and were dropped off below the Vase Rock. A bit of getting used to the snorkels later and we were heading out. Our guide didn’t speak any English but did a good job though mime to herd us all together along our floating rings. The island does have some colourful coral reefs on the east side, but we were diving to the north. We did, however, see many bright blue Dory fish, zebra fish, box jelly fish, and the highlight was a very close encounter with a truly massive turtle who swam right below us for much of our dive!

If you’re looking for surfing or scuba diving, you might find the island a bit too quiet, but for our New Years ramble, it was a great destination. The island boasts a few restaurants that offer hamburgers and Western fare alongside some wonderful seafood (of course!), and many bars. We tried the wonderful Mr Bartender for our New Years Eve drinks, and had a great time with the friendly staff.

By the end of the weekend we were stiff and a little sunburnt, but refreshed and seeing wild sea turtles was crossed off my bucket list.

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.