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.


Compass Festival 2016

Last weekend we headed back to Taichung to visit the Compass International Food and Music Festival (or Compass Fest). We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but as it only happens once a year, we thought it was the kind of opportunity you shouldn’t waste.

It was hosted in a public park area called Calligraphy Greenway; a really pretty stretch of grass, partly sandwiched between enormous office blocks and busy main roads. On this day, it was all set up with red and white striped tents, filled with food from all over the world. Just from memory, I recall seeing German food, Russian food, Indian food, Mexican food, and even a good old boerewors roll stand! There was also ice cream, candied popcorn, jewellery, clothing, beer, crafts, wine, champagne, sangria, and any other drink you could imagine for sale. There was also a magician, and a couple of buskers to watch in between browsing stalls, and eating food.

To be honest, the music was not particularly amazing. One of the acts was apparently quite famous among the ex-pat crowd, but we were not especially blown away. But as we were there quite early we probably only saw the openers, and the later bands may have been much better! There was certainly a long line up of performers, with a great mix of foreign and local groups. However, the food was great and it was lovely to do something different for the day.

Daytrippers #2 & 3: Taichung

We’ve been crazy busy lately, so the blog has been very quiet, but we’re finally back with a long a post about our adventure in Taichung. For context: Taichung is the third biggest city in Taiwan, and the nearest big city to Changhua (about 15 minutes by train). It’s also an easy place to get around because the BRT (bus rapid transit) is free if you have an Easy Card, and a lot of people speak pretty good English there. For Moon Festival, the celebration of the harvest moon, everyone got a 4-day weekend. We had originally planned to spend one day in Taichung, but we ended up going back the next day just to finish looking at the Natural Science Museum and botanical gardens.

(As a side note, due to camera troubles most of our photos were taken with our phones and will probably look pretty rubbish on a big screen. Apologies in advance!)

Our first day started with our usual Chinese lesson, at Taichung Station at 9am, where our teacher helped us plan our day – which buses to catch and from where, what order to do things in, and where to find a good place to eat. Lunch was our first priority after our lesson, so we headed to Yizhong St, street food central. The whole road is lined with wall-to-wall food and drink stalls of every description, interspersed with things like shoe shops and toy shops. Some food stalls were quite traditional, selling stinky tofu (which we have yet to pluck up the courage to try), fried rice, and dumplings. Others sold toasted sandwiches, hotdogs, ice-cream bread rolls and shrimp balls. After a bit of wandering we decided on jacket potatoes stuffed with broccoli and cheese sauce, and raspberry and lemon tea, and set off for Taichung Park to eat it.

Taichung Park is beautiful. Despite being surrounded by skyscrapers and busy roads, the park grounds are big and green enough that you can almost forget you are in a city. The park was created during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and it’s one of the oldest in Taiwan. It is also famous for the Lake Heart Pavilion, which was built in honour of the Japanese Prince’s visit to Taichung in 1908. The pavilion sits in the middle of a man-made lake filled with ducks, geese, ENORMOUS koi, and dozens of terrapins, all of which will fight over any snacks thrown into the water. The park also has a number of pretty little pagodas and interesting sculptures, like a giant mirrored goat, built in 2014 (a goat year in the Chinese zodiac). There are also squirrels which are fairly tame and will take food out of your hands, despite the signs saying “do not feed the wildlife”. The wildlife clearly has other ideas!

Our next stop was the Natural Science Museum. The museum has constant displays on evolution, dinosaurs, human development and the body, Chinese and Taiwanese culture, and global environments – the standard museum fare. There is a big focus on interactive displays, even if it’s just pressing a button to illuminate points on a map, which makes the museum good fun. For the most part there are English info boards for everything, but some areas, like the Chinese culture hall, have none at all. Even so, the displays are very interesting, and if you know anything at all about other human cultures it’s fairly easy to work out that this is a traditional cutting tool, and that’s some kind of idol. The dinosaur exhibit is a particular highlight because of the excellent animatronics, and the section on Taiwanese aboriginal people is very interesting and contains some beautiful dioramas.

When we were there, the museum had a special exhibit on the human brain. It was excellently put together, with areas explaining the structure of the brain, the function of the brain, how the brain interprets sensory cues to make sense of the world, brain disease, social behaviours, and learning. Again, it was all very interactive, with displays on optical illusions and chambers to test your hearing and eyesight, among other things. The info boards suggest that there is almost always a special display of some kind, but didn’t say how frequently they change over.

The museum is on the same grounds as the Space Centre and the botanical garden, so naturally we went to check those out too. The Space Centre was not quite as impressive as the museum. The first floor probably would have been very interesting if we understood Chinese, but it was all about semiconductors and their use in solar energy. The second floor was dedicated to the celestial bodies: sun, moon, stars and planets. We watched a video about the destruction of Mars’s atmosphere, read about moon cycles, compared relative gravity of the moon, Earth and Jupiter, and learnt about how the stars have changed position since the Greek Zodiac was created. Unfortunately the third and fourth floor exhibits were under construction at the time, so we didn’t get to see what they had to offer. While the Space Centre is dwarfed by the museum next door, it is good fun and has some really interesting facts to offer, and it only adds NT$20 (R10) onto your ticket price.

The botanical garden was our last stop for the day. Contrary to what you’d expect, the major part of the garden is in a massive modern green house. But it isn’t so much a garden, as a well manicured tropical forest, complete with a man-made waterfall, part of which falls from the roof of the building. The whole thing is beautiful and lush and very peaceful as you are shut off from the noise outside. At the bottom of the garden is an aquarium full of the scariest fish I have ever seen, next to a cafe and a very nice gift shop. The garden is not particularly large, but we spent about 15 minutes walking around, stopping to look at flowers or watch the water falling from the roof. There are a few benches where you can stop and rest your feet too. It’s a lovely escape from the city, and if you enjoy nature and greenery, it is also only an extra NT$20.

You could probably do everything we did in one day if you got an early start, but we specifically didn’t want to rush through anything and with the luxury of a long weekend we were under very little pressure. Taichung is a lovely city, with corridors of trees alongside some of the roads, and modern sculptures dotted around. There are also many restaurants and cafes, of multiple nationalities, ranging from Indian and Mexican, through various east Asian cuisines, to McDonald’s and Starbucks if you’re craving something familiar. We even stopped in for some Haagen-Dazs ice-cream while we waited for the bus. It’s also so easy to get to from Changhua, and easy to get around, so you can have the convenience of big city life, without having to live in a big city! Suits me just fine!