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.



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.

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.


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!

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.

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 #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!